It’s time to talk about porn

Arthur Velker

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Porn: is it an opiate for sexual urges or a catalyst for gender harassment? Experts say neither – society suggests both.

Compared to two decades ago, the question of whether young people view pornography no longer exists. Permeating into every pocket of social culture, porn has already invoked calls to be introduced into classrooms in order for children and young adults to be properly educated on the realities behind the screen.

But for the vast majority of Ireland’s young adults, who make up 12 per cent of the population, fictitious elements of hardcore pornography have already been manifested in a variety of ways.

Last year, universities in Ireland and the UK experienced a record-high in sexual harassment allegations. Oxford reported the highest number of allegations made against staff; the Trinity College Students’ Union found that a quarter of female students had at some point experienced non-consensual sexual relations.

The fact that these experiences happened in spite of women’s opposition shows there’s either a gross misinterpretation of the notion of consent or a deliberate attempt to impose one’s will over another.

Elements of this behaviour can be identified in the role-play of hardcore pornography: where women are shown in predominantly submissive roles, playing either a willing victim of sexual domination or a reluctant participant lured into intercourse.

In both, despite their reluctance, women are shown to be clearly stimulated by the physical use of force. This is an aspect which, in its basic form, popularises an infamous misconception otherwise known as ‘rape fantasy’.

In his essay ‘The ‘Problem’ of Sexual Fantasies’, Martin Barker argues that although there is evidence to suggest women commonly fantasise about having forced sex, the nature and way those fantasies play out leaves women themselves in control, debunking the rape element by its very definition.

But developed young adults already know that. So why is the affluent, educated generation of today having problems in the most fundamental human interactions?

A 2008 New England college survey showed that over two-thirds of all boys have viewed online pornography before the age of 16. Considering that the survey was done almost a decade ago, internet access may not have been as ubiquitous. Now, that number would likely be higher.

Another study last year examining the links between the age of exposure and sexual behavioural patterns found that boys who were exposed to pornography earlier tended to hold a belief that men should dominate women in sexual relationships.

“Everybody’s going to look at porn – whether accidentally or deliberately – so it’s a matter of creating a healthy dialogue,” said Caroline West, PhD researcher of pornography and feminism.

West specialises in sexuality studies and pays frequent visits to the US, where she monitors the porn industry to aid in her research. She recently visited a porn set, where three hours of shooting was condensed into 12 minutes of actual video footage – removing what she says was the crucial consensual element.

“These are consenting adults who went through a negotiation process; what you see on the screen isn’t necessarily what’s translated into reality,” West said. “We don’t have a lot of resources for young people to communicate their sexual desires, so porn is a bit of a lazy scapegoat for how much we fail people in talking about these things.”

“We need conversation that’s non-shameful and non-judgemental and which recognises that porn is a healthy thing for some people and not healthy for others.”

In her Guardian opinion piece, journalist and author Jenni Murray postulates a revised sex education system in classrooms that will allow for schoolchildren to view and critically analyse the different facets of pornography.

She argues that this will help solve the issue of the objectification of women in sexual culture and prevent people from seeing sex through the lens of porn, as a largely masculine and domineering affair.

Though it is self-labelled adult entertainment, masses of youths continue to flock to porn to teach them about the intricacies of sex. What we’re seeing unfold across university campuses are the disastrous consequences of a mixture of substandard sex education and a lack of appropriate context.

Sex consent programmes being developed in universities in Ireland and the UK are an attempt to deal with the problem head-on. Introduced in Oxford last year, the workshops focus on staging various social scenarios where students are required to exercise their understanding of consent in order to equip them with a better knowledge of the issue.

Of Ireland and England’s two biggest universities, neither included porn in their programmes or saw it as an identifiable factor in the consent conundrum. At some point in the future, institutions will no longer be able to marginalise the effects of pornography on developing youth – but at the moment, it remains the proverbial elephant in the room.

Arthur Velker

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