I clean up the messes of the porn industry. Why are we still questioning whether pornography is oppressive?

When I argued that pornography is inherently oppressive at a Cambridge Union debate recently, I honestly didn’t expect my team to win over the audience. I hoped to. But I also knew that those who grow up in today’s pornified world understandably find it hard to see the harms. I see the harms. I am a lawyer, practising in the US and in the UK, and I spend some of my days – more than I like – cleaning up the messes of the porn industry.

I admit that I had not paid much attention to the huge changes in the porn world in the last decade. But a few years back, I received a phone call from a woman in the Midwest of the US.  It was a Saturday night in London.  I was the only one at the office so I picked up the phone.  A distraught mother of a high school student told me about how friends of her daughter, Sallie, aged 16, had abused her while she was intoxicated and filmed the abuse on their phones.  She woke up the next morning not remembering what had happened.  When Sallie found out about the filming, the clips had already been distributed throughout the school.  Two days later, returning from school, Sallie told her mother she hadn’t had a very good day, went to her bedroom and killed herself.  I did all I could to help the grieving mother, but the legal options were limited.  The world was in the learning phase about revenge pornography, and still is.  Since then, those sorts of calls have become a regular event.  Some victims of revenge pornography fight back, others go into hiding or into institutions and others to their graves.  But the images live on, mostly on porn sites.

And why on porn sites?  Because not only did the porn industry invent revenge pornography (the first revenge porn pictures were published in Hustler in 1980), it is also interested in maintaining this “profitable” practice, just the same way as it continues finding new ways to abuse women, and sometimes men, to create new demands.  If ever criticised, the industry’s spokespeople will maintain that is just a business like any other, just a job like any other – or that they are vanguards of free speech.

One of our clients, a porn actress, approached us the day after she was released from hospital, where she had her rectum sutured after the filming of a brutal scene.  She was going to be out of work for a while and wondered what job protections might exist for her. They were very few. She had been in the business for three years, which is about as long as most women I have met ever last. She had no pension, had never heard the word “promotion,” and she had no idea how to proceed.  The industry had taken three years of her life and left her with nothing but a rectum prolapse, which by the way is something the porn industry takes pride in producing (there is a growing market for ‘rosebud’ in porn films -- that is, when the inner walls of an actress’s rectum collapse and the red internal tissue ‘blooms’ out of the anus).

This is not an industry in which performers can grow old, have a pension, guaranteed holidays, or job security. It is one where women are abused for the sexual gratification of viewers.  The oppression of women is inherent to the stories it conveys.

The performers are not the only ones oppressed.  Some of the consumers want to act out what they have seen on their partners. I have had a number of divorce cases where pornography has been at the centre.  The couples still want to be together, but their sex lives have been distorted and destroyed. 

There are also those who force pornographic sexual acts on others, often believing they have the right to do so.  After all, in porn, women respond with pleasure when forced and hurt.  Anna was 8 years old when she told her mother that her then 14 year old cousin sometimes did things to her that she did not like.  When asked if her cousin always did the same things, Anna replied:  “Sometimes, but if he saw something new on his phone, it would change.” We have also dealt with cases of adults who use pornography to groom children into sex, or who use porn as justification for their sexual violence against children and women. And some of the most traumatised people I have met are prostituted (often trafficked) women whose customers have insisted – sometimes forcefully and always believing consent is something they can buy – on replicating acts from porn films. 

Women are not the only ones harmed.  We have met male porn performers who have been severely harmed, some who will likely die young due to HIV and other diseases.  And we have seen those who get addicted to porn at a young age, such as Henry, an Oxford student who in his late teens fell in love, and was lucky enough to be loved back.  But no matter how hard he tried; he could not enjoy sex with her.  It wasn’t the same as he thought it should be and he wouldn’t get an erection.  His brain was addicted to the instant gratification he got from porn.  Henry wanted our help to see if he had grounds to take action against the porn industry that has taken the pleasure of intimate sex from him.  He is now an activist fighting the harms pornography does to men.

Is pornography inherently oppressive?  A majority of the attendees at the Cambridge Union debate thought so.  And so do I.  I hope this signifies the beginning of a real push back against the porn industry; that young people will not allow it to distort and degrade their own sexuality and sexual preferences, not any more.