Monday, 18 November 2013

What David Cameron can learn from schoolgirls and soccer moms

David Cameron comes in for a lot of criticism from libertarian and sex-positive types for his morally conservative attitude to internet porn, as shown in his determination to force IP companies to introduce opt-in smut filters. But perhaps he just doesn't have either the time or the inclination to do his own research, and is reliant on what campaigners tell him, or what he reads in the Daily Mail. If so, then he can scarcely be blamed for assuming that the entirety of "mainstream porn" is violent and misogynistic, encourages adolescent boys to hate women and abuse their girlfriends and irreperably corrupts the minds of young children who innocently go looking for pictures of kittens.

After all, it's common knowledge that in the age of the internet porn is pretty grim stuff. Even self-declared feminist pornographers proclaim as much, even while selling their own dream of a sex-positive, eco-friendly, non-exploitative alternative. Indeed, the essential violence and misogyny of the "mainstream" is as much an item of faith among "alternative" pornographers as it is for anti-porn campaigners such as Gail Dines, who has described online erotica as "a never-ending universe of ravaged anuses, distended vaginas and semen-smeared faces".

Not only does the alternative producers' business model depend upon the existence of an unspeakable mainstream (rather as the censors' does also) so does their self-identity - now buttressed by a global network of arty porn festivals and feminist award ceremonies. The existence of easy-access, free and often pirated porn is the common enemy of both professional porn producers and moralists, it must be said, so the confluence of interest in damning "mainstream porn" isn't surprising.

It's also common knowledge that only boys and men want to watch porn anyway. Even in households without children, Our Dave promises, "husbands will have to have a difficult conversation with their wives about accessing porn at home". Because all women everywhere are horrified by the very idea of sexually explicit material - and men, meanwhile, are so ashamed by it they will acquiesce in default filters that in the way of things will end up blocking a great many sites that aren't remotely pornographic anyway. So that's OK then.

Is there any actual research, as opposed to anecdote, about what "mainstream porn" really looks like? It's not difficult to do, after all - at least, not until the Cameron Cordon arrives some time next year. Here's some, conducted by three women at New Brunswick University in Canada, led by graduate student Sarah Vannier and her supervisor Professor Lucia O’Sullivan. Recently unveiled by Vannier at a science and sexuality conference in San Diego, it has a catchy title - Schoolgirls and Soccer Moms: A Content Analysis of Free "Teen" and "MILF" Online Pornography. Ironically, the content of this content analysis is not free, but if the abstract is accurate it does what it says on the tin.

Vannier's research interests include oral sex among teenagers and sexual compliance in committed relationships ("I’m pretty sure I picked one of the most interesting careers out there", she says.) She has also written a sex advice column for her student newspaper - in which she notes that "although watching porn for research sounds like a ton of fun, it does get boring after a while". Concentrating on free sites not only makes for low research costs (though was the research possible on the university's own computers, I wonder?) it's also the most useful place to start, given that they account for the vast majority of porn consumption.

And as the abstract says in somewhat self-contradictory terms, "viewing free online pornographic videos has increasingly become a common behavior among young people, although little is known about the content of these videos." Presumably the content of the videos is not little known to the many who view them. But you get the point - little is known officially and publicly (or in academic journals) about the content of the videos.

And perhaps (though perhaps not) little is known to the politicians making decisions about internet filtering about the content of these videos. It's an area where admitting ignorance is a positive asset to a politician or a pundit, where claiming to know what you're talking about might be held against you. "I've never seen the stuff myself, but I've heard it's revolting" is the safest line to take publicly. I suspect that several politicians who may find themselves having "difficult conversations" at home next year know more than they will ever say. But since coming out in opposition to the porn filter is as much as admission of guilt, that will have to remain in the realm of conjecture.

So short of informing yourself by actually visiting these sites, which no-one in their right mind would ever do, you'll have to rely on Sarah Vannier's research. And so, without further ado:

The current study analyzed the content of two popular female-age-based types of free, online pornography (teen and MILF) and examined nuances in the portrayal of gender and access to power in relation to the age of the female actor. A total of 100 videos were selected from 10 popular Web sites, and their content was coded using independent raters.

The focus of the research, then, was not only on the content of the videos but on the underlying socio-political message. Were these "popular" genres characterised principally by violence and perversion? Were the women involved portrayed as the degraded playthings of insatiable male lust? Not entirely:

Vaginal intercourse and fellatio were the most frequently depicted sexual acts. The use of sex toys, paraphilias, cuddling, and condom use were rare, as were depictions of coercion.

Control of the pace and direction of sexual activity was typically shared by the male and female actors. Moreover, there were no gender differences in initiation of sexual activity, use of persuasion, portrayals of sexual experience, or in professional status. However, female actors in MILF videos were portrayed as more agentic and were more likely to initiate sexual activity, control the pace of sexual activity, and have a higher professional status.

(My italics)

So there you have it. Older female performers were "more likely to initiate sexual activity" but even in "teen" videos the women aren't entirely or even predominantly passive. There were "no gender differences". This is of course strikingly at variance with the almost universal assumptions about the content of mainstream porn, even those articulated by alternative and feminist pornographers. So contrary are these findings to the accepted wisdom I'd be amazed if they were taken seriously or used to inform the public debate. Nevertheless, I suspect the research will come as little surprise to the majority of people who actually watch the stuff.

Truly, online porn exists in a parallel universe