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Sex education is too important to be left to Pornhub

The porn site is promoting a "wellness centre" which peddles sexist ideas about desire and anatomy. Unfortunately, it's filling a gap in the market left by schools. 

Pornography and sex education have a long, and unequal, association: obscenity laws have been used to quash information about sex and contraception, and sexploitation films have been framed as educational in order to circumvent obscenity laws. It’s always sex education that comes off the worst in this partnership, either banned by association or cursorily executed as cover. The latest manifestation of the latter version came from Pornhub over the weekend, when the video streaming site launched its “Sexual Wellness Center”.

Don’t, by the way, bother Googling it. Despite big coverage for the launch, and despite Pornhub’s SEO chops making the main site the number one result for “porn”, looking for “pornhub sex ed” serves a list of results like “Watch Big-tit Latina teacher gives her students a sex-ed lesson”. The Sexual Wellness Center itself doesn’t even make page one.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the site is a bad thing. Looking at it, however, its shortcomings are obvious. The entry on female reproductive anatomy, for example, informs us that the clitoris is “the erogenous ‘button’ for women” and declares it “similar to the tip of the penis”. It really isn’t: the clitoris, like a fun iceberg, is mostly below the surface. Funnily enough, the entry on male anatomy does not say that the penis is “similar to” a clitoris. Male bodies, of course, get to occupy the kingly position of the default from which women are a deviation.

Men get hard, according to Pornhub, and women get wet, “allowing the penis (or toy) to enter the body and feel pleasurable”. This, again, is a distinctly sexist take on biology that draws on stereotypes about masculine activity and feminine passivity. Erect penises are not bone-dry implements of intrusions, but produce lubricating seminal fluid; during women’s arousal, the internal clitoris swells with blood. As the writer Emily Nagoski says in her book Come As You Are: “Why do we talk about men ‘getting hard’ and women ‘getting wet,’ when from a biological perspective both male and female genital get both hard and wet? It’s a cultural thing…”

So Pornhub isn’t very good on bodies, but maybe it’s better on the ethics of intercourse. An article on consent informs readers of the need for positive consent, rightly stressing that “a person has every right to say NO at any point” and urging attention to nonverbal signals of refusal. “Submission is also not the same as consent,” it says, admirably. Shame that this advice is in outright contradiction to Pornhub’s main video business. In 2015, performer James Deen was accused of rape, harassment and sexual assault by 11 female co-stars. (He has denied the allegations and there have been no legal proceedings.) His videos, in which women are “sluts” to be “destroyed” and “punished”, don’t appear to maintain a vigilant distinction between consent and submission at all. And they’re readily available to watch on Pornhub.

The Sexual Wellness Center isn’t an act of charity on Pornhub’s part. While the main video site is a dark place thronging with orifices, the Center matches the “clean well-lighted room” that writer Emily Witt identified as the model for women-friendly dating sites: this is a place for people who wouldn’t usually go to Pornhub can get used to the idea of going to Pornhub. There’s nothing about the appearance of the site that would make it inappropriate for a curious teenage reader.

But if Pornhub is taking advantage of sex education to polish its own PR, it’s only because sex education is a niche that’s been left woefully open to exploitation. Sex education in British schools is neither compulsory nor comprehensive (and the situation in America is even more dismal): issues such as LGBT relationships, recognising abuse and understanding consent are deemed too controversial for the curriculum, and so porn fills the breach.

In research by the Women and Equalities Committee, 60% of young people said they first saw porn when they were under 14. In the absence of good sex ed, porn becomes the baseline of sexual culture. It sets expectations about how men and women should behave – expectations that make women’s pleasure barely an afterthought to the business of performing for men’s benefit.

To allow porn to become synonymous with sex is a society-wide dereliction of duty, and yet here we are: in a world where 29% of girls say they’ve experienced unwanted sexual touching at school; the porn words “slut” and “slag” are routinely thrown at girl pupils. The ad-hoc ministrations of self-interested commerce are no substitute for a frank and thorough approach to sex and consent in schools. But until politicians, educators and parents step up and realise their duty of care, wheezes like Pornhub’s Sexual Wellness Center will – depressingly – have a place.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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