Pornography should be embraced as freedom of expression

In the March 11 edition of The Cape Argus, a number of respondents took the time to comment on my article exposing the bad science behind conservative allegations regarding the “harms” of pornography. Of the six published, only one produced scientific evidence, so let us begin there.

Rachel Mash mentions that the American Psychological Association (APA) published a report (Task Force Report on the Sexualization of Girls) in which “more than 400 studies were examined. The finding showed that women and men exposed to sexually objectifying images of women were found to be significantly more accepting of rape-myths, sexual harassment, sex role stereotypes and interpersonal violence than those in control conditions.”

The APA report authors were certainly thorough and ambitious, analysing approximately 280 peer-reviewed journal articles, 80 books and book chapters, and dozens of other sources. However, their subject was the effects on young girls – not adults – of ordinary, everyday media, including magazines, television advertisements and music videos, finding that all of these had ‘harmful’ effects on children.

As mentioned in my previous article, the adult content channel that was under study by Multichoice made use of reliable protection measures to prevent child access – and the focus of the APA report is therefore on the possible effects to a group which would be normally be unable to view such a channel. The key issue here would not be potential harms to children, but rather parental responsibility to make sure that they use those protection measures.

Secondly, even their conclusions concerning children are in doubt, due to the limited scope of their analysis. Lerum and Dworkin responded to the study as follows: “the conclusion that sexualization has only negative impacts does not stem from considering a broad array of evidence; it was a forgone conclusion based on the fact that the task force only ‘evaluate(s) the evidence suggestive that sexualization has negative consequences’ for girls and the rest of society” [italics added]. The impression of authority the APA report offers is therefore misleading – while hundreds of studies were analysed, only studies delivering a pre-selected result were chosen for examination.

It’s also worth pointing out that the specific claim cited by Ms Mash from this report relies on only three studies, which themselves make sure to caution against assuming that the effects are anything more than temporary. Our search for scientific consensus therefore gains little from the APA report, and from Ms Mash’s letter.

At the core of the thesis offered by the APA report – and also underpinning much of the commentary resulting from my last article – is the notion that there is something inherently bad about adult women being ‘sexualized’ in the first place. We should however guard against letting sexist paradigms of female sexual purity, innocence and submissiveness underwrite our policies.

By contrast to the prejudicial and stereotyping view that pornography always involves abuse and disempowerment, numerous female porn stars and sex workers find that their chosen career is enormously empowering. According to porn star (and ex-prostitute) Annie Sprinkle: “Pornography also made me feel more beautiful and glamourous than I ever thought I could be because I was very shy and insecure and it really did bring me a lot of confidence and attention that I needed … sometimes I feel like I contribute a lot to the women’s movement and even somehow to women’s sexual freedom.” And consider the powerful words of sex-worker Margo St. James on the charge that pornography ‘represents women as whores by nature’: “Well, what’s wrong with that? I’m a bad girl. I like being a bad girl. I like my whore status. I have control and power over men, in private certainly, and now also in my public life”. Lastly, porn producer Anna Arrowsmith will be a candidate for parliament in the UK during the upcoming elections. These examples speak against the narrative of disempowerment, and need to be taken into account by critics of pornography.

They are certainly not accommodated in the response offered by Anne Mayne, who claims that “there is harm in images of sexist male fantasies”. This viewpoint is damaging not only to modern feminism, which has recently begun to sever its historical and uncomfortable association with pro-censorship movements, but is also deeply insulting to men. The claim seems to be that watching pornography that portrays male fantasies and desires would change our very nature, and strip away the thin veneer of civilization which prevents us from raping and beating women. This sort of sexist nonsense does little to illuminate the debate on pornography, and instead simply offers an example of a different – and known – social harm.

Finally, there is Peter Langerman, who asks: “Do we really want to run the risk of exposing (mainly) men to scenes which depict, in many cases, sexual mistreatment, violence and the sexual objectification of women?”

Yes we do, because alongside the strong sexual instincts we have evolved with, we also have the capacity for rational thought, and the opportunity to exercise our moral agency. This freedom and ability (which we share equally with women) gives us all the ability to overcome base desires and live a moral life.

Indeed, there may be parts of the spectrum of adult entertainment that we find offensive in their presentation of violent and sexist themes, just as these themes exist in some of our films, advertising, music videos and consumer products. But one cannot legislate for offence, or on one group’s definition of what is offensive – yet this seems to be exactly what fundamentalists wish us to do.

There is a better solution to what we may consider offensive within the pornography genre. Ms. Sprinkle puts it rather succinctly in saying: “”The answer to bad pornography is not no pornography, it’s better pornography!”.

A version of this article was published by the Cape Argus on 17 March 2010.