Relax Folks! Pornography is Not the End of Civilisation

Porn! It is out to get you. Or so it would seem given the panicked discourse of activist and interest groups as of late.

Earlier this year, a group of religious and anti sex industry organisations met for an ‘Australian Summit Against Sexual Exploitation’ — the general theme of which was pornography as the harbinger of doom.

Porn panic propaganda has a particular flavour to it, a certain recipe for success: one part cherry picked study, three parts harrowing anecdote all topped off with a smidge of factual evidence. Let me show you how it is done.

Degrading Definitions

If you are going to cherry pick a study, you will probably pick Bridges (2010). Why? Because it allows you to open your unpaid op-ed with ‘88% of pornography contains aggressive and degrading sexual practices’. Which is a shocking statistic, no?

This will usually be followed by graphic talk about ‘penises plunging into orifices’ and how the good old days of Playboy centrefolds are over. Although, a reminder, people weren’t so fond of those centrefolds back in the day either and for similarly exaggerated reasons.

Bridges (2010), and similar ‘content analysis’ studies, love to stretch the definitions of words beyond their ordinary meaning. For example, in the authors’ eyes ‘aggressive and degradation sexual practices’ includes everything from consensual S&M acts, facial and bodily ejaculation to any and all ‘nonnormative sexual practices’ — whatever that means.

As you would expect, no other researchers have come close to the ‘88%’ statistic of Bridges (2010). In fact, some studies have put the rate of depicted degrading practices in pornography as low as 1.2% using a consent focused methodology.

This is Your Brain on Porn

If you can’t mischaracterise the content, you might as well exaggerate its impact instead. Next to ‘low-key’ and ‘covfefe’, porn addiction may be the most exhausted phrase of 2017.

Panic purveyor Porn Harms Kids warns us that porn causes ‘similar neurological processes to those observed in substance addiction’. Unsurprisingly so does sugar, or believing in God or sex — which seems pretty relevant!

Misrepresentation of Neuroscience is the Latest Tool in Porn Panic

Silly ‘neurohype’ is designed to provide the allure of scientific evidence, when none exists. There is an open debate right now amongst mental health professionals whether porn addiction is a valid diagnosis, let alone one comparable to crack cocaine.

Even if ‘porn addiction’ exists as a phenomena, nobody — outside a small group of Certificate-level self-declared ‘sexual wellbeing experts’ — actually believes it is widespread.

In an Australian survey published this year, only 4% of men and 1% of women said that they were ‘addicted’ to pornography. There are higher numbers of us addicted to phone apps.

Another Australian survey of porn consumers found that 59% believe watching porn had a positive impact on their sexuality, 35% that it has no effect and only 6% believed their porn use had a negative impact on their sexuality. To repeat: 94% of Australians who use pornography have no issues, with a majority citing positive effects on their sexuality.

Panicked anecdotes regarding addiction, porn-induced erectile dysfunction and relationship dissatisfaction flood internet forums but don’t hold up to scrutiny.

So widespread is the myth of porn addiction that a recent op-ed in the Journal of Sexual Medicine was simply titled “Pornography Viewing: Keep Calm and Carry On”.

Won’t Somebody Think of the Children!?

So, you don’t like something sexually but it isn’t harmful to adults? Make it about children!

Recent shifts in the anti-porn camp have changed to emphasise young people’s exposure to pornography. This worried lot was largely behind the awkwardly worded ‘Inquiry into the Harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the Internet’, which reported back earlier this year. The result: a call for more research as evidence presented to the Inquiry was anecdotal, bias and conflicting.

Nevertheless, the influence of adult media on young people is an area where more constructive conversations between industry and the public can begin.

Pornography is adult fantasy. As fantasy it is exaggerated and fanciful: lacking in lessons about relationship boundaries, safe sex or positions that maximise pleasure as opposed to visuals.

The term ‘porn literacy’ as an extension of general media literacy education for young people — along with comprehensive sex education — are the best methods to ensure kids aren’t getting the wrong idea from porn.

These conversation are hard to have and they are made even more difficult when panic proponents want to ban the sex industry entirely.

Some Reality

Finally, for the ‘smidge of truth’: some porn is bloody terrible!

The worst side of pornography isn’t because it depicts violence or exploitation but because it can sometimes reflect the sexist, racist and homophobic attitudes of wider society.

This lack of critical lack of self-awareness is reflected in certain clichés and stereotypes of the genre. It is also reflected by incidents like earlier this year where a US-based gay porn site was widely condemned for using a Didgeridoo as a sex toy.

Thankfully, Australian porn producers are a bit more diverse and self-critical than their American counterparts. This is despite the fact that they are operating in a confusing and hostile legal environment.

Is there misogyny still in the adult industry? Absolutely. Does it come anywhere near the level of sexism found in male-dominated professions such as law and finance? From this former lawyer’s perspective: hell no!

And this gets to the heart of what is wrong with porn panic. Fear and lies are not the basis for constructive discourse and change. As feminist and porn star Annie Sprinkle once put it: “The answer to bad porn isn’t no porn…it’s to try and make better porn!”