Banning porn is the irresponsible answer

I’m usually impervious to an “EU bans…” headline. Basically, because I think the EU is actually quite good at banning things that we are better off without, fish dumping and old-fashioned light bulbs, for example (and let’s face it, who could defend incandescent light bulbs on any basis apart from the fact they were brutally cheap.)

But porn? I nearly gagged on my anti-censorship feminism.

I had to read more.

Turns out ‘a ban on all forms of pornography in the media’ is but one clause of a detailed proposal to end gender stereotypes, which the parliament will vote on this Tuesday. The report itself is actually full of robust recommendations for how we tackle horizontal and vertical segregation in employment, female poverty, the issue of fathers and childcare etc. But the wording of the report is alarmingly vague, with neither porn nor the media defined anywhere at all.

By the report’s own assessment, every sphere of life is dogged by gender stereotypes. That said, the report is primarily concerned with women’s representation, not men’s, and doesn’t trouble itself to refer to either trans representation, or non-hetero-normative gender stereotypes. But gender only means men and women, of course. Advertising is singled out as the main perpetrator of gender stereotypes. So why have the proposers decided that porn alone must be banned? In their minds, do all stereotypes emanate from porn because sex is the act from which life evolves? Perhaps not always being able to see the contraception used has confused the MEPs into thinking that porn stars populate the world with pervy babies, who distort the ‘natural’ order of sex and equality or something. It makes about as much sense as banning all pornography on the basis that, without exception, porn replicates gender stereotypes. And then there’s the minor issue of freedom of expression.

If the report cannot even take the time to define porn, much less assess the quality of the porn out there, or trouble itself to watch films made by directors such as Candida Royale or Anna Arrowsmith or investigate Cindy Gallup’s Make Love Not Porn project, for example, how can we even take the proposal seriously? A ban on porn would be nothing but an electronic cache-sex, a reactive and cowardly response to one of the most pressing ethical questions of our day. Some porn may perpetuate misogyny and gender inequity but it’s not as though those things don’t exist in countries without it. Saudi Arabia springs to mind.

Don’t get me wrong – I think there is a lot of undue misogyny in porn (though what constitutes misogyny is itself open to debate – consensual degradation and general misogyny being too separate things. Read this I wrote for the F Word once upon a time if you want an argument on the ethical viability of so-called violent porn).  But porn isn’t by definition misogynistic. I thought we’d left that radically restrictive argument behind a long time ago, but apparently not. And unfortunately, those that condemn the industry as a whole are very ill-informed about their pornographic options. I’ve just come back from a pornography debate at the Women of the World 2013 festival. On a three-person panel, comprised of Chitra Nagarajan, Dr Julia Long and Martin Daubney, and chaired by Baroness Kennedy, neither Nagarajan nor Dr Long had ever seen any feminist porn, admitting this only after they had attacked the stuff as a whole. When Dr Long peddled the archaic ‘porn is violence against women’ line, and ‘I’ve never seen these female pornographers,’ I was forced to shout ‘I am one!’ At least Baroness Kennedy asserted her belief in civil liberties and that banning anything was not a way of doing things in a democracy.

Now, I watch a fair bit of porn. Sometimes for work-related research, sometimes for stimulation. When I was writing Bound To You, I primed myself with a quick viewing during the afternoon slump; it inspired my sex scenes and helped me to motor on through my six-week deadline. And I watched all kinds of porn, some of it high-quality, imaginative and wildly erotic, some of it clichéd and basely stimulating. It didn’t alter my conceptions of gender any more than watching Christmas adverts where the mothers are responsible for every act of preparation and cooking did. That’s because I’ve been educated to interrogate notions of gender so that when I watch adverts or encounter sexism in professional life or watch porn, I can separate out what I think from the alternative realities I’m being presented with. Like most of the other sentient adults in the European Union. Children are a separate issue, but this is not what the EU ban on porn in the media is explicitly concerned with.

I tend to think of most internet porn rather like fast food. It dazzles the eye, overloads the taste buds, and can only satisfy its own craving. It can be fun to eat on occasion, but most of us wouldn’t want to indulge all the time. We know it wouldn’t be fully nutritious if we ate it every day, but we chose to enjoy it for what it is, and we get a different kind of pleasure from consuming fast food to health food. And we exercise our agency in choosing to consume it at some times and not at others.

That said, we could certainly improve the quality of the porn out there and improve its production. How about an ethical porn stamp, for example? Proof that the workers were there of their own accord, that they knew what acts they would be performing before they were filmed, that they really were consenting to their work? Business regulation is, after all the way we temper ethics and money when it comes to every other enterprise. A basic understanding of consent and adult agency wouldn’t go amiss either. Then a debate about whether facials can be feminist might have some decent legs to stand on.

And for those who think ethical porn, like feminist porn, is an oxymoronic impossibility, take a look at the Fair Trade model. That was similarly criticised for its idealism and lack of commercial viability back in the day. Now Kitkats are made with fairly-sourced sugar.

What is even more damning is that the UK had the chance to work with the British adult industry on regulation but decided instead to push it offshore. ATVOD is the body that regulates video-on-demand content in the UK.  Its remit has never been debated in Parliament (instead it ‘bought’ its authority off  OFCOM ) and yet, through a combination of fines and censorious demands, British VOD providers have simply re-registered their companies in other jurisdictions, the Canaries for example. Once there, the British government has no power to either prosecute them for producing obscene material (if they do) nor to regulate them. The government could have set the bar for porn production around the world by negotiating with its own porn companies. But it chose instead to make them the burden of other legal systems, shirking both its opportunity – and its responsibility – to monitor and guide British porn production.

Porn isn’t the problem; lack of education and alternatives to stereotypes are.  Unfortunately, it is the opponents as much as the producers that sell us this line.

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