Are we facing an epidemic of harmful anal sex, brought on only because of the availability of online porn? This is what you’d think from reading a recent policy note from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in support of the government’s aim to require all pornographic websites to use age verification by default.
But this suggestion rests on two debatable assumptions: first, that pornography has driven the rise in heterosexual couples trying anal sex, and second, that this is harmful, something to be discouraged or, in the government’s words: “unwanted”. Considering that it’s one of my research papers that the government cites in support of its claims, I feel I need to question these assumptions.
On the first assumption, there is no clear link between access to pornography and anal sex among young people – something pointed out in my paper published in the BMJ Open journal in 2014. However, whether or not this is the case the second assumption misses – or blurs – the essential distinction between consensual and coercive sexual practices. My co-author Ruth Lewis and I argued that the harms we identified – as cited in the DCMS note – stem not from anal sex per se but from elements of coercion that seem to be an integral part of many young people’s experiences and expectations of anal sex between men and women. In fact this is not limited to anal sex, but a feature of other sexual practices too.
What we found in our research was that young, straight men may derive some kudos among their friends from having anal sex with women, and that some of the young men in our study seemed to place a low value on their partner’s wishes. Participants talked about men “persuading” and using coercive methods to have anal sex with women as if this were normal. The fundamental problems behind coercion – of women’s desires being ignored, the men pushing/women resisting model of heterosex, and sex acts as goals for men – all long pre-date the era of easy access to online porn, as does sexual coercion itself.
Of course, pornography may contain depictions of harmful practices, such as coercive or non-consensual sex. But this also appears in films, books and other media that aren’t classed as pornography – films such as Irreversible or Baise Moi, to name just two. But the fundamental causes of sexual coercion and rape go far deeper than simply copying what is on screen. It seems overly optimistic to suggest that reducing access to pornography will reduce the problem of sexual coercion or “unwanted sex”, when the socio-cultural attitudes that support sexual coercion remain unchallenged.
Good education on sex and sexuality can help challenge some of the harmful gender dynamics that promote the problematic sexual activities we identified in our study. Better education and more frank and open discussion would also help young people take a more critical view of pornographic imagery. The government’s policy document rightly talks about tackling the potential harms that can come from anal sex, but instead of asking why couples are increasingly trying anal sex – framed as if this is a threat to society – the government should be asking why they engage in sexual acts they do not want or do not enjoy. Addressing this is a question that goes far beyond restricting children’s access to porn.
A good starting point would be to ensure all young people have access to comprehensive sexuality education that challenges coercive practices, helps improve communication skills, and emphasises mutuality – the process where partners ask about and take account of each other’s desires. Instead, the government has taken steps to ensure that sexuality education will not be a compulsory part of the curriculum.