Friday 20 July 2012

Is Pornography OK?

Human beings are fantastically inventive. I imagine that, five minutes after the process of photography was invented, someone said "Hey, we could take pictures of naked women with this!"

Pornography, of course, existed long before photography. You should see some of the frescoes they discovered in the brothels of Pompeii, for example. Some of them depict intersexed figures such as Hermaphroditus in erotic situations, indicating that even the Romans had some interest in blurred gender boundaries.

But what makes photography different from other forms of erotic art is its apparent verisimilitude: the artist can show you things which are the product of their imagination (and there seems to be plenty of this still going on), but the photographer shows you something which actually happened. Moving photographs are, for the purposes of this discussion, merely an elaboration of the technology of still photographs.

My book this week is called Free Speech, by Nigel Warburton. It's an excellent and thought-provoking introduction to the issues around free speech. It's really led me to think a lot more about this subject, and drawn my attention to some very powerful key players in this field. Most of us are in agreement that free speech is a good and essential thing to a well-run democracy. And we think of the people in China, who are denied free access to information on the Internet, as well as freedom of expression. But free speech also includes material which may be offensive, even harmful, to the listener (such as overt racism or Holocaust denial). So where do you draw the line?

A full chapter of this book is devoted to pornography, and it started me thinking. The Internet, of course, as we all know, is full of pornography:
I'm fairly sure that if they took all the porn off the internet, there'd only be one website left. And it would be called 'Bring Back The Porn'.- Dr Perry Cox, Scrubs.
This interesting article from the UK's Guardian newspaper suggests that actually, only about 1.1% of sites on the Internet contain "sexually explicit" material. The article was written in 2006, which is ancient history in Internet terms, but even if the figure has quintupled since then, we are still only looking at 5%. (See addendum 3 below).

Eric Schlosser devotes a whole third of his excellent book Reefer Madness, to a discussion of the pornography industry in the US, and provides insight into the fundamental conflict of American attitudes:
Schlosser: The current demand for marijuana and pornography is deeply revealing. Here are two commodities that Americans publicly abhor, privately adore, and buy in astonishing amounts.
Coming back to Warburton, is pornography a form of expression? And should it, therefore, be fully tolerated in society (provided nobody is harmed in its making)? Several attempts to have it banned, by anti-pornography campaigners such as Andrea Dworkin, have been overturned by US courts on the grounds that banning pornography violates the First Amendment to the US Constitution. So it seems that Uncle Sam, at least, thinks that pornography counts as freedom of expression.

Professor Catharine MacKinnon argues that pornography is all about the subjugation of women: their objectification as objects for male sexual gratification. She points out that pornography is made "overwhelmingly by poor, desperate, homeless, pimped women who were sexually abused as children". She also makes the point that regular use of hardcore pornography by men habituates them to the idea that women exist merely as sexual playthings of men, and therefore eliminates the necessity of treating women as human individuals. It fosters the "she's wearing a short skirt so she must be up for it" argument. Sooner or later, the viewer wants to experience for real what he's used to seeing on the screen, and so he obtains it forcibly.

On the other hand, Wendy McElroy defends pornography from a feminist perspective. She argues that pornography can benefit women in at least three ways: by providing a panoramic view of sexual possibilities, by allowing viewers to experience and imaginatively explore sexual alternatives safely, and by allowing viewers to explore their emotional response to a fantasised scenario. Suppression of pornography would restrict women's choices. I must say I find these arguments pretty flimsy.

One-handed surfing
Is pornography harmful to society? It has certainly been argued that the objectification of women seen in pornography harms the status and role of women in society. On the other hand, there is some evidence that ready access to pornography reduces the rate of sex crime, the idea being that men gain relief from pornography which then means they don't need to take out their desires on women. From a scientific perspective, all the evidence I've seen on this topic has been conflicting and flawed, but the topic is important enough that I think it is worthy of more careful investigation.

So what's my perspective? First of all, sex is OK. That is to say, sex between consenting adults, male or female or any combination, who are choosing to engage in it for pleasure, is all OK. I'm not going down any roads debating the morality of actual sex. But any pornography or sexual activity involving children is unacceptable.

I admit my sympathies lie somewhat with the feminists here, though I am not sure I accept all MacKinnon's points. I think that prostitutes are, in general, poor desperate women forced into it by dreadful economic circumstances. Some of that may apply to women who take part in pornography, but what of all those amateur pornographers out there who freely post images of themselves? Not all of that is instigated by men (though I think a fair bit of it is). In addition, some women seem to have been able to make quite a lot of money out of deliberately producing pornography. And as we see, the link between pornography use and the increased prevalence of sex crime is tenuous at best.

What I see out there is absolutely in accord with MacKinnon's views, though. Pornography is almost universally about the satisfaction of men. Women are objectified, and often seem to be humiliated. There are scenes of roughness bordering on violence: men grabbing women around the throat during sex, for example, or women who appear to be weeping or distressed during sex. One website uses the word "destruction" seemingly as a synonym for "penetration". On the other hand, there are depictions of women appearing to enjoy or invite extreme acts of penetration. And intercourse is always filmed in gynaecological closeup. Why don't any of the women look like they are enjoying themselves? Why don't the actors look as if they even like one another?

So most pornography is distasteful to me, and a little of it has been so upsetting that I have deliberately attempted to banish it from my mind. When I was growing up, the only pornography I could access were magazines depicting naked women in positions of submissive (occasionally gymnastic) display. My imagination had to do the rest. But my kids will have access to streaming video and audio featuring any number of actors indulging in any sort of activity (no matter how I try to protect them from it). It worries me that my kids might come across that and think that is how sex should be conducted, from either role. Pornography is "junk sex". And just as teenagers want junk food, they will also want junk sex.

I believe pornography is this way because it sells. Men want those things: a quick five-knuckle-shuffle with no emotional strings attached. Inflated boobs, enormous penetration, highly visible climaxes. And they are prepared to pay for them. While some women use pornography in the same way men do, I think most women don't. For them, arousal comes from emotional stimuli, not physical ones. And you don't get any emotional arousal just watching sex: you get it from love and trust and intimacy, and it can't be achieved from scratch in five minutes.

One of the central points Helen Boyd makes in her book My Husband Betty, is that transvestites don't want to be like women, they want to be like men think women are. Here she discusses transvestite erotic material to be found on the Internet:
Boyd: There is one consistent motif: the crossdressed male is forced to give a blow job. The blow job scenario is probably crossdressers' most popular sexual fantasy after the fantasy of being dressed as a woman. Why does it not surprise me that when a crossdresser-- who is socialized as a straight man-- fantasizes about being a woman sexually, he envisions himself giving a blow job? This provides further evidence that the crossdresser's "inner female" is painfully loaded with stereotypical male ideas about women, in this case women's sexual behaviour. The idea that your average woman equates "I feel sexy" with "I want to give a blow job" is a remarkably male notion of women's sexuality. That they focus on the one form of women's sexual activity that is primarily about male pleasure is no coincidence.
I am stuck in the middle. Pornography is sexually arousing, but emotionally unpleasant for me. That creates a conflict worthy of Schlosser's book. As a result, I recognise that, whatever it does to individuals and society, pornography is harmful to me. It's not OK.



I was thinking some more about pornography, and it's well worth considering its place in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. I can't recommend this book highly enough. If you haven't read it, all the things you think you know about it (from your familiarity with concepts like Big Brother, Room 101, the Thought Police and so on) are wrong. It is all the more powerful for having been written in 1948, over sixty years ago.

The protagonist, Winston Smith, an unattractive everyman, lives in a dystopian 1984 under the constant surveillance of a totalitarian government led by an obscure figure known as Big Brother. In the novel, members of the middle class "Outer Party" are absolutely controlled: their actions and even their thoughts are ridigly confined. They are essentially denied any free time (how I can relate to that feeling!) and any freedom or self-determination. They are kept in a situation which denies them any sort of personal comfort or satisfaction: the only things they are allowed to enjoy or celebrate are Party activities and goals. Transgressions of the most minor nature are met with grotesque punishment and torture meted out by the Ministry of Love.

Big Brother seeks to control thoughts by controlling language: Newspeak is a deliberately constructed language with a shrinking vocabulary. The idea is that reducing the vocabulary reduces the ability to communicate ideas, and eventually to form those ideas in the first place.

And Big Brother seeks to control emotion and sexuality by doing away with intimacy and pleasure. Marriages are chosen by the Party, between unsuited partners to prevent physical attraction. We are informed that "neurologists are working to extinguish the orgasm". And pornography is extensively commodified: deliberately produced in large quantities and distributed by government decree, in a deliberate attempt to separate (and eliminate) the emotional satisfaction of sex from its physical act.

Orwell was making the point that the ready availability of pornography in large quantities does something undesirable to a population of people. While we are not in danger of succumbing to totalitarianism, I think his point is disturbingly correct.

Addendum 2:

I was thinking some more about pornography, and why some women deliberately create and display pornography involving themselves. It's just a theory, but I wonder if those women are doing it (partly) to create a sensation of power. The ability (and apparent willingness) to give pleasure is a powerful thing. To prominently display that places the woman in a position of power: I'm showing you this. I know you want it! But you can't have it, because I'm a stranger on the Internet thousands of miles away from you.

I suppose I am trying to explore the motivations of women who deliberately choose to involve themselves in pornography. Some, I think, do it for sexual arousal. Some do it for money. And I think some do it for power. Power, money and sex: the three most important motivations in all human behaviour?

This has become the longest blog post I've written. Something shorter next time.

Addendum 3:

The July 6th 2013 edition of my favourite mathematical radio programme, More or Less, suggested that pornography occupies only 4% of websites, but 14% of search engine requests.


  1. The tricky thing is what do we do when something is immoral. Do we make it against the law? What is something is just potentially harmful but immoral? I think our laws are heavily inconsistent right now, and I'm not what the answers are.

    Most people would say pornography is immoral but its not against the law.
    Most people would say prostitution is immoral and it is against the law.
    Most people would say adultery is immoral and it is not against the law.

    And then you have things that can be harmful against the law, like we severely restrict gambling for young people, and yet they can drive a car and get into accidents.
    New York banned big things of soda or something like that because its unhealthy and harmful?

    Confusing issues. I think I want our government to make very few laws on things even that are immoral or harmful. We need to allow people freedom. So as much as I hate pornography and crossdressing, I think both should be legal. But anything that involves forced harm of others I think people would agree should be against the law.

  2. Nicely put, Thorin. I frequently find myself in the middle of arguments between my church friends (who favor "legislating morality") and my unchurched friends (who fight against any judgement or morality labels) by arguing exactly that -- yes, I believe [action X] is contrary to God's will, but no, I don't believe we should expect the government to enforce God's will; our police work should be limited to protecting citizens from harm. You want to get BOTH sides ganging up to tar and feather you? Try explaining that you believe the Bible forbids homosexual relationships but you think there should be no laws forbidding them.

    As many vices as I have, there has never been a strong attraction to pornography. The sight of some enormous male organ (doubtless airbrushed) working on a woman, willing or not, is a bit revolting; straight nude imagery of women is so ubiquitous in our society that it, too, does little for me. Erotic stories are so over-the-top ridiculous and cliched I can't read it without bursting out laughing.

    My only other comment on this subject is that I'm going to have that hilarious (but too offensive to post a link to) song from "Avenue Q" stuck in my head all day.

  3. Vivienne,

    Thorin pointed out this post to me and I thought it was another interesting take on the pornography issue and potential consequences.

    This blog has many interesting articles in addition to this one.


    1. Hi John,

      It's taken me a few months to check out this link, but I did so the other day and I am delighted with the blog. I have added it to my subscription list and read many of the posts. Thanks very much for the link.


  4. I have many of the concerns you do about pornography but the results seem to be a bit different than MacKinnon had expected. Rather than becoming wild raping men many men are having trouble being aroused by real women who don't look like porn stars. Apparently, when men continually orgasm to a particular type of look, that look gets attached to their arousal. Some men also seem to get sexually attached to their computers and the fireworks of online porn, more so than real women and real sex, causing ED in young men.

    On the other hand, young men who have had plenty of experience with Internet porn seem to desire deep relationship with girlfriends, more so than past generations. Perhaps due to feminism. Other problems include women being exposed to violent and degrading porn (but also in mainstream society) and developing a craving for their own abuse. That doesn't always happen, but when it does it worries me.

    I can see the pro-sex feminist point of view too, that porn may be okay if it's done, "right." Like exploring sexuality and appreciating a variety of body types, consensual sex… unlike what is mostly out there right now.

    You also state, "The idea that your average woman equates "I feel sexy" with "I want to give a blow job" is a remarkably male notion of women's sexuality." Interestingly, a lot of women learn that too. But then, women often come to see the world through male eyes. There's a word for it: Androcentrism (a word I avoid in my blog). See these posts:

    Also, you are right that men and women tend to steer toward different types of erotica.

    I also agree that any pornography or sexual activity involving children is unacceptable. Kids can give consent, after all.

    Re: “I was thinking some more about pornography, and why some women deliberately create and display pornography involving themselves. It's just a theory, but I wonder if those women are doing it (partly) to create a sensation of power. The ability (and apparent willingness) to give pleasure is a powerful thing. To prominently display that places the woman in a position of power: I'm showing you this. I know you want it! But you can't have it, because I'm a stranger on the Internet thousands of miles away from you.”

    I hear this sort of thing a lot from men and I think it comes from a male perspective. The male role is all about power so they can project that motivation onto women. Also many men are reshuffled that women seem to take away their power. The women are probably seen a very differently. Women tend to see their beauty and sexuality -- which are tied up together -- as a measure of their worth. If they are seen as sexy than they are worthy and high status.

    Women may also get into porn for the money. Some get sidetracked from the desired career in Hollywood. Others are drawn to it, or forced into it, from prostitution. For those who enter voluntarily it's about making a lot more money than they could otherwise.

    Re “I am stuck in the middle. Pornography is sexually arousing, but emotionally unpleasant for me. That creates a conflict worthy of Schlosser's book. As a result, I recognise that, whatever it does to individuals and society, pornography is harmful to me. It's not OK.”

    Sounds healthy to me.

    The way I see it is that porn is out there and it is protected by free speech so I am more interested in educating people on the pitfalls and they can do what they want with that information.

    1. Hi Georgia. Many thanks indeed for your thoughtful and detailed post.

      It sounds a lot like Pavlovian conditioning all over again: men becoming "conditioned" to respond to a certain aesthetic and behaviour from watching porn. This is a harm I had not heretofore considered, but I can totally understand it.

      One of the concerns I mention above is how my own kids will react. The only porn I had seen before my earliest encounters with a real partner was naked women in magazines; no men to be seen anywhere. That meant there was an amount of exploration and discovery to be undertaken, and it took place within a secure and long-lasting relationship. For me, then as now, the emotional content of that activity was at least as memorable and rewarding as its physical content.

      But porn (as in "1984") deliberately seeks to remove the emotional content of sex from its physical act. If this is what my kids see when they are wondering what sex is like, it will be pretty hard for them to envisage any emotional or loving context at all. And if they don't start out with that context, it will be all the harder for them to find it later.

      All I can do, I guess, is to keep the lines of communication as open as possible.

      I can't help touching on "Fifty Shades of Grey". I haven't read this, but it's doing the rounds of my wife's coffee cirle right now. I understand that Mr Grey offers Ana the protagonist a contract of dominance and submission, that the relationship will have no romantic content whatever, only sexual content.

      I find this deeply disturbing. For me the contract motif suggests that the only needs which will be fulfilled in the relationship will be his. What about her needs? What about the mutuality inherent in any successful relationship? Whither the partnership?

      Since I haven't read it, I can't be sure that there isn't a whole lot more subtlety in the book, nor even that I am missing something which is obvious to all the millions of readers who have bought the books; presumably for something other than propping up a wobbly table.

      But still. Harmless escapism? Deeply-repressed desires? Or merely learned gender-ranking? Not sure.


  5. Poor Poor women, isn't it sad that we allow ourselves to be pushed into Porn ? You make it seem like women just can't help themselves, they must be so weak that they have to participate in porn even though it is so awful. Heaven forbid we might actually enjoy it for our own reasons....Perhaps you could speak with a woman about this subject instead of deciding for us what is and isn't when it comes to our participation in Porn.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think the article above reflects a reasonable balance of views from both men and women, and I went out of my way to consider a feminist perspective. I do not consider women to be weak in any way, although I absolutely do consider that most pornography is about the objectification of women for men's sexual desire.

      Perhaps you have an alternative perspective to offer, in which case you would be welcome to post it here. Please give a name of some kind, so that I can identify you amid other anonymous commentators.