Am I Normal?

Clearly not. That aside, ‘Am I Normal’ was the title of the sex education film shown to my primary school class around 1991, in St Joesph’s Christian Brothers School, Drogheda. The ever excellent Dangerous Minds just uncovered this ‘hilariously dated sex education film’. For years I’ve told people about this cringeworthy 1979 classic. Many didn’t believe the hype. Look ye upon it, and quake from a safe distance with po-mo irony. Then remember this is probably better information than many kids are recieving in Ireland (and in the US) today, where sex ed is still not universal and often distorted by loopy approaches like ‘abstinence only education’, that research has proven not merely ineffective, but actively harmful.

Anyway, here’s the best bit. There’s a moment in the film (around 11 min 50 seconds in), when they explain that “Many people of all ages masturbate… other people may not enjoy it. It is normal if you do it, and also normal if you don’t.” In our (single sex) classroom this was the point when they paused the tape, so the local priest could come in and tell us that actually it wasn’t normal. It was sinful, unclean, morally wrong and would damage and distort our sexuality. Amen.

Porn Does A Body Good

Academic Study Nude, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

A couple of years ago a friend of mine stated a porn magazine. Kinda sorta mostly Ireland’s first porn magazine. Not surprising once you realise that full sex was punishable by eight weeks in prison in Ireland until 1987.

It was an opportunity I couldn’t possibly resist, if only so that years later I’d be able to tell people I’d done it, and let their minds fill in the blanks with something far more exciting and entertaining than the rather mundane reality. Writing for Blue Ireland, for the brief time it lasted, lacked any of the sleaze, or indeed glamour you might expect. However, it was a lot of fun, and it was also the first time I’d ever been paid for writing. Well the second time, but I kept the 14 euro check they paid me for writing this, you know, for sentimental reasons.

It gave me a chance to stand up and be counted, as a pervert. Which I’m totally fine with. One of the occasions for such paraphilic footwork was pair of the annual porn debates Irish colleges hold in the hopes of titillating their student bodies into becoming submissive gofers for their respective hob nobbing socs.

I was astounded. I knew Ireland was sex negative, and I knew almost by definition I’d be debating people who consider pornography a social evil. Which is a perfectly respectable position, just like the reverse cowgirl. Anyway, I knew I’d have an argument on my hands, that was in fact the point; but I could not have anticipated the misinformation and sex negativity at play in practice. Perhaps if this lady had been better known back then, I wouldn’t have been so naive.

It’s easy to laugh at despicable ignorance, but when it emerges from the mouth of the head of the Irish rape crisis centre, it’s not at all funny. One of the two debates (the one we lost – you can find the oppositions bitter grumbling about the UCD debate, which we roundly won here), was a poorly attended affair organised by DCU’s Debate & Law Society. I was up against (among others) Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop, who carried the moral authority of Ireland’s leading support service for victims of sexual abuse and assault. I expected intelligent, reasoned argument, wisdom and forbearance, perhaps a little condescension. I expected to be put in my place as the pseudo intellectual lightweight I was and remain. I got Andrea Dworkin quotes. Andrea ‘marriage is rape by other means’ Dworkin, The woman who wrote “A commitment to sexual equality with males is a commitment to becoming the rich instead of the poor, the rapist instead of the raped, the murderer instead of the murdered.” The women who campaigned for – I shit you not – gender segregation (she called it ‘a homeland for women’). A woman who retired from public life after claiming a sexual assault that many now believe to have been fictional. A woman – whose cutting edge ‘research’ into pornography was published in 1981 – who believed that all heterosexual sex is coercive and demeaning towards women. In short, an extremely damaged and venomous crank.

I sat, slack-jawed, worrying cards dense with arguments and references, dripping in sweat, listening to a list of things Dworkin had discovered in her detailed, intense, prolonged, breathless (but ultimately disappointing) investigations of the world of porn. I don’t remember all the details, but one luridly imagined word picture of a grenade entering a vagina will never leave me. Puritans always have the most sophisticated fantasies. At least one of these arguments was filmed, so perhaps video of this ‘great debate’ will emerge at some stage, to the general embarrassment of all. For now you’ll have to take my world for it. I’ve hacked together my pre-game notes below. I started with a question – asking how many of the audience cared to admit to watching porn…


Pornography, like other sometimes controversial human occupations, from psychedelic drug use to homosexuality, predates recorded history. Like homosexuality pornography came out of the closet in the last four decades of the 20th century. Pornographic movies, images, books and magazines are now produced and sold legally in hundreds of countries. Though with the exception of my own magazine – Blue Ireland, not on this Island.

Pornography is, thanks to the internet, freely available. While its sale and production are legally regulated. This normalisation has resulted in a drift away from traditional pornographic narratives of seduction and brutalisation, to a contemporary mainstream pornography that celebrates mutualism, fetishises the female orgasm, and explores an enormous variety of consensual sexual activities.

Professional pornography is produced today in a highly regulated environment, requiring proof of age, by consenting adults DNA / PCR tested monthly for HIV / Gonorrhea and Chlamydia. Depictions of non-consensual sex and bondage, are even more strictly self regulated – in adherence with the high ethical standards of the BDSM community, based on the pillars of safe, sane and consensual participation.

What is pornography?

‘Images or descriptions of sexual activity designed explicitly to stimulate arousal, for use either as an aphrodisiac or masturbatory aid.’

As a writer for Ireland’s only adult magazine ‘Blue Ireland’, I’ll be arguing this evening against the motion ‘That this house believes pornography degrades women‘.

I will argue…

Adults have a basic right to both produce and enjoy consensually created pornographic material.

That such material serves a necessary educative function – especially in a nation with a pathological and hypocritical attitude towards sexuality.

And finally, that pornography is a safe and necessary outlet for sexual desire.

The demonization of porn is a symptom of a toxic view of sex, a view that implies that men want sex, while women reluctantly consent, or consent only when drunk or tricked, or paid in one form or another to submit. A view that sees women as grudgingly rewarding men in return for affection and resources, with sex. This archaic view denies women agency, and men dignity, it sees sex as a filthy bargaining chip, rather than an expression of mutual admiration and enjoyment. This is the true smut, the true perversity – the control and denial of female sexuality through prohibition and infantalisation.

My colleague on the panel and in the magazine, Maggie, appeared on TV3 during the promotion for our first issue – only to be asked, in a turn worthy of Pat Kenny himself – what does your father think of all this? How utterly misogynist, how paternalistic. How denying of agency to the women who choose to appear in porn.

Liberal & Conservative views of female sexuality can be equally patronising in this regard. It’s tautological to argue that a women appearing in porn is necessarily coerced or exploited. This view denies women the right to be exhibitionist, to desire multiple partners, to engage in dominant or submissive sexual play and it seeks to police the fantasies and sex lives that are appropriate for men and women alike.

The current ubiquity of access to pornography has had I believe a positive effect. Porn, along with the contraceptive pill, has made it permissible for women to express sexual desire, breaking the sex negative constraints of the Christian stranglehold on female sexuality. By consuming pornography men and women become both connoisseurs and explorers of their own and their partners needs and desires. We are all, right now, having better, more varied, more frequent, and more mutually satisfying sex than at any time in history – because we’re allowed to learn from others mistakes.

Everyone knows the dreadful old joke about not being able to find the clitoris… As a comedian I can tell you the reason it isn’t funny anymore is that we all thankfully know where the clitoris is located, and more importantly, what to do with it. We know, because we’ve seen it done. Pornography is not a replacement for sex education – it is however a necessary addition: Teaching things that educators, unless they perform for their classes, cannot.

It may seem odd to argue that porn provides a positive model for sexual activity, but next to the normative sexual relations of Irish young people – drunken, drugged, unsafe, clumsy, often regretted acts with total strangers; the tested, planned and hedonistic sex embodied by porn is incredibly healthy.

Of course we can’t always emulate the acts we see in the porn we enjoy and to this extent pornography can indeed create unrealistic expectations. Porn is in this respect like sport, in that it entertains and motivates us to expand our ambitions. Watching Ray Houton score against Italy in the World Cup might be entertaining, but it should convince only the most deluded they should play for Ireland.

We’re moving from an era in which the state controlled not just access to sexual activity, but the manner of sexual expression, even between married couples: With laws prohibiting both oral and anal sex, and mis-education promoting the fallacious belief that masturbation was physically dangerous or even lethal.

We now acknowledge individuals right to sexual expression – be they gay, straight, able bodied or disabled. Unfortunately, access to sexual partners is not and will never be egalitarian. Those who through their age, economic circumstances or social ostracisation – cannot obtain the sex they’d like – will always find relief in pornography.

Another and more controversial benefit of pornography is it’s diminishment of sexual violence. The effect of pornography on rape is an experiment which has already been carried out. In 2006 a professor at Stanford – named Todd Kendell – examined the effect of state by state adoption of widespread internet access on rates of rape – finding a 7% decrease in rape with every 10% increase in availability of internet pornography. An effect that remained when controlled for alcohol consumption, policing, poverty, unemployment etc. No similar effect was found on violent crimes. This effect was especially strong when it came to teenage perpetrators.

Similarly, Japan is the worlds largest producer of violent porn, while boasting the lowest level of reported rape in the developed world, and one of the highest rates of conviction (95%). No one would argue that rape is not in part a crime of power, but research like this demonstrates that it is also a crime that evolves in part from sexual frustration, a frustration pornography is specifically designed to reduce.

The availability of pornography does not generate desire. When Dublin played host to Monto, Europe’s largest Red Light District, in the 19th Century, a widespread lack of pornography didn’t keep 1,600 prostitutes from finding custom in the city – at any one time. But pornography does function as what American Social Critic Camille Page, describes as a container of the destructive aspects of desire – a safety valve that disarms frustration.

Porn use is a choice. And no one is forced to appear in regulated legal pornography. Pornography does not damage us. It is educative, entertaining, and indeed necessary. Porn is a valid expression of sexuality, it decreases the numbers of violent sexual crimes, and it helps to create the cultural space & vocabulary individuals use to explore their own sexuality.

I’d like to invite you to remember how very few of you put up your hands at the beginning.

Pornography is in the end simply sexual stimulation – it’s no less valid, and no more damaging of our imaginations than visual art, cinema or literature. Our sexual lives are essential elements of our humanity, and material that sparks and excites our sexual imaginations is a good thing. All that’s required to appreciate it is some privacy, and a wipe clean surface to sit on.

Responses to Questions / Argument

All are exactly as they were delivered in the debate, typed yp directly from my notes

It’s a little known fact, but the Irish board of film classificaiton refuses to certify pornography. Making all porn DVD’s defacto illegal to sell. It’s even less well known that the Irish police regularly raid porn shops.

Aside – something we reported on in Blue Ireland

According to the Video Recordings Act 1989, DVD’s and videos are not legitimate until they have been rated by the Irish Film Classification Office (IFCO), formerly known as the Irish Film Censor’s Office. The IFCO’s role is to view films before release in the state, and award them an appropriate certificate. The Video Recordings Act empowers the film censor to prohibit a video if, in his opinion, it contains ‘obscene or indecent matter’ which would tend to ‘deprave or corrupt’ persons viewing it. However the IFCO charge a rate to certify films which is beyond the capacity of porn distributors to pay. Thus, in a tortuous legal twist, films sold in ‘adult stores’ are deemed illegal by the Irish state not because of their content, but because they have not been passed through the censor. According to the Garda Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Investigation Unit, cited in a 2006 report, “The laws pertaining to Adult Pornography are viewed by An Garda Siochana as seriously out of date and inadequate in the present climate and need to be reviewed.”

This makes it financially impossible for adult shops to submit publications for censorship; subject to random punitive raids – financially ruinous gestures of state disapproval, not a million miles from the bombing of head shops by irate drug dealers.

It’s alleged that pornography somehow damages our sexual imaginations. Clearly pornography than film in this regard. It’s perverse that the same people who fear the effect of porn on our sexual appetites use this ‘spare us our secret fantasies’ argument. Studies of social isolation and depression have demonstrated that watching people speaking on TV can alleviate loneliness – imagination is not a substitute for stimulation.

We’re told that pornography sexualises society. Rather than being responsible for the ubiquity of sexual imagery in society, pornography is an alternative. A cloistered domain of sexual desire restricted to adults. If you’re looking for an answer to the over sexualisation of children and society in general look to television and advertising, not pornography. I agree that this kind of Benny Hill, licentious prudishness is utterly tasteless.

Why have a porn magazine in Ireland?

It makes financial sense, the publisher saw gap in the market. If pornography is ‘wrong’, it’s wrong everywhere. If on the other hand it’s a healthy thing, then there’s nothing wrong with making it right here.

Who are your models?

Blue Ireland’s youngest model is a UCD student, aged 20. Its editor is a woman too. Models were hired though ads run on gumtree and modelling websites- which invited questions – those who responded were explained the nature of the magazine and asked to send pictures. Amy (the editor) met and spoke with potential models. On being signed up there was a month before the shoot – a cooling off period. After the shoot, models were allowed to delete any photos they didn’t like directly from the camera. No model withdrew from taking part. One girl did speak out against the magazine, for a fee, with a tabloid who had run a series of attack articles personally mocking the editor.

We’ve been accused of objectification. Whats wrong with a focus on the body in the context of the sexual act? Should a person be defined solely as an object of sexual attention? Of course not. We interact with different facets of the person in different contexts, and the sexual context is not any less important or relevant to our identity than the intellectual one. It’s ludicrous to conclude that pornography makes men or women unable to perceive the humanity in those we’re attracted to. Excepting fetishists… We are not attracted to objects, we are attracted to people in a sexual mode – and as healthy participants in consensual sexual activity we enjoy being perceived as sexual beings.

We’ve been accused of exploitation. Lets reframe the question – What about Gay porn? – Is that exploitative? What about amateur porn made by women? What about queer porn made for and by gay women? Is it only heterosexual men who can exploit women? Are women who willingly participate, and even produce porn, so conditioned as to be considered unworthy of a choice? What do they have to say about that?

Contemporary feminists sometimes argue that porn depicting the domination of women is bad, while ‘erotica’ that ‘empowers women’ (in other words porn made for and by minorities, or featuring female domination), celebrates sexuality, and is in some sense a good thing. It’s a fact – and one that understandably makes a lot of people uncomfortable – the majority of women prefer to take a submissive role sexually, and the majority of men enjoy dominating. This is why submissive men in the BDSM community often have to pay for professional domination, while practiced dominants are always in demand.

Consensual power exchange is a healthy, enjoyable part of sex for many people – men and women, whether gay or straight. The fact that it doesn’t accord with the preconceived tabula-rasa view of human nature (that sex is as socially constructed as gender), perpetuated by certain schools of feminism is irrelevant. Many women do enjoy a degree of roleplayed, consensual ‘humiliation’, in the context and privacy of mutually pleasurable sex – to argue otherwise is to ghettoise them as indoctrinated, agency-free slaves of the patriarchy. This view is pathological.

The issue of ‘Barely legal teens’, an inarguably popular trope in porn, has been raised. Evolutionary psychology has shown that men generally demonstrate a marked preference for maximal potential fertility. Potential fertility is highest and most visible in adolescence. Sexology studies confirm this preference. Legal, regulated pornography restricts the expression of this desire to individuals old enough to give consent – modelling restraint, not abuse.

We’re told that the ‘perfect bodies’ depicted force women to make demeaning self comparisons. However, today’s porn is predominantly ‘gonzo’ and amateur, deemphasising the hyper-athletic norms of traditional porn valley movies. Films like those of the Spanish porn star Encarna Conde, a wheel chair user who suffers from the muscle-control disorder ‘Ataxia’ help to combat societies desexualisation of the differently abled.

What about ‘Extreme Violent Porn’!!!!!

Opponents of porn frequently cite so called ‘extreme porn’ which depicts a fantasy of rape or violence. This displays an ignorance of how the BDSM community have in recent years developed safe, sane and consensual norms to govern exchanges of power. Norms which are only possible in the landscape of politicised kink that has emerged, along with bondage clubs and kinky porn in the United States.

What about non-consensual violent porn?

Rapes depicting real rape exist. They’re about as representative of porn as a whole as the Passion of the Christ is of Hollywood. There will always be fringe audiences catered to by fringe producers, as the obscenity conviction of Max Hardcore proved, society will inevitably curtail those kinds of brutal exploitation.

Watching porn makes you misogynistic!

While outdated research seemed to show that misogynistic attitudes increase with watching porn; these studies were premature, literally. They tested men who had watched, porn but not orgasmed. In other words, the reaction they found was to frustration rather than pornography.

Porn Destroys Marriage!

Porn provides variety without infidelity.

That last one’s so good I must have stolen it from Dan Savage.