The pornography debate is not new, but it’s surprisingly far from resolved. Some defend pornography, saying that critics overreact and that porn may act as an outlet for aggression. Others, however, say pornography can ruin relationships, is immoral, and perpetuates sexism, on top of any religious objections. Here are some of the highlights of the debate from the past few years:

  • Porn ruins relationships  An anonymous writer for the National Review blames porn for the “impression that aberrant sexual practices are more common than they really are, and that promiscuous behavior is normal.” She says her husband “became involved with … an unemployed alcoholic with all the physical qualities of a porn star – bleached blond hair, heavy makeup, provocative clothing, and large breasts … In retrospect, I believe he succumbed to the allure of the secret fantasy life he had been indulging since his adolescence.” She cites several studies showing porn altering behavior.
  • ‘Deadens Our Erotic Senses’  That’s the way Will at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen puts it, linking to a Naomi Wolf article on the topic. Wolff argues at New York Magazine that “today, real naked women are just bad porn.” In a sexual arms race, “simple lovemaking” and nakedness are no longer sufficient (Marnia Robinson at The Huffington Post seems to agree, looking at the possibility that porn’s deadening effect actually causes erectile dysfunction.) Wolf shakes her head at today’s young women – tanning and waxing and struggling to offer increasingly kinky experiences to their partners.

Does all this sexual imagery in the air mean that sex has been liberated – or is it the case that the relationship between the multi-billion-dollar porn industry, compulsiveness, and sexual appetite has become like the relationship between agribusiness, processed foods, supersize portions, and obesity? If your appetite is stimulated and fed by poor-quality material, it takes more junk to fill you up.

  • Akin to Adultery  That was Ross Douthat’s controversial argument in The Atlantic back in 2008. He says society needs to stop looking at pornography as a harmless substitute for actual infidelity; infidelity should be approached as a “continuum of betrayal,” with porn use somewhere on it- it’s still a private sexual experience (an increasingly custom-tailored and “realistic” one, Douthat argues) with someone other than one’s partner. It’s prostitution through a screen, he contends.
  • Sexist, Exploitative  At Taki’s Magazine, Gavin McInnes says those performing for the camera do so at a cost. He also thinks the “odds of [a porn star] having been sexually abused as a child are about 99.99 percent.” At The Huffington Post, Vivian Norris de Montaigu tells of watching teen mothers turning to stripping and prostitution through desperation.
  • Akin to Adultery? Give Me a Break  There’s a big difference between a man watching porn and actually cheating on his partner, argues Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon. The former is masturbation with a visual aid, and the second is cheating. “If you think of women as human beings whose level of participation in an event matters, this is pretty obvious.” The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait responds to Ross Douthat’s “continuum of betrayal” notion: “pocketing a quarter that Ross inadvertently left in the soda machine would be on a moral continuum with stealing his car”- that doesn’t make the two remotely equivalent.
  • Julian Sanchez is likewise unconvinced by Douthat: There’s no good reason, once we’re in crimes-of-the-mind territory, to stop with hardcore porn. Ogling a scantily-clad Angelina Jolie in a mainstream film, after all, is a way of getting a certain species of sexual “gratification” from someone other than your partner, whether or not there’s an orgasm involved.
  • Porn Might Actually Make Society Better  Reason’s Peter Suderman points to studies suggesting “pornography and violent entertainment might serve as exhaust valves for our aggressive impulses – sexual violence appears to go down as access to porn goes up.

Various groups have considered porn immoral, addictive, and noxious, attempting to have them suppressed under obscenity laws, with varying degrees of success. Such works have also often been subject to censorship; as a proponent of free speech, I actively argue against that. I recognise the irony of an asexual adult arguing in favour of a form of entertainment that he has no interest in himself, but so many people get their – aha – knickers in a twist over a form of entertainment that, as long as the participants are consenting adults, then I don’t see the problem. It’s not the thin end of the wedge to anything – it doesn’t automatically lead to prostitution, promiscuity, or depersonalisation, but it should form part of a healthy discussion around sex which means that none of those things have much chance of taking hold.

Social attitudes towards the discussion and presentation of sexuality have become more tolerant over the past fifty years or so and, thankfully, legal definitions of obscenity have become more limited, notably beginning in 1969 with Blue Movie by Andy Warhol, the first adult erotic film depicting explicit sex to receive wide theatrical release in the United States, and the subsequent Golden Age of Porn. Did you realise there was such a thing? No, I didn’t either. Still, there was, and it lead to an industry for the production and consumption of pornography in the latter half of the 20th century. The introduction of home video and the internet saw a boom in the worldwide porn industry that generates billions of dollars annually. Commercial pornography accounts for over US$2.5 billion in the United States alone. The industry employs thousands of performers along with support and production staff. It’s also followed by dedicated industry publications and trade groups as well as the mainstream press, private organizations (watchdog groups), government agencies, and political organizations. More recently, sites such as Pornhub, RedTube, and YouPorn have served as repositories for home-made or semi-professional pornography, made available free by its creators (who could be called exhibitionists). It has presented a significant challenge to the commercial pornographic film industry.

Irrespective of the legal or social view of pornography, it has been used in a number of contexts. It is used, for example, at fertility clinics to stimulate sperm donors. Some couples use pornography at times for variety and to create a sexual interest or as part of foreplay. There is also some evidence that pornography can be used to treat voyeurism.

Sexual imagery is older than civilisation; depictions such as the venus figurines and rock art have existed since prehistoric times. When large-scale excavations of Pompeii happened in the 1860s, much of the erotic art of the Romans came to light, shocking the Victorians – who saw themselves as the intellectual heirs of the Roman Empire. They didn’t know what to do with the frank depictions of sexuality, and endeavored to hide them away from everyone but upper-class scholars. The moveable objects were locked away in the Secret Museum in Naples, and what could not be removed was covered and cordoned off as to not corrupt the sensibilities of women, children, and the working classes.

Fanny Hill (1748) is considered “the first original English prose pornography, and the first pornography to use the form of the novel.” The erotic novel was written by John Cleland and and first published in England as Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. It is one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history. The authors were charged with “corrupting the King’s subjects.”

The world’s first law criminalising pornography was the Obscene Publications Act 1857 enacted at the urging of the English Society for the Suppression of Vice. The Act, which applied to the United Kingdom and Ireland, made the sale of obscene material a statutory offence, giving the courts power to seize and destroy offending material. The American equivalent was the Comstock Act of 1873, which made it illegal to send any “obscene, lewd, and / or lascivious” materials through the mail. However, neither the English nor the United States acts defined what constituted “obscene”, leaving this for the courts to determine. Although nineteenth-century legislation eventually outlawed the publication, retail, and trafficking of certain writings and images regarded as pornographic, and would order the destruction of shop and warehouse stock meant for sale, the private possession of, and viewing of, pornography was not made an offence until the twentieth century.

I was fascinated to learn that pornography encompasses a wide variety of genres. It can be classified according to the physical characteristics of the participants, or their fetishes, sexual orientation, etc., as well as the types of sexual activity featured. Reality and voyeur pornography, animated videos, and legally prohibited acts also influence the classification of pornography.

A random fact for you; more than 70% of male internet users from 18 to 34 visit a pornographic site in a typical month. Did the same thought occur to you as it did to me? Are 30% of men either lying, asexual, or just not interested? Who knows.

Some people, including pornography producer Larry Flynt and the writer Salman Rushdie, have argued that pornography is vital to freedom, and that a free and civilised society should be judged by its willingness to accept pornography. I couldn’t agree with them more.

Pornography can infringe basic human rights of those involved, especially when consent wasn’t obtained. For example, revenge porn is where disgruntled sexual partners release images or video footage of intimate sexual activity, usually on the internet. In many countries there has been a demand to make such activities specifically illegal, carrying higher punishments than mere breach of privacy or image rights.

Many feminists argue that all pornography is demeaning to women or that it contributes to violence against women. They argue that pornography presents a severely distorted image of sexual relations, and reinforces sex myths; that it always shows women as readily available and desiring to engage in sex at any time, with any man, on men’s terms, and always responding positively to any advances men make. They argue that because pornography often shows women enjoying and desiring to be violently attacked by men, saying “no” when they actually want sex, fighting back but then ending up enjoying the act – this can affect the public understanding of legal issues such as consent to sexual relations.

In contrast to these objections, other feminist scholars argue that the lesbian feminist movement in the 1980s was good for women in the porn industry. As more women entered the developmental side of the industry, this allowed women to gear porn more towards women because they knew what women wanted.

On the religious front, I was interested to see that there’s no direct prohibition of pornography in the Bible. Many Christians base their views on pornography on Matthew 5:27–28 (part of the Expounding of the Law): “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

Jerry Falwell has criticised pornography, saying sex is reserved for heterosexual married couples, to be used only in accordance with God’s will (more specifically, to both solidify the emotional bonds between the man and his lawfully wedded wife, and to help propagate the human race).

Pornography is directly opposed to the very heart of Islamic teachings; Sharia emphasises the guarding of one’s private parts, instructs lowering of gazes, and recommends the maintaining of modesty. It’s seen as a fundamentally destructive force to eradicate from one’s life and from society. Which just goes to show that people tie themselves up into knots as a result of religion.

Pornography does nothing for me, but it does a lot for many people. Effective discussions around sexuality and good sexual health means that there’s a place for a discussion around pornography as well. If we are going to acknowledge that pornography will always exist, and that we have a responsibility to making sure that we see others as having sexual rights over their own bodies, then pornography can be a healthy outlet.

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