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We Must Realise That Pornography Doesn't Exist in a Vacuum

28/03/2014 13:16 GMT | Updated 27/05/2014 10:59 BST

I've been listening to current debates about pornography - most recently about young children watching it - and it got me thinking.

For feminists, pornography is one of those particularly contentious issues, along with prostitution and the other sexual industries. Really, anything with a sexual element is quite a contested terrain.

For me, the impulse to watch pornography is entirely understandable. To feel aroused by the sight of other human bodies, particularly in a sexual context, is pretty natural (though with a background in feminist academia, 'natural' is one of those words that causes sirens to go off in my head). It's just a continuation of those early titillated glimpses of bare-chested women in the National Geographic, or that unsolicited twinge down below at that not-really-meant-to-be-sexy scene in a film.

So, I don't feel that watching other people have sex is in itself bad. Really, what is of more concern is the actual content.

Women are not equal in porn, and only the most deluded men (though if the sexual experiences of myself and a lot of my female friends are anything to go by, there are a lot of them) think that women actually gain the kind of pleasure from it all they pretend to.

Whether it's the women tirelessly fellating men without a hope of seeing the favour returned, avoiding even showing a flicker of boredom while she waits patiently for his big moment; or the men queuing up to ejaculate on a woman's face, whilst she waits open-mouthed like a hungry little bird anticipating its mother's feed; or the men trying to get as many things as they can into every orifice of a woman - all of this is very much the mainstream of pornography.

And, given this, I completely understand that pornography is having a big effect on people's everyday sex lives. Whether it's the teenage boys who've been primed to expect the pornography experience on their first go, expecting anal sex or to ejaculate on a girl's face as par for the course; or the guy who can no longer get off without venturing to more and more extreme corners of the internet, whilst his girlfriend waits upstairs wondering why 'checking tomorrow's train times' is taking so long - we know it's having an impact.

However, what annoys me in current debates is this: in all the talk of the harms of pornography, commentators seem to talk as if pornography exists in some kind of vacuum; as if it's some kind of uniquely self-generating culture.

But we know culture doesn't work like that. Of course it's not unrealistic to say that many sexual practices probably are created, or at least become popularised, through pornography.

However, pornography relies on demand - which, frankly, is huge - and in its essence, it's a consumer product. Though it might, as I say, develop and popularise new practices, it cannot simply tell people what to watch if there is not a market to watch it.

So, the point is this: there is a huge market for watching women in a largely sexually subservient role.

I don't doubt that that the influence of the pornography industry is circular, both responding to and influencing demand for certain content - however, let's be clear, it absolutely doesn't exist in a vacuum.

The appetite to see women as sexual unequals comes from somewhere much more profound: society. Women's relative inequality is all around us, and to me, it seems unrealistic to think that removing access to pornography will stop this. Pornography is one factor in a melee of misogyny.

Likewise, we know if you take an overly punitive approach to prostitution, the market doesn't go away (though that's a debate for another day).

Until we tackle the underpinning reason why pornography is as it is (and to be honest, god knows how we do this), it can't be held up on its own as some totem of all evil. We must know that it doesn't work like that.