We were surprised* to turn on BBC2’s Newsnight on Wednesday and be plunged into a debate about pornography. We shuddered as Jeremy Paxman rolled his tongue around the word ‘masturbation’. This followed a debate on Radio 4’s Moral Maze, where phrases rarely heard on radio were uttered by Michael Buerk, Claire Fox, Melanie Phillips, Matthew Taylor and Giles Fraser. The debate is both uncomfortable for many and complex for a free society.
The cynical may see the BBC’s recent interest in pornography as an attempt to drive ratings. Others may question the timing during an emerging crisis in Egypt. Nevertheless, it is good that the issue is being discussed, rather than ignored.
Adult entertainment, pornography’s more polite euphemism, has long been a ‘sin stock’ and excluded from ethical investment funds. Funds that have their origins in abolitionism, temperance and abstinence aren’t easy bedfellows with slavery, alcohol and sex (specifically, filmed sex). It may seem old-fashioned or prudish to many, but some human activities can cause harm and need banning, regulating and monitoring.
The debate on whether you should film or photograph sex acts, and then distribute them widely, comes with greater challenges: most critically, the participants’ consent and who is looking.
Very few people today see anything wrong with sex between two (or more, in some cases) consenting adults. Some organised religions, but by no means all of their adherents, take exception to extramarital or group sex and/or homosexuality – but seem quite happy to support payday lending firms, planet-wrecking fossil fuel giants and companies with opaque human rights practices.
Stigmatising pornography as a social ill by religious leaders seems odd when some organised religions’ oppression of women, victimisation of homosexuals, abuse of children and the encouragement of shame for natural sexual urges has surely done more harm overall to society than pornography.
Throw in the incredible wealth accumulation, too frequent unethical investment, financial scandals, sectarian battles, bloody crusades, repeated pogroms, implicit racism, hypocrisy, anti-science and the general lack of hierarchical equality, and you might feel organised and established religions across the world have more significant issues that are closer to home.
The word ‘pornography’ comes from ancient obscene paintings in temples of Bacchus, the god of wine, ritual madness and ecstasy. Pornography literally means ‘depicting prostitutes’ (‘porne’ means ‘bought or sold, relating to female slaves’ and ‘graphy’ means ‘to write’).
Since internet porn became more mainstream in the noughties (or naughties), 4% of all sites and 13% of web searches are porn-related, according to Forbes. Perhaps surprisingly, 30% of all users are women. It seems the ‘Private Shop’ was a barrier to using porn for women and the internet has taken that away. There is evidence that adult channels at hotels always had a high usage by women when they were watching in the privacy of a room.
There is also no scientific evidence that watching porn increases violence against women. Comparing the declining or stable levels of violence against women, albeit it always too high, in countries that permit pornography and endemic violence against women in countries or regions that prohibit it, it is clear the link is not causal. While there are harrowing and truly appalling tales of people being forced to act out pornographic acts, this is always in the context of an abusive relationship. Pornography may be another symptom, rather than the cause or exacerbating circumstance.
The two core issues are clear and they are: explicit participant consent and always protecting those who are watching, especially if they are minors.
It is impossible to know in any online video or magazine whether the people involved have consented to what is being done to them or what they are doing. You do not know if they have been sex trafficked or are being abused off camera. It is almost impossible to know the age of the participants.
Certification and monitoring of the industry should be extremely tight and sanctions against any transgressors exemplary and harsh.
Children and young adults clearly need to be protected from violence and misinformation about sexual relationships. This applies as much to those who argue some sex is a sin, to those who argue anything goes. Parents, teachers, internet service providers and the government all bear a heavy responsibility to ensure that what our children are watching is age appropriate and in the context of comprehensive, accurate sex education.
Advertisers, the media and their regulators also carry significant responsibility in sexualising children and objectifying people, often men but especially women.
Finally, while national newspapers such as the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express like to whip up a moral panic about pornography, they themselves are often purveyors of soft and hard porn (the Sun’s page 3, the Mail online’s right-hand column of shame and Express owner Desmond’s ‘other’ interests). They should probably put their own houses in order before judging others.
Pornography remains an area for divestment for many ethical investors with strong and genuinely held beliefs and values. An informed divestment choice should always be welcomed. Abuse, sex trafficking and shielding children concerns us all, probably more than it does. We respect those opinions but would take a more liberal view as long as conditions of consent and protection are satisfactorily addressed. It is open for debate if they ever can be. For us, there are far greater economic, social and environmental ills that need excluding.