Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak at the Cambridge University Union Society’s debate entitled ‘This House Believes Pornography Does A Good Public Service’.
On the proposing team were Anna Span (Britain’s first female porn producer), Jessi Fischer (US sex academic) and myself. Opposing the motion: Gail Dines (anti-porn ‘feminist’), Dr Richard Woolfson (child psychologist) and Shelly Lubben (former porn ‘star’ and prostitute turned Chaplain).
“Let me start with a quote from a member of the opposition: “Let me tell you about the people in porn: they are mentally ill, they are physically diseased, and drug infested”. Please bear that in mind while you listen to me speak.
I would like to apologise to you.
You thought my name was ‘Johnny Anglais’. It isn’t.
You possibly even thought my name was ‘Jonny Cockfill’, a name I adopted because of my, apparently, at times uncanny resemblance to Jackass idiot, ‘Johnny Knoxville’. But it isn’t.
My real name is ‘Benedict Garrett’. I’m not a porn star. I’m a man who sometimes appears in pornographic productions.
Truth is, I don’t believe that anyone who appears in pornographic productions can be described as a ‘star’. It is simply a job like any other. And, like any job, it has its ups and downs. Believe me, I should know.
Over the past ten years, I’ve had quite a selection of occupations: working in one of London’s top restaurants, working in a bank in Canada explaining to French-Canadians why they couldn’t get credit, working in a travel company, working for a consultancy firm in The City, doing PR for the speed and red light camera department of a local government, and, up until recently, being a Head of Department and teacher within a London secondary school, heading up Personal Social and Health Education & Citizenship, as well as teaching Religious Studies, Sociology, German, French, History and A Level Politics.
But a job does not define you. I was never simply just a teacher, I was a man who worked as a teacher. Likewise, I am not a porn ‘star’, I am simply someone who works in pornography sometimes.
I am also someone’s son and someone’s brother. I have been, on the odd occasion, someone’s lover. I am the owner or ‘best friend’ of a 2 year old cocker spaniel. I speak five languages, to varying levels. I have performed in lead roles in several musical theatre productions over the last few years and starred in a Hong Kong film. I am a Canadaphile, particularly interested in the politics and culture of Quebec and other francophone communities within the Confederation. I am in no way religious, but have an interest in Judaism, the history and culture of the Jewish people and Israel and have recently been receiving lessons in Hebrew. I am a qualified personal trainer and avid fitness enthusiast and will be running this year’s London Marathon raising money for Whizz-Kids. I have had two book published, I will refrain from saying that I wrote them, but I compiled them and they have my name on the cover. Most recently, and something I was most certainly not planning on being, I have become a carer to a former student after I assisted him in his return from Pakistan after he was forced into a Madrasa and suffered abuse and neglect while there. I also enjoy porn.
Unlike most of you here today, who have probably been accessing internet porn for at least the last five years, I believe I was at least 16 before my first proper encounter with hardcore pornography. This encounter came in the form of a ‘Lover’s Guide’ VHS tape I found in my father’s forbidden cupboard that, although locked, could be lifted off its hinges and replaced. I remember that my parents had gone to Paris for a few days when I did this and, believe me, I made full use of the time and made sure to watch the film several times each day, just in case I missed a crucial detail to the storyline, you understand.
From then on, I was hooked. Porn had become part of my life. And then, when I was 18, my parents got a dial-up internet connection. Well, what was the first thing I looked for when I got the chance? Of course! The rest is history.
But what was I hooked on?
Yes, undoubtedly, it was wank fodder. Witnessing the actions of others whilst in a state of sexual intimacy was and is definitely arousing. And what’s wrong with that? Masturbating is a good thing. According to Great Ormond Street:
“There are actually many health benefits of masturbation and having an orgasm or ejaculating (releasing sperm). This is because it makes your body produce a pleasure hormone called epinephrine which makes you feel relaxed, happy and contented. In fact, some doctors say masturbation can actually stop depression, stress and make you feel good about yourself.”
Great Ormond Street on their ‘Teens first for Health’ website
And pornography helped and continues to help me reach this state.
But there was more to porn than simply being wank material. For a country boy like me, who was largely academic, veering towards the geeky, it was the only exposure I would get to sex for several years and I certainly never saw anything like it while I was in school. Pornography does have an educational value. Save drawn diagrams in science books, I never really knew what a vagina looked like and I certainly had no idea how to pleasure it or what a plethora of different sexual positions that I might choose to employ there are. Bearing in mind, I didn’t actually lose my virginity until I was 20, I can say, without a doubt, that my years of viewing pornography prior to the momentous occasion definitely gave me an understanding of the female form, how to pleasure it and an increased confidence to explore and try various things. Nothing else would have done that for me. And no matter what I saw in the porn I viewed, I have also grown to respect women and all human beings, so the idea of wanting to degrade a woman, if indeed I had ever seen that in pornography, although its really not my taste, certainly has never impacted on my own sexual activities in my private life. Equally, I don’t learn how to treat fellow humans through horror films or shoot ‘em ups. Whilst pornography taught me some things, it certainly never replaced more important lessons learned from good parenting and decent teaching.
On top of that, watching people having sex is, or at least can be, for me, aesthetically pleasing. It can be an art form. Undoubtedly, a lot of porn is poor, a lot of porn is bad quality, lacks creativity or any visual flair, but that is true in so many art forms, mainstream films and media. But that does not mean that pornography cannot, like any other art form, stimulate our senses, arouse different thoughts, raise certain questions or simply make us smile.
I actually agree with some of the points made by the opposition. But your problem is not with porn per se, but with the current state of some porn.
There are those who blame pornography for certain ills in our society, particularly linked to young people. As a former teacher, I know the majority of young people watch porn. Children as young as 11 are watching full-blown hardcore pornography. This is a reality. In all honesty, I don’t know whether its necessarily a bad thing. However, in this country, you are supposed to be 18 to view pornography and young people know that. More importantly, their parents know that. Where is the parental responsibility here? Where are the internet safeguards? Where is the supervision of your child while they are exploring the internet? The internet is an amazing thing. Its like having uncontrolled access to the entire world. Allowing your child to freely roam around the internet, is like dumping them in the middle of Soho and saying “have a wander, we’ll meet you back here in a few hours”. If parents really cared and were concerned, they would do something about it. Little Johnny does not have to access to his laptop all the time. Little Lizzy, doesn’t need to have a mobile phone with internet access, she doesn’t even need to have a mobile phone. “But how do I call my Mummy and Daddy if there is an emergency?”, “We’ve got a phone in the reception!”
As a former PSHE teacher, I am more than aware that there is particular concern that pornography may be connected to a rise in teenage pregnancy and STIs. The United Kingdom has the highest rate of both of these in Western Europe, which immediately, without even seeing any figures, raises a certain question. If young people in all of Western Europe have equal access to the same internet pornography, then why are rates so much higher in the UK? In fact, in some other countries, particularly the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia, all of which have far lower rates of teenage pregnancy and STIs, there is and has been for many years a far greater access to pornographic material and exposure to other aspects of the sex industry. I believe the answer lies not in pornography, but in that society’s attitude to pornography and sex generally. Many Dutch children will state that talking with their parents and teachers about sex is not an issue. This is rarely the case in Britain. The concept of ‘No sex please, we’re British’ is still, despite an increased sexualisation in many aspects of our society (fashion, advertising, the media), very much the case. We have a very immature attitude to sex. If we do talk about it openly, its usually in a comedic manner. When we try to address it seriously, parents and teachers often lack the confidence, or indeed, the experience, to tackle it in a way that is appropriate for today’s young people. While we continue to treat sex as a taboo in this country and shroud it in an air of mystique, young people will want to try it. While, in many European countries, young people are allowed a glass of wine at dinner, we tend to have a similar attitude in the UK to booze as we do to sex. The result is an increasing of binge-drinking amongst the British youth. If you tell someone they can’t do something, or shy away from talking about it, if we treat it as something that is ‘naughty’ that only big people can do, then our littler people will undoubtedly be more curious to try it. The problem is not porn, the problem is our immature national attitude to sex.
There have been accusations from the opposing side of the exploitation of women within the porn industry.
I’m not going to stand here and say that exploitation does not exist. I’m not going to stand here and say that there isn’t sometimes links between porn production and drugs or criminality. There are corrupt individuals and people lacking any sense of decency in any industry. Do we say that the whole of the fashion is bad because some companies employ child labour in Pakistan? Do we call all police officers institutionally racist simply because there has been a culture within certain police forces within recent years? Do we blame the whole of the Church for the actions of some paedophilic Catholic priests?
Exploitation exists everywhere. When I worked in a restaurant, I regularly got less than 10 hours between the end of one shift and the start of another, according to British labour law, this is exploitation. As a teacher, I have been slammed against a wall twice, spat at, sworn at regularly, insulted repeatedly – is this treatment that a human being should have to face? Welcome to Capitalism. Capitalism exploits, that is its essence. I’ve done jobs in the past where I’ve felt so degraded by the people I work with, work for or the people who I served, that I felt, at times, like wanting to slit my wrists.
I find it frustrating that there is often the accusation of exploitation of women in pornography, but you never hear of the exploitation of the gay men who are dominated, or even of the straight men in scenes where they are dominated and ‘degraded’. Pornography is such a wide term for a whole range of different genres. Porn, like sex itself, indulges in different sexual acts and in different scenarios. Believe it or not, sometimes women, even in their private sexual lives, like to dominated, and so do men. If you genuinely believe, that all porn degrades women, then you haven’t seen enough porn and you certainly haven’t spent time on a porn set, certainly not any of the ones I have ever been on.
On top of this, there are increasing numbers of female porn producers and more and more porn that is being produced specifically for the female viewer.
I’m not saying pornography is the perfect route for anybody. But I work in pornography because I enjoy it. Of course, I’m not a woman. But equally, I know women who enjoy working within the industry. I have worked with women who come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are university educated, some are parents, some of them do charity work, some of them have worked in professions. I have never been on a set where the women and where everyone, in fact, are not utterly respected, where the crew are not professional, if the woman, or indeed the man, is experiencing any discomfort, we stop, we take a break, we sort it out, we have a laugh, we do our job. Women in pornography have a choice about what they do and what they don’t do. I actually find it utterly insulting to the intelligence and to the right of those women who genuinely enjoy performing in pornographic productions, who take into account any risk element, to be accused of being exploited. Who are you to say that they, by sheer virtue of the fact that they are women, cannot choose to pursue a path simply because you disagree with it? I disagree with people working as religious leaders, spreading myth and lies and exploiting millions of people by praying on their insecurities and fears. I think religion has done far more to be accused of having a bad public service, least of all in the spread of HIV or the brutality against homosexuals in Africa, for example. But I allow individuals the right to make the choice to enter such a pointless and globally damaging profession. In many cases, women in the porn industry have an opportunity to do a job that they enjoy and get paid a decent rate for, something that very few other people can say about their own jobs.
You are probably aware that I lost my job as a teacher because of my work in porn. Ironically enough, it was doing porn that actually gave me the impetus to get into teaching. Several years ago, I was shooting with a production company run by a couple. Afterwards we met up with their two sons. I spent much of the evening interacting with them, and the parents commented on my ability to engage with them. They asked if I’d ever thought about being a teacher. Truth is, I hadn’t before then, because both my parents were teachers and it was the one thing they told me never to do. Needless to say, I had four years where I was able to make a big impact on the lives of young people. I never, like some would accuse me, brought my outside activities into the classroom, but my experiences did help me to teach with greater confidence, particularly about topics related to sex and sexuality. And of course, if I had never been a teacher, I would not have become a foster carer and who knows where my foster son would be right now?
Wank fodder, educational tool, art form and allowing me to become a teacher, for a few years at least, and a foster carer now pornography does an excellent public service.”