Is pornography ever acceptable?

Warning: Many of the links in this article go to adult only sites. Only click them if you are 1) Not at work and 2) An adult.

Well of course porn can be acceptable. It is a bit of a silly question if you ask me.

Still, it was a question that I tried to answer last night on the BBC World Service debate. Of course, there was not the time to answer the question in full, so here is part of my argument to why pornography can be acceptable.

Last night I made a brief point that countered one of the traditional criticisms of porn, that it ‘peddles a misogynistic societal norm’. I said:

A simple point, how does consensual homosexual porn reflect ‘traditional misogynistic values’? It normally doesn’t.

I hoped this point would illustrate a wider argument. Pornography, in its current manifestation is a deeply worrying phenomenon, but there is nothing inherent about pornography that suggests it has to be.

So why do some feel that pornography is never acceptable?

The reasons given would broadly fall into two categories:

1)      The feminist argument – simplified, this line of thought argues that pornography is inherently demeaning to women and peddles societal norms that perpetuate negative associations with gender identities – think Andrea Dworkin.

2)      The ‘Won’t somebody think of the children’ argument – again simplified, this line of thought says that pornography is giving young children unrealistic and damaging understandings of sex and gender – think of any socially conservative mother.

There is, of course, an element of truth in both. There is however, nothing fatalistic about either argument – pornography doesn’t have to be demeaning to women or bad for children.

Just like gay porn doesn’t peddle misogynistic norms, so pornography as a positive, empowered expression of sexual identity can exist without stumbling across these two ‘traditional’ problems.

To start with the feminist argument:

Firstly, there is of course a lot of empowering pornography written for women by women.

For example, Heather Corinna is a prime example of someone at the forefront of making progressive porn. She is the founder of the websites, & that actively look to offer positive images of sex and sexual identity.

She is one of many women who put forward the feminist argument for pornography. Broadly this says:

Don’t women, and all people, have the right to control their bodies, access their sexual desires, and to enjoy safe and consensual sexual pleasure?

For me, it is a compelling argument. Who are we to say that women should not be allowed to reclaim an industry that has been so used and abused by men?

Indeed, this ‘post black lace’ feminist porn has led the way in using pornography to reclaim many of the issues that affect women but are traditionally off limits.

For example looks to break the myth that women lose all sense of sexuality once a month during their period. ‘Erotic Red’ is self styled as “porn made by passionate models who aren’t shy to say, “Kiss me, I’m menstruating!”.

To give another example, there is Berg’s Queer Foot Porn which is a:

not-for-profit grassroots porno-political activism designed to promotes women’s pleasure through humor and sexuality. We are driven by a longing for women to feel at home in our own bodies, to cherish the sound of our own laughter, and to welcome our sensations of desire. We believe that as women gain a better self-knowledge of what turns us on and what makes us laugh, we will become increasingly adapt at critiquing sexist humour that is not so funny and questioning depictions of sexuality that are not so fun, and, thereby, become more capable of seeing and shaping our own lives. We declare that women’s equality in the bedroom (or in the kitchen or on the living room floor) is as vital as women’s equality on the job – and that these twin goals are not in conflict

Is this not something that we, as feminists, should be welcoming? True female emancipation.

As I have to keep stating, this is not an argument for throat fucking, suicide girls or any of the other nasty plethora of things the porn industry thinks up. It is an argument for the empowering potential of pornography and a warning against the lazily labelling of all porn as the same.

But what about the kids, won’t somebody think about the kids” – I hear every socially conservative mother shout.

The vast majority of those in the industry and those who use pornography agree that children should not be viewing pornography (although why in the UK we think that kids can have sex at 16 but not view pornography until 18 I don’t know).

I would personally go one step further. I think that sought out pornography can be part of a rounded sex education.  The problem comes when the unrealistic and stylized images of sexuality act as a child’s only sign post in their sexual development.

Is there any reason that Berg’s Queer Foot Porn should not be part of a kids rounded sex education?

Therefore, to protect our children I would argue a positive two-fold approach.

1)      Greater access to sex education that doesn’t just focus on the worries and dangers but looks to celebrate human sexuality in all its diversity. This would be combined with:

2)      Open frank criticism of any publication, pornographic or not, that consistently show one gender in a demeaning light.

This latter point includes ‘lads mags’ (a dying phenomena) and yes, even the nation’s favourite fiction book, 50 Shades of Grey (phrases like “Truly I am marionette and he is the master puppeteer” – hardly female liberation speak). Of course people should be free to read such publications but we need a public consciousness and discussion about their societal impact.

What we cannot afford to do, is make the porn industry a punch bag. We need to welcome the progressives within it and openly criticise the bigots, rapists, traffickers, heroin dealers and misogynists.

Just like the rest of society, we have to articulate that these values and actions have no place in a civilised society. At the same time we need to be saying that all people regardless of their gender or sexuality are empowered to articulate their desires in a non-judgmental environment.

Not only can pornography be acceptable, but it might also act as a positive tool for changing society for the good, if only we are open minded enough to accept it.


Filed under Social comment

4 responses to “Is pornography ever acceptable?

  1. Sam T

    Thanks for this interesting and well thought out blog Steve. I think you have addressed many of the concerns people sometimes have against those who argue for total freedom in this area as a human right, which in my opinion often inhibits others’ rights. E.g. some of my friends working in social services and anti-human trafficking suggesting a strong link between the current porn industry and sex trafficking.

    While I don’t think it’s government’s role to impose restrictions on people, I do think that it can put in place measures to encourage a healthy view of sex and you do allude to this.

    One thing I would say about porn, and a danger from my perspective is that I wonder whether it does promote the idea of ‘perfection’ in sexual experience which can be potentially damaging to monogamous relationships..? If we are encouraging people to watch porn (or at least saying it’s not harmful) as you argue here, I just wonder whether comparisons will be made in one’s own sexual experiences with personal partners? And if those experiences do not meet the ‘expectation’ of what porn (either as it stands currently or in a way you describe) offers, it will lead to greater dissatisfaction on a personal level as the search for unattainable perfection is installed.

    Just a thought I had as I was writing this. Would be interested to hear others’ thoughts


    • Yes, quite possibly Sam, but the thing with pornography is that the *idea* that it might be banned or extremely heavily restricted is readily available – meaning that there is an invitation to take any criticism of it as an invitation to ban or restrict, rather than just an observation. To invoke another topic of interest to Steve – because the idea of a boycott is so familiar, it’s easy to respond to any bad action on the part of Israel’s government as a reason to boycott (there was an article by Sunny Hundal a while back which fitted this pattern – I don’t particularly want to have a go at him but there would be no other government whose actions he’d respond to in *precisely* that way.)

      So the argument with relation to dissatisfaction could be mapped on to watching various types of aspirational TV show, or even just a cooking programme. You could start to feel dissatisfied because you can’t have, or can’t do, something. Now – I’m not interested in pornography but I love Georgette Heyer novels – and even the most chaste romantic fiction could make one dissatisfied because one’s partner is nothing like Mr Darcy and nothing at all like (all my guilty secrets are coming out now!) Edward Cullen.

      NB – sorry, wordpress seems to want me to comment as s4r4hbrown rather than Sarah AB – I think it’s because I’ve been moderating elsewhere using that a/c.


  2. I think I broadly agree with you. Perhaps it was your opening reference to gay male porn which made me reflect that the only time (at least remotely recently) I’ve ever heard women express any interest in eroticism/pornography was in relation to slash fiction. In fact their interest is at least partly academic/professional – but it’s still an interest, I guess!


  3. Chris

    It’s always acceptable and even if the radfems don’t think so, their opinions are irrelevant when there’s a demand for the product, which there always has been and always will be.


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