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Thursday 10 October 2019

The Readout

Life in the porn age

Millions watch it. Few talk about it. So we’re holding a series of ThinkIns to discuss the meaning and effects of pornography – here’s what we learnt from the first

By Xavier Greenwood

This ThinkIn provided an opportunity to bust some myths.

Discussions of porn often revolve around moral debates. Does it cause sexual violence? Does it encode unhealthy sexual behaviour? But free-speech activist Jerry Barnett warned us to be careful about accepting claims that pornography causes sexual violence and other harms, asserting that these are often used to drive moral panic and are not backed by evidence. He pointed out that plenty of research suggests porn viewing may have broadly beneficial rather than harmful outcomes.

Of course, we shouldn’t let that stop us exploring worrying trends: for instance, as one guest mentioned, the 255 per cent rise in reported sex crimes in schools between 2013 and 2017. But, in exploring these trends, language is crucial.

For starters, explained adult performer Misha Mayfair, there is no “porn industry”: in the UK, at least, there’s merely a network of cottage outfits, no central body and little regulation. Nor is it enough, added sex addiction therapist Paula Hall, to merely talk about “porn”, when the term encapsulates so much.

A running thread throughout the ThinkIn was the curious battle between anti-porn feminists and adult performers. Misha and others suggested that this results in campaigners showing hatred to the performers they claim to be trying to rescue.

Amid this, we touched on the deeper psychology of people’s aversion to porn (despite most of us consuming it). With the rise of free sites, access to porn has become ubiquitous, and yet, sex consultant Charlotte Rose warned, we’re not having any more conversations. We had some within the ThinkIn, but there should be more.

We were left with questions to pursue:

  • Revenge porn. Honza Cervenka, a solicitor who works on revenge porn cases, was a mine of information for attendees. What happens to the one-third of UK revenge-porn victims who decide not to support their charges? Why aren’t victims given automatic anonymity, like in sexual offences? How is it ever possible to prove intent to distress?
  • Age-verification software. Just how much should we be worried about this? A lot, says Jerry. Sites that don’t implement the software (set to be rolled out in the UK at the start of the next year) are likely to be inaccessible. Jerry believes only about one per cent of sites are likely to implement the software. Internet censorship by the backdoor should be something we all care about.
  • MindGeek. If there is a porn industry to talk of, it is MindGeek. It owns most of the major sites and studios, and is developing one of the major age-verification software tools. Who are its people? Can we trust it with our data? Do its algorithms send us into worrying places? Who moderates it?

Please join us for the other ThinkIns in the series: on 24 October, we’re asking “is porn ruining sex?”, and on 24 November, we’re asking “is there an ethical way to watch porn?”. We hope to see you there.

This article was adjusted on 15 October 2019 on the request of Jerry Barnett to clarify his views on the links between pornography and sexual violence.

Illustration by Maria Corte