Would sex be better in a world without pornography? (The Guardian, 2015) by Rash Dash

This was written for The Guardian Blog by Abbi Greenland, Helen Goalen and Caroline Steinbeis, 11th June, 2015 - https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/jun/11/would-sex-be-better-in-a-world-without-pornography

I am making this show because …

Abbi: I think that the majority of heterosexual pornography is a massive problem – one of the biggest problems we have. Not just for very young people, but for all of us. The ubiquitous images and films of men degrading, raping and being violent to women, for the sexual pleasure of the viewer, affect us on a profound level. It affects the sex we have, the way we think about our bodies, about men and women, about pleasure, power and desire.

I don’t believe in censorship, or in telling people what they can or can’t be turned on by. I do believe that if you industrialise desire and sex in a deeply patriarchal and sometimes misogynist culture, what you end up with isn’t an authentic exploration of our wildest fantasies and proclivities – it’s the sexualisation of violence against women. It’s really important we don’t ignore it. We need to look it in the eye and do something.

We’re not in control of how it affects us. From the way it’s dribbled and crept into the everyday – our landscapes, behaviours and language – to the way a partner relates to us during sex because of the porn they’ve watched. You don’t have to directly engage with it for it to be your business.

Some people are trying to change the porn industry from within. I understand it, and there’s some interesting stuff out there, but we need to think bigger. That’s why I’m making this show about two women who try to end porn and begin again. And because I think that sex could be better, wilder and freer without it. Or at least the version of porn that we have now. 

Helen: I want to provoke real, in depth, challenging conversations: how can we communicate more openly? How can we better educate young people about the profound difference between sex and porn? Can we expect more from each other? This issue has escalated hugely in the past few years. Although the show is not just about internet pornography, the wide accessibility of porn for people of all ages and the proliferation of harder, more extreme acts means that now is a crucial time for us to take it on. The characters’ stance is extreme. We hope this is a starting point for more radical thinking. I don’t think there is a better place to do that than in the theatre.

Caroline: Making this show has been a huge education for me. It feels like I have woken up from my own liberal fence-sitting dream of “live and let live”. I now see how important it is to address how readily we accept porn into our lives and at what cost.

I was intrigued by the way in which the writer Alice Birch and RashDash had been going about generating the raw materials for this production. They are absolutely fearless. Directing a play that stars two of the three co-authors is a pretty amazing process. It has been as much about facilitating intentions as shaping the piece overall. We have been listening very carefully to each other to make sure we make the right choices for the play. This isn’t about finding compromise, but committing to the best idea. 

My previous knowledge of porn was …

Helen: Non-existent. Before we began research I had a romanticised, sanitised idea of the industry with little concept of the reality. I think people assume we must have a deeply personal reason to make this, but that’s not the case. The show is much bigger than the people behind it.

Abbi: Porn has never been a part of my life. There have been accidental online pop-ups, and parties at university where pirate porn would casually be playing the background, but I’ve never gone looking for it. We were researching an idea we had for a show about sex and dating when I first came across an article by Gail Dines and my head nearly exploded. I was naive about what’s out there and how readily available it is. We had to be very careful when researching the show not to fill our heads with violent images that we couldn’t un-see, so we switched between watching stuff together – talking about it, processing it as a group – and reading about it.

Helen: Of course this is problematic. Not ever really watching pornography in the way it’s intended means you could say we’re going in with an enormous amount of bias. But I also think it gives us a clarity and objectivity. I feel that I can see it for what it is.

Caroline: I watched my first porn film at the age of six in the mid-80s. The parents were away and we set an alarm to go off late at night so we wouldn’t miss a single minute. The whole thing felt so covert and clandestine, it was a huge thrill. Looking back now, it makes me marvel at the lengths we went to. By contrast, now you can type porn into Google, and click on the first clip that comes up. It will be accessible at no cost, no effort and at any time. And what you will see is a far cry from plot lines about fixing fridges and girlfriends using showers that I was first exposed to.

Abbi: I think it’s really important people know what the majority of porn actually is now. It’s not soft focus and big hair and arched backs, it’s hardcore and violent. While I don’t suggest watching it if you don’t want to, we need to know what’s happening.

This show is …

Caroline: This show is a provocation. It is also very critical of itself. It’s epic, and deliberately so. We don’t want to make any excuses or fall into debating about what is and isn’t acceptable. Instead we are saying: “Take the whole thing down. And entertain the idea of what could be there instead.” The notion is so enormous that it suddenly allows you to entertain some pretty unexpected ideas.

Abbi: The show is pro-sex. It’s silly and playful as well as unswerving and radical. We combine words and movement to try to articulate what we think and how we feel. We’re trying to explore the sensual side of being a body and being sexual – something I think a lot of porn misses.

Helen: It’s surprising, vivid, funny, dark, complicated and strident. Hard to watch at points. Challenging to perform.

The most difficult thing about making this show is …

Helen: There have been different stages of difficult. At one point, I became so involved in the research that the violence began to weigh on me heavily. It made me less trusting of people and my view of the world became pretty bleak for a while.

Caroline: The challenge lies in editing between what makes for an interesting debate and what makes for an interesting piece of theatre. The argument needs to continuously stimulate and progress, the show can never stand still for too long. It’s a permanent balancing act.

Abbi: The subject is enormous and complex. The show can’t possibly say everything we think. It’s been knotty work trying to navigate what to say and when to stop. For example, this show is just about heterosexual porn, because it feels like a very different debate, when the power dynamic isn’t men versus women. 

Helen: Most of the scenes sit in very dangerous territory. There is such a lot that could be misconstrued, so the tone of each argument must be delicately placed.

The most terrifying thing about making this show is …

Helen: The subject is a political and emotional minefield. It is something people feel so strongly about on both sides. We are expecting some heated debate.

Abbi: It’s a radical statement we’re making and I’m 100% in it, and I’m also terrified of it.

Caroline: I fear for the online reactions. People write things that they would never say to your face.

The most enjoyable thing about making this show is …

Helen: It is full of big images, movement sequences, music and very sharp text. It’s been a lot of fun to make.

Abbi: I love working with the company we’ve made this with. There is a generosity and trust among us all, which makes it possible to reach as far as we have. We feel very close and I hope the audience will feel that, too.

Caroline: We are working with a team of people who have the amazing capacity to say yes. The rehearsal room has felt light and open and we have been able to convert so much of this positive energy into the show. 

• We Want You to Watch is at the National Theatre, London, until 11 July and then on tour until 23 October. There is a Platform discussion, We Want You to Talk, on 8 July.