I’m wary of writing about sex and porn for many reasons, the first being it’s rude. And as an upright suburban mother with two pairs of Uggs and a self-imposed curfew of 10pm, it is surely more appropriate for me to be exploring such topics as ideas for leftover porridge and the best heated clothes airers than, for eg, the ethics of violent porn.
The second reason is that writing about sex and porn is a delicate journey that often veers off-road into bushes of politics and shaming, the latter being something I’m keen to avoid – I very much respect sex-people, their creativity, their energy, their playful ways with a brush.
The third reason came as quite a surprise. Last year I wrote in a men’s magazine about the effect of pornography on young people, remembering a moment in The Butterfly Effect, Jon Ronson’s podcast series about the aftershocks of internet porn. On the set of a porn film an actor lost his erection mid-scene – to coax it back, he turned away from the woman, naked below him, grabbed his phone and searched Pornhub. Which struck me as vaguely apocalyptic, but even so, I attempted to offer a nuanced argument against burning the whole sex project down. Little did I know this piece would open the floodgates to a new kind of troll, a community that believes Jews control the porn industry and are using it to enslave men, destroy society and break down families. They said I was, as per, on the payroll of Big Israel, promoting pornography while jangling my chains. Again, I could compliment these peoples’ creativity, their energy, their playful ways with a gif, but you know what, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of opportunities on Twitter later.
The death of Grace Millane highlights a dramatic rise in the number of murder cases in which 'rough sex' is the defence
And still, I want to write about sex and porn today, as the death of Grace Millane has highlighted a dramatic rise in the number of murder cases in which “rough sex” is the defence, and a BBC survey finds that more than a third of UK women under 40 have experienced “unwanted slapping, choking, gagging or spitting” during consensual sex. The Centre for Women’s Justice said: “This is likely to be due to the widespread availability, normalisation and use of extreme pornography.”
Which is terrifying and depressing, especially when, scrolling down from a clip of a 23-year-old woman called Anna talking on Victoria Derbyshire’s daytime show about her own experiences of unwanted violence during casual sex, you find a gutterful of comments from men suggesting she was responsible. Like the “rough sex” defence used in court (Millane’s case was reported with headlines like, “Strangled tourist liked being choked”, removing the distance between consensual BDSM and murder), this woman was quickly blamed for her own bruises. The reporting of Millane’s murder was horrific on a hundred levels, not just because it shifted responsibility on to her, but because it told predators how to find their victims and how to ensure they won’t be believed.
Something is rotten in the state of sex. It’s crucial we work with campaigners counting and naming the women murdered by men who claim they consented to the violence that killed them – the website We Can’t Consent To This invites us to ask our election candidates to commit to bringing back the Domestic Abuse Bill and support amendments to end the “rough sex” defence. But murder is at one end of a wedge that sharpens to a blunt edge, where thousands of women meet thousands of men online, and go home with them to have sex that, due to the proliferation of violence in porn, veers in seconds from confusing to traumatic. “There was nothing unifying about [the men who tried to choke her],” Anna told the BBC. “Although I assume they are frequent consumers of porn. They watch that and assume that’s what women want, but don’t ask.” How can our generation deal with the often disturbing impact of modern porn?
There are groups, spanning left and right, who continue to argue it should be banned. But technology never goes backwards and sexuality is cryptic and layered, its tentacles stretching beyond the internet. The answer will be more complicated than turning porn off at the wall. Combatting this draw towards violent porn will surely involve a serious cultural push to dismantle ideas about the place of women in society and a reckoning with what it tells us about the anxieties running darkly through our shared hard-drives.
Understanding the importance of consent will surely involve early intervention at home and school. Instead of fretting about the limits of pornography, we should be expanding it, dragging porn forward to encompass a hundred more perspectives, including women’s. We should talk about it more – and more positively. Partly to acknowledge the massive role it plays in young people’s lives, but also to explain, explicitly, repeatedly, that consent is essential, female pleasure is possible and that pornography is a fiction. By attempting to understand the shadowed new landscapes of porn, we may come closer to a healthy relationship with our own sexuality.