Patricia Casey: 'We must finally face the facts over the perils of pornography'
A few years ago, former Taoiseach Enda Kenny called for a national discussion about pornography. It didn't happen. Now, perhaps the heart-rending story of the life and death of Ana Kriegel might spark such a discussion. One of those found guilty was found to have thousands of hard-core, violent pornographic images on his mobile and while the evidence was not presented to the jury, the legal arguments about this took place in an open courtroom and have now come to light.
It is timely to have this debate while the obscenity of pornography is in the public consciousness. Regrettably, there is every possibility that this debate will be dominated by relentless calls for sex education to be more "progressive". There may be some who will suggest, as did Danish professor Christian Graugaard, of Aalborg University in Copenhagen, that this material should be shown in class so as to ensure youngsters "possess the necessary skills to view porn constructively". This far outstrips general discussions about pornography in the classroom which, in my opinion, are important, with the agreement of parents and their involvement in the content. Is this likely to influence adolescent use of pornography? We don't know.
Expressions of any reservation about the impact of pornography on the young, but also on society as a whole, will provoke shrill cries of censorship, control, the Church, prying eyes and so on.
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There is little prospect of any sensible debate and some women will say that their use of pornography is empowering, as was argued when I discussed this on TV in 2016.
There are questions that need to be examined regarding pornography. Does it directly cause violent crime and even murder? We don't know. Is it associated with violent crime and even murder? It is. This means that the two are linked in some way. Is it that those with a pre-existing tendency to criminal activity also have an attraction for these types of sexual images? Is it that crime inures the hearts of people to these images so that their threshold for revulsion is reduced?
Whatever the nature of the link between pornography and crime, there is now sufficient evidence to show that the use of pornography has an impact on brain function. Regular viewing of pornography is not inert as far as the brain is concerned. The ability of the brain to change its structure and functioning in response to our experiences is termed neuroplasticity. In 2014, Dr Simone Kuhn, from the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, found that men who regularly viewed sexually explicit material had reduced firing of nerve pathways in the pleasure centres of the brain. Dopamine is the neurochemical involved and it is released when we experience pleasure from any activity. Broadly similar findings were identified by the neuroscientist Valerie Voon, from Cambridge University, in her study in 2014. This means that the amount of porn viewed has to increase so as to maintain the same level of sexual excitement. This translates into an escalation of the time spent and the urgency of viewing these images.
To the surprise of many, men who view pornography regularly experience sexual dysfunction because of the distorted images presented. Typically, porn movies show male body parts are longer and larger while females appear pre-pubescent but with breast enhancement. So far from enhancing male sexual prowess and female attractiveness, they diminish both because the reality of our bodily appearances differs so much from the fantasy portrayed by the images. Finally, the violence in hard-core movies is likely to transfer to female partners, resulting in abusive relationships.
The question on everybody's mind is what to do about it. Never mind explicit sex education. The words of an earnest teacher are more likely to create a fit of giggling or cause the kids to stare at the floor in embarrassment. The chances of this helping them in critically appraising the social or moral underpinnings of what is going on are slim. It may even whet their appetites. We might as well suggest showing the John Cleese sex education sketch from 'The Meaning of Life'. Parents talking in a supportive way to their children is nice and cosy in so far as it goes. But what 15-year-old listens to their mam or dad when advice is offered?
Two approaches spring to mind. The first is to follow the UK, which was due to give effect to the world's first porn ban law of July 15. It has been delayed but is expected to be introduced within months.
The Taoiseach has indicated his willingness to confer with his British counterparts to discuss the law and consider such a move in Ireland. The law aims to protect young people who often stumble upon, rather than seek out, pornographic material. Mandatory age verification will be required before material can be viewed online. This would be in addition to the proposed Online Safety Bill that is being brought forward to deal with platforms that promote suicide, anorexia and other harmful behaviours.
The second is more difficult. It requires us to appreciate the value of every human being. Children and adults, male and female, rich and poor are deserving of respect and need protection from exploitation. Our national history has not been impressive in this regard. Nor is it now.
Some 'progressives' will try to exclude themselves, saying they are adults, and have agency over their activities, including viewing pornography. They will claim to be enhanced by this autonomy and posing for, or viewing adult porn, is their decision and theirs alone. But this mindset personified the idea that bodies are commodities to be ogled at for sexual stimulation. How can an adult prove that the person they are peering at on the screen was not vulnerable or downtrodden? Ego-centric arguments such as these are contributing to the cycle of exploitation.
No solution is easy, and none is perfect. But there cannot be a pornography free-for-all in a civilised society. And these should be the first steps.