First published as Censorship in the UK: The Internet, Media Myths and the Porn Panic on 16/5/14 on Cliterati.
No censorship plan could be complete without fearmongering. And as is often the case, the enemy these days is dirty, filthy, child-corrupting, woman-defiling, enemy-of-the-family, soul destroying sex. Well, porn, to be precise. But David Cameron’s porn filter blocks far more than porn. It blocks feminist, LGBT, sex education and political satire sites, as well as esoteric material, alcohol and smoking. Even more worrying is the fact that the porn filter blocks rape crisis sites and domestic abuse helpline sites.
During its test, lawyers were unable to access court decisions they needed to prepare their cases. An unnamed source in education says school porn filters already block politics sites and art which contains nudity, to the irritation of art teachers. My local library blocks the Tor (an anonymizing browser) site as well as this blog, which means I can’t blog on public computers without using a flash drive with the Tor browser installed. It’s been reported that smartphones already have the filter which means that feminist, sex education and LGBT sites- as well as political sites- are blocked. (I’ve tested touchscreen phones which are not smartphones and they also have the filter). So should we even be calling the filter a “porn filter” at all?
“It’s not a porn filter, although that’s how it was sold by David Cameron and the media,” said a spokesperson for Sex and Censorship, an organisation which defends free speech and sexual freedom in the UK, “[D]ozens of categories of non-porn content are blocked by the filters. The filters put censorship powers in the hands of the household’s bill payer, and can be used as a tool of abuse against teenagers and partners by denying them access to vast amounts of content.” The history of porn censorship does seem to support these points, as such censorshipoften ends up being used to oppress women and sexual minorities.
Psychologist Dr David J. Ley is best known for his much-needed services to science and good old-fashioned common sense in pointing out that “sex addiction” is a pseudo-disorder in his book The Myth of Sex Addiction. He’s also the author of Insatiable Wives, the Executive Director of the mental health and substance abuse program New Mexico Solutions, and acolumnist on Psychology Today. And he doesn’t think pornography is Public Enemy Number One.
“The demonization of pornography and blaming of it for various issues, from rape to sexism, is an incredibly simplistic game of ‘straw man/scapegoat.’ By blaming these problems on porn, society at large is able to avoid responsibility for its contribution and perpetuation of these problems,” he says. “[P]orn, like any form of culturally/economically-driven entertainment, reflects the values, issues and conflicts within society. Porn is a mirror of social values and struggles, not the other way around. If societies and advocates want to reduce sexism, rape, and all other forms of sexually-related issues, they need to address them within society first.”
Girls Hate Porn: True or False?
The moral panic over porn is fuelled by myths. Pornography is inherently harmful to women. Pornography is something only men use and that women need to be protected from. Pornography causes rape (a variation of the anti-sexwork brigade’s ‘sex work causes rape’).
Myths that purport to be feminist, but in fact reinforce patriarchal ideas about gender roles, the gender binary, female purity, and rape culture. But the reality is far more complex.
“Compared to men, women actually have a stronger, less discriminating physical arousal response to pornography,” he explains. “Whereas men, by and large, show a clear hetero vs homosexual arousal pattern, women almost universally respond in a bisexual pattern. Whether this is an innate or culturally-driven response is not known at this time. What is distinct between men and women is that men are aware of their sexual arousal, whereas women often show physiological arousal and deny being aroused to porn. It is strongly suggested that this is an artifact of the ways in which females are commonly taught to suppress and deny their sexuality.”
In a nutshell, women get hard- and wet- watching porn, but we lie about it. Dr Ley also points out that research suggests that most women who consume porn “tend to be women with higher libidos, who are more sexually adventurous, and are more like men, when it comes to sexual desire and values. These women actually tend to like the same porn that men do, rather than the ‘women-oriented’ porn.” Seems like the less repressed a woman is, the more likely she is to be a porn consumer.
Dr Zhana Vrangalova, sex researcher, Psychology Today blogger and adjunct instructor, also acknowledges the fact that though more men than women consume porn, women can enjoy it: “[M]any women do watch porn, and in fMRI studies porn appears pleasant and rewarding to both sexes. In both sexes, most people who watch porn report positive effects, such as increased breadth of sexual behaviors, more positive attitudes toward sexuality, novelty, joy, and happiness), and only a minority reports negative effects… Positive effects are also reported by couples who watch porn together.”
Does porn cause rape?
The myth that porn causes rape is not based on evidence; rape should be on an increase which matches the increase in the availability of porn, but this hasn’t happened. Anti-sex work groups have previously tried to claim that lapdancing causes rape, and that claim was debunked too.
“[T]here is substantial evidence that availability of porn in a culture is associated with a decrease in sex offenses, especially child molestation, and inhibition of aggression,” says Dr Vrangalova. “[Porn] is often accused of increasing coercive and sexist beliefs and attitudes in men toward women. However, research shows that porn, especially non-violent porn, might have such effects only among men who are already predisposed toward such beliefs and attitudes based on their personality.”
Sex and Censorship seem to agree: “There is an endless, but fruitless, search for harm caused by pornography, but no evidence. Probably the most pernicious (and dishonest) claim is the attempt to link porn to rape: whereas it actually appears that porn usage reduces rather than increases sexual violence.” Linking porn consumption to rape also fuels rape culture. It’s giving the rapist an excuse: “Don’t blame me- Porn Made Me Do It!”
“Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the CHILDREN?!”
But of course no moral panic would be complete without invoking the fragile innocence of our nation’s youth. Sex and Censorship claims that the panic “focuses on harm caused to children – although the moral crusaders provide no actual evidence of such harm, of course. And inevitably, girls are considered more weak and vulnerable than boys, and thus in need of special protection. There is an old, sexist assumption that sex is something males do to females, and that appears in the new, ‘feminist’ anti-porn movement as well. In particular, gay porn is never mentioned by the moral crusaders: it is always the female that must be protected from such filth!” It’s all too possible that the media hype around sexting and ‘Generation Sex’ feeds into the panic, too. Boys and girls sext in roughly equal measure but the media focus is always on the deviancy or dangers of the girls‘ actions. Even stories about girls being slut shamed into suicide prod parents into telling girls not to sext instead of not to slut shame. Once again, the focus becomes the behaviour of girls, not the exploitative, coercive and slut shaming behaviour of boys. The porn filter could well be just another attempt to control the sexual behaviour of young women.
Who’s to blame for this porn panic?
But what’s causing the porn panic? Is feminism to blame, or the rise of a new moralism or sexual conservatism? “It’s a deep-rooted fear of sex, which has resurfaced throughout human history. Today, this sexual conservatism has reappeared wearing feminist clothing, but these are the same old conservative values, presented in new ways,” says Sex and Censorship.
Dr Ley’s view is that “Fascinating research has shown that women most commonly act to suppress the sexuality of other women, rather than men or society at large doing so. The belief is that this is related to women protecting economic control of sexuality, as a resource. It’s my belief that much of the female vocal antagonism and fear of porn reflects another aspect of this attempt to assert control of sexuality and maintain it as a limited, controlled, difficult to obtain resource. The old saying is, ‘don’t give away the milk for free, no one will want to buy the cow.’ Internet porn puts a high-speed milk faucet in men’s bedrooms. The film Don Jon is a great example of this, where the character voices that masturbation to porn is just more relaxing and satisfying than the work required for sex with a woman.
“By asserting that women don’t like porn, are hurt by it, etc., there is definitely the effect that these attitudes and reactions are created by these narratives. Just as the belief that a woman’s first time having sex is painful actually creates the tension, anxiety and fear which leads to that belief being fulfilled. This may indeed reflect yet another aspect of women attempting to control the sexual expression of other women, through narratives such as MaryAnn Layden has put out, wherein she suggests that women who watch porn are increasing their chances of being raped.Watch out women, Porno will steal your soul!”
Myths in mainstream media
There are certain media outlets from which we’ve come to expect mass fearmongering. But when the BBC shows a biased documentary on the subject, you know we’re in trouble. Sex and Censorship describes Porn: What’s the Harm? as an “appalling, biased piece of TV programming, which was riddled with inaccuracies” and have posted about the programme on their site.
Presented by a barely-legal dudebro with questionable expertise on the subjects of human sexuality or media, BBC3′s brand new Tyger Takes On Porn is very rude, funny, and explicit- but it’s barely journalism and doesn’t seriously investigate the effect of porn. The doc also portrays sex work negatively and whorephobic language is used throughout to distinguish pornscorts, adult performers and sex workers from “normal girls”. It is also alleged that “normal girls” do not like kink.
Both presenters of the documentaries were very uncomfortable with porn and presenter Jameela Jamil has never used it.
Channel 4′s October attempt, Porn On The Brain, was almost as bad; Bad Sex Media Bingo, a site devoted to exposing junk science and myths about sex in the media, classes it as scoring “13 out of 24 of the squares on Bad Sex Media Bingo”.
I could go on and on (I made the mistake of facepalming my way through all three facsimiles of journalism) but the above links say it all. But enough of watching prudes googling “porn” and descending into spasms of writhing pearl-clutchery: what happens if you google porn documentaries? Well, you’re treated to documentaries such as Porndemic, which according to its blurb pushes the myth of “porn addiction”. Then there’s The Dark Side of Porn, which asserts that porn is now mainstream and there’s no stigma attached to being an adult entertainment actor. Way to deny whorephobia. While I can’t comment further without watching them, these documentaries’ titles and marketing obviously play up to the fearmongering.
So what does this all mean?
So it doesn’t appear that we need a filter to fix these nonexistent problems. But I’m certainly not saying that nothing needs to be changed. Labelling any portrayal of non-egalitarianism in porn as BDSM or fetish porn would ensure mainstream porn doesn’t include any degrading, sexist or misogynistic material. Surely we should at least try this idea before talking about filters?
A national debate about labour conditions for adult performers might actually be more helpful than one about porn filters- ditto a debate about equal pay, as female actors get paid about ten times as much as males, while trans performers struggle to find work outside the ‘shemale’ scene.
The porn filter idea seems to be more about protecting teens’ and women’s innocence than achieving change in our UN-denounced sexist culture, or achieving something for those most affected by porn-the actors, directors, scriptwriters, etc in the industry. It’s all about aesthetics, not about rights or lived experiences. It’s the idea of sex being incompatible with-and harmful to- ‘the family’-whatever that phrase means, because I’m betting it doesn’t include families which David Cameron disapproves of and is trying to destroy (single parent families and families on benefits).
This is respectability politics gone mad. It’s hypocrisy gone mad. And as I previously wrote, it raises a lot of practical problems and cultural questions. And worst of all, the government can’t even be bothered to sell us something more believable to make us accept its Orwellian nightmare. It’s the ultimate insult to our intelligence.