How to be a feminist and watch porn, according to Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff

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“If you watch porn, you should care about the treatment of sex workers,” says Gal-Dem’s head of editorial.

British women watch porn. I have watched porn. A few weeks ago my friend Neelam, who recently appeared on BBC Three’s Porn Laid Bare docuseries, told Victoria Derbyshire, on daytime TV at 10.30am, how she used to struggle to get “wet” without porn. So if, for some reason, you are a woman who hasn’t watched porn or hasn’t quite plucked up the courage to mutually discuss your porn habits with your female friends, here I am, officially giving you permission to cast aside that particular burden of sexual repression and enter into a new age of openness. Not that you need it, I’m sure.

Now we’ve got that out of the way I can talk to you about porn without either of us blushing. And I need to, because there are a few pressing things we should be worried about. The rights of sex workers, some of whom work specifically in porn, are likely to be damaged by upcoming laws in the UK. If you consume porn, you’re participating in the sex industry. And if you’re a decent person, you should care about the people who work in that field.

We can be feminists and be interested in porn. But we should put that interest to good use. Many of us are concerned about how the industry treats women. But there are other conversations we need to be having. This month, new legislation will require anyone viewing a website with erotic, adult content to submit age verification. From around Easter, there are likely to be a combination of 18+ apps attached to porn sites, meaning users will need to scan in their passport or driving licence or, bizarrely, head down the shops to grab an over-the-counter porn pass, which will cost about £5. The legislation is controversial, but the aim is to prevent children accessing porn.

For women in the sex industry, the new age verification laws could cause harm – both to their business and to themselves. Like most businesses, sex workers can advertise online, either via specialist sites or their own. Such sites will also fall under the remit of the ‘porn ban’. There’s a difference between a giant corporation like MindGeek – who run PornHub, YouPorn, RedTube and many other sites – and one person advertising themselves.

The feminist porn director Pandora Blake has lobbied the government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for two years expressing her concern that independent sex workers’ sites would be obliged to comply with the new law.

“[It] would mean a significant drop off in the ability of independent sex workers to attract clients, which would force them into more exploitative working conditions,” she said on a blog. (Ironically, when I tried to access Pandora’s site using public wifi, it was blocked.)

And there’s more: some British politicians in the All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade are looking to push through legislation banning the advertising of sex work online, and criminalising the buying of sex. Right now, in England, Wales and Scotland, soliciting in public, pimping, running a brothel and kerb-crawling are all illegal, but prostitution itself is legal.

Working as prostitute in private or as an escort is not an offence. This allows sex workers some level of protection. Advertising online allows sex workers, women in particular, to screen and vet clients. It also means they don’t have to work on the streets. They can keep control of their lives and their work.

If you care about women, if you care about porn, and if you care about the rights of sex workers, now is the time to engage. There are directors like Pandora and writers like Molly Smith and Juno Mac – the authors of 2018’s Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight For Sex Workers’ Rights. Read up and start getting angry.

We’ll all feel better about watching porn if we know that we can keep doing so in a less exploitative manner, and one that recognises the rights of sex workers to exist in this country without stigmatisation and without being penalised.

Adwoa Aboah

We’re celebrating Stylist’s 10th birthday in 2019 – and to honour the occasion, we’ve asked 10 of our favourite women to guest edit an issue of the magazine. Adwoa Aboah is our second star guest editor. 

“I’m a massive fan of Gal-Dem and everything they do,” Adwoa says. “Charlie is a brilliant writer and she has a really unique way of capturing what it means to be a young woman today.”

See more from Adwoa’s special issue here

Main image: Author’s own. Other image: Sarah Brick 

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