The inherent misogyny of pornography

Reading the reports in the news about the Tory MP, Neil Parish who watched pornography whilst in the House of Commons, people’s outrage is clear. But is this outrage because a public figure, an MP  watches porn, or just that he watches it at work? It is hard to tell. (He isn’t the first.  Damien Greene had to resign in 2017 after he was found to have lied about the presence of pornographic images on his computer, again it was a work computer in the House of Commons.)

 The Labour Party said it would be a “sackable offence” for MPs to watch pornography in the Commons chamber, which leads to the question when do people think is it acceptable to watch pornography? The fact that female MP’s were in the accused’s vicinity at the time has added to the sense of offense, and the incident indeed came to light because of a meeting of female MP’s and the 1922 Committee.  It is now being discussed in the context of the wider issue of misogyny and sexism in the House of Commons.  This surely reveals the fact that people know full well that pornography is in itself, wherever it is watched, disrespectful to women.  So has there been an acknowledgement that the consumption of pornography is itself misogynistic and sexist wherever it is consumed? Or, as is more likely, are people still holding on to the argument that it is ok to watch in the privacy of your own home but nowhere else? Surely it is either offensive material or it isn’t, wherever it is consumed?

We all know that a very high proportion of men, estimated at 50%  (and some women) consume pornography but no one wants to think that their colleague sitting next to them in the office does, let alone people in public office. But why?  It’s like we know it goes on but don’t want to hear about it. Yet we should be asking why don’t we, as a society condemn pornography outright? Our disapproval is only revealed, as now, when someone is caught watching it in public, someone perhaps that we think shouldn’t watch it at all.  It is a kind of hypocrisy.

Yet there remains a presumption that in the right circumstances the consumption of pornography is acceptable and harmless. That in itself is easily challenged. Even when confined to a mainly private activity the impact of it is felt throughout society. We do acknowledge that it is not appropriate for children to watch pornography as it normalises sexual violence and warps their views on relationships.

However discussion about what it does to sexual and wider relationships between adults is more muted. In February 2020 the Government Equalities Office published a research study which found that there was substantial evidence of an association between the use of pornography and harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours towards women.   “However,” the report states, “ it is clear that a relationship does exist and this is especially true for the use of violent pornography”.

The report stated that four clear themes from the literature emerged:

1. Viewing women as sex objects.

2. Shaping men’s sexual expectations of women.

 3. Acceptance of sexual aggression towards women

4. Perpetration of sexual aggression

Those of us who campaigned against pornography decades ago claiming it exploits and dehumanises women and distorts healthy relationships between men and women, were accused of being pro censorship, aligning ourselves to the religious right and just being downright prudes. Many on the liberal left including some feminists actually embraced pornography as being pro sexual liberation and argue that it could be empowering for women, in rather the same way they argue that prostitution is also empowering for women. What a smart patriarchal strategy! But then women have colluded with their own oppression throughout history. Back then we were discussing top shelf magazines in newsagents and sex shops. Then the internet arrived and thanks to that and the liberal laissez faire approach pornography is now one of the world’s biggest and most profitable industries. Sound healthy?

The explosion of online pornography means that it is now available to pretty much anyone who can use a smartphone. Even back in 2020 the popular site Pornhub, alone had 2.4 billion visits a month and we know lockdown led to a huge increase in the consumption of online porn.  Pornography saturates our culture, influences our values, how we view sex and relationships and particularly demeans the status of women and girls. Consumers demand and are fed more and more extreme imagery and a huge percentage of this depicts sexual violence. This isn’t selling sex, it is selling abuse. It is estimated that nearly 70% of all pornography depicts some kind of violence to women.

It is time that we started making the connection between the ubiquity of pornography and the increasing sexualisation, violence and abuse of women.