While pornography can be dehumanising and exploitative, it can also be
educative, liberating, empowering, fulfilling and immensely socially beneficial. It all depends on how it is made, who makes it, what it depicts and why it is being used.
The puritanical rightwing feminist claim that porn is always anti-women is simplistic, untrue, insensitive, uncaring and, dare l say it, sometimes misogynistic and homophobic. Using sexually explicit imagery can be egalitarian, health promoting, emotionally fulfilling and life saving.
Critics say that porn is exploitative and degrading. Aren't most jobs? Are people working in the porn industry more exploited than those working in mind-numbing, routine, dead end, low paid employment? Most skin flick actors get paid a damn sight better than the minions at MacDonalds.
Sexually explicit imagery that involves participants who have been coerced, pressured, manipulated, trafficked or blackmailed into taking part is obviously wrong, as is imagery that involves children or actors who have been forced into non-consensual acts of violence or humiliation. These forms of porn include unwilling actors who have not given their free and informed consent, and who suffer harm. This porn should be banned and criminalised.
Natural, healthy and lawful
Outlawing other visual depictions of sex - even very explicit depictions - is highly problematic and ethically dubious. After all, since consensual adult sex acts are entirely natural, healthy and lawful, why should images of these acts be criminal offences? Criminalising such pornography is neither necessary nor justified.
There are some grey areas that I feel uncomfortable about, such porn videos produced by consenting participants, which nevertheless show images of extreme sexual violence and degradation. But the censorship of these images involves inherent problems: how do you define degradation and who decides? While some porn is degrading, not all of it is. Do we believe that the state, and often-elderly conservative judges, are the appropriate and reasonable arbiters of such matters?
The main problem is that there is no agreed consensus on what constitutes a degrading, exploiting or humiliating image. Opinions differ widely. Even if a definition could be generally agreed, it would be very difficult - if not impossible - to set out in law and interpret uniformly in practice.
Legislation in this area is likely to throw up more problems than solutions. In Canada, one of the first prosecutions under that country's tighter anti-porn laws was a consensual lesbian SM publication. Here, in the UK, our anti-porn laws were used successfully in the 1980s to prevent explicit safer sex advice to combat HIV.
Even in the case of depictions of sexual violence and degradation, much of it involves consensual SM fantasy and role-play, where two or more adults commit sexual acts with mutual agreement and where no one experiences any lasting physical harm.
Criminalising such behaviour violates the right to privacy, individual liberty and personal autonomy. To deny mutually consenting adults the right to personal private space, and the right to make decisions about their own bodies, has more than a whiff of authoritarianism. For these reasons, abusive images produced by consenting participants who act out extreme SM fantasies should not be banned; although there may be a case for discouraging and campaigning against them on the grounds that a minority of disordered people might be unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality and may come to view such abuse as normal and valid - to the detriment of their partners.
Any opposition to consensual sexual violence and humiliation is based on many ifs and maybes and it seems unfair to penalise the majority of mature, responsible SM lovers on the grounds of what an aberrant minority of viewers of this extreme imagery might do subsequently.
Emulation in real life
Critics say that abusive pornography encourages emulation in real life. Apart from a handful of disputed individual cases, this claim is not supported by empirical evidence. There is no research to show that that degrading porn generally or significantly causes copycat behaviour. While it may reflect the desires of a tiny number of disordered people, it does not create these desires.
Some defenders of oppressive sex imagery suggest that it might sometimes act as a 'safety valve' for the small minority of people who do harbour violent and abusive sexual fantasies. If this is true, and I suspect that it may be true in some cases, then extreme porn could provide a non-harmful outlet and have a positive social value, in that it helps reduce real-life sexual violence and abuse.
Even if a connection were established between porn and a few cases of actual sexual abuse, this would not justify a ban. We cannot legislate for the whole of society on the basis of what a tiny, dysfunctional minority might do. Otherwise, we would ban cars on the grounds that some people drive recklessly, cause accidents and kill people.
Protecting the participants
The real problematic issue with pornography is the way many women (and
some men) are forced into the sex industry via trafficking, imprisonment, blackmail or pimping. We need a more concerted effort to free and support these genuine victims, and to help them to secure alternative training, employment and income.
Some critics argue that banning porn is the best way to protect the often abused and involuntary participants. This seemingly plausible argument does not stand up. Although sex imagery is illegal in many parts of the world, it still exists as a worldwide phenomenon. Participants are still coerced and degraded. The producers ignore the law. The law can't and won't stamp out porn or the abuse it often involves.
Gay porn is different
There is an important distinction between gay and straight porn. Most women in the sex industry are not there by genuine choice. Many are pressured and threatened by pimps, traffickers and racketeers. Others turn to porn because of debt and financial problems. They use the money to pay the rent or to fund a drug habit. Very few women are involved because they really enjoy doing porno shoots. Moreover, the straight porn industry is controlled by men who produce images, often quite degrading images, to satisfy male fantasies. This porn reflects and reinforces the undesirable and unequal power relationships between men and women in our society.
Lesbian and gay sex imagery is usually quite different. It can be sordid, abusive and driven by financial greed or need, but often the scenarios between the actors are more egalitarian and they enjoy what they are doing. Even where money considerations are the main motive, many of the participants are using porn to fund an empowering goal like financing a college education, buying a house or paying for holidays.
Regardless of whether porno images are same-sex or opposite sex, there is a strong case for making consensual adult porn more legal and open, in order to break the links between the sex industry and organised crime, and to reduce the exploitation and abuse of the participants.
Criminalising porn only drives it underground - making it harder to monitor and more difficult to rescue its victims. If porn is made criminal, it will discourage participants who have witnessed serious abuses, such as the use of under-age models or the trafficking of models, from coming forward and contacting the police.
Legalisation, the other hand, is likely to create more spaces and opportunities for the production of independent, do-it-yourself and alternative sex imagery that avoids the traditional exploitative and misogynistic scenarios.
Liberalisation would help facilitate a non-degrading feminist porn, made by women, for women, from a women's perspective with the aim of pleasuring women.
What's wrong with wanking?
So what about the individual and social benefits of sexually explicit imagery?
Porn magazines are dismissed by some critics as 'wank mags.' But what's wrong with wanking? It's perfectly natural and healthy, for both men and women.
Indeed, masturbation, with or without porn, has a number of positive virtues. It is totally safe sex, with no risk of contracting or transmitting HIV or other sexually-transmitted infections (STIs). If, instead of going out on the town and shagging left, right and centre, a person stays at home and jerks off over a porn video, isn't that safer?
In other words, good quality sexual imagery can make masturbation an
attractive alternative to casual sex, which can reduce a person's number sexual partners and help cut the spread of STI's.
Porn saves lives
Regular sex is vital for men's health. Medical research in Australia has shown that men who cum five or more times a week from the age of puberty have a much lower incidence of prostate cancer. Therefore, if you haven't got a regular partner, masturbation is good for you. If porno magazines and films assist frequent masturbation, then porn is helping save lives.
Sex mags and vids can be great sex education for young people. Unlike the coy, euphemistic nonsense that passes for sex education in schools, quality porn shows young people about sex - the techniques and skills involved, and how to satisfy yourself and your partner. This gives users of porn much better knowledge and expertise in the art of sex. The result? Often better quality sex lives and partners who are more sexually and emotionally fulfilled.
Pornography has been used very successfully to popularise safer sex. The use of sexually explicit leaflets and videos in HIV prevention campaigns has encouraged many people (gay, bisexual and straight) to switch to less risky behaviour. By promoting safer sex as exciting and fun, socially-aware porn has helped glamorise and eroticise responsible sexual behaviour - debunking the idea that non-risky sex is somehow boring, dull and second best. My own book, Safer Sexy (1994), was a good example. It won plaudits for making no-risk sexual behaviour appealing and exciting.
Porn also has another big social benefit. As an aid to masturbation, it may be the only means of regular erotic satisfaction for some single people, for partners in sexually dysfunctional marriages and for widows / widowers.
And what about people who are not young, beautiful, able-bodied and self-confident - or who live in isolated communities? Are these people supposed to do without sexual happiness? Not everyone measures up to the fitness and good looks that popular culture promotes as sexually desirable. It is cruel and inhuman to deny single disabled, overweight and elderly people the erotic fulfilment that pornography can give them.
We all grow old and lose our pulling power. But sexual desire may remain strong. It needs (and deserves) an outlet. That's when sexy pictures and films can come to our rescue, helping us to maintain pleasure and satisfaction.
Pornography can thus be a cornerstone of sexual democracy. It gives everyone access to carnal pleasure and happiness, regardless of our age, looks, abilities or background.
For information about Peter Tatchell's campaigns: www.petertatchell.net