Summers Sells Sexism

Critical Sisters’ co-founder writes about the partnership between Pornhub and Ann Summers for the New Statesman.

Pre-edited version below:

Pre-packaged sexiness is about as appealing to me as a petrol station sandwich, and a bit like hen parties, I can’t understand why erotic retailers like Ann Summers have persisted into the twenty-first century.  It didn’t surprise me to learn that the high-street chain was founded by the Gold brothers, not the Gold sisters – there has always been something unconvincing about the ph-balanced ‘femwash’ of the Ann Summers’ brand.  To be fair, the current CEO and around third of the board of directors are female, but shop fronts are still adorned with images of impossibly perfect young women in uncomfortable-looking underwear.

The store claims to be ‘sexy, daring, provocative and naughty’ and somewhat predictably it positions itself as empowering for women. As a feminist of the unfashionable type, I can’t help but be suspicious of any form of sexual liberation that can be bought or sold.

Sneering aside, I’d never really thought of Ann Summers as particularly threatening to the rights of women, more just a faintly depressing reflection of heteronormativity.  This changed when I saw they’d teamed-up with Pornhub. The video-sharing website is reputedly the largest purveyor of online pornography in the world. Pornhub guidelines state that content flagged as ‘illegal, unlawful, harassing, harmful, offensive’ will be removed. Nonetheless, the site still contains simulated incest, rape and paedophilia with of the more easily published film titles including ‘Exploited Teen Asia’ (236 million views) and ‘How to sexually harass your secretary properly’ (10.5 million views.)  When campaigns such as #metoo and #timesup are sweeping social media, it seems bizarre that a high street brand would not consider Pornhub merchandise as toxic.

Society is still bound by taboos: in our hyper-sexual society glossy magazines like ‘Teen Vogue’ offer tips to girls on receiving anal sex, and yet advice to men about how to pleasure women is notably rare. As an unabashed wanker, I find it baffling that in the year largely female audiences queued to watch ‘Fifty Shades Darker’ a survey revealed a twenty percent of U.S. women have never masturbated.  It is an odd truth, that in our apparently open society any criticism of pornography or sexual practices is shut down as illiberal.

Guardian-reading men who wring their hands about Fair Trade coffee will passionately defend the right to view women being abused on film.  Conservative men who make claims about morals and marriage are aroused by images that in any other setting would be recognised as torture.  Pornography is not only misogynist, the tropes and language are often also racist.  In what other context would racist slurs and scenarios be acceptable?  Classics like Agatha Christie’s ‘Ten Little Niggers’ are widely censored and yet the use of the ‘N-word’ in pornography is protected as if it were a fundamental human right.

I have no doubt that some reading this will be burning to point out that feminist pornography exists. In name of course it does, but then Theresa May calls herself a feminist when it suits. Whether you believe feminist pornography is either possible or desirable, it is worth remembering that what is marketed as such comprises a tiny portion of the market.  This won’t make me popular, but feminism is not about celebrating every choice a woman makes – it is about analysing the social context in which ‘choices’ are made. Furthermore, that some women also watch porn is evidence of how patriarchy shapes our desire, not that pornography is woman-friendly.

Ann Summers parts the net curtains of nation’s suburban bedrooms and offers a glimpse into our peccadillos and preferences.  That a mainstream high street retailer blithely offers guidance on hair-pulling, whipping and clamps as well as a full range of Pornhub branded products is disturbing. This is not about women’s empowerment or mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain.

We are living in a world saturated with images of women and girls suffering; to pretend that there is no connection between pornography and the four in ten teenage girls who say they have been coerced into sex acts is naive in the extreme.  For too long the state claimed that violence in the home was a domestic matter.  Women and girls are now facing an epidemic of sexual violence behind bedroom doors and it is not a private matter. We need to ask ourselves which matters more: the sexual rights of men or the human rights of women?