How we can better discuss porn and BDSM

Recently I was asked to give some feedback on a project exploring the impacts of mainstream porn on sex and sexuality. I was concerned about the project using BDSM acts as examples of harm in porn, so they asked me to offer some thoughts on how to discuss these concerns in a more mindful way.

I thought I’d share my thoughts here, as the discussions (particuarly in the media) of different sexual preferences in porn can contribute hugely to stigma and shame. It seems kink acts such as choking, slapping and dominance are often the go-to examples of how bad porn is for women.

Conversely, failing to talk about how porn can be harmful, and how the appropriation of kink imagery and acts in mainstreme porn can be misunderstood, is irresponsible.

So these are some of my thoughts on BDSM and porn (though I’ll use kink as a wider umbrella term) in terms of exploring¬† the affects of mainstream porn.

It is really hard to draw a line around mainstream porn given how kink features to different extents in a range of porn.

Some really common mainstream porn genres are kink; for instance babysitter and student/teacher porn has really solid arguments for being included in the D for dominance in BDSM. Powerplay is a big part of a lot of mainstream stuff.

A common argument on how to differentiate kink porn from mainstream porn that features kink actions and imagery, is how ‘hardcore’ the kink is. This is problematic because hardcore is subjective and evolves. 20 years ago cum-shots would have been considered extreme, now they are very mainstream.

Another argument in identifying kink porn is whether the porn involves a pre/post interview to establish consent (which highly regarded kink producers such as kink.com utilise, and helps set a standard). The issue here is that by differentiating kink porn by its use of interviews, it implicitly suggests that this is the sort of porn that needs an emphasis on consent. Which, I would argue, all porn does.

The above point continues (whether people mean to or not) the sense that kink must be protected against, when mainstream porn would benefit hugely from adopting their consent processes, emphasis on negotiation and communication, and the inclusion of safewords.

I have never seen a mainstream porn actor check in with his co-star to see if she was enjoying it, or feeling ok, in mainstream porn. This is common place in kink.

Of course a random teenager could see face-slapping in porn and think it’s a good idea to do to their sexual partner without asking. The thing is, we should instead be saying ‘a random teenager could see any sexual act in porn and think it’s ok to do without asking, and this is why we need better inclusion of consent and communication in all porn.’

Yes there are people who misuse kink porn. Yes there are people who use kink porn as outlets for violence or misogyny. But while the actions viewed in kink porn may seem like the most obvious magnets or encouragements for violent people, I would float the question of whether this is more harmful than the implicit, unquestioned sexism, racism, and gender-essentialism that happens in mainstream porn which far more people watch.

It would be really great to see more conversations about mainstream porn delineate between ethical porn, including kink porn, and porn that needs more emphasis on consent regardless of the content.

If sex acts like face-slapping and choking have to be the go-to examples of how extreme mainstream porn can be, could the mention of them be premised with “un-negotiated” to make it clear the action is not the issue, the lack of context and risk of a viewer repeating without consent is the issue.

Every time we use examples like choking of something women are ‘portrayed as enjoying’, it makes women who do enjoy them feel disempowered. And there’s enough in porn to make women feel disempowered already. It would be great to have more conversations about how we can empower women to feel confident articulating what they do and don’t enjoy, instead of policing the acts themselves.

Basically I think mainstream porn needs to take a leaf out of kink porn’s book. And the issue with acts, all acts, in mainstream porn is not what they are, but whether they’re negotiated.

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