Julia Gash: There is nothing sexist about pornography

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Earlier this week, at the Liberal Democrat Conference in Brighton, I delivered a speech in support of a motion to regulate pornography. As someone who works in the sex industry, I was speaking from the front line. Seventy-two per cent of the customers at my designer erotica store in Sheffield are female. I continually meet women who feel comfortable with their own sexuality and, in choosing to buy something that is designed exclusively to bring pleasure, they feel empowered.

Earlier this week, at the Liberal Democrat Conference in Brighton, I delivered a speech in support of a motion to regulate pornography. As someone who works in the sex industry, I was speaking from the front line. Seventy-two per cent of the customers at my designer erotica store in Sheffield are female. I continually meet women who feel comfortable with their own sexuality and, in choosing to buy something that is designed exclusively to bring pleasure, they feel empowered.

I therefore have difficulty with the over-18 age restriction that applies to my shop and to my website. I am, in effect, being forced by law to deny 16- and 17-year-old men and women the right to take control of their own sexuality. They can have sex, pay taxes, go to war and die for their country, but they can't see sex or buy something intended for their sexual arousal. The contradictions and anomalies created by the existing legislation are, in my opinion, perverse.

Why, exactly, are they prevented from buying porn or sex products? Apparently it's for their own good. Well, I question the assumption that this approach offers young people some form of protection. It doesn't. It merely serves to increase their vulnerability by placing them in a no-man's land where they can have sex but if they buy sex products, they are breaking the law. They are actively stopped from buying things that would help them to gain a wider understanding of, and confidence in, their new-found sexual expression.

Hard-core porn is simply the explicit depiction of people having sex. The language we use to describe it sounds terrifying and, together with the suppressive legislation that governs it, demonises it as inherently evil. I acknowledge that some porn is exploitative, which is why I support tougher, preventive measures to protect the underage and those who are coerced into working in the industry. However, I do not believe that porn itself is intrinsically degrading or sexist. It's simply badly produced.

In the early Eighties, as an active member of the women's movement I campaigned against porn. Twenty years on my view has, I'm pleased to say, matured. Since then, developments within the sex industry have been huge, are ongoing and are female-led. Porn is no longer a male domain. Businesses such as mine offer products to meet the growing demand of a largely female clientele. Current legislation does not take into account this cultural progression, which has transformed what was widely considered to be a demeaning experience for women into something empowering.

I feel a sense of betrayal from those women with whom I fought side-by-side 20 years ago in our campaign for equality and who too readily try to dismiss women who work in the industry as either victims or downright dirty. Whether or not we use porn, I don't believe we have the right to prevent someone else from viewing it or to think they're less of a person if they do.

Porn is a diverse entity that can be received in many ways. Existing legislation is sexist and hypocritical, punishes sexual autonomy and stigmatises the sex industry. The future is not to view the sex industry as a threat. As Shania Twain put it: the best thing about being a woman is the prerogative to have a little fun! Well, it's our prerogative to take the lead, by dismissing uninformed, reactionary arguments that come from behind the barrier of prudery or political correctness in favour of a more honest and open debate.

The demonisation of porn gives confusing signals to young people. Could it be that their needs are being compromised by a law that is more geared towards protecting adults who have difficulty in coming to terms with young people's sexuality? It makes it OK for a woman of 16 to be penetrated by a man during intercourse with her consent, but if she wants to buy a vibrator, she breaks the law. This is why I believe that the regulation of pornography has to be in line with the age of consent. If you are allowed to have sex, you should be allowed to see it.

New technologies have enabled porn to emerge from sleazy sex joints and into suburbia. I believe that people will not be depraved by what they see when they first sit down to view this overhyped medium. With the plethora of poor scripts, shoddy camerawork, bad lighting and terribly faked orgasms, they are more likely to bored and disappointed.

Since my conference speech, I have heard sniggering from the back row. Why talk about sex when big-boy issues such as the threat of war dominate the political agenda? Well, civil liberty to me, and to the Lib Dems, is also important. The ability to express our sexuality is being seriously infringed. Given that the law prevents young adults buying sex products, the Government is deciding what goes on between the sheets! Who ever gave them an open invitation into our bedrooms?

While the Lib Dems have shown courage and a commitment to their principles in debating such a sensitive issue with such intelligence and integrity, the other parties have run scared. Instead they spin spineless policies in response to what they think people think. No change there then.

julia@gash.co.uk

The writer runs a designer erotica store in Sheffield and is a party-approved candidate for the Liberal Democrats

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