It doesn’t take the opening of Lovelace, the biopic of a porn star known for her role in the notorious 1970s porn flick Deep Throat, to stir up a conversation about pornography. The debate over porn—allegations of its contempt for women (evidenced by women’s subordination and abuse), countered by assertions of its innocuousness—hasn’t been so heated in years.

What we call porn has thrived as long as humans have enjoyed sex, but the concept of pornography as we know it is a modern one. Most pre-Christian cultures were much more relaxed about sex than we are, and fertility and reproduction were integral to many religions. There was no scandal in the display of works of art like this Roman statue, Indian sculpture, and Greek plate.

Today porn is more diffuse than ever, thanks to modern technology. Like the prostitutes in Pompeii who advertised their specialties by hanging a graphic sign outside their cubicles, myriad web sites satisfy every imaginable craving.

Much porn is repetitive and scarcely original, but there is a hard-core variety that shocks most people, even today. Despite attempts to regulate and control the extremes, like representations of rape and bestiality, kinky and dangerous sexual activities, these thrive unfettered online.

Feminist activists Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin worked tirelessly to outlaw porn in the 1980s, but they were defeated by the Supreme Court and the First Amendment. As recently as this summer, British Prime Minister David Cameron was stirring up controversy in the U.K. with his attempts to limit child pornography.

Peep Show by David Shankbone

Peep Show by David Shankbone

I suspect that most of you reading this remember when obtaining an X-rated video meant going to an “adult entertainment” shop in an unsavory neighborhood or exploring the curtained-off back room of a video store (itself a relic of the past). Not so in the Internet Age, when finding porn takes only a few clicks. Since one in three online porn viewers is a woman, it may not surprise you that much online porn is free of charge and accessible to anyone with an Internet connection unfettered by parental controls.

Pornography today is big. Very big. So big that even academics are getting into the act with Porn Studies, a peer-reviewed journal edited by two (female) British academics, that is due to be launched in 2014.

Online pornography consumes 30 percent of all Internet bandwidth, and porn sites get more unique visitors each month (450 million) than Amazon, Twitter, and Netflix combined (316 million). The revenue of the adult sex industry, including video sales and rentals, Internet, cable, pay-per-view, in-room, mobile, phone sex, exotic dance clubs, novelties, and magazines, has been $8 billion.

A great deal of easily available pornography portrays extreme violence against women. A Google search for “rape porn,” for example, brings up videos of young girls and women of all ages (yes, there is even hot “granny porn) brutally raped vaginally, orally, and anally. They may be subjected to acts of violent coercion; being whipped, beaten, bound, tortured, mutilated, raped and even killed.  Some of this is staged, but some videos record actual rape. Rape Crisis South London found that “86% of sites that came up advertised videos depicting the rape of under-18s, 75% involved guns or knives, 43% showed the woman drugged, and 46% purported to be incest rape.”

“The Sunny Side of Smut”

The question being hotly debated is whether pornography harms women—in its production or as a result of its consumption.

“There’s absolutely no evidence that pornography does anything negative,” Milton Diamond, director of the Pacific Center for Sex and Society of the University of Hawaii, has categorically stated on Scientific American’s blog. “It’s a moral issue, not a factual one.”

According to defenders of porn, studies and surveys show an inverse correlation between the amount of available porn and incidences of rape. Pornography is good, they say, because it allows a safe release of sexual tension and relieves repression, often a contributing factor in rapes.

They point out that as rates of viewing porn have soared, during the same period the rates for rape as well as teen sex, venereal disease, and divorce have decreased. Consider these facts:

• According to Christopher J. Ferguson, a professor of psychology and criminal justice at Texas A&M International University, “Rates of rapes and sexual assault in the U.S. are at their lowest levels since the 1960s,” which is well before the Internet existed.

• The number of rapes reported from 1980 to 2000 in states with the greatest Internet access (and thus much greater access to pornography) fell by 27 percent. In contrast, the states with the least access to the Internet—and thus pornography—during the same period had a 53 percent increase in the number of rapes, reported Anthony D’Amato, law professor at Northwestern University.

The most serious charge against pornography is that some men who are turned on by watching it  will be incited to sexually assault women off-screen, particularly men who are already inclined to violence.

But a correlation between an increase in available porn and a decline in sexual assaults is not proof that viewing pornography leads to fewer rapes. To establish a causal relationship between habitual use of pornography and criminal sexual assault would require randomized, controlled experiments. Needless to say, using women as guinea pigs byintroducing them to men aroused by hard-core, violent porn in order to observe whether or how often the women were raped by those men would be not only impractical, but no less unethical than the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments.

Social ills have declined despite the proliferation of pornography, speculated Michael Castleman on Psychology Today’s blog, because “the one thing porn really causes is masturbation. Internet porn keeps men at home one-handing it. As a result, they’re not out in the world acting irresponsibly—or criminally.”

The Anti-Porn Argument

A major challenge for anti-porn crusaders is to define exactly what pornography is. Most people would agree that pornographic material, whether the written word or visual media, like film, video, painting or drawing, is sexually explicit and intended to stimulate sexual arousal. Yet even that straightforward definition doesn’t hold up, for the meaning of “sexually explicit” varies from culture to culture. The sight of an exposed feminine ankle, for example, would scandalize an orthodox Muslim, whereas a Westerner would scarcely notice it. The confounding question: When does “sexually explicit” morph into “pornographic”?

The task stumped even the Supreme Court. In 1967, Justice Potter Stewart admitted that “faced with the task of trying to define what may be indefinable,” he probably wouldn’t be able to define hard-core pornography, “but,” he famously said, “I know it when I see it.”

It is clear that porn harms women indirectly. The enthusiasm for sex with their partners sags among some men who consume hours of porn regularly. The great expectations of amazing bodies and incredible sex are fantasies that fail to materialize and lead to disappointment with the partner. Women may feel neglected and even jealous when their partners are consumed by watching rather than by performing sexual acts.

Women’s Voices correspondent Cecilia Ford, a clinical psychologist, responded recently to the distress of a woman whose husband secretly, and compulsively, watches porn: Is Normal Sex Enough for a Man Who Watches Porn?

It has been arguedand refuted— that porn can be as real an addiction as cocaine. Not everyone becomes addicted, of course. But those who do are like people addicted to drugs.They crave increasingly greater stimulation, which leads to watching the violent and extreme forms of pornography. They lose interest in real women, and when they attempt to have sex, they are incapable of arousal. At the very least, their sexual performance suffers. Teenagers whose first sexual experiences are pornographic have difficulties with real partners. A growing number of young men have erectile dysfunctionand even women are reporting porn impotence.” Seventeen percent of women surveyed in 2006 said they were struggling with addiction to pornography.

The extravagant expectations that porn generates are briskly demolished in this video,Porn Sex vs. Real Sex: the Differences Explained with Food.”

Patrick Fagan, the conservative director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute, is convinced that the habitual use of pornography fosters “a higher tolerance for abnormal sexual behaviors, sexual aggression, promiscuity, and even rape. In addition, men begin to view women and even children as ‘sex objects,’ commodities or instruments for their pleasure.”

Porn vs. the First Amendment

Conservatives like Fagan have traditionally objected to porn on moral grounds. They perceive that it threatens families and society as a whole and are in favor of strict regulation. For liberals, freedom of speech is paramount, and censorship is the first step on a slippery slope. Who will have the power to decide for the nation what is acceptable and what isn’t? They fear the accelerating erosion of democracy when a few people have the power to control what the many may watch.  Yet today, as conservatives strive to limit government, some are going over to the liberal position against regulation.

Feminists and liberals are also divided. Some agree with small-government conservatives in opposing the regulation of porn, but for different reasons. The censorship of a Big Brother is paternalistic, these feminists argue: Rather than protect women, censorship infantilizes them and endorses their subordinate status. Limiting pornography, they believe, implies that women must be protected, that they cannot take care of themselves.

Other feminists, believing that pornography abets women’s subordination, are open to regulating material that shows women being dominated, coerced, abused, mutilated, and degraded. The harm goes beyond physical abuse. Pornography, they believe, objectifies women and sexualizes their inequality.

When feminist activist and legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon was asked in 1983 by the town council of Minneapolis to draft an ordinance restricting pornography, she devised a novel rationale to justify its regulation.

Rather than tie pornography to obscenity and public morality, MacKinnon was the first to define pornography as a violation of women’s civil rights. Porn denies women equal status, fosters sexism, and causes rape, she maintained. Two cities—Minneapolis and, shortly afterward, Indianapolis—adopted the new ordinances. But they didn’t last long. The Supreme Court struck down the new laws on the ground that they violated the pornographers’ own First Amendment rights to free speech.

Working together with another well known anti-porn feminist, Andrea Dworkin, MacKinnon did not seek to criminalize the production or use of pornography. Merely outlawing something (like drugs) doesn’t make it disappear; it tends to make the use of it even more exciting. Instead, MacKinnon and Dworkin sought civil remedies. The ordinance would have given women who had been harmed by porn legal recourse, the ability to sue and collect damages from pornographers who had demonstrably harmed them.

The contest continues. This past summer, in Great Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron—particularly concerned about porn’s influence on children—launched a “war against Internet pornography,” seeking to get computer makers to change the controls in new computers to require that the user “opt in” to receive porn. He faces an anti-censorship backlash. This seems like a sweeping clampdown—by warning and exhortation in the first place, by legislation if nothing happens,” complained The Observer. The battle has been joined.

The overwhelming proliferation of pornography makes it imperative that we find a way to preserve the First Amendment right of freedom of speech for both pornographers and the viewing public while limiting the injury it causes to men, women, and children. But how to thread that needle?

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  • Diane Vacca September 16, 2015 at 11:28 am

    Thank you, Mickey. It’s a complex situation.

  • Mickey September 15, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    That was excellent, Ms. Vacca. Thank you so much.

  • Tobysgirl September 18, 2013 at 2:28 pm

    MacKinnon’s and Dworkin’s law was passed in Canada, and the first thing not to be allowed into the country was Dworkin’s own book! She had enough backers to get that overturned, but gay and lesbian bookstores continued to be targeted by Canada’s anti-porn legislation. I don’t know what the current status of this law is. Betty Friedan recognized that censorship is always a bad thing for women; censorship laws in the U.S. were used to ban birth control and other sexual information, and even Our Bodies, Ourselves was targeted.