I recently read Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right, (2013) by Whitney Strub. Strub discusses the origins and operations of the anti-pornography group Citizens for Decent Literature in the 1960s, and touches on later individuals and groups such as Robin Morgan and Women Against Pornography in the 1980s. It struck me that much of the rhetoric of these earlier groups is the same as that used by contemporary anti-pornography individuals and groups, such as Gail Dines and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. There are several common approaches:
- Do not define pornography. It can be anything that is vaguely sexual, from lingerie ads to risque TV comedies, from erotic videos to photos of child abuse, from artistic nude paintings to stolen topless selfies. It can also refer to prostitution, kidnapping, or any number of sex crimes.
- Declare a crisis. Claim pornography is more common than ever, due to the new technology of cheap paperbacks / storefront 16 mm theatres / 8 mm home movies / videotapes / phone sex lines / DVDs / the internet / mobile phones / high speed internet. Also claim it is more violent / explicit / depraved than ever before.
- Stress that this is a public health matter, not a moral or censorship issue. Pornography causes masturbation, homosexuality, communism, rape, aggression, passivity, premature sexual activity, delayed sexual activity, erectile dysfunction, cheating, loss of interest in sex, sex trafficking, prostitution, abortions, divorce, child abuse, suicide, nightmares, drug addition, racism, sexism, brain damage…
- Blame greed. Point out the massive profits of pornography producers, to make it clear that this is not about free expression or artistic desire.
- Fudge or fake data. Since pornography is never defined, it’s hard to verify if any claimed facts or conclusions are valid, but that does not stop them from getting made up and repeated. The massive profits reported in the 1960s originated in Citizens for Decent Literature‘s completely unsubstantiated claim that porn was a two billion dollar a year industry. More recently, in her book Pornland, Gail Dines lent her academic authority to the claim that porn is a thirteen billion dollar a year industry in the United States. Her source was a web page on an advertising website. There are no sources provided for the financial numbers, or any of the other shocking statistics on the page. The information is not just unsubstantiated, the source is biased: The company that maintains this page sells the internet filtering program Net Nanny. As another example of false data, many sources claim 300,000 children are sexually exploited in the United States, despite this figure being debunked. Claims about porn’s effects, contents, availability, viewing by children, and internet dominance have similarly been debunked.
If pornography is harmless, why are so many people devoted to stopping it? Notwithstanding the statements of some anti-pornography advocates, the primary concern is often old fashioned morality. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation, known on Facebook as Pornography Harms, was founded as a Catholic group, and until recently was known as Morality in Media. Anti-porn groups typically stress that they are not opposed to sexuality, but the sexuality they support tends to be straight, married, and limited to procreative vaginal intercourse (pulling out is not only poor birth control, it’s apparently inspired by porn). Anti-porn feminists have dismissed gay porn as simply substituting men in the women’s oppressed positions, and dismissed lesbian porn as simply a show for men, effectively denying these sexualities.
There’s also money in fighting pornography. The many non-profits that fight porn, including Gail Dines’ own Stop Porn Culture, all raise funds to pay their staff and raise more funds. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation‘s Finances page is a broken link. Citizens for Decent Literature collapsed when its founder, Charles Keating, was jailed for financial fraud. Women Against Pornography, which actively opposed sex shops in New York’s Times Square, received generous financial support from developers eager to see the businesses shut down, so that the properties could be purchased at low prices. When it comes to academics, current concerns about campus sexual assault and providing safe spaces for students make being an anti-porn academic a safe route to publications and tenure.
An old tactic for fighting pornography is to distribute it. Citizens for Decent Literature did this, and Stop Porn Culture continues the tradition, with several downloadable slide shows on their website [Update April 2019 – the site no longer available]. This is hypocritical for two reasons. First, it presumes that enlightened anti-porn viewers will be immune to the claimed harms of the images. This is reminiscent of old obscenity laws which were intended to protect the easily corrupted (i.e. women, children, servants, the poor, foreigners, etc.). Second, the examples allow viewers to indulge whatever interests they may have in the material, in a ‘respectable’ manner.
Anti-pornography advocates do raise some valid issues about the consumption of porn. What is often overlooked is that the issues raised are not unique to porn. For example, many films and television shows promote sexual violence. Most obscenity laws and anti-porn advocates are only concerned with this when there is explicit sexuality, but studies have shown that the degree of sexual explicitness has minimal impact on changes in attitudes. Studies have also shown that there is considerably more sexual violence in mainstream films than in pornography. In other words, if we are concerned about portrayals of sexual violence, we need to be looking at Hollywood, where most of it comes from. For the film review boards in Canada, extreme sexual violence is not a concern in widely seen mainstream films, but limited distribution porn films can be banned for simple coercion, even as mild as the ‘sex to pay for the pizza’ story line.
There are also valid issues about production. Defenders of pornography often note that performers participate of their own free will. Successful performers sometimes promote their work as a lifestyle choice. However, many other performers, such as the countless young people in the pro-am genre, make the choice due to economic necessity and limited employment options. Some producers encourage consumers to shop for ethical porn, which acknowledges the exploitative nature of parts of the industry. Rather than attack a symptom of dysfunctional economies, efforts to stop young people from being exploited for pornography should ensure they have other options.
Anti-pornography advocates have the advantage of a simple, strong argument: Porn is bad. People who defend pornography rely on more complex arguments. They call for considerations of cultural and media context, acknowledge social and production concerns, quote research studies, and struggle to balance sexual expression with freedom from offense. Pornography makes many people uncomfortable for various reasons, and makes a great scapegoat for social ills. Anti-porn advocates take full advantage of this to advance their own moral or financial interests. They have been making their claims of a public health crisis for more than fifty years, with false or fudged data, but there are still people happy to donate to the cause, in the vain hope that fighting pornography will make a better world.