Jameela Jamil – Porn, What’s The Harm

Jamil intellectually ambushing ex-porn star Gemma Massey

Jamil intellectually ambushing ex-porn star Gemma Massey

Last night, a Radio One DJ hosted an intriguing TV programme about porn. Thanks to the internet, it’s proving increasingly inescapable, she said, and young people are being exposed to it at earlier and earlier ages. Earnest Jameela Jamil clearly cared, and wanted to protect vulnerable kids from exploitation and abuse. But in parts, her show demonstrated just the kind of squeamishness that lies behind so many of our unhealthy attitudes towards sex.

The BBC and market research bods ICM have conducted a survey of young people, asking them about their experiences with porn. Over a thousand 16-21 year-olds were interviewed. Just under a quarter claimed they were 12 or under when they first watched online porn. An eyebrow-raising 7.3% claimed they were under ten. And for Aunty, the pollsters, and bookish private school product turned T4 presenter and Radio One It Girl Jameela Jamil, the results were shocking enough to make a telly programme out of them.

BBC Three’s ‘Porn: What’s the harm?’ began with likeable Jamil delivering a monologue about shagging. ‘I’m very liberated about sex and relationships’, she said. With the best will in the world to someone willing to risk ridicule by speaking out about something she genuinely cares about – decrying the over-sexualisation of modern culture presumably not being the savviest career move in the perennially cold shower-requiring world of shit RnB – a lot of what was to come over the next hour suggested she wasn’t.

Perhaps it’s because The Bemolution comes from the generation between Jamil’s own and the one that was the focus of the survey. Perhaps we’re just horribly, horribly judgemental. But the tone of the show felt a bit nannying and naïve. Like a groovy vicar giving a drugs talk, you got the impression that, as much as she tried, earnest Jameela was nowhere near as clued up on the issue as she thought. In fact, she came across as a bit of a prude.

Even-handedness gets flung out of the window fairly early. Jamil plainly finds porn disgusting. Memorably, she recounts seeing a video of a woman masturbating with a cucumber when she was 15. Facetious or not, her comment that it put her off eating salad for the next twelve years was quite revealing. Suffice to say, it’s a good job her adolescent inquisitiveness didn’t lead her further down food porn alley, or she’d have starved long before T4 came a-calling.

Early on the documentary, she has another go at watching porn. Within seconds, she’s agape at having found ‘some of the most graphic images I’ve ever seen in my life’ – not in response to a video, or even full-size pictures, but little thumbnail previews on a XXX site’s home page. This was a woman patently not from the generation that held up watching Two Girls, One Cup as a scarring rite of passage.

Of course, there’s serious substance to what she had to say. To more worldly viewers, some of the show’s ‘shocking’ statistics would’ve come across as quite tame. But children are becoming exposed to porn and sex at earlier and earlier ages, with disturbing consequences. Among the more dismaying ones the show brought attention to was the rocketing numbers of young women having labioplasties – operations to reduce the size of their vaginal lips – in order to attain the kind of porn-perfect bodies they’ve seen on the internet. But some of the most insidious side-effects are much more obvious – particularly, kids using blue movies on the interweb as their primary source of sex education.

Porn is someone else’s vision. The performers aren’t doing what they’re doing because it’s mutually satisfying. They’re doing it because the baseball-capped bloke in the director’s chair thinks it looks good. It’s a performance, directed like a play, choreographed like a Jackie Chan fight scene. The results usually bear little resemblance to real-world sexual encounters. If they did, we wouldn’t be short of plumbers. And especially given the grim, one-dimensional, almost unfailingly misogynistic way mainstream porn presents women, if young people are now getting their idea of sexual normality from Redtube and XHamster, we’re in trouble.

But with porn, like sex work, the existence of the phenomenon in of itself isn’t the problem. If there is one, at least some of the time, it’s the nature of the relationship between the participants – vulnerable, impoverished girls driven to sell sex out of desperation, porn where women are treated like brainless sex toys. But if a sex worker is of sound mind, doing the job because they genuinely want to (as a number that would shock prudes left right and centre are), how can there be any problem? And if you make porn that treats women with respect and portrays them as the sassy, intelligent, independent-minded creatures they very often are, if you’re not just fundamentally anti-sex, how can you object?

But if more and more kids are learning about the birds and the bees from porn – and, more often than not, the standard, unoriginal, chauvinistic kind of porn – why? That’s the question Jameela dodges throughout. Instead, she just bangs on about the potential negative effects porn can have on kids. She brings up the horrifying instance where a 12 year-old boy raped his seven year-old sister after watching a hardcore flick on his Xbox. Porn made him do it, she seems to imply. But that’s the same logic that suggests violent video games make people go on gun rampages. Exposure to a bit of edgy content can’t make well-rounded, emotionally and psychologically stable human jettison basic morality. If they’re so easily tipped over into violence, sexual or otherwise, there’s clearly quite a lot wrong with them already.

Jameela goes to see a friend from the music industry, grime MC Skepta. Skepta has a (very shit) song out called ‘All Over The House’, which is essentially just about shagging (all over the house). But it’s the accompanying music video that has proved the most controversial – it features two porn stars having real, explicit sex.

Queen Jamil wasn’t amused. Kids like Skepta, she reasoned. Thus, kids will watch his video, and be exposed to visceral, unadulterated fucking far too soon. Obviously she had a point. But it was hard to disagree with Skepta himself when he retorted that parents should get off their arses, peel themselves away from the X Factor and the Kardashians and actually communicate with their children, about sex, and about the facts of life in general.

That’s not to slip into Tory-individualist ‘blame the parents’ territory though. A lot of mums and dads probably aren’t comfortable with sex themselves in our strange, prudish society, let alone talking about it with their children. And just as many won’t have the time, the resources, or the confidence to try and broach shagging with their offspring. Some might be scared of bringing the subject up too soon and making things worse – putting sexual ideas into their heads. And at a stage of civilisation where kids can get eye-popping gang-bangs on their handheld smartphones, it’s far, far harder for parents to monitor what their kids are exposed to than ever before.

As we’ve argued elsewhere, politics has a responsibility to intervene here. Society needs to ensure all kids receive a gradual, sensitive but comprehensive sex education far beyond the piddling amount they get now – one that transcends the dry science of reproduction, starts with the very basics at an early age, and, over years, teaches kids how they can shag safely, respectfully and enjoyably. Battering down our characteristically British sexual squeamishness, we need to bring up generations that can happily talk openly and honestly about sex, with sexual partners and in the political arena, if needed.

But that enlightened sex ed would need to do something else, too. Namely, make clear that sex isn’t just a heterosexual male’s penis rhythmically going in and out of a heterosexual female’s vagina. It’s something the documentary makers could’ve done with bearing in mind, too, rather than copping out and helping prop up the tyranny of the vanilla. There’s a stunning panoply of sexy things that multiple configurations of consenting humans can and will do to one another for mutual pleasure. If we’re ever going to reach a stage where most of us really are ‘very liberated about sex and relationships’, we need to learn to accept them all, even the ones that would put Jameela Jamil off her lunch.