Of course a ‘hot button” issue like this one is exceptionally useful in keeping peoples mind off real issues and have them getting obsessed with what their neighbours are doing.
Pornography is one of those issues and it has been and is exceptionally useful in getting people’s minds off the important stuff.
Of course porn has been around a very long time and has not always caused the same level of hysteria and sheer mockish stupidity.
For example lets us look at such things as this rather interesting Herm from ancient Greece with their very erect penises and stood on street corners in many Greek cities.
Or how about this much larger than life size penises from Delos.
There is also this painting from Pompeii which is shall we say explicit.
And for you fans of the truly kinky how about a little bestiality.
The above is not my cup of tea or dare I say of much interest to any but a small minority of humans.
What is of interest is how such images did not disturb the equilibrium of Greco-Roman society. It simply never occurred to anyone that such images were problematic and disturbing. They might be refined, well done or crude and tasteless but they would not have been considered some sort existential threat to that society.
The result when these items were rediscovered was some of the most absurd stupidities by the modern guardians of morality. There is in Naples a collection of art and artefacts collected from Pompeii called The Secret Collection, which until very recently was kept locked away from regular museum goers least its pornographic and erotic images, confuse and scandalize the poor simple minded average museum visitor.1
I would think that the ancient Romans and Greeks would have laughed quite loudly at such no-nothing brainless idiocy.
Considering that Greeks and Romans considered public displays of phallic imagery as a good luck charm they would have been quite non-plussed by so many moderns getting hysterical about it.
So what really bothers moderns about porn?
The answer is quite simple. Porn shows sex. Now if it was really about issues that you would think are legitimate problems and concerns you would not see the level of hysteria over it that is indeed there.
This level has its roots in the idea that sex is dangerous and needs to be controlled and regulated and that it is a dark and mysterious force that is tainted with diabolical and evil qualities.2
I remember a series of programs called A Third Testament, (1976) narrated by Malcolm Muggeridge from the mid 70’s. In an episode about the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy Malcolm refers to “CCC-ARNALL – PP-LEASURES!!. While saying that Malcolm squints, furrows his forehead and looks like he is having a severe migraine combined with a coronary. Like a vast number of older people Malcolm, who when he was younger indulged deeply in “carnal pleasures”, now that he was older and past all that, he thought it would be a good idea to deny other people “carnal pleasures”. No doubt having both satiated himself and gotten too old to indulge in “carnal pleasures”, it would be most satisfying for him to deny others “carnal pleasures”. The look of satisfaction that crossed his face as he talked about denying others “carnal pleasures” indicated that despite his supposed wish to help others escape being enslaved to “carnal pleasures”, that he was just has enslaved to them as ever. Only in this case being unable to enjoy them himself he would get perverted pleasure from denying others similar “pleasures”.3
It is indeed remarkable how obsessed so many of those who complain about other people being obsessed with sex are with sex. Instead they think constantly about how wicked it is for other people to have sex and how they have to be brought under control and how wicked them having sex is. Like the most sex obsessed orgiest these people never stop thinking about sex, only in this case how wicked and evil it is and how other people are having it and how they have to be stopped. Thus like Malcolm Muggeridge they writhe in prurient ecstasy at the thought of “CCC-ARNALL - PP-LEASURES!!” and think constantly and obsessively about sex.
One could go into the roots of this obsessive prurience but it is not necessary except to note that it seems to be at least partially related to a certain style of Christian values.
This notion of sex has dangerous, disgusting and prurient and this obsession with what other people are doing is behind most of the anti-pornography hysteria that exists in our society. This hysteria has lead to a seeming inability to discuss pornography in any sort of rational manner.4
Now it can easily be argued, and in my opinion obviously true, that pornography has problematic aspects.
For example. It is true that much pornography is in fact involves the use and rather unpleasant exploitation of the women, and yes sometimes at least men involved in producing it.
There is of course the issue of child porn and bestiality, which involves issues of consent and exploitation.
There is also the problem of extremely violent pornography that sexualizes, rape, sadistic, brutal degradation and humiliation, especially of women.5
Those are genuine issues of concern and certainly subject to analysis and critique. What are not reasonable are the following pieces of nonsense.
The idea that pornography is responsible for the subordination of women. A position advanced by the late Andrea Dworkin and by Catherine McKinnon. Are they seriously advancing the position that the existence of pornography is the main reason why women are oppressed? A position whose light headedness should cause it to float away and disperse.
Lets see most Muslim states especially the more religious ones prohibit most pornography and Scandinavian countries have lots of available porn. Guess which countries women have a better, socio-economic and political position in? Would it be sensible to argue that pornography caused women to have a better position in Scandinavia? Of course not but that is where this sort of logic leads us.6
Another popular idea, adopted for example by Courts in various places is the idea that pornography causes “harm”. In Canada this idea largely via Catherine A. MacKinnon, has caught on with the courts basically as a way of avoiding the old “community standards” rule which was pretty useless and the old “artistic merit” debate.7
It is ironic that the so-called anti-pornography Feminists who use this argument allow themselves to be allied to anti-pornographic so-called “Christian” groups who are quite convinced of the harm done by Feminist speech and the need to curtail, if not eliminate that form of speech.
The problem is the “harm” described is pretty nebulous and lacks concrete specifics. Finally even if it causes “harm” is that a reason to ban it? Well it can be easily shown that Hitler’s Mein Kampf caused and causes real harm. Yet it is available. So are the works of Karl Marx and of countless thinkers whose ideas were used as an excuse by some to cause mayhem.
One could of course easily list all sorts of works that incited people to resist or rebel violently; say the works of Thomas Paine? So the “harm” idea in my opinion is nothing more than the old disgust, prurient argument. I.E., “this is revolting and disgusting so of course it causes harm”. Even assuming pornography causes “harm” is that a reason to ban it, after all lots of speech causes harm and is not banned.8
It is routine among anti-pornography crusaders to demonize the makers of pornography. A favourite story is the infamous snuff film story. What is fascinating is that despite decades of efforts to track down this elusive film we have yet to find a real snuff film. I.E., a film of an actual person being killed as the “climax” of a sadistic sex scene in a porn movie. It appears that certain films have had simulated death, although even those are very hard to find, but that a bona-fide for real snuff film seems to be nonexistent. Frankly that surprises me given just how perverse and vicious humans can be. The language of disgust is generally in full flower when anti-pornographers describe the makers of pornography. It seems to do so because anti-pornographers conceive of the world in manichean terms of the sons of light against the sons of darkness. They also seem to have no desire to find out in any depth or detail how the pornography industry actually works.9
Another argument, very frequently used, is that pornography is not “speech” and hence not eligible for being protected by freedom of speech guarantees, like the Canadian Charter of Rights or the American Constitution. The argument is that the guarantees only protect “political” speech. This is an interesting argument although in the end it amounts to the usual disgust argument. I.E., “pornography disgusts me so it isn’t legitimate speech”. Well lots of speech disgusts me such as Holocaust denial bilge and Racist vomit and Stalinist excrement but I would never dream of banning it because I find it disgusting. Of course there is Gore Vidal’s answer to this point of view “Sex is politics”. In fact his point is that sex is deeply political given that it is about on the most intimate level about how we relate to each other.10
By giving pornography deep existential importance and allying it to fundamental forces of society the anti-pornographers have elevate pornography from a diversion to a fundamental cosmic principle. It is not and never was.
Perhaps the most significant development in the pornographic industry lately has been the development of cams and other recording devices that make it very easy for people to make their own pornography. Thus escaping the censor and the prurient prude. Just how are the anti-pornographers going to control and regulate that?
The Greco-Romans had it right Pornography is nothing to get your knickers in a knot about.
1. Mulas, Antonia, Eros in Antiquity, The Erotic Art Book Society, New York, 1978., pp. 9-13.
2. See Richards, Jeffrey, Sex, Dissidence and Damnation, Routledge, London, 1991, pp. 22-41, Moore, R. I., The Formation of a Persecuting Society, 2nd Edition, Blackwell Pub., London, 2007, pp. 94-116.
3. For more information on A Third Testament, see Here
4. See Footnote 2.
5. For a overview of these issues see Diamond, Sara, Pornography: Image and Reality, in Women Against Censorship, Edited by Burstyn, Varda, Douglas & McIntyre, Toronto, 1985, pp. 40-57.
6. See Dworkin, Andrea, Pornography: Men Possessing Women, Plume, New York, 1991, MacKinnon, Catherine A., Are Women Human?: And Other International Dialogues, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006.
7. The main case in question as been R. v. Butler,  1 S.C.R. 452, which uses this frame work and adopted largely from Catherine A. MacKinnon’s ideas.
8. See the essays in Burstyn, Varda.
9. For more about the apparent non-existence of snuff films see Stine, Scott Aaron, The Snuff Film: The Making of an Urban Legend, Here.
10. For the view that pornography is not real speech see McKinnon, Catriona, Toleration: A Critical Introduction, Routledge, London, 2006, pp. 137-152. For the view of sex as politics see Vidal, Gore, Sex is Politics, in The Second American Revolution and other Essays 1976-1982, Random house, New York, 1982.