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Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
A pro-porn protester in London.
DIRTY BUSINESS

The way to fix the world’s porn “problem”? Make more of it

“Pornography is the theory; rape is the practice.” That was the view of radical feminist Robin Morgan in the late 1970s. Her words still succinctly summarize ongoing concerns about the dangers of porn.

Researchers have found that virtually all men have watched porn. And with the explosion of porn online, many critics are concerned that porn is becoming ever more violent, with more focus on slapping, choking, degradation, and verbal abuse. “I am not saying that a man reads porn and goes out to rape,” pornography researcher and anti-pornography activist Gail Dines told The Guardian in 2010. “But what I do know is that porn gives permission to its consumers to treat women as they are treated in porn.” In other words, in the eyes of its critics, porn is violent, sexist, and dangerous.

But is it?

In her new book The Pornography Industry, out Mar. 29 by Oxford University Press, Shira Tarrant tries to examine the various contemporary debates about porn with a neutral eye. This is difficult to do, as she tells Quartz, research and debate concerning pornography is almost always “ideologically driven.” Anti-porn campaigners are committed to showing porn’s dangers. Porn’s defenders, including many pro-sex feminists, are often bent on refuting the anti-pornography activists.

The result is a series of data sets which are often conflicted and inconclusive.

For example, Chyng Sun, a professor of media studies at New York University, conducted a study published in 2008 which concluded fully 90% of mainstream porn scenes included violence. But what exactly is meant by violence in this context? Tarrant explains to Quartz that while the study “considered spanking and hair pulling to be violent,” such activities are not automatically abusive. “Does it depend on the context?” Tarrant asks. “Does it depend on what else is happening?” Quantitative analysis can give you a scientific-sounding percentage, but it doesn’t necessarily tell you what is happening in a given scene or how the men and women in it are portrayed or presented.

If the amount of violence in porn is contested, the question of whether porn can cause violence is even more so.

If the amount of violence in porn is contested, the question of whether porn can cause violence is even more so. For instance, one study published in 2013 suggested there was a link between increased sexism and porn usage—but only among men who displayed sexist attitudes to begin with. “So in other words we’re talking about sexist men with or without porn, and it’s not that porn is causing that aggression or that sexism,” Tarrant adds.

Tarrant also notes that the artificial conditions of porn research may skew the results. “When these studies are done about levels of aggression, they’re done with a captive audience,” she says. “They’re done with people who are shown porn that they didn’t choose, in a very artificial setting. They’re not at home, and they can’t exactly take that viewing to its logical conclusion, which would be masturbation. So that measurement of aggression or hostility is actually a measure of the research setup itself, not exclusively the pornography that’s being shown.”

Still, says Tarrant, “we can’t let porn off the hook.” Mainstream porn is often sexist and almost always wildly unrealistic; it can create serious confusion among young people who use it to try to model sexual behavior. An Australian survey in 2012 found that 64% of young people in the country used pornography to learn about sex. As a result, one health services’ coordinator said, one student asked if she could have sex if she didn’t have a Brazilian. In another instance, a confused boy asked: “I just don’t understand why my girlfriend doesn’t like it when I call her bitch during sex.”

“There’s a really good argument for not only comprehensive sex education, but also for age appropriate porn literacy.”

In the US, Tarrant tells Quartz, young people are still confused about porn in large part because “we have really terrible sex education in this country.” She adds, “There’s a really good argument for not only comprehensive sex education, but also for media literacy, and for age appropriate porn literacy, which means teaching children, teens, age appropriately, how to understand the messages that media is sending us in terms of gender, sex, power, pleasure, consent.”

In mainstream porn, Tarrant says, sexual consent is often blurry or obscured; the mechanics of women’s sexual pleasure are confused or unclear. Young people, and not just young people, need to be provided with the tools to distinguish porn from their actual sex lives.

But “it’s not only sex education,” Tarrant says. “There’s a huge argument for better porn.” As an alternative to the mainstream, Tarrant encourages potential viewers “to change up their Google key words. Check out indie porn. Really seek out feminist porn, queer porn, that’s where a lot of the far broader representations of bodies, of skin tones, of body sizes, of genders, of sexualities; that’s where that is happening in feminist and queer porn.”

The question is, “Is porn dangerous?” then, ends up being overly broad, and misleading.

There are many different examples of such “progressive” or “feminist” porn out there. One example is Cindy Gallop’s Make Love Not Porn project, a social media site which allows users to upload and  share videos of themselves having sex because, as the site says, “#realworldsex is the hottest sex there is.”

Another alternative is represented by the forthcoming film Babysitting the Baumgartners, based on the best-selling, independent eBook of the same name by Selena Kitt. Kitt’s audience is mostly women, and the film is directed by another woman, Kay Brandt. “My intention was to pen a tale of real sexual awakening, with all the naïveté, curiosity, demurral and slow, eventual immersion into passion and carnal abandon that came with it,” Kitt tells Quartz. “So for me, having a woman in creative control is paramount.”

The question, “Is porn dangerous?” then, ends up being as overly broad, and as misleading, as the question, “Is film dangerous?” The answer to both is, “It depends.” Different porn, viewed in different contexts, by different viewers, can have different connotations, and different effects.

Rather than less porn, Tarrant suggests, maybe we need more. “Because when we’re talking about mainstream porn, it’s sort of like if we only got our news from Fox media,” she tells Quartz. “We’d all be in trouble. So we need better news sources; we need better porn sources. Because it’s not going to go away.”

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