Pornography: A Personal Feminist Battleground

Photo by Polly Bycroft Brown

I’ve just written a new play.

It talks about porn a lot, and it’s targeted at 13 year-olds.

Lots of people would view this as controversial, but with most boys accessing pornography online by eleven, sixteen year-old lads with erectile dysfunction and the prominence of a pervasive rape culture, I think what we’re doing is nothing less than a public service!

Regardless of whether it offends our sensibilities, or contradicts our views about childhood, all children are being exposed to pornography. Even those who have not actively looked will most likely have been added to social media groups where these type of videos are shared – and that’s before we even start to examine the pornification of the mainstream media. Messages which suggest that women and girls’ bodies are solely objects for male pleasure are everywhere.

From the tone of my writing, you might assume that you can tell some things about me. As you may suspect, I’m white, married, in my 30s, live in the Home Counties and am a mother. What you may not realise is that I have always been very sexually liberal, and consider myself to be body positive, sex positive and am openly bisexual. If you had asked me my views about pornography five years ago, I would have talked about our rights to express ourselves sexually, the long history of erotica and the need for women to create pornography of their own as an antidote to the prevalent male gaze. I would have dismissed any opposition to porn as a restriction of our liberties and a policing of women’s bodies.

So, what has changed?

While researching for this play, alongside talking to large numbers of young people aged 12-19 years, I have looked at quite a bit of porn – My job is weird sometimes! When I say porn, I mean mainstream, easily accessible free pornography available to any young person with a smart phone without filters, not ethical, feminist, pay-for-it niche sites. I typed the word ‘porn’ into Google and saw what popped up, which I’m guessing is what many curious young people do.

There is a vast array of material, which young people can click between in an instant.

Here’s what I discovered:

Categories: All porn sites catergorise their content, making it easier for users to find their personal preferences. Pornhub state that the most searched for term is overwhelmingly ‘teen’, with ‘milf’ and ‘lesbian’ coming in second and third. The fetishisation of youth is evident everywhere.

It is, of course, illegal to promote pornographic material featuring people under 18, but there are countless ‘barely legal’ images with young women who may or may not be of age. The brutal reality of these sites is that it is very difficult to know whether those taking part have consented, and are old enough to make those decisions.  Even older performers largely subscribe to the hairless genital look, making young people think that their pubescent bodies are weird, ugly or dirty. Many young girls we talked to believed removing pubic hair to be cleaner – it isn’t.

With these catergories alone, we can see that porn normalises sexual behaviour in very young people and gives them unrealistic and destroyed views of what their bodies, and those of their partners, should look like.

Bodies: It’s about more than just body image. Many pro-porn campaigners will say that because porn promotes a variety of different body types (eg. different skin colours, sizes, ages), it is a highly inclusive art form. Whatever you are into, you will find. This is, to an extent, true, although there is still something of a “pornstar” look (i.e. boob job, no pubes) which dominates. However, what they are missing is the way in which porn assumes bodies are ready to be sexual at a moment’s notice.

Contemporary porn rarely includes any narrative, and largely excludes foreplay in its entirety. Many young women I know had miserable first sexual experiences, because they need to feel relaxed and that they need to feel turned on for their vaginas to become wet, in order to make penetration possible. Basic understanding of the female anatomy is sorely lacking. This is one of the things I have talked to lots of workshop groups about. Boys are always very quiet when I explain. They don’t want to hurt their partners, but due to watching porn, they assume that’s all there is to it.

Kinks: Everyone is different and unique; we don’t all like the same food or music so, it stands to reason, we don’t like our sex the same way either. Embracing our sexual preferences or kinks in an open and non-shaming way is great. However, mainstream internet pornography moves what would have been considered fetish or at least unusual sexual activity into the mainstream. I broke every rule in the sex educator’s handbook by talking about my own sex life when I told a group of 15 years-olds that I have never had anal sex. I made it clear that lots of people do and, if done safely by consenting adults of any gender or sexuality, it was normal and healthy, just not for me. Some of them were genuinely shocked. Anal sex is seen as so mainstream that girls are actually being labelled as weird or prudish if they don’t want to do it. I thought it was important for someone to tell them that not everyone does this, and they shouldn’t assume their partner wants this without asking first. They were genuinely surprised! It doesn’t stop there. Content of choking, strangling and multiple men with one woman, often simultaneously, are easily accessible too, and that’s really dangerous.

So yes, I have come to the conclusion that I would prefer it if young people weren’t watching porn, and that it distorts their view on sex and relationships dramatically. As we can’t stop this from happening, we need to talk to them about it.

‘Losing It’ Public Gala, Friday 16th June – http://www.peerproductions.co.uk/show/losing-it-public-performance/

Market forces rip off those most in need of help

Okay, so we’ve been up since 3am. Sadly, this isn’t unusual. Lots of SEN, Special Educational Needs, parents like me live off of caffeine and nervous energy, as our kids struggle to get a good night’s sleep. Last night, however, our daughter woke up because her incontinence pad leaked and soaked the bed. This is unusual, and this only happened because (owing I am sure to competitive tender) the incontinence supplies brand has been changed to a cheaper one. They’re too big, they leak. For the same reason, yesterday she had an accident on the school bus.

A choice to change suppliers was made by bureaucrats seeking to save a buck or two. It’s the same, but it’s not the same. We’re lucky that our daughter copes quite well with these kind of changes, but for other ASD kids, the change of colour alone could cause meltdowns. So, I’m emailing, complaining, consulting other SEN parents with the same issue – I’m filling up my coffee cup again. Incontinence services do their best to be helpful, but they are inundated and the products they have to use prove inefficient. I’m so tired of having to fight for the basics just to get by, and as austerity continues to bite, it only gets worse. 

Now, you may be thinking “just buy better nappies”. The truth is that, because children’s incontinence supplies for Over 4s are thankfully NHS funded, there are very little available on the market. The only real choice is overnight bed wetter’s nappies. These usually cost £8 for twenty, so 40p a nappy. Let’s say she uses 5 in a day… that’s £2 per day, or £730 per year!

A couple of weeks ago, Surrey announced the results of their competitive tendering process for short breaks. ‘Short breaks’ is basically a euphemism for respite care. It’s not a luxury, but a necessity that stops millions of us from becoming so exhausted and mentally unwell that we are unable to cope with the burden of caring. It saves the nation millions. In some areas, well-established, trusted and loved schemes that are able to accommodate even the most complex of medical or behavioural needs have lost their contracts. Again, let’s cue ASD meltdowns due to change, even if the alternative providers are up to par, which seems unlikely when they have less specialist knowledge and are unable to offer the same level of one-to-one support.

Let’s just look at that for a second. One-to-one. If, like me, your child requires one-to-one, that means they need constant supervision either for their own safety or the safety of those around them, or both! If they need supervising constantly, this means that exhausted parents are supervising them constantly, and it will be those families for whom respite is the most vital. 

If you think this is unacceptable, what can you do? 

Have your say with the online Surrey survey about proposed changes to short breaks –

https://www.surreysays.co.uk/csf-syp-commissioning-development/short-breaks-user-engagement/

Like the Save Our Respite campaign page and get involved in direct action – https://www.facebook.com/Save.Our.reSpite

Finally, and most importantly, when you go out to vote next month, don’t just think about how this will effect me. Think about how this would affect me or my family if luck dealt us a different hand. Think about whether you want a system that protects and cares for the most vulnerable, or one which assumes vulnerability is a choice, or a result of fecklessness. Think about what kind of society you want to be part of.

Then vote.

Why we have to include the T in LGBT

As many of you will know, we are in the process of creating a new play about sex and relationships. It’s called Losing It, and it’s designed to teach young people all the stuff that conventional sex education misses out

– “There’s a bit more to it than sperm meets egg!”.

We have researched the play by working with young people and finding out what they really want to know. Thankfully, views have definitely moved on since I first started Peer Productions where, when touring our play The Homophobia Project, young audience members would often cheerfully share their terrifying views: gay people need to be cured, lesbians just need a good shag, perhaps we should hang them! Now, in almost every case, young people are at the very least tolerant of those who are LGB, often accepting and celebrating the diversity of who we fall in love with and choose to have sex with.

The young people we worked with felt that lesbian, gay and bisexual people were included in their experiences of sex education. On closer inspection, it seems that schools are actually doing well on explaining that lesbian, gay and bisexual people exist and have the same rights as straight people, including a right not to be persecuted. While this is not really the same thing as providing accessible sex education for all people regardless of to whom they are attracted, it is a step in the right direction.

Our play features characters in a same sex relationship who fall in love. That’s just for starters. By telling stories of, in this case, women who love women against a backdrop which is not about coming out, homophobia or the titillation of men, we are shifting the focus of the story to a narrative which we hope is more empowering for LGB young people. This 90-minute play can’t tell every story or do every bit of sex education. Each character’s story, however brief, is designed as a springboard for discussion in schools, with our comprehensive Teachers’ Pack providing valuable follow up lessons.

We’ve made a start on LGB – but what about T? The mainstream media seems to have just caught on that transgender people exist and we are starting to hear their stories in both theatrical and documentary forms. However, people who are Trans still experience multiple oppressions. They are more likely to experience hate-based violence and far more likely to commit suicide than their cisgender peers. Talking to young Trans people, they often feel completely excluded from sex education and this can lead to sexual risk taking. There is an undeniable power in telling Trans stories alongside those of their peers, and the impact of seeing yourself included in a play about sex and relationships is surely going to be a positive one. It’s a no brainer. I need to write a Trans character.

However, here’s the problem: I don’t have a Trans actor. Our charity recruits a team of actors for one year who work on all of our projects and receive free training. No Trans actors applied last year, so none are in the cohort. I thought about recruiting someone separately, but the logistics of this didn’t seems achievable or fair. Actors perform in our projects in exchange for comprehensive free training and support. A new actor coming in won’t have had that opportunity. I could start recruiting now and postpone the project for a year, but this isn’t practical as the project already has bookings, and the need for up-to-date comprehensive sex education is urgent and real. I could omit a Trans storyline, but then weave one back in next year when I have an actor who is Trans, but what if no one applies? What will it be like in the meantime if I put out a sex ed play without acknowledging the existence of Trans people? This play will reach around maybe 7000 young people this year and, with an estimated 1 in 100 being Trans, that’s 70 children who remain invisible and excluded.

There seems to be only one viable option: cast a cisgender actor as a Trans character. Whilst it’s uncomfortable for all sorts of good reasons, the alternative is far more uncomfortable. As the play is told in retrospect and we see our characters from ages 11 to 19, this means we see an 11 year-old assigned and assumed female in some scenes, before Ash starts to understand himself and come out in his later teens. Perhaps it would actually be quite difficult for some Trans people to step back into a place of oppression, even if just in fiction.

Now, I’m sure I am going to be berated for this, but I am lucky enough to have Trans people in my social circle. Okay, I’ll say it – one of my good friends is Trans. I realise it’s a cliche, but he is and he was kind enough to look over things with me and discuss the implications of different decisions. After thrashing it out, we were in the same position. In an ideal world, we would cast a Trans actor in the role but, as we don’t have one available, representation is more important. He has even agreed to meet with our actor and talk to her about his experiences.

This has definitely been a challenge, but as I watch our extremely talented young actor start to embody the role, I feel excited and I know that, whilst some may say it’s controversial, this was the right decision.

Decide for yourself – http://www.peerproductions.co.uk/show/losing-it-public-performance/