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.

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war