Friday, 28 May 2010


First things first: If there are kids of reading age around, you might want to read this post later. It contains some parts that are not appropriate for children.

I wanted to write a post about the pornification of our popular culture.

But it's not an easy post to write. I have thought about what I want to say and how difficult it is to say it without appearing puritanical or judgemental, and so with that in mind I'm going to begin with a disclaimer: I love good sex as much as the next person. I think that what truly consenting adults choose to do with each other in private is entirely up to them. I am very much pro the sexual empowerment of women and I do not for one minute buy into the notions of shame that surround female sexuality and impede its liberation. Clear? Good. Then I shall begin my post proper...

Years ago I read a book called The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. The essence of its argument was that the more liberated women became in their day to day lives, the greater the pressure became on them to live up to an unachievable beauty ideal. Wolf argued that ever more unrealistic beauty standards caused women to become ever more insecure about themselves thus keeping them firmly in their (inferior) place. How can we move confidently towards true equality, she argued, if we are collapsing under the weight of our own insecurities?

I am really interested in Wolfs idea that as we achieve more freedom in some areas of our lives, we become yet more oppressed in others, and that this serves to redress the balance and maintain the status quo. I believe that there is clear evidence for this in the increasing sexualisation of women and girls and the insidious pornification of our culture.

My how things have changed. When I was a girl growing up in the eighties, we had the odd topless model lurking about on page 3 of the newspaper and people tutting disapprovingly over Madonna singing Like a Virgin on Top of the Pops (god I thought she was amazing.) Now soft-core pornography is everywhere - it's completely mainstream - and totally in your face. I went to the Co-op today to buy some milk. On the newspaper stand just at childs eye level was a picture of a woman on the front cover of a tabloid. She was naked apart from a thong, and posed on all fours. The photograph was taken from behind with her vulva clearly outlined through the thin fabric of the strip of material that covered it. She was contorting uncomfortably, her head twisted over her shoulder in order to pout at the camera. I drove home with the radio on and a song by Taio Cruz came on. In it a female singer called Kesha sang explicitly about taking 'dirty' pictures of herself and sending them to him. It was half past two in the afternoon. My three year old daughter was with me. When did society suddenly deem these things to be appropriate for children?

I'm not a prude. I just think that the encroachment of pornography into our everyday lives sends out messages to young women and girls (and to young men and boys too) that are incredibly damaging. Images and portrayals of women objectified and offered up for mindless consumption, abuse and distort everyones sexuality. We can try to teach our daughters that they have a right to be treated with respect, that they can enter into sexual relationships on their own terms, that they can say no to things which make them feel uncomfortable or turn them off, and that they have the right to claim their own pleasure; but how successful can we be in instilling those values, that self worth, when Every. Single. Day. they are bombarded with music videos and adverts and song lyrics and magazine covers that send out a clear message that they are not worthy of respect - that they are little more than decorative sex toys to be gawped at and played with and used - and that if they want to be considered desirable they'd better just shut up and play along.

Although designed for their pleasure and the reinforcement of their superior status I think that ultimately the ubiquitous peddling of female bodies for titillation and entertainment does men and boys a huge disservice too. As avid consumers of internet pornography and so called 'lads mags' such as Zoo and Nuts, young men just starting out on their own sexual journeys are coming to the table with completely warped expectations. The advice columns of these magazines are full of young men horrified to discover that their girlfriends actually have pubic hair for example. How do they go about insisting that their girlfriend remove it they ask, after all aren't they entitled to a hairless partner? I should imagine that it also comes as a shock for some to discover that a lot of women don't actually want anal sex or to have their faces ejaculated over - that what they are looking for is a real connection and real intimacy and an orgasm or two for themselves thank you very much. Our cultures increasing pornification degrades and devalues sex for both genders. Sex that is devoid of intimacy or love ultimately becomes very unsatisfying for everyone.

Walk down any British high street on a Saturday afternoon and you will see young women everywhere sporting a certain look. It's one we all recognise: Long harshly dyed pale blond hair, heavily fake tanned limbs, pushed up breasts and make-up applied to the lips in such a way as to make them appear swollen and enlarged. Whether they are aware of it or not (and I suspect the majority are not) it is a porn aesthetic that has become steadily mainstream due to so much exposure. In much the same way that bikini waxes designed to remove all or most of the pubic hair became widespread as a result of pornography (actresses in the adult industry remove all pubic hair so as not to impede the view of penetration) so has mimicking the look of a soft porn glamour model now become an everyday fashion choice. I do not blame anyone for attempting to conform to what society makes clear is expected of them but it makes me so sad to see young women obviously spending vast amounts of their money, energy, and time on an effort to make themselves more closely resemble a real life blow-up barbie doll. It just seems such a waste of their resources.

What makes me really angry though is when the growing sexualisation of women and girls is presented as being somehow empowering. Who needs equal pay or anything to be done about the rape conviction rate when we have 'girl power' eh? We live in a post-feminist society apparently. Our bodies are nothing to be ashamed of so why not flaunt them in a Girls Gone Wild video? Pole dancing is fun and a celebration of the female form. "Girls rule, boys drool" cry my eldest sons female classmates as they wiggle around suggestively at the school disco copying the dance moves they have seen performed by supposedly empowered women in endless music videos. Twenty first century women are sexy and unashamed, liberated and in control.

It is a seductive argument. We all enjoy feeling attractive and confident, and being the focus of male attention and desire certainly can give one a superficial sense of personal power. But it is a trick. In the end it is just the same old bullshit wrapped up in different packaging. There is nothing for women to celebrate in the pornification of our culture because ultimately all it does is reinforce the notion that a womans intrinsic worth lies in her ability to attract and please men. Real empowerment and self-esteem come from valuing our skills and achievements. From believing ourselves to be good and capable people who have a positive impact on the lives of others. There is no strength to be found in the commodification of our bodies.

Our cultures pornification is damaging to the self-esteem of women and girls. It is a major step backwards in terms of our journey towards equality. And it doesn't lead to better sex for anybody.


  1. Hi recently found your blog. I couldn't agree more with this post.I'm officially in my late forties tomorrow and I am overjoyed to find that while I still want to be attractive I no longer feel driven to be a certain weight etc.At last I am beginning to feel liberated.
    I also find that all these airbrushed,porny images very unsexy.

  2. Agree with you on some of this, in particular the mainstreamification (if that's a word!) of straight soft porn, and its accessibility to children, and how it's presented as a "norm", but not all of it.

    Firstly, I have the same problem I have with this post as I have with a lot of feminist musings about pornography; it seems to assume all porn is straight porn. It isn't, and I do find the heteronormativity in feminist discussions around porn very disappointing.

    I see where you and others are coming from, but I do wish you'd make it clear you're talking about a very specific kind of porn, that is, porn made by men for a male audience. There are other types of porn too, including queer porn, that although are not unproblematic (look at the way trans men are almost ubiquitous in so-called "lesbian" porn, for example, but trans women almost only ever appear in porn made for straight men), have different issues.

    And by calling out "porn" as a monolith, as if all porn is the same thing, you invisibilise queer sexualities (and ignore the fact some porn as far as I understand, I'm not a great connoisseur of straight porn, is done by straight women for other straight women). Fair enough, only write about straight porn but please make it clear that you are doing so.

    Another thing; the pubic hair issue; lots of people assume that a bare muff is some kind of very new and therefore porn-influenced thing. Actually, the removal of pubic hair goes a long, long, long way back; in fact, the Roman upper classes were well known for it. (Plus? I depilate the majority of my pubic hair and I can assure you, it has nothing to do with straight porn or what any man will think!!)

    Finally, every single choice we make is influence in some way by kyriarchy (or patriarchy, which is part of kyriarchy), and there are some feminists who have said that you or I are colluding with the patriarchy by having children! And in the same way that I'd say "yes, my decision is influenced by patriarchy/kyriarchy but what decision isn't, and it's also my own decision too," there are some women who'd say exactly the same thing about their leanings towards an outward expression of their femininity. "Yes, it is, but also, it's me". If that makes sense.

    Realise I've waffled. Food for thought I hope though?

  3. Wow what an interesting post. Well written Gappy! And the commenter up there Rosemary Cottage - thanks for an interesting comment.

    I understand where you are coming from with the ideal of womanhood seen to be the WAGs or pop stars. Dare I say it (and I expect to get a lot of flack for doing so) but it is something I really noticed when I moved to the UK. Not that there aren't derogatory stereotypes Down Under, they're just different. But the WAG styled stereotype is fueled not only by the lads' mags but by OK, and Hello and Heat and all the other bollocks mags out there - purportedly for women!

    Another curious thing I noticed here when I first arrived was in the conversation of some younger male acquaintances. They seemed keen to discuss whether their girlfriends were 'dirty' or not! Since when did it become manly to discuss sex with your girlfriend, loudly and in a public place? Since when was it amusing to discuss whether she takes it up the hosepipe or not?

    Am I just getting old?

    There seems to be so much enthusiasm out there for discussing the more extreme (pornographic?) aspects of sex than discussing the meaning and intimacy that lovemaking can actually bring. Is it any wonder boys as young as ten talk about the 'dogs' in their class? Or talk about girls derogatorily?

    I notice too the public emphasis on weight and youth. To be the wrong side of the scales or clock, means relegation to the dust bin or invisibility. I was really disturbed a year or so ago to hear a friend talk about her teenage sons' discriptions of parties where all the girls do is satisfy the guys with nude stripteases and blow jobs. Dare I ask, but where were the girls' orgasims?

  4. Brilliant, thought-provoking post Gappy. You write so well, I'm sooo envious.

    Anyway, as the mother of two daughters aged 10 and 13 this sort of thing really concerns me. My 10 year old told me yesterday she was going to enter a beauty competition when she was older, and we had an interesting conversation about they whys and wherefores of beauty pageants.

    I read recently that most teenage boys regularly watch porn online, which scares the hell out of me. If they think that's what women should look like and behave in bed then I'm really worried for my girls.

  5. Totally agree. Sex has become a grafitti that daubs every magazine, TV show, pop video and song lyric. And like all grafitti it is totally reductive - everything is reduced to the rude mechanics. Instant gratification that really is no gratification at all... just a way to augment and in some cases warp the appetite. The trouble with "sex media" is that it leaves out the most important element: the emotional side of it. I'm all for kids having a proper sex education - my God, we might reduce this country's appalling underage pregnancy rate - but an essential element to that is educating kids about the emotional side of a sexual element. Managing their feelings as well as their expectations. Because you're right - for most kids, boy and girls - their views and expectations about sex will be influenced heavily by this media. And it will be many, many years - if at all - before they realize that sex media is as close to reality as the Wizard of Oz is to Kansas.

  6. This is fantastic to read. I sometimes think that I'm a prude for having a lot of the same thoughts. Glad to know I'm not alone.

    But it isn't just harmful for girls, you knows. Young boys growing up in this hypersexualised society get unrealistic expectations of what sexual relationships are meant to be.

    That being said, I'm glad I'm raising boys.

  7. As the mother of two little boys beleive it or not I worry. I worry about their take on girls. It seems to me that there is more gender stereo typing now than there ever was in my youth and that's before we get into the pornification of children per se.
    I don't ever remember their being lots of pink about as a child and even if there was I can bet you I was determined to avoid it.
    Also the childrens programmes were more adventurous tales such as The Lone Ranger, Champion the Wonder Horse, Scooby Doo, Nancy Drew, White Horses, the Borrowers, Secret Garden, The Children and the Phoenix, The Famous Five - I know they are old fashioned but they don't seem to be so celeb led as they are now.
    I think we need some heros for children to look up to to show them that there is another way....
    soory waffling and probably not making sense at all and I don't think it is a feminist thing to think either just concerned parents....

  8. This is another excellent post! I agree with you on every point here. I think you get it absolutely right when you say that young girl's porn like behaviour seen as empowerment is a trick. If girls are to be sexually empowered through porn then surely that would have to mean having lots of naked attractive men around! I'm not saying that things should be like that (just a few here and there would be fine) but that it's a skewed view of the world that says that for a girl to be empowered she's got to act exactly how men want her to act!

  9. This says what I would like to say, but couldn't articulate it as well as this. There's something very very insidious about denigration clothing itself as empowerment, because it means that anyone who wants to criticise, seems to be anti-empowerment.

    Sandrine's last sentence sums it up very well.

  10. Well said, Gappy *stands up and applauds*
    I am sickened and saddened in equal measure by the pornification of our culture. We have a lot of work to do to educate our children about the real world, not the Nuts and Zoo world.

  11. Very good post. I'm tired of the images on tabloids, lads mags and R&B music videos which depict women in a purely sexual way. And with an awful contorted body shape too: huge fake boobs on an underweight frame. I've no idea what boys and girls think when they see these images but I can't imagine it's having a positive effect on anyone.

    And as an aside, the plethora of sports stars and pop stars who cheat on their wives with unnatural looking models and dancers can't be a good message either. 'Have a wife and kids and have something on the side too'. Young people look up to these celebrities and could well be thinking that sort of behaviour is okay.

    It's all generating an uncomfortable feeling that women are disposable. It's horrible.

  12. Excellent post, Gappy. It sickens me that it's become the norm. That young girls want to be like Jordan or Jodie Marsh or whose sole ambition is to be a glamour model. Or 13 year olds who want plastic surgery to get bigger boobs. Or women who think pole dancing is a 'bit of fun' or prostitution is empowering and that they're playing men at their own game, getting paid for something they give away for free. Of course I wasn't looking at it when I was a child and was unaware of such things, but now I can't help but see it everywhere. The objectification of women. The debasing of women. The idea that mags like Nuts and Zoo are just a bit of fun.

  13. I was just thinking of this very topic over the weekend. The reality TV era amongst other things has lead to a trend of so many young women who confuse liberation with getting your kit off for page 3 magazines or for male approval in general. It is usually these girls who constantly seek this type of approval and believe they are liberated who have the lowest self esteem and lack of self-respect which is quite ironic as it goes against everything liberation stands for.

  14. Thank you for this very well written post. And I've also found the comments thought provoking.

    I was watching a cartoon with my son today. It was on at four in the afternoon.

    The characters(I think they're meant to be aliens) have a female form - tiny waist, long legs, powerful thighs, wild, long hair. The main character was actually wearing what I believe are generally known as fuck-me boots! Her thighs were visible just above them and then she also wore hotpants.

    I literally rubbed my eyes to check if I was seeing clearly.

    What chance does my son have if the brainwashing starts this young? How is this okay in any way?

  15. Amazing, very thought provoking post, Gappy - and some interesting comments. I'm not sure I have anything new to add to the debate, but just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading this post.

  16. Excellent post.

    I really worry about the way in which young boys now perceive women to be, and the way in which they think they should view women. It is very very worrying.

  17. You took what some people think as being with it or pretty cool and you wrote about it in its true sense. You did an excellent job of putting together thoughts lots of us have. I read this post right after you wrote it and have been thinking about it quite a bit. In fact, there is so much going round and round in my head that I just don't know what to say. We are all being bombarded with explicit photos when we google something. I realize that lots of people have different ideas about the pictures and in fact, lots of people seek out the pictures and videos even if they have to pay to see them. It is an addiction and it may have started out as a titillating sideline. I have some women friends who are hurt that their husbands engage in online porn contact and they will not give it up. I also know women who like it that their husband is into porn. I just don't get that at all. Husbands and fathers who are so into porn that they stay late at work and miss dinner with the family and cannot see that their own children could some day be the object of someone's lust. For me, this is a sad subject. The internet brought great technology but it was on the back of the porn business.

  18. Hrm. I read this yesterday and woke up thinking about it, so, kudos for hitting a Big Issue (with me, anyway)!

    I particularly wanted to respond to Rosemary Cottage, because I think that in this case, it IS the dominant culture that is the issue. Compulsive heternormativity is a significant part of the message, and (I perceive that) what Gappy identifies as pornification has to do with what we are immersed in on a daily basis, not the existence of a range of sexualities within the ACTUAL porn industry. I take issue with the everyday pedagogy of a performance of masculinity and femininity that diminishes us to caricatures.

    My children, as they go out into the world, are decidedly at the whim of advertisers and publishers with particular views of women, men, and demeaning "relationships" between them. What little they will ever encounter that hints at other types of sexuality doesn't challenge this; girls making out with one another to get attention from boys/men are no more liberated or outside the culture than the ones with "sex kitten" written on their T-shirts at 8 years of age.

    For those of us who are older, and perhaps a little wrinkly in the nether regions (by which I mean everything below the belly button, not merely a squeamish reference to my pubic hair and vulva) the rejection of the porn aesthetic can come about with self-confidence or (in my case) a complete ignorance of the expectations. I was fortunate to consider myself a feminist as a teen, and I only dated people (mostly men) who were obviously 'on-side'. Somehow I missed the whole idea of pubic shaving (for example) until my mid-30's, by which time I was so convinced of my own natural hotness, I was immune. ;)

    So, in an effort to provide the same immunity, I keep it out of the house. When a movie says PG, and my six-year-old daughter wants to watch it, I say very emphatically, I'm the parent, and I get to provide this guidance. My kids do not get to wear the clothes that say "Men are powerful by violence and women are powerful by coercion." But I haven't figured out yet how to counterbalance it. My kids are young enough that I have been able to get away with skirting over issues of sexuality. The biggest things I've had to deal with are long hair on my sons and pink nail polish. That's not going to cut it for much longer, and I really want my kids to grow up with a healthy view of sexuality as part of a complete life.

    So, dear Gappy *(who exists only as words on a screen in my world), what do we do now?

  19. Well said. I have been feeling this way for ever.

    I love what the commenters have to say.

    It's not what sexuality is meant to be,

  20. Great post and great comments. I desperately hope that my daughter, and my son, will be able to see through the BS they are presented each and every day. I'm hoping that what they see at home will ground them, but I know that it's an uphill battle...

  21. Brillant. I completely agree. Exactly how much time are girls supposed to spend, making their vaginas look perfect? It's ridiculous.

  22. Thank you, excellent post. As a 24 year old university student, I get some STRANGE looks from people when I talk about this. It's as if noone has even considered this, it's not that they outright reject it, they look confused, but then for my generation and younger it has always been this way so it's difficult to see that there is anything inherantly wrong with brazilian waxes (which are as de riguer as shaving your armpits now) or pole dancing classes or going to watch a burlesque troup at your local pub.

  23. Great post, thank you.

    I am 33 and would not want to be in my teens now. I am very glad that I did my 'growing up' during the grunge era!

    I think that the images that girls and boys are bombarded with now are extremely damaging. It actually makes me worry to have children. I would not want to bring boys into the world who regarded women as passive sex objects and no matter how hard you try at home to set an example and to educate, it must feel like a losing battle sometimes.

    I would also hate to bring girls into the world who suffered from low self esteem from being viewed as nothing more than a sum of body parts. As someone whose (emotionally abusive) ex-partner started to watch porn and visited a strip club, I know the effect it can have. When something is regarded as "the norm" it is very difficult to challenge it. Challenge it I did, but it took me a while to even figure out why it was I was upset when everywhere I turned, even my own mother, I was being told that this was "normal behaviour".

    I hope the backlash begins soon.

  24. I would not want to bring boys into the world who regarded women as passive sex objects and no matter how hard you try at home to set an example and to educate, it must feel like a losing battle sometimes.