“Powerful … constructively controversial.” - Telegraph
“As entertaining as it is erudite.” - Observer
“Ambitious, meticulously researched and passionate.” - Independent
"Impeccably well-researched" - Huffington Post
"I disagree with just about everything she has to say" - Julie Bindel

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Porn by the Numbers 5: On feminist porn

Myth #5: There is no such thing as feminist porn.

Nina Hartley. Annie Sprinkle. Anna Span. Candida Royalle. Tristan Taormino. Madison Young. Erika Lust. Jiz Lee. To fans of both feminism and porn films, these are simply a very few of the many women whose work demonstrates just how sex-positive people are changing the adult entertainment industry.

The internet has a hand in this as well. There are countless independent erotica providers - camgirls, models, and so on - who are running their own businesses, taking control of how their own images are produced and distributed. The support system among independent women in the industry grows and grows. I really can't think of anything much more feminist than that.

Really, this is less a question of whether something is 'feminist' or not, which I think is a bit of a misnomer, since there are plenty of people producing ethical erotic content who do not identify as feminists. Think of them instead as free range porn providers, if you will. And let's not forget the loads of people making excellent queer porn, and their audience, who are almost never addressed or acknowledged in this debate. The world of erotica is far, far bigger than just heteronormative mainstream stuff; a fact the anti-porn types like to gloss over.

The question, rather, is this: can porn be produced in which the people whose erotic capital is used are respected? Yes. Yes it can. It is.

So my gob was well and truly smacked when it seemed the other two guests on Newsnight were going, with straight faces, to deny the existence of erotica depicting real women and real orgasms. They made it sound like woman-focussed hardcore was a myth up there with fairies, vampires, and homeopathy.

Did I say "then maybe you should Google it?" on the show? Because if I didn't, I was definitely thinking it.

Maybe it's the circles I hang in but sometimes it seems there could hardly be more feminist porn knocking around these days. As I've joked elsewhere with friends, to a certain kind of young lady, "the year I spent in porn" is this decade's "the year I spent travelling in Southeast Asia". Which is to say - and again, maybe this is population- or location-specific? - kind of becoming a cliché. Giving the words 'gap year' a new meaning. In the nicest possible way, of course.

But according to anti-porn crusaders, porn is brutal and cruel, with explicit sex acts that no real feminist (or if you push them on the point, no "self-respecting woman") could participate in, far less be a consumer of.

The problem with such an argument is a fallacy of category error wherein all sex acts to appear on film are assumed to be documentary. But they are actors, they're acting. You can't judge the politics or feelings of actors from the films they appear in, any more than you can tell by looking at a T-shirt whether it was made in a sweatshop or not.

Consider Linda Lovelace, star of Deep Throat, the first mainstream porn blockbuster. The film is almost prim by today’s standards. It later came out that Lovelace was coerced and abused throughout her career, but it would be impossible to detect that simply from her on-screen performance. Contrast that with a recent adult film star, Sasha Grey. Grey is well known for her gonzo humiliation scenes, but her career owes nothing to pimps or abusers, and she's pretty outspoken about challenging the image of porn star as airheaded bimbo. As the adult film industry evolves, women like Sasha Grey are more rule than exception.

Similarly, just because porn that does not respect women exists, it does not follow that all porn disrespects women. That would be like saying because some clothes are made in sweatshop conditions, then all clothes must have been made in such conditions (and indeed must be banned!). No. No. No. This is not how one conducts a logical argument.

Every industry has its problems. There is abuse of human labour in every conceivable job. Do we outlaw work? We do not. Now, if you're going to follow the argument through to its logical conclusion and call for the end of all waged work, that at least would be consistent. But it is not what most of the anti-porn lobby do. They single out profiting from sex. They do this for reasons that are, frankly, a mystery to me and many other people.

The bottom line is that there is an inherent problem in treating profit out of erotic capital differently from profit out of any other resource. I have a decent enough scientific mind; it's okay with (almost) everyone that I get money for using it, in spite of the fact some people are or have been abused in the name of science. We lionise people who are beautiful, in spite of the beauty industry taking its fair share of victims. Business minds are well-rewarded, and the recent economic crisis isn't inspiring anyone to outlaw business. And so on. It's okay to profit from physical effort, so long as it doesn't involve sex? Why is sex so damn special? Don't give me that joining-of-spirits-save-it-for-the-one-you-love yadda yadda. That does not fly. I do not believe in unicorn mystical bullshit.

Appearing in porn is not for everyone; nor is watching it. But projecting one's own fears, assumptions, and prejudices on to the people who make a living from it really says more about the critics than it does about the true nature of the adult industry.

--

And now, to finish off this series of posts, a video. As mentioned at the beginning, I'm not involved in porn personally, I am but a longtime fan. So here are people who actually know what they're talking about eloquently and successfully arguing the same points.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Porn by the Numbers 4: Is porn taking over the internet?

Myth #4: Porn is a huge business [that is taking over the Internet]

Opponents of porn love to focus on the money: erotica is assumed to be a highly profitable business. This in and of itself is assumed, in some camps, to be sufficient justification to damn almost anything. However, implying that because something is profitable, it must be bad, is a strange claim to make. After all, food is also profitable. But when was the last time you ate something that was completely free? (I had a sorrel salad for lunch, for what it's worth. But the olive oil was by no means free.) Just because erotica can be a commodity, it does not make it at odds with real human desire. After all if it did not arouse, it would not sell.

Of course, the underlying assumption is that taking pictures of naked people is somehow without production and distribution costs which is no more true for erotica than it is for any other entertainment, but never mind.

So while I personally feel that going on about the money is a baseless argument to begin with, it's one that comes up often. Here's an alternative view of what's going on.

For all the times “the porn industry” is invoked, giving the impression of adult films as a money-spinning behemoth, it just isn’t true. One particular figure making the rounds is that online content alone is estimated to generate $3000 every minute in sales. That sure sounds like a lot. But have you seen how man camgirls are out there? They're not becoming millionaires off this.

While most reports emphasise how big and ubiquitous the business is, most of them also fail to compare it to anything else. That's red flag number one: data are meaningless without scale. We should also be asking, when this argument inevitably comes up, how does the size of the online erotica compare to other online entertainment, and to entertainment in general?

Take porn on the internet, for instance. As an example, on RedTube, of the many videos available there are only 120 that have attracted over 1 million viewers. At first glance, that seems like loads.

Until you compare it with non-sex videos, that is. Compare this to the non-porn site YouTube. For the keyword "kitten" there are over 100 videos that have 1,000,000+ views. About 500 videos tagged "Justin Bieber" have achieved the same status. Even "Lego" gets more videos with million-view counts than on the entire RedTube site. And while there are many other sites like RedTube, the numbers in terms of views, links, etc. are nowhere near the kind of audience non-porn content attracts. Many people look at porn. Most of them look at porn for only a small fraction of the time they spend online.

Is porn everywhere? In a way, yes. But it's a minority piece of the entertainment economy.

The money in adult entertainment is dwarfed by the turnover all other entertainment. In the Premier League of English football, players make an average salary of £1.46 million each. Porn stars make about £190-£600 per film. Each of the six principal cast members of Friends made $1 million per episode in its final series. There has never been a porn film with a total budget of $1,000,000... much less a cast budget of $6 million plus. Hugh Hefner reportedly plans to buy back Playboy, the largest adult entertainment company, in a deal worth $200,000,000 - or about a tenth of Facebook's value.

And while porn is but a small fish in the large on- and offline entertainment pond, what it contributes is fair well enormous, in terms of technology. The next time you buy a birthday gift online, video chat with a friend halfway around the world, hook up to broadband, or teleconference at work, maybe you should give a thought to the people who made all this technology so ubiquitous and so easy to use.

Who's that then - Apple? Scientists and engineers? Bill Gates?

Nope. It's porn. Think of it as the test pilot, if you will.

Without porn, the internet as we know it today would be very different. The particular systems used for streaming, credit card verification, and so on - these are benefits used by virtually every home, phone, and handheld device. And the adult industry, with its history of being an early adopter, was key in helping facilitate this.

Take, for instance, secure online shopping. In the 1990s a man named Richard Gordon founded Electronic Card Systems (ECS), which enabled porn sites to accept credit card transactions. Back in the early days of the web, sites like eBay and Amazon were but a glint in a programmer's eye. Gordon's company enabled pornography to claim a big share of all online purchases. The success of the business did not go unnoticed. Systems based on the ECS model were picked up by other retailers, which quickly grew far faster and became far more a mainstream part of daily life than erotica ever could - and by 2006 porn accounted for less than 2% of all money generated online. This is but one example of a use of technology that was adopted by erotica providers, and once successful there, became part of the mainstream.

You might not think porn has ever affected your life, but it was behind the start of the video and cable TV boom in the 80s, and has shaped the internet’s powerful functionality. While porn didn't invent the technology per se, it is consistently one of the first adopters of advances we now couldn't imagine living without. Quite simply, if we didn't have the technical pioneers in the sex industry, the internet would not have got so big so quickly.

Tomorrow: Myth #5 - There is no such thing as feminist porn.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Porn by the Numbers 3: Does porn make men see women differently?

Myth #3: Viewing pornography changes the way men view women.

There have been a lot of claims made around this myth, most of them unsubstantiated. For the most part this is because of poor research design in questionnaire-based and market 'research' studies, and inappropriate interpretation of results by the media in academic studies. However, no matter how poor and flimsy the results, it's an assumption that gets a lot of attention. And time and again, journalists reporting on these studies fail to ask the most basic questions about the integrity of the data.

For instance, a poll released by BBC Newsbeat and TNS in April 2011 focused on responses from young men who felt "worried" about their porn use, with a number of those concerned it is influencing their relationships.

They key here is the nature of the questions being asked: there's a vast difference between being worried something might happen, and that thing coming to pass. It's entirely likely that, because of the widespread disapproval of porn, that men might be concerned even without any reason to be. Therefore, such a questionnaire should be designed so that it also assesses actual attitudes and outcomes, not only fears about outcomes.

Other problems in the assumption that porn changes men's attitudes towards women for the worse come from how the studies themselves tend to be conducted. There's an endemic absence of control populations, time trends, or any of the other hallmarks of good questionnaire-based research in these studies.

The BBC poll focussed exclusively on young people, and did not compare if these feelings were any different to the population at large. Because the particular poll questions had not been administered before, it is impossible to say if the figures have changed over time. Assigning cause for those feelings, then, seem a very leading exercise at best.

In addition, there are questions about how representative these young men are. I contacted the reporter who assisted on the story, and his response was this:

"This was the first online poll the BBC has ever commissioned for news. TNS uses a panel of online respondents who are incentivised using a points system that can eventually be traded in for shopping vouchers."
You'll notice that shopping vouchers are not the usual way that, say, an academic researcher would 'incentivise' study subjects with free goodies. Why? Because that kind of system would lead to questions of whether the respondents are, effectively, self-selecting and would therefore produce a biased result. Using what is effectively market research in place of real social science is sloppy practice, and they should have had more balanced input when designing this for it to be at all meaningful.

Why an internet poll? The reporter said, "Our thinking was that the average 19 year old male is less likely to answer truthfully over the phone than anonymously online." Umm, proof of your assumption please? Gut thinking of this kind might guide a pilot study for some research, but that's not very good justification for the design of your finished project!

Other, academic, research presents a different view of how young men feel about the porn they consume. The researcher Alan McKee has published a number of papers on the topic in peer-reviewed journals. [search] The main themes that come out of his results are these:
  • The need to include the voices of porn consumers in research about the media
  • Considering how consumers view positive effects, not only negative ones
  • The need to eliminate confounding factors in data (such as, also asking about socioeconomic details and political attitudes, as these may have correlations with the research questions too)
The overall flavour of McKee's work can be summed up this: In seeking to understand how negative attitudes towards women are generated in society we should start by asking what issues might be most important, rather than beginning from the assumption that pornography is the major cause of such attitudes.

Another example is Simon Lajeunesse, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Montreal who studies the impact of pornography on the sexuality of men, and how it shapes their perception of women.

In a prospective study Lajeunesse found most of the men questioned sought out porn by the age of 10, when they become sexually curious. He also found they quickly discarded what they didn't like and things they find offensive. As adults, they looked for content that was compatible with their sex preferences.

Lajeunesse‘s subjects reported that they supported gender equality, but also that they felt victimized by criticism of pornography. "Pornography hasn't changed their perception of women or their relationship which they all want as harmonious and fulfilling as possible,” says Lajeunesse. “Those who could not live out their fantasy in real life with their partner simply set aside the fantasy. The fantasy is broken in the real world and men don't want their partner to look like a porn star."

There's a similar message in a 2000 publication by Malamuth et al. [pdf] The paper considers whether there is a causal link between adults who view pornography and sexual aggression. What the Malamuth study found, though was interesting. While some people who viewed pornography had violent beliefs towards women, the conclusion did not claim pornography was the cause: “We suggest that the way relatively aggressive men interpret and react to the same pornography may differ from that of nonaggressive men.” In other words, the pump is already primed in some people. But for nonaggressive men, the same imagery did not incite negative thoughts.

In other words, there is not a direct correlation between porn and negative beliefs in most men.
On Newsnight, I mentioned the point Lajeunesse makes so well that while a certain kind of erotica - say, your stereotype Barbie-style look that was so popular in American porn of the 80s - may appeal to men at certain ages, that's hardly what they expect from women. Most men, by the time they're old enough to be dating women, soon figure out that what's in Playboy is not actually what real women are like. And for the most part they prefer real women.

So why does that stereotyped image persist? Perhaps for the same reason that women are sold a fantasy of a domesticable bad boy who will sweep them off their feet so they can live happily ever after. It's a long-established, two-dimensional shorthand (and if you don't like it, for heaven's sake, stop going to Jennifer Aniston films already). Just because unrealistic expectations of dating and mating are peddled on every flat surface around us to both sexes doesn't automatically mean that the majority of people actually think those fantasies are true.

(And as Lajeunesse comments, “If pornography had the impact that many claim it has, you would just have to show heterosexual films to a homosexual to change his sexual orientation.")

In another study, an economist found the introduction of internet access in US states corresponded with a decrease in rape (and no effect on other violent crimes). A 10 percent increase in online access corresponded with a 7.3 percent decrease in reported rapes. Areas that adopted the Internet quickly saw the biggest declines. And the effects remain even when taking into account differences in alcohol use, law enforcement, income, employment, and population density.

Interestingly, as I've blogged before, there are examples where introduction of lap dancing actually correlates with a drop in violent crimes. Does this prove that, in fact, internet access and lap dancing actually reduce rape and violent crime? Not really. There would have to be a lot more research – from many more angles – to even begin to support such a claim. Correlation is not causation. However, while the absence of a correlation between porn access and rape doesn’t necessarily prove porn prevents rape, it does tell us that exposure to porn does not cause violence. If it did, they would rise (or fall) together. They don’t.

Overall, the takeaway points are these:

  • It's difficult to tease out the effects of society as a whole and its influence on how men see women, from any effect porn may have. Until now, few studies have tried to address this in their design and analysis,
  • Asking if someone is concerned about an issue is not the same thing as there being perceptible effects from that issue,
  • As I mentioned on Newsnight, women are not the only people whose images are manipulated by commercialised culture, and
  • Data regarding rape and violent crime in general do not show correlations with increased availability of erotic entertainment.
Tomorrow: Myth #4 - Porn is a huge business that is taking over the Internet.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Porn by the Numbers 2: Is pornography violent?

Myth #2: The majority of pornography is violent.

One of the spurious claims made by one of the other guests on Newsnight was that the majority of porn is violent. A lot of the debate about pornography focuses on violence almost exclusively. In the study quoted yesterday [pdf], however, less than 2% of films were found to have scenes of non-consensual aggression by men against women. The scenes - there were seven in total - varied from spanking to wrestling.

There's a certain amount of this argument that is in the eyes of the beholder. To people like me who enjoy a bit of BDSM, wrestling is not exactly "violence" unless it is well and truly beyond Hulk Hogan and that ilk. More like "playful rough stuff". Hardly the sadism some insist is common in adult materials. And categorising any of that aggression in a film as "non-consensual" is problematic, because of course, the actors are acting. It's impossible to say what in the aggression was not consent just from looking at it. And drawing conclusions that people are hugely influenced by things they know or believe to be fictional... again, problematic on many counts. But, if you like your sex served up with a side order of scented candles and eye-gazing, then yeah, other people's spanking is probably not for you. And watching actresses pretend to not consent is probably not for you either.

Nevertheless, even considering the fluidity of what "violent" may mean, there's not a lot to support the assertion that "most" porn actually is violent. As well as the aforementioned study, a paper by E Monk-Turner and HC Purcell in Gender Issues looked at 209 scenes from US films. The authors (who in my opinion apply the notion of violence rather too liberally) noted that in adult films “a significant number… had a theme of intimacy.” And while they found much that was objectionable to their sensibilities, the research found one – only one – scene that could be characterised as ‘extreme sexual deviance’, or in other words less than one half of one percent of the material studied. Whatever way you cut it - pretend nonconsent, actual nonconsent, or consenting - that's not most porn. That's not even a lot.

By and large, when seeking to find information regarding this claim about the prevalence of violence in pornography, two types of sources keep coming up: ones from anti-porn groups which do not link or otherwise reference their data, or reviews which rely heavily on qualitative, rather than quantitative, information.

The reason why I dismiss most qualitative results in this instance is not because I think qualitative research has no value, but rather, because of the nature of the myth. When you use a word like "most", you imply numbers. Data. Statistics. As a scientist by training, my immediate question is then: where are the numbers? Which is something even Kat Banyard - one of the more well-spoken and reasonable anti-porn folk I have yet to meet - was unable to readily supply.

But even quantitative results can be very telling on this point, and whether the position that much of porn is violent is a justified one. Other reviews of the prevalence of sexual material, even ones which are not particularly skeptical of its purported effects, come up with typical conclusions like People think sexually violent material will not harm them, but they worry about how it will affect others and Most people did not think that the availability of sexually violent material would affect rates of sexual violence.

Statements like those imply that we trust ourselves not to go over the edge when looking at porn, but we don't trust other people. Why? Why not give others the same benefit of the doubt we extend to ourselves? Is it ever intellectually honest to imagine that I and somehow unaffected by something in the fabric of our culture, but everyone else is powerless to resist its worst possible interpretation? Why is that kind of thinking unfortunately something that crops up time and again in anti-porn arguments?

The vast majority of those who enjoy a bit of rough and tumble want it with consenting partners. This is important to remember. People who like it rough do not want to actually rape you or to be raped. Understood? Can we keep repeating it until, you know, everyone finally gets this?

Considering the realities of the previous myth and this one, we can draw some perhaps unexpected conclusions. What do the data show porn consumers want? Not women who are passive, submissive recipients of desire, but women who are initiating, involved, and eager. The films mostly do not include women who are forced or cajoled into sex, but women who are willing and who pursue a variety of acts associated with female pleasure. In other words, the films portray enthusiastic, equal partners in sexuality. It says a lot about the difference between what some people claim porn viewers want, and what the viewers really want to watch.

Granted, there are people who despair over this idea that women might ever present themselves as enthusiastic participants in sex. And for those people, I really have nothing to say.

Tomorrow: Myth #3 - Viewing pornography changes the way men see women.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Porn by the Numbers 1: Does porn objectify women?

I went on Newsnight last night as part of a roundtable discussion about pornography and feminism. As neither a self-identified feminist nor someone in the porn industry, it seemed an odd choice (but I understand they had approached other people with more relevant experience first). Rather unexpectedly, the conversation instead ended up being about vajazzling and clowns. There was a lot of stuff I wish I would have had the opportunity to say on air - l'esprit de l'escalier, I suppose. So I'm putting it here instead.

I've never worked in porn, nor conducted my own research on it. But I have read a lot of academic work discussing it, and of course, I bring the same expertise as most of you... I've watched porn. Here are the top 5 myths about porn the media and some feminists love to dredge up. Every one of these myths was duly trotted out at some point last night, to my horror. Here is the truth about each of them.

Myth #1: The majority of pornography objectifies women.

It's a widely known fact that, scene for scene, women in porn earn more than men. Increasingly, women are involved in the shooting, producing, directing, and distributing of erotica. But what of the actual content?

My main comment on Newsnight was that while the stereotypical 80s, California-type porn that media love to regurgitate as representative of all erotica may have done so, that is far from the whole story. Unfortunately, many who are still recycling decades-old photos of Jenna Jameson to illustrate shock-horror pieces about porn (I'm looking at you, Sunday Times) haven't bothered to update from their tired old stereotypes.

It turns out women have the upper hand not just in pay for on-set work, but also – perhaps unexpectedly - in how they are portrayed on screen. An extensive survey of adult films measured male and female roles on such criteria as identification, reciprocity, and violence. [pdf] In the study by Alan McKee and colleagues, 838 scenes from popular porn films were assessed by three separate coders. The results may just surprise you.

The researchers looked at how characters were identified: do they act like real people, and are they treated that way? Reciprocity was another concern: when it comes to the sex, are women pleased as often and in as many ways as the men? And, of course, violence was important: are the women victimised in the films?

On identification, the research found that overall, women in the films talk to other characters more frequently and spend more time doing it. They have more time talking to the camera, and spend longer looking at the camera than their male counterparts. They are not only the focus, but also the central characters in the films. The men are one-dimensional by comparison.

When it came to sexual reciprocity, the women did less well than the men, but not altogether badly and certainly better than you might assume. Women orgasmed less frequently than men. But that’s hardly a shock, since in videos the ‘money shot’ is a lot more visually compelling than the less physically obvious female orgasm. The causes of female orgasm reflected a wide range of realistically arousing activities. Masturbation, dildo use, and oral sex accounted for the vast majority of female orgasms, almost four times more frequently than simple vaginal or anal penetration. They may be fantasy, but the fantasy proves surprisingly close to the reality of most women’s sexual satisfaction.

“[T]he missionary position – which is generally agreed to provide least direct pleasure to the woman – is by far the least popular form,” the study noted, contradicting the idea that the women are in porn as objects on which sex is performed. Instead, they are active participants. “Doggy style sex and woman on top – both of which are generally agreed to provide more clitoral stimulation for women – are much more popular. Although women have fewer orgasms in these videos, we might suggest that in this way at least they are not regarded as sexual objects whose own pleasure is unimportant.”

Tomorrow: Myth #2 - "The majority of pornography is violent."

Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Sexy Bits: Thursday Roundup 16/6

News in Briefs: Not A 'Family' Blog

Monday, 13 June 2011

Bailey Review II: Defining terms

Part of the problem with so much of the discussion around children and sexualisation stems from the lack of specificity in definitions.

"Sexualisation" is a difficult concept to pin down. To some, it could mean children imitating grown women, such as the various furores over Jordan letting her toddler daughter have a go at false eyelashes, or little girls dancing like Beyonce on YouTube. To others, it could mean excessively gendered clothing, such as 'Future WAG' t-shirts and an avalanche of lurid pink. And it's easy to see how to different people at different times, either, both, or neither of these examples might count as 'sexualised'.

For instance, the Bailey review recommends "modest" clothing. But what is modest? I grew up in a hot, humid area next to the beach. Temperatures of 30 degrees in winter were not uncommon. As you might imagine, bathing suits were perfectly acceptable in public. Seeing a woman of any age in short shorts, a bikini top, and flip flops even when off the beach was not only unremarkable, but unlikely to strike anyone as sexual. And adopting clothing more "modest" than shorts and a vest for little girls climbing trees in August would be tantamount to child abuse. Top-to-toe covering would have all but guaranteed a heat stroke. Transplant the same style of dressing to the UK, and the context is different. It looks inappropriate. It looks sexual, even if it isn't.

Even using examples within the UK, different communities will have different standards of what is "modest". To some, that means to-the-knee skirts. To others, it means to the ankle. Some families consider natural hair colouring and long hair on girls to be appropriate and modest; others think girls' hair should be covered in public however it looks. And in almost all cases, what is meant by "modest" only applies to girls. The tabloids can complain all they want, but not only is there no longer any one standard of appropriateness in this country, there never has been. So how is the line decided?


In the academic discussion surrounding these issues, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that no one has defined sexualisation in a way that is agreed upon by all or even most people, and perhaps that's where we should start. After all, while most people consider pornography to have equally permeable lines, the law still has to define what does and does not fall under the consideration of obscene. So there is a precedent for pinning down exactly what we're talking about here, if what we're talking about is a situation that may be subject to legislation within the next 18 months.

Consider the Scottish Executive report from last year on sexualised goods aimed at children. It should be required reading before all commentary on this topic in the UK, partly because it frames the concerns of the discussion so well:

None of these authors provides any examples that would help to explain what a sexual but not sexualised representation would be like; and by default, the two concepts seem to become conflated. One could argue that all representations necessarily ‘objectify’; and some would even suggest that sexual desire necessarily entails some dimension of ‘objectification’ – although since the characteristics of objectification are not clear, it is genuinely hard to know. Furthermore, there are obviously considerable variations in what people find sexually arousing – or indeed what they define as ‘sexual’ in the first place; let alone what they perceive as objectifying, or as ‘mutual respect’. This is not, we would argue, merely a matter of academic sophistry. If there is a suggestion that either the government or parents should intervene to proscribe certain kinds of material for children, then it is important to have very clear criteria for doing so. In the case of pornography, and indeed in the area of film classification, these criteria already exist; but when such criteria involve such nebulous and ambiguous concepts as these, it is genuinely difficult to see how they might be implemented.
The second problem is how we define 'children'. Products aimed at teens and pre-teens have different content from those aimed at younger children. This is a necessity, as it would be patronising and insulting to expect a 14-year-old to enjoy (and indeed only be able to appreciate) the same media as a toddler.

And yet, this again is somewhere we have lost the definitions in the discussion around sexualisation. "Children" are referenced as if they're a monolithic group across the entire age spectrum; anybody can tell you they're not. What's appropriate for a 3-year-old? What's appropriate for someone ten years older? It doesn't take much imagination to think that media for small children should probably contain little sexualised content. It also doesn't take much imagination to see how crop tops and short skirts on different age groups send different messages, and that parents and retailers should be aware of and sensitive to that.

Lumping all young people under the heading "children" causes a problem when so-called experts present so-called statistics. Consider this one from the Bailey report itself: "6% of 9-16 year old boys have seen sex on the Internet."

What does that actually mean? It's impossible to tell, from the statistic given, how this plays out across what is a very wide range of ages. So let's break it down.

If we look at age groups according to UK population statistics, there are about 2,979,900 boys aged 9-16 in the UK (according to mid-2009 estimates [pdf]). 394,800 of these are 16 years old. So, 16-year-olds represent 13.24% of boys between 9 and 16.

You'll forgive me, then, for noting that according to that statistic we can take a different interpretation entirely. It's quite possible that about 1 in 2 16-year-old boys has looked at sex on the Internet, and no one under age 16 has at all. That's probably not the case, but it sounds a lot more likely than the idea of a bunch of 9-year-olds watching porn!

And of course, as with any statistic, the usual caveats apply. Who were the boys polled, how were they recruited to the study? Are they a representative sample of UK children? Was the research conducted with full parental consent, and ethical monitoring of procedures and results? ...and so on. But then, you already know that I think these data should originate with academics, not with market researchers and their ilk.

The Bailey Report is not the only source of dodgy statistics, and the same broad definitions of childhood crop up over and again. There was the claim last year by MP Claire Perry that 60% of nine- to 19-year-olds had found porn online. ‘Ages 9 to 19’? That’s suspiciously arbitrary range. It includes people who are over the age of consent (16+) as well as those old enough to appear in pornography (18+). But the way the number is presented gives the impression that the majority of 9-year-old children are looking at these things. Balancing this statistic against the one in the Bailey review, we can see that if both of these numbers were true, and the stats were broken down by age, it would skew - heavily - towards the 16-and-overs.

Unfortunately, there is little to make headlines in statements like 'we should consider the social and developmental concerns of a 10-year-old and a 15-year-old to be rather different' or 'people with different environments and different circumstances often interpret the same cues differently'. It's far too boring a bit of nuance for the media. And, sadly, it seems far too boring for the people advising the government, as well.

By looking at basic criteria to do with some of the scare statistics making the rounds, we can see that the agenda towards legislation benefits from the conflation of older children with younger children, and a decided vagueness in, and reluctance to, define what - exactly - is meant by "sexualisation". I'm afraid this report has Potential Bad Law written all over it. As citizens, and as families, we should be asking harder questions when the debate comes up... of who will decide where the line is, what their credentials are to make these decisions, and how we feel about that.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

To Slutwalk or not To Slutwalk?

Technically, this is not a pressing concern for me, since I live far, far in the depths of the Scottish Highlands, in a very small village which boasts exactly one drinking establishment (staffed by our closest neighbour). With the odds of street attacks by anything other than an angry ground-nesting bird rather low, I imagine organising a Slutwalk in the West Highlands would be met with puzzlement and not a little confusion.

But, it seems that people are talking of little else lately. Have blog, will blog, etc...

In principle, I support the notion of the Slutwalks. The manifesto of the original walk in Toronto included this:

We are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result. Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work... [emphasis mine]
Why is this worth bringing up? Simply because, with Slutswalks springing up here, there, and not-quite-everywhere in the UK, it seems a crucial founding message has been lost. That women should not be regarded as targets even if sex is their work.

Unfortunately, the version of Slutwalking that has come here seems only selectively interested in the original message... since most of the organisers, and most vocal participants in Slutwalks, are exactly the same people who turned up en masse outside London's new Playboy club to jeer women at work. Astoundingly, this bizarre Venn intersection even includes some well known sex writers and bloggers. Jaw, meet desk.

As many (but not all) readers will know, I became increasingly frustrated with, and then angry at, an interpretation of feminism that victimises the people (cis and trans, men and women) in sex work using exactly the same arguments and judgments used against women as a whole for so long. And the staggering number of people who earn a living from their sexuality in one way or another queueing up to explain why some folks who do so are commericalising sexuality but they most emphatically are not.

While gender solidarity in the face of differing opinion is no doubt a worthy concept, I found I was losing untold time and energy trying to explain to other women why I, too, should be regarded not only as an authentic woman with an authentic sexual self, but as a human being, full stop. There are feminists who dehumanise sex workers in a way that is sickening to read, and they are increasingly quoted by and respected in the mainstream. Sorry, ladies - ya lost me when you equated renting access to sexual favours with not having a brain, a free will, or an ability to discern real allies from real haters.

So while in spirit, I am as much a slut as any, and would in another incarnation be out there walking, I can't find a reason why I should. Which feels a bit of a shame, but in the end, when my identity as a former sex worker was seen as more important to others than my identity as a woman or even as a human, I guess I had to make it a priority. It's not a comfortable soapbox, this one. But at least there are a lot fewer folks queuing up to tell me I don't belong on it.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Bailey Report on Sexualisation: A first look

Today, the long-awaited result of the government's consultation on children, sexualisation and commercialisation was released. Letting Children Be Children was authored by Reg Bailey and presents a number of recommendations about various types of media that children encounter.

I would like to note that Reg Bailey is head of the Mothers' Union - that is, a Christian think-tank dressed up as a charity. I for one do not feel this is appropriate, just as I feel the recent 'porn opt-in' proposals were inappropriately influenced by moralistic ideology of a group that has associations with the worst right-wing excesses of the Reagan and Bush administrations.

That's as it may be. You might disagree. Now to the content of the report:


  • It does not summarise any academic evidence regarding sexualisation. It refers to previous consultations, but does not make reference to criticism of these.
  • It does not conduct new evidence-seeking regarding effects of commercialisation and children. Rather, it is an opinion-gathering exercise of parents and children.
  • It does offer results of questionnaires and focus groups, and presents the questions posed to the respondents.
  • It does make a number of recommendations, purportedly based on the results of the questionnaires and focus groups, however close examination shows that in many cases, the responses do not support the changes suggested.
In general, the Bailey review is a step up from the previous government's review, authored by Linda Papadopoulos. The quality of the writing is better, and concessions are made throughout the recommendations that parents, ultimately, are the responsible parties (especially for younger ages) of what their children are exposed to. The acknowledgment of the role families have in responding to social and commercial pressures is emphasised, and that is good.

However I can't help but feel that these are bones being thrown to the few remaining Conservatives whose leanings are more libertarian than authoritarian. Because by and large, the recommendations come with an implicit warning: if society does not experience material changes in the next 18 months, government should step in.

As noted above, the report neither summarises nor attempts to address the question of what negative effect, if any, commercial and sexual imagery has on children. The only intellectually honest answer to that question is that we don't know. The report states: "Insufficient evidence to prove conclusively there is harm to children does not mean that no harm exists." How much bad law is written off the back of similarly lazy assumptions?

It also attempts to summarise potential parental responses in a way that reads as at best, simplistic and at worst, patronising. Example: "The world is a nasty place and children should be unsullied by it until they are mature enough to deal with it." Not only are few parents actually likely to agree with this, it's an assailable viewpoint on many levels and a poor starting place for a supposed continuum of possible approaches.

The patronising continues throughout: "... we believe that a truly family-friendly society would ... reinforce healthy norms for adults and children alike ..." Yet nowhere are these 'norms' defined, defended, or adequately outlined. And who on earth is "we"? Added to which, in the section regarding proof of age to access internet erotica, mention of the utility of ID cards slips in, well, it's what some would consider a Orwellian nightmare. For ID cards to rear their ugly head in a report commissioned by a Lib Dem shows just how wildly the party's practice of politics has diverged from their former ideals.

But the proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating. And the meat of any recommendations made to government in this evidence-based policy age should be in the quality of its data. So how good are the data?

As a background to the previous government's report, Dr Petra Boynton produced a good primer which is relevant as well to this review.

Because I'm not a social scientist, it's perhaps better to leave detailed criticism of the questions deployed to respondents to other, more qualified sorts. Suffice it to say that they seem poorly designed, leading, and misleading. People with more educated notions than mine on this topic appear to agree. But I'm really more of a numbers girl.

One thing that stands out in reading the Bailey review is that the way in which the results are interpreted is very leading. For instance, on the question of advertising in public spaces, the reviews claims that 40% of parent respondents had seen something they regarded as inappropriate or offensive.

Clearly, context is missing: the distinction between whether offensive adverts were seen once ever, or every day, is not made. And of course, it would be just as easy to present the statistic the other way round, and get a different interpretation entirely. 60% of parents had not seen anything they regarded as offensive in public advertising.

In other sections, where the data disagree with the interpretation in a way that can't easily be manipulated, the report takes a different tack. It presents the data after the relevant recommendation. For example, the recommendation that lad's mags should be removed from places children might see them comes several pages before the data showing only 113 of 846 parents thought lad's mags were of particular concern. That's less than 15%.

Of course, there is the question of how relevant these kinds of questions even are to the public policy discussion. There is much talk lately of 'evidence based' policy, but this kind of questionnaire-reporting is nothing of the kind. When it comes to anything involving numbers, it seems that people accept market research more readily than peer-reviewed science.

Producing numbers is not the same as producing evidence. Imagine if scientists were to discard the enormous weight of evidence for evolution, simply because a survey showed "most" people didn't agree with it! That's not evidence-based policy, it's mob rule.

That said, parents and children have been conspicuously absent from previous reviews - save the one by the Scottish Executive. You have to wonder why, and the way the Bailey report is written gives some clues. One of them might be in results like these - "72% [of parents] think the overall level of regulation for television programmes is about right." Parents, it seems, can be off-message... and those opinions will likely be ignored, both now and 18 months from now.

When combing the data in the Bailey report, it is clear that as many parents resent the idea of government intrusion into their family's decisions as would potentially support it. 'Giving parents a say' does not inevitably lead to IP-level controls on internet porn; many of them would be uncomfortable with the idea. Unfortunately, the moderating and considered opinions of contributors to the consultation who thought so are ignored in a swathe of suggestions that seem to have been crafted long before the consultation was even carried out.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Sexualisation Reports: Same Old, Same Old? (new copy)

At first glance, the worries about children and sexualisation seem to have reached consensus. Pretty much everyone believes it causes harm – everything from low self-esteem and early sexual activity to sexual and gender-related violence. Government, news media, and an array of non-profits agree. The research evidence, they claim, is staggering. Are they correct? Or does examining the issue from another perspective give us a different picture entirely?

Probably the hardest part of being a parent these days is negotiating what is appropriate in world where much has changed.

Parents, and people in general, are rightly concerned about the effects of an increasingly consumerist society on kids. I fully support the rights of parents to enforce their own standards – deciding what is and isn’t appropriate is a complex balancing act. Age of the child, cultural background, and all kinds of variables can only really be appreciated on a family-by-family basis. And importantly, there need to be better support systems to educate and inform concerned parents, so they can make the appropriate decisions.

What rarely gets reported, however, is that the data around the supposed trends are very shaky. When you look at the problems most people fear – such as increased sexual activity – the evidence just isn’t there. And in the few instances when people bother to talk to children, most of them actually have a more balanced and mature approach to modern culture than commentators give them credit for.

Various claims have been made around this issue. But are we being given evidence and solid policy, or assumptions and sloppy analysis? More worryingly, is the outcome being decided without even consulting parents, educators, and children?

What the people making claims about the harmful effects of ‘hypersexualisation’ need to do is demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship. Then they need to show that early exposure to sexualised imagery causes the outcomes they are claiming, such as violence against women.

One saying you hear over and over in the research world is “correlation is not causation.” It’s a good rule to remember, particularly when looking at human health and behaviours.

What’s the difference between a cause and a correlation? Put simply, when you say one action causes a result, you are saying there is a direct line between that action and the result. Cause implies that an action results in a predictable reaction. Correlation, on the other hand, means that the action and the result both occur, but may not be related. Here’s an example. The amount of reality television programming has risen dramatically since 2000; so have the fees for UK universities. Neither one caused the other. Reality TV correlates with high fees – it doesn’t cause them. Happening at the same time does not always imply a relationship.

Correlations can be useful. They can be a first step in investigating whether there could be a causal role. After all, it takes someone noticing that lots of smokers get lung cancer in the first place. But the investigation can’t – and shouldn’t – stop there. Not least because a lot of the things we think we know can turn out to be wrong. Careful analysis requires looking past the small scale. It resists making broad conclusions from limited data.

Unfortunately, broad conclusions and limited data are just about all that's been offered up to this point. Consider the infographic below:



Over and again, what parents get instead of good information, is sensationalistic headlines designed to attract media coverage. That's not the same thing as reliable data; never has been.

The main problem with the sexualisation "debate" is that when it comes to solid proof that sexualised media and products cause harmful effects to children, the only honest response is we don't know.

In June, a review of sexualisation and children led by Reg Bailey of the Mothers' Union is set to be released. It's impossible to predict the exact content, but this gives a bit of a clue:

"Of the 1,025 parents of five- to 16-year-olds surveyed, 40% said they had seen things in public places, such as shop window displays and advertising hoardings, that they felt were inappropriate for children to see because of their sexual content."

Sounds like a dire misrepresentation of statistics. 40% you say? You could as easily conclude that the majority - 60% - of those polled have not seen things in shop windows and adverts they thought were inappropriate for children. It's all in how it's presented. And of the 40% who did, there was no indication of how often they encountered these things (once in the last year? sixteen times a day?) and whether they felt children took notice of them.

In other words, while the final conclusions of the report are not yet known, it certainly looks like it's going to be misusing stats to manufacture consent.

It is important to remember that as adults, sexual content is part of life. It is reasonable to expect that in spaces and entertainment for children, sexualised content will be strictly limited. But in spaces for adults at large? Surely that's where good parents step in and explain to curious children the difference between grown-ups and kids. Infantilising the world is, to me, unacceptable.

With the government set to release their new report on children and sexualisation in May, perhaps it's a good idea to look at the previous government's attempt to address the same issue. And where they went wrong.

In 2009 the UK Consultation on Sexualisation of Young People was launched by then-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. It was part of a wider campaign, with an aim to connect sexualisation explicitly with violence. The review set its goal as seeing “how sexualised images and messages may be affecting the development of children and young people and influencing cultural norms, and examines the evidence for a link between sexualisation and violence”.

The 2010 Home Office report [pdf] is notable on several counts: it is very slickly produced, it provides loads of policy recommendations, and it is notably lacking in the qualities that would make good research.

Other reviews of sexualisation of children have appeared before. One was by the American Psychological Association in 2007. Australia also released a similar report in 2008. These were well received at first, but the expectation was that later reports would take a fuller view of the context in which young people live. After all, any of us can point to a pile of Playboy t-shirts in children’s sizes… the important question is what effect this might be having, if any.

Part of good research practice is allowing readers to see the source material and where the conclusions originated. For most of the report, however, conclusions are made in absence of citations. Consider the following statement:

“Children and young people today are not only exposed to increasing amounts of hyper-sexualised images, they are also sold the idea that they have to look ‘sexy’ and ‘hot’. As such they are facing pressures that children in the past simply did not have to face.”

Frightening, no? And yet, no source is given for this assertion. What are 'increasing amounts', and how are they quantified? What exactly is a 'sexualised image'? Define your terminology and outline your methods, people! And the conclusion that children in the past did not experience this pressure is questionable – just ask any grandmother.

There are a lot of studies quoted – mainly studies of pornography and adults – but the conclusions specifically about children and violence reference no research publications. The Home Office consultation is reluctant to admit that research into putative negative effects of imagery on children does not exist.

There’s a good reason it doesn’t. Experiments on adults (which the consultation relies on heavily) would face significant ethical restrictions if conducted on children. Because they consist of exposing test subjects to pornography, then administering a questionnaire, you can see why the subject is hard to address. But to make conclusions without even addressing this lack of source material is a huge oversight.

In the face of this deficiency, however, the consultation still claims a connection, mainly by relying on spurious polls (as shown in the infographic above). “The evidence gathered in the review suggests a clear link between consumption of sexualised images, a tendency to view women as objects and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviour as the norm.”

But if you look at their cited materials closely, it's clear that most of their "evidence" is studies taken out of context, misinterpreted results, or plain irrelevant hypothesising.

Here's an example. One paper cited in the 2010 report is a 2000 publication by Malamuth et al., Pornography and Sexual Aggression: Are there reliable effects and can we understand them? [pdf] The paper considers whether there is a causal link between adults who view pornography and sexual aggression.

Now, the difference between ‘sexualising’ images aimed at children and actual pornography for adults is a big one. Even using a paper like this in a discussion of childhood issues is problematic.

What the Malamuth study found, though was interesting.

While some people who viewed pornography had violent beliefs towards women, the conclusion did not claim pornography was the cause: “We suggest that the way relatively aggressive men interpret and react to the same pornography may differ from that of nonaggressive men.” In other words, the pump is already primed in some people. But for nonaggressive men, the same imagery did not incite negative thoughts.

So, there is not a direct correlation between porn and violent beliefs in most men. But when the Home Office report cites Malamuth’s work, this message is lost. No mention is made that it’s a study of adults, not children, and of pornography, not sexualised images. It is cited as if it is a conclusive example, but anyone reading the actual paper will see that’s not true.

There are other studies that contradict any connection between porn and violence. The Home Office report doesn’t mention them, though.

In a prospective study Simon Lajeunesse of the University of Montreal found most of the men he studied sought out porn by the age of 10, when they become sexually curious. He also found they quickly discarded what they didn't like and things they find offensive. As adults, they looked for content that was compatible with their sex preferences.

Lajeunesse‘s subjects reported that they supported gender equality, but also that they felt victimized by criticism of pornography. "Pornography hasn't changed their perception of women or their relationship which they all want as harmonious and fulfilling as possible,” says Lajeunesse. “Those who could not live out their fantasy in real life with their partner simply set aside the fantasy. The fantasy is broken in the real world and men don't want their partner to look like a porn star."

His conclusions are similar to Malamuth’s. "Aggressors don't need pornography to be violent and addicts can be addicted to drugs, alcohol, gaming,” he adds. “If pornography had the impact that many claim it has, you would just have to show heterosexual films to a homosexual to change his sexual orientation."

In many ways, the previous government's Home Office report failed to live up to its own hype. The Con-Dem coalition have made hay on the presumption that their government would if not overturn, at least critically examine questionable policies of the previous Labour government. It remains to be seen whether on this topic they will come out with anything that qualifies as an intellectually honest review. I can't say my hopes are high.

Pimping Kids? Really?

Quite apart from the questionable tagline - "Stop pimping our kids," which uses child prostitution as a metaphor for consumerism, um, media FAIL - the recent Channel 4 Sex Education show has attracted a lot of criticism. Unfortunately, most of the criticism has been ignored by mainstream media.

What C4's Sex Education Show never does - and I am probably shooting myself in the foot for suggesting - is lay the blame squarely at the feet of parents who let their kids buy these things. Sure, kids can get their own money and spend it, but I bet there would be a lot fewer padded bikinis for the under-12s flying off the shelves if children were entirely responsible for that purchase.

Parents talk a lot about 'pester power', the ability of children to manipulate you into buying stuff you don't want to buy. I'm sorry to say it, because I know... I know! I'm not a parent. You might be. But I've been a kid. A kid who wanted a lot of stuff. And my parents, bless them, usually said "no". Which is why I started waiting tables at 15 and blew my entire first paycheque on an Oakland A's jersey. (It was the early 90's, okay? But believe me a valuable lesson was learned. Namely that MLB kit is muy overpriced, and you can get, like, two hundred Taco Bell bean burritos for that.)

While I'm not the sort of Ayn Rand-esque knob who thinks market forces solve everything, you have to admit the consumer has a lot of pow 1000 er here. A lot. Stop buying stuff and they'll quit selling it. Don't believe me? Just ask the makers of Betamax, the Zune, and the DeLorean.

But another uncomfortable truth the show only touches on is the gap between what children experience now, and what parents feel willing and able to talk to them about. Yes, it is true that only a small minority of parents know how to install and use blocking software to limit in-home exposure to adult entertainment via the Internet. But why does that inevitably seem to lead to the assumption that blocking sites at the IP level is appropriate? Why does government think that the best way to address the gap between the tools parents have and the exposure children get is with more government control, not more parent information?

Or, for that matter, more real sex education in schools? A show of the same name is simply a ratings-grabbing, prurient, and poor replacement for the real thing. Let us not forget the debates before the last general election, with Tories staunchly opposing universal sex ed in schools. Because, they claimed, it should be parental choice. This is the same party supporting internet censorship. Hang on then... what happened to parental choice?