Those familiar with the state of anti-porn argument will know it’s pretty comparable with anti-climate change argument: very little in the way of evidence, but plenty in the way of noise, indignation, conspiracy theory and “it stands to reason”-type arguments.
The foundation of today’s anti-porn rhetoric was laid by Catharine Mackinnon and Andrea Dworkin (“the Macdworkinites”) in the 1980s, and the arguments appear not to have evolved greatly in the intervening decades; today’s anti-porn feminism lacks the flair and (evil) genius of the Macdworkinites. For this reason, it’s increasingly easy to demolish claims of harm caused by pornography; the problem is that the media is still largely in the sway of the “OMG what about the children?!” brigade. It’s for this reason that I founded Sex & Censorship: to present evidence-based argument against the combined religious/feminist weight of porn panic.
University debates are a rare opportunity to be heard equally in a fair environment (rather than the 90 seconds of shouting allowed by the news media), and I take every opportunity to participate in these (contact me if you’d like me to debate or speak at your university or college). I therefore seized yesterday’s opportunity to debate the radical feminist Julie Bindel with glee.
Things warmed up on the day before the debate, with the publication of an article in the student newspaper that managed to disparage both myself and Bindel at once, referring to her as a homophobe and transphobe, while I was simply branded a “multi-millionaire”. Sadly (for me), this claim wasn’t true, but even if it had been, I failed to see the relevance in this context: surely “sexual freedom advocate”, “free speech activist” or even just “blogger” would have been more useful.
So when I met Bindel on the train to Colchester, we were able to find some common cause, and jokingly speculate about which one of us might be more protested-against: her, the transphobe; or me, the spokesman for patriarchal oppression.
The debate took place in a packed lecture theatre; Bindel had been scheduled to speak first, but the chair asked if we could switch places, for fear that protesters would shout her down and end the session early.
In my introduction, I made mention of the importance of free speech on university campuses, including (in fact, especially) speech that we might consider offensive or otherwise unpleasant. Universities are supposed to be hubs of free thought, but there is a disturbing, and rising, trend among student unions to shut down “bad” speech, from bans on the Sun newspaper, to closing down a rugby club for speech crimes, to multiple bans on Bindel herself.
I then took a statement from a piece Bindel had written about pornography, and set out to demonstrate that it is not backed by solid evidence; indeed, it runs counter to the known evidence:
There is … a direct link between violence against women and pornography
I made the following points:
- The term “pornography” tends to refer to all sexual/erotic imagery, so that arguments deployed against porn are then used to attack Page 3, music videos and other media that most people wouldn’t consider pornographic.
- To claim that large numbers of women are abused by the porn industry, without being able to point to any actual arrests or prosecutions is strange indeed. Where are the victims that anti-porn campaigners so often talk about?
- Why are only women (supposedly) harmed by sexual expression, and not men? This seems to perpetuate the old fashioned view that sex is something men do to women, rather than something both men and women can enjoy.
- The sexual objectification concept – the curiously vague idea that men who view sexual imagery become more dangerous towards women – is backed by no statistical evidence. To the contrary, the availability of porn widely correlates with a declines in sexual violence.
- Why does “objectification” only seem to work in sexual contexts? Why can men see a woman run a marathon but not assume that all women must be marathon runners?
- To blame porn for sexual violence is to remove blame from rapists.
- Although the porn industry is often painted as a male-dominated one, there are many female, and feminist, porn directors.
- Nobody could judge whether “women are demeaned by porn”, except for pornstars themselves; I then read a series of statements from pornstars in answer to the question “Do you find working in porn to be demeaning?” – they all answered no, of course.
Short on time (I actually overran the 15 minutes allowed), I had little opportunity to go through much of the evidence; but I pointed out that the UK government (via Ofcom) has conducted its own research into whether porn is harmful, and could find no evidence of harm. It also polled 20 other European governments about their own research into whether porn might harm under-age viewers, and stated:
No country found evidence that sexually explicit material harms children
Despite this, the government has introduced various censorship laws and regulations, just in case…
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Julie Bindel’s contribution (thankfully not shouted down by protesters) was packed with familiar claims and anecdotes, many obviously drawn from her campaigning colleague Gail Dines, and the UK anti-sex group Object. Various scare words and stories were dredged up; the term “porn baron” was thrown around, and links between the porn industry and organised crime were hinted at, but not backed with evidence. Choosing an ad hominem attack, she suggested that I currently make a living from the porn industry (actually, I closed my website business in 2012).
Although there was no formal vote at the end of the session, the chairman asked for a show of hands partway through on the question of whether pornography should be banned; no more than half a dozen, of an audience of perhaps 150, raised their hands. I hope that my contribution had made many change their minds.
But perhaps the culture is simply changing. Maybe young people, having grown up with the Internet and pornography, no longer fear sexual expression, and cannot easily be persuaded to. This would be good news indeed!