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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.

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

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.