The Mainstreaming of Sexual Violence and Hazard
This article is based on the second presentation at our recent webinar, Porn, Prostitution and Violence against Women. (A recording of the presentation is available , if you’d prefer to watch or listen.)
‘The Museum of Emotion’, a remarkable exhibition by the French artist Kader Attia which was put on the Hayward Gallery in 2019, explored postcolonialism and racialised oppression. A short film in it featured the artist describing how African slaves on ships bound for the Americas were required to perform dances and songs for their abductors and owners. He noted that the legacy of this continues today with entertainment and sport being amongst the few avenues through which African and Afro-Caribbean people are permitted to advance in Western society.
Jews in mediaeval Europe were similarly restricted to money-lending as the only trade they were permitted to enter because it was the sin of ‘usury’ for Christians. They had their possessions seized and were expelled by European rulers once their assets had been depleted, including by Edward I in England in 1290.
Ferdinand the duck in the 1995 film ‘Babe’ points out that he crows every morning like a rooster to wake people so that he will be considered useful and be spared from being eaten.
The roles women have performed in society have been dictated by similar mechanisms of oppression supported by legal systems, the enforcement of social and religious ‘norms’ by state and non-state actors, and the use of actual and threatened sexual and physical violence carried out with impunity.
The global onslaught of online sexualised violence, competing for clicks with acts of destruction, torture and murder, its enactment against prostituted women and men, and its mainstreaming as part of a ‘bucket list’ of steps in a sexual apprenticeship dictated by untouchable, global corporations, has severe consequences for both women and men.
What is ‘choice’ and what is performing to survive?
Online porn increasingly depicts acts of extreme violence and sadism. These acts are not received as ‘man bites dog’ outlier records but as part of a rote-learned sexual curriculum.
Expressions of fear and distress on the faces of porn performers are deliberately induced. The cruelty is the point. It associates sex as something painful for women in the eyes of the viewer.
Injuries and harm inflicted on women during porn shoots are edited out. After the shoot has ended but before they are paid, performers are often required to sign agreements consenting to what happened during the shoot and stating that they were not harmed.
Like Hollywood actresses giving evidence against Harvey Weinstein and others, they will be cancelled if they complain, or are seen as difficult or non-compliant. The media and the sex industry glamourize porn by describing performers as ‘porn stars’ regardless of the number of films in which they have appeared.
Prostituted young girls and women are guinea pigs on whom men try out acts they have seen in porn which are shot using positions chosen for the purposes of camera angles, rather than because they increase sexual pleasure. This contributes to our dehumanisation, which was on full display from the group of French scientists who recently suggested that prostituted women in Africa would be a useful population on which to test a vaccine for Covid-19.
Online depictions of sexualised violence create expectations in viewers which greatly underestimate the risk of pain, serious harm or even death that the acts depicted can carry if emulated in real life.
Many young women who contacted the We Can’t Consent To This campaign said they felt pressured to go along with ‘rough sex’, including strangulation, for fear of being labelled ‘prudish’.
Viewers of porn and clients of prostituted women frequently fail to appreciate that both porn performers and prostituted women are performing acts and roles for a financial reward. They falsely assume that women in prostitution are more ‘highly-sexed’ than women outside the sex industry.
This false assumption means that women who have left the industry and have relationships with men who pay for sex often find that the men expect them to perform in their intimate lives in the same way they previously did for financial reward.
This also enables men who pay for sex to ignore the circumstances in which many women became involved in porn and prostitution. It promotes the delusion that the women they pay perform acts as the result of a choice directed by their libido.
At a gig I attended last year a man behind me was mobbed incessantly by people asking him to speak in the voice of a homicidal villain he plays in a popular series about organised crime. It became too much for him and he had to walk away. I read later that calls to him from strangers in the street and in passing vehicles had frequently left him very anxious about leaving his house.
This confusion between the role a person plays and who they are, also seen in expectations people have that musicians are the personas they have on stage, is similarly experienced by many women who have been involved in porn and prostitution in their private lives. With us there is the added difficulty of the mind-body dissociation we develop as a means of surviving emotionally.
This has been the experience of several male friends of mine who are survivors of the same industry as much as it has been mine. My male friends, however, struggle to find a public voice for fear of ridicule from other men.
When the former MP, Keith Vaz who chaired an inquiry into prostitution, was recorded describing sex with a male novice to prostitution as ‘breaking’ him in, ‘breaking’ in a different sense was the correct term.
A senior dancer at Spearmint Rhino I met a few years ago never wore make-up and always wore casual clothes in private. Her aim was to live on a farm and look after animals. Having been ‘promoted’ to work with a boxing promoter she then travelled round the country, calling at random times in the early morning because she had once again regained consciousness in a hotel room, bruised, in pain, and uncertain where she was.
I was introduced to the website I worked on as a prostitute by a woman who, to the outside world, was a successful glamour model. It did not pay her rent. She had the misfortune to be on the books of a ‘high-class escort agency’ well connected with both the police and the tabloid press. The agency owner used these connections to manipulate and threaten the women working for her. On fleeing a five-star hotel on Park Lane in fear of her life after being beaten up by a guest there my friend had money deducted by the agency owner for having failed to stay to the finish.
Porn is a loss-leader for prostitution. Charging clients for private meetings on the back of your ‘success’ as a performer is a major means by which many women in porn profit from content available for free. This is a major factor in the racism and inequality you see everywhere in prostitution. Men will pay more for women who have ‘fallen’ further from the stereotypes they have of them.
Sexist and racist norms benefit white, educated, English-speaking women, not the young girls and women referred to in racist, generic terms on online porn sites, or the Eastern European women deceived and threatened into working in ‘all-inclusive’ brothels in Germany. The greater profit in porn and prostitution is at the extremes, which are now distributed globally and sanctioned as new ‘norms’. The subconscious drives here are not ‘ethical’.
It is common for men who pay for sex to see themselves as having a friendship or connection with a prostituted woman they see regularly. This misconception ignores the power dynamics within a sexual encounter based on financial reward and the fact that the woman is performing a role. It is also a red flag for prostituted women, often accompanied as it is by attempts to manipulate women into accepting lower sums for the sake of ‘friendship’.
In Louis Theroux’s recent documentary about prostitution, the concerned look on the face of one of the women featured when her client spoke about being her ‘friend’ was something I recognized.
In psychotherapy and counselling there are professional boundaries observed and acknowledged between therapist and client. Prostitution is not a form of therapy. There is no supervision for women involved with it, who are more likely to encounter social workers. Repeating or escalating acts of sexualised violence against women is not personal growth. ‘Kink as therapy’ carries high risks of exploitation. Boundaries in therapeutic settings are there for a reason.
I once received a call from a prospective client who was 18 years old, had no sexual experience, and was shortly to have an arranged marriage to a woman of the same age. He was concerned about his wedding night and wanted to meet me so that I could ‘teach’ him Western sexual practices.
Several times while we were speaking he stopped and said, “but it’s haram, isn’t it?”
‘Haram’ means forbidden or proscribed by Islamic law. I told him that it was and that, as someone whose early experiences of sex were not abusive, I was happy to speak to him about sexual health, but did not want to dictate to him or his new wife what they should or should not find arousing, as it would probably be more rewarding for them if they explored that together, rather than through the dictates prescribed by global, online porn corporations.
I was not only seeking to avoid prescribing a synthetic sexuality, but also wanting to avoid visiting on someone else the trauma a close friend of mine endures because his absent father re-appeared when he was not yet a teenager, told him it was “time he became a man” and took him to a brothel.
The abuse he experienced in those circumstances was repeated with older women for whom, as a champion athlete, he was subsequently ‘sport’. This greatly damaged his capacity for intimacy and physical contact that didn’t involve sex and made sex something that put him in a state where he was a danger to himself afterwards.
The aristocratic fathers who sent their nervous teenage sons to visit women in Mayfair similarly passed on the baton of emotional illiteracy and sex as ritual performance.
I was also aware of many instances in which men who visited prostituted women subsequently blamed the women for ‘corrupting’ them and carried out horrific acts of violence on others as a result.
Many men I interacted with sought role plays in which it quickly became apparent that they were victims of serious sexual abuse and were re-enacting these events. They would do so repeatedly on subsequent occasions. These were acts of reinforcement, not therapeutic explorations.
There is a lot of ignorance about female anatomy and physiology and a lack of curiosity about risks of serious harm and injury among men exposed to porn. Expressions of pain, discomfort and fear on the faces of porn performers are intentional and are used as a means of arousal. Lube and condoms are often discouraged on porn shoots involving heterosexual anal sex for this very reason.
When I see what is claimed to be sexual education advice on anal sex aimed at young teenagers the giveaway for me that the advice has been written by men, or by women with little experience of what they are writing about, is the omission of the need to change condoms if you are having vaginal sex after anal sex. Not doing so exposes the woman to serious risk of urinary tract and other health problems.
A male performer on a porn shoot I was involved with was thrown off the set for doing this, not that you would have seen that in the final edit. The consequences of frequent infections can be serious and long-lasting. They contribute to the ill-health of women involved in prostitution.
Porn also frequently depicts violent ‘fisting’ and the forced insertion of large objects, both of which can cause serious injury and even death.
Some drugs used recreationally during sex anaesthetise users to the levels of harm being inflicted on them during acts of sexualised violence. Drugs like cocaine can also impede ejaculation and drive men to more extreme acts as they attempt to resolve this.
Advocates for ‘rough sex’ and BDSM have appeared frequently on the mainstream media in recent years, following trials of men who have murdered women during ‘rough sex’, to stress that what took place violated BDSM ‘norms’ and could have been avoided had the killer and victim taken proper instruction from people like them.
At the same time they step back from criticising acts of extreme violence which clearly violated ‘norms’ and resulted in serious injury or death because that would amount to ‘kink-shaming’. This does not inspire trust in them as providers of instruction and guidance.
I know several women who, for a variety of reasons, find pain arousing. Not one of them would consume large quantities of a known anaesthetic such as cocaine, or alcohol in advance of a sexual encounter which was likely to involve the administration of violence. This would be counterproductive, diminish their arousal and impair their judgment.
Where is the online porn genre involving spray ends of bleach cans which can be used as evidence of the ‘proclivities’ of a woman like Natalie Connolly whose death meant that she was unable to defend herself?
A pinwheel is not designed for internal use and is very likely to cause serious injury if used that way, as would be obvious to anyone with a passing knowledge of the fragility of vaginal membranes and their proximity to major blood vessels.
For someone to be convicted of murder in England and Wales, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt both that the defendant caused the victim’s death and that they had the required level of intent at the time. For murder, the level of intent is subjective. In 2003 the Supreme Court confirmed that the necessary level of intention exists if the defendant feels sure that death, or serious bodily harm, is a virtual certainty as a result of the defendant’s actions and that the defendant appreciated this was the case. This is a high bar to cross and is partly the result of the mandatory penalty for murder being a life sentence.
The porn viewer does not see harm suffered by performers because, like using condoms and lube in scenes involving heterosexual sex, the consequences are seen as an interruption of the fantasy. What would a porn viewer then understand was a “virtual certainty”?
A group of law academics at Bournemouth University recently published a blog making the interesting argument that a bespoke criminal offence, such as ‘causing death by dangerous sexual activity’ (along the lines of the existing offence of ‘causing death by dangerous driving’) with a provision that consent to that activity would not be a defense, would be a more effective way of addressing problems with the English criminal law where fatal acts of sexualised violence are concerned than trying to eliminate possible defenses.
Men seeking to defend ‘rough sex’ practices frequently refer to fantasies involving non-consensual sex which some women have. This is seen as an argument that women with these fantasies necessarily seek to experience them in real life.
There are several porn-driven fantasies men who pay for sex seek to emulate which many of them are incapable of enjoying or performing in reality. ‘Double penetration’ was one of the most common in my experience. Apart from being an act designed for visual effect and gymnastics rather than practicality or pleasure, it involves two men’s bodies being in skin-to-skin contact during an act involving sex. For many heterosexual men this feature alone ensures that it will remain forever an event of the imagination.
Urinating on a woman is another act some men who fantasise at great length are unable to carry out in real-life encounters because a taboo defeats their desire for it. The same can also be true of acts involving contact with faeces because of the smell.
Online porn’s extension of what constitutes ‘sex’ to include exposure to faeces or vomit is taking place as the WHO and other health organisations warn repeatedly of the threat to humanity posed by microbial resistance to antibiotics. It takes 10,000 generations for a beneficial mutation to extend through a population. An asexually reproducing bacteria such as e-coli, for example, covers 10,000 generations in about two weeks.
I was vaccinated against cholera as a child because of risks from untreated sewage in the city in which I grew up. When I visited a clinic to request a vaccination because I frequently had contact with clients who travelled frequently, it was clear to me that staff there had a limited understanding of the bio-hazards associated with some porn-derived ‘modern sexual practices.’
Competition between men over concocted, edited, fantasy acts depicted in porn and the expectation that they should live up to them, can be physically and psychologically damaging for men. It contributes to feelings of sexual inadequacy and excessive pressure to perform like a male porn performer who in fact is merely playing a role and whose ‘performance’ is frequently enhanced by drugs.
Although they hesitate to say so publicly, men can also feel pressurised into receiving acts of anal penetration without their consent having been obtained. The recent BBC documentary Disclosure: A Question of Consent featured a man to whom precisely this had happened without consent being sought during heterosexual sex. He clearly found the experience traumatic. In my experience he wouldn’t be alone.
‘Group sex’ encounters involving multiple men and a single or smaller number of women are often arranged to initiate newcomers into a group and bind them to the other members, whether as a social network where it resembles ‘hazing’ or as part of a criminal enterprise.
The need to demonstrate ‘masculinity’ in a group situation can over-ride boundaries an individual might have observed outside the group. I was involved in group situations on several occasions in which it was clear that some of the younger men involved feared humiliation within their group if they were seen to participate by others. On only one occasion were a few young men able to resist that kind of peer pressure. It would of course be the woman present who would be blamed later for what took place there.
Men would also attempt to erode boundaries by asking me to meet their female partners who they insisted were interested in having sexual experiences with women, in spite of never having explored this for themselves. The men usually sought to dictate what happened along stereotypical lines derived from porn films. It was often clear that their girlfriends complied only through fear of being considered less interesting. It is remarkable how many men think that two women performing oral sex on a man is an authentic, sexual experience for lesbians.
One of the few boundaries remaining in the escalation of sexualised violence and taboo-breaking driven by online porn is sex involving children. The police lead for child protection in England and Wales recently reported that increasing numbers of younger British men between 18 and 26 years old are looking at child abuse images online and becoming online paedophiles after becoming ‘desensitised’ through growing up on a staple diet of Pornhub and similar sites. The UK is already the third biggest consumer of child abuse images online.
I was contacted by teenage boys seeking unsuccessfully to link their girlfriends or younger siblings with me so that they could profit from them. This is the inevitable outcome of the strident emphasis on most of the major online porn sites on what the overt paedophiles who also contacted me call ‘young’.
It is very important that efforts to improve sex and relationship education for young people take place in the context of robust safeguarding in the knowledge that these are the directions in which the competitive escalation of extreme practices in porn, and the normalisation of these practices outside porn, are heading.
Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health difficulty stereotypically associated with combat veterans, are in fact much higher in women in prostitution, particularly if the women are involved in street prostitution.
More generally in England the group most likely to screen positive for PTSD is women aged 16-24 (12.6%). Only in the ages 55-64 category are men in England more likely to screen positive for PTSD than women.
Other psychological effects of sexualised violence include depression, substance misuse, self-harm, dissociation and panic attacks.
‘Rough sex’ practices derived from BDSM and the escalation of porn-driven sexualised violence contribute to an inversion of understandings of reward and sanction in real life. Receiving pain and violence during sex is seen as a ‘reward’ for good behaviour. The withholding of it is represented as a punishment for poor performance.
Where there are financial rewards, even declining ones, for receiving pain, violence or potentially hazardous body fluids during sex, but poverty, lack of housing, unemployment, sexism, racism and other forms of inequality persist if you exit porn and prostitution, this inversion of reward and sanction is likely to be amplified for you in society.
This is one of many reasons why provision for women who have exited porn and prostitution, who have many transferable skills, needs to be improved.
There need to be alternatives to performing in order to survive.
Esther is a survivor of BDSM, prostitution and the making of porn.