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Laurie Penny: My night at the Shaftas, porn's award ceremony

What I learned at the porn industry's annual ceremony.

"If a girl wants to get into the porn industry, the most important thing is to act natural," says Hannah, 20, fluttering her huge fake eyelashes. We're at the Shaftas, the UK porn industry's annual awards ceremony, in the gloom of an upmarket London strip joint that reeks of power and cheap perfume.

Hannah is plastered in spraytan and crystals, the elaborate porno-drag not quite hiding her natural beauty. She started being fucked on film when she was 18, moving into the industry because her shop job didn't pay quite enough.

"I love doing porn, yeah, love it," she says, brandishing her gloriously tacky award for best sex scene: a golden statue of a woman's hand holding an erect penis. "The gold cock is smaller than last year," complains pornstar Angel Long, 29. "It must be the recession. It's a real wilter."

There has been much discussion, over the past 12 months, of the impact that the $96bn pornography industry has on women and on young people. As study after study has coyly revealed that yes, quite a lot of people downloading naughty pictures on the internet, anti-porn feminists and legislators have suggested that the ease with which pornography can now be accessed might contribute to rape and domestic violence.

Here, at the high end of the British porn industry, men and women dressed like extras from a low-budget remake of American Psycho drink warm beer and plunder the awful buffet. A woman with straining plastic boobs pouring out of a satin ballgown munches on a mini-fishcake. It's like being at an elaborate funeral for the human orgasm.

"What's the difference between having dirty sex in private and having it on camera, apart from the money?" says Hannah, who is slurping a cocktail called a Pussy Bomb. Porn director Dick Bush, 30, chips in. "The difference is that you don't have a bloke like me standing there, telling you to open your legs wider so the camera can get in, five minutes like that, then turn around for doggy style."

"We're all all one big happy family here," he adds, jiggling a drunken Hannah on his knee. He smoothes his hair back like a politician, and smiles. I go to the toilets to apply more makeup. There are bloodstained tissues strewn around the sinks.

The feminist porn director, Anna Span says: "There are no proven links between porn and violence, rape or any other damaging behaviour by men towards women, even though governments have spent millions of dollars trying to find one." She adds: "A third of all porn viewers online are female, too, so it no longer makes sense to discuss the subject in terms of 'men's opinions of women." Watching the Shaftas' endless rolling footage of naked people grimacing as they pummel each other's bodies robotically into submission, it strikes me that Anna is half-right: mainstream pornography is not anti-woman. It is anti-human.

Danny, 21, wins the Shafta for best male performer. He is dragged onto the stage and shouted at until he agrees to take his leviathan appendage out of his trousers. "So much blood goes to his erection that he often passes out on set. We have to hook him up to a drip," says Dick Bush. "The insurance is insane, It's an affliction." Danny waves his affliction dutifully at the crowd.

At the bar, Angel Long laughs aggressively and goes for another Pussy Bomb. "For Angel, doing porn is a competition thing rather than a sex thing," confides her friend. "She has to have the most hardcore scenes, the largest and most frequent penetrations. She's a star."

There is a hollow teenage atmosphere to this place, a desperate striving for status played out over the sort of naughty pop songs that once marked the end of school discos in the 1990s. Sullen-looking waitresses in satin thongs distribute drinks to the strains of No Diggity and Ebeneezer Goode. The guests air-kiss, greeting one another with shrill smiles: they all know why they're here. "It's for the money, and sometimes the fame," says Dick Bush, "although of course, enjoying it helps."

Pornography holds a dark mirror up to our culture. It places a frigid factory-line of violence and competition at the heart of human intimacy. With 92% of 14-17 year olds having seen porn online, a generation of young people is now growing up believing that this this brutally identikit performance is what real sex really looks like.

One doubts that any government ban on wank material will save sexuality from this trough of profit and power. "I love the idea of people watching me, of making money from performing," slurs Hannah. "but I've never had an orgasm from sex. Not from sex, no."

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.