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Academic research tends to focus on the negative aspects and sexual dangers of girls and young people viewing porn. But what do girls themselves say about growing up in a world where porn is so readily available from such a young age? It's a question Deevia Bhana, a professor in gender and childhood sexuality, sets out to answer in her book Girls Negotiating Porn in South Africa: Power, Play and Sexuality. We asked her five questions.
What's the book's central idea?
When it comes to porn, research suggests there are differences between boys and girls, where it is more acceptable for boys to view porn than it is for girls. These gendered differences are based on gender roles and identities where boys' interest in and expression of sexuality is deemed to be more appropriate than that of girls, who are expected to be sexually innocent and subdued.
In South Africa, these divisions are made deeper by sexual violence and gender inequalities where girls are seen as passive victims of sexuality. Putting girls and porn together as this book does is taboo. There are many reasons for this, including perceptions of respectability. Routledge
In contrast, the book provides evidence of girls' widespread engagement with porn. Digital technologies, social media platforms and a wide array of online sites offer access to sexually explicit material. Sex is all over the internet and porn is everywhere. And girls do engage with it to expand their knowledge – whether teachers and parents like this or not.
The book elaborates on girls' sexual curiosity, their ideas of sexuality and bodies and their objection to racial categorisations and sexual objectification. It opens up and broadens the conversation about how girls engage with porn in a far more nuanced way beyond danger narratives. The book advocates for a more open and nonjudgmental approach to understanding teenage girls' experiences with porn, focusing on their voices, experiences and perspectives.
What research was involved?
The book is based on focus group discussions and individual interviews with 30 teenage girls between 14 and 18. It draws on photo-elicitation methods, drawings and poster making. The girls presented visual images and drawings to describe what porn meant to them.
What did girls tell you about their experiences of viewing porn?
The book opens with 17-year-old Nqobile (not her real name). She recalls she first encountered sexual scenes on TV when she was eight, but knew this was something that she couldn't discuss with her parents. She found this exciting and wanted to know more about it. Like other girls in the study, she spoke about what online porn meant to her.
The girls in the study did not have to access porn online to see porn. They said porn was everywhere, in billboards, movies, music videos... Porn is a normalised aspect of everyday life and the online world. They openly mocked and discarded dominant understandings of porn and sex as inappropriate in their young lives.
They spoke about the excitement of forging sexual relationships, their concerns about first-time sex and their desire to learn about sexual intimacy. One participant said:
When girls engage with porn they don't simply see sexual content. They also see women whose bodies don't reflect reality. These images can shape girls' perceptions of their own bodies and a desire to conform to certain beauty standards which are gendered and racialised. The book shows that girls may find themselves pursuing these elusive“ideals”, but may also challenge them. Many were aware of slim, straight haired, fair skinned and blonde ideals.
Rather than reinforce outdated beauty norms, the girls suggested alternative media and social media platforms that celebrate the real variety of bodies. They also used discussions about porn to talk about male power and female sexual subordination. That only men were seen as deriving pleasure from porn was viewed as one-sided. Women too, the girls argued, experienced pleasure.
Where do power, play and sexuality fit in?
Girls engage with porn through their online adventures as they play with the boundaries of respectability. Play also indicates the fun and pleasure they derive from talking about their online encounters with sexuality. So, they play with porn, make jokes about its content, learn about sexual relationships, while they also critically object to the domination of heterosexuality and racialised and gendered patterns of inequalities.
Read more: Help, I've just discovered my teen has watched porn! What should I do?
The lack of comprehensive sex education that addresses girls' desires and porn can leave young people with limited resources for understanding healthy relationships, consent and sexual pleasure. Online porn becomes a primary source of information.
But relying solely on online porn for sexual knowledge can lead to perceptions of intimacy that are unrealistic, where understandings of boundaries and consent reinforce male power. Additionally, girls' engagement with porn without proper context or guidance can contribute to feelings of shame, guilt and confusion about one's own desires.
In South Africa, while comprehensive sexuality education is compulsory in schools, a focus on disease, poor health, violence and the need to abstain is prominent. Sexual desires, pleasures and discussion of first-time sex are often of marginal consideration. In fact across the globe young people are denied sexuality education that actually takes heed of pleasure.
What do you hope readers will take away?
The research offers five key insights:
Girls are not passive recipients: The book challenges the prevailing notion that teenage girls are passive victims of sexuality. Instead, it highlights they actively engage with and navigate the complex world of online porn.
Girls' experiences are complex: The research shows girls have a wide range of thoughts, feelings and reactions to porn, including curiosity, playfulness and critical thinking. This challenges the view that porn is universally harmful.
Context matters: The study highlights the importance of considering the specific social, economic and cultural contexts in which girls are growing up. It recognises that girls from privileged backgrounds may have different experiences and access to online resources that permit ways of learning about porn.
Better sexuality education is crucial: Instead of shunning discussions about sexuality and porn, the book shows that girls do want to have conversations about these topics. It is adults who refuse to do so.
We should listen to girls' voices: The book underscores the importance of valuing girls' voices and perspectives. It advocates for an approach that recognises that girls both desire and object to porn's racialised and sexist messages.
Sex Sexuality Porn South Africa Women and girls Heteronormativity
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