Pornography and Panic

Samantha Keene

Contemporary pornography is immensely popular, accessible and mostly free via pornographic ‘tube’ sites such as Pornhub, Xvideos, Youporn and live webcam sites such as LiveJasmin. The colloquial rules of the internet suggest that the internet exists for pornography, and that if pornography of a particular genre does not currently exist, then it soon will. is one of the biggest and most popular online pornography tube sites. In 2018 alone, it reported a record 33 billion site visits, which amounted to 207,405 videos viewed every minute. As has been the trend in previous years, Pornhub’s annual year in review data for 2019 will likely show increased numbers of site visits, increased hours of content viewed, and increased numbers of videos uploaded to the site.

The front page of Pornhub has over 10 million videos to search from, as well as offering a selection of ‘hot porn videos in New Zealand’ and the ‘most viewed porn videos in New Zealand.’ It allows viewers to search for content from what seems to be an endless menu of sexual behaviours, acts and themes. Of course, this is perhaps not news for most – we know that New Zealanders feature in the top 30 countries in the world by capita for viewing frequency on Pornhub. Whilst pornography is often thought of as a man’s activity, we also know that Kiwi women are increasingly viewing pornography, making up 40% of New Zealand’s viewing audience.

Various claims are made about pornography and its impacts. Pornography is labelled dangerous and harmful for children, especially regarding their sexual development. It is labelled aggressive, misogynistic and degrading to women. It’s situated as a causal factor in the perpetration of sexual and physical violence. It’s claimed to affect intimacy in adult relationships, to be ‘addictive’ in nature. These claims encourage us to panic about pornography, and calls are often made to regulate, or ban, access to pornography.

Of course, all of these claims can be, and are, valid in particular contexts and spaces. But panicking about pornography is not always practical, especially when we don’t know all that much about pornography in New Zealand. We know relatively little about the type of content New Zealanders engage with, what type of sex they’re interested in viewing and how these experiences with pornography may be affected by gender. There is consensus in both government and non-government spaces that we need to know more about pornography in New Zealand. A recent government report has shed some light on this important issue.

On Thursday, the Office of Film and Literature Classification released a new report on commonly viewed pornography. Their analysis drew upon a review of the content of 196 commonly viewed pornography videos by New Zealanders on Pornhub. The results of this report may come as a bit of a surprise to both those familiar and unfamiliar with pornography and its different trends and tropes. The new report Breaking Down Porn reports several important findings about the type of pornography New Zealanders are viewing. The analysis suggests that:

  • High levels of aggression were uncommon (10%), but when aggression did occur, this was almost always directed towards women.
  • Non-consensual behaviour occurred in 35% of videos.
  • Pornography videos typically showed mutual pleasure.
  • Condom use was very low (only 3% of videos involving vaginal or anal intercourse)
  • The categories of pornography that New Zealanders engage with are diverse.
  • Videos depicting ‘step-fantasy’ sexual interactions were common (the popularity of ‘fauxcest’ – read faux incest – is not unique to New Zealand, however, it is a globally popular genre).

These findings present a snapshot of New Zealander’s pornography viewing habits in a particular space and time. In the absence of much information about what we get up to online, this report is a welcome contribution to our knowledge and understanding. It helps build a broader picture of the issues we need to focus on in our delivery of holistic sexuality education in New Zealand, but also our wider prevention programmes in the sexual violence space.

The finding regarding aggression differs quite heavily from other published analytical work. One of the most commonly cited studies of aggression in pornography found that nearly 90% of popular pornographic DVDs contained aggression. More recent analyses of internet pornography suggest that aggression occurs at far higher rates than this report, or that aggression intersects with other factors such as age, with younger performers engaging in rougher, or more risky, sexual behaviours. Of course, these wildly different findings are likely related to the different ways that researchers account for aggression, and the difficulties involved in counting consensual depictions of these behaviours. What there is consensus about, however, is that when aggression occurs in pornography, this is almost always directed toward women. This finding reinforces the importance of retaining a gendered lens when when we think about pornography and analyse its content.

The release of the report, and subsequent media commentary, tended to focus on the report’s findings about step-porn pornography. Yes, the step-fantasy finding is intriguing, perhaps even a bit titillating, but it also invites a whole lot of judgemental attitudes about the content that New Zealanders are engaging with. What is most important about this finding is that step-fantasy pornography was more problematic than other genres, in that it was more likely to involve aspects of non-consensual behaviour and involved issues regarding power dynamics and inappropriate sexual interactions in a familial context. New Zealanders’ engagement with step-fantasy pornography is unlikely to be reflective of a society-wide interest in sexual interactions with their family members. Our shock at New Zealanders engaging with step-porn fantasy is perhaps slightly misguided. Our shock should not be at the genre, but rather it should be on the content within this type of pornography and what this means for our understandings about sex.

The report found that while New Zealanders preferred to view consensual pornography, 35% of all videos contained some form of non-consensual behaviour. The report defined non-consensual activity as including “explicit verbal cues, requests to stop, signs of resistance, attempts to avoid, or evident unhappiness with the situation” (p. 7). The report also included situations where a performer would be initially reluctant and then give in to sexual activity. Also known as “token resistance,” this finding is perhaps the most important aspect of the entire report. We know that sexual violence does not typically occur in stranger-danger situations. The majority of sexual violence occurs between people who know each other, especially in relationships, and it exists on a spectrum that includes what we call sexual coercion. Pressure to engage in sex, being pressured to perform particular sexual acts or behaviours, and transforming an initial ‘no’ to an unenthusiastic ‘yes’ in sexual activity are forms of sexual coercion, and it’s the normalisation of these aspects – and the blurred lines it creates in understandings about consent – that should actually be the focus of our attention.

These findings give us a glimpse into pornography in New Zealand, and I would encourage everyone not to panic about step-family porn fantasies and massively increasing levels of intra-familial, aggressive sex. What this report does provide is a really important starting point for updating and reinforcing the messaging that young people are receiving about sex and sexuality education.

It pinpoints the importance of talking with young people about healthy relationships, contraception, consent and gender and power dynamics in pornography. This is important because we know from recent research that young people are using pornography as a form of sex education. The recent Youth and Porn Report produced by the Office of Film and Literature Classification tells us that young people are encountering pornography, they want to talk about it, they have thoughts about it and many are seeing it as a de facto form of sex education. As it stands, comprehensive sexuality education is not delivered across the board in New Zealand. Some schools are doing it excellently, whilst others are not doing it well at all. Whilst consent is mandated in the curriculum, pornography is not always included in this conversation. The knowledge this report gives us shows the importance of delivering nuanced sexuality education that accounts for what young people experience and engage with online.

We can do better for our young people to ensure that they go on to have healthy, fulfilling, loving and intimate relationships in the future; relationships that are rooted in mutual respect. We can equip our young people with knowledge about the basics about consent, but it’s about moving beyond merely talking about mutual pleasure. It’s about having a comprehensive understanding of all the cues we need to monitor when engaging in sex. Ensuring that young people know that pushing for a ‘yes’ from a starting place of ‘no’ is coercive is also a vital message. By knowing that this is common in pornography viewed by New Zealanders, it amplifies our need to ensure that this is an integral part of our education for young people, from both schools and from their parents. Parents need to be empowered to have critical conversations about what young people are encountering online.

The findings about low levels of aggression in pornography from this report should also not lead us to a false sense of security about pornography. Much mainstream pornography is aggressive, and we need to continue to factor this into our critical conversations. We need to continue to talk about the gender and power dynamics in pornography and situate these in the wider landscape of gender and power in contemporary society.

Following the report’s release, the Children’s Commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft, welcomed the report and said it is a ‘wake-up call’ for all New Zealanders. I agree with Judge Becroft, and I, too, welcome the report. Breaking Down Porn provides a starting point for having a national conversation about pornography, sex and consent in the digital era.

Samantha Keene is a teaching fellow at Victoria University of Wellington. She recently completed a PhD in criminology on the gendered influence of pornography. This piece was first published on The Spinoff, 9 December 2019.

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