Friday, January 26, 2007

Sexuality Education: Our First Line of Defense Against “Pornotopia”?

Here’s how I feel about the complex issue of pornography:
I like it.

I’m not ashamed to like porn. I don’t feel like watching porn has had any ill effects on my life, my self-esteem, my relationships or my intelligence. In fact, I would join with many who’ve come before me (pun not intended, I swear!) in stating that there’s a lot of good to be had from porn: it can help a person learn about different kinds of sex and become more comfortable with sexuality, and it’s a great way to explore a sexual interest (or fetish) that would otherwise be difficult to pursue.

There are those who feel that the pervasive way in which pornography has infiltrated pop culture is having a negative effect on our lives and relationships (and in case you couldn’t tell, I’m putting it mildly). In a 2006 article in the Walrus which extensively quotes Pamela Paul (author of “Pornified: How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families”), Charles Foran has a lot to say about pornography, but in particular he is concerned with “newly sexualized youths, who may never recover from being consumers of its distortions.” Foran’s particular argument is that jerking off to “women and men, most of whom are performing lewd sexual acts before a camera because they are poor or damaged” leads to a lessening of human sympathy. “Porn,” Foran states, “may yet be the death of empathy.”

Setting aside for the moment my disagreements with the arguments that Foran and his anti-porn counterparts make, lets look at the ways in which the porn-ruins-our-lives problem can be solved. The typical response is to censor pornography. The degree to which pornography should be censored has been debated, but legally in order for material to be considered obscene it must offend community standards of decency. What counts as “community” in this constantly-connected age is a tricky question, but generally speaking most pornography passes muster. And, as the author of Defending Pornography argues, censoring pornography because some people find it morally indecent breaks with the freedom of speech our constitution guarantees us. I may not like the porn you watch, but I will fight to the death for your right to watch it.

So we’re not going the MacDworkinist censorship route. What’s the next plan of attack? In Pornified, Paul argues for a “censure-not-censor” method of attack. According to Paul (and many who think like her), the media glorifies pornography, making it seem sexy and “hip” to like porn. If light was shed on porn to demonstrate that it is, in fact, “harmful, pathetic, and decidedly unsexy,” it would fall out of favor and its effects would be curtailed. And, simultaneously, we would be returned to the days when pornography was the domain of shame-faced men carrying brown paper packages, hiding their sexual interests and living in fear of the label “pervert.” As I’ve already mentioned, I like porn. I’m not ashamed of it, and I refuse to ascribe to any scheme of things that would have me feel ashamed of it. Just as not all porn is fun and sexy, not all porn is harmful and pathetic.

What if, rather than trying to ban pornography or make people who use it feel bad, we give people the information and emotional tools they need to use pornography in a healthy, positive way? More than that, what if we make it a goal of comprehensive sexuality education to specifically address concerns raised by pornography? If we’re concerned that pornography is making young men disrespectful of their female partners, we should make meaningful and respectful communication skills a part of the curriculum. If we’re worried about the effect porn is having on young women’s self esteem, we should stress self-respect. We should be absolutely and explicitly teaching consent. How can we teach young people how to say and hear no, as well as yes, in an abstinence-only system? Likewise, we should be emphasizing mutual affection as a major factor when choosing sexual partners. A good sexual health education program would address all these topics without the prompting of our apparent pornography-induced relational breakdown.

The anti-porn pundits are often heard to bemoan the over-sexualized nature of our culture, and especially its youth. Whether the mainstreaming and popularity of pornography is a symptom or the cause, the fact remains that pornography is not going away. The adult industry is $10 billion strong. Pornography ushered in the age of VHS, and the technology the porn industry uses will be the technology of the future (personally, I think Sony just wrote Blu-Ray’s obituary, but that’s beside the point). The way to handle the effects of pornography on society is to respond pro-actively, by giving young people the power to make responsible, informed decisions and conduct their sex lives with empathy and respect.


Anonymous said...

The evangelicals have made it hard for schools to teach young adults about condoms and birth control. They want abstinence from masturbation and sex. Any education about porn will be biased against it.

Iamcuriousblue said...

I largely agree with you, but I have a minor quibble with your conflation of the MacDworkin approach with the old-school "community standards" obscenity approach. I think that both clearly amount to censorship, but both get there by very different routes.

The traditional approach makes production of "obscene" material a criminal act and imposes prior restraint on works deemed to be legally obscene. ("Community standards" being one of the tests that determine what is and isn't obscene, which is kind of an anachronism in an era where instantaneous global communication is a reality.)

The Dworkin-MacKinnon "Antipornography civil rights ordinance" doesn't impose any criminal penalties or prior restraint, but opens up pretty much anything that could be perceived as pornographic to a civil lawsuit. The way the proposed ordinance was written, an incredibly broad range of material was open to attack this way, and the definition of who might bring the action was so broad that included "any woman acting in the name of all women". Dworkinistas have the gall to say this isn't censorship, since it isn't prior restraint. In fact, it singles out a specific form of expression as civilly liable for the simple fact of belonging to a particular genre, which most definitely amounts to censorship. (And, in effect, a more far-reaching form of censorship than traditional obscenity law.)

Its a distinction to keep in mind and be aware of, since Dworkinistas will jump down your throat if you conflate their approach with traditional obscenity law. They'll also typically claim with a straight face that they're not advocating censorship. One needs to understand their approach to be able to counter such arguments.

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