Aimee-Lee Abraham examines the myths of pornography and the impact the industry is having on society and the student psyche.
This season, a housemate remarked, Channel 4 ‘has gone a bit mental with all the sex’. This is not coincidental; the broadcaster’s ‘campaign for real sex’ is well underway, with shows like Date My Pornstar and Diary of a Teenage Virgin dominating post-watershed airtime. Channel 4 is no stranger to controversy. It is loved and loathed in equal measure for its willingness to cover what other broadcasters, forever fearful of Ofcom complaints and media massacres, will not.
According to the accompanying press release, ‘The Campaign for Real Sex aims to reclaim sex from the airbrushed, surgically-enhanced, depilated, gymnastic fantasies and celebrate the joy of real sex’ through screenings of cutting-edge documentaries aimed at understanding ‘the kind of sex that is actually going on in Britain’s bedrooms’. The usage of the word ‘reclaim’ implies that something that once belonged to us has been wrongfully taken away, stolen by an industry manufacturing plastic pornography. Is this the case? Porn is sex documented and made publically accessible with the intention to arouse and excite. So, in the diverse sea of sexuality, what exactly are we trying to retrieve from the depths?
Channel 4’s Sex Box, aired between the 10th and 15th of October (available on 4oD), is a particularly resonant and watch-worthy series, mainly because its premise is a questionable one. The show, designed as an entertaining and daring way to get real people talking about real sex, does just that by putting a couple in a box that resembles a modern-art interpretation of a Doctor Who prop. In the soundproofed, UV-lit confines of the box they have sex and emerge bright-eyed and bushy-tailed afterwards to discuss their actions in excruciating detail with a panel of sexperts eager to answer their questions.
While the supposed sentiment behind the show is admirable, its success in unveiling any groundbreaking new truths about the birds and the bees is debatable. Most of the brave beings leaving the box remain surprisingly tight-lipped for people confident enough to have intercourse on national television. They appear flushed and forlorn as Mariella Frostup probes them for dirt and deets. There are a few refreshingly frank revelations; couples admit that they were mere friends with benefits who fell for one another unexpectedly, one man admits that despite his herculean efforts, sex leaves him so exhausted that talking about it to the panel is quite a challenge. These anecdotes are absolutely valuable and mildly humorous but they do little to dispel the myths of porn, as they exist in a completely separate sphere of reality. Sex Box, uncomfortable to watch and arguably useless, is not making a powerful enough statement to counteract the grip porn has on the most vulnerable members of society.
These are the youth seeking sex education in a country following a syllabus so outdated that putting a condom on a banana while the teacher cringes in the corner is deemed adequate preparation for adulthood. It’s understandable then, that more and more young people are relying on porn to teach them what goes where or rather, as Caitlin Moran wrote in How To Be A Woman, “What could go where if you’re determined enough”. Our generation, those in their late teens and early twenties who experienced the emergence of the internet and all its wonders in our early-mid teens, are perhaps the guinea pigs of porn as it is now. Sprawling and endless and free, porn is no longer a luxury reserved for those daring enough to touch the top-shelf or go snooping for Daddy’s supply. Although porn has always been unrealistic and has never been innocent, the internet has accelerated the lack of realism and lack of innocence with unprecedented and unpredictable velocity.
In the sterilized, edited underworld where the shaved, stripped and oil-slathered lurk, sex becomes a mere show. As with any form of entertainment, a critical eye is essential in resisting the temptation to fall for it. Porn is rarely just the documentation of two people doing it. If that were the case, would admitting to watching it remain such a cultural taboo? And would it remain so irresistible and intoxicating to so many? The reason that porn is still embarrassing to talk about despite its prevalence in society probably has a lot to do with the nature of the material consumed as opposed to the existence of the material in itself. Porn pushes boundaries. Porn delves into the deepest and darkest fantasies we conceal at all costs. That’s why indulgence usually occurs in a locked room with the music up loud. Outside of the world of pub banter, far from the hesitant admissions to a partner asking what you want, porn consumption remains one of the last taboos.
What happens when this private habit becomes an obsession that spills over into all areas of one’s life? What happens when porn becomes a destructive force with the power to derail an education or a career or a relationship? Channel 4 has been seeking these answers through its television shows; perhaps we should all be sparing a moment to do the same as sexually active adults of the Facebook generation.
In researching this article, I consulted online forums where those seeking help for porn related problems lurk. There are women in their twenties, at the peak of their sexual prime, who are experiencing relationship slumps stereotypically reserved for middle-aged marriages. The relationship is not fraught emotionally and the attraction remains outside of the bedroom but reliance on porn to relieve oneself has become the norm for their partners, rendering real sex almost impossible to sustain. Unable to compute how her supposedly besotted boyfriend would refuse to satisfy her but was able to orgasm several times a day whilst looking at other women on a screen, one user confided to fellow strangers that her body confidence and sense of self-worth plummeted to a devastating low that trapped her in a sexless relationship for several years. Friends of mine have confessed to similarly dire domestic scenarios in hushed room corners following too much gin. What makes things even more tragic is that the men involved in scenarios like this one are often plagued by confusion and self-loathing. This is incredibly damaging for the self-esteem of both involved, leaving women feeling unattractive and men inadequate. In Porn On The Brain, another of Channel 4’s projects in which an ex-editor of lad mag Maxim meets those directly affected by the material he once published, we are introduced to Callum. Callum is a university student who leads a seemingly normal life; he is young and attractive and his social habits are no different to yours or mine. But Callum has an addiction to porn so overwhelmingly strong that he describes the experience as a kind of personal hell he cannot escape. Decontextualized and alienated, it would be easy to misinterpret the subject matter and assume that Callum is talking about a drug addiction. When asked how he deals with the urges that consume him constantly, he talks of his attempts to get rid of his smartphone and computer in a bid to lessen his chances of accessing material in moments of desperation. The images, though, remain embedded in his consciousness and can be viewed at will whenever he wants. A screen is no longer required and public bathrooms have become a refuge. He looks mournful as he admits feelings of worthlessness and greed following the ecstatic rush masturbation provides but remains a slave to the industry. The only way to recover from a crash, in his opinion? “To do it all again”.
Porn’s danger lies in what it doesn’t show as well as what it does, in the things that porn spares no time for. All of these discarded pieces of narrative and missing puzzle pieces are directly leading to the creation of unsustainable, unattainable fantasy. Porn has no time for the clichéd post-coital cig reserved for the Don Draper’s of the world. Porn has no time for pillow talk, no time to fumble around the duvet for a misplaced garment, no time for strained discussion about what it all means and where it’s all going. Porn stars never use condoms. The packet rustles and sounds horrible on camera, putting it on is a chore serving only to delay the act and shatter the illusion of spontaneity and everyone knows that bareback is best (or so the industry has taught us to believe). Porn stars never giggle or cry or say something they’ll later regret.
Surely these rituals are what make sex real? These moments are snapshots of the relationship shared, whether that relationship is purely carnal or deeply meaningful. We are lacking insights into the people behind the bodies. It’s easy to forget that it is somebody’s daughter you are watching being ejaculated on by a gang of men. The men doing the deed are sons and fathers and lovers and friends. Although we cannot expect the porn industry to focus on menial exterior plotlines (after all, who gets turned on by finding out family history, for example?), we can expect them to work harder to diversify and add realism. In the elimination of these factors and in the formulaic material that emerges when identical scenes of identical bodies at identical angles is produced to meet supply and demand levels comparable to factory farm targets, porn is selling us myths alongside our meat. This is why Channel 4’s usage of the word ‘reclaim’ is not as dramatic or drastic as it may initially appear. We are being robbed of reality.
This is a student publication so context is called for. How does this apply to university life? Is porn having a negative impact on students? Callum’s addiction shows that people of all ages and backgrounds are not immune from porn addiction. However, it remains that most people who watch porn will watch it in moderation and will not become addicted in the same way, just as drinking socially or recreationally does not necessarily equate to alcoholism and a tendency to diet does not necessarily develop into an eating disorder. There are many social, psychological and physical factors involved. As porn addiction is only beginning to be acknowledged by psychiatrists and neuroscientists as a clinical problem, current research is in the toddler stage of development. What about the casual consumers?
Nestled amongst the lesbian schoolgirls and domineering madams, a whole section of the industry is thriving off material submitted by university-goers willing to share intimate moments. The ‘college’ category is bursting at the seams with scenes of house parties gone wild and initiation ceremonies demonstrating how students really study together for their classes. Studying uniformly consists of bodies writhing amongst the spilt beer and filth on the floor as fully clothed frat boys look on with hungry eyes, shouting and stomping as if they’re cheering on a sports team. Punch bowls overflow, music booms, people chat in quiet corners while others touch themselves on tables. It’s indistinguishable from most typical student parties. Except people are shagging everywhere and some partygoers are carrying on with their conversation as if nothing is happening. I’d love to know what they’re talking about; even the erect penis a mere thirty centimeters away from their faces isn’t enough to warrant a pause. Meanwhile, the bodies are akin to the furniture they are being bent over. They are just a part of the scenery. Shouldn’t we be worried about the implications surrounding the increasing popularity of material like this? Entire sites are popping up dedicated to the documentation of debauchery at university, with many offering cash rewards for the best submissions from amateurs. Such incentives could prove tempting when a loan simply won’t stretch far enough, with potentially devastating consequences.
The parties shown in porn do not provide an accurate portrayal of sex at university. Or anywhere. Unless you’re into orgies and are well acquainted with that sort of thing. Sometimes student parties descend into madness and chandelier swinging as seen in the porn world. The vast majority will not.
In student housing in particular, there will probably be a pressure to keep quiet. Screaming like a banshee is an option but you will be bullied for weeks over breakfast. Mistakes will come and go. A friend still treads on the breadcrumbs his mistake left strewn along the kitchen floor, over tea he tells me he curses her for inhabiting his shower and his thoughts. I have passed other people’s mistakes on the staircase and smiled awkwardly. I have found that sex at university is no different to sex at any other stage of life; it is diverse and it differs hugely from person to person.
Being a student is just a component of an identity, as is sexuality. This is why college porn in particular can be dangerous in that it can contribute to the perception that university is an opportunity or excuse to have as much sex as possible with as many people as possible. Having lots of sex is not inherently a bad thing; we live in a democratic, liberal society and many would agree that consensual sex between two adults who are both equally aware of the consequences is something that belongs in the private sphere. Only those involved can decide what feels right and it is not our place to judge them regardless of our conflicting views. The problem lies in the assumed lack of consequences that accompany sexual freedom, alongside the pressure to compete with porn stars who are pushed to their absolute limits.
There is a reason why many participating women feature in porn once and then leave. It is humiliating and degrading and off camera they are feeling humiliated and degraded. Jon Millward’s analysis of 10,000 porn stars and their careers, Deep Inside, produced fascinating demographical graphs portraying the true nature of the industry. An unsurprisingly high level of taboo sex acts were performed by female porn stars during their careers, with 87% of his 10,000 sample taking facials, 62% doing anal and an astonishing 39% being doubly penetrated. In normalising such acts, porn is changing societal expectations regarding sexual behaviour and developing a public appetite for what was previously deemed less appealing or commonplace. Consent and desire are once again paramount; such acts are not be condemned as long as those involved are happy with the situation. What is not okay is the likelihood that porn’s portrayal of such acts is forcing people to participate when they are uncomfortable out of fear of disappointment or a need to conform.
As the rest of our online freedom expands and our thirst for more information shows no sign of ceasing, it follows that our sexual appetites and preferences will likely follow suit. The porn juggernaut is not slowing down, currently accounting for a third of internet traffic worldwide. All we can do as conscious consumers is remain questioning. We can love sex and we can love porn respectively, as long as we remember that whilst they represent the same physical functioning, they are not the same thing. Chandelier-swing to your heart’s content, kids, but remember glass can shatter and be prepared to bruise.