“I was abused, molested, insulted and frightened by my older brother when I was seven and he was 13. He had a waist-high stack of pornographic magazines. It is something I will never, ever forget. Pornography is about hate for women, power over women, revenge on women, ridicule and contempt of women.” So wrote one reader in response to our November 1989 News Report, What should we do about pornography? Our invitation to women to write about their experiences of pornography has produced an emotional and honest outpouring. More than 4,000 women filled in the accompanying questionnaire, and many of you wrote in greater detail your views and experiences. Most of our respondents believed that pornography harmed women, was degrading and humiliating and that it should definitely be curbed.
One very startling fact emerged. There was a strong link between childhood exposure to pornography and sexual experience below the age of consent (16). More than a quarter of those who first encountered pornography at the age of 12 or under first had sex under 16. And the women who had sex under 16 were more likely to have seen pornography at an early age. Early exposure can have a lasting impact on later life. “When I was 10, my family was visiting my uncle and aunt’s house. I was sitting next to my father when my uncle gave him a bound volume of ‘adult’ magazines. I looked over his shoulder, but I couldn’t believe what I saw. I felt everything I was going to grow up to be had been made dirty and cheap, only for titillation”
The proportion of respondents who first saw pornography as children was unexpectedly large. More than a third had seen it under the age of 12, two-thirds had seen it under the age of 16 and one in seven had first experienced pornography under the age of 10. Existing laws are supposed to “protect” children from the influence of pornography-they are obviously failing to do so. First contact included exposure to “illegal” pornography, including sex with children and animals, rape, anal/oral intercourse and violence to women.
Although women were curious (53 per cent), their feelings on first seeing pornography were overwhelmingly negative: a third felt disgusted, a third guilty, a third were offended. One in five felt frightened (some felt all of the above), and a third said it had long-term disturbing or detrimental effects. Overall, two thirds said they didn’t enjoy it. Significantly, there was evidence that those who had early contact with pornography had become “desensitised” to it. Those who had contact with pornography under the age of 12, and sex under the age of 16, were more likely to regard pornography as “harmless fun”.
Eighty-one percent of respondents see pornography frequently or occasionally. Two-thirds do not choose to see it. Of the third who do see pornography by choice, 63 per cent said they looked out of curiosity and 26 per cent used it to masturbate. A third said they shared pornography with a partner. Of those, over half had reservations or didn’t like it. Using pornography created confused and conflicting feelings. A third found pornography sexually arousing but they also felt guilty and found it offensive.
This letter is typical. “When my ex-partner wanted to use pornographic magazines, I went along with it because I was curious. I did find it arousing, but I also felt disturbed. Was my partner going to start seeing me as one of those women when we were in bed? It drove a wedge between us”. Some partners wanted to go further and make women act out the pornography, and one in 10 women were forced to use it by their partners. “My partner tried to persuade me to dress up in suspenders, etc. This was such a prescriptive request, I had no space to define what was sexually arousing for me”.
One of our respondents wrote, “A former boyfriend used to make me take part in threesomes and perform anal sex, which I found revolting.” Another said, “He often wanted me to watch ‘dirty’ videos with him. Then he presented me with a vibrator so he could watch me using it. He also masturbated over my face and tried repeatedly to spank me. After repeated requests, I reluctantly shaved my pubic hair ‘for him’.”
There was also evidence of casual links between pornography and sexual violence to women. A third of the sample had been raped or sexually assaulted and in 28 per cent of these cases, pornography had been used in the act. “I was raped one-and-a-half years ago. The man who raped me was a friend of the people I shared the flat with and I knew he regularly watched pornographic videos of a very offensive nature.” Another wrote, “I was raped by an ex-boyfriend who came to my house after we’d split up. I couldn’t cope with the magazines and films he used and the things he wanted me to do. He scared me to death. After viewing this crap, he’d turn into a monster and get violent if I refused what he wanted. When he raped me he was like that too, his eyes were just crazy and I was nothing more than a piece of meat.”
The link between child sexual abuse and the use of pornography was also clearly made by some women: “When I was six years old, my brother (then 14) was given or bought some ‘adult’ magazines and he used to show them to me when our parents were out. Then he began to sexually abuse me. He often read the magazines before he abused me. I was abused at three to four years old by my grandfather-I remember finding some ‘adult’ magazines at his flat once. For years I was abused by both my grandfather and brother, but felt too guilty to tell anyone. If our parents went out on a Saturday night, my brother would invite a few friends round. They’d bring their magazines and sit around joking about women’s bodies. Then my brother would make me strip and straddle the bath while, one by one, they’d sit underneath me having a look at my genitals… consequently I find any pictures of women displaying their genitals very disturbing.” Thirteen per cent of our respondents had been sexually abused as children.
Sexual harassment (and assault) at work was also linked to pornography by some respondents. “When I was 19, I was assaulted by a man at work. I know for certain that he had been looking at pornographic magazines before he attacked me- he’d been sexually turned on by them and had to relieve himself of his feelings,” wrote one reader. Sexual harassment on the street also occurs. Another reader described how she gets verbally abused because of her breasts when she passes building sites. “My large bust presumably means I am available and an easy lay. I feel these ridiculous connections can only come from Page Three-type porn where big equals no brain.”
Some models and ex-models also wrote in about their experiences. “At 18, I modelled nude for a men-only type magazine. I did it mainly for the money (which I never received), but also for fun and out of curiosity. It was part of a sophisticated, open lifestyle (as I thought then), a result of the sexually liberated Sixties. Now 36, I’ve been sexually assaulted twice, harassed verbally and offended many times by male sexuality in its most disturbing form- sexual lust cut off from emotion.”
Some readers believed that glossy magazines, including Cosmopolitan, were not all that far removed from pornography. “How can your magazine moan about pornography when my friends and I managed to find at least three adverts in the very same issue that offend us?” And, “In your magazine, women in adverts are used to sell all manner of products, with semi-nakedness, pouted lips, wide eyes, and breasts half visible. Women’s bodies are exploited to sell everything from perfume to decaffeinated tea-bags!” That’s the message you have for the advertising industry, with 14 per cent of respondents defining these adverts as pornography.
A striking 95 per cent of all our respondents believe that some forms of pornography should be curbed and 60 per cent want to see restrictions on all pornography. An overwhelming majority, 80 per cent, want government legislation against it and three-quarters felt that men need to be educated because they are unaware of the effects of pornography. One teacher or 12-year-old boys wrote, “They ‘discuss’ the so-called glamour pictures which appear daily in ‘The Sun’. Their manner is totally degrading towards women. The 14-year-olds talk about the pornographic videos which give them ideas about women being ‘available to men’, links between sex and violence and that women are sex objects rather than people.”
The problem with legislation is how to define pornography. But Cosmo readers did not seem to find it difficult to distinguish between pornography and erotica. “I’m really not anti-erotica, as long as men and women enjoy the fun equally and it doesn’t come over as men the doers, women done unto.” Another reader wrote, “I find at times that erotic movies and literature can be very stimulating with in a loving relationship, but I still abhor pornography in principle. I wonder if anyone is as split as I am?” Many women were able to recognise mutual, equal, erotic sex-which they liked-as distinct from oppressively dehumanising pornography-which they didn’t. “To me, anything which degrades women’s or men’s bodies and the sexual act is pornographic. I don’t find images of naked people offensive, nor do I find many lovemaking scenes in films offensive. On the other hand, I find ‘The Sun’ and similar Page Three tabloid papers pornographic in their depictions of pouting girls and breasts alongside sensationalised stories of rape and violence against women and children.” This line was clearly drawn by readers at the use of children, animals or violence-which were considered the most offensive, even to people who wouldn’t favour a total ban.
This Cosmopolitan survey was the first large-scale research in this country on women’s experience of pornography. In the US and elsewhere in Europe, pornography is more readily available, and much more degrading and violent; there is also much more evidence of links between pornography and sexual violence. A woman who had lived in Holland and France wrote, “Pornography is readily available on TV, in shops and on the streets, and I continually feel unsafe in broad daylight in cities such as Amsterdam.” She felt we should be deeply concerned about the future: “With 1992 around the corner, the rest of Europe is going to want Britain to ‘catch up’.”