19 July

Reasons to Hope in the Pornography Debate

The availability of pornography is nothing new, but reasons for prohibition need to be re-articulated, and sometimes re-discovered, as one generation succeeds another and re-evaluates what it has received of legislation and social mores from the past. There is no doubt that a certain public acceptance of pornography has grown significantly over the last twenty years or so, hand-in-hand with greater acceptance of a plethora of sexual tastes or ‘preferences’. It is refreshing that there are at present at least a couple of campaigns for ending the public availability of pornographic images: Lose the Lads Mags and No More Page 3.

For obvious reasons sexuality will always be a deeply personal matter, and it is unsurprising that arguments around the subject can become  impassioned. No-one wants to feel that his or her own ‘preference’ is wrong, or thought wrong by others.

Since no public policy argument can be made on the basis of such private, indeed intimate, kinds of preference, arguments for public acceptance and availability of pornography are routinely based on freedom of speech, and on the free consent of those involved in making the images.

On the surface this argument might appear plausible, and must have done so to quite a number of people given the ubiquity of indecent images on news-stands. But the vision of freedom relied on here is at best patchy, and not up to serious scrutiny.

Judicious censorship has played its part in support of the common good for as long as pornography has been around. Even in our liberal times it could hardly be argued that a magazine that offered prominent images of people from ethnic minorities being trussed up in chains and whipped on sugar plantations should be acceptable, regardless of whether or not those so pictured had given free and informed consent. Such publications are rightly to be censored for fear of offering any public support for something the vast majority abominates.

Without playing down their seriousness the evils of pornography are rarely as obvious as those of slavery. It is tempting here perhaps to play off ‘market forces’ against ‘public outcry’, using a numbers game to resolve an issue of freedom of speech vs. human dignity — as if these two values could ever be in competition. But appeals to surveys of moral concerns about ‘sexualisation’, and the financial viability of soft porn magazines, can be of only very limited use in the resolution of questions about inalienable rights and the common good.

It is increasingly apparent that widespread availability of pornographic materials, in print and online, is distorting the views young people, girls as well as boys, have of sexuality. Pornography becomes just another fact about sex, rather than something they can choose or refuse, and a recent report for the Department of Education has described sexualised imagery as ‘wallpaper’ for children’s lives today.

Just as each individual should takes his or her own sexuality seriously, so too as a society should we take seriously the formation of the young in sexual matters. While many adults may seem happy to junk perennial mores regarding sexuality, concern is growing that such a laissez-faire attitude is in fact only negligence dressed up as tolerance, and that appeals to freedom of speech here are as irresponsible as they are ill-judged. Where the health of society is endangered by widespread availability of pornography, objections to censorship are manifestly invalid, undermining as they do the common good. In this instance they support a vision of sexuality that not only exploits (usually) women but is also promoting utterly dysfunctional social mores.


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