X-rated Mind-Control: Why do we think watching porn is risky?

XXX

I’m currently working in a Learning Disability team (supporting adults who have low intellectual ability that causes significant functional and social impairment) and I came across the ‘Three Rs’ guide, which provides guidance on providing sex education, including several more controversial and problematic topics. One of these topics is pornography. The authors state that they do not recommend aiding a person with LD to access porn, as it gives unrealistic messages about sex and women. When I first read this I thought this view was quite narrow-minded. Adults without an LD can access porn without anyone else’s permission. There’s no one questioning how ‘realistic’ the porn they watch is, so shouldn’t adults with LD be able t to enjoy their sexuality in this way? Also is this a narrow-minded view of porn that carries with it assumptions of how porn influences behaviour?

I’m not an expert on the literature on how porn influences thought and behaviour (and if anyone knows any good papers I’d be interested in reading them), here I’m more interested in considering why it is we assume porn does influence us, even in the absence of evidence. Wikipedia has a bit of a summary on the mostly inconclusive and conflicting findings here

I’ve been considering the authors’ point of view. It’s made me wonder how much porn influences actual sexual behaviour, and also how much people think porn influences sexual behaviour (which may be quite different things!). Anti-porn campaigners feel strongly that porn distorts our views of bodies, women and sex/intimacy. Porn is said to be anti-women and exploitative and has been linked to increased pressure on women to engage in sex acts, and change their bodies to resemble those of porn-stars. I’m not sure what the actual evidence is that this happens. The allegations remind me of claims that violent films and computer games make people more violent, which has often been debated but very lacking in concrete evidence. What I do know is that porn as a topic tends to upset people and bring up strong emotions. Porn is frequently depicted as something unhealthy, deviant and a a threat to ‘normal’ relationships and sex. We don’t like to talk about it, but a very large proportion of adults (both male and female) enjoy porn as part of their sex life, without any obvious negative consequences.

Porn is essentially fantasy. In order to enjoy watching porn, and feeling turned on, there perhaps needs to be certain suspension of critical thinking. On some level you need to believe it’s real so you can enjoy it without thoughts like “Is she really enjoying that? Was that a fake orgasm? Would a plumber really be that easily seduced on the job?” Admittedly this might be easier with some porn that others! But it isn’t real, and part of the appeal is just that, it’s the sex you wish you were having, perhaps removed from inhibitions and other barriers, the women you wish you were having sex with, it’s the enactment of fantasies. Porn also provides gratification without any of the effortful interaction with another person. So people know it isn’t real yet they still enjoy it.

But how is it that you understand that porn isn’t real? I’d guess this is mostly a process of comparison, having enough experience of real-life men and women and sex to be able to identify which aspects of porn are less than realistic. And some people might be in a better position to engage in this kind of critique than others. If you have limited experience of sex (e.g. young people who may not yet be sexually active or people who are quite socially isolated) you might not have much of a basis to discriminate. Certain complex cognitive skills might also be necessary in order to discriminate between porn and reality and consider that what porn shows to be ‘true’ may not be so for others. If someone has cognitive abilities that are impaired or not fully developed (such as a child), this process might be a lot more difficult. Ideally good quality sex education would help someone to learn the discrepancies between porn and real-life sex, but this may not always be available in a timely and detailed manner. For some people, porn may be the only way they learn about sex. If this is the case, family and school have really let them down, and it makes sense that they might develop some more distorted views about sex and women.

More on ‘rape-porn’ and links to risk under cut…

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Unmentionables: Talking about sex in the healthcare setting

'The Sessions', in which a disabled man sees a sex worker, draws attention to the desire for individuals with disabilities to enjoy a sex-life

‘The Sessions’, in which a disabled man sees a sex worker, draws attention to the desire for individuals with disabilities to enjoy a sex-life just as much as the able-bodied.

Doctors, psychologists and other healthcare professionals, both in mental and physical health, are used to talking about difficult subjects. Bowel movements, terminal diagnoses, suicide and self-harm, tricky topics are a standard part of the job. Yet somehow when it comes to sex, many struggle to find the words or avoid the topic all together.

Sex, whether defined by sexual acts, more generally as intimacy or in many other ways, is an important human need. It contributes highly to individuals’ quality of life. On Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs it comes only after physiological and safety needs in terms of importance. I think I can go as far as to say that changes or difficulties relating to sex are common to the majority both physical and mental health problems, whether they relate directly to the symptoms (e.g. impact of pain and limb weakness on sex positions, hypersexuality in mania) or are secondary to medication used to treat the problem or further consequences (such as impact of taking on a sick/carer role, self-consciousness relating to skin conditions). Anti-depressants are very widely prescribed, yet often information on the (common) sexual side-effects is left to be read in the small print. I’m reminded of a quote from Ben Goldacre on SSRIs,

“ I’m trying to phrase this as neutrally as possible, I really enjoy the sensation of orgasm. It’s important to me, and everything I experience in the world tells me that this sensation is important to other people too. Wars have been fought, essentially, for the sensation of orgasm.”

Stroke for example, is a condition where sexual dysfunction has been well documented. Yet in research speaking to rehab staff, they rarely brought the topic up with clients and on the occasion when it was brought up, staff often felt embarrassed and uninformed (McLaughlin & Cregan, 2005). Reasons given for staff not approaching the topic also included fear of upsetting clients and there has been other research suggesting that (often unconscious) stereotypes relating to sex, relationships, illness and disability, play a role in this silence. Although sex problems have been particularly highlighted in stroke, there is evidence that these staff attitudes and difficulties exist in a variety of settings and in relation to many other conditions. Whilst working in a clinic for Chronic Fatigue, I approached staff about the possibility of including sex and relationships as a topic to include in a psycho-education group, and was met with quite a dismissive response. It was too sensitive, and time was needed for other important areas. However, a friend with the condition informed me that on a service-user forum, the sections relating to questions and advice about sex were by far the most used. Service-users often have to go and seek out their own information because professionals fail to provide it.

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Vaginas are revolting

And they refuse to do it quietly.

I was recently involved in a research study about women’s perceptions of their labia. Seven-plus pages of questions about my opinion of my labia majora. Do I think they’re too big? Too small? Too droopy? Too hairy? Do they bother me? Do I avoid swimming or sex to prevent others from noticing them? Would I like to pay to get someone to nip and tuck them to a more acceptable standard? The questionnaire was definitely something of an eye-opener and did leave me feeling somewhat depressed. Although I was often ticking at the ‘never’ or ‘rarely’ end of the scale, there were some questions where I did have to admit that sometimes I do have less-than-positive opinions about my body. Also I was fully aware that there would be some women out there who would be ticking ‘very much’ and ‘always’ to many of the given statements. There are many people out there who truly hate their labia, or other parts and aspects of their genitalia. That makes me really sad.

I’ve been umming and erring over what language to use in this piece. It’s about female genitalia, vaginas, vulvas and everything that comes attached to them. Often the word ‘vagina’ is used in a non-anatomically-correct (oh, this makes me seethe!) to mean the entire internal and external genitalia. I like ‘cunt’, though I know a lot of people find it offensive. It’s a short strong word that I think holds a similar impact to words used for male anatomy. Plus it’s an old English word, it has the history. Don’t like ‘pussy’, it’s become a little too America-porno and I’m not a fan of cutesy euphemisms, as if there’s something rude or shameful about calling it what it is. I do find myself using phrases like ‘lady-garden’ (mostly because I find this one quite funny, as is the equivalent ‘gentleman-forest’!) and girl-parts, which probably contradicts my previous statement, but it works for me. And you’d probably use different words in different contexts; though anatomical terms are the most accurate, you might not want to throw them into an intimate moment. The Vagina Monologues does a great piece all about this. But we’re talking about the same thing, whatever we call it.

I’m not a historian, but I don’t think this level of dissatisfaction with genitalia was always around. Female body-dissatisfaction is obviously not something new, though it seems to be ever-growing. Operations to ‘trim’ labia into a ‘neat’ shape have not always existed. Whereas much plastic surgery focuses on parts of the body that are immediately obvious to others – bigger breasts, straighter noses, slimmer buttocks. If you wanted to appear more attractive to others, perhaps this makes sense. But your labia aren’t (usually) on show, they’re actually hidden most of the time. Yet woman may feel this pervasive need to change this part of their body that may only be seen by themselves, their gynae and their partner.

I imagine plastic surgeons would say they are responding to a demand, they may well be right. Though I wonder what effect it has even knowing that such an operation exists. A standard is set for the ‘correct’ and ‘appealing’ labia, and the question is posed ‘Is yours attractive? Is it normal? Would you like to change it?’ Health and beauty companies thrive off the fears and insecurities of the masses. Once the customer has been made aware of their need, a product can be sold to them to ‘fill’ this need. Wrinkles, a natural part of aging, are demonised, and a magical cure is sold. Women didn’t use to buy razors. Now the sight of a woman with hairy arm-pits is often treated with disgust. Yet there is no particular hygiene benefit to shaving arm-pits (after all, the majority of men don’t), yet now for women it is considered the norm. As is shaving leg-hair. A new market is created. Special razors for women are marketed, in pretty baby-pinks and blues. A generation of girls are born into a culture where this is completely normal and grooming of body-hair is just something you do.

Looking at older pornography can be quite enlightening (all in the name of research!). I think if you showed a bunch of teenage boys Playboy images from the 70s, with their full-bushes, tan-lines and natural breast, they’d probably laugh and show signs of disgust. Yet this was the height of sexiness not too long ago. For many people, porn is the first time they get to have a really good look at the genitalia of another person. A heterosexual woman may not have many opportunities to have a close to look at another’s parts, being only able to see her own and these images in the media. Even if you do have sex with women, I don’t imagine everyone really gets an opportunity to have a really long, well-lit, inspection of another person’s genitals (doing so may unnerve your partner, so please approach this with caution!). Porn is now very easily accessible. So for many women (and men), they’ve only ever seen their own goods, and the neat and tidy presentations on screen.

Labia show as much variation as human faces, they vary in their colouring, amount of hair, relative sizes and lengths, symmetry…they’re wonderfully diverse. Yet if you’ve only ever seen one particular type and your own, a negative comparison is easily made. (I think this is probably true for men to some extend too, and insecurities around penis size relating to the well-hung men who are sought out for porn. Although culturally men do tend to see other men naked more often – think showering and urinals, than women see other women). Hungry Beast created this fantastic mini-documentary about labia in the media, particularly relating to censorship and photo-editing. As someone who has worked in nude photography I can relate to this. A photograph that displays more labia is often considered more explicit than one that does not. Yet for a model with larger labia, the same pose may show off more than that of another model. Is this in itself inherently offensive? The result is fewer and fewer images that show the true variation of labia, leading those who don’t fit this model to believe that there’s something strange and ugly about themselves.

I once over-heard a conversation given by someone I know about a ‘scary vagina’. A ‘scary vagina’ apparently has hair on the outer labia, and the inner labia and larger than the outer. This isn’t a ‘scary vagina’, it’s a totally normal one! And it’s this kind of attitude that perpetuates shame and body-loathing.

The recent back-lash over the latest Fem-Fresh campaign has pulled this campaign for cunts of the world into the more mainstream attention. The team behind the adverts for vag-wipes probably thought they were empowering women, with their adverts of a jubilant woman saying ‘Woohoo for my froo-froo!’ and ‘Whatever you call it, love it’. It isn’t all bad, we should be able to have information about women’s body parts out there. Recently a women’s group were reprimanded for leaving ‘sexually explicit’ material around where children could see them. The material in question was a poster advertising support services and awareness of female genital mutilation and featured an image of a young woman of Africa-heritage. I have looked at the material several times and all I can come up with is that the school did not wish for children to see the word or references to ‘genital’. What message does this send, to sufferers of these atrocities, but also to young people in general? That we can’t talk about what’s between our legs?

Anyway, back to Fem-Fresh. It seems we can only talk about vaginas under cutsey euphemisms. And this is the razor story all over again. Create insecurity and need: your vagina smells bad. Sell product to fix need: here is a wipe to make your vagina smell lovely. Provided you wash regularly and don’t have an infection, your vagina smells completely normal. It isn’t supposed to smell like a flower. Vaginas are moist, it’s how they clean themselves. They have their own, natural smell. I don’t think it would be a big leap to say that many people like this smell, it’s erotic. I’m reminded of Pamela Des Barres 70s groupie memoir when she talks about using chocolate and strawberry douches (now out of favour mainly due to being particularly unhealthy and actually promoting infection). Vaginas aren’t supposed to taste like ice-cream.

It goes without saying that it is absolutely a woman’s choice to do exactly what she wishes with her own genitalia. And if that means that she wishes to have her labia surgically cut and trimmed, all the hair waxed off and for her vulva to be lightly fragranced, so be it. It’s her choice. But it should be because that’s what she wants, rather than out of a fear that her vagina is shameful and disgusting as it is and needs to reach a certain standard before it can be unleashed on others. Unless you work in the sex industry, your genitalia are probably only seen by yourself and the people you choose to have sex with. It’s something personal and private, not on show to the world in the same way that other parts of the body are. There are women around the world who are having their genitals savagely mutilated and disfigured, having their right to a natural body and sex-life taken from them, yet we’re inflicting our own private battle on our lady-parts. Owners of vaginas: Your genitals aren’t an identikit flesh-light, they’re a diverse and wonderful piece of human anatomy. You weren’t born believing there was something wrong with your body, yet somehow the idea became more and more acceptable to the point where it’s completely accepted. An entire industry thrives on making you hate what you have and buy a piece of altered perfection. It doesn’t have to be that way.

And for everyone else who loves vaginas: Show them some appreciation! Each is different and they’re not strange or scary. Go and tell your favourite vagina how much you like her, just as she is.

It’s not really in the flavour of this article, but as some of you may be at work, images below the cut.

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New guidelines for working therapeutically with Sexual & Gender Minority Clients

It’s already shaping up to be a good year for gender and sexual diversity in mental health. Last month the BPS (British Psychological Society, the organisation that oversees all practising psychologists in the UK) released the document ‘Guidelines and Literature Review for Psychologists Working Therapeutically with Sexual and Gender Minority Clients‘, which can be viewed for free online here. Although aimed particularly at those delivering therapy in sexuality/gender-focused settings, this advice has relevance for health professionals working in all areas. The report states its aims: ‘These guidelines have been developed in recognition of the importance of guiding and supporting applied psychologists around their work with sexual and gender minority clients in order to enable their inclusion in clinical practice at a high standard. They also aspire to engender better understanding of clients who may have suffered social exclusion and stigmatisation in order to reduce the possibility of this in the clinical arena.’ Attention is given to the harm caused in the past by perspectives in mental health about sexuality, which began to be put right the the removal of the diagnosis of homosexuality from the DSM in 1973. However, there is still a long way to go before services truly are inclusive and sensitive to the needs their clients, regardless of their sexual or gender identity. High levels of mental health problems have been reported in this client group, but they often experience difficulty accessing services, and may experience discrimination (unintentional or otherwise) from uninformed professionals.

It’s a large document that I’m still in the process of digesting, but so far I’ve been struck by how inclusive and wide-ranging it is. The report discusses ‘less-visible’ sexualities and identities, such as the spectrum that gender identities can take, forms of bisexuality and more fluid identities. Controversial and often-overlooked topics such as non-monogamous relationships/orientation, BDSM and sex-work are also tackled. It is worded sensitively, with effort to use quotes from service-users and use current phrases and slang, to bring professionals closer to the world inhabited by the clients they may meet.  The report encourages professionals to consider their own understandings of gender and sexuality, the context we live in and how this has shaped our own and others’ perceptions of.There is also a focus on doing away with myths that perpetuate throughout the system about certain identities, and a strong opposition to attempts to ‘cure’ a sexual or gender identity. It seems to be a really positive and well-researched report that would be beneficial to individuals working in a wide range of sectors, to inform and advise on a range of issues with working with this client group. If you’ve seen the document, what were your thoughts?

Bisexuality in the UK

On February 15th a report was published bringing together research and information on the UK’s bisexual population. In particular the paper highlights the discrimination bisexuals face, often related to misconceptions, negative stereotypes and ‘invisibility’ within the community. It seems amazing that it’s taken this long for us to have a paper of this kind, but hopefully it is a step towards greater public and professional awareness of this often unseen group. It has been produced by BiUK in conjunction with the Open University, Bi Community News and the Bisexual Index. You can read it here.

Twice as nice? Or double the discrimination?

The paper offers some definitions of bisexuality, explaining that many different forms of identity may come under the umbrella of the term. Bisexuality includes individuals who are not attracted exclusively to one gender (regardless of whether they engage in sex or relationships with individuals of more than one gender), people of fluid and changeable sexuality, individuals who do not see gender as an important factor in attraction and those who dispute the concept of a gender binary in sexual attraction. A bisexual need not actively engage in relationships with people of different genders or have an equal preference for different genders. Not all individuals who fit with the used definitions may actually use the term ‘bisexual’ to describe themselves, picking a more precise term or preferring not to label themselves.

Biphobia is a term used to describe discimination against bisexuals on the basis of their sexuality. Distinct from homophobia, bisexuals may experience discrimination both within the heterosexual and homosexual community. This can often centre on beliefs that bisexuals are confused, promiscuous, greedy or not acknowledging that bisexuality truly exists. Presentations of bisexuals in the media have often conformed to stereotypes and further perpetuated myths. Female bisexuals are often presented as people who break up relationships, tease and generally exist for the fantasies of heterosexual men. Bisexual men are an even lesser spotted species, often considered to be an insecure individual’s ‘stepping stone’ before fully coming out as gay. Much progress has been made in recent years about tackling homophobia, but prejudices against bisexuals are rife and even seen in the communities that seek to promote gay rights. This can lead to bisexuals feeling alienated and having to conform to either a ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ identity in order to be accepted.

Bisexuals can often seem invisible when judgements about sexuality are often made based on a person’s current relationship, their involvement in the gay community and even their appearance. A bisexual does not cease to be a bisexual if they marry an opposite sex partner, or same sex partner, or even if they choose to not be in a relationship at all! LGBT campaigning and activism often makes very little mention of the ‘B’, such are in recent discussion over same-sex marriages, and LGBT groups and events (such as Pride) may have little visible represenation for the bisexual community. The difficulties faced by bisexuals can be undermined as people erroneously think that they ‘have it easy’ compared to homosexuals, and some how their struggle is halved by having ‘one leg in the straight community’. Statistics on bisexuals are often lumped together with the other LGBT groups, rather than examined in their own right as a separate sexuality.

One of the most attention-grabbing and upsetting details of the report is the statistics that Bisexuals have poorer mental health than both homosexuals and transsexuals. This is something difficult to publicise without unintentionally feeding into stereotypes of bisexuals as ‘tragic’, ‘dramatic’ or ‘confused’. Indeed, much of the distress experienced by bisexuals has been linked to hostile and unhelpful reactions from others, rather than the sexuality itself. Coming out, an already difficult process, may be more marked for bisexuals who may need to come out when they choose a same sex partner, then again when they choose an opposite sex partner. There has been quite some media attention about depression and suicide in the gay community but similar issues in the bi community seem to have been overlooked. The evidence suggests that Bisexuals are more likely to suffer distress and to have a diagnosed mental health problem. Medical and mental health professionals are often uninformed about bisexual issues and may even make remarks suggesting that the individual’s illness has something to do with their sexuality. This kind of treatment can make it challenging for bisexuals to access mental health treatment and get appropriate care. Manchester group BiPhoria have created a fantastic and informative document for mental health professionals to guide them on working with bisexual clients, I’d really recommend it. Can be read here.

Quotes from BiPhoria

Much of the reccomendations in the report, and from other Bi media sources, amounts to not making assumptions about Bisexuals and considering them separately from homosexual groups. The mental health statistics are worrying and if we’re going to do anything to solve this problem, we need to be sensitive to individuals’ needs and be open-minded to different perspectives. Bisexuality may present in a wide variety of ways so it’s difficult to predict exactly how a bisexual may live their life, or what their experiences will be. As with working with other individuals, an individualised, person-centred approach and a genuine curiosity to learn about and understand another’s view point, can help us to support Bisexuals and help them to become a more visible part of the UK’s community.