Kerrin Bradfield is an Accredited Clinical Sexuality Educator with the  Society of Australian Sexologists Ltd. She adheres to the Society’s  Code of Ethics and Practice.

To find out more, go to www.societyaustraliansexologists.org.au

info@goldcoastsexology.com.au

 

Tel: 0407 449 852

I acknowledge and pay respects to the Yugambeh, Koombumerrii and Bundjalung people, past, present and future, of the Gold Coast. I recognise the sovereignty of First Nations people and the resilience shown in fighting for lands, laws, and people. Always was, always will be Aboriginal land. 

© 2020 Gold Coast Sexology

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Pornography is more than sex


This is a talk I gave at 'The Problem with Porn Forum' to explore the idea that pornography upheld a reality that conflicted with our sexual rights.


Let's begin...


I’m a Sexologist, someone who studies human sexuality, and my approach to sexuality is what’s called sex-positive. This really means that I am accepting of the diversity of human sexual behaviours, desires, fantasies, and actions on the condition that they aren’t hurting anyone. If you like to roll around naked in ice cream singing twinkle twinkle little star that’s ok with me, Im not ok with coercing others who don’t really like icecream to join you. I am going to have a look at how porn fits in our reality and our sexual rights.


Firstly, I feel it’s important to start my talk by explaining what I mean when I say porn. I sometimes wonder if it’s a little like lettuce, sure there are a few different types but everyone pretty much knows what I mean when I say lettuce. Most of the time this assumption frustrates me (with porn not lettuce). I’m not even sure there is consensus when we talk about the internet. Briefly I’m talking about digital depictions of a sexual nature, explicit material that may include genitals or sex acts. Porn is no longer a playboy magazine or a VHS. Porn is, and we are about to speed up…


Its Brazzers, Pornhub and youporn, it’s a 2-5 minute clip that doesn’t get your pool cleaned, or a pizza delivered but it might get you a creampie. Its gonzo, the first person shooter of sex, its hentai and lolicon, mtv, youtube, its shock like 2 girls 1 cup, and its reaction and its revenge. Its gifs, memes, clickbait and texts. Its fuxtaposition. For those of you wondering it’s gif based porn that puts the head of a celebrity into porn, its also used to juxtapose the face of your ex into a sexually degrading scene. Think fake revenge porn.


It's bubbling-when its just too hard to photoshop her clothes off. Its in your face, fandom, comedy, horror, and more. Its rough, violent, dominating and its everywhere. What it rarely is is affectionate, mutual, kind, or fun.


So how do we as a society encounter all of this?



We used to be able to talk about distinct environments of offline and online.

The truth is no-one is offline anymore. The environments are mutually constituted, mutually influenced and mutually influential. The consumer is the creator and we shape our reality more significantly than ever before. This gives me great hope for change and strikes fear in me if we don’t act. Porn is everywhere and whilst some exposure is intentional much of it is unintentional. It is...


...billboards and magazines, it's music lyrics and clips, social media from Facebook to Tumblr, and if you don’t think theres porn on Facebook look again. It’s the web, it’s a click away in google, a misspelt word, a popup, and an in-app purchase. More worryingly it’s the subweb like 4chan and reddit where we see subversive counterculture and norm pushing. It’s the dark web, an onion network below the surface that hides the perverse and the illegal.

So porn is more than wink wink nudge nudge and it’s in more places than just porn specific sites. Clearly that might just present a problem.


Hopefully this has set the scene because what I want to do is explore the relationship between sexually explicit media and perceived realism. Im doing this because I think it is a useful way to look at not only how porn does us a disservice as sexual beings it also highlights the growing concern of violence against women. So the concept was proposed by Peter and Valkenburg (2010) as an explanation for not only how porn is able to impact our sexuality but why. It comes down to two questions that we should ask of sexually explicit media, or any media for that matter.


Does porn look like what we are socialised to think sex should be like? And does it have educational value?


So if we answer yes, porn does represent the socially accepted definition of sexuality then this provides an explanation of how it is able to influence our lives. When existing knowledge explains our perception everything is fine, we have equilibrium. However when there is a clash- humans tend to adjust their own beliefs to minimise the unpleasantness, the cognitive dissonance. They make their attitudes match the perception because it is psychologically easier. It has been said that porn mocks the impossible distance, that it conflicts with the ideas of intimacy, love and relationship that we are socialised with in childhood. This is true for adolescents who are shifting away from the family and towards peers and media for socialisation.


The second part of this is if we agree that porn has educational value then this explains the why of why porn is able to influence our lives. We don’t talk about sex. We don’t encourage people to discuss their authentic sexuality and we certainly don’t for the most part support the exploration of sexuality that is separate from what culture projects.


Sexual exploration in our society sits in a duplicitous space. It is both a social expectation that we are all sexual beings, like a cosmo mag telling us how to please him in bed or experience mind blowing orgasms, and it is a shameful issue that we are told has no place in public discourse.


Sexuality is shaped by culture, family of origin, society, as well as individual factors relating to sex, gender and personality. This is widely acknowledged when working with adults, in fact often my first action in a therapy session is to take a sexual history to determine what factors may be influencing the presenting concern. As a therapist I can’t quantify an individual’s unique experience but I can with a reliable certainly untangle what factors have shaped their current concern. Porn might be one. So porn isn’t a great educator if we are trying to teach healthy sexuality however it might be the only one we have at the moment.


That brings us back to the question of social realism- Does porn look like what society tells you sex should be like?

Take a minute to think about the number of times you’ve talked with someone about what sex means to you, of what feelings, behaviours, desires, fantasies and acts promote your sexual health. Im going to go out on a limb- but raise your hand if you have had that conversation. Now raise your hand if you can think of ten or more instances of society telling you what sex should be like.


This presents a unique issue. The balance is out and we are a room full of adults. The research shows media effects are reduced in adults who are able to identify the exaggerated and unrealistic nature of material but this requires knowledge of the alternative.


Today, Porn actually does look like what society tells us sex is like because there isn’t any other discussion about sex. There is an odd feedback loop occurring here where companies make the porn they claim consumers want, and our viewing habits, language, sexual behaviour and fantasies are shaped by what is available. The more it goes on the more it continues shaping and confusing natural desires and authenticity while supporting an industry. Its marketing theory 101.



Take Maxx Hardcore (above), a porn producer who was once ostracised by the porn industry for being too extreme. He is now held up as the gold standard of mainstream envelope pushing for work that is both verbally and physically degrading. We live in a society that largely sells a homogenous sexual message that women are objects, receptacles of male pleasure. That women are sexually available and ready for sex and can orgasm at any moment.


We live in a society that fails to argue the opposite or any alternative for that matter. When we continue to reinforce a fantasy it impacts our ability to feel sexual arousal from reality. The real version just isnt good enough because it doesn’t match the reality we are surrounded by. As attitudes change as a result of misunderstanding the reality of porn it becomes more attractive as a depiction of reality.


So that’s the situation as I see it. We have a toxic element that we are allowing to tell us what sexuality looks like and particularly how we treat women, that is reinforced by almost every other element of our hypermediated environment. The truth is porn isn’t going away any time soon. It is resistant and complicated factor, what is susceptible to change is people. Im now going to look at sexual rights and how porn impacts them.


The World Association of Sexual Health created the Declaration of Sexual rights in 1997. There are 16 rights grounded in universal human rights designed to reaffirm the importance of sexuality in our lives. There are a few that are particularly relevant to today:

the right to autonomy and bodily integrity,

· the right to be free from all forms of violence and coercion

· the right to the highest attainable level of sexual health, with the possibility of pleasurable, satisfying and safe sexual experiences, and

· the right to comprehensive sexuality education that is age appropriate, scientifically accurate and grounded in human rights, gender equality and a positive approach to pleasure.


So lets start with the first two rights which I see as being interrelated. An individual has a right to autonomy, You have a right to sexual expression free from external influence or control. Basically a right to decide for yourself what you think is best, without influence. Does that happen? In a world saturated by pornified messages are there people who are free from influence? The second right is interesting because it actually states that violence and coercion can relate to real or perceived sexual practices. So if we accept that porn is altering our perceptions of what is real can we also conclude that in itself porn is a coercive element that impacts our sexual rights?


In my Masters thesis I conducted a systematic review looking at what impacts sexually explicit media was having on the perceptions of adolescents. I specifically looked at the impact on knowledge, behaviours and attitudes and my findings were much of what weve heard today. The group most at-risk to changes in their perception of sexuality from acceptance of porn were heterosexual males.


Females were most at-risk from the result of this perceptual change in the form of gender based sexual violence and aggression. My findings showed that young peoples knowledge about sexuality was challenged and undermined when presented with a reinforced social representation, their attitudes toward sexual expression and female sexuality shifted toward more physical, disconnected experiences that lacked mutuality or equality, and their behaviours that represented the penetrative focus of porn and the subordinate role of women as sexually available objects increased.


Sexual inequality was normalised as realistic for many young people and at times attitudes were changed to better align with the gender role expectations of SEM. Aggressive behaviour may be a visible behavioural manifestation of the acceptance of the homogenous reality, where men get and women give.


The next two rights are also important in this argument as they really say that we have a right to balanced argument when it comes to sexual information. At the moment porn is a powerful and largely singular voice selling a message of objectification and violence, echoed by a pornified culture. If we acknowledge that sexual health is more than just physical, that our psychological, emotional and social wellbeing are important contributors then we should examine, particularly for women, whether their right to sexual health is impacted by the cultural messaging of porn.


Sex education in schools I fraught with difficulty and largely overlooked in a system that focusses on academic achievement. Adults grew up in a time where sex education could have been better but also didn’t have to address the complexity of an issue like porn. This leaves a generation of adults who feel ill-equipped to provide sex education to young people, or to even make sense of sexualised culture themselves.


When a false reality is more real to us than our own reality we need to make changes in the system anywhere possible. We need to support the sexuality of humans to be authentic and respectful, to promote sex-positivity and mutuality in sexual experience that promotes the sexual rights of everyone.



If you are a professional, school, or parent concerned about the impact of pornography on young people, join the Facebook page and keep the conversation going.


Ready to implement respectful relationships & sexuality education at your school? Why not book a discovery call to talk about how we can work together.