Do We Defend Pornography As Freedom Of Speech?

So…Stephen Fry. He’s made a regrettable set of remarks about “growing up” and not feeling sorry for oneself after abuse, which I can imagine he doesn’t even believe (or does he? Good god…). However, I can’t help but think his real issue isn’t with the longterm effects of abuse, which I bet he would be willing to concede, but the importance of freedom of speech.
I have a similar issue with regard to pornography. We have amassed study after study indicating that pornography leads to greater violence against women. In a Washington Post article, Gail Dynes writes, “A recent meta-analysis of 22 studies between 1978 and 2014 from seven different countries concluded that pornography consumption is associated with an increased likelihood of committing acts of verbal or physical sexual aggression, regardless of age. A 2010 meta-analysis of several studies found ‘an overall significant positive association between pornography use and attitudes supporting violence against women.’”
You may want to dismiss the studies but I suspect that the porn industry will be busy trying to do that, so let’s let them take the trouble first.
Meanwhile I find it easy to accept that pornography is bad for us. It certainly upsets me–all the damned time. But does that mean we should make it illegal? Refuse to allow it expression at all? I can’t see that working at a practical level. And I don’t think that is the right route.
Pornography has grown enormously since the internet. A Huffington Post headline announced in 2013 that “Porn Sites Get More Visitors Each Month Than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter Combined,” and one of the largest free porn sites in the world, YouPorn, streamed six times the bandwidth of Hulu in 2013.” (Gail Dines, 2016)
It seems that availability of pornography has only created a bigger market for it. A bigger and younger market. Would banning it make that market larger or smaller? And is it right to ban a form of expression?
Stephen Fry is worried that the sensitivities of those who have been abused will whittle away at freedom of speech. Well, it’s a legitimate concern if someone is talking about banning Macbeth (which nobody is). But the real issue about freedom of speech is not Stephen Fry or his nineteenth century remarks about sex abuse being nothing more than “your uncle touching you in that nasty place”. It is the one in which pornography is central. If we now know through meta-analyses that porngraphy harms both the person watching and women generally and that it insides hatred, are we obligated to stop it? Does pornography constitute an abuse of freedom of speech?
My suspicion is that while it is an abuse of freedom of speech, making it illegal isn’t going to help us. We somehow have to evolve to such a level that the idea of engaging in pornography does not interest us. Like the way I feel about bullfighting. Or dog fighting. It’s not just “No thank you” but “NO! Are you out of your mind?”
The trouble is that the stuff is addictive, and this is what I mean when I saw that watching pornography harms the viewer. It appears to be the  American Psychiastric Associations’s conviction that anything between consenting adults is absolutely fine and therefore pornography is fine.  There can be no problem with it because everyone is consenting.They believe this so strongly that you’d think it was a religious tenet of being a psychologist. At the same time, there is increasing evidence that pornography is as addictive as a drug, and here I am not quoting “Fight The New Drug” campaigners, but medical journals.
An article in Medicaldaily.com states that changes in the brains of viewers of pornography are “similar to those seen in cocaine addicts, who develop abnormalities in areas, such as the nucleus accumbens and striatum, which are responsible for learning, memory, pleasure, and reward” the long arm of the APA seems almost visible. Weirdly, the article also defends pornography as being important for couples (really? for couples?)  to “explore their erotic desires” as though pornography defines sex, itself.
The article ignores the truth here, which is that every year freshman boys have to be informed that not only is the pornography they watched during their high school years not something they try should emulate in real life, but that it might land them in jail should try try to do so. In other words, pornography isn’t sex at all, but a highly stylized, often violent representation of sex that does distorts human sexuality while attempting to define it. And it is this defining quality that worries me most. When did all this violence become part of normal sex? I regularly get junk Twitter followers and email with pornographic images and come-ons like  “What would you like to do to my 18-year old body?” Do you think that came from pornogrpahy? I’m guessing it did because there’s a link…
The same article that cites tests proving pornography is addictive claims that pornography increases libido. Increasing libido seems wholly unnecessary in the vast number of watchers (pornography is watched most often by men between 18-24, though I suspect they are just saying they are eighteen). And I notice the article ignores one eventual result of watching pornography, which is erectile dysfunction and “sexual anorexia”, which is a complicated intimacy disorder.
So. What are we left with? Clearly, I am anti-porn. But I am not anti-freedom of speech. I see the potential harm in leaving the free market at work in the world of pornography and I see the harm in interfering with it. There will be more harms I could not have anticipated no matter what direction we go (and of course, nobody is talking about interfering with the availability of pornography, as far as I can tell, though I could understand that as a defensible undertaking).
I have seen the awful result of the US government’s “war on drugs” and have read the history of the rise of underground crime as a result of banning alcohol, then drugs. Do I think we can ban pornography? No. Even though it has been proven to damage women. Even though it is nothing more than prostitution that has been filmed. Even though it is anything but a turn-on to me, personally, and I find it incredibly upsetting. The stuff traumatizes me, but I still wouldn’t want it banned.
If Stephen Fry had taken the time to explain why he didn’t want a media ban on certain words (“rape” was one of them, apparently) instead of insulting every person who has ever suffered child sex abuse, he might have suffered a little less backlash. He might have said, “Look, I know people suffer from this stuff, but we have to protect freedom of speech.” Or perhaps he would have listened to the very good Radio 4 discussion on “no-platforming” and free speech and learned how one argues the subject more effectively.
I’m not even sure pornography is “speech” or “expression.” It’s nothing that I like, but I am more worried about interfering with its expression than enduring its consequences. For now, anyway.
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  • Reply
    John Roe
    April 15, 2016 at 8:08 pm

    I am surprised you say that pornography leads to violence against women, my understanding was that the opposite was true by giving a harmless outlet for some men who otherwise would be violent. That men who consume pornography also commit more violence obviously tells us nothing. They are probably also younger than average but it is not likely that pornography causes youth.

    I sometimes consume pornography myself, and not the feminist sort, but I am well aware of the difference between it and reality. I believe in free speech and if you want to ban it because it fosters certain attitudes that is clearly contrary to free speech. If you want to ban it because it is disgusting, well that is just good old fashioned prudishness.

    • Reply
      April 15, 2016 at 8:34 pm

      My blog refers to a number of studies and meta-analyses of studies that indicate the relationship between pornography use and negative attitudes as well as violence toward women. This isn’t an opinion of mine, but apparently measurable facts that others–not me–have gathered.

      And here are some more facts: “Market research conducted by internet providers found that the average age a boy first sees porn today is 11; a study from the University of Alberta found that one third of 13-year-old boys admitted viewing porn; and a survey published by Psychologies magazine in the UK last month found that a third of 14- to 16-year-olds had first seen sexual images online when they were 10 or younger – 81% of those polled looked at porn online at home, while 63% could easily access it on their mobile phones.” (The Guardian, 2 July 2010).

      Images in today’s pornography have become so extreme that what used to be considered “hard-core” pornography is now mainstream. So, it is very possible those children are looking at images that will harm them psychologically, emotionally and sexually. I can only imagine what girls of that age think is in store for them, having seen some of the images out there.

      I don’t like pornography, but I don’t think that makes me a “prude”. A prude wouldn’t even write about it, let alone research it. It is often assumed by pornography users that everyone gets the kick that they do from looking at images, but I don’t get that kick. Pornography appears to me to be violent and debasing and reminds me of pain or rape, not pleasure or love.

      While it may be the case that pornography is further disadvantaging women in all sorts of ways, and its enormously increased use through the internet since the 1990’s means that women and girls are increasingly at risk in all sorts of ways–emotionally, politically, economically and socially–I think if you look again at my blog you will see that I wrote that it would not be sensible to ban it. It may be that some consider pornogrpahy an abuse of freedom of speech, and I understand why they would feel that way, but banning it does not appear to me to be a workable solution. At the moment, I believe it would be better to help people understand the problematic nature of pornography.

  • Reply
    April 16, 2016 at 8:06 am

    I suppose on a similar note to John’s comment, the studies you cite look (explicitly) only at whether there is a positive correlation between the consumption of porn and sexual violence. Correlation is what I would expect, and the general causal arrow would suggest the very opposite: sexual assault/rape/anti women attitudes are all decreasing even as porn has become ubiquitous. Certainly porn has at least not stopped any feminism train here happily.
    Google lead me to multiple metaanalysises suggesting that there’s no causal arrow here – quite possibly that porn PR machine you mention, but also possibly a result of contested science (eg http://www.christopherjferguson.com/pornography.pdf).
    As to the comment on young’uns, keep in mind that they’re doing better than ever, including on marriage and DV fronts.
    I do however think that the free expression argument is rubbish and always has been. Even effective bans however should consider the effect on people in the industry, which is probably not a great place for a women to work, but by all accounts beats substitute work such as prostitution.

    • Reply
      April 16, 2016 at 12:43 pm

      Hi Alex, Thank you for the response. I will have a look at the pdf you sent. I’ve come across absolutely no evidence that pornography decreases violence and/or negative attitudes toward women. I have seen evidence that pornography decreases men’s ability to be intimate in bed, that it increases erectile dysfunction, that it has so distorted notions of female sexuality and consent that young men (and boys) are left in great confusion. Girls and women continue to feel they are not sufficiently sexual, don’t have the “correct” response to various acts of sex,and men continue to objectify the female body to the point that some sites are specific for that one part.

      I cannot see much difference between prostitution and pornography work and suspect there is a large crossover. I’ll try to remember to come back to these comments and report what I find. Isn’t pornography just a filmed version of prostitution? There are so many manifestations of prostitution, some more dangerous than others. And while the presence of witnesses on the film set might help, we do know that HIV transmission has been on the rise in the pornography world.

      I can’t help but wonder how many men would want their daughters to be involved in pornography. Very few, I imagine. Just from a health and psychological perspective, we’d be very concerned for our daughters. So, why is it okay for other people’s daughters, so much that we’d actually pay for and/or watch it?

      My perspective is that one you remember there is a real person inside that body, it is difficult to see any humanity in pornography.

      It doesn’t take a brilliant mind to conclude that the violence and extremism of today’s mainstream pornography is a bad thing for women. It does take diligence and attention to studies and methodology to prove it to the world. And of course, some sociologists feel we have already done that. I will get more citations.

      • Reply
        April 17, 2016 at 2:10 am

        No worries Marti, thanks for your response, and of course the interesting (and prior challenging!) article 🙂

        We’ve obviously come across different things on the porn–>violence link, because most of the things I recall reading take the ‘porn as substitute’ approach, with the people inclined towards violence having an outlet for these impulses which is easier to get. I would consider it similar to having iTunes take a significant chunk out of illegal music downloads. Certainly this is not just a idiosyncratic theory of mine – one of the porn = violence metaanaysises I came across spent some time debunking the ‘masturbatory exhaustion’ hypothesis (lol!).
        I don’t think that the porn is the main culprit behind women/girls feeling insufficiently sexual – there is after all a large literature on the negative effects of general advertising and day-to-day imagery which uses women’s bodies in a quasi-sexual way. And I think that this explains these realities much better – keep in mind that men/boys are affected by this sort of thing as well (men’s models, and the ongoing attempt to get us paying more attention to our bodies), but that we’re not really affected by expectations set by erotica (which I see as a somewhat equivalent expression of basic female urges, obviously without the real life concerns).
        I agree with you mostly about porn vs prostitution, and think that plenty of both types of work are dangerous. When interviewers have talked to both though, sex workers are fairly clear that prostitution is generally more dangerous not least for the reason you mention. It can also be empowering to the women who work in porn (sometimes – I’m not claiming this is something that most/lots of porn actresses feel, but there are nonetheless plenty of examples when these actresses win the metaphorical acting lottery). Also, prostitution is generally illegal whereas porn is not. So I tend to see porn > prostitution and hence from the sex worker’s perspective, we should encourage the former over the latter. Point taken over HIV, I hadn’t heard that, though would ask what the equivalent case for prostitutes is?
        I have a daughter myself and can honestly say I wouldn’t object too strenuously to her working in porn. I would mind if she felt she needed to do that, either for money or affection (in which case I would think I’d failed), and would certainly raise the point that it’s a high risk field (in the same way acting in general is – low chance of high payout). But some porn actresses do say it’s a great place to work and genuinely seem to like it – as long as she had the choice I wouldn’t be as concerned as you seem to think dads would. If she wanted to drop school for it though….
        It also wouldn’t take a brilliant mind to see that video games with violence lead to violent societies, and yet violence is everywhere dropping, and massively down since video games became mainstream. I’m not suggesting any strong effect of video games on reducing violence, but I think that some substitution effect is likely, and they at least haven’t stopped violence declining. Ditto for porn and sexual violence, even if, yes, porn is demeaning and violent.

        • Reply
          April 19, 2016 at 7:24 pm

          Hi again, Alex,

          I thought about what you said with regard to your daughter, how you wouldn’t mind her working in the porn industry. I hesitated to engage any further in the conversation, but then I wondered if you really know what the porn industry is doing these days. It just doesn’t sound possible to me that a father would want his daughter to do the sorts of things required of a “porn star”.

          As I am sure you are aware, the pornography industry is highly competitive and every company in it is looking for the newest, most edgy, extreme sex. If you type “porn” into a search engine you will find any number of sites, the most popular which will require actresses (you could call them sex workers, but whatever) to have oral, anal and vaginal sex performed simultaneously on them by three different men. They will sometimes have double anal or double vaginal penetration performed on them. There is a great deal of interest in gagging women with erect penises and ejaculating into women’s eyes, face, and hair and mouths, often by multiple men.

          In Pornland, a book about the current state of the porno industry by Gail Dines, there is a quotation from the site, Gag Me Then Fuck Me, in which the site’s introductory message in June 2007 was, “Do you know what we say about romance and foreplay? We say fuck off! This is not another site with half-erect weeneis trying to impress bold sluts. We take gorgeous young bitches and so what every man would REALLY like to do. We make them gag till their makeup starts running and then they get all their holes sore—vaginal, anal, double penetrations, anything brutal involving a cock and an orifice. And then we give them a sticky bath!”

          I know that Dines is criticized, often because she shows the worst of the industry, but the point is that it is a very bad industry. Perhaps you aren’t aware of what might be expected these days of your daughter if she were to be in it. I suppose she could find a company that only asked her to have regular sex or oral sex in which gagging wasn’t an important part of the experience, but I don’t know. And of course, the way she would be sspoken of within the context of the site (or the scene) might bother you. She would be a bitch or a whore to these people. If she is young enough she might be seen, as one very young-looking woman I saw pictured in Pornhub as a drunken teenager (staged, I am sure) and the caption all about what someone might like to “do to her”.

          I hope that you would not want your daughter to experience working with such people or subjecting her body to such pain and brutality. I hate to think of the long or short-term emotional costs. And if you wouldn’t want your daughter as part of this, why would you want anyone else’s daughter to be part of it?

          The porn industry is getting increasingly brutal toward women, that is for sure. The current age at which children are now accessing porn is an average age of 11.5 years. Our girls should not grow up with expectations that they should ever have to perform any specific sexual act, let alone those that put their bodies at risk and hurt them. That seems a reasonable a request, doesn’t it? And yet, the new expectations on ordiary girls and women, while not as extreme as what would be required of a women actually working in the porn industry, are ever more demanding, unhealthy, and painful both physically and psychologically.

          There was an advice column in which a teenaged girl was asking the Dear Abby-type whether she “had to” do anal sex because her boyfriend wanted it. The response was, of course, that she didn’t “have to” do anything, not even have sex with him, let alone anal sex. But the expectation was there, don’t you see? And the poor kid probably thinks he’ll break up with her if she isn’t “hot enough” and “good in bed”, which means doing things she doesn’t even want to do. So sad.

          Thank you for your responses on my blog. I am grateful.

  • Reply
    April 22, 2016 at 10:56 am

    Lol, I must have concerned you with the comment about my daughter; my daughter is only 1, so it may well be that I’ll have quite different opinions on her working porn in 20 years. This said, I don’t exactly aspire to be concerned about this, and consider it the same type of thing as being concerned that she has a boyfriend and is having sexytimes.

    I understand that porn is very demanding of it’s actor/actresses, but the whole point of my comment was that some people do embrace this, either because they actually enjoy it or because the rewards compensate them sufficiently. If my daughter happens to be one of them I wouldn’t exactly let it get between us, and I think I’d be comfortable if I thought my daughter was happy doing it (again, as the dad of a 1 yo, hypothesising my reaction in 20 years). Even in this case I don’t think I’d find out anything about her vids (not least bc they’re, well, my daughter having sex), because yes, apparently it’s a very common fantasy to verbally abuse the people you’re having sex with (and to do it really crudely).

    I’m not saying that I’d push her towards this career at all – I hope she becomes a (traditional) professional of some variety – but I have similar reservations to porn that I do to acting in general, or even art/writing. It’s a winner takes all job, with low chances of large success and high chances of failure that have little bearing on individual skills. Porn of course has plenty of other disadvantages as you mention, so I’ll keep it off her career possibilities list.

    I agree that porn has more brutal videos than 50 years ago. This said, porn also has a lot more variety than 50 years ago. There’s plenty of non-brutal or ‘rough’ porn, and I tend to think of this as porn becoming a niche product. The niches aren’t all ‘female friendly’ but certainly aren’t just gagging and weird juxtapositions where three guys can simultaneously have sex with a woman.

    On the comment about expectations, we’ve surely moved forward with this over the past 50 years? People of course expect their partners to be ‘normal’ in bed, and this does often include things like oral or anal nowadays. It also includes communication and that both parties are enjoying things. I agree that this will put people who don’t enjoy ‘normal’ sexual activities in a bad position – they’re basically being peer pressured by their partner and their own friends into doing things that they are not comfortable with. But the communication and ability to say no are also big parts of sex today. If it breaks up relationships. then this doesn’t strike me as a bad thing; presumably the man/woman would not have been satisfied sexually, and (generally) satisfying sex is a very important part of a successful relationship. More to the point, porn is hardly to blame here. Relationships have always got broken by people who didn’t want to go as far as their partners forever.

    Anyway, if I have too rosy a view of porn (and I may well have – I thought the science on porn–>violence was settled) I think you have too negative a view and have been caught up in the general porn is immoral stance, which leads people to attribute all sorts of effects to porn (remember that they say some similar things about gay marriage). Certainly the above comment concentrates on how it’s disgusting and awful, which yeah, I’ll certainly grant that point, but this doesn’t mean it has all the negative effects you’ve giving it. Keep in mind that young’uns these days tend to outperform previous generations on all sorts of relationship/marriage measures as well.

    Anyway, it was indeed a good chat and I look forward to reading some of your other articles and bugging you

  • Reply
    Megan Hawthorne
    February 11, 2018 at 4:16 am

    Marti, when porn came out you had to enter your credit card number to view it on the internet. Now it’s available for free everywhere. Look at cable stations. We had cable and even though we didn’t order porn channels they came for free. It’s NUTS.
    Everyone is creating a false dichotomy. Porn or ban porn. Well can we please just regulate it? And can we please ditch the ridiculous idea that porn is free speech?

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