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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Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.