Now we know that women enjoy porn as much as men, can we have a proper conversation about it?

If we brush porn off as something unnecessary or embarrassing we are basically passing the buck, letting an algorithm tell us what’s normal or desirable

Franki Cookney
Tuesday 16 July 2019 13:14
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Trailer: Mums Make Porn

Women are just as likely to be aroused by porn as men. It may not sound terribly surprising, but this latest scientific research presents a huge opportunity for those of us who have been waiting for a change in the way we talk about and educate people on pornography.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany conducted a statistical review of existing neuroimaging studies to conclude that “the neural basis of sexual arousal in humans is not different between women and men.”

From a scientific point of view this evidence is no doubt significant; from a social point of view, it seems less so.

We already know that women watch porn. In 2015, a survey of more than 3,000 women found more than a third watch it once a week. And in another report published earlier this year, almost half of women said they’d watched porn in the last month. Surely nobody thought they were doing so out of dispassionate curiosity?

For so long the discussion around porn has been limited to the question of whether it is "good" or "bad". Often the “bad” argument centres around porn being seen as a “male problem”. Now that we've finally acknowledged that both men and women enjoy porn, maybe we can start having new, and more useful, conversations about it.

The fact is, porn is part of our digital culture. It is a factor in 21st century sexuality and, if this study helps us realise that, we can start to focus on how to navigate it – including how to promote porn literacy.

Three quarters of young people agree that sex in porn is unrealistic. Instead of hand-wringing about it, why don't we help them build on that knowledge? Sex education proposals still fall short of this, prioritising “internet safety” as opposed to what to do when you eventually do stumble across an X-rated website.

The still-delayed porn block might calm the fears of parents who don’t want their children to see adult content, but it doesn’t address what happens when those kids turn 18 and yet still don’t fully understand what they’re looking at.

A major concern expressed over porn is that it offers a very narrow depiction of what sex is and can be; that it sends us unhelpful, and sometimes dangerous, messages about how our bodies should look and behave in sexual contexts. In fact, the opposite is true: there is a wealth of diverse and non-exploitative porn being made but (as seen in the recent Channel 4 show Mums Make Porn) many of us simply don’t know where to find it.

In a recent episode of my podcast on sex, The Second Circle, I heard from a guest who explained how watching independent porn helped them to understand their sexual identity. As a queer person of colour, they said they rarely saw their sexuality represented in mainstream media. Porn provided that outlet and that reassurance.

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This isn’t to say that there is no sexism to be found in the porn industry, or in porn itself, or that violence and exploitation don’t occur. Of course they do. But these things exist in every industry, and in all walks of life. And when we brush porn off as something unnecessary or embarrassing, a niche interest, we are basically passing the buck. We hand over decisions about what’s normal or desirable to the algorithm; we let capitalism control the narrative about sex.

When we start from the assumption that people of all genders watch porn because they like it – and that liking it is normal – we can focus instead on offering people choice, on fostering an honest critique of what we see, on reflection, and on understanding.

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