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Why you should be worried about Playboy dropping naked women from its pages

This isn't a clear moral victory, but yet another reminder of the huge power wielded by mainstream pornography

Max Benwell
Tuesday 13 October 2015 18:08 BST
Kate Moss poses on the front cover of Playboy's 60th anniversary issue
Kate Moss poses on the front cover of Playboy's 60th anniversary issue (Richard Young/REX Shutterstock)

You’ve got to hand it to Playboy: it knows how to keep with the times. After 62 years of printing photos of naked women, it has asked itself an important question – what are we doing? The magazine has announced that it will stop publishing nudes in its print edition. This follows its decision in August to drop them from its website, which caused its traffic to quadruple.

The magazine becoming never-nude is heartening for anyone who cares about the media’s constant objectification of women. But no-one should pretend that this is a moral victory. Playboy, acting as any business would, dropped the nudes because there’s no demand for them any more.The free market argument that supported their continued existence turned on them. But this isn’t because we’re all reading feminist zines on Tumblr now; there’s no demand for them because too many people are watching free online porn instead. “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free,” Playboy’s CEO Scott Flanders has said. “And so it’s just passé at this juncture.” Whether this can be counted as a victory for feminist activists or not, it's yet another reminder of powerful and pervasive mainstream porn has become. And if you think Playboy is bad, well, it doesn't even compare.

We tend to shy away from discussions about porn, probably because we don’t want people to think we watch or care about it. It's also something that appeals to our most personal and secretive desires. But it’s this anxiety that lets the mainstream porn industry get away with so much. Watching porn isn’t inherently bad or anything to be ashamed of, but letting the industry exist in its current form is.

The recent Netflix documentary Hot Girls Wanted exposes some of the alarming conditions faced by female performers. It follows several women as they try to make their way in the “professional-amateur” porn industry (the sort where women are paid to act like they’re strangers “picked up” on the street by porn directors). To begin with it’s all quite vanilla. But as performers stay on the scene for longer, they’re paid to take part in increasingly more extreme and violent sex acts that they become less and less comfortable with. Most “pro-am” women, we’re told, quit after just three months. Meanwhile, the conveyer belt continues.

In 2010 a former porn director called Sam Benjamin described why he quit the industry.“My true responsibility as director was to make sure the girls got punished,” he wrote. “Female ‘targets’ were verbally degraded and sometimes physically humiliated. None of it was written in my contract, of course; it was more of a contextual thing. Like: everyone’s doing it... thus, so shall we.”

Despite all of this, the world is still hooked on mainstream porn. Pornhub, the world’s biggest porn site, says it received 18.35 billion visits in 2014. Its visitors watched 78.9 billion videos – 11 for each person on earth.

On one side, there are some people who say that all pornography is bad for us. One of them is Gary Wilson, the author of Your Brain on Porn. Over email he recently told me his conerns. “We must acknowledge that watching today's endless videos of people having sex is quite different than lads mags or Playboy of yore,” he said. He pointed me towards various studies that suggest links between watching online porn – which he equates with voyeurism – and conditions like erectile dysfunction, lower sex drive, and addiction. In a recent NUS survey of students, 60 per cent of respondents said that they watched porn to get information about sex, even though 75 per cent of them said it created unrealistic expectations.

On a different side ot the argument, there are pornographers and activists who dislike what’s mostly available online, but campaign for better, safer porn and improved sex education. I recently met the porn director Erika Lust. All of her performers are treated well, and paid equally. Guaranteeing total consent is everything for her: she interviews her stars before they’re cast, looking for any signs of uncertainty, and doesn’t work with anyone under the age of 23. For the benefit of her viewers she also doesn’t direct the sex itself, so it can be as natural as possible. (As one of her male performers tells me, this means that he doesn’t have to “shag around corners” – although I’m sure it has other benefits for the viewer too.)

There’s an uncomfortable truth though, which was summed up to me by the porn expert, business consultant and entrepreneur Cindy Gallop :“It doesn't matter how much brilliant work people like Erika are producing. If you're a horny 14-year-old boy from Swindon you're going straight to YouPorn and you're staying there.” This is partly because of shortcomings within sex education, but also because there are serious barriers to making porn, and offering an alternative. You can’t rely on traditional advertising techniques, and banks and payment services like PayPal won’t work with you. This is why Cindy wrote an open letter to David Cameron, asking him to “disrupt” the porn industry by supporting adult filmmakers in the same way he supported London’s Tech City.She's still waiting for a reply.

I’m not saying that Playboy’s decision to remove naked women from its pages is big enough to warrant a sudden mass movement against porn. But it is another small sign of the industry’s huge market power, which for some reason a lot of us are happy to ignore. Challenging it isn't a matter of taste or being a prude. It’s just demanding that porn's performers aren’t abused, and that people who want to challenge mainstream porn’s portrayal of sex, and put across healthier images, are allowed to do so. You may have accepted the potential issues that come with watching porn, just like you would if you want to smoke a cigarette or eat fast food. But if you’re going to do it, wouldn’t it be nice to at least have a clean conscience?

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