When the controversy about SpunOut. ie and threesomes broke, I was researching a paper on pornography for the Iona Institute. I was reading material by Gail Dines and Robert Jensen, two feminist researchers who suggest that the boundaries of what constitutes normal sexual experience are constantly being pushed because punters become desensitised, and demand more extreme experiences.
Jensen goes on to suggest that this gradually filters through into mainstream imagery. “Less intense forms of those sexual practices migrate into the tamer feature pornography, and from there in muted form into mainstream pop culture. Pornography gets more openly misogynist, and pop culture becomes more pornographic.”
SpunOut suggested that it was simply trying to protect young people from receiving their information on sexuality from pornography. Even though it is a State-funded organisation, it did not have the insight to see that it is simply reinforcing norms that are originating in porn.
In its puberty section, SpunOut also discusses shaving. Helpfully, it offers tips on genital shaving. Strangely enough, that’s straight out of porn, too.
The organisation also said that it was not endorsing threesomes for teens. Really? The headline on the original piece was : “Threesomes – how to have a fun and safe experience.” So what would constitute endorsement, then?
SpunOut protested loudly against censorship. Why, then, did it scuttle to self-censor, and overnight remove advice such as providing dim lighting, not indulging with anyone you had feelings for, and reassuring your partner that he or she is still “top dog” when the experience is over?
If threesomes are normal behaviour, teens should not object if their parents wish to indulge, with say, a neighbour. It’s just a choice, right? And so long as no feelings are involved for the neighbour, it will just “spice up their bedroom shenanigans” with no negative consequences.
Tragically, this worldview is being promoted on a website that does otherwise excellent work on mental health , but cannot join the dots that this kind of sexual activity is very likely to lead to depression.
SpunOut also set up a straw man that suggested people opposing teenagers being given advice on how to have a “safe and fun” threesome are against giving information and sex education to teens.
More information is what teens need, not less. I’m against giving partial or inaccurate information to teens. But it must include facts such as that even early sexual activity that doesn’t involve multiple partners tends to lead to regrets about not waiting.
SpunOut needs to highlight the benefits of sex when there is emotional closeness, trust and commitment, not suggest that so long as a condom is used, sex with someone you have no feelings for is just another recreational activity. It needs to offer young people something a little less shallow than what they can already find with ease in glossy magazines or online.
It also needs to offer a viable alternative to the kind of pornographic material that young people are swimming in. Depending on the study you read, the average age of first exposure to sexual imagery online is either nine or 11. So children are seeing this stuff long before they are sexually active, and that has an impact on developing brains and hearts.
Psychologies is a magazine for women aged 35-55, which took the unusual step of joining with Mumsnet, an online UK resource for women, to launch a campaign called "Put Porn in Its Place." Psychologies takes a liberal line in relation to adult sexuality, but what it learned about children's exposure to porn spurred the campaign.
The magazine surveyed 273 kids, mostly aged 14 to 16. Two-thirds had seen porn online, and a quarter had first seen such images before their tenth birthday. 81 per cent looked at online porn while they are at home. 75 per cent said their parents have never discussed online porn with them.
Unless they happen to be users themselves, it is unlikely that parents have any idea what is available online. Although the porn industry is estimated to be worth $2.5 billion, between 80-90 per cent of what users consume is freely available content.
"Gonzo" porn, where all pretence at plot is abandoned in favour of graphic scenes involving multiple partners, and sometimes animals, is easy to access, as is "barely legal", which skirts the prohibition on child porn by depicting eighteen year olds acting as if they were thirteen or even younger.
Being against violent and degrading porn is an issue around which conservatives and progressives can unite. As Robert Jensen says, "pornography doesn't draw on the emotions most commonly connected with sex – love and affection – because men typically consume pornography specifically to avoid love and affection. So, the pornographers offer men sexual gymnastics and circus acts that are saturated with cruelty toward women; they sexualise the degradation of women." (Note: increasing numbers of women access porn, too. But the fastest growing market is young people.)
Surely the degradation of human beings is an issue that cuts across culture war divisions? Growing up is difficult enough to navigate. Our children don’t need adults to cede the floor to pornography and loveless sex.