Don’t pity the pornographers
When moral arguments are tied to power, careers are ruined — in both directions
Won’t someone think of the pornographers? Salon.com is lamenting thousands of tragic job losses in the porn industry as a consequence of Pornhub’s recent cleanup. Who, sighs progressive pro-porn sociologist Angela Jones, “is speaking for the hundreds of thousands of pornographers whose economic livelihoods have been served upon an altar for penance?”
Jones decries the ‘anti-porn lobby’ as a front organisation for the religious right, but in truth it spans left and right, comprising feminists, sex industry survivors and ordinary men and women as well as people of faith. All these groups view self-expression as one value to balance against numerous other moral harms inflicted by the proliferation and normalisation of porn.
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“This is not a zero-sum game, even if the politically savvy master illusionists in the anti-porn lobby want you to believe it is”, Jones asserts. Ostensibly her concern is for the economically precarious sex workers struggling to make a living, and for the free speech of groups whose ‘self-expression’ is being brutally stifled by Big Religion. While sex trafficking is of course bad, she says, “censorship is not the answer.”
Except, of course, in a contest between mutually incompatible moral norms, it absolutely is a zero-sum game. There is no reconciling the perspectives of porn advocates and socially conservative porn abolitionists in any abstract ‘marketplace of ideas’. The only remotely effective way of settling an irreconcilable difference of public values is, in fact, censorship.
And indeed this technique has been used to great effect in recent years, by a networked and confident vanguard of progressive moral entrepreneurs who seek to inflict reputational, political and economic damage on any individual or institution that violates their preferred moral norms. Recent examples are too numerous to list but include (in the US) the defenestration of the New York Times’ comment editor for publishing an article calling for the military to suppress BLM protests, and (in the UK) the recent dropping of Julie Burchill by publisher Hachette after she called the Prophet Mohammed a ‘paedophile’.
Having noticed progressives’ facility with this approach, the anti-porn lobby has accepted a reality which still seems to elude many opponents of the progressive juggernaut: that winning the argument is futile unless you also have power. That is, the best arguments in the world are meaningless until you can use them to inflict — as David Hines put it recently — ‘actual material damage’ on your opponents.
But decrying the apparent progressive hypocrisy of ‘censorship bad except when it serves me’ achieves nothing. Better to recognise the terms on which this contest for control of moral norms is actually being fought. Those on both left and right with reservations about the emerging moral consensus are waking up to the reality that it’s not enough to win the argument; you have to win the arm-wrestle, and that means having your ‘side’ in leadership roles.
So, one prediction for 2021 (which I hope will be better than 2020, for all of us). The intensifying contest over who controls public moral norms will reflect this dawning realisation, and migrate accordingly from an increasingly disorderly ‘marketplace of ideas’ to the boards of public institutions.
I don’t know if Ms Harrington reads these comments, but if so I should like to wish her a very prosperous, healthy New Year. Although I subscribe to several news/opinion sites, as I grow older I find fewer and fewer publications or writers in whom I can consistently take pleasure. Unherd is pretty well the sole exception, with the FT coming in a poor second. And of its contributiors – many excellent – Mary Harrington is to my mind primus inter pares. I am awed by the volume of her output, and sometimes wonder if, like the Old Masters, she is actually a brand fronting a workshop of authors; and similarly find the breadth of her experience extraordinary. Either way, although or because I do not always agree with her, she and almost all of the Unherd team are at the very top of my personal list of people with whom I should like to share a lengthy lunch (or coffee). Long may Unherd and its team flourish.
“The intensifying contest over who controls public moral norms will
reflect this dawning realisation, and migrate accordingly from an
increasingly disorderly ‘marketplace of ideas’ to the boards of public
Why not just speak plainly? You want the government to restore the Board of Censors and return to them the power to decide what we read, watch and listen to – for our own good, of course…
Sometimes what you read, watch and listen to can have an effect on other people. We seem to have lost sight of the notion that there needs to be balance.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Almost all restrictions on speech and self expression are more dangerous than the speech they forbid.
I don’t agree. Mainly because I wasn’t referring to speech. Say what you like – I do. Just don’t beat up women and film it for the sexual stimulation of others. It certainly isn’t good for the women, whatever some are paid to pretend, and it isn’t good for children who get a somewhat skewed view of what constitutes the good life. And you know what? It probably isn’t good for you.
Beating up women is illegal, and so no need for censors. Pretending to be beaten up is not illegal, so no need for censors – or, would you censor Braveheart too?
We have seen that we cannot trust the judiciary to administer speech laws justly – look at the absurdity of that clown being prosecuted for teaching his dog a dodgy salute.
Yes I know it is. But simulating violence against women, merely for its own sake and for no other reason than to provide tittilation, is not the same as Braveheart.
You seem to confuse speech laws and dodgy salutes with mysogynistic p ornography.
I don’t confuse them, I simply don’t trust legislators – or private sector censors – to make adequate and safe distinctions between good and bad literature, movies, paintings, sculptures or political protests.
So, I prefer the US model of the First Amendment. Free speech (and speech includes movies or T-shirt wearing) is absolute, except for a small number of instances that are not hard to define with clarity.
I agree and amongst those small number of instances I include violent p ornography along with incitement to break the law and our old favourite, shouting Fire! in a theatre. Pretty much the case within living memory.
Take it you’d use 1st amendent to allow your daughter/sister/mother to be a pornstar?
The First Amendment has no bearing on my relationship with my family. The First Amendment, as you appear not to know about it, simply bars the government from making law that prevents (restricts) speech. [There are exceptions – such as insider trading, direct incitement to imminent violence, official secrets etc, but these are rare and well-defined.]
However, insofar as my wife/mother/daughter are all adults, I do not have the role of “allowing” them (or otherwise) to do anything.
Would I like them to be pornstars? No. Would I like the government to use law to prevent them? No.
Being a grown up entails accepting that we must sometimes accept things we don’t like. I would prefer my oldest son smoked less weed. I don’t want the law to be used to stop him.
Well said, Joe. Those who want to argue that sexually explicit material is terrible are of course entirely free to do so. But they are NOT free to prevent its production, possession and distribution. That represents a proper balance of the freedom of all sides in this debate.
Gangbanging and watching it is some kind of self expression for those that partake?
If there is to be some form of censorship, then there must necessarily be some form of censor. I don’t see that it logically follows that it must be some particular body.
Presumably you’re referring to the British Board of Film Classification, established as the British Board of Film Censorship in 1912? That still exists. Incidentally, it was a private body from 1912 and given statutory authority in 1984.
Someone needs to follow up this article with one examining the alliance of left wing feminists with right wing fundamentalists in their attempt to dictate to the rest of us what we are allowed to see, hear, think, feel and say.
Because that’s what unites these two otherwise opposed ideological camps- the shared notion that, being in possession of the “truth” , they are our moral superiors, and have the right to dictate to their moral inferiors.
All of which reveals the hidden reality that feminism is more like a religion than it is a political position, more a matter of faith than reason. That’s why those of us who still cling to classic liberalism find both camps to be so repugnant.
In the end, they’re both just self-righteous bullies.
All true, still, nobody want to die on the hill of smut, much less fight for the right to self-abuse with visual aids – a bit embarassing and slightly pitiful.
And us right wing fundamentalists think you who call yourself classic liberals but are nothing like them, and are the real self righteous bullies who have created your own weird religion and want to evangelize us with force.
How are we ‘bullies’? You can say what you like. You can choose not to use sexually explicit material. But at the same time you have to respect our fredom to use it if we choose.
Then you misunderstand the very real distinction between classic liberalism and woke progressivism.
The ‘classic liberal’ world was already chock full of w…king material BEFORE 3rd wave feminism&rightwing fundamentalists emerged..
Publishers have been falling over themselves to get the rights to publish a true piece of hate speech by a female author entitled “I hate men”. Is this right, bearing in mind the Woke Nazis would not allow the publication of a book entitle “I hate women”?
P ornography and s ex have always been for sale and always will be. I expect stone age man was painting lewd pictures on the walls of his cave for the delectation of his neighbours. What has changed is the ready availability of violent imagery. S ex coupled with violence strikes me as a pretty lethal combination. Any woman with half a brain recognises that. That the participants and consumers are consenting adults doesn’t come into it. There are plenty of ways of earning a living that we treat as unacceptable. What next, the burgler struggling to make a decent living? All societies censor some behaviour, that is what makes a society what it is, but we seem to have entered a srange place where that which is harmless, indeed benefical, is forbidden and that which is harmful is encouraged as an expression of our freedom.
Well. some freedom.
Oh please. While I can’t claim to have seen much in the way of modern day porn (bad habit, best avoided), from what I have seen (I have lewd colleagues I’m afraid) the so-called violent imagery is nothing of the sort. It’s faintly ridiculous fantasy and looks nothing at all like coercion. Modern TV dramas have more coercion, violence, even sexual in nature, and nobody complains one damn bit (see “Game of Thrones”, “Outlander”, “Coronation Street”, “Girl with the Dumb Tattoo” or something)
Dildos made from polished wood have been found in caves, dating back ten’s of thousands of years.
Now that i surely did not know..
Alongside half-eaten offspring no doubt..
Always been for sale (secretly and outside of regular folk’s view) sure, but now it is normalized, not thought an aberration as it was in all Western history. Now why would prostitution have always been thought of with such strong views? Maybe because it was not good for the women, or men.
If “thought an aberration as it was in all Western history” why have so many countries in so many time periods had brothels?
“secretly and outside of regular folk’s view” – must have been irregular folk keeping the brothels open then. The view part I’ll give you unless it was a quickie down an alleyway.
It’s a side issue, but I don’t get the Julie Burchill story. She asked a Muslim scholar how old Muhammed’s first wife was when they married. Most sources have Khadija at age 40, fifteen years older than the future Prophet. At lest she was older than he, all scholars grant. So where’s the paedophilia accusation? Or am I just being thick?
She was, presumably, referring to the story of Aisha, who was married to the old man when she was 6.
This quote from wikipedia:
Sahih al-Bukhari’s hadith says “that the Prophet married her when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old.”
Bukhari’s hadith are respected in islam. For some reason, the woke tendency to judge historical figures by contemporary standards, and to dismiss their works accordingly, has managed to ignore old Mo’s history here… and the bit about slavery too.
Yes, it has. And the conservative tendency to wring one’s hands and cry “it was a different time!” even when speaking of things that happened a few decades ago is, likewise, oddly absent when it comes to a man who lived in a savage wasteland back in the Dark Ages.
Hypocrisy goes both ways.
Condemning one’s ancestors to keep up with modern fashion always ends up with selective outrage, unprincipled exceptions, and sanctimony.
Here’s the fundamental difference:
Coulson et al (the slavers…). Or Oxford’s Rhodes. Yes, it was a different time. And everyone should acknowledge that – and be capable of saying “it was a different time, and he still did some good things as well as those we now accept were evil.”
Nobody sees Rhodes or Coulson as figures to be followed or revered; nobody sees their worldview as the unquestionable basis for living.
Unfortunately, that is not true of the other historical figure I referred to…
It might have looked better if they’d said she was 6 in dog years.
Er… okay. I promise not to.
PornHub exists because there is a market for their content. There are thousands of similar venues. Every medium has included porn touching on every notion, well forever. I’m sure after the Bible was printed, press efforts arouse to bring porn images and words to more people. At the time only the wealthy could view such artistic materials, in private with a few friends. Cameras allowed more images. An entire video tape industry arose to meet demand. So onto the Internet where the same notions get exploited reaching into every community, even those where such content is unlawful using tools known to seekers. So goes the march of history that exists given demand.
Some sick minds obviously exist and need to be found but most voyeur consumers don’t have such minds and most performers treat their work as work. Trying to eliminate porn is a fool’s errand.
Why are evangelical Christians so often described as the religious right? In the UK many Christians are left of centre; Giles Fraser had a regular column in the Guardian.
Pornography is violence and humiliation of women, filmed and shown for free just by having a phone with an internet connection. It is the eroticization of misogyny, within a context of illegal trafficking of women and corruption. That’s what porn is. That there are people in favor of porn is understandable: it is an “industry” and a very powerful and mafia-like lobby
No it’s not Pat. It’s because men are biologically programmed to like looking at naked women. It may not be wholesome or even good for men or women, but men really don’t visit porn sites thinking “God I hate women”.
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