Speaking at #britsoc17 – why do we need to hear individual experiences of pornography?

I have just returned from this year’s British Sociological Association (BSA) annual conference #britsoc17. Over 800 people attended this year and it was great to hear talks on such a wide variety of sociological research. I was pleased to present a paper on my research whilst there which I thought I would briefly summarise and share here. My paper was entitled “Locating the Individual Experience within the Political Context, Feminist Research and Womens Everyday Experiences of Pornography.”. I admitted during the talk, that on reflection (and I think got some laughs) this probably wasn’t the catchiest title! In my eagerness to get accepted to speak and fit with the theme of the conference, I forwent a memorable title. However, the talk seemed to go well and I got some interesting questions at the end.

The aim of my talk was to argue that for us to understand pornography within society, we need to hear the lived experiences of individuals. We need individual experiences to develop collective understandings. I discussed this specifically in relation to my research which centres on women’s experiences but I think the same holds for all people’s experiences. I then discussed why I feel using participatory research methods, could be one such way to facilitate this discussion (I hope to develop this point in further blogs).

The theme of this year’s BSA was “Recovering the Social: Personal Troubles and Public Issues”. The conference invited speakers to reflect on how society has become more individualistic and how we might recover notions of the social and the collective. I was very drawn to this theme in relation to my thoughts on pornography. I agree that society has become more individualistic, but when it comes to pornography we are seeing broad, generalised discussions on its effects on society which lack input from the different and diverse experiences individuals have.

The question framing my thoughts, and one which I think is a big challenge for research on pornography is: “How can we build collective knowledge whilst accounting for individual experiences, difference and diversity?” We need collective understandings so that policy, legislation and action around pornography is adequately informed and reflects everyone’s needs. However, we must also recognise difference and diversity as not everyone does have the same experience. From my previous research on pornography and though reviewing other research, I have found that people’s experiences differ according to their background and identity (e.g. sexuality, ethnicity), their position in life (age, family status), their relationship to pornography (e.g. a user of or a performer in) and their own personal experiences (e.g. relationships, political interests).

I think now is a critical time for us all to be talking about pornography. We are seeing big legislative changes being proposed and/or made, regarding tighter controls on what content can be shown and how pornography is accessed. The government has also committed to compulsory Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) being taught in schools; this raises big questions about what we want to teach young people about sex, sexuality, pornography and relationships. When I previously conducted research on pornography, I found that the women I worked with had varied experiences and opinions. Some of them felt positive about pornography, some felt negative, often they felt something inbetween and their own feelings contradicted themselves. Interestingly, between all of the women there was diversity and yet there were also commonalities. For example, despite their varied opinions most of the women were against censorship but strongly advocated better sex education. Yet, there was also diversity of thought within this. We can produce collective understandings of pornography which could inform collective action but we need to be informed by everyone’s different opinions.

I think the key thing is to talk with one another, #LetsTalkAboutPorn – What are your experiences of #LivingWithPorn?