Should internet porn be banned?

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An industry that should be banned for its harmful distortion of sex—or something we should look to reform? Our contributors debate

Yes
Because the practicalities of porn are so unpleasant, its defenders tend to resort to either broad free speech arguments or narrow technicalities about the impossibility of a ban. Porn, we are told, may be dismaying, but it is part of the great commonwealth of utterances that must be permitted in a democracy; and in any case, the internet renders censorship futile. Both may be true. Neither is relevant, however, because pornography is not an utterance. It is a video record of act. That act is exploitative, deeply misogynistic, profoundly racist, routinely abusive and, if consent means anything at all, largely coerced.

What is shown in porn is not simply sex. In pornography, women are “sluts” and “whores” to be “destroyed,” “forced” and “taught a lesson”—that is, deep-throated until they choke, slapped and roughly sodomised. Black men are fetishised as violent, black women as a hypersexualised stereotype, Asian women as a submissive parody, and white women as the privileged bitches against whom male rage can be justifiably unleashed. And what is recorded must be done. As the campaigner Kat Banyard has argued, the presence of a camera does not diminish the violence it captures, and nor does the fact that participants are paid. In fact, purchased consent is no consent.

It is inevitable that an industry whose product is misogynistic should have a misogynistic culture. Allegations of off-screen abuse mirror what is performed on-screen, while porn becomes both a tool of sexual harassment in schools and workplaces, and an inspiration for sexual violence. (The barrister Helena Kennedy points out that porn’s influence can be seen in rape cases: “It is increasingly rare for women not to be penetrated anally as well as vaginally and orally.”) The fact that porn provides men with orgasms does not redeem it. It should be treated as what it is: evidence of sexual violence. And it is on that basis—not as a form of “speech”—that the law should be equipped to take it on.

No
Leaving aside for the moment—as you have conveniently done—the practicalities and ramifications of banning porn outright, I want to focus on your claims that porn is “deeply misogynistic, profoundly racist, routinely abusive, and… coerced.”

To me this is like claiming that Hollywood is biased in favour of blue people because the highest grossing movie ever is Avatar, or suggesting that all food is unhealthy because supermarkets sell more Pringles than plums.

Yes, there are problems with the world’s most popular porn, but we can’t tar everyone with the same brush. It’s 2019, and if you think all women in porn are “roughly sodomised” and all minorities are “fetishised,” then I regret to inform you that you simply don’t know where to look.

Pink and White Productions is an adult entertainment company at the forefront of inclusive porn, depicting queer people, trans people, and people of colour. For over a decade, the erotic film director Erika Lust has been depicting women’s pleasure, and has three streaming platforms featuring ethical and diverse porn. Porn is also an educational tool, with actress Emma Watson a staunch supporter of OMGYes, a website that teaches people about female sexuality (10 points to Gryffindor!). Porn can be—and is—empowering.

Now on to the issue you dismissed, the practicalities of a ban. Who do you think would actually ban porn, and how? How would you like to define it—like Facebook, and delete Baroque Flemish nudes? Or would you follow Instagram, and censor the female nipple?

Even if you just wanted to ban the hardest stuff, porn isn’t conveniently located on sites featuring XXXs after WWWs. It’s all across social media, particularly Tumblr and Twitter. Do you want to give tech companies more unchecked powers? Or do you want to give the government an excuse to ban anything it labels vulgar?

Yes
You prefer to focus on the exceptions to the general truth that porn is bad, brutalising and exploitative. But the major consumers and producers of porn do not share your tastes. The video sites where most people—most of them men—access their preferred porn are dominated not by “ethical and diverse” feminist clips, but by the kind of material you would rather not talk about. And because the production and distribution of porn are controlled by the same companies, “empowerment” is a far reach for performers, who are pressed by the logic of a market where a few employers hold all the cards into more extreme acts for less money.

The promise that porn can be “good” has been made repeatedly, and repeatedly found hollow. In the 1970s, Linda Lovelace was made a star by Deep Throat. She later stated that she had been forced into porn by her violent husband (who she said also took her earnings). In the 2000s, the Suicide Girls site sold a feminist spin on porn; models charged the male co-founder with exploitative practices. Most recently, James Deen (star of films such as Stockholm Syndrome) lost his position as the pretty-boy face of feminist porn after allegations of sexual assault. He denies these claims and continues to work in the industry.

Pornography has shown itself to be adept at absorbing the language of consent—for example, through “exit interviews,” in which performers affirm that everything the viewer just watched was freely and pleasurably engaged in. Performers have reported being pressured to engage in these, even when the scenes have crossed their own red lines. This, is the true measure of porn. As I suggested in my opener, curbing the damage of porn requires a legal approach focused on harm rather than obscenity. It is not a simple proposition, but it should not be answered with a simplistic version of what porn is.

No
I’m not going to disagree with you that there are huge problems in the porn industry as it stands, but it baffles me how a ban could possibly solve any of these. Measuring harm over obscenity is an intelligent approach, but then is your suggestion not simply “ban crimes”? Rape, coercion, and sexual assault are all already illegal; we must better enforce these existing laws within the porn industry. The answer is not to make porn in itself a crime too.

Instead, porn needs greater regulation. Banning porn wouldn’t stop it existing. Instead performers would be driven into even less safe conditions than they face now. The decriminalisation of sex work in New Zealand in 2003 has shown us how sex workers are safer when protected, not penalised, by the law. Two years after the nation’s Prostitution Reform Act, an independent review showed 64 per cent of sex workers found it easier to refuse clients, and 90 per cent felt they now had legal health and safety rights.

A ban wouldn’t help performers, nor would harm to the consumer disappear. Teenagers will always find and share porn—if they went to the trouble of hiding magazines in the woods for each other in the 1980s, they’ll have no trouble torrenting and seeding it now. Instead, a ban would make looking at pornography a shameful sexual act, damaging young people further.

How could anyone hope to learn about the problems with (some) porn in such a puritanical environment? Whose life would actually improve? Instead, schools should be open about the dangers of mainstream porn. They should educate people about why it can be harmful, what it gets wrong, and—ouch!—why nobody wants you to touch them like that.

Yes
It’s curious that you name New Zealand’s decriminalised prostitution industry as something to emulate, while acknowledging that the pornography industry as it currently—legally—exists is riddled with horrors. If liberalisation is the cure for all ills, porn should already be free from them. Perhaps the benefits of a permissive attitude to exploiting women have been overstated: since decriminalisation in New Zealand, at least four women in prostitution have been killed by a pimp or punter. In Sweden, where the sale of sex is legal but the purchase is criminalised, that figure is zero.

There are two potential anti-porn legal mechanisms. One is the civil rights approach drafted by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon in the 1980s, which would allow those harmed by pornography to sue for damages. This could mean, for example, that if a girl is sexually harassed in school and her harassers used porn directly in the harassment, she could seek compensation from the publishers: it would make pornographers responsible for the negative externalities of their product. The other, as proposed by Banyard, involves adopting a Swedish-style law—the Nordic model—and treating the creation of pornography as prostitution, and therefore as violence against women.

Perhaps these would not work. Perhaps you disagree that paying women to be penetrated in ways they would otherwise refuse is violence. Perhaps there are better options not yet considered. But we should be considering them.

The experiment of mass pornography has been tried, and it has failed. Pornography has been implicated in grotesque femicides, such as the murders of Georgia Williams and Becky Watts. The normalisation of its aesthetic brought us disgraced fashion photographer Terry Richardson, whose artful images of sexual degradation, models allege, were simply a record of him sexually degrading them.

The porn industry is neither essential nor inevitable, and it exerts a brutalising force on women as a whole and on sex in general. After #MeToo, it’s not enough for its defenders to say that nothing can be done.

No
We do not live in a utopia. It’s simply silly to claim anyone can propose a system “free from horrors,” but we must champion the most effective solution. It is possible to note problems with existing laws and suggest reforming them, without reneging on them.

It doesn’t surprise me that one of your proposals is from the 1980s (as though the world, and porn itself, hasn’t changed drastically) and nor is it surprising that your second solution treats all pornography as violence, removing, yet again, the agency of the stars themselves.

You seem to find it alien that any porn star could choose, or enjoy, their work. You refer to the tragic case of Lovelace while ignoring that she felt “used” by the anti-pornography movement, stating that Dworkin “made a few bucks off me, just like everybody else.” If you truly cared about the plight of porn stars, surely your ideas should be informed by them?

Anna Arrowsmith, the UK’s first female porn director and a lecturer in gender studies considers the Digital Economy Act’s proposed porn age verification rules—due in April 2018, but delayed—“censorship.” Speaking to Time in August, she noted: “The porn industry is sexist, but the main way to deal with that is to get more women… in there. As soon as any legal or financial block comes in your way, you’re going to be the one that goes first.”

As for porn and violence, no study has proved a causal link, and access to pornography has coincided with a plummeting number of sex crimes in Japan, China, and Denmark. Unlike you, I am wary of inferring general causation from particular anecdotes here, but instead note that it’s complicated. When it comes to the problems with porn, our response needs to be proportional—not panicked.

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