Pornography is a ‘hot button’ and controversial topic. I often refer to it as the ‘naked elephant in the room’. Everyone knows it’s there, but no one really wants to acknowledge it.

Porn is controversial because it’s divisive. There’s ‘Pro-Porn’ and ‘Anti-Porn’ sides. It’s as oppositional, if not more, as any other ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ discussion. If we dig a little deeper than ‘pro’ and ‘anti’, the work of Malumuth offers 3 main ideological / theoretical perspectives.

  1. The Moralist Perspective
  2. The Liberal Perspective
  3. The Radical Feminist Perspective

Quoting directly from Malumuth’s paper on Pornography, here’s an expansion on these perspectives that could shed some light on why it’s so difficult to see eye-to-eye.

  1. According the moralist perspective, sex is a private act engaged in by consenting married adults, primarily for the purpose of procreation. Pornography, therefore, is viewed by moralists as offensive as well as a negative influence on society. Not only does it encourage sexual acts outside the boundaries of private behaviour among married adults, but it also publicly displays sex. Through these public displays of sex, pornography sexually arouses consumers in ways that might encourage unacceptable behaviour. Some pornography communicates positive messages about adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality, which according to the moralist perspective are unacceptable and undesirable behaviours. Through its emphasis on the importance of sex and sexual gratification, pornography encourages illicit fantasies and acts, degrading sex and marriage.
    [Side note: Not all people who oppose porn are moralists; not all Christians appreciate being labelled as such; and calling all opposers to porn ‘moralists’ is a worn-out bullying tactic that attempts to shut down conversation.]
  2. In the liberal perspective, the concepts of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ are viewed as culturally defined and therefore arbitrary. Human adults who are given free access to the full range of messages and information are able to make rational choices about what is appropriate behaviour in their culture. Four assertions made by supporters of the liberal theory help to understand pornography research guided by this perspective:
    1. Most pornography merely triggers sexual thoughts that are not acted out. Unless these thoughts result in harmful actions against others, pornography should be considered harmless.
    2. Pornography may even be a socially beneficial form of communication that allows for self-expression of sexual interests.
    3. The state should not restrict individuals’ basic human right to free expression of ideas. As long as the recipient restricts his behaviour to private actions such as sexual arousal, fantasy or use of pornography with consenting partners, society has no right to interfere.
    4. While pornography is generally not harmful, consumers who are particularly susceptible to it and cannot behave rationally may require some form of message restriction once they have acted illegally.
      [Side note: This perspective seems to only cover that of adults, not considering the impact of pornography availability to children.]
  3. Radical feminists view social relations in terms of power dynamics. In our society, men hold considerable power over women. Sex, these feminists contend, is the primary means by which men exert power over women. Through this unequal distribution of power, men have been able to force their notions of appropriate sexual relations between men and women as well as shape how women perceive themselves. Men ‘possess’ and use women through the sexualisation of intimate intrusion. Sexual access to women is a central feature of women’s definition of inferior and of feminine. According to this feminist perspective, pornography is a form of ‘hate literature’. It is visual and verbal intrusion, access, and possession of women by men.
    [Side note: Whilst within the feminist movement there are a variety of perspectives, only the radical feminist position is discussed in the Malumuth article.]

You may or may not identify with these viewpoints; you may resonate with parts of each perspective; and there may well be other approaches to consider. And then of course there are the gender differences that influence perspectives. More men than women view pornography on a regular basis. Someone who is happy with their porn use will find it incredibly offensive to have their ‘love of porn’ viewpoint challenged. People of all sexual diversities use porn solo, as well as in monogamous and non-monogamous relationships.

Add to controversies the often overlooked voice of children in this conversation. I once asked a peak sexology body to explain what their position was on child protection policies and procedures regarding minors’ access to pornography. Their response was liberal: “although ‘we’ are pragmatic about the use of pornographic material within the adult population, as an organisation we are against the consumption of said material by minors.

Against consumption… but not willing to act on the right’s of children. For instance, The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states in Article 17: Children have the right to reliable information from the media. Mass media such as television, radio and newspapers should provide information that children can understand and should not promote materials that could harm children.

The World Association of Sexual Health states that people have the right to be free from all forms of violence and coercion. I argue that the above position offered by this particular peak body contradicts Declaration no. 5. It goes on to explain that everyone shall be free from sexuality related violence and coercion, including: rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, bullying, sexual exploitation and slavery, trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation, virginity testing, and violence committed because of real or perceived sexual practices, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and bodily diversity.

Look back to yesterday’s blog on Getting the Definition Right and go over the detail provided by the State of Minnesota. Then re-read Sexual Right number 5. There’s a whole pile of controversy to acknowledge right there.

The question is, who has the courage to address it?


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Liz Walker

About Liz Walker

Sexuality & pornography educator and advocate. Liz provides consultancy, schools education & presentations, and is sought after internationally.