Pornography

There cannot be an amusing or gripping title for this subject, and it clearly cannot be the topic for an140 character tweet. This is too serious and too complex an issue.  Because of its complexity I have refrained from putting in my two penny worth of comment until now, but it is a topic in which I have had considerable interest particularly since the first time I was (unexpectedly) cross examined on the effects of pornography and the normal responses to unexpectedly finding it on one’s computer, whilst I was giving evidence as a so called “expert witness” some years ago. 

Although I am a feminist I do not wear jackboots and do not blame men for the situation we are in now. I think we have a mismatch of viewpoints between consumers (and therefore also makers) of pornography and the disparate rest of society and this is caused mainly by historical, social and legal changes. 

My contention is that the issue boils down to definitions of “consent” and I am here making the assumption that we are all talking about adult pornography. I, and I am sure most makers of adult pornography, find child pornography indefensible and it is, rightly, completely against the law.  But the whole defence used to support the free availability of adult pornography, that it is made and watched by consenting adults, may be seriously flawed. The issue of consent, therefore, is the primary factor we must discuss. 

At this time and with the current position of living in a society that is going through a period of immense sexual change, I do not feel any of us are yet in a position to give “informed consent”. There is much law on “consent”. When it comes to issues such as consent to medical treatment, complete understanding both of the current situation, as well as what is proposed, is the aim. This is “informed consent”. As it is difficult to always have agreement between doctors and the understanding capacities of  individual patients vary, a concept of what needs to be understood by the reasonable man is often considered. 

To consent to sexual relations it is not specified that this be “informed” but the consent must be clear. Excepted from the group who are able to consent to sexual matters are those with the clear incapacity to understand. Examples of such are children, those with a significant intellectual disability, those unable to consent for other reasons of impaired understanding such as loss of reason from illness, drug or alcohol abuse or those unconscious or asleep.  

At the moment very few of us have adequate knowledge as to the effects of extensive viewing of pornographic sites for “complete understanding”. 

There are also growing areas of law requiring informed community consent for changes in some community circumstances. This is often referred when decisions are being made which may have an effect upon indigenous communities, migrant communities, and more recently, communities grappling with mining decisions. Certainly pornography is one of the influences that can significantly change relationships within communities.  

This is particularly so because currently, in developed western communities, it can be argued that society is still in a state of sexual imbalance.  Roles are very unclear for both genders.  This disequilibrium has been fomenting for less than a century and a half. A brief recap of the historical events that caused this seems appropriate here. 

Firstly in post industrial revolution times, the role of the nuclear family became very much more important.  Between the wars condom use became more common, providing protection from unwanted pregnancies, and in the 1960s the contraceptive pill became freely available. This latter coincided with the rise of feminism and the public idea that women could enjoy sex and be responsible for their sexual decisions.  What a lot had changed in families, childbearing and, as a result, sexual relations in less than one hundred years! 

During this time of historical change men and women have been trying to redraw boundaries and re-establish some worthwhile sexual conventions in society. People of either gender can initiate sex, either gender has a right to say “yes” or “no” even in a marriage, men and women can consent or refuse to engage in unusual or novel sexual practices between “consenting adults” (although in many countries it is not legal to agree to any practice which involves harming oneself). 

For discussions of sexuality and pornography in the past, there have been such as the Karma Sutra, explicit literature and paintings and, as time went, on smutty magazines for men and boys (and then women and girls) to hide under the bed and instructional manuals such as “The Joy of Sex”. These were tolerated benignly by society but not admired nor promulgated.  Each of these was a static image and individually absorbed and required some planning, slow decision making to obtain. Some prior understanding was needed to appreciate the content.

Then in next to no time (in historical terms) came the pictorial communication revolution. TV came first, then video cameras for all and finally computers, mobile phones that take pictures and make recordings and an almost an unending expectation of what will be able to be done in this field. And the purveyors of sex saw the market and, no better and no worse that the purveyors of other services in this consumerist post industrial revolution society, set out to woo their customers and make themselves indispensable and wealthy. And this was just at a time when post modernist philosophy became accepted and the idea of absolutes, truths and knowledge were exchanged for ideas of differences, individuality and scepticism. 

Meanwhile, unconnected (I assume) with the rise in availability of pornographic material, there was a distinct reaction among young women and girls against the ideas promulgated by earlier feminists such as myself. Girls are now spurred on by Disney princesses, anatomically incorrect Barbie dolls and strange body images; young women by fashion packaging and by adhering to the ideals of femininity demonstrated as norms by “stars” in public appearances, by dressing as differently from men as they can, wearing very high heels, worshipping at the altar of pink and going in beauty pageants. In short they appear to have reasserted the notion that preening the feathers to be physically attractive for sexual purposes is the main objective of their presentation as a person. They seem, however, to hold firm to the notion that they are entitled to be sexually aggressive both in manner and in dress. They know, too, that they hold the power to consent or not to consent to sex. This, in itself, is a difficult dichotomy to present to young men who are now set a mammoth task in knowing what is expected of them and how to achieve the now admired “trophy woman”. In addition on the male front (literally), the last decade has seen a tremendous rise in the encouragement to men that they should be able to maintain erections for longer. Viagra has been seen as the salvation to many “problems”, even for the much older man. Advertisements on media, billboards and everyone’s laptop abound to promote this notion and this product. Performance anxiety must have grown exponentially in the male population at the sight and sound of these. Long gone are the dubious erections seen in the old video porn offerings. (For the female porn star and the prostitute there are now also “safe” medications that can effectively numb the genital area to provide more comfort.) 

At the mere press of a key or two we can have instant pornography these days. With little effort to find it, no embarrassment at the point of sale and no real decision making about what we will see, we can avail ourselves of high quality images of “inspiring” sexual activities of very athletic people (who, well before filming, may have been surgically enhanced). This is immediate gratification with no thought of or time for contemplation of informed consent. 

Research has clearly shown that those who watch pornography on a very frequent basis often become dissatisfied with the sex in their relationships. The expectations of what the sexual act will be is expanded and at times changed. When young boys watch pornography they are given a certain image of how they should approach and interrelate sexually with young girls. And has there been presented anywhere on that same powerful communication stage anything that has given them an alternative – an equally detailed picture of the role of sex in a conventional (or even unconventional) long or medium term monogamous relationship?  

As for girls, has their capacity to give informed consent been already compromised by their exposure to the woman’s role as being both powerful and initiating yet with an expectation that their bodies, possibly also surgically enhanced to perfection, are to be available for decoration and experimentation? 

In any relationship one of the parties is usually more dominant in the sexual field (possibly not in every part of the relationship). I have seen many individual cases in which one party is persuaded into an activity they did not enjoy, not on the basis they will merely please the other party, but on the basis that not to enjoy it would be quite abnormal. How will pornography, used in that manner, further warp such relationships? 

Yes, it may be time that some of the more conventional mores around sex should be re-examined, but this must be done with informed consent, and that probably must be informed community consent.  That is not what is being done. We are being flooded with pornography, and advertisements for it, by marketers determined to make a profit. Where is consideration of the other factors that have always been important in long term (or even short term) reciprocal relationships? Can they be illustrated with as much passion? (Perhaps there is less profit because their historical accessibility means lack of the novelty factor.) If there is to be informed consent these must be shown as genuine, happily accepted alternatives. 

Where is information readily and simply provided to the young (and old) about the proven effects of frequently accessing pornography? Again society must have this freely disseminated to be able to make informed choices about our future. 

It has all become a vicious circle. Pornography, dressed up as a choice, is currently ensuring those watching it frequently will assume it is the norm. This is in much the same way as soldiers are imbued with notions that enable them to kill, or boxers are persuaded it is an art form to know how to punch people until they lose consciousness. Those watching pornography on a frequent regular basis and those involved with partners who do so, are increasingly being deprived of the ability to make informed choices about sexuality in a relationship. 

As sexuality is the basis for procreation, for families and thus ultimately for relationships within communities, it is my view that communities themselves should set standards, by much more informed discussion, certainly by education and perhaps by some form of regulation, to ensure there is indeed genuine informed consent around the issue of pornography usage.

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About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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