Monday 24 April 2017

The rise of porn for Irish women

The statistics tell us that Irish women do watch porn - even if they're ashamed to admit it. Does liking it make us anti-feminist? Regina Lavelle examines what we watch and why

We Irish are enthusiastic porn consumers
We Irish are enthusiastic porn consumers

Porn. Is this perhaps the last bastion of sex that has yet to darken the Irish breakfast table? We've had underage sex, extramarital sex, mid-life sex, late-life sex and, yes, we're still addressing abortion, but porn?

Thus far, the national conversation has centred around the abusive aspects of porn - revenge porn, for example, where a woman's face has been superimposed onto that of a porn actor, or where she and a partner have videoed themselves before the end of the relationship, only for the partner to later post the clip online in an act of, as the name suggests, revenge.

But what of the porn that is lighting up Irish living rooms and bedrooms, when the children have gone to sleep and when the Chablis has been unscrewed? The kind of porn that you might see in a film, rather than the kind of film which endangers children and abuses trafficked women? As Fifty Shades returns to the mainstream, replete with bondage references and sexual consent documents, and at a time when household brands like Diesel are advertising on porn channels - the brand last year began a campaign on Pornhub which Diesel CEO Renzo Rosso claimed resulted in a 31pc increase (he didn't specify sales or traffic) - porn is now mainstream.

And we Irish are enthusiastic consumers. Pornhub is the largest porn website on the internet, hosting a mix of professionally produced and amateur content. While Ireland ranks 27th in the world for traffic to the site, per capita page views tell a different story. On that table we rank sixth, behind the USA, then Iceland, the UK, Canada and New Zealand.

According to Alexa, the Amazon-owned company which provides independent site traffic statistics, pornhub.com is Ireland's 38th most popular site overall. For comparison, independent.ie is listed 18th on that ranking, theguardian.com is just ahead of Pornhub at number 34. The average time spent on the porn site, says Alexa, is 9 minutes 40 seconds.

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Porhub Irish female users table, feb 2017
Porhub Irish female users table, feb 2017

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But what about Irish women? Tony Moore, a psychotherapist and counsellor with Relationships Ireland, says, "From the latest surveys, about 15-20pc of women say they view porn on a regular basis." Weekend asked Pornhub if they could provide us with specific figures on their Irish female users, as well as metrics on Irish users, users by county and peak times of use (see graph and panel opposite).

Here's what Pornhub told us about Irish women's viewing habits: since mid-2014 (when Google Analytics, which collates their data, started providing demographics) there has been a 55pc increase in the number of female visitors to the site. Women now account for 26pc of Irish traffic, with 65pc of those women aged from 18 to 35. Sixteen per cent of visitors are aged between 35 and 44, 14pc less than men of the same age. However, they say there are proportionately more 18- to 24-year-old Irish women on the site than there are men.

International figures tell the same story. A 2015 study conducted by Typeform on behalf of Marie Claire - as a part of a project by television presenter Amanda de Cadenet - found that more than third of women watch porn at least once a week.

Of the respondents, 83pc were straight, 51pc were in a relationship, 52pc were aged between 25 and 42, and 13pc were older.When asked about frequency of viewing, 31pc said they watched porn every week, 31pc answered a few times a month, 21pc a few times a year, and 10pc said they consumed porn on a daily basis. Notably, 99pc of the porn consumed was from the internet.

So women do watch porn. But why? "The issue is actually huge, but it is not explored or discussed because of guilt and shame," Moore says. "Porn in whatever form is very popular. However, porn use is seen as dirty and disgusting and therefore difficult to discuss. But because it will never go away, and because it is changing the way men and women relate to each other, a more open and honest discussion needs to take place."

Some are prepared to start that conversation, off the record, at least. "Of course we watch it," says 25-year-old Caoimhe, who works in social media. "I started watching it when I was at college with a boyfriend who was into it. Now I watch it myself. Some of it is terrible, some of it is funny, but if men watch it, why shouldn't women watch it? I'm single. I don't want to sleep around and - I mean, come on - everyone does it. Everyone I know, anyway."

She isn't alone. Niamh is 38 and works in marketing. "I guess I started watching it intermittently maybe 10 years ago. I watch it alone if I'm bored. Sometimes I'm not really proud of myself but I'm pretty strict as regards to what I watch. I buy female- friendly porn, usually by female directors - stuff my friends would recommend to me.

"So I try to make sure that, well, 'no women have been harmed in the making of this movie', even if that sounds trite. I know my mother would probably disown me, though, even though I'm nearly 40 now.

"I genuinely feel that I'm making an informed decision. And I feel that women should have the same choices as men in this regard. But you're not really allowed to say that you want to watch porn because you're lonely or you're single or you're bored. And sometimes that's the truth."

Does this seem shocking - and, if the answer is yes, then why?

Beyond the complex and opaque morality of porn, which we will touch on later, why does this seem so anathema to Irish society? Are we really that repressed? While the sexual revolutions which overtook our neighbours in the 1960s and '70s now seem quaint reminders of how we were, why is there still a taboo about the notion of Irish women being so bold about their own desires?

"As Irish women, we are still deeply uncomfortable talking and writing about sex, and that is a huge issue," says Roe McDermott, a Fulbright Scholar and visiting lecturer in sexuality studies, San Francisco State University, and sex columnist for the Dublin Inquirer. "And a woman expressing sexual desire is offending traditional gender roles. Because men have never really had to care about women's sexual desire. The trajectory from gaining access to contraception to divorce, the marriage equality referendum - that has all combined to eliminate the idea that sex has to be with someone you're in love with. It's all but eradicated the notion that sex will end in pregnancy.

"Thirty years ago, sex meant marriage, pregnancy… now, if sex doesn't mean adulthood and motherhood, what does it mean? And if there is a replacement pathway for all these things, you are saying women don't have to choose the path that life had set out for them. So if that means not choosing marriage and choosing to be sexually fulfilled as a single woman - that is incredibly threatening. But now women are exploring the concept of what sex means for them."

As McDermott says, it is worth remembering how far we've come in a relatively short time. When the State was drawn in 1922, much of its new social landscape was coloured by the mores of the Catholic Church. The 1929 Censorship of Publications act which banned 'erotic literature' also banned any literature which advised on 'unnatural' birth control. Contraceptives remained banned until 1979 and restricted into the 1990s. But it is perhaps more interesting to examine the social consequences of this time.

The Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships, published by the Crisis Pregnancy Agency (CPA) and the Department of Health and Children in 2006, makes for fascinating reading, in particular in the chapter on 'Influences on Irish sexual knowledge, attitudes and behaviours'. It found that, after this period, "The climate of repression in matters sexual shaped the imagery and language within which relationships and sex were experienced by the majority of Irish people. Most were brought up to associate sex with feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment. This had a number of consequences. First, it created an environment in which it was extremely difficult to find clear, factual information on sex and relationships." And for most of us, that legacy lasted long into the 1980s and '90s. Sex education was not introduced in secondary schools until 1997, for example. The CPA report noted that 46pc of respondents found talking to their mother about sexual matters 'difficult'; 45pc found talking to their father 'difficult'. Twenty-five per cent said sexual matters 'never came up' with their mother and 36pc said the same of their father.

So how do you learn about sex and your own sexuality when most avenues are closed to you, and those which are open you are too embarrassed to push? "It's true," 45-year-old Saoirse tells me. "I got a lot of my sex education from porn. At the time, it was terrible - awful movies I would buy in desperate sex shops, but where else were you supposed to get it from?

"Honestly it was either that or go around sleeping with people, and I didn't want to do that. But you and your friends had to find out. And that's how we did it."

This same phenomenon - the lack of mature, non-instructional sexual content - drove advertising maven Cindy Gallop to found Make Love Not Porn. Launched at the TED conference in 2009, it's a user- generated content platform and website, meaning real couples upload videos of themselves having 'real world sex' rather than its dramatised and often misogynistic cousin.

So the data tells us Irish women watch porn, and Irish women have told us why, but there is one issue which has not yet been challenged and that is how the representation of women in porn - both physically and psychologically - affects our perceptions of ourselves in the first instance and our relationships in the second. And, says Tony Moore, porn can have a devastating impact on relationships. What may start out as anxiety that your partner is having an affair can unspool chaotically.

"The overuse of porn can and often does destroy the close emotional intimacy between a couple," Moore says. "[A man may focus] on the fantasy on screen believing that what he sees on screen is the 'usual and normal'. He can begin to resent his partner, believing that every other woman wants lots of sex and he is married to the only woman who doesn't. This resentment can turn to anger and that can turn to violence. Porn can change how men think about women and behave with women."

There are certainly repercussions for relationships. Not only do women feel they have to 'compete' with the unrealistic and hypersexualised pneumatic bodies of porn, but there is an expectation that they will act out some of the some deeply unpalatable behaviours common to the genres. No wonder many feminists felt so uncomfortable with the industry.

Second-wave feminists (the period from the early '60s to the 1980s) such as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin certainly agree that porn leads to the subjugation of women. It was MacKinnon and Dworkin who defined pornography as 'the graphic, sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures or words' in 1987. The phrase 'pornography is the theory, rape is the practice' was coined by Robin Morgan in 1978, and later adopted by Dworkin. Therefore, there is often conflict about porn. Does liking porn make you a bad feminist?

"It's an interesting thing," says Roe McDermott. "We know what porn is offering but I don't feel that it's catering to women's tastes. But you have to treat porn like it's another type of media. And in that sense, I don't think porn is either good or bad. I'm a professional film critic and I don't see films as all 'good' or all 'bad' - it's a form of media, and you apply critical discourse to that medium to examine and critique what individual films are doing or what recurring tropes indicate and perpetuate."

McDermott believes that opening up the industry to fulsome criticism of what is and isn't acceptable is the only way to cast light onto an debate which is more often characterised by heat.

"It's important to talk about it so we can teach a form of media literacy, so that people become aware of how porn can be consumed in an ethical way. For one thing, this approach makes the porn industry a lot more safe - by creating a market for ethically produced porn and also by protecting sex workers. I hear a lot of damaging rhetoric that porn involves the abuse or coercion of women. I would argue that all women choose to go into porn, because if it's not voluntary, then it's not pornography - it's filmed abuse. There is a professional industry with safety regulations, and women are choosing to work in front of and behind the camera for many reasons. I believe that inherently casting them as the victim is an unhelpful and inaccurate trope."

In Ireland we still have problems admitting our sexual desires and impulses, and the messy, sometimes difficult, situations they beget. But the end of those benighted days during which we were denied purchase over such matters must be in sight.

As Tony Moore points out, "The most important and positive step for the couple who attend counselling is to talk openly with without guilt and shame. The majority of us have a sex drive. How to manage that natural drive has been the subject of discussion for literally thousands of years, yet we still have difficulty talking about it."

Shame comes up again and again.

"Shaming people for enjoying certain forms of porn is not going to eliminate it; it's just going to put people in conflict with themselves," says McDermott. "It is time for us to develop a form of discourse to speak about pleasure."

Irish users and porn

THE STATISTICS

This information has been collated by Pornhub Insights using Google Analytics. The top 12 Irish counties by traffic, for both men and women accessing the site, are as follows:

Dublin 65pc

Cork 8.4pc

Galway 3.1pc

Limerick 2.3pc

Meath 2.1pc

Kildare 2pc

Donegal 1.9pc

Wexford 1.8pc

Louth 1.5pc

Kerry 1.3pc

Fingal 1.3pc

Waterford1.2pc

Busiest day for traffic: Monday

Quietest day: Friday

Peak hours: 10am to midnight

Low hours: 3am to 4am

Irish Independent

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