The big question that the generation raised on porn must answer

Porn often shows a submissive woman, stripped of all of her body hair, undergoing ritual humiliation in the name of sexuality, and twentysomethings must ask whether that has wider implications about how our peers view us socially, politically and professi

What kind of porn gets you off? Is it the commonest kind, the kind that you download or stream off a website full of "amateur videos", where the woman climaxes seventeen times at the mere sight of the man’s throbbing member? Is it the retro kind, where there’s a vague attempt at a storyline that involves a pizza delivery, a young college girl who’s forgotten her wallet, and a delivery boy with a demonstrably fake tan and a thin moustache who’s willing to make a deal?

Perhaps it’s the sort you buy with Real Money in a basement in SoHo, where large anoraks are a compulsory dress-code? Could it be ‘mummy porn’, which is less MILF and more ‘naughty stuff you can read on the Tube’, the category resurrected by cult erotica novel Fifty Shades of Grey? Or is the filth you love firmly ensconsced in your head, because the porn available in the outside world seems both severely lacking in sensuous appeal and exploitative of the women who watch and perform in it? 

Porn has come under the super-revealing spotlight again in the last few weeks, with a certain EU resolution causing controversy after it was put forward by Dutch MEP Kartika Liotard on International Women’s Day. Liotard’s mention of porn came under the broader aim to "eliminate gender stereotypes in the EU", which in her resolution involved "a ban on all forms of pornography in the media’, including ‘the digital field". Predictably, there was uproar.

What constitutes "freedom" on the internet still remains to be decided. Freedoms may well have been restricted by certain ISPs choosing to block their users’ access to illegal downloading site The Pirate Bay last year, in the name of protecting "artistic freedom", or copyright. Many argue that their right to engage with an online article or a public figure on social media outlets like Twitter is restricted by blocking or by comment moderation; still others argue that the writers or celebrities themselves should have the freedom to protect themselves from possible harassment.

In the online realm, which still remains fairly unregulated, people tend to feel strongly that they should be able to access anything that’s going except in the most dire of circumstances, such as child abuse. In the case of porn, most attacked Liotard’s resolution on this basis - the majority of Huffington Post readers voted that it was "an absurd attack on liberty and freedom of expression". 

Needless to say, the vaguely worded EU resolution is not out to rip the downloaded porn from your hard drive; its use of the term "the digital realm" is more likely to be because most printed newspapers and magazines are now moving online. Considering the nature of the widespread international reaction to Liotard's proposal, its adoption is unlikely - and even if it were, in all likelihood nothing practical would change.

But the fact that it makes the connection between "gender stereotypes" and porn is interesting. It speaks of wider schisms in society and the feminist community: the "sex-positive" feminists who make porn themselves and the ones who call them "fauxminists" as a result; the school-age girls who report porn-led pressure to get Brazilians and pose naked for their peers on smartphone cameras; those who see female porn participants as empowered workers exercising a smart choice in a sexually oriented capitalist society, and those who see them as fitting into a wider framework of gender-specific disrespect and objectification.

Where is the direct connection between "gender stereotyping" and porn? As always, it’s very unclear. Iceland recently tabled its own motion to ban pornography altogether, including the proposal to make it illegal to purchase porn with Icelandic credit cards, in order to "protect children" from the "violent imagery" that has become increasingly common.

As one Icelandic minister argued, searching for porn no longer leaves you with a picture of "a naked woman in a country field"; often, even the first available video will be fifty shades darker in content. Again, emotions have run high about the possibility of censorship, or, as some opponents strongly put it, "authoritarian regimes" which involve themselves unnecessarily in their subjects’ sex lives.

But Iceland is an unsurprising place for this sort of discussion to come up in government, considering that they have already banned the purchase of sex, and strip clubs. They have an excellent record in gender equality: almost half of their parliamentarians are women and they have a female prime minister - a lesbian prime minister no less. Julie Bindel pointed out that it was the first country in the world to ban strip clubs for feminist reasons, rather than religious ones. Could there be a correlation between a society that is fairer for women overall and the restriction of sex work and porn?

Perhaps not, because countries which rank higher in gender equality than Iceland, such as Germany, do not share these laws. Many have argued that while we concentrate on sex, other strategies which are proven to balance out inequality - like the provision of free and accessible childcare during working hours - are unjustly ignored. Still others balk at the idea of patronising adult women by telling them that their career choices in the sex industry were merely dictated by social brainwashing. And most of us recognise that, even if attempts were made to legislate against people accessing pornographic content online, the power of the net and human capability is such that production would just be driven underground anyway. From cave pictures to Playboy, people have always sought out filthy fodder.

Those of us who are in the generation raised on porn face these questions regularly. Now that the most-accessed forms of porn often show a submissive woman, stripped of all of her body hair, undergoing ritual humiliation in the name of sexuality, we are forced to ask whether that has wider implications about how our peers view us socially, politically and professionally.

Even while we make steps towards eliminating words like “bitch” and “whore” from acceptable conversation, they make a cyclical return to the playground as school children (most of them much savvier than their parents at negotiating online filters) watch porn. At our fingertips is an instant world of any perversion you can think of. But what’s more worrying is that the norm in porn increasingly gravitates towards the violent; we’d be naive to suggest that at some level, this doesn’t contribute to a wider perception of women.

In the last few years, it has seemed difficult to encourage objective discussion of pornography away from media hysterics, or the rhetoric of censorship. But it’s important to discuss the visuals which many access daily: the woman screaming in the throes of another faked orgasm while a silent man looks on, or the multiple penetrations of a gagged woman in the middle of the floor; or the sky-rocketing popularity of ‘choking’ (applying pressure to the neck of a usually female partner) during sex scenes.

It’s important because, as most people in their twenties will remind you, internet porn is here to stay. And now that it’s definitely part of the status quo, it should be as open to challenge as any other social institution.

Sasha Grey, whose porn work was noted for its extreme content. Photo: Getty

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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In praise of the late developer

The success of late developers proves that our obsession with early achievement is wrong.

A fortnight ago, I fell into conversation with the head teacher of a local school. “You’ve got to create room for late developers,” he said. “The obsession with early attainment doesn’t suit most children.”

We were soon finishing each other’s sentences – talking about long-term confidence rather than short-term hothousing, how children don’t develop in a linear way, and the value of having transferable skills rather than a single focus from a young age.

What a shame, I reflected, that his message doesn’t reach a wider audience. We hear so much about prodigies and precociousness – Serena Williams and her pushy father, Tiger Woods and “tiger mothers” – and so little of the counter-argument: the high achievers who emerge at a slower pace in more balanced circumstances.

Our conversation ended when we both departed to watch England play Scotland in the Six Nations tournament. Only then did I learn that the head teacher’s son Huw Jones was playing in the centre for Scotland. He scored two tries, just as he did last autumn in his home debut against Australia.

Jones’s career is a tacit endorsement of his father’s philosophy. In his penultimate year at school, Huw was still playing mostly in the second XV. Five years on, he is a burgeoning talent on the world stage. The two facts are connected. Jones didn’t just overtake others; he also retained the naturalness that is often lost “in the system”.

As boys, he and his brother made up their own version of rugby practice: could the ­attacker sidestep and run past the defender without setting foot outside the five-metre line? They were just having fun, uncoached and unsupervised. But their one-on-one game was teaching the most valuable skill in rugby: the ability to beat defenders in confined spaces.

Jones had access to superb opportunities throughout – at home, at Canterbury rugby club and then at Millfield, the independent school in Somerset well known for producing sportsmen. But at Millfield, he was far from being a superstar. He seldom played “A-team” rugby. The message from home: just keep enjoying it and getting better and eventually your time will come.

There was a useful precedent. Matt Perry, who won 36 caps for England between 1997 and 2001, had been a “B-team” player at school. What matters is where you end up, not who leads the race at the age of 16. Jones also developed transferable skills by continuing to play other sports. “Don’t specialise too early,” was the mantra of Richard Ellison, the former England cricketer who taught at Millfield for many years.

When Jones was 18 and finally blossoming in the school’s first XV, rugby agents started to take an interest, promising to place him in the “academy” of a professional team. “But I’d seen so many kids take that route and seen how bored they got,” his father, Bill, reflects. So Bill advised his son to go abroad, to gain experience of new cultures and to keep playing rugby for fun instead of getting on the tracksuited professional treadmill.

So Jones took a teaching job in Cape Town, where he played men’s club rugby. Instead of entering the professional system, as one of a bland cohort of similar-aged “prospects”, he served his apprenticeship among players drawn from different backgrounds and ages. Sport was shown to be a matter of friendship and community, not just a career path.

The University of Cape Town spotted and recruited Jones, who helped it win the South African university competition. Only then, in 2014, did British professional rugby teams start to take a serious interest. Jones, however, was enjoying South Africa and stayed put, signing a contract with the Stormers in the Super Rugby tournament – the world’s leading club competition.

So, in the space of 18 months, Jones had gone from being a gap-year Brit with no formal ties to professional rugby to playing against the world’s best players each week. He had arrived on the big stage, following a trajectory that suited him.

The level of competition had escalated rapidly but the tries kept coming. Scotland, by now closely monitoring a player qualified by birth, gave him his spectacular home debut against Australia last autumn – remarkable but not surprising. Finding his feet ­instantly on each new stage is the pattern of his career.

Those two qualities – first, instinctive ­try-scoring; second, a lack of vertigo – are connected. Amid all the jargon of professional sport, perhaps the most important qualities – freshness, ingenuity and the gift of surprise – are undervalued. Yet all of these rely on skills honed over many years – honed, but not dulled.

Shoehorning all young players into rigid, quasi-professional systems long before they are ready comes with risks. First, we seldom hear from the child prodigies who faded away (often damaged psychologically). Many players who are pushed too hard miss their natural learning arc; the narrative of their ambition, or the ambition imposed on them by parents, is often out of step with their physical and psychological growth. Second, systems have a habit of overestimating their contribution: they become blind to outsiders.

In a quiet way, Jones is a case study in evolved education and not just sport: a talented performer who was given time and space to find his voice. The more we learn about talent, as David Epstein demonstrated in The Sports Gene, the clearer it becomes that focusing on champion 11-year-olds decreases the odds of producing champion adults. Modern science has reinforced less frantic and neurotic educational values; variety and fun have their virtues.

Over the long term, put your faith not in battery farming but instead, in Bill Jones’s phrase, in “free-range children”.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution