QotD: “For some male students, treating a sexual partner — especially one who was not suitably hot or selective — with roughness or disinterest and then bragging about it the next day became a form of image management”
There are two contradictory trends identified in reports about young people’s sex lives. One is that they are virtually celibate, too busy playing Fortnite, watching porn, scrolling through Instagram or otherwise living screen-mediated lives to actually connect with another human being. The other is that “hook-up culture” and a plethora of Tinder-type swipe apps have made sex so accessible that everyone is bed-hopping in a nonstop, booze-fuelled bacchanal. The truth lies somewhere in between. School and university students are, in fact, having less vaginal intercourse than they were 25 years ago (the studies quoted in the press, though, don’t ask about oral or anal sex, both of which have become more common), but that’s partly because the context in which they indulge has shifted.
In a relationship, couples tend to have intercourse regularly; students who engage primarily in hook-ups, even those they consider “consistent”, do so only sporadically — an irony, given the dissolute presumptions about hook-up culture.
“Hook-up”, a word adolescents bandy about incessantly, is intentionally vague. In reality, about 35%-40% of student hook-ups include intercourse, which means 60% or more do not. Because of the ambiguity, however, students tend to radically overestimate what their classmates are up to (not to mention allow others to draw inflated conclusions about their own exploits). This can fuel feelings of inadequacy and Fomo, contributing to pressure to keep pace through undesired sex, coerciveness or aggression. According to the Online College Social Life Survey, which encompassed more than 20,000 students across America, close to three-quarters of both male and female students will hook up at least once by the time they are 18. The average number of partners? Seven to eight. Not exactly the fall of Rome. A full quarter never hook up during their time as a student and 40% hook up fewer than three times, though 20% of students do hook up 10 times or more.
Boys in my interviews were less likely than girls to express anger, betrayal, resentment or feelings of being “used” in hook-ups. That’s partly because hook-up culture aligns with the values of conventional masculinity: conquest over connection, sex as status seeking, partners as disposable. The Online College Social Life Survey found that 29%-53% of girls climaxed in their most recent hook-up, as opposed to 56%-81% of boys. In the words of one boy: “It sounds bad, but in a one-time thing, I don’t really care.”
For some male students, treating a sexual partner — especially one who was not suitably hot or selective — with roughness or disinterest and then bragging about it the next day became a form of image management, a pre-emptive strike against potential ridicule, the loss of social currency. So, when boys assured me that their friends and classmates would never sexually assault a girl (it was always those other boys), that felt like a very low bar: having sex that is technically “legal” is hardly the same as sex that is ethical, mutual, reciprocal or kind. “Casual sex can be great,” observed one student. “But you can forget to treat the other person as a human being.”
It’s no secret that today’s children are guinea pigs in a colossal porn experiment. Whereas (mostly) boys of previous generations might have passed around a filched copy of Playboy, today anyone with a broadband connection can instantly access anything you can imagine — and a whole lot of stuff you don’t want to imagine.
Some boys felt that their porn use had no effect on them, many of them asserting: “I can tell the difference between fantasy and reality.” That, as it happens, is the instinctive response people give to any suggestion of media influence — none of us wants to think we’re so impressionable, though we’re quick to recognise that others are. But decades of research show that what we consume becomes part of our psyches, unconsciously affecting how we feel, think and behave.
Porn use has been associated with boys’ real-life badgering of girls for nude pictures. Both boys and girls who consume porn at younger ages are more likely to become sexually active sooner than peers, to have more partners, to have higher rates of pregnancy, to view sexual aggression more positively and women more negatively, and to engage in the riskier and more atypical behaviours porn depicts.
Male porn users report less satisfaction than others with their sex lives, their own performance in bed and with their female partners’ bodies. There is even speculation that because of its convenience as well as low physical and emotional investment — porn never rejects you, never makes demands of you, never wants you to talk about your feelings — the rise in porn use is partially responsible for the lower rates of intercourse among millennials. That reduction of pleasure in partnered sex was what concerned most of my interviewees.
One student called Reza believed porn increased his awareness of real women’s physical imperfections. “I’ve got things narrowed down to a very, very specific body type that turns me on,” he explained. “It’s probably not all driven by porn, but I figured out what I liked from that and I think I wouldn’t have otherwise. It doesn’t ruin my relationships, but it’s not nice when I’m trying to talk my girlfriend into liking a part of her body, but I’m secretly thinking, well, actually, I would prefer …” And Kevin, a school pupil, said that after watching “all those skinny white women” (he’s Caucasian), he was having a hard time becoming aroused by his black girlfriend’s body.
Some boys fretted more over their own bodies’ contours than their partners’, especially (and perhaps not surprisingly) their penis size. A few boys were so concerned about size that they avoided sexual situations. “I had a girlfriend at 16,” said Mitchell, “and as we started being more sexual, I became very nervous about being … sufficient. I couldn’t perform during our first real sexual experience because that was so much on my mind. And once you feel like you can’t, you can’t. You’re done.” With time, and maybe a little maturity, he got past it. In retrospect, he said: “Comparing myself to porn was obviously ridiculous. But, you know, it’s also kind of understandable.”
Like every boy I spoke with, Mitchell claimed to know that, of course, porn wasn’t realistic. But that line between fact and fiction was not clear; after all, porn is depicting something, and what other point of reference do young people have? “If you’re a teenage guy and you don’t have much sexual experience, and you’ve been watching porn for the past six or seven years, you can develop almost a … fear, really,” said another university student. “A fear that you would not be able to perform up to those standards, though, of course, no one really can. But maybe the starkest contrast is your perception of the kind of feedback that you’re going to be getting from a girl. Like that they will be moaning and having orgasms all over the place. That’s obviously not the case.”
“I don’t consider the porn I watch to be representative of the person I am,” said Daniel, a lantern-jawed student with hipster glasses. “The whole category of ‘Unwilling’ [women who say no to sex, then change their mind when forced]. It’s very appealing to me, even though I know it’s wrong. And I do truly believe it’s wrong. I would never do it. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching it.”
In real life, Daniel was consciously trying to curb his use of the thoughtlessly sexist, homophobic language that had been common at secondary school. He also said he considered any form of sexual interaction to have “spiritual significance” and claimed to prize intimacy over “raw sex”.
But that’s not what got him off. Real sex with his school girlfriend wasn’t stimulating enough. “I felt like I was never really satisfied,” he said. “There was always more to try. Like, ‘Oh, this is pretty good, she’s letting me do a lot, but we haven’t done this yet, we haven’t done this, done this, done this.’ ”
As another boy put it: “I think porn affects your ability to be innocent in a sexual relationship. The whole idea of exploring sex without any preconceived ideas of what it is, you know? That natural organic process has just been f***** by porn.”
When Adam Lazarus complained about a seven-year-old boy putting his hands on his daughter at school, he was told not to cry sexual assault. “They don’t think like that,” the teachers said, “not at that age.” “But it’s power,” Lazarus seethes, recounting the incident. “It’s gendered power, and if you excuse it this kid thinks it’s OK.”
The Canadian performer made waves at the Edinburgh festival in 2018 with his controversial, gut-punch solo Daughter, which he is now bringing to Battersea Arts Centre in London. The show is told from the perspective of a young girl’s father and what starts as a charming and funny quasi-standup set quickly turns into something acidic. Over the course of an increasingly intense hour, Lazarus – dressed in fairy wings, dancing adorably to his daughter’s favourite song – unspools a brutal thread of toxic masculinity. First it’s shrugged off as a joke, then a distasteful comment, until suddenly there’s a metal rod in his hand and we’re wondering how we got here. “Are you OK that I did that?” he asks in the show, as remnants of laughter start to taste like bile.
Having trained at Philippe Gaulier’s prestigious clown school in France, Lazarus makes work that stems from bouffon, the French style of theatre with its roots in mockery. In contrast to his past performances, which involved elaborate costume and character, the father in Daughter is almost indistinguishable from Lazarus himself, and it leaves you wondering how much is true. “We had to ride the line [between reality and fiction] to be sure you couldn’t dismiss him as a character,” he says. “We were trying to get to a point where the room would say, I get it, I understand how a person could think like that.”
With his co-creators Ann-Marie Kerr, Jivesh Parasram and Melissa D’Agostino, Lazarus began developing Daughter after allegations of sexual misconduct were made against former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi. “It blew the minds of Canadians, because we listened to him every morning,” explains Lazarus. Ghomeshi was acquitted in 2016 of four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking involving three complainants.
Daughter is built from real stories, though only some are from Lazarus’s own life. Regardless, audiences frequently believe it’s all him and that it’s all true. In the Edinburgh performances, some people walked out, while lots of others refused to applaud. But silence is not the worst response Lazarus has had; people frequently ask his wife if she’s OK, some close friends believe the stories are his own, and one man threatened to kill him for suggesting men had such a violent streak.
The hardest responses to reconcile are from the people – primarily women – who have been hurt by the performance. “I don’t think everyone needs to see the show,” Lazarus says frankly, when I ask about those who reported crying in the toilets afterwards, wishing they hadn’t seen it. “The show picks at a scab and if you have a trauma or a trigger that’s in there, it’s gonna peel really bad. I don’t know how to prepare people for that.” After every performance the company hold a space to talk, led by producer Aislinn Rose. Lazarus doesn’t attend those sessions; audiences feel more comfortable without him.
Lazarus argues that Daughter is a feminist play. “Pre-Trump I think it was a warning. Now I think it’s a rallying cry.” The show, Lazarus freely admits, is an attack on men, and the behaviour we often excuse. “It seethes underneath everything. These are microaggressions everyone is part of. The ‘good guys’ have a lot of work to do.” He does the quotation marks in the air.
With thunderous impact, Daughter toys with these complex ideas of responsibility and consent, asking how we protect our daughters by talking to our sons. Lazarus’s daughter is now eight, his son five. Scared and hopeful for them both in equal measure, he paraphrases a recent article by Peggy Orenstein. “We have to talk to our sons about sex in the same way we talk about manners: often. Even if you feel like you wanna poke your eye out talking to your son [about sex], if you don’t teach them, porn will.”
QotD: “she says she believes that coercive sex is the price she has to pay for being in a relationship”
When Jed first heard from friends about websites where you could see naked women, it sounded too good to be true. So one afternoon, aged 11 and with his mind straying from homework, and while his mother was busy, he typed “boobs” and “sex” into the search bar of the family laptop.
“My first reaction was: ‘This is confusing.’ I knew a bit about sex, but there were men doing painful stuff to women,” he recalls.
After trying to make sense of what he was seeing, Jed clicked off the page and cleared the browsing history. “But I couldn’t put it out of my mind, so half an hour later, I had another look.”
Now, eight years on and in his first year of an engineering course at university, Jed is a member of a generation that has grown up with porn, and estimates he spends five or six hours a week looking at it.
Indeed, a 2016 analysis of 1,001 11- to 16-year-olds by Middlesex University for the children’s commissioner and the NSPCC found that at least 56% of boys and 40% of girls had been exposed to online pornography by the age of 16. The study also found that not only are boys more likely to keep seeking it out after they first see it (59%, compared with 25% of girls) but they are more likely to be positive about it.
“It’s normal,” says Jake, 19, echoing many of the boys I spoke to. “If one of my friends hadn’t seen it, I’d consider that weird.” For Jason, a swaggering 17-year-old, porn is a comforting routine, something functional that he wakes up with and winds down to at the end of the day. “It’s stress relief, and less work than girls,” he says.
When Samuel’s parents found a list of what they considered to be extreme sexual acts in his browsing history (“Nothing too serious,” Samuel, who is 16, says: “double and triple penetration”) he wasn’t embarrassed. He was annoyed: “I thought, ‘So what? Everyone watches it.’” Tom, 17, says: “We know it’s fake. My mates laugh about it.”
“They may be laughing about it,” says Dr Gail Dines, a scholar of pornography and professor emerita of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College, Boston, “but they are also masturbating to it. They say they know it’s fake, but what does that mean? You haven’t got one brain that processes fake stuff and one that processes real stuff. You have one brain and one body that’s aroused. If you begin by masturbating to cruel, hardcore, violent porn, studies show that you are not going to grow up wired for intimacy and connection.”
Most of the girls I spoke to seemed to be concerned about a loss of intimacy that comes from their male peers’ porn use. Although there are some girls who watch porn, most I speak to are exasperated by the groups of lads accessing it on GCSE field trips or talking in the school cafeteria about videos they’ve seen.
Nia is 14, and though she avoids porn, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t felt its influence. Among the boys, she says it’s easy to tell which ones are the heavy users. “They’re the ones who don’t know what to say at parties, and then write sexual comments on your Instagram posts.”
Megan, 15, has visited porn sites a few times because she heard about her friends giving blowjobs and thought, “it sounds like a skill you’d better learn how to do. You don’t want to get it wrong.” Ayeesha, 17, talks about how porn warps things. “Boys like to spice it up because ordinary sex is considered boring,” she says. “And girls think having anal sex will make the boys love them.” When Ayeesha had sex, she rated her performance as if through the pornographer’s lens. “The first time I did it, I was thinking, ‘My body looks good.’”
When Rhianna, 21, looks back on her teenage sexual relationships, she recalls being asked to replicate scenes her boyfriends had seen on porn. “It wasn’t about what I wanted. It was as if you were some prototype female they got to act out their favourite videos with.”
Now she’s older, Rhianna has started to demand sex on her own terms and enjoys porn herself. “As long as it’s not violent, or shows rape, it’s fine for people over 18 to watch. I think it can be fun to use with a partner.”
But it’s impossible not to hear the angst and confusion in the voice of Ciara, a 20-year-old retail trainee, when she says she believes that coercive sex is the price she has to pay for being in a relationship. “Boys all want the things they’ve seen in porn. If you say it hurts, they don’t seem to take it seriously. It’s as if that’s a normal part of the experience.”
There is some hope, though: a few of the older boys I speak to seem to be gaining some perspective on the downsides of porn. Henry, 20, decided to wean himself off it when he felt he couldn’t masturbate without it. “You’re entranced by it. Denying myself and forcing myself to use my imagination instead was really tough.”
Beyond that, he also started to recognise how it affected his view of women. “I’d see girls in the street and realise I couldn’t just click a button and see them naked. I’d be talking to someone and get frustrated that I couldn’t just make sex happen.”
Mitchell, 19, has begun to understand the connection between what he watches and how he behaves. “If girls are reluctant to do something, you pressure them because you think, ‘Lots of women do it in porn. Why don’t you?’” He says he began to feel “like I wasn’t in my own body”.
The effects of porn run deep – 53% of boys and 39% of girls in the Middlesex University study saw it as “a realistic depiction” of sex – and even with the anticipated new verification checks, free porn will bubble up in other ways; it is already increasingly appearing on platforms children use from a young age, such as Snapchat and Instagram.
A pint of semi-skimmed, 20 Bensons, a scratchcard and, er, a porn pass . . . The odds on this becoming a regular corner-shop scenario crashed this week as Jeremy Wright, the culture secretary, announced that age verification checks for accessing online pornography would be delayed yet again, this time because the government forgot to inform the European Commission. No wonder it’s been called Sexit.
Age verification began as a thoughtful response by the coalition government to alarming NSPCC research that 65 per cent of 15 to 16-year-olds and almost a third of 12-year-olds access porn. That porn sites should be age-verified, as gambling domains already are, has a 67 per cent approval rating. The problem is that it’s technologically impossible to enforce.
From July 15, clicking on a porn site was supposed to generate a page where a user must provide proof via a credit card, passport or driving licence that they are over 18. Unfortunately Britain stands nobly alone in this endeavour against a global porn industry. And any fool can easily install a VPN (virtual private network): a bit of software which conceals your geographical location. British kids use them already to dodge rights issues, particularly to access US Netflix with its superior range of films.
A VPN would allow a porn user to swerve the UK age-blocker. And which punter wouldn’t do that rather than give personal details to the state-approved verification firm AgeID (which, unbelievably, has the same owner as Pornhub)? No amount of blah about safe encrypted data will reassure anyone that their name and mugshot won’t one day pop up alongside their taste for “watersports” and MILFs.
The alternative would be to go into a shop and, after showing an age ID, buy a £4.99 porn pass. While oldsters might find this no more embarrassing than the time they bumped into their mate’s mum while buying a copy of Razzle, young people have grown up under the total anonymity of the web. Besides, they would simply access porn on platforms such as WhatsApp, Reddit or Snapchat. And a VPN can make the internet an even more dangerous landscape, opening up blocked extremist, paedophile and drug sites on the dark web.
Yet whether age-verification is feasible should not distract from the bigger, more pressing question: does allowing the porn industry to pipe its product unrestricted into every home have toxic consequences? Ireland is reeling from the murder of Ana Kriegel, 14, found naked with extensive injuries and a ligature around her neck, killed by two 13-year-old boys. One of the boys was found to have phones containing thousands of pornographic images, many involving children and animals. The Irish prime minister has said he will be viewing Britain’s age-verification plans closely.
This, of course, is the most extreme scenario. Experts speculated in 1993 whether James Bulger’s killers were inspired by “video nasties” or were just disturbed children who’d have killed in any era. But there is no question that having immediate access to images once obtained only by writing to obscure PO box addresses has changed society. Police now investigate 1,000 cases of offenders viewing child abuse images each month: our jails could not accommodate them all so most are dismissed with a caution on a first offence. Many such men say that viewing “barely legal” porn involving teenagers on legal sites drew them to younger children.
There has also been a spate of deaths of women at the hands of partners who claimed they were engaged in consensual “sex games”. These include Anna Reed, 22, from Harrogate who was suffocated in a Swiss hotel room; Charlotte Teeling, 33, from Birmingham, who was strangled, as was Hannah Dorans, 21, from Edinburgh. Natalie Connolly, 26, was penetrated with a bottle of carpet cleaner and left for dead at the bottom of the stairs. All the men concerned argued that “rough sex” or “Fifty Shades of Grey games” had gone wrong, that these women had, in effect, consented to their own deaths.
These are scenes choreographed by violent pornography, which is not some rare category but just a click away. Researchers studying aggressive porn that involves slaps, hair-pulling and choking found that in 95 per cent of cases the actresses responded with expressions of pleasure, suggesting to the viewer that violence is desired.
Is it any coincidence that the first generation of children exposed to hardcore pornography before their first kiss have epidemic levels of mental illness? The extreme aesthetics of porn fuel body-hatred in young women, while psychologists are concerned that a growing cohort of young men are so desensitised by porn that they suffer erectile dysfunction and emotional disconnection from real women. Moreover, when sex is learnt through porn — a misogynist industry focused solely on male desire — girls prioritise their performance above their own pleasure.
This is now normalised in the mainstream: Teen Vogue ran a feature on anal sex, which most women find uncomfortable, even painful, but is demanded by some men because it’s a major porn trope. Teen Vogue’s anatomical diagram did not even include the clitoris.
Yet young women are not allowed to balk at porn. In the US high school comedy Booksmart, two girls watch porn on their phone in horror. One tries to tell herself she must enjoy it because “I’m a sex-positive feminist”. Not to love porn marks a girl out as uncool, conservative and “unwoke”. Age-verifying technology is, alas, a distraction from the real conversation we need with young people about porn. That it is not feminist nor is it positive sex.
‘Mums Make Porn’ is a Channel 4 documentary about a group of mothers who make a short porn film. Emma, the lead on this project, describes mainstream porn as “horrible. Gruesome” and her intention is to create a ‘new wave’ of porn.
The result is a 14-minute film that Emma’s 20-year-old daughter was happy to watch alongside her mum, dad, and grandmother, with her boyfriend and friends in attendance.
There is some acknowledgement of the realities of the porn industry:
“The darker realities of the sex industry are never mentioned – in the first episode of the series at least. Emma says that they met one actress who had performed so much that she was physically injured, and that some of the films she saw were so gruesome she could barely kiss her husband goodnight. There was a point when the group thought that instead of making a porn film they should be campaigning to have it banned. “But that’s a huge step,” Emma says. “We were just four middle-aged hormonal females. But absolutely it needs to be policed. Everyone needs to get involved, from the government to mums and even those working in the porn industry. […] Back home they started to interview potential cast members. The first question was: “What sort of porn do you like to watch?” Most of the actors, Emma says, didn’t like a lot of what they saw, or indeed a lot of what they were doing.”
What is the actual purpose of this 14-minute porno, apart from making a small group of middle-class women feel good about themselves?
Could it work as ‘sex education’? But education in what? If its purpose is to educate about consent, why do you then need to see real sex acts? Does it include stopping and starting again, or giving up for the night? (at 14 minutes, I doubt it.)
Is it supposed to be an education in technique? The mention of male performance anxiety suggests so, but then who gets to set the standard?
Is it commercially viable? Is it going to ‘disrupt’ the porn industry? Of course not. The fact that it is being put up online for free (on Erika Lust’s website – more on her later), suggests that making it commercially viable was not a part of the plan (making it even more a middle-class vanity project, working-class women don’t have the time or resources to make porn for free, instead, they get ‘sex work’ pushed on them as something they ‘need’).
There is no meaningful definition of ‘feminist’ when it comes to porn, only ‘a woman made it’ and/or ‘a woman gets off on it’; which means all porn is ‘feminist’, including the most extreme acts of violence, bestiality, and child sex abuse images, because somewhere there is a woman who will get off to that.
Pandora Blake, a self-styled ‘feminism pornographer’ produces only sado-masochistic porn centred around corporal punishment, and even Emma “is impressed by a couple of fetishists she watches making a naughty little video” while another mother is interested in “’beauty’, ‘tastefulness’ and large penises”, so there is no standard (sex products sold to women always claim higher production values, and always sport a bigger price tag).
The Guardian published an article last year titled ‘The Pleasure Revolution’, some of it was interesting, like the need to correctly describe, and normalise, female genitalia, and sex toys that aren’t objectifying and aimed at men; and some of it was ridiculous, like politics lecturer Reba Maybury, who has a side-gig as ‘political dominatrix’ ‘Mistress Rebecca’, who only dominates white, right-wing men, in order to ‘shift the power balance between the sexes’ (which is laughable, of course, she is being paid by these men for this ‘service’, she is still doing what they want, and outside that BDSM bubble, these men will carry on exactly as before). The article also links to a supposedly ‘feminist’ website, called ‘frolic me’, at the bottom of the website’s front page (click on image to enlarge) is a list of ‘erotic’ films and stories available on the site, including “voyeur catches a couple having a sexy rough fuck’, ‘BDSM erotic story of a submissive girl and her daddy’, and ‘forbidden seduction of a young horny stepson’. There is no meaningful definition of ‘feminist’ porn.
The idea of ‘ethical porn’ is equally meaningless. Mainstream porn uses ‘exit interviews’ (filmed statements where the female porn performers say that they consented to everything that just happened to them); as recent cases of abuse in the US porn industry show, these are faked in order for the woman to get paid, and there are plenty of other accounts of abuse and abusive conditions on porn sets. Any genuine policing of porn sets would make porn production impossible.
The pornographer Erika Lust is name-checked approvingly by the Mums, but this is Gail Dines’ description of one of her porn shoots (from ‘Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On’):
Lust’s rather bizarre idea of a compelling “erotic” movie for women was to portray a woman pianist living out her fantasy of playing the piano naked while being “pleasured.” So Lust finds Monica, a woman who is both a pianist and willing to play out this fantasy, concocted by Lust. The problem is that Monica is new to porn and lacks any experience, while Lust hires a mainstream male porn performer, resulting in the usual degrading porn sex – pounding penetration and hair pulling included. Monica finishes the scene in obvious pain and traumatized, looking like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. But remember, this is a “feminist” porn film, so Lust, acting all sisterly, gives Monica a big hug and a glass of water to make her feel better. And then asks her to fake an orgasm for the final scene. So much for authentic female sexuality!
It was stomach churning to watch Lust manipulate and cajole Monica into making this film, and lying through her teeth as she explained that she is doing something different from the boys. Despite all the talk about aesthetic value and women’s sexuality, HGWTO is just a clever piece of ideological propaganda. Lust, just like the boys, is making money from sexually exploiting women; unlike the boys, she wraps herself in a feminist flag as a way to differentiate her brand in a glutted market. In Lust’s world, sisterhood is powerful because it provides cover to pimp out women in the name of feminism.
What projects like ‘Mums Make Porn’ miss is that even ‘better’ porn still objectifies and commodifies sexuality, and also ignores the addictive nature of porn, requiring more, and more extreme, images. It also makes the common, mainstream, assumption that men are simply consuming ‘bad’ porn by mistake, because there isn’t any ‘good’ porn available (a similar apology is made for male sexual violence, that poor men simply don’t understand when they are raping someone). If ‘good’ porn were commercially viable, it would already exist, and higher production value porn already exists.
This porn film will do nothing to challenge the mainstream porn industry, and it is no substitute for compulsory, age-appropriate, sex and relationships education, including education on consent, and the porn industry.
My husband and I have been together for six years. I married him when he was 18 and I was 24. I discovered, after we got married, that he had had sexual intercourse only with me; he’d had sexual encounters with other women, but hadn’t felt ready for intercourse. At first this wasn’t a problem, but now his younger brothers are sexually active and have had multiple sexual partners, he has started to feel jealous.
I felt that this jealousy was only going to grow, and I didn’t want him to develop feelings of resentment towards me and cheat on me. I also didn’t want him to think he had missed out, and get into his 30s or 40s and leave me so he could experience what it feels like to sleep with other people, as his stepdad did to his mum.
So I booked a holiday to Amsterdam with the intention of paying for a prostitute for him. I felt this would be a safe option as it is a job and no feelings could develop. Plus he would know he had slept with someone other than me.
I didn’t know exactly how we would feel afterwards, but I was willing to take the risk to save the future of our marriage. But now it has happened and he wasn’t happy or fulfilled. He said he felt nothing at all and it was very different and strange. He was deflated afterwards and now he won’t talk to me about it because he says it hurts him. I am scared it has upset him, and worried I shouldn’t have done this.
There were a few things which struck me about your letter. First: how few times it said “we”; even when you talk about marriage, a union, you say I: “I married him”. You seem to have a very immature attitude to love. People who have had multiple sexual partners can still be unfaithful: you can’t vaccinate your husband against infidelity by making him have sex with someone else.
I would like you to read your letter back to yourself with the roles reversed, as if you were reading about a man booking a prostitute for his wife, seemingly without her knowledge or consent: it seems altogether more controlling, doesn’t it?
This was one of the first things couples psychotherapist Damian McCann asked: “Was this something you shared? Organised, booked, talked about together?”
Because if you had, this would take on a different flavour. But if you went ahead and booked a prostitute for your husband without asking him (and if so, at what point did you tell him? As you were shoving him through the door?) then I see this as a violation. Presumably him saying no was an option?
McCann wondered, “What’s going on with you two as a couple? Perhaps there is a shared sense of insecurity, although you seem to be trying to secure the relationship by means of control.”
I also wondered if the prostitute was for you or for him? Are you frustrated with your husband’s lack of experience? If he waited for the right person to have sex with (you) and for marriage, that hints at someone with a particular attitude to sex which may not be one you share, but it should be respected. If you were hoping to “add to” his repertoire or experience, you will have failed. “Sex with a prostitute,” McCann said, “seems very contrived.” It has none of the elements of a real relationship – or an affair, for that matter.
So to answer your question, have you done the right thing? Well, clearly, not. While I’m sure some will snigger and be facile and say things like “lucky husband”, I don’t see it like this. Your husband is hurt and upset; if you don’t talk about this now and resolve it, his hurt will change to anger, and anger is a fantastically fertile bed for infidelity to grow in. Sex isn’t the same as intimacy. It’s not unusual for couples who get together young and have only one sexual partner to wonder what sex might be like with someone else, but the only way to help prevent this is communication.
“You need,” McCann said, “to start thinking about how to be together. At the moment the relationship seems very driven by one of you.”
In other words, you need to learn how to be a couple, not your husband’s booker.
Drew was 8 years old when he was flipping through TV channels at home and landed on “Girls Gone Wild.” A few years later, he came across HBO’s late-night soft-core pornography. Then in ninth grade, he found online porn sites on his phone. The videos were good for getting off, he said, but also sources for ideas for future sex positions with future girlfriends. From porn, he learned that guys need to be buff and dominant in bed, doing things like flipping girls over on their stomach during sex. Girls moan a lot and are turned on by pretty much everything a confident guy does. One particular porn scene stuck with him: A woman was bored by a man who approached sex gently but became ecstatic with a far more aggressive guy.
But around 10th grade, it began bothering Drew, an honor-roll student who loves baseball and writing rap lyrics and still confides in his mom, that porn influenced how he thought about girls at school. Were their breasts, he wondered, like the ones in porn? Would girls look at him the way women do in porn when they had sex? Would they give him blow jobs and do the other stuff he saw?
Drew, who asked me to use one of his nicknames, was a junior when I first met him in late 2016, and he told me some of this one Thursday afternoon, as we sat in a small conference room with several other high school boys, eating chips and drinking soda and waiting for an after-school program to begin. Next to Drew was Q., who asked me to identify him by the first initial of his nickname. He was 15, a good student and a baseball fan, too, and pretty perplexed about how porn translated into real life. Q. hadn’t had sex — he liked older, out-of-reach girls, and the last time he had a girlfriend was in sixth grade, and they just fooled around a bit. So he wasn’t exactly in a good position to ask girls directly what they liked. But as he told me over several conversations, it wasn’t just porn but rough images on Snapchat, Facebook and other social media that confused him. Like the GIF he saw of a man pushing a woman against a wall with a girl commenting: “I want a guy like this.” And the one Drew mentioned of the “pain room” in “Fifty Shades of Grey” with a caption by a girl: “This is awesome!”
Watching porn also heightened Q.’s performance anxiety. “You are looking at an adult,” he told me. “The guys are built and dominant and have a big penis, and they last a long time.” And if you don’t do it like the guys in porn, Drew added, “you fear she’s not going to like you.”
Leaning back in his chair, Drew said some girls acted as if they wanted some thug rather than a smart, sensitive guy. But was it true desire? Was it posturing? Was it what girls thought they were supposed to want? Neither Q. nor Drew knew. A couple of seats away, a sophomore who had been quiet until then added that maybe the girls didn’t know either. “I think social media makes girls think they want something,” he said, noting he hadn’t seen porn more than a handful of times and disliked it. “But I think some of the girls are afraid.”
“It gets in your head,” Q. said. “If this girl wants it, then maybe the majority of girls want it.” He’d heard about the importance of consent in sex, but it felt pretty abstract, and it didn’t seem as if it would always be realistic in the heat of the moment. Out of nowhere was he supposed to say: Can I pull your hair? Or could he try something and see how a girl responded? He knew that there were certain things — “big things, like sex toys or anal” — that he would not try without asking.
“I would just do it,” said another boy, in jeans and a sweatshirt. When I asked what he meant, he said anal sex. He assumed that girls like it, because the women in porn do.
“I would never do something that looked uncomfortable,” Drew said, jumping back into the conversation. “I might say, ‘I’ve seen this in porn — do you want to try it?’ ”
It was almost 4 p.m., and the boys started to gather their backpacks to head to a class known as Porn Literacy. The course, with the official title The Truth About Pornography: A Pornography-Literacy Curriculum for High School Students Designed to Reduce Sexual and Dating Violence, is a recent addition to Start Strong, a peer-leadership program for teenagers headquartered in Boston’s South End and funded by the city’s public-health agency. About two dozen selected high school students attend every year, most of them black or Latino, along with a few Asian students, from Boston public high schools, including the city’s competitive exam schools, and a couple of parochial schools. During most of the year, the teenagers learn about healthy relationships, dating violence and L.G.B.T. issues, often through group discussions, role-playing and other exercises.
But for around two hours each week, for five weeks, the students — sophomores, juniors and seniors — take part in Porn Literacy, which aims to make them savvier, more critical consumers of porn by examining how gender, sexuality, aggression, consent, race, queer sex, relationships and body images are portrayed (or, in the case of consent, not portrayed) in porn.
On average, boys are around 13, and girls are around 14, when they first see pornography, says Bryant Paul, an associate professor at Indiana University’s Media School and the author of studies on porn content and adolescent and adult viewing habits. In a 2008 University of New Hampshire survey, 93 percent of male college students and 62 percent of female students said they saw online porn before they were 18. Many females, in particular, weren’t seeking it out. Thirty-five percent of males said they had watched it 10 or more times during adolescence.
Porn Literacy, which began in 2016 and is the focus of a pilot study, was created in part by Emily Rothman, an associate professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health who has conducted several studies on dating violence, as well as on porn use by adolescents. She told me that the curriculum isn’t designed to scare kids into believing porn is addictive, or that it will ruin their lives and relationships and warp their libidos. Instead it is grounded in the reality that most adolescents do see porn and takes the approach that teaching them to analyze its messages is far more effective than simply wishing our children could live in a porn-free world.
That ‘queer sex’ made me wince (what is the writer talking about? Gay men, lesbians, ‘diaper fetishists’?), but the article is still worth reading in full (it’s very long, the above is the introductory section, I will quote a few more paragraphs from it, but I do recommend reading the whole thing).
There are also uncritical references to ‘feminist’ and ‘ethical’ porn, and to such pornographers getting involved in sex education, but as one of the other interviewees says: “Unlike organic food, there’s no coding system for ethical or feminist porn […] They might use condoms and dental dams and still convey the same gender and aggression dynamics.”
It’s hard to know if, and how, this translates into behavior. While some studies show a small number of teens who watch higher rates of porn engage in earlier sex as well as gender stereotyping and sexual relationships that are less affectionate than their peers, these only indicate correlations, not cause and effect. But surveys do suggest that the kinds of sex some teenagers have may be shifting. The percentage of 18-to-24-year-old women who reported trying anal sex rose to 40 percent in 2009 from 16 percent in 1992, according to the largest survey on American sexual behavior in decades, co-authored by Herbenick and published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine. In data from that same survey, 20 percent of 18-to-19 year old females had tried anal sex; about 6 percent of 14-to-17-year-old females had. And in a 2016 Swedish study of nearly 400 16-year-old girls, the percentage of girls who had tried anal sex doubled if they watched pornography. Like other studies about sex and porn, it only showed a correlation, and girls who are more sexually curious may also be drawn to porn. In addition, some girls may view anal sex as a “safer” alternative to vaginal sex, as there’s little risk of pregnancy.
These images confound many teenagers about the kinds of sex they want or think they should have. In part, that’s because they aren’t always sure what is fake and what is real in porn. Though some told me that porn was fantasy or exaggerated, others said that porn wasn’t real only insofar as it wasn’t typically two lovers having sex on film. Some of those same teenagers assumed the portrayal of how sex and pleasure worked was largely accurate. That seems to be in keeping with a 2016 survey of 1,001 11-to-16-year-olds in Britain. Of the roughly half who had seen pornography, 53 percent of boys and 39 percent of girls said it was “realistic.” And in the recent Indiana University national survey, only one in six boys and one in four girls believed that women in online porn were not actually experiencing pleasure: As one suburban high school senior boy told me recently, “I’ve never seen a girl in porn who doesn’t look like she’s having a good time.”
Now, in the third week of class, Daley’s goal was to undercut porn’s allure for teenagers by exposing the underbelly of the business. “When you understand it’s not just two people on the screen but an industry,” she told me, “it’s not as sexy.”
To that end, Daley started class by detailing a midlevel female performer’s salary (taken from the 2008 documentary “The Price of Pleasure”): “Blow job: $300,” Daley read from a list. “Anal: $1,000. Double penetration: $1,200. Gang bang: $1,300 for three guys. $100 for each additional guy.”
“Wow,” Drew muttered. “That makes it nasty now.”
“That’s nothing for being penetrated on camera,” another boy said.
Then, as if they had been given a green light to ask about a world that grown-ups rarely acknowledge, they began peppering Daley, Rothman and Alder with questions.
“How much do men get paid?” one girl asked. It is the one of the few professions in which men are paid less, Rothman explained, but they also typically have longer careers. How long do women stay in their jobs? On average, six to 18 months. How do guys get erections if they aren’t turned on? Often Viagra, Rothman offered, and sometimes a “fluffer,” as an offscreen human stimulator is known.
I really wish this canard was challenged more, male porn performers in het porn are paid less than female performers because they are not doing the same job; as someone else put it so well, women are paid to suffer, while men are paid to ejaculate. Porn companies can (and do) get men in off the street to do it for free, that’s why male porn performers are paid less.
Also, all the real money in porn is behind the cameras, in production and distribution, an area which is dominatd by men.
Daley then asked the teenagers to pretend they were contestants on a reality-TV show, in which they had to decide if they were willing to participate in certain challenges (your parents might be watching) and for how much money. In one scenario, she said, you would kneel on the ground while someone poured a goopy substance over your face. In another, you’d lick a spoon that had touched fecal matter. The kids debated the fecal-matter challenge — most wouldn’t to do it for less than $2 million. One wanted to know if the goop smelled. “Can we find out what it is?” asked another.
Then Daley explained that each was in fact a simulation of a porn act. The goopy substance was what’s called a “baker’s dozen,” in which 13 men ejaculate on a woman’s face, breasts and mouth.
“What?” a girl named Tiffany protested.
The second scenario — licking the spoon with fecal matter — was from a porn act known as A.T.M., in which a man puts his penis in a woman’s anus and then immediately follows by sticking it in her mouth.
“No way,” a 15-year-old boy said. “Can’t you wash in between?”
Nope, Daley said.
“We don’t question it when we see it in porn, right?” Daley went on. “There’s no judgment here, but some of you guys are squeamish about it.”
“I never knew any of this,” Drew said, sounding a bit glum.
Daley went on to detail a 2010 study that coded incidents of aggression in best-selling 2004 and 2005 porn videos. She noted that 88 percent of scenes showed verbal or physical aggression, mostly spanking, slapping and gagging. (A more recent content analysis of more than 6,000 mainstream online heterosexual porn scenes by Bryant Paul and his colleagues defined aggression specifically as any purposeful action appearing to cause physical or psychological harm to another person and found that 33 percent of scenes met that criteria. In each study, women were on the receiving end of the aggression more than 90 percent of the time.)
Al Vernacchio, a nationally known sexuality educator who teaches progressive sex ed at a private Quaker school outside Philadelphia, believes the better solution is to make porn literacy part of the larger umbrella of comprehensive sex education. Vernacchio, who is the author of the 2014 book “For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health,” is one of those rare teenage-sex educators who talks directly to his high school students about sexual pleasure and mutuality, along with the ingredients for healthy relationships. The problem with porn “is not just that it often shows misogynistic, unhealthy representations of relationships,” Vernacchio says. “You can’t learn relationship skills from porn, and if you are looking for pleasure and connection, porn can’t teach you how to have those.”
Crabbe notes one effective way to get young men to take fewer lessons from porn: “Tell them if you want to be a lazy, selfish lover, look at porn. If you want to be a lover where your partner says, ‘That was great,’ you won’t learn it from porn.” And parents should want their teenagers to be generous lovers, Cindy Gallop argues. “Our parents bring us up to have good manners, a work ethic. But nobody brings us up to behave well in bed.”
Transgender schools guidance produced by transgender and LGBT organisations promotes a new ‘affirmation’ and social transition model which has been shown to increase persistence of gender dysphoria in children. The model fails to take into account the various reasons for childhood cross-sex identity, which can range from perfectly normal developmental exploration, through difficult family dynamics all the way to previous trauma or sexual abuse. It may also be a result of homophobic bullying, emotional and psychological issues, ASD or simple social contagion, particularly in cases of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria seen predominantly in teenage girls.
We feel that to simply take a child’s words at face value and respond with a one-size-fits-all approach is a dereliction of duty of care for children and adolescents, and this approach should not be forced upon schools.
Published transgender schools guidance also fails to take into account sex-based rights and protections already in place to protect the privacy of all students and in particular the welfare of girls. This guidance misrepresents Equality law in placing the rights of transgender students above those of other students, with no requirement for equality impact assessments. The prioritisation of ‘gender identity’ above biological sex as the distinction between boys and girls gives weight to a belief over material reality and obviously raises issues of safeguarding as well as the right to name reality.
We felt there was an urgent need for clear factual information for schools seeking advice on a very recent and unprecedented phenomenon, guidance which is based on protecting the welfare and rights of all children.
We have developed a comprehensive schools resource pack, in consultation with teachers, child protection and welfare professionals and lawyers. Our aim is to arm schools with all the relevant facts so that teachers feel more informed and confident in creating a safe school for all pupils, including non-conforming children and those who identify as ‘transgender.’
Our resource pack covers advice for school leaders, tips on how to create a school culture of acceptance of gender non-conformity without denying biological sex, communication, primary schools and secondary schools, existing safeguarding policies and guidance, the legal situation for schools, and a glossary of terms.
We also include factual information about the social and medical transition of children, testimonies from young people who have desisted or detransitioned, and a statement from a teacher who has witnessed the increase in the number of young people identifying as ‘trans’ in their school. We have included a statement from the Lesbian Rights Alliance in recognition of the fact that the number of teenage lesbians who are choosing to identify as ‘trans men’ has recently grown so significantly.
We have designed the document to be fully comprehensive and cover all areas because this is such a new phenomenon that teachers are facing and existing guidance is so one-sided, but each individual section may be printed out and used separately if needed.
Download the pdf here: