Porn doesn’t lead to rape culture

Porn often gets the blame for violence against women. Flickr/Duncan

Communication Minister Stephen Conroy’s recent decision not to impose a mandatory internet filter on sexually explicit content is a welcome injection of realism into the frequently febrile discussion of how to manage public access to online pornography.

With the key exception of child pornography, which should continue to be pursued with all the force of the law, sexually graphic online content will not now be blocked by a committee of faceless censors armed with a secret list of sites they consider offensive. The conclusions of the Law Reform Commission classification review have been taken on board.

This outbreak of good sense is partly to do with the difficulty of enforcement in a globalised media culture that respects no state borders and in which the internet interprets censorship as attack and simply reroutes around it. Banning things doesn’t really work anymore, even in countries such as China and Iran, where the authorities continue to try to police the bedrooms and sexual habits of their subjects, and look increasingly out of touch as a result. As Katrien Jacobs’ recent book, People’s Pornography, points out, China is awash with sexually explicit images, and there is very little the Party can do about it.

Conroy’s decision also reflects a sense that the notion of ‘community standards’ which has traditionally shaped legislation on porn and obscenity is problematic in a world of diverse sexual lifestyles and tastes. There are a plurality of life style communities living alongside each other in our towns and cities, and what offends one group might well delight another, especially when it comes to sexual consumerism. In that context, the decision on whose standards come to prevail over society as a whole should not be one for civil servants or self-appointed moral guardians. The days when a lawyer could appeal to an English jury to ban Lady Chattersley’s Lover because it was not something one would wish “one’s wife or servants to read” are long gone. In 2012 one’s wife is very likely to be engrossed in 50 Shades Of Grey, thank you very much.

These trends are evident not just to the government, but a wide cross section of opinion in Australian society. The opposition to mandatory filtering thus transcended party affiliations, and Conroy’s decision has been widely welcomed.

In addition to these big picture considerations, however, there is another set of reasons why Mr Conroy made the right decision.

Legislation to ban, restrict or censor pornography is almost always premised on its perceived negative effects, which cover the range from incitement to violence against women to family break up and sex addiction. The famous feminist dictum that “pornography is the theory, rape is the practice” continues to underpin anti-porn beliefs, while US author Robert Jensen writes with all seriousness in a recent essay that “pornography is what the end of the world looks like”. Pornography is blamed for misogyny, and for promoting a “rape culture”, amongst myriad other ills. And yet, on almost every indicator, the evidence on social and sexual trends in liberal capitalist societies where pornography is relatively accessible shows the opposite of what such claims would predict.

In societies such as the US and the UK, for example, the recorded incidence of violence against women has been falling for decades and is at historically low rates. This is true of most violent crime, as Steven Pinker’s recent study of violence in human society shows, but since rape and other forms of violence against women are often presented as a by-product of pornography’s spread since the 1960s, the fact that they are in decline in the most sexually liberal societies is especially notable.

In relation to sexual ethics and moral values, often presented as an example of pornography’s pernicious influence on men, the evidence is similarly counter-intuitive. Surveys such as the British Social Attitudes Survey consistently show that men’s support for the proposition that women are their equals in every sphere of life – the domestic environment, the workplace, the bedroom - has never been higher. Core feminist ideas have become mainstream in a matter of three or four decades. While there is no doubt still much for feminism and the women’s movement to do in reforming the patriarchy, the scale and pace of progress has been remarkable, notwithstanding the “pornographication” of mainstream culture which has occurred.

US politician Todd Akin lost votes for claiming women couldn’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape”. United States Congress

Now, pornography can’t be given the credit for feminism’s success in changing the way we think as societies about female sexuality and the role of women. But nor can it credibly be argued that the spread of pornography has made sexism, misogyny or violence against women worse. In women’s rights, as in gay rights, our liberal, sexualised cultures have progressed in leaps and bounds, a fact confirmed by the recent US election which saw the sexual reactionaries and the “legitimate rape” brigade convincingly defeated.

Not only has the expansion and growing accessibility of pornography not been bad for us in the ways often claimed by its opponents, it has been good for many people. For decades before gay men and women could identify themselves and practice their sexualities without fear of harassment and worse, pornography served as an outlet for the expression of sexual identity, and a means of accessing sexual pleasure.

Today, gay porn and porn-for-women are major sub-sectors of the porn industry, reflecting hard-fought sexual citizenship rights. Women, it turns out, having won key arguments in the struggle for social and political equality, have increasingly sought access to porn and other forms of sexual culture once available only to men. As British author Caitlin Moran puts it in her bestselling How To Be A Woman:

Pornography isn’t the problem. It’s the porn industry that’s the problem. What women need to do is effect a 100% increase in the variety of pornography available to us.

Porn has been a source of safe sex education in the era of HIV and AIDS, and an instrument of political struggle in China and other authoritarian countries, its use a gesture of defiance and a symbol of freedom. For those who might harbour unusual sexual tastes and preferences, or where a disability or other condition limits sexual relationships, pornography can provide a key point of access to the sexual stimulation human beings instinctively seek.

Pornography has its positive uses and gratifications, in short, where its users increasingly include men and women, gay, straight and everything in between and beyond those categories.

Pornography reflects the society that produces it, we might say, as opposed to creating a society in its own image. All of human sexuality is represented there, for better or worse. Education and regulation have a role to play in enabling adults to navigate this environment, and parents to protect their children from inappropriate exposure. Like internet trolling and other forms of hate speech, giving people the tools to self-censor is what we need, not state censors dictating what the rest of us can watch in the privacy of our own homes.

Brian McNair is the author of Porno? Chic! How pornography changed the world and made it a better place.