Wednesday 23 January 2019

Mary Kenny: The positives of porn?

Not so long ago erotic material was viewed as a force for good

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin

From about 1960 onwards, the progressive attitude to porn was, in my recollection, that it was a healthy expression of free sexuality. Societies where pornography was freely available - Denmark and Sweden were often mentioned - were seen as liberated and mature, allowing adults to follow whatever erotic fantasies they pleased through the medium of pornography.

When Lord Longford, of blessed memory, took it upon himself to examine the expanding porn industry in 1970, it was pointed out that in Denmark, where laws against obscenity had been abolished, the number of sex crimes had decreased. Easily available porn meant fewer sex crimes.

The theory was that porn worked as a "catharsis" - particularly for men who were sexually needy, dysfunctional, or had unorthodox desires. If they could just look at pornography when they chose, then they would remain safely masturbating in their bedrooms - and the "catharsis" produced by the porn safety-valve would ensure that women would rarely be raped, nor children molested. Libertarians such as the late theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, the French publisher Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press (who published books others feared might be obscene) and some of the sexologists who believed censorship created sexual dysfunction promoted the positive aspect of explicit erotica.

In America, the publisher of Hustler, Larry Flynt, successfully pleaded the First Amendment - guaranteeing freedom of speech - in defence of his magazine, which catered for all tastes, from sexual bondage to urolagnia (a fixation on urination). Mr Flynt was seen as a libertarian hero: he also made a large amount of money.

The renowned Lady Chatterley trial in 1960 was a watershed moment for freedom of expression, when Penguin Books won their case against charges of obscenity and thus their right to print DH Lawrence's erotic (sometimes laughably erotic) novel. Into the witness box stepped esteemed literary figures and bishops of the Church of England, innocently protesting that no book had ever corrupted anyone. Freedom is a fine cause though to claim that the printed word (or image) never influenced anyone seems somewhat implausible: I'm pretty sure Mein Kampf influenced quite a few.

After that, the new wave of liberal attitudes thrived, and even the Irish Censorship Board changed: the numbers of banned books decreased, although the overly democratic practice of considering a book fit for censorship if two citizens submitted it as obscene continued for a time.

The battle against censorship and for freedom of speech was being won, and if some people used their freedom to avail of pornography, that was their choice. Sex therapists like Alex Comfort suggested it was better that erotic material be honestly out in the open, rather than accessed secretly and furtively. The law still operated certain restraints but the ideal was to have none, as far as adults were concerned.

I first heard this "expert" idea challenged in Norway in the early 1990s, when I met a woman academic researching the harm that pornography could do in portraying women as sex objects, and viewing children in an erotic way, too. What about the "cathartic" theory of porn's function? "It doesn't stop sex assault - it validates it."

Across the Atlantic, radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon were publishing fierce critiques of porn - Dworkin had written Pornography: Men Possessing Women and MacKinnon Only Words, the book in which she claimed that the First Amendment in the US was manipulated to intimidate, subordinate and discriminate against women through the medium of porn. Both over-stated their case, but they were making an impact on the theories about pornography.

And now, everything is available online and the argument about whether certain obscene material should be banned has been overtaken by the question of whether the worst extremes can, technically, be prohibited at all. How can any state or authority police what appears on billions of screens and smartphones of private citizens? There's pressure on Facebook and other social media to take more responsibility for what they transmit, but it's probably impossible. The most recent study from the Internet Watch Foundation reports that, increasingly, children are posting pornographic images of themselves.

There's a groundswell of anxiety and social disapproval about porn's impact, especially, on adolescent boys, and questions about whether this is leading to increased misogyny, violence against women, sexual harassment and rape. A British cabinet minister has had to resign recently because the police claim that he had downloaded pornography on his computer. An Irish civil servant has been publicly shamed with the revelation that he had 60,000 pornographic images of young boys. The view that porn is merely "cathartic" is seldom heard today.

Pornography is seldom now portrayed as a good in itself - something which could prevent sex crimes. But whether we should control what people read or watch is still debated, and whether it's possible to do so in our globalised media culture is still unresolved.

@MaryKenny4

Weekend Magazine

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss