New Statesman | Sex education is too important to be left to Pornhub

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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.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman | The Becky Watts murder shows that in a world of violence against women, porn is just one more form of it

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In Ali Smith’s novel How to be Both, teenage girl George – recently motherless – becomes obsessed with a pornographic clip. She spends almost all her free time watching it, and watching it, and watching it. It features a very young woman, perhaps young enough to be a girl herself, although of course George knows nothing about who she is or how she came to be in this film. Understandably, George’s father is concerned when he finds out what his daughter is doing. He wants to know why, and so she tells him:

This really happened, George said. To this girl. And anyone can watch it just, like, happening, any time he or she likes. And it happens for the first time, over and over again, every time someone who hasn’t seen it before clicks on it and watches it. So I want to watch it for a completely different reason. Because my completely different watching of it goes some way to acknowledging all of that to this girl. Do you still not understand?”

Read the full post at the New Statesman

Pornwars! A New Left Project debate with Gail Dines

[Edit 15 September 2014] I no longer consider a liberal approach to pornography and sexual labour to be compatible with the liberation of women from male violence and coercion. There’s a more detailed explanation of this development in this piece at the New Statesman.

This week, New Left Project has been running a debate between me and Pornland author Gail Dines, “the world’s leading anti-pornography campaigner” and “a highly regarded academic” (according to this profile by Julie Bindel). Parts one, two and three have been published, with Dines’ final response due to appear shortly. The initial invitation from NLP arrived in November 2010, meaning that this conversation has been rumbling away for over a year, and the result is neither very illuminating on its ostensive subject nor particularly flattering to Dines’ academic credentials.

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Paying for it

The headlines and comment pages are still full of Mr Smith’s misjudged evening in. If it was purely outrage over a public servant playing the expenses system, then Jacqui Smith’s demise should have been confirmed by the second home. But the home secretary’s husband expensed porn, and porn is embarrassing and discrediting. When we’re watching the headlines rather than writing them, it’s always fun to point to the other business interests of the Express‘s parent company. “Dirty Desmond floated up to his current ‘status’ on a sea of pornographic effluent”, says this blogger.

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The biggest shock isn’t that Mr Smith watched porn, or even that he haplessly charged his entertainment to the public purse: it’s that he paid for it at all. Why didn’t he just sting the Commons for a laptop and download his erotica for nothing? Like the rest of the culture industry, pornography is anxious about what the internet is doing to its business model: illegal downloading is part of it, but so is competition from freely-distributed amateur product. “The barrier to get into the industry is so low: you need a video camera and a couple of people who will have sex,” points out Paul Fishbein, a professional observer of the adult film industry.

Pornography has always helped to drive changes in media: the availability of porn on VHS was instrumental in bringing entertainment out of the theatres and into the home, and pornography expanded rapidly online, with sites like YouPorn and XTube working on the free-content model and aiming to make profit out of adverts. But while pornography has been good at delivering viewers (YouPorn claimed 15 million unique visitors in May 2007), how to turn hits into money has been less obvious: “It doesn’t make any sense! They’re giving porn away. You can’t make money on this”, says Steve Hirsch of porn giants Vivid.

The fact that I can read Hirsch’s quote for free in a full-text version of an article from a magazine I’ve never bought suggests that it’s not just the porn industry struggling with the trade off between easy distribution and vanishing profits. The internet changes the value of information enormously. A digital copy is less expensive to make than a paper or disc version, so consumers can reasonably expect downloaded product to be cheaper; the ease of digital sharing means that a relatively large number of people are going to be obtaining the product for free anyway (although it’s impossible to quantify gains and losses through free downloading); it’s easier to get your product to consumers, but then it’s also easier for competitors to do the same.

And those competitors might not even be professionals. They might be totally happy to do for free what previous operations have charged for. They might even do it better in some ways. Here’s Greta Christina – porn writer, sex columnist, and not shy of paying for what she enjoys – explaining why the personals on Craig’s List are one of her favourite sources of fantasy material. So if the porn industry – an industry specialising in opportunistic profit-making – hasn’t found a reliable way to turn hits into coin, what is the rest of the media planning on doing? The newspapers should be holding up Mr Smith as a hero for becoming the (involuntary) public face of paying for it. Or at least, getting someone else to pay for it.