Shoppers on Oxford Street. At least one of them will be crying. Photo: Getty
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Why is it so shameful to cry in public?

I’ve been a grown-up public crier pretty much since reaching adulthood. But it hasn’t got any easier.

“Vern, get a picture of the depressed London millennial,” I imagine one of the American tourists sitting near me on the Piccadilly Line whispering to her bulbous, khaki short-clad husband.

Vern, perhaps, obliges. For real, the space in front of my closed eyes, the place in which I currently exist, turns from black to red, then back to black in a flash. A camera flash.

I’m only just sentient enough to notice it happen and think, in between spasms of embarrassment hot enough to turn my Oyster card into a mini blue cowpat, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

What a thrill, though, to be part of two tourists’ “authentic London experience”. Maybe, when they paid £22.99 a head for plates of rancid fish and chips and two pints of Stella, in one of those pretend West End English pubs, it occurred to them just how tough things must be for members of everyone’s least favourite generation, living in one of the world’s most expensive cities. OK, maybe not. They probably sat, in abject silence, gagging on their expensive mounds of oily, foodish matter, thinking about how, back in Des Moines, you can get a burger the size of an infant for $6.99.

I have a suspicion though that they’ve recognised something essentially London about this publicly distraught pile of young woman.

My head is in my hands and my eyes are in a highly advanced state of shutness. Emergency shutness. “I’m about to cry in public” shutness. But the tears have broken the seal. And there are a lot of them. I sniff as quietly as I can, but I know that I’m officially “making a scene” now. I might as well be naked from the waist down. Why do I feel like my bush is proudly on display to an entire carriage of tourists, commuters and scared children?

A baby starts crying. When I’m not having a public meltdown, I use a special trick to transform the sound of a child wailing into comedy gold. I close my eyes and pretend I’m listening to a hoover dying. It’s never failed to make me laugh to myself like an utter sociopath. And, trust me, having a few strangers judge you to be a nasty and unfeeling human being is way less painful than twenty minutes of unfunny screaming. But, being a complete wreck right now, the hoover trick isn’t working. It’s just me and a baby crying. Me, a 26-year-old grown-ass woman, and something so young and vulnerable that it spends all day shitting itself.

I’ve been a grown-up public crier pretty much since reaching adulthood. It started, I think, with an ostentatious display of angst – again, on a train – when I was twenty and freshly dumped by my first girlfriend. I remember leaving her house and bursting into some tears in which I remained throughout both the mile long walk to Brighton station and the hour-long train ride back to London. I felt like I was whipping out my bush back then too. After all, crying is one of the most private things you can do. “It is such a secret place, the land of tears,” writes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in The Little Prince.

In fact, moments before another one of my more elaborate public cries, I managed to choke back the inevitable for a good fifteen minutes before realising that, around Oxford Circus, there’s nowhere “good” to cry. I was looking for a public toilet. Sometimes, tragically, it’s easier to cry in the same place you shit than to let anyone see you do it. I even tried the Oxford Street Topshop toilets, but there was a long queue for them. I wasn’t ready to risk crying in a toilet queue. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for that.

This particular cry, which ended up taking place on a bench in Soho, was the result of an ill-advised attempt to get into advertising. I’d just been to an interview for a place on quite a fancy creative course. It was at an ad agency full of stupid furniture and smart people. People much, much smarter than me. People much better looking, much more grounded, much better dressed and much taller than me. It was a group interview, which I wasn’t expecting. The guy who ran the course, a middle aged ex adman so jaded he practically spoke in clouds of dust, declared, “I fucking hate adverts,” before telling us to spend ten minutes coming up with a new ad campaign for Babybel, before presenting it to the group (about twenty people plus a panel of hugely successful creatives). Anxiety disorder notwithstanding, I felt like I’d just been told I was going to be having a rectal exam in an auditorium full of the world’s most judgemental supermodels. My presentation went about as well as you’d expect it to, given the circumstances. At the very least, I managed to hold off the tears until way after I’d left the building.

But why is public crying so shameful? For me, I’ve realised, it’s partly a gender thing. Being seen (even by complete idiots) as a woman who can’t hold it together – a madwoman in the attic, where the attic is actually a train – is, well, extremely shitty.

So here I am, feeling extremely shitty again. On a train. I’m crying because I’m feeling shitty and I’m feeling shitty because I’m crying. And salty trails of snot are running into my mouth. And I keep on wiping my nose on my shoulder, where it’s leaving the world’s saddest and grossest snail trail. This time, the cry was brought on by a perfect shit storm of starting a new antidepressant and having just been dumped (a classic, I suppose). As soon as I saw the train coming, I knew I was powerless to the cry.

I’ll never know whether Vern really did take a picture of me in my sorry state. But, in a way, I like to think that – on his Facebook page – I’m there in an album called “London 2015” alongside Big Ben and a selfie with Kate Middleton’s waxwork.  

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times