“Addicted” to hyperbole

Some of you might have noticed that recent blog posts here have earned me some antagonism from defenders of the low-carb, high fat (LCHF) diet. In their defence, they of course think that I’m being needlessly antagonistic, especially towards someone (Prof. Tim Noakes) who they think of as doing pioneering – and very important – work in nutrition.

I’d like to try and approach the topic from a slightly different angle here, in the hopes of illustrating what I mean when I say that my criticisms are premised on a concern for exaggerating the quality and consequences of data, in a context of great uncertainty. In the same way as my language and arguments around religion have tempered significantly over the past 3 or so years, in science I’m equally concerned with the example we set as to how to think, where the claims we make should be proportional to the quality and amount of evidence we have.

A comment on one of my previous posts led me to this blog post by Prof. Grant Schofield, in which he responds to a press release from health professionals in New Zealand, decrying low-carb high-fat advocacy. Schofield’s post seems happy to embrace nuance and to acknowledge the limitations in what we can know right now about the long-term effects of LCHF diets, and is to me a great example of how to argue for an outlier position in a way that lures people into serious consideration of your case, rather than giving the impression that you’re being asked to join a religious cult.

As I wrote earlier in the week, the language of science should embrace uncertainty. We should not offer people dogma, both because it dumbs down the process of scientific reasoning, and second (an extension of the first, though) because it encourages people to think in terms of false dichotomies or other poorly defined and crude categories. What’s right is often about nuance, and doesn’t fit in a tweet or headline – and those of us who know better should not encourage a simplistic “X is right/wrong/healthy/good/bad”, especially when we know that’s what the market wants to hear.

The Doctor just tweeted a link to a great piece about “food fearmongering” that makes this point via examples of diet advice and promotions for books and movies about diet that are almost comical in their hyperbole. Food, basically, is trying to kill you – and unfortunately, you’re also addicted to it.

Until fairly recently, I was involved with a multi-disciplinary research team working in the field of pathological gambling, and as a result got to spend five years working with leading international addiction scholars, neuropsychologists, clinicians in the field of addiction, and so forth. In national prevalence studies and other research, I also got to spend a fair bit of time with people who describe themselves as addicts.

The simple takeaway, if I were to distill five years into one sentence, is that addiction is complex, and not a word to be used glibly. Today, anything we happen to like is often described as addictive, and people will talk about “brain scans show that area X lights up” when you eat a Snickers bar, while not thinking that perhaps area X happens to light up when you do stuff you enjoy. Or, that people who are inclined to addiction will find things to get addicted to, but that this doesn’t always mean that the thing in question is intrinsically addictive.

Today, people are variously addicted to sex, love, the Internet, cocaine, carbohydrates, sugar, crystal meth and so forth. But using the same word to describe all these things is profoundly misleading, and is also potentially insulting to people who suffer from the sort of unambiguous addiction that costs you your savings, your family, your health and so forth. To put a mild lack of self-control alongside heroin seems somewhat glib.

Cocaine, for example, often has no physical withdrawal effects. Psychotherapist Marty Klein says that, in 31 years of practice in the field, he’s never seen “sex addiction”, and describes it as a myth. Internet addiction was invented as a hoax in 1995, when Dr Ivan Goldberg took the diagnostic criteria for pathological gambling and adapted them to the Internet.

Internet addiction wasn’t included in the 2013 revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) – not even in the “Conditions for Further Study” chapter, that highlights things thought worthy of continued attention. “Internet gaming disorder” can be found in “Conditions for Further Study”, and “gambling disorder” does appear, in a new category for “behavioral addictions”. As I say, it’s complex.

Then, as I’ve written in the past, we might even want to be wary of treating the DSM as authoritative, perhaps especially with regard to the class of behavioural addictions, accused of making a “mental disorder of everything we like to do a lot”. My point is simply that this one word, “addiction”, is being made to do a lot of work – and a term that broad can sometimes appear rather meaningless in consequence.

It’s of course not meaningless for people who do suffer with an addiction of their own. The question I’m asking here: if we start speaking of anything that people struggle with as an “addiction”, what are the consequences of that? I fear that we’re not only encouraging shoddy thinking about addiction (and science, in general), but we’re also encouraging victimhood in that my lack of self-control can now simply be ascribed to the fact that I’ve been snared by the evil Internet, or the seductive candy bar.

And finally, there’s the danger of insensitivity – almost insult – to people who struggle with addictions that destroy lives. While being badgered by a LCHF devotee on Twitter, I was asked “do you have ANY experience with addiction that is not related to some scientific study? So much more to it than that.” In other words, I was being asked if I was an addict.

Now, this was Twitter, so you might say that this sort of thing comes with the territory. But what if I was an addict, really struggling with something, perhaps have just lost a job, or a spouse, or somesuch? Might one not think the question rude, crude, inappropriate – even indefensible? (Regardless, of course, of whether it was relevant or not, in that I was being asked “never mind the data, but do you have an anecdote?”)

I’d certainly think it inappropriate, perhaps even “triggering“, in the contemporary language of social justice. When it comes from someone who works at an addiction clinic, of all places, I’d be even more convinced.

And in this case, that’s exactly where it came from – a person offering treatment for “sugar and carbohydrate addiction”. The field of addiction – and addicts themselves – could do with us being a little more careful about the language we employ, and the categories we use to describe the things we enjoy.

Icasa approves TopTV porn channels

As regular readers would know, I’ve written quite a few columns regarding TopTV (and previously, Multichoice’s) attempts to be given permission to screen adult content on their subscription channels. TopTV have finally succeeded, on their second attempt, and as one of those who presented at the public hearings in support of their application, I’m pleased to hear it.

Not because I think porn is necessarily good, or always unproblematic – but because it’s not my (or Icasa’s) decision as to whether you should be allowed to watch it or not.

For those new to the story, here is a list of my contributions to the debate, also the Icasa press release (pdf) announcing their decision to allow TopTV to go ahead. Icasa’s full explanation of the reasons behind its decision will be released on or before June 28.

The most recent columns are listed first:

The naked truth about porn in television
Not even Madiba can turn anecdotes into data
Pornography is coming to eat your children!
Icasa’s poor reason for TopTV decision
TopTV plans to “release a flood of filth into our communities”
Freedom of (Multi)choice

The naked truth about porn on television

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.

Not even Madiba can turn anecdotes into data

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

b4fe7c9b0dba486dbca05103ef5b7445One of the documents that awaited my return from the Icasa headings on TopTV’s application to screen adult content channels was a medical certificate, in support of a student’s application for an extension on a deadline. The certificate bore the logo of a naturopath-slash-homeopath, though, and made no reference to the student’s ailment, or her date of her expected return to full health. (Edit: I’ve subsequently submitted a complaint to the Allied Health Professions Registrar about this.)

The subject material in the previous week of the course was pseudoscience, making the submission of this particular certificate all the more ironic. Needless to say, the extension was not granted. But the fact that a student could submit it at all – to me, who makes no secret of my lack of respect for imaginary medicines – was another reminder of how strongly the will to believe can make us immune to changing our minds, or to seeing things from perspectives other than the one we’re currently committed to.

The hearings on TopTV’s channels were certainly interesting. They were also somewhat disappointing, in that any of the stronger cases that could be made against granting permission to screen these channels were entirely absent. To put it plainly, some of those who commented on my column last week would have done a better job than those who made submissions and presented to Icasa.

However, even stronger cases – perhaps from a gender rights perspective, but without the religious moralising and paternalistic bias – should fail to persuade Icasa, because the legal case for being allowed to screen the channels is to my mind irrefutable. But the cases that were presented testified mostly to hysteria’s dominion over reason.

And testimony there was, of the sort that those of you who have been to certain sorts of churches would remember. At one point, the commissioners gave permission for the one of the presenters to introduce another speaker, a 23 year-old man who shared his story of having been raped by his cousin at the age of 13, after said cousin had developed an “addiction” to E-Tv’s adult programming.

This happened after the speaker in question had reminded us that she herself “knows” that pornography causes rape, because of evidence including the piles of pornographic magazines found at rape scenes x and y. This speaker was an authority, she reminded us, because she herself had been raped.

Other authorities we heard from included Nelson Mandela, because quotes from the Long Walk to Freedom are somehow relevant, and also Jesus, because Icasa should heed the words of one particular religion in interpreting laws and a Constitution that are premised on freedom of religion, and freedom from religion as a defining characteristic of the law.

There was no stage, but we were seeing theatre. Not only in the powerful anecdotes from sympathetic figures, but in the rhetorical force of emotive language, the blown-up pictures of brain regions and science-y language (polydrugerototoxins are a thing, according to Doctors for Life) but also in the reaction of the crowd, who were lapping this up. They were receptive to hearing that pornography was as addictive as cocaine and heroin (with the fact that the DSM-V doesn’t list it as one being less important, I guess).

Any mention of “the children” seemed to draw a whoop, and there were sympathetic sighs and murmurs at every mention of moral degeneration of South Africa. The evidence against a moral panic around pornography was pre-emptively discredited with a wealth of statements along the lines of “just yesterday, I spoke to a policeman who told me that pornography is the cause of these problems”.

The people “on the ground” know the truth, we were told, and the “so-called research” indicating that pornography isn’t the cause could not be trusted. It was in fact “rubbish”, which I imagine must be a technical term of some sort. Just four minutes of exposure to pornography can irreparably alter a child, so no safeguards are sufficient – any increase in the availability of pornography is impermissible.

Of course I’m laying it on thick in the text above. This is, after all, part of a competing piece of theatre. But the gravity of a situation (namely the number of incidents of sexual violence, and the struggles of support groups like Rape Crises to even exist, never mind provide support for all) is no excuse for ignoring evidence and basic principles of critical reasoning.

Innumeracy is also a problem. Widespread inability to express and analyse ideas cogently is a problem, not only in that it allows for authorities like Ministers and naturopaths to deceive us, but also in that it prevents them from being able to themselves make sense, even if they cared to do so.

And, if we do want to address the high incidence of rape and other forms of sexual violence, the hysteria gets in the way of our finding the best ways of doing that. For every example of someone who was raped by someone who consumed porn, I can find you thousands of men who consume porn, and don’t rape. But I wouldn’t bother doing so, because these are anecdotes, and good arguments can’t be made from them.

Yes, you might find pornography degrading. And if people who likewise found it degrading were being forced to participate in it, we would have a violation of their consent or their will, which is a legal matter. If the police or the courts are being insufficiently attentive to that, there is an additional problem. But the problem is not the pornography itself, unless that by necessity is degrading.

Some, like the Christian Action Network, think it is and want the entire industry criminalised. But when significant numbers of women search out pornography themselves, it can’t be degrading by necessity – it’s degrading to you, because of your moral standards.

Your moral standards cannot be imposed on others, especially not by the state. It’s a contingent fact only that the state – in South Africa at least – tends to side with the Christian viewpoint in matters such as liquor sales and public holidays.

But let’s imagine the (for example) Christian response if the state was an Islamic one. Then, the same Christian who told me at the hearings “you have no future in this country” would likely be on my side, saying that the evidence alone should dictate policy, and that quotes from the Quran or personal anecdote were no grounds for making decisions.

In other words, they would see the value of a secular state, in which those who are repulsed by pornography shouldn’t have it forced upon them, and where those who wish to consume pornography are free to do so, assuming that it doesn’t cause necessary harms to others. The case for it causing necessary harms to others is far weaker than the case that it does so, as I’ve argued in last week’s and other columns.

As I point out in one of those columns, I’m even of the view that pornography can contribute to social dysfunctions. But I don’t get to choose what sorts of relationships people have with each other, and neither do you – except for those relationships you’re actually in. Meddle with those all you like. But if you want to meddle in mine, you need to motivate doing so with better reasons than your subjective preferences, or the strength of your conviction in them.

Pornography is coming to eat your children!

Originally published in the Daily Maverick.

imagesAt some point on the day after this column is published, I’ll be presenting at ICASA’s public hearings, arguing in favour of On Digital Media’s (ODM) application for a licence to screen three pornography channels on TopTV. Besides myself and a colleague, ODM themselves might well be the only people speaking in favour – the submissions received before the January deadline numbered only 16 for, compared to 440 against.

Their previous application was denied, for what I’ve previously described as very poor reasons, but they’ve decided to try again – this time dropping the most hardcore channel (Playboy’s AdultXXX) from the application, and also pledging to appear at the hearings themselves, by contrast to their conspicuous absence at the time of the previous application.

Late last year, ODM applied for business rescue under the Companies Act, and perhaps hope that being allowed to screen the pornography channels will help with their financial survival. I’m sceptical that there’s enough of a market for pornography distributed in this fashion, and therefore whether being given permission to screen these channels can help TopTV to survive.

Whether they survive or not might be thought mostly of concern to their stakeholders, of which I’m not one. They should however be allowed to try any legal and morally defensible strategies available for survival, of which giving paying subscribers access to pornography of a legally permissible sort should surely be included.

Furthermore, we should stand behind them while they try to survive, and especially in this particular matter, because Icasa is not a moral authority, and should not be allowed to take on the authority of one. Their own response to the previous application demonstrated their desire to take on that role, though. Despite explicitly acknowledging that the data don’t demonstrate this to be true, Icasa’s “reasons” document reported that they regard the “consumption of pornography as one contributing factor, amongst others, to the normalisation of violence against women in South Africa”.

Unfortunately, when we stack what appears to be a hunch up against our constitutional freedoms, it’s the hunch that should give way – at least up until the point where there is hard data to turn the hunch into something that should be regarded as fact. But these hearings are of course taking place in a context of extreme – and justified – sensitivity with regard to sexual violence, and Icasa will perhaps be understandably wary of the public response if they were to grant ODM’s application.

They shouldn’t be. Just as it’s condescending to tell every woman that she’s demeaned by pornography – regardless of whether she herself procures, participates in or produces pornography – the South African population at large should be insulted by being told that all it takes is a little airbrushed televised sex to turn them into rapists.

I won’t rehash the practical arguments of my previous column on this topic, linked above, here. In short, though, the children are safe. TopTV’s PIN code protection is robust enough that any child who is able to crack it would most likely be at MIT – or at least surfing the Internet for porn – instead of becoming the putative victim of TopTV’s relatively softcore offerings. So, thinking that allowing this license will somehow increase the availability of porn to the average child is implausible at best, and adults already have access to all the porn they want.

This won’t be perceived as any obstacle to many of the presenters, though, who all (save one) have some version of “Christian”, “God” or some cognate term in their title or description. I point this out not to say that this isn’t a legitimate interest group, but rather to point out that it is a group with particular interests – which is to defend a Christian version of morality regardless of what empirical evidence might say – or not say – about pornography’s effects on society.

They want Icasa, and the Government more generally, to plant their flag in the territory of Christian morality. This is understandable, but for Icasa to do so would be a dereliction of their duties as an independent communications watchdog in a state that bills itself as secular. The data – not the hysteria – needs to support pornography as being a cause of increased sexual violence for TopTV’s opposition to persuade them.

The data do not support that view. As mentioned above, even Icasa are prepared to say that the data are agnostic. I’d go further, and suggest that the USA, Germany and Japan are only a few examples of countries that legalised pornography and saw no resultant increase in sexual violence. As with most social ills, the problem of sexual violence probably involves a nexus of poverty and resultant powerlessness more than anything else.

In South Africa, it is looking increasingly clear that we need to add tik to that causal nexus, thanks to how methamphetamine results in increased sexual arousal and aggression. But perhaps above everything except economic empowerment, I’d argue that what we need to focus on is fostering respect for the choices of others, whether in serious matters such as saying no to sex, or in trivial matters such as watching pornography. Compelling citizens in a secular state to obey the prescriptions of (your interpretation of) Biblical morality does nothing to respect autonomy, but instead treats us as permanent infants.

There’s no question that rape and other forms of violence are a problem, no – but there’s no reason to think that porn has contributed to causing that problem. Without such reason or reasons, all that Icasa would be doing in denying this application would be to award another victory to religious moralisers, and to chalk up another loss to our freedom.

Read a City Press report on the hearings, and listen to my conversation with John Maytham towards the end of the day’s proceedings.

Icasa’s poor reasons for TopTV decision

As submitted to the Daily Maverick.

In 1983, MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin drafted an ordinance restricting pornography which was briefly adopted by the Indianapolis legislature before being declared unconstitutional. Much of the language defining pornography in this ordinance can also be found in ICASA’s “Reasons” document (pdf) explaining why On Digital Media (ODM, trading as Top TV) were refused permission to add three pornographic channels to their product line.

This ordinance defined pornography as the “graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and/or words”. The tests for whether or not a item was pornographic included “women are presented dehumanized as sexual object, things, or commodities”, “women are presented as sexual objects experiencing sexual pleasure in rape, incest, or other sexual assaults”, and women being presented in “positions of sexual submission, servility, or display”.

ICASA accept the MacKinnon definition uncritically, much like their entire argument accepts various normative moral claims uncritically. In fact, you might struggle to find a more clear example of a regulator having its work done for it by remote-control, whether via the selective retreating of contested arguments from the likes of MacKinnon or by the latter day moral hysteria of the Christian Action Network (who have previously accused the Cape Times and the Cape Argus of censorship when those papers refused to publish obituaries for the 900 000 South African babies killed by abortion).

Many of the problems with ICASA’s reasoning were skewered in Ivo Vegter’s column on this topic and also my previous column on Multichoice’s similar experience, so won’t be repeated here. Suffice it to say that their argument is still premised on every young person being an expert in both psychological manipulation of his parents, and perhaps also a master hacker of set-top boxes (but one who mysteriously seems to never have heard of the Internet and the pornography available there).

He’d need to be all these things to a) persuade an adult to subscribe, pay the monthly fees, and reveal the two independent pin codes and b) crack those two pin codes if necessary. I checked the sums with the mathematician John Allen Paulos, who confirmed that there are 10 000 possible combinations of one 4-digit pin code, and 100 000 000 combinations for two pin codes. Parents would in other words have to stay away for months, if not years, for children to be able to guess the pin numbers in question. To put it another way, you would be seven times more likely to guess the Lotto numbers than to guess these two pin codes.

The 17-page Reasons document concludes with a summary of its three reasons for refusing the application. First, “the right of women to equality and human dignity overrides the Applicant’s right to freedom of expression, as well as the rights of viewers to receive pornography on television in the home. The Authority holds this view because it regards the consumption of pornography as one contributing factor, amongst others, to the normalisation of violence against women in South Africa”.

While it’s true that the Authority holds this view, the document fails to explain why this is the case. The data they present on sexual offences certainly show a high incidence, but certainly not an increase in the period reported on (2003-2011) – if anything, they show a slight decrease. The data might of course be poor, but that’s the Authority’s problem to resolve if they want to make the connection between pornography and sexual violence.

Oddly, though, ICASA seems reluctant to make that connection despite using it in their conclusion. “The Authority is not saying that there is a direct causal relationship between the consumption of pornography and violent sexual crimes against women. … However, consumption of pornography may contribute to the incidence of rape by making it more likely that those who are already inclined to rape may feel validated by seeing women as sexual objects to actually rape, thereby increasing the overall incidence of rape”.

This thinking is utterly disingenuous, or entirely circular. I suspect the latter, as the document is riddled with phrases like “probable consequences” and “harmful effects” – the seeds of a moral panic are in other words widely planted. The point here is that either pornography does cause these effects, or it does not, or we don’t know. We’ve got some reason to suspect that it doesn’t (and, in fact, better evidence to suggest that it decreases sexual violence), but let’s assume – as ICASA does – that the “empirical evidence for this is not conclusive”.

In other words, we are being told that we should limit it just in case, on the precautionary principle. But unless we have reasons to suspect that pornography validates the perception of women as sexual objects more than Baywatch (for example) does, we also need to prevent the screening of Baywatch. Which is to say, the data needs to support the banning of pornography to prevent this decision from being based purely on an established moral conservatism.

This brings us to the second of the three reasons, namely that ODM “misconstrued the objections to its application as moral or religious grounds rather than as serious stakeholder engagement on constitutional or legal grounds”. The grounds referred, broadly speaking, are rights to equality and dignity. And again, if only consenting adults have access to this material and it cannot be shown to lead to increased sexual violence, the argument makes its case only by saying something to the effect of “pornography undermines equality and dignity because pornography undermines equality and dignity”.

As Margot St. James observed in response to the MacKinnon ordinance, “I’m against the censorship … [one] line that worried me tremendously was, `Pornography represents women as whores by nature.’ Well, what’s wrong with that? I’m a bad girl. I like being a bad girl. I like my whore status. I have control and power over men, in private certainly, and now also in my public life”.

Whether ICASA disapproves of these women or not, they feel empowered through pornography. And while we do have to balance the right to free expression against harms, evidence of such harms is necessary to override the presumption favouring freedom. (For those who want to retort that pornography isn’t a free speech issue, note that ICASA frames it as such, which legitimates a response on those same grounds.)

The second of the three reasons also includes an aside on ODM’s failure to participate in the public hearing. Earlier in the document, this is described as “inexplicable”, and ICASA laments how they “did not receive a courtesy” of being informed that ODM were planning on missing “such a golden opportunity”. The language, in other words, is fairly smug and not exactly impartial in tone. More relevant here though is that only the merit of the case should decide the issue. While ODM certainly erred in not being there to respond, this shouldn’t act as a reason for rejecting their application. Citing it as one seems to confuse making an impartial judgement on a case with teaching a moral lesson to ODM.

The final reason notes that the government has already “limited citizens’ rights to freedom of expression with regard to the consumption of pornography by law. Accordingly, the Authority sees no reason to expand access to pornography on the airwaves into the home”. For a regulatory body that proudly asserts that it is “regarded as pro-active rather than re-active”, this is an odd thing to cite as a reason. They had the opportunity – even if they ended up not taking it – to assert that current limitations are too severe. Instead, this appeal to precedent (and authority) seems to indicate the same intention to justify a foregone conclusion discussed in respect of the other two reasons.

Of course pornography can change the social landscape, and I’m even persuaded that it can do so negatively. Naomi Wolf is quite persuasive in arguing that pornography may be responsible for “deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as ‘porn-worthy’”. If you agree, you should be free to choose to not subscribe to pornography channels. But you’re no longer free to make that choice – it’s been decided for you that you don’t have that option, and also that you’re not capable of keeping a pin number safe from your children.

P.S.: This FreakoStats post, crunching some porn-related numbers, is well worth reading.

TopTV plans to “release a flood of filth into our communities”

Or so says Errol Naidoo, in any case. I wasn’t planning to say anything about TopTV’s plans to launch 3 porn channels (provided by Playboy TV), because besides this involving TopTV rather than Multichoice, the salient details are identical to those in the DStv porn saga last year. But a few people have enquired as to my views, so here they are.

First, it remains true that we have no compelling evidence that pornography necessarily causes harm in itself. I can’t dispute that some people have had miserable lives, or been exploited and abused in the production of pornography. It’s true that it’s an industry which conduces to trafficking, and it’s plausible that it might lead some consumers to dysfunctional attitudes towards sexuality, gender equality and so forth. These are unwelcome and regrettable correlates of porn.

But as one can’t seem to say often enough, correlation doesn’t equal causation. The fact that many people consume pornography from within healthy relationships, or as singletons who are not disposed towards seal-clubbing, satanic rituals or violence against women and children shows that it’s possible for porn to come without these complications. Which tells us that as much as some production and consumption of porn can come with problems, those problems can be addressed directly without needing to shut down an entire industry. If it ends up being true that these problems are inescapably part of porn production, then I’d agree that porn should be more strictly controlled, and perhaps even eliminated (if that were possible). But they’re not, or at least we have no good evidence that they are.

Which leaves us in a position of having to balance various interests. On the one hand, we have TopTV (or Multichoice), who want to make money. They do this by offering a service that consumers want, in this case porn. If they’re wrong, and consumers don’t want it, then the channels will most likely be pulled. But what they are planning to offer is legal, and they are entitled to do so. Of course they should (from their own self-interested point of view, as well as from the point of view of not causing needless offence) do so in a responsible way. Their plan is to offer these 3 channels as an opt-in service at an extra cost each month. So, parents need to choose whether to allow these channels in their homes or not.

This is stage 1 of the firewall that protects the innocent, fragile children. Unless a parent chooses to subscribe, Jenny and Johnny won’t be exposed to any part of the “flood of filth”. Then, in stage 2 of the firewall, each viewing of one of the porn channels requires the viewer to enter a PIN code. A parent could change this code every day, if they so choose. What this firewall adds up to is that, if Jenny or Johnny end up watching any porn on TopTV, it’s the fault of the parents, not of TopTV.

Naidoo might of course say that this shouldn’t be broadcast even to parents (or adults). For consistency’s sake (although I’m not sure if he’s familiar with that concept), he might also have to say that there can be no violence on TV. There should certainly be no booze on TV – and perhaps there should be no cars on TV, seeing as those can also be used irresponsibly. But none of this really matters to Naidoo and his ilk, seeing as personal choice needs to make way for his fascist world of obedience to the dictates of God. Well, not your god, perhaps, but the one that he insists you believe in. You know, the homophobic one.

He also says that these parental controls aren’t sufficient because:

Despite TopTV’s assurances of parental controls, it will not stop sexually depraved adults from sexually abusing women and children. The majority of the 55 000 rapes of women & sexual abuse of 25 000 children in SA every year, are perpetrated by TopTV’s target market – adult men!

He’s right. TopTV’s parental controls won’t stop sexual abuse, because we’ve got no reason to believe that a) TopTV’s porn will cause their target market to want to go out and rape women or children, and b) all these people already have access to porn, for god’s sake. In the course of his “research”, surely Errol has come across porn that would make whatever PlayboyTV provides look like scenes of Bambi running through a forest?

Naidoo closes his December 8 newsletter with this:

I appeal to you to urgently write to TopTV CEO, Vino Govender and inform him that you will stop paying your subscription fees, cancel your contract or support a targeted boycott of TopTV advertisers if he launches his proposed porn channels in South Africa.

Email Vino Govender at acidrais@toptv.co.za and copy in Melinda Connor at mconnor@toptv.co.za

Christian consumers stopped Multichoice from launching a 24 hour porn channel on DStv last year. You and I can do it again! Christian citizens must stand up and do what is right!

Before you take a well-deserved holiday with your family – please consider the families that will suffer because of TopTV’s greed. Please encourage your family & friends to write today!

PS: Please forward this email to your family & friends and NOT TopTV [my emphasis]. Please also join us on the official FPI Facebook page for more updates and info about TopTV’s evil agenda.

Perhaps he doesn’t want TopTV to have advance warning of the tsunami of self-righteousness heading their way. I don’t know. But there’s the CEO’s email address. Feel free to write to him to express your support for freedom of choice. Or to say that, even though you don’t like porn yourself, you commend him for his efforts to ensure that it reaches only it’s target market, rather than innocent bystanders. And if you want to mail the other public protector, Errol Naidoo, you can do so here: enaidoo@familypolicyinstitute.com

Freedom of (Multi)choice

Originally published in The Daily Maverick.

A number of the self-appointed guardians of South Africa’s moral fabric have recently weighed in on DStv’s news that it is considering introducing a pay-per-view pornography channel. As previously reported by Kevin Bloom in The Daily Maverick, Taryn Hodgson of the Christian Action Network claims that the channel will fuel the “fires of sexual abuse and exploitation”, and that those who believe otherwise have “imbibed the lies of the porn industry”. Errol Naidoo of the Family Policy Institute cites sympathetic studies (including one from a right-wing Christian organisation, and another from a high-ranking Freemason’s address during the 1989 ‘Religious Alliance against Pornography’ conference) which purport to demonstrate a connection between pornography and sexual violence. The trade union Solidarity claims that “children’s rights will be violated” by this channel, based on their own research indicating that “77% of molesters of boys and 87% of molesters of girls used pornography”. Continue reading “Freedom of (Multi)choice”