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.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide