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Sex in the age of digital desire

The proliferation of online pornography has degraded the way we view our bodies and relationships.

By Megan Nolan

Years ago I interviewed the writer and broadcaster Jon Ronson about his podcast series The Butterfly Effect, which focuses on the pornography industry. In the course of his research, Ronson got to know some of the producers and performers working at the more hardcore end of the spectrum, including those employed by a company named Public Disgrace who specialise in scenes of group sex in public locations, typically with a woman being subject to sexual sadism and degradation. Ronson had commented how surprised he was by the happy working conditions, the camaraderie between performers, the care taken over the well-being of the women involved. I asked Ronson what effect he thought such representations of gendered sexual degradation had on viewers and he repeated that the working conditions were excellent and all performers safeguarded and happy. I tried to rephrase but we repeatedly misunderstood each other, Ronson assuring me that the women involved were not “really” harmed, and me trying to ask what the real effect of transmitting even false, performed harm might be.

This came back to me as I read Women on Porn by Fiona Vera-Gray, a British academic and writer who has become an authority on pornography use and sexual violence. Dr Vera-Gray has spent years speaking with women about pornography and here has used over 100 of their accounts to explore the way that women engage with porn, and how its consumption by the men we sleep with may affect us. My encounter with Ronson was somewhat indicative of the interesting contradictions Vera-Gray opens up in these conversations. What is the difference between reality and performance for the consumer? The gulf between a happy, consenting adult performer and an unconsenting victim of abuse is enormous – but to habitually consume depictions of abuse, even if they are feigned, must have a material effect on the viewer.

As Vera-Gray shows, this is a subject that is difficult to discuss without throwing in half a dozen provisos, making it near impossible for those with complicated feelings to articulate them. One feminist camp would make porn a crime for its misogyny and violence. The other believes that it is anti-feminist to infantilise the intelligent, enterprising women working voluntarily in the industry. Mostly, as evidenced by the testimonies in this book, feminist women feel a version of both things. We want the autonomy of sex workers to be respected, we resist moral censoriousness, we want to be able to get off and to explore our sexualities. We also, however, see that the overwhelming majority of easily available porn is not the tasteful feminist material made by the likes of the Swedish film-maker Erika Lust – it’s habitually misogynist, sometimes to a degree that is unforgettably disturbing.

Vera-Gray divides her conversations into chapters titled “Desire”, “Bodies”, “Sex”, “Relationships”, “Violence” and “Future”. The hundred women she spoke to are anonymous and of diverse ages and ethnic backgrounds. She explicitly states that her interpretation of womanhood allowed for the inclusion of transgender and non-gender-conforming women, but there are none of the former. This seemed a little strange to me, if only from the perspective of academic interest: if your terms include transgender women who, as she points out, experience a particular kind of sexual fetishisation on porn websites, would you not be curious to seek out a few of them to learn about their own engagement with porn? This omission, along with the absence of any women who perform in porn, seems off-key to me.

The women who are included have widely divergent relationships with porn, although none of them seem to have an uncomplicatedly positive relationship with it. There are some interesting facts from Vera-Gray’s research that surprised me, such as the number of straight women who primarily consume (male and female) gay porn. Sometimes this is simply because they find it novel and hot, but sometimes it is related to an alienation from the flavour of heterosexuality promoted by most mainstream porn. Even outside the realm of niche BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism) porn, the average video on the front page of the free, hugely popular Pornhub website will involve a man being dominant, often physically imposing himself by choking or restraining, and often calling the woman involved a slut or a bitch. There are plenty of other iterations of porn, but this is the baseline standard online, and it is what many will see when they begin to seek such things out.

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Reading these women’s experiences was at times painfully nostalgic. Those, like me, who grew up just before the internet era have defining memories of watching titillating TV shows such as Eurotrash, or stealing our mother’s copy of Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, a bestselling 1973 collection of women’s sexual fantasies. I often feel blessed not to have grown up with a smartphone, but never more so than when I look at porn online now. A study for England’s children’s commissioner last year found that a quarter of 16- to 21-year-olds first saw pornography on the internet while still at primary school – something that the 2023 Online Safety Act promised to redress with age verification (critics question the legislation’s effectiveness). Children, for whom the distinction between fantasy and reality is porous, are seeing scenes that even our adult minds are unsure how to digest.

The book contains many unspeakably bleak accounts, too, of women in abusive relationships whose partners seem not only to be addicted to porn but to use it as a sort of inspiration for their disgusting acts of violation, taking scenes they have witnessed and imposing them on their unwilling girlfriends. Women who are aroused by extreme control and degradation speak of their horror at having unintentionally stumbled across footage of violations that seem real instead of performed, and realising they have no recourse to report their concerns anywhere.

But this is not a tirade against pornography: there are many accounts of porn helping women to understand their own desires, and to be brave enough to ask for them in their sex lives. There are women who, in seeing their own body type represented and worshipped, have found validation. Most interesting – and something I have never seen publicly discussed before – is a short section about survivors of abuse and rape who have found some solace in porn, which offers them a controlled way to interact with sex again and to find representations to their liking.

Fiona Vera-Gray doesn’t come away from her conversations with any grand sweeping theory, nor any proposed solutions to the harms she has revealed. She is not a theorist, and though the book is divided into themes, there is little narrative movement – which as a reader one does at times yearn for. There is inevitable repetition to following the same cycle of women finding taboo things arousing, then feeling guilty, then resolving to respect their sexuality. Ultimately, though, this is a sensitively written and generous piece of work. Vera-Gray’s lack of judgement shines from her prose and from her approach to her interview subjects, allowing women no longer to be simply the passive product in the conversation around porn.

Women on Porn
Dr Fiona Vera-Gray
Torva, 320pp, £18.99

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[See also: Can Camille Paglia save porn?]

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland