Reflections on Living With Porn(ography)

by Ruth Beresford, University of Sheffield, UK.

Pornography is something that we all need to talk about. Whether you like it or not, whether you use it or not, pornography has significant social, political and legal implications for us all. New technologies and the internet are constantly changing the pornographic landscape, making the sexually explicit more accessible, available and presented as more diverse than ever before. My own research concerns women’s lived experiences of pornography. It investigates the ways in which women experience, perceive and feel about pornography. I have recently launched the Living With Porn(ography) Project in order to develop an understanding of the ways in which one can experience pornography. Together with a group of women, the project is designed to examine what it means for our lives whether as a user, performer or someone just navigating it within society.

Having researched pornography twice before, I found both studies highlighted the importance of hearing from those who have lived experience of pornography. Considering that so much of the criticism of pornography centres around its negative implications for women, there is a surprising lack of research that asks women how they experience pornography for themselves. Thankfully, we are beginning to see more research that opens this conversation, which extends back to Jane Juffer (1998) and Clarissa Smith (2007), but much more is needed, particularly if we are to find out what the experiences are. [1] Historically, feminist discourse has been polarised. Much research on pornography has been in the field of psychology focusing on its negative ‘effects’, which have often framed women as victims. Much of this research pre-dates the proliferation of internet pornography and has been found to be largely inconclusive. However, this research has been influential in government consultations and policy considerations. [2]

In my own previous research, I interviewed 11 women about their perceptions of the male consumption of pornography. The women I spoke to had complex and, at times, contradictory feelings about pornography. The responses varied from using pornography themselves to seeing it as a source of information or pleasure. It was also remarked on as something funny, sexy or silly to look at, as well as a form of labour and employment. Some of them felt it has the potential to be oppressive, exploitative and encourage negative attitudes towards women and sex. Most felt it had the capacity to be all of these things at once. Whether they used pornography themselves or not, they all had experiences relating to it, for example seeing it accidentally, engaging in a discussion about porn with a friend or through holding political opinions on it. Pornography is not homogeneous and it was clear that it is not experienced homogeneously. Where there was consensus was a general agreement that censoring pornography was inadequate in negotiating the negative issues around it and that sexual education was key. 

Hearing their experiences enabled me to reflect on my own perspectives. I realised how much I had framed the research from my own experiences. I didn’t use pornography, I worried about men using pornography and I expected other women to feel the same. I found that this wasn’t the case, and whilst there were common elements between our opinions, there was a lot of diversity. Our own personal experiences, tastes and preferences really shaped how we felt about pornography. This experience itself has been instrumental in shaping the Living With Porn(ography) Project and its simple premise: to find out more about how women experience pornography and create a space to talk about the diversity of experiences that can be had. This enables us to broaden our understanding of the ways in which one can have an experience relating to pornography, moving beyond categories such as user or producer. 

For the project, eight women have volunteered to take part in a regular research group. We meet twice a month and discuss different aspects of the topic that we decide together. So far, we have had lengthy discussions around defining pornography, its relationship with sexuality and sex, and some of our own experiences relating to it. In each session, we have rich, detailed and complex conversations, often without immediate resolution. It is the repeated meetings that will enable us to sort and refine the answers to our questions. What is clear though is the range of opinions, feelings and experiences expressed; perspectives that don’t neatly fit anti- or pro-pornography discourses. At a time when we are simultaneously seeing celebration of diversity in pornography and the potential this has for expressing sexuality, we also encounter concerns over revenge porn, portrayals of violence and children accessing pornography online. A greater evidence base is clearly needed to inform knowledge about how pornography is experienced and how this can contribute to the legislative policies that impact on porn in society. 

Porn has been on the government’s agenda recently with legislation that has been whipped through parliament. While the Digital Economy Act (2017) will see age verification checks designed to limit the availability of pornography to children, there are concerns from campaigners about privacy and data storage with such checks still being unclear, as feminist porn performer Pandora Blake has recently noted. New research requires new questions and new research methods that recognise the input and experiential expertise that people such as Blake have to offer. As such, Living With Porn(ography) is using participatory research methods and together, with the women in the project, we are co-researching the topic. Together we can define our concepts, decide how to answer the questions and have a collective role in guiding the project and analysing the findings. This I hope will make the research findings more relevant to the women who participate and clearly reflective of their input. The knowledge we produce will not be solely interpreted through my values, beliefs and definitions or unconscious bias. The project is as much about finding out new ways to research pornography as it is about understanding women’s experiences of pornography. Hopefully, it will contribute to and encourage new conversations. So, let’s talk about pornography

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Notes

[1] See Jane Juffer. 1998. At Home with Pornography: Women, Sex and Everyday Life. New York University Press: New York; Clarissa Smith. 2007. One for the Girls!: The Pleasures and Practices of Reading Women’s Porn. Intellect: London. I am indebted to Susan M. Shaw’s article ‘Men’s Leisure and Women’s Lives: The Impact of Pornography on Women’ for opening the conversation for me in identifying the need to talk about women’s perspectives (Leisure Studies 18 1999).

[2] See, for example, Linda Papadopoulos. 2010. Sexualisation of Young People: Review. London: Home Office Publication; Reg Bailey. 2011. Letting Children be Children: Report of an Independent Review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood. London: Department for Education. 

Contributor

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Ruth Beresford is a PhD student researching women’s experiences of pornography with a particular interest in how new methods of knowledge production can be developed for researching the field. She draws on feminist and participatory research methods which inform her Living With Porn(ography) project which has now launched. More details can be found via livingwithpornography.com.

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