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adult connection data 839465 resizedMay is Sexual Assault Prevention Month and an opportunity for our communities to ask what we can do to make them safer. We can’t ask that question without considering pornography.

It is easier to access sexualized images and videos now than at any other time in history. Everyone with access to the internet and a smartphone or computer has access to an almost infinite supply of pornography. Our culture has a complicated relationship to porn because of complex differences in our beliefs around sex, sexuality, power, and gender. The reality is that porn both impacts and is impacted by our beliefs about sex, sexual relationships and – by extension – sexual violence.

Modern pornography has been around for more than a century and is a multibillion-dollar industry – worth 97 billion dollars globally in 2014. The majority of mainstream porn is created for straight men with the goal of generating profit. The industry makes money by promising quick gratification, eroticizing dominance and power, and offering increasingly shocking content. Women’s and performer’s needs are often ignored in the process which has given the industry a reputation for being discriminatory and exploitative.

The average age of first exposure to porn is eleven years. With a wide global audience and early presence in people’s lives, porn has an impact. Every decision about whose bodies to include, what actions they take, and the narrative teaches lessons about sexual norms. Mainstream porn is often violent, and can include name calling, slapping, strangulation, the injuring of women’s bodies, and questionable levels of consent. After repeated exposure, these images suggest that only certain body types are sexy, that sex is measured by men’s pleasure, and that a woman’s purpose is to provide that pleasure. These ideas can create and reinforce unrealistic and harmful expectations for relationships, power dynamics, body image for men and women, as well as sexual performance. It also shifts the focus of sexual encounters from mutual pleasure to performing particular actions no matter how they feel.

When it depicts only sex acts, mainstream porn also leaves out the negotiation of consent and separates sex from relationships. Without clear consent portrayals of sex promote sexual violence. Consent is essential for every sexual encounter whether it takes place in an economic exchange, casual or one-time sexual encounter, or lifelong partnership.

Porn can also have addictive qualities or be used as a replacement for real human relationships. Compared to relationships, porn is simple and promises easy satisfaction. People learn to get exactly what they want, when they want it. This kind of total control and immediate gratification are not typical elements of healthy relationships, however.

This question of pornography’s impact becomes even more complicated now that it’s easy for people to film or photograph others without their consent. There are entire websites dedicated to revenge porn where people post sexual images or videos of their ex-partners without consent to harm and humiliate them. Like sexual violence of any type, revenge porn is characterized by the absence of consent. Even leaked nude photos of celebrities fall into this category. If consumers of porn don’t understand the importance of consent and knowing where their porn comes form then they will inadvertently support – or teach themselves to be excited by – sexual violence. The issue is complicated and not all porn is the same.

Since the 1980s, feminist pornographers have worked to counter the oppressive aspects of mainstream, male-centred, and sexist porn. Feminist porn concentrates on women’s empowerment and sex positivity, encouraging people across the gender spectrum to embrace their sexuality, to seek and share pleasure, and reduce shame surrounding sex. Feminist porn shifts the gaze and includes more equal representations of genders in front of and behind the camera, in the production, and in the stories it tells. Feminist porn ensures workplace safety for performers, makes sure that performers consent to every act, and can even provide opportunities to direct their own films. Contemporary feminist pornographers believe that the stories they tell about sex matter to people of all sexes and genders equally.

When comprehensive sexual health and relationships education isn’t available, porn’s content and accessibility make it an easy substitute. If people are learning about sex from porn, then the teacher and the content matters. It can make the difference between people learning to seek physical and sexual control or learning to care for sexual partners physically and emotionally. We need to teach and empower people to choose their porn carefully.

In an equal and equitable world, we wouldn’t need to talk about porn’s connection to sexual violence. We would notice and reject any overt and hidden forms of violence or inequality and would avoid using women’s bodies as raw material for the pleasure of men and the profit of others. We don’t yet live in that world. In reality, the dangers that mainstream porn present in its messaging are not isolated to porn.

As we think about Sexual Violence Prevention Month we can all ask ourselves how the media that we consume – whether movies, television, books, magazine, music, or porn – teaches us about gender, bodies, relationships, and sex. Does it teach us to be excited by narratives of sexual exploitation or to work for positive and respectful sexual experiences? Are the stories that excite and stimulate us consistent with the kind of world we want for our children, our communities, and ourselves? If you are surprised or disturbed by the answers to those questions, then it might be time to turn off the channels that have been turning you on.

By Joachim Ostertag and Jon Farmer
On behalf of Violence Prevention Grey Bruce

 

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