Why women on porn?
My route into this project was, perhaps oddly, through sexual violence prevention. For almost a decade I worked at a London based Rape Crisis Centre, specialising in sexual violence prevention work with young people. This meant designing and delivering workshops, teacher training sessions, assemblies, and developing resources to assist in a whole school approach to violence prevention. I was also involved in a research project exploring young people’s understandings of sexual consent in England and Wales.
The work was interesting and challenging, but in watching the responses of young people to the messages I found myself delivering, I started to feel uncomfortable with the ways in which our necessary focus on safety was missing discussion of its counterpart: freedom.
We were slowly, inadvertently, feeding into something positioning young women - women as a whole - as those whose sexual selves were acted on, rather than as also being sexual agents who acted through their bodies and out into the world. We were missing the opportunity to tease out how both are lived - our restrictions and our expressions - in relation to, rather than distinct from, each other.
There was no space available to talk about or even point to the possibilities of young women masturbating, and yet the lessons were structured around the tacit knowledge that young men masturbated, and that most used pornography to do so. There was no room to unpick the situated agency that some young women may feel in being sexually harassed. Even the notion of sexual consent itself was problematic; that the best we can hope for is that women agree to sex. Never that they are the initiator. Never that they are the desiring agent. And though this may reflect the surface reality in many young people's lives, its reinforcement feeds myths that excuse men's perpetration: men as desiring, women as desired. It does nothing to expand women's space for sexual action.
The underlying message is that women’s bodies are something to be acted on – by young men, or by the young women themselves through beauty practices, diets etc. Not something to be lived through and out. Not the very starting point for our being a self at all. I started struggling to see how we were helping young women gain a sense of sexual autonomy, and wondering how women experienced their own.
This combined with the absence of any real research on women's use and/or refusal of mainstream pornography. When talking about women's use of pornography, research focuses on alternative pornographies. Though this research finds that most women using feminist pornography also use mainstream pornography, the mainstream is left unexamined. There is also a lack of attention to the views of women who don't use pornography, as if because they're not consuming they have no value. No study that I've found so far has attempted to look at both relationships to pornography - users, refusers, and their myriad combinations over a woman's sexual biography - together.
And so this project was born.
Let's see what we find.