One day I found myself ringing on the doorbell in a suburban street in Essex to talk to a self-confessed pornography addict. Jim, a quiet man in his early forties, was embarrassed by what we discussed over the following couple of hours but also eager to tell a story that he feels is probably less unusual than one might think.
“I know I’m not the only guy who’s like this,” he kept saying. Nor is he: there is a great leviathan of obscenity on the internet that anyone can access at any time with a couple of clicks of a mouse.
Jim first became aware of pornography long before the internet era. “My dad was really into pornography. I was five when I found a copy of his Mayfair. I found it quite captivating, to be honest.”
When he was about seven, Jim discovered hardcore European pornography in his father’s wardrobe, and he can remember some of those first images he saw. “I found them quite disturbing. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, of course, because the whole point is that it’s hidden. You know that you’re not supposed to know about it.”
From then on he would get up before his parents woke, before six in the morning, to look through his father’s briefcase and find the porn magazines. “Then my dad got a Super 8 projector, when I was about 11 or 12, and he would hire porn films. He would lock himself in the dining room to watch them. But the real change came when he got a video, and I persevered till I found the films. I was about 14 and I would find them and watch them when I was alone in the house. Constantly.”
At this age, Jim did not have any relationships to set against this obsession. He was going to a boys’ school and never met girls socially. “I was obsessed with pornography, I wanted to be pornography, I wanted to live pornography,” he said. “It wasn’t good for me, I can see that now. I knew that even then, I think, but it was an addiction from the start. It had such a powerful hold on me. It had a huge effect on my behaviour with women.
“I was unable to think of women except as potential pornography. I looked at them in a purely sexual way. I remember one day I was walking to school, I was about 15, and I got talking to a girl who must have been about 18. I immediately said I wanted to grope her breasts. I had no idea how to interact with women as people.”
Even though Jim began to have girlfriends from the age of 19, he never managed to shrug off the power of the fantasy world. “The power of pornography has continued throughout my adult life. Nothing has really measured up to the world of porn, for me. I’ve seen thousands of strangers having sex. So when I have sex, I am watching myself having sex.”
In his thirties, he started a relationship with Ali, a direct-talking, well-read woman. He told her about his interest in porn and they used to watch videos together. At first she could see the “high” but when she became uncomfortable, he agreed to try to abstain. Once the internet was part of their lives, he could no longer control himself and began to use pornography again. The relationship broke down after seven years. “Pornography has made him only able to see sex one way,” Ali said. “He has always seen sex as something that has to be performed, not felt.”
She would like to see a public debate about the effects of pornography. “Porn has been so normalised that anyone objecting to it now is just going to be laughed at. I think we need to hear again about how pornography threatens intimacy.”
For Jim, pornography “has destroyed my ability to have intimate relationships”. One might think that someone who has seen as much as he has would not be unsettled by anything, but he is shocked by the way that the growing acceptability of pornography is putting into the mainstream a dehumanising view of women.
He finds the internet — with its images of rape, incest and abuse — “quite disturbing”. He said: “The stuff I saw as a kid was what we called hardcore, but the idea in the text alongside was that it was based on mutual consent — mutual pleasure — but what I see now is more male domination.”
Jim believes that very young men are beginning to see as normal images that would once have been seen as far beyond the pale. “It’s like bravado, they want to look at worse and worse stuff. When I was a kid what you saw was limited by what you could physically buy on paper. Now it all flashes around so quickly and the taboos have just fallen.”
Jim feels that, even for young men who don’t seek it out, the exposure to these images simply changes their attitudes to sex. “I think that kind of violence associated with sex lodges in your mind and you never forget it, however much you want to. It’s always there.”
Not only is the tone of pornography so often reliant on real or imaginary abuse of women, it is consumed in increasing numbers by young people who have little real experience to set against it.
Ali worries that what happened with Jim could be repeated with her own son. “I was first aware that he was looking at pornography when he was 14. But how can boys not see it? Unless they make a concerted decision not to look at it, to delete it from their mobiles when it’s sent to them, or from their emails. You’d be making a singular, probably a unique decision.
“Once someone like Jim was unusual, now every boy has seen all of that. I know what it does to young minds, and now it is more and more prevalent. God knows how we can begin to challenge this. Once upon a time, kids could experiment, you know, privately, but now all the innocence is lost.”
For a long time I was sceptical about the claim that the internet had really changed people’s access and attitudes to pornography. Those who want it have surely always been able to find it, whether they were living in 5th-century Athens or the 1950s. But the evidence has convinced me that the internet has driven a real change for many people, especially younger people.
Once upon a time, someone who was truly fascinated by pornography might have found, with some difficulty, 10, or 20, or 100 images to satisfy themselves. Now anyone can click on a single website and find 20, 100, 1,000 choices of videos and images, with the most specialist and violent next to the most gentle and consensual.
Statistics tell a story that is hard to ignore. A survey carried out in 2006 found that one in four men aged 25-49 had viewed hardcore online pornography in the previous month and that nearly 40% of men had viewed pornographic websites in the previous year.
It is the prevalence of pornography consumption among children that is most striking. In a study in 2000, 25% of children aged 10-17 had seen unwanted online pornography in the form of pop-ups or spam. By 2005 the figure was 34% — and 42% of children aged 10-17 had seen pornography, whether wanted or unwanted. In another study in Canada, 90% of boys aged 13 and 14 and 70% of girls the same age had viewed pornography. Most of this porn use had been over the internet. More than one-third of the boys reported viewing pornographic DVDs or videos “too many times to count”.
While once someone could live their whole lives without ever seeing anyone but themselves and their own partners having sex, now the voyeur’s view of sex has been normalised, even for children.
For an increasing number of young people, pornography is no longer something that goes alongside sex but something that precedes sex. Before they have touched another person sexually or entered into any kind of sexual relationship, many children have seen hundreds of adult strangers having sex.
When I spoke to one teenager who is studying for his A-levels and quoted statistics to him that said that the majority of young teenagers have looked at pornography, he laughed.
“More like 100%,” he said. “It’s when you’re 13 and 14 that everyone starts looking and talking about it at school — before you’re having sex, you’re watching it.
“I think that those lads’ mags are only read by certain kinds of boys. My friends wouldn’t read them, to be honest, just like they wouldn’t buy The Sun. But pornography — it crosses every social class, every cultural background.
“Everyone watches porn. And I think that’s entirely down to the internet; not just your home computer, but everything that can connect — your phone, your BlackBerry, whatever you’ve got — everyone’s watching porn.
“Adults have got to know what teenagers are doing, and if you’re caught, you get told off. But I never had a serious discussion with a teacher or anyone about it.”
I heard from teenagers that they want more chance to discuss seriously what they are seeing, since they seem to find that this world of pornography is absolutely open to them and yet is rarely referred to openly.
Now that the classic feminist critique of pornography — that it necessarily involves or encourages abuse of women — has disappeared from view, there are few places that young people are likely to hear much criticism or even discussion about its effects.
Many women who would call themselves feminists have come to accept that they are growing up in a world where pornography is ubiquitous and will be part of almost everyone’s sexual experiences. I can see why some are arguing that the way forward really rests on creating more opportunities for women in pornography, yet I think it is worth looking at why some of us still feel such unease with the situation as it is now.
I do not believe that all pornography inevitably degrades women, and I do see that the classic feminist critique of pornography is too simplistic to embrace the great range of explicit sexual materials and people’s reactions to them. Yet let’s be honest. The overuse of pornography does threaten many erotic relationships, and this is a growing problem. What’s more, too much pornography does still rely on or promote the exploitation or abuse of women. Even if you can find porn for women and couples on the internet, nevertheless a vein of real contempt for women characterises so much pornography.
The massive colonisation of teenagers’ erotic life by commercial pornographic materials is something that it is hard to feel sanguine about. By expanding so much in a world that is still so unequal, pornography has often reinforced and reflected the inequalities around us.
This means that men are still encouraged, through most pornographic materials, to see women as objects, and women are still encouraged much of the time to concentrate on their sexual allure rather than their imagination or pleasure. No wonder we have seen the rise of the idea that erotic experience will necessarily involve, for women, a performance in which they will be judged visually.
When I interviewed young women about their attitudes to sexuality, I was struck by one apparently trivial fact: that all of them agreed that they would never want to have sex if they hadn’t depilated their pubic hair.
“I would never want a man to see me if I hadn’t been waxed recently,” said one young woman from Cambridge University, and her friends nodded in agreement. “I don’t need to have all the hair removed, but it has to be neat,” said another.
“That is definitely tied into porn,” said another. “We know what men will have seen and what they will expect.”
Where the rise of expectations from pornography result just in depilation, that is one thing, but the rise of interest in surgery to change the appearance of the labia is another, far more worrying development. The number of operations carried out in the UK to cut women’s labia to a preconceived norm is currently rising steeply.
This development has been covered extensively in magazines and television programmes, often in a way calculated to increase anxiety among female viewers. In an episode of Embarrassing Teenage Bodies, screened on Channel 4 in 2008, a young woman consulted a doctor about the fact that her labia minora extended slightly beyond her labia majora and that this caused her embarrassment. Instead of reassuring her that this was entirely normal, the doctor recommended, and carried out, surgery on her labia.
The comments left on the programme’s website showed how this decision to carry out plastic surgery to fit a young woman’s body to a so-called norm made other young women feel intensely anxious.
“I’m 15 and I thought I was fine, but since I’ve watched the programme I’ve become worried, as mine seem larger than the girl who had hers made surgically smaller! It doesn’t make any difference to my life, but I worry now that when I’m older and start having sex I might have problems!” one girl said.
This idea that there is one correct way for female genitals to look is undoubtedly tied into the rise of pornography. One website for a doctor who specialises in this form of plastic surgery makes this explicit: “Laser reduction labioplasty can sculpture the elongated or unequal labial minora (small inner lips) according to one’s specification ... Many women bring us Playboy and say that they want to look like this. With laser reduction labioplasty, we work with women to try to accomplish their desires.”
If the rise of pornography was really tied up with women’s liberation and empowerment, it would not be increasing women’s anxiety about fitting into a narrow physical ideal.
The tide of pornography is so huge, and so easily accessible, that it often seems impossible to think about turning it back. Yet I don’t think we have to slip into despair. There is this idea that “innocence”, once lost, is lost for ever, that, as Jim put it, once pornography is viewed, “You never forget it, however much you want to.”
It is true that we cannot turn back the clock and wipe pornography out of our individual experience or the memories of our society. Yet there are still ways to move forward and to create places where the influence of pornography will be resisted. This will entail giving more support to people who are struggling with its dehumanising effects on their own relationships.
The starting point is public debate. A woman I’ll call Lara, who has been trying for several years to persuade her husband to give up pornography, wrote to me: “From some discussions I’ve had online I can see that many wives are struggling with their husband’s porn use. If the mainstream media began talking about porn addiction in the same way as they talk freely about drug abuse, gambling or alcoholism, then maybe my husband would see that he’s not the only man in the world who has this problem and would see that he should deal with it.”
Women scarred by the myth that selling sex is a positive career choice
Ellie is an articulate, well-educated woman who went to private school and a good university and was brought up to believe she could do anything in any profession — law, medicine, politics.
She decided she wanted to be an actress, but when jobs were hard to find and she found herself financially desperate, she took a sideways step in her twenties by going for an audition at a lap-dancing club in London.
“You just had to stand there and hold the pole and take your clothes off,” Ellie remembered. “I don’t think I’d thought it through. I was surprised when I saw what the other girls were wearing. I was just in a skirt and T-shirt and when they asked me to take my clothes off I was like, uh-oh, I’m wearing really bad pants. But they said, shave your pubes, get a fake tan, sort out your nails, dye your hair, pluck your eyebrows, come back next week. So I said okay, and I went and made myself orange. I did it for about six months, every night.”
For her it didn’t feel like a big step at first to go into the sex industry, because of the way that lap-dancing clubs have become an unremarkable part of British urban life in an incredibly short space of time. From only a few in the 1990s, there were an estimated 300 by 2008.
Ellie told me she had picked up the message that lap dancing was pretty straightforward and even empowering for the women who do it. “People say that, don’t they? There’s this myth that women are expressing their sexuality freely in this way, and that as they can make lots of money out of it, it gives them power over the men who are paying.”
She was shocked by quite how demeaning and dehumanising the work actually was. “There’s something about the club — the lights, the make-up, the clothes you wear, those huge platform heels, the way that so many women have fake boobs. You look like cartoons. You give yourself a fake girlie name, like a doll. You’re encouraged to look like dolls. No wonder the men don’t see you as people.”
Stripping in various styles is not the only element of the sex industry that has become far more acceptable. Prostitution has also moved from the margins to the mainstream of our culture in a development that one can track in the popularity of bestselling memoirs of prostitutes such as Belle de Jour. They have a matter-of-fact tone, and tend to emphasise how very normal the occupation is and how close to any liberated woman’s sex life.
Rather than being seen as shameful, prostitution can now be seen as an aspirational occupation for a woman. “My body is a big deal,” ran the advertising caption for the television series based on Belle de Jour’s book over huge images of the actress Billie Piper in underwear.
It would be naive to assume that the promotion of such a view of prostitution in the mainstream media does not have an effect on the real-life behaviour of men and women. A woman I’ll call Angela, who has been working as a prostitute for four years, explained to me how she had come to this point.
Although in some ways Angela was quite formal, and uneasy about sharing the details of her life, from time to time her rage would burst out in a torrent of words. In the sitting room of her chilly, scrupulously clean flat in Middlesex, where there were no comfortable chairs, but where there was a metal pole running floor to ceiling with a pair of patent high heels next to it, she told me how she had become involved in prostitution.
She first began to think about charging for sex when her marriage broke down. As a woman in her thirties who had not dated for a long time, she was eager to look for new experiences. Her friends said to her that she should go out, have a good time, find a man and have sex, and she began to use internet chat rooms to meet men. When she met them, she found “they would expect me to just get on with it, in the name of sexual liberation and fun”.
These experiences in the new world of unemotional sex surprised Angela, as things had changed so much since before her marriage. “When I had had relationships with men in the past, I have to say that they were usually equal and pleasurable experiences. There wasn’t the surround sound, the cultural imperative that it was all about sex, only about sex. What men expect you to do has really changed — anal sex, threesomes, even when you’ve just met them.”
At first she did not question what she was experiencing. “I believed what everyone said, that all this promiscuous sex was so empowering.” But as she went on having sex with men without much emotional engagement, Angela thought it would not be a huge step to begin charging. Since none of the men she met wanted a relationship, she felt they could give her something in exchange. She needed the money.
“I was pretty desperate to find a way to survive, to be honest. It dawned on me that I could get paid for this. I thought that it would be fun — I remember seeing a documentary on television about kids of rich Hollywood stars and there was one girl who said sometimes she went down to the Sunset Strip and got paid for sex as a bit of fun. I thought, okay, there’s no harm in it.
“When I went into it, I thought it would be easy. That’s what you’re asked to believe, isn’t it? I thought, okay, if this is empowering, let’s suck it and see.”
Angela was shocked by what she discovered about both the physical and the psychological impact of the work. “I saw it’s not empowering; it’s very disempowering. It’s harmful. It narrows how you value yourself, how you define yourself. It’s very dangerous to define yourself through the eyes of these men who are buying your body. I see that now — I wish I could get other women to see it. I feel as though this hypersexualisation of society — everyone’s falling for it, and more and more young girls think that prostitution is about being Billie Piper, being Belle de Jour, and it just isn’t. It really isn’t like that.
“There are a lot of clients who are respectful but it’s all over the spectrum. Really young ones want to experiment: they’ve seen stuff on the internet — violence and rape. What was extreme five years ago is commonplace now. I get inquiries about being tied up, being gagged. They want to tie you up; they want threesomes. I get the feeling that some of the men get off on the fact that the woman doesn’t want it. Basically you’ve consented to being raped sometimes for money.”
The matter-of-fact way that some women enter prostitution is also connected to the way that many men are now much more open about buying sex. The internet has been particularly useful in allowing men to believe they need not feel ashamed about buying sex from prostitutes. There are places on the internet where reviewing sex for sale is taken as naturally as reviewing books on Amazon. Men can discuss without hesitation how to satisfy their various tastes for larger, or older, or younger, or smaller women.
© Natasha Walter 2010 Extracted from Living Dolls by Natasha Walter, to be published by Virago on February 4 at £12.99. Copies can be ordered for £11.69, including postage, from The Sunday Times BooksFirst on 0845 271 2135