A grim poll for the Tories

Labour lead up to eight points as Tory support falls to just 33 per cent in new Populus poll.

David Cameron is said by some to have emerged almost unscathed from the Liam Fox imbroglio and last week's terrible unemployment figures. But the latest monthly Populus/Times poll (£), the first to be conducted since Fox's resignation, makes grim reading for the Prime Minister. Labour's advantage over the Conservatives is up from four points to eight points, the party's largest lead in a Populus poll since the election-that-never-was in 2007. By contrast, the Tories' share of the vote is down to just 33 per cent, their worst Populus figure in this parliament. Regardless of whether you take into account the likely effect of the boundary changes, George Osborne wouldn't get the majority he craves on these figures. And there's little to cheer the Lib Dems, who are down four points to just 8 per cent, their lowest figure since Populus started polling for the Times in 2003.

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Latest poll (Populus/Times) Labour majority of 94 (uniform swing).

There is also some evidence that Fox's resignation has damaged the Tories' reputation. The number saying that they are "honest and principled" has dropped from 36 per cent in September to 30 per cent this month, while the proportion saying that they are "competent and capable" has fallen from 48 per cent last month to 42 per cent now.

However, it isn't all bad news for the Tories. Cameron and George Osborne are still rated as a better economic team than Ed Miliband and Ed Balls (a remarkable political achievement given that the economy hasn't grown for nine months), although their lead has fallen from 18 per cent in June to 13 per cent in September. The full data tables aren't available yet but the Times reports: "This drop is particularly pronounced among women, where the lead fell from 20 per cent to 11 per cent over the same period, and from 28 per cent to 9 per cent among skilled manual workers (C2s)."

New Statesman Poll of Polls

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Labour majority of 50 (uniform swing).

Yet so long as the Conservatives retain their lead on the economy and Cameron is rated as a better leader than Miliband, the Tories will be confident of clawing back Labour's lead. As I always point out, personal approval ratings are often a better long-term indicator of the next election result than voting intentions. Labour frequently led the Tories under Neil Kinnock, for instance, but Kinnock was never rated above John Major as a potential prime minister. As the economy enters a new and dangerous phase, it will be worth watching to see whether these ratings begin to swing in Miliband's favour.

P.S. Conversely, the latest YouGov poll puts Labour's lead at just three points. Miliband's party is on 40 per cent, the Tories are on 37 per cent, and the Lib Dems are on 9 per cent.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times