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Editorial: The ‘porn in Parliament’ scandal should prompt us to look again at this toxic industry

SLEAZE headlines have historically foreshadowed the defeat of long-lived Tory governments, and Labour will be hoping that sex scandals will combine with the corruption and arrogance revealed through “partygate” to see this one humiliated at the polls this week.

Sir Keir Starmer will no doubt relish the irony of calling on serial philanderer Boris Johnson to show “political leadership” in confronting Tory MPs who use prostitutes, lick the faces of their staff or watch pornography in the Commons chamber — presumably while voting to ramp up National Insurance or cut public-sector pay.

But the left would be remiss if it sees the exposure of a grotesquely misogynistic culture at Westminster as an opportunity to mock Tories rather than confront sexist oppression across society, including within the labour movement.

Neil Parish being caught watching porn in Parliament was immediately identified by several socialist female MPs as an example of “sexism and misogyny,” but the reality of porn as a harmful industry is widely downplayed or denied across the political spectrum even as access to it has become near-universal via the internet.

The “adult entertainment” industry is often lethal for those trapped in it, and trapped is usually the word — the United Nations has estimated that 79 per cent of human trafficking victims are trafficked for sexual exploitation, including in pornography. Life expectancy among “porn stars” is notoriously low, often calculated at under 40 years. 

Those arguing that these statistics reflect alcohol and drug abuse rather than the consequences of performing sexually explicit content should ask themselves why these addictions are so prevalent — though some of the fetishistic “sex acts” demanded by pornographers do carry serious health risks of their own.

Beyond the appalling exploitation rife within porn itself, there is considerable evidence that its normalisation has negative social effects that are harmful to women who have never had anything to do with it.

Education unions have expressed concern at the link between adolescent porn addictions and rising sexual harassment and abuse of girls in school.

Last year, Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman pointed to the connection between access to pornography on the internet and abusive behaviours, including demands for and posting of nude photographs. 

The role of what the tech industry calls “algorithmic extremism” — the tendency of online platforms to boost material that viewers are most likely to interact with based on past viewings, which over time appears to drive consumption of more extremist content — can be seen in reports from teachers that pupils are asking about bestiality and sexual violence, having seen these things online. 

Porn has been implicated too in the rise of the “choking” fetish where men strangle women during sex, leading to a number of notorious “rough sex” defences by men who had killed their partners but claimed that this had happened by accident during consensual sex — something Parliament fortunately voted to outlaw in 2020.

How best to protect people in an extremely exploitative situation is a divisive question, and socialists can sincerely differ on questions like decriminalisation of the sex trade, though so-called “sex positive” socialists often mock or belittle feminist concerns rather than engaging with them. 

But the defence of porn as a neutral or positive form of entertainment — as in guidance like “Respect Yourself,” issued by Warwickshire County Council in 2019 but withdrawn after a backlash led by groups including the Safe Schools Alliance — owes more to a culture of instant individual gratification designed to maximise corporate profit than to any serious study of its social impact. 

So entrenched has neoliberalism become that commodifying sex is defended in some quarters as somehow transgressive and revolutionary, though it rests on the objectification of other human beings and extends the capitalist drive to make all human activity marketable. 

It is to be hoped that the furore over Neil Parish will prompt socialists to look again at the legitimisation of this brutal and alienating industry.

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