opinion

"I felt humiliated." The latest pornography trend harming women.

I think most of us can agree that when it comes to representing women as autonomous, empowered, diverse and multifaceted human beings, mainstream pornography isn’t doing us any favours.

While both men and women consume porn in huge numbers, and many people from both genders enjoy it, a great deal of the porn that exists on the Internet sets a precedent for demeaning, objectifying, dominating and sometimes even abusing women. Personally, it irks me that the same men whom I interact with daily are also regularly watching material that represents women as nothing more than sexual play things; as objects to act upon in order to achieve sexual pleasure.

The fact that it makes me profoundly uncomfortable means I try my best not to think about it. But the latest trend in pornography makes this particularly difficult, because some men are watching it in public, in conspicuous view of the women around them. And at the very least, it feels creepy to those witnessing it.

On a recent episode of the BBC podcast Woman’s Hour, producer Siobhann Tighe discussed her experience of seeing a man watch porn on a London bus. She said she felt “uncomfortable and annoyed,” and had a million questions for a person who would think it was appropriate to watch porn in public. But ultimately, Tighe said, she was offended.

Listen to Mamamia’s podcast The Prude and The Pornstar, where two very different women discuss sex, relationships, and pornography. Post continues after audio.

After the episode aired, many women shared similar stories. On mumsnet, a conversation about the topic offered a disturbing number of examples of the same behaviour.

“When I was a flight attendant I’d often catch people on their laptops during night flights watching porn,” read one comment. “Unbelievable. Usually business class passengers as well.”

Women said they’d seen men watching porn in hospital beds and restaurants, and when I asked my colleagues, they said they’d seen it happen on trains, at (previous) workplaces, and in a university library.

Months ago, a friend told me she was waiting in line at the airport when she noticed two men in front of her watching a particularly vulgar video. She confronted them and asked them to turn it off, and was met with laughter and the accusation that she was a ‘prude.’ They ignored her and made her feel silly for even noticing.

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But clearly this is an issue women experience in large numbers, and it’s one they’re not at all comfortable with.

Of course, certain men acting sexually inappropriately in public is nothing new. You’d be hard-pressed to find a woman who hasn’t witnessed a man expose himself in public, or had a sexual slur yelled at her while walking down the street. What’s changed is the technology – and therefore the way men are expressing their attitudes towards women.

"Certain men acting sexually inappropriate in public is nothing new." Image via iStock.

For many, the act of a man watching porn in public is one of unimaginable entitlement: this man genuinely feels he owns the public sphere so holistically that he can engage in what is often one of the most private human experiences, with no sense of embarrassment. He'll watch people having sex because he feels like watching people have sex, and his enjoyment isn't stifled by the presence of others.

There's also an underlying message that it's perfectly fine to be sexually aroused, or to be thinking about women as sexual objects, in public. For some women, it's scary.

I asked a friend how she felt when she saw a man watching porn beside her on the train. "I don't know if it's justified or not, but I felt worried for my own safety," she said. "I felt like he was silently saying, 'This is what I think of women. This is what I think women should do.'"

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For me, the other element is humiliation. Simply being around men when they're discussing vulgar sexual acts makes me feel uncomfortable. I feel belittled and helpless and angry. I start to feel like they're looking at me in a way I don't want them to - as a bunch of orifices and bodily functions that shouldn't be thought about in the public sphere.

Years ago at a previous job a colleague wanted to show me a video. It was that horrendous clip of a woman having sex with a horse. Before I could even object and walk away I saw more than I had wanted to, and I felt frustrated. "How can you take the women around you seriously when you just watched one have sex with a horse?" I thought. "How can you view them through a lens of respect when you've just viewed a woman through a lens of ultimate degradation?"

Watching porn in public is the ultimate manifestation of the patriarchy. As Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett wrote so compellingly for The Guardianthe act says to women: "this is what you’re for. And just try doing something about it."

The laws around it are blurry, and it seems unlikely that authorities on public transport and countless other contexts can reliably tackle the issue. So what can we do?

For starters, one particularly depressing aspect of people watching porn in public is that it isn't actually a huge jump from what we typically consume in the public sphere anyway. Just as 'explicit' material makes me feel uncomfortable, so do highly sexualised images in the media. I remember being in the car with an older male family member and passing a billboard featuring nearly naked women. I automatically felt self-conscious, and wondered whether he saw me that way; as a sexual object rather than a person he could take seriously and respect.

It's the same with TV and movies and social media. These platforms are regularly pushing the envelope when it comes to sex, and I've seen more posts than I can count on Instagram that are borderline-pornographic. Countless men leave crude comments, treating the person in the photo like an imaginary porn star whose purpose is to sexually satisfy strangers, rather than a human being.

I probably sound like a prude, and maybe I am. But if we want (some) men to stop thinking watching porn in public is perfectly normal, we need to rethink how we represent women across the board. Sexual liberation is great; sexual objectification at every corner is not.

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