Girls shouldn't feel like they have to "perform like pornstars"

A problem which affects all of society has its roots in classrooms and on the internet, writes Frances Ryan.

When I was 15, I bought a t-shirt with the words "Porn star" on it. I remember there was choice, in the shop at least. Multiple t-shirts with multiple wordings, all drawn with silver glitter that said this was somehow fun. Did I want to be a playboy bunny or a porn star? I decided porn star. It was light pink, I recall. As if feminine and sweet.

That was 2000. Before Facebook, before mobiles let someone from school send someone else a porn link, before social media and news sites showed pictures of women who seemed to want to be sexually exposed and those who didn't but were anyway

In 2013, girls in Britain feel like they have to “look and perform like porn stars” to be “liked and valued by boys”, research from the NSPCC has said today.

There are a lot of words said about porn and the sexualisation of young people nowadays. In some ways, too many. We can drown ourselves in ‘pornification’ and other terms that, to the average teenage girl, are nothing when it comes down to it. Girls feel an expectation to “look” and “perform” like porn stars in order to please boys. I think for a minute we can just pause on that. 

This isn't just an issue for girls (“just” – as if a problem for girls isn't a problem at all). Almost a third surveyed believed porn dictated how young people had to behave in a relationship. In the film, the one with the penis may be the one in control, but back in the teenage bedroom, I doubt anyone could claim it’s any less harmful for a boy to see himself as the one who has to dominate than for a girl to see herself as the one to be dominated. 

And that’s what they see. “Performing like a porn star” would, technically, be having sex and being paid to have it filmed. I think we all know this is not what young girls mean when they say they feel they have to behave this way. “Performing like a porn star”, in the context of what the majority of porn shows, is passively conforming to whatever desires the man (or men) in the room want to use you for. 

You don’t have to watch (misogynistic) porn to see this. Miley Cyrus, 20, at an award ceremony, “twerking” her seemingly naked arse against the groin of a self-satisfied, fully clothed thirtysomething man. Women’s magazines that offer sex tips that make sex seem like an ordeal women have to go through, and will get right or wrong. National newspapers including a page for breasts, whilst casually describing other women as meat. Bad porn exacerbates a culture that says a woman’s sexuality is whatever a man wants it to be. It didn’t create it or suddenly become the only outlet for it. 

Put it like this and it's less young girls feeling like they have to act like a porn star and more “young girls feeling like they have to act like all the girls flooding through the media who feel like they have to act like a porn star.' Not to get a boyfriend, of course. Just to have a job or even get a mention. I'm not sure which aspect is more depressing. But I do know that attempting to separate them – as if what young people see in porn exists in a vacuum, apart from Page 3 and MTV – is going to help no one. 

Teenagers should be having compulsory sex education that talks about consent and mutual desire, and yes, porn. Compulsory sex education that’s updated to acknowledge the Internet exists. The rest of society, whilst we’re at it, might want to start addressing the cultural framework that informs it all. Where the women used in porn are just one end of a spectrum that silently, busily filters through schools, living rooms, and shops.

I never did wear the t-shirt. I was an impostor in a role I wasn't sure I even wanted to inhabit. The glitter loses its shine in the end. Quicker than you can imagine. 

Adult film actresses Chanel Preston, Allie Haze and Selena Rose. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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