The naked truth about porn on television

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Originally published in the Mail & Guardian, 22 March 2013

p14082_01_obr01When TopTV announced that they were planning to launch a fresh bid to screen adult content, a number of the self-appointed guardians of South Africa’s moral fibre rushed to our aid. The usual suspects (like African Christian Action or the Family Policy Institute) spoke of the “flood of filth” that would destroy our families, corrupt our children, and in general violate more rights than I was aware we even had.

The Icasa hearings on these adult content channels took place on March 14, and I was one of only two people who presented in favour of TopTV’s application (besides the applicants themselves, of course). The written submissions received by Icasa were overwhelmingly disapproving (440 against, with only 16 in favour), while at the hearings the ratio shifted to a more balanced two in favour and six against.

That’s where the impression of greater balance began and ended, for the most part. If you were keen on getting examples of how to marshall anecdotes, logical fallacies and statistical innumeracy in favour of a moralistic conclusion, the Icasa offices were the place to be on that day. As I said in my submission, porn seems to reliably increase only two things: arousal and religious outrage, but perhaps negative causality in relation to common sense needs to be added to that list.

It is not true, as some might think, that you need to think pornography entirely unproblematic to defend the right of a broadcaster to screen it, or viewers to watch it. Personally, I’m quite convinced that pornography can alter expectations in the bedroom, or in relationships more generally. But so can just about any entertainment product you can imagine, and pornography only becomes particularly interesting if it causes harms by necessity, or harms that are more severe or of a distinct type.

For some, pornography does seem to be particularly interesting by virtue of simply being pornography. It’s about sex, and sex is about families, and families involve children and healthy societies. We don’t like to talk about sex, or watch it – especially not the kind of sex they show in pornography. Ergo, porn harms children and families.

Except, we don’t have any compelling reasons to believe that it does, in ways attributable to the pornography rather than to other variables such as poverty, communication breakdowns, or the pressures of fulfilling Calvinist, heteronormative, nuclear family-related social expectations that are increasingly ill-suited to the various interests and desires of the 21st-century human.

Introducing one or more pieces of research here will mostly only serve to stoke up a cherry-picking contest in the comments and letters, so I’ll say only this: the past few decades have allowed for a global social science experiment involving being able to compare class, income, race, gender, religion and whatever else you like with porn and sexual violence. And when you look at that data, it requires a fair amount of contortion to avoid the conclusion that people who are educated and living in a functioning and responsive state commit fewer crimes of all sorts, regardless of porn access.

Pornography is a red herring in this argument, particularly with regard to the anecdotes regarding the effects of porn that the Icasa commissioners got to hear about. There’s no question that South Africa is experiencing obscenely high levels of rape (not that any level is not obscene), but it’s not possible to blame pornography for this, given that the sexual violence clusters in areas that are poor, and have less access to pornography than the average reader of this column does. The middle and upper classes should be doing most of the raping, and they are not.

Yes, of course there may be a correlation between pornography and sexual violence – just as they may be a correlation between hours spent on church pews and lower-back ache. But correlation does not imply causation. It’s easy to use correlation and “science-y” language to contribute to a moral panic – but less easy (although far more useful) to demonstrate a clear causal link.

It adds no evidence of causation to wheel out a young man to testify that his cousin’s consumption of Etv pornography led to his rape, at age 13. For every example of this type, we could find thousands of South Africans who watched Emmanuelle without resorting to sexual violence. Note also the apparent contradiction between the “rape is about power, not sex” narrative and the “porn on your TV screen causes rape” narratives.

Then, asserting that porn is as addictive as heroin or cocaine, and that it takes only 5 minutes exposure for a child to be irreparably harmed, doesn’t make it so. The editors of the DSM-V chose not to include pornography as an addition – evidence that it’s at least a contested claim, rather than something to be bandied about as fact.

The real, and honest, narrative here is simply one of a contest between various moral preferences, where pornography, sex worker trafficking and rape start being treated as inter-related just because people say they are so. But the facts of the matter can never be settled by shouting, by our (legitimate) fears for our safety, or by anecdotes involving claims like Ted Bundy “got started in porn” – as if porn should now be understood as likely to turn all kids into Ted Bundy’s.

The joy (albeit one experienced all too rarely) of living in a constitutional democracy that is mostly secular is that you don’t have to watch consume porn if you don’t want to. There are risks in allowing people choice, yes: it’s difficult to predict or control what choices people make, and therefore what you – or your children – might be exposed to.

This means that the task of parenting, or of providing moral guidance in other contexts, is a difficult one. This is as it has always been, and as it should be. But none of us has the right to prescribe morality for others, especially not on the basis of cherry-picked data and moral hysteria.

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  • JO_QWERTY

    Good reply. PS. I suspect the plural of Bundy is Bundys though (no apostrophe). My understanding is that nouns ending in -y plural to -ies (e.g. cry, cries), but this rule does not apply to proper nouns, since that would change the spelling of the proper noun.

    It’s a side effect of christianity (and other Levant religions’) hatred of sex, and promulgation of violence.

  • toni_gon

    Best commentary on the topic I have ever read.

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