Handbook for Universities: 7. Combatting sexism & supporting healthy relationships

This is the seventh chapter in the Nordic Model Now! Handbook for Universities.

In recognition of universities’ duty of care, Universities UK set up a task force in 2015 to address the prevalence of sexual harassment and violence on university campuses along with other forms of harassment and hate crime. Its recent report found that universities need to have a robust prevention strategy and that more progress has been made in institutions that have strong support from senior leadership. The report acknowledges that changing a culture that is accepting of sexism and other ingrained negative behaviours requires widespread attitude change, and that this is necessarily a long-term process. It recommends programmes, including consent education, for bringing about such change and emphasises that these need to involve more than single one-off sessions. It also found that online programmes are generally ineffective.

Although the report acknowledges concerns that children are learning about sex and relationships from online pornography, there are no recommendations about how to address this. The evidence is unequivocal that porn consumption is associated with attitudes that underlie verbal and physical sexual aggression against women, including rape and sexual harassment and assault. Research into men who buy sex has found similar results.

As porn consumption is recognised to be widespread among young men, it would seem that any efforts to bring about positive change on university campuses in respect to sexist attitudes and behaviour are doomed to failure unless programmes directly address the sex industry and porn consumption.

Why sex education must address the sex industry

The sex industry is a global capitalist industry that commodifies human beings for other people’s sexual and ego gratification. It has infiltrated mainstream culture on a grand scale and is sold to the public, and young people in particular, as glamorous and empowering – but this is an illusion. As this handbook has set out, it is intrinsically sexist, racist, exploitative, and fraught with danger. Most of the profits go to the pimps and the individuals behind the brothels and the technology companies that enable the advertising, chatroom, and porn sites, most of whom use extreme business models that make Amazon’s look philanthropic in comparison.

The sex industry, including online porn, continually produces, reproduces, and reinforces sexist attitudes and behaviour. Women are portrayed as objects to be used and abused in every way possible and not as whole, complex human beings. Just as in other areas of the sex industry, in porn, women often cover up negative feelings and simulate pleasure. Consumers are trained like Pavlov’s dog to get off on this and to believe that women enjoy it and do not have the right to set their own boundaries or to complain at mistreatment. They are taught to see women’s only value as shoring up men’s egos, being used for sex, and cleaning up after men in any and every way.

It is unreasonable to expect young people to navigate this reality safely without guidance or education. Such education must be approached sensitively because porn consumption and acceptance of the “sex work is real work” myths are widespread among young people, having been thrust upon them without their consent while they were still children.

There is evidence that young people are calling out for leadership, education and guidance on these issues. A recent survey of 1,000 UK students found that more than a third said they’d “learned more about sex from pornography than from formal education” and a majority wanted universities to provide compulsory sexual consent education.

Sexist and misogynistic attitudes are deeply ingrained in our society and in spite of evidence of the catastrophic consequences of this for women and girls, there is a lack of political will to address these attitudes with anything more than small ineffective gestures. Universities are perfectly placed to challenge and change these norms.

Feminist resistance to the sex industry

In the 1970s, the women’s liberation movement in the UK and US began to develop a sophisticated critique of pornography as it became increasingly visible and mainstream. For example, in 1974 Robin Morgan famously said:

“Pornography is the theory and rape is the practice.”[1]

Susan Brownmiller developed this theme in her ground-breaking 1975 book on rape. For example, she said:

“There can be no equality in porn, no female equivalent, no turning of the tables in the name of bawdy fun. Pornography, like rape, is a male invention, designed to dehumanize women… Pornography is the undiluted essence of anti-female propaganda.”[2]

Andrea Dworkin published her searing work, Pornography: Men Possessing Women, in 1981. In it she explained that pornography is not only propaganda: the violence and degradation is real – real for the women directly involved and real for the women it is subsequently acted out upon.

Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon developed an Anti-Pornography Civil Rights Ordinance that defined pornography as sex discrimination and allowed those harmed in and through it to sue for civil damages. It was passed by Minneapolis City Council in 1983 and several other municipalities, but higher courts overturned it as unconstitutional.

Sadly, but perhaps predictably when you consider who stands to gain from a thriving porn industry and the subordination of women, it wasn’t long before there was a bitter backlash. Some self-described feminists cooperated with the pornographers in organising a campaign to defeat the Ordinance and to mock and discredit the feminist critique on which it was based. This shattered the early feminist consensus on pornography and ultimately led to the pro-sex industry narratives that now dominate academia, liberal feminism, and popular culture; narratives that are epitomised by notions that “sex work is real work” and that porn and prostitution can be empowering for women.

Feminist scholar Rebecca Whisnant uses the philosophical idea of ‘adaptive preferences’ to explain how these narratives became accepted by so many women:

“The basic idea is simple: if I can’t have something (or think I can’t have it), then it behooves me not to want that thing. Conversely, if I’m going to get something whether I like it or not, then I’ll be happier if I can get myself to want it and like it. So people adapt their desires to fit their situations, rather than vice versa, thus minimizing the pain and cognitive dissonance of continuing to want something that they don’t think they can get: ‘if you can’t have what you want,’ as the saying goes, ‘then want what you have.’”

Whisnant quotes a feminist blogger who calls this approach ‘fuck-me’ feminism and describes it as:

“[A] school of thought that suggests [women] are empowered by reclaiming and controlling our own sexual objectification, by reclaiming the power of pornography and the sex industry for ourselves, and by flaunting our desire and willingness to have sex. In other words, being a man’s sexual object can’t hurt me if I want to be objectified; pornography and the sex industry can’t degrade me if I enjoy it or if I profit from it; being used for sex can’t devalue me if I’m using him too; being regarded as nothing more than a pussy to fuck can’t dehumanize me if I want him to fuck my pussy.”

While this is understandable, these narratives do not serve young people well.

There is now a significant body of peer-reviewed academic research that shows that Dworkin and the other feminists of the late 1970s were right: porn use is associated with sexual misconduct and violence. It is also detrimental to the consumer. The online porn industry uses algorithms to drive escalation to more violent material, causing high levels of sexual dysfunction and creating appetites for ever more extreme content, including child sexual abuse material.

Universities have a responsibility to equip young people with the tools to critique and resist the pornographers and sex industry profiteers, to understand the myriad dangers of involvement in the sex industry, and to connect to more human values.

What everyone needs to know about porn

In December 2020, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Nicholas Kristof, wrote in the New York Times:

“[Pornhub] is infested with rape videos. It monetizes child rapes, revenge pornography, spy cam videos of women showering, racist and misogynist content, and footage of women being asphyxiated in plastic bags. A search for “girls under18” (no space) or “14yo” leads in each case to more than 100,000 videos. Most aren’t of children being assaulted, but too many are.”

The article caused such a furore that within days Pornhub removed 10 million unverified videos. Not long after, Visa and Mastercard rethought their relationship with MindGeek, Pornhub’s parent company, and have stopped providing payment services to the site. A number of women and girls are now bringing lawsuits against the company for profiting from their rape and human trafficking.

This tells us that Pornhub in particular, but most likely the other big porn companies too, don’t give a second thought to your wellbeing. If they’re happy to profit from rape and child abuse, they certainly aren’t going to spare a thought for your sex life and mental health other than how to squeeze the maximum profit from you, no matter the cost. And that is exactly what they do.

They deliberately use algorithms to manipulate you, to get you hooked, and to drive you to seek out ever more extreme forms of porn. You may have noticed this – that what satisfied you last month now leaves you cold. A recent study by Mary Sharpe and Darryl Mead describes how it works:

“AI algorithms can drive consumers in either of two directions. On the one hand, they teach viewers’ brains, unconsciously, to crave stronger, more violent imagery. On the other hand, they drive consumers towards a focus on sexual activities with younger people. Thus, we have escalation to violent behaviour and/or towards the consumption of child sexual abuse material. People with PPU [problematic pornography use] have developed brain changes that increase cravings for more stimulating, perhaps high-risk material and a diminished capacity to inhibit their use of it.”

Over time, heavy porn use can affect the brain and impair decision-making abilities, reduce the ability to curb impulsive behaviour, and increase the likelihood of aggressive and violent behaviour. It can even lead towards actual criminal behaviour. This does not make you popular or make it easy to develop meaningful relationships. It can lead to isolation and even suicide. Heavy porn use can also cause physical health problems, such as erectile dysfunction, delayed ejaculation, and anorgasmia.

The good news is that Sharpe and Mead say that:

“Male users report that when they quit pornography and their brains eventually resensitise or heal, their compassion for women returns. At the same time, many mental health issues like social anxiety and depression, and physical health problems such as sexual dysfunction, reduce or disappear.”

Don’t be afraid to seek out help to kick a porn habit. This is a problem affecting large numbers of people. Help is available.

Another thing to understand is that porn is not fantasy. As Andrea Dworkin explained, it is all too real for those involved in its making and it is all too real for those on whom it is acted out. Professionally made porn in particular uses many techniques, including camera angles and editing, to hide some of the unpleasant realities, such as friction burns, bruising, and other injuries. Similarly advance preparation is not shown, such as the fasting and enemas that might precede anal penetration and the use of oral anaesthetic sprays that might precede ‘deepthroat’ to inhibit the gag reflex, for example.

The unrestrained capitalist drive for ever more extreme, violent and misogynistic content has popularised many practices that are uncomfortable and even dangerous, particularly for women, not least because of their smaller average physical size and strength relative to men. For example, fisting, when practiced by a man on a woman, can result in serious injuries including a damaged or broken pelvis. Inserting sharp objects into the vagina or rectum is dangerous and can be fatal if a nearby artery is severed.

‘Deepthroat’, especially when performed on a woman whose head is hanging over the side of a bed (a position popularised by porn), can lead to spinal injuries or a broken neck.

‘Breath play’ (restricting the oxygen reaching the brain) and choking (strangulation) are always extremely dangerous and yet it is almost de rigueur in porn. Even Cosmopolitan warns against it:

“Breath play as you may have seen it done in movies or porn with choking is really not something to be taken casually. ‘Some kinksters (myself included) who enjoy light breath play will not consider stronger forms because of the very real dangers involved,’ Lords says. ‘I cannot stress enough how dangerous this form of play can be and should never be done lightly.’”

Brain damage from reduced oxygen flow and build-up of carbon dioxide can occur rapidly. Using devices (such as masks, belts, or gags) increases the likelihood of injury and even death. This is of particular relevance to students, because brain injury before the brain is fully developed (at around age 25-30) can be more devastating than brain injuries later in life, because it interrupts the normal neurological development.

The risks of something going catastrophically wrong when engaging in such practices are further increased when some recreational drugs (including cocaine) are used – by anaesthetising you to the levels of harm being inflicted and/or by impeding men’s ejaculation and driving them to more extreme acts in an attempt to resolve this.

There have been many cases recently of women dying during sex that involved strangulation and other violent practices. Men (it’s always been men) who are charged with murder in such circumstances often claim that it was ‘rough sex’ that went wrong or that she wanted it. Even though under English law, it is not possible to legally consent to being physically harmed, many men have got off lightly using this defence – which is an indication of the deep sexism in the legal system. The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 (England and Wales) has now outlawed this defence. It remains to be seen how this will work out in practice.

Students must be encouraged to think through the issues around the more dangerous sexual practices that porn has popularised and to understand the risks and how to mitigate them. Just because someone consents to sex, does not mean that they consent to being choked or anally penetrated. Consent is only valid if it is informed and can be withdrawn at any point – but how can you know that she wants to stop if she is gagged or bound?

You need to be closely attentive to your partner and to talk honestly. How sad it would be if you are both driven by the expectations that porn has given you when that’s not what either of you actually want.

Survivor voices: Esther

As a prostitute and in the several years of involvement with BDSM that led up to my entry into the sex trade, I experienced almost every practice inflicted by the CIA at Guantanamo and elsewhere. Men paid me to be a crash test dummy so that they could claim superior knowledge of “modern sexual practices” when seeking to inflict similar punishment on their female partners.

Towards a more human sexuality

So how do we resist Big Porn culture? Are we suggesting a return to abstinence and no sex outside marriage? Definitely not.

We are suggesting that handing our sexuality, that most intimate and core part of our humanness, to the pimps and pornographers is no more the answer than handing our health over to the fast-food companies or the well-being of our planet over to the big mining and oil companies.

As Rebecca Whisnant says:

“[T]he cultural products of mega-corporations are much more like advertising than they are like art. When powerful and profit-hungry entities go hunting for market share at any cost, what those entities will produce and sell is whatever gets the most people in the gut the fastest and makes them want more of that now. This will never be equality. It will never be complexity. It will never be anything thoughtful or meaningful or reflective. Not ever.”

Robert Jensen draws comparisons between pornography and the wars waged by the United States. He draws attention to the fact that American servicemen watch porn (the normal ultra-violent porn that Pornhub and similar serve up to us all, including schoolkids) to psych themselves up before attacks and bombing raids. Contemporary mass-marketed porn and modern warfare both require cruelty and contempt. Jensen refuses to accept that porn is about sexual freedom any more than that the US goes to war for freedom. He argues that porn eroticises domination and subordination and works to maintain the second-class social status of women and that America’s wars are about maintaining and extending its dominance and relative affluence.[3]

He calls for a more human sexuality and argues this would be in all our interests:

“The costs of pornography and the wars of empire are borne mainly by those in the subordinated position. But there is a cost to those of us in the dominant position, not on the same scale, but a cost all the same.

When men make the choice to acquire sexual pleasure through blow bangs, we forgo part of our humanity. When Americans make the choice to protect our affluence through cluster bombs, we forgo part of our humanity. […]

I do believe that sexuality can be about more than pleasure. It can be about finding pleasure and intimacy through connection. I use the metaphor of heat and light. There is a cliché that when an argument is of little value, it produces more heat than light. One of the ways this culture talks about sex is in terms of heat: She’s hot; he’s hot; we had hot sex. Sex is bump and grind; heat makes the sex good.

But what if our embodied connections could be less about heat and more about light? What if instead of desperately seeking hot sex, we searched for a way to produce light when we touch? What if such touch were about finding a way to create light between people so that we could see ourselves and each other better? If the goal is knowing ourselves and each other like that, then what we need is not heat but light to illuminate the path. How do we touch and talk to each other to shine that light? […]

So here’s my pitch to men: Even if we have no concern for anyone else, the short-term physical pleasure we gain through pornography is going to cost us something: we lose opportunities for something more. Heat is gained, but light is lost.”

Consent education

Much consent education – including for example, the NUS ‘I Heart Consent’ programme – is based on the legal definitions of consent, rape and sexual assault. While this is a start, it does little to explore the deeper issues and challenge ingrained sexist attitudes and the porn-induced reality.

Some questions that might provoke discussion and deeper reflection:

  • Why does society put such a high value on consent with regard to sex – compared to, say, sharing food?
  • What does healthy consensual sex look like?
  • The definition of consent in English law is: “a person consents if he agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice.” What does freedom and capacity mean in this context? What does it look like?
  • What might a lack of freedom and capacity look like in practice?
  • Can freedom and capacity be present if one person is significantly older, more experienced, or powerful than the other? If not, why not?
  • What if saying no is likely to have negative consequences? For example, suppose it’s late at night and she’s away from home and has no transport, or she’s alone with someone who scares her and is much larger and stronger than she is. Trying to escape is not a realistic option. She fears what he’ll do if she says no. Or maybe she’s so afraid, she freezes. Is there any real freedom to make a choice in such circumstances?
  • A common trope in mainstream porn is a man pressuring a woman for sex. Initially she is reluctant but he persists and eventually she relents, and it ends with her appearing to enjoy it. This reinforces many rape myths and suggests that her ‘no’ does not really mean ‘no’. Does this undermine the meaning of consent? If so, how?
  • Is pressuring someone relentlessly until they give in acceptable?
  • What about when the parties have a different understanding of what the sex means? For example, if one understands it to be part of a committed relationship but the other just wants to clock up another conquest to impress their friends.
  • What if one party dishonestly claims to love the other because he thinks it will make her consent?
  • What if a university lecturer or manager in a job (overtly or implicitly) offers a higher grade, a promotion, or some other benefit in return for sex?
  • What if a man offers his spare room to a hard-up woman on the basis that she has sex with him at his request?
  • Does the woman in such situations have freedom to turn down sex? What if she has no money and nowhere else to go?
  • What if a man offers to pay a woman for sex?
  • If she is dependent on that money for the basics, such as her rent and children’s food and shoes, what does that mean for her freedom to make a choice?
  • What if she uses the money to fund a drug habit? Does she really want the sex or is it just about her next fix?
  • What impact might having sex under such circumstances have on your understanding of consent?
  • Might it make you more likely to ignore the other person’s signals and so make you less responsive to sexual partners’ cues in the future? Does this matter? Why?
  • What does this tell us about buying sexual services?
  • If you are paying her so that you can penetrate her, are you really paying for a service? Would it not be more accurate to say that you are paying to use her?
  • What about material on porn sites that involves children or adult women who are made to appear younger – by wearing school uniform etc. – or that involves pain, strangulation, and similar?
  • Why does society outlaw sexual relationships with children?
  • Does consent to sex imply you have consent to choke or throttle them?
  • Does consent to kissing imply you have consent to choke or throttle them?
  • Does consent to sex imply you have consent to slap them or pull their hair?
  • Does consent to sex imply you have consent to insert objects into their vagina or anus?
  • Does consent to a dildo imply consent for something large, sharp, or angular and not designed for that purpose?
  • How should you respond if your partner asks you to strangle them (or insert sharp objects into her vagina) for erotic reasons? Do they understand the risks involved? Do you? Do you understand how women have been socialised and groomed to want to please? Might she perhaps be asking for this because she thinks you want it? How do you start a conversation about this?
  • How would you respond if someone asked you to help them commit suicide? Given the risks of strangulation, how is asking to be choked (i.e. strangled) different?
  • Under English law, it is not possible to legally consent to being physically harmed – even if you get sexual pleasure from that. Why do you think this is? What does this mean for BDSM activities?
  • What does this mean if your partner asks you to do something dangerous?
  • How can you ensure that both partners can withdraw consent at any moment when engaged in BDSM activities? Is a safe word sufficient if they are unable to speak due to a hood, gag, or similar? Is a safe gesture sufficient if they are bound?
  • Is the whole concept of consent misleading in that it suggests that consent is given once at the start and everything after that is agreed?
  • Does the concept of consent suggest that sex is something done by one person to another, rather than a mutual experience in which each person is attentive to the verbal and nonverbal signals of the other and responds to them?
  • Could there be a better way of framing the conversation about ensuring your sexual partner is willing and you are both on the same page?

Reading list

  • Pornland: How porn has hijacked our sexuality by Gail Dines. Beacon Press, 2010.
  • Pornography: Men Possessing Women by Andrea Dworkin. Putnam, 1981.
  • Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction by Gary Wilson. Commonwealth Publishing, 2014.
  • Not For Sale – Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography edited by Christine Stark and Rebecca Whisnant. Spinifex, 2004.
  • Getting off: pornography and the end of masculinity by Robert Jensen. South End Press, 2007.
  • The Sex Economy by Monica O’Connor. Agenda Publishing, 2019.
  • Pimp State: Sex, money and the future of equality by Kat Banyard. Faber & Faber, 2016.
  • Paid for: My journey through prostitution by Rachel Moran. Norton & Co, 2015.
  • Being and Being Bought by Kajsa Ekis Ekman. Spinifex, 2013.
  • The Macho Paradox: Why some men hurt women and how all men can help by Jackson Katz. Sourcebooks, 2019.
  • The Sexual Contract by Carole Pateman. Polity Press, 1988.
  • Trauma and Recovery by Judith Lewis Herman. Pandora, 1992.

Websites

Further reading


[1] Robin Morgan, “Theory and Practice: Pornography and Rape,” in The Word of a Woman: Feminist Dispatches 1968-1992. W.W. Norton, 1992.

[2] Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. Simon and Schuster, 1975

[3] Jensen, R ‘Blow bangs and cluster bombs: The cruelty of men and Americans’, in Stark, C and Whisnant, R (ed.) Not For Sale – Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography. Spinifex, 2004.

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