Polly Barton: Why we need to talk about pornography

Curious about the complex and seemingly taboo subject of porn, British writer Polly Barton spent a year asking her acquaintances for their honest feelings about it.

"Porn is a topic that brings together so many difficult feelings and quite complicated and thorny ethical dilemmas that the response can really be to turn away from it," she tells Saturday Morning host Kim Hill.

Polly Barton is the author of Porn: An Oral History. She appeared at Christchurch's WORD festival on August 26 and 27.

In her late 30s, with a really good group of friends, Barton realised that porn and masturbation were the two topics no-one really wanted to get into.

"[In the media] everyone was constantly saying how ubiquitous porn is, and how widely used and how it's inescapable and forming a part of our culture. And I started to feel more and more this strange gap between that fact and what I felt was a total absence of it within the conversations that I was having."

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when it sort of felt like the world was being turned on its head anyway, she decided to take action and open up conversation.

"I kind of thought, 'Well, why not actually try and have some of these conversations and see how awful and awkward they can be?'"

The fact that children are now exposed to porn years before their first sexual experiences is an important subject, Barton says, but also a way for adults to duck out of talking about their own relationship with it.

Thanks to free streaming sites such as Pornhub, very few lives are unaffected by porn in some way, she says.

"Several of the people that I spoke to, although they didn't regularly consume porn, or at least stream porn, when they started talking about their intimate lives and previous encounters, the influence of porn on those is felt so strongly."

Faced with this "incredibly confusing and overwhelming subject", people either maintain total silence or assume a very extreme pro or anti position, Barton says.

In Porn: An Oral History, she sought to approach the topic in a quiet, personal way that felt a little bit more manageable.

Many women told her that their preference for internet porn that shows a woman being dominated caused them to question whether they were bad feminists or victims of the patriarchy.

Others mentioned that watching pornography has enabled them to connect with aspects of their sexuality they might otherwise not have come into contact with.

"These are just such, such thorny questions. For me, it's been really helpful to talk through some of them."

Barton believes that sex, aside from procreation, is about intimacy and a sense of play that porn can sometimes help to facilitate.

"I think there are times when porn can, if done well, invite a spirit of play into people's sex lives, or the sex lies that they have just with themselves."

People seemed to experience a sense of liberation from talking to Polly about porn-related subjects they had never spoken to anyone about before.

Porn: An Oral History is an attempt to explore the shame that many people feel about their own porn use.

"While you're actually consuming the porn, the shame is sort of biologically blocked off and there's a great rush. But as soon as the orgasm happens, there can be a great rush of terrible feelings."

Although most people are not talking about porn, writing the book showed Barton that many of us do think about it - and often.

"Almost everyone I spoke to thought about the ethics of it a lot… I think quite a few of them felt in some ways quite tortured about it, and are certainly really relieved to let some of that out... it's important to think about these things for yourself."

Polly Barton's other work includes 50 Sounds, a memoir of her encounters with the Japanese language, and numerous translations of Japanese contemporary women's writing.