Why You Need To Take A Second Look At The Debate On Pornography

Let us ignore cries of witch hunt, rebuff personal shame and take on those who justify the violence in pornography with reference to biology. Let us collectively, publicly, roar ‘no more’.

I recently interviewed a medical doctor about his use of pornography. Let’s call the interviewee Richard. Richard told me he finds the sight of multiple women’s naked bodies visually compelling. Internet pornography, he assured me, is the perfect modern-day solution to Civilised Man’s moral dilemma. It allows him to cede his evolutionary heritage whilst enabling him to live according to society’s rules. In Richard’s belief, the bespectacled micro-biologist peering down his microscope all day is no less biologically determined by testosterone and the Y chromosome than Primitive Man rapaciously roaming the savannas of Europe. This is why pornography is so neat he declared: ‘It allows Civilised Man to exercise control of his base impulses by channelling them into harmless fantasy.’

Richard expressed certain attitudes which, to my knowledge, he had never previously given voice, perhaps even to himself. I asked why, if pornography is so personally and socially efficacious, he had kept his consumption secret from all his lovers and partners. He replied that watching pornography is like defecating – Civilised Man, like Primitive Man, must respond to the call of nature, but he must do so discretely and in private. Consuming pornography does not mean infidelity to his wife, Richard assured himself, nor does it impede his respectful treatment of women in ‘real life’, as his adult daughters, friends and colleagues should surely testify.


Now you may feel sympathy for Richard’s rationale, if not in all its particularities, then certainly in its broad sweep. Scratch the surface of his explanation and we see that the anthropological basis for his claims are integral to popular culture’s ‘group think’.  Online medical advice about men’s sexual health tells men there is an ‘evolutionary link’ that explains their pornography use. Men’s brains are ‘hardwired for easy arousal, so that men are ready for sex whenever opportunity knocks – a propagation-of-the-species thing.’ Women are encouraged to understand it is natural for their menfolk to watch pornography so ‘there is no need to worry’.

A Women’s Health Magazine tells an identical story. Its male columnist tells women men are biologically programmed to be ‘aroused by visual stimulation’, and since men in the bedroom put in the graft of giving women orgasms (if only!), pornography allows them a little selfish space or ‘me-time’.  Men seek their partners’ pleasure — ‘reading women’s body language, making sure they do not peak too early, and holding in any non-sexy bodily functions’. Pornography is men’s ‘guilty pleasure that’s as brainless as watching a sitcom (but, you know, with nudity)’. Women should understand that ‘porn is a supplement to sex with them, not a replacement’.

Whenever a ‘nice guy’ – for example a father, husband, and doctor – masturbates to pornography, is he driven by biology or patriarchy? Informing the naturalist story is a familiar narrative, extrapolated from Darwin’s theory of evolution. Ancestral men were risk takers with a biological predisposition to promiscuity and to inseminate multiple partners; ancestral women played a safer psychological game and focused on monogamy, home-building and tending their offspring. The combination of evolved male and female traits, so the narrative goes, has ensured human evolutionary success.

Steven Pinker, a left-leaning, cognitive psychologist, and self-declared feminist supporter, is a respected purveyor of evolutionary doctrine. He is keen to assert that the consequences of evolution, such as men’s aggression and women’s emotional intelligence, should not dictate how social relations ought to be organised. No, no, no. In 21st century liberal democracy and the principles of sex-equality, no-one should condone, support or proscribe men’s predatory behaviour. Nevertheless, Pinker advises, logical, dispassionate thinking such as his should compel us to recognise the evolutionary basis of some behaviours. Feminists like me can rail against the patriarchy till we’re blue in the face, but the fundamental facts of evolution are the inevitable cascade of consequences on the brains and behaviour of modern-day humans. How could it be sexist to merely report the objective conclusions of science?

Steven Pinker (Image: Harvard)

But is this evolutionary theory the product of science? Cordelia Fine, professor of the history and philosophy of science, thinks not. She takes evolutionary psychologists and biologists, as well as neuroscientists, to task for a fundamental deficit in rational thinking and dispassion that might make Darwin turn in his grave. Scientists elide sex with gender and essentialise gender as a ‘natural kind’ (i.e. biological, fixed, discrete, and invariant across time and place). In doing so, they get evolution ‘wrong, wrong and wrong again’. She coins the term Testosterone Rex to encapsulate the myth that weaves together claims about evolution, brains, hormones, chromosomes, and gendered behaviour. Testosterone Rex offers a persuasive account of society’s persistent, seemingly intractable sex-inequalities. Ditching Testosterone Rex as an explanatory framework allows other hypotheses to emerge which lead to a more complex picture. Fine’s analysis doesn’t require denial of evolution, sexual difference or biology, but the converse.

Current sexual health advice is cloaked in scientism not science. In the guise of objectivity, UK National Health Service advice is currently contributing to the ‘pink brain, blue brain’ fashion that is gripping the collective imagination. It presupposes, and thus helps construct, that which Fine argues science should question, namely the belief that boys and girls, men and women, are two discrete entities, not only in their reproductive capacities, but in their proclivities, abilities, and desires [1]. I demonstrate that medicine also has a history of constructing gender difference by endorsing pornography consumption. A current, popularised version is exemplified by Brook, a sexual health charity. Hannah Witton, its sassy, upbeat media-savvy ambassador advises young women that, in an age of equal opportunity, they too can join in the sexual fun. Young women should embrace pornography’s positive benefits: watching people have sex is arousing, and sexual pleasure is good. She tells us ‘the consumption of porn should be separated from its production’, since the latter ‘belongs to an entirely different conversation’ (a conversation she never has). Her advice to those of us who might have concerns about the politics of consumption is not to condemn pornography but ‘to keep an open mind and don’t shame others’.

Pornography itself, both in its production and consumption, does nothing if it doesn’t shame women. Let us consider one of pornography’s most orthodox, ubiquitous, and perhaps least violent of tropes – a woman being slapped, hair-pulled, and anally penetrated whilst name-called a ‘slut’. Or let us reflect on another favourite representation, a woman on her knees surrounded by multiple men taking turns to orally penetrate her till she gags and has eye make-up and ejaculate streaming down her face.  In the West, pornography has followed religion in designating women as belonging to two separate classes: those whom men are obliged to respect – wives, partners, mothers, sisters and daughters; those others – ‘whores’ (someone else’s mother, sister or daughter) – who men can legitimately sexually use through pornography (and prostitution). Some ‘progressives’ prefer to de-politicise their pornography consumption by naturalising their desires and using, at least publicly, the sanitised language of ‘sex-worker’. Pornography is, however, the disavowed successor of Christian ideology and the ancient stories of Adam and Eve, not an escape as pornographers and their advocates claim.

Dea / G. P. Cavallero via Getty Images

Gail Dines, sociologist and founder of Culture Reframed, argues that when medical advice promotes pornography as sexual health it ultimately does the bidding of a powerful industry. The pornography industry has a vested financial interest in hiding the damage it wreaks on the physical and psychological health of performers, and indeed on many of its consumers, in particular children and young people. Whenever the legality of its practices is challenged, the industry successfully brings in the big guns – the Free Speech Coalition. The Free Speech Coalition, launched in 1991 and heavily subsidised by the industry itself, defends the industry from litigation and provides it ‘with a socially responsible image’ as ‘free speech’. But whose freedom of speech do pornographers and the law allow and disallow? Pornography ‘speaks’ to historical male sex entitlement and now delivers this message through digital technology and a new ironic twist worthy of George Orwell’s Doublethink and the relationship of language to ‘group-think’. Larry Flynt and Hugh Heffner, pornographers who became billionaires on the backs of women’s (and men’s) exploitation, are lauded by themselves and alleged progressives/women’s equality advocates as free speech ‘heroes’ liberating women from male sexual supremacy.

Testosterone Rex roams the pornography sets as well as the film casting rooms of Hollywood. Above all, he lives in the collective sexual imagination, no less incited by pornographic representations on the domestic computer screens of husbands, fathers and doctors than the parliamentary computer screens of our politicians. But hey, as a feminist I’m much kinder about men’s ethical capacity than men themselves. There is nothing inevitable about Testosterone Rex’s reign, as the act of squaring up to sexualised patriarchal power might demonstrate. His tumescence will deflate all the sooner if we stop seeing him as a natural figure. The women who are collectively naming the ubiquity of male predatory sexual conduct through the ±MeToo Campaign are not turning themselves into weak victims as Joanna Williams asserts. If we really value free speech, sex-equality, a fair justice system and genuine access to legal redress we need to give Testosterone Rex the boot and relegate his loyal companion to patriarchal history too. As women, let us ignore men’s (and some women’s) cries of witch hunt and become truly active agents, refuse to keep his sex secrets, rebuff personal shame and place it with the men where it belongs. Let us collectively publicly roar NO MORE!

[1] See Brunskell-Evans, H. and Moore, M. (eds.) (forthcoming) Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body

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Article Discussion

  • Posted by Chris

    15 November, 2017 at 8:26 pm

    The author asserts that pornography wreaks physical and psychological damage and that it inevitably shames women. Yet, the only evidence marshalled to support this position is the author's own discomfort with a couple of niche porn genres. That pornography is harmful is the foundational starting point here, with the debate centered around whether this shameful industry flows inevitably from male biology or is the product of "sexualised patriarchal power". The author argues for the latter, arguing that the former involves pseudo-science and gender stereotypes. And yet, the author is guilty of these same gender stereotypes. According to current research, about 1/3rd of all porn consumption is by females. Additionally, about 20-25% of female porn consumption involves same sex (lesbian) themes. The share of female-produced pornography is also growing. How is patriarchal power convincing millions of women to consume visual pornography, even when males are totally absent from the images? The stats don't lie and suggest that Testosterone Rex also comes in a female form (and, in actuality, testosterone plays a major role in the female sex drive as well) According to surveys, women are even more secretive than men about their porn-watching habits with 70% keeping it entirely private, perhaps out of shame. So, thinking of porn viewing as a personal and physical act, like defecation, must not be the sole province of men. In fact, there is reason to believe that the shaming of women for watching porn may be even greater than for men. In contemporary society, men can generally acknowledged their porn watching behavior to other men without judgment or shame, even as they may be more guarded with their female partners. However, women may fear acknowledging their porn watching behavior to male partners out of the fear of being judged as "slutty" and fear acknowledging their porn watching behavior to women out of the fear of negative reactions from people like the author.

  • Posted by John

    12 November, 2017 at 12:55 am

    Full disclosure, I am a man and am not familiar with the tropes of the pornography industry. I am a moral realist, and believe that producing and distributing pornography (whatever its contents) is immoral. However, I believe that pornography should remain accessible to the public, for lack of a better solution. The article did not convince me to change my mind because it stops short of naming a real solution. Should we make the production of pornography illegal? Should we regulate it? What regulations should we impose, and why? I couldn't find anywhere in the article where the author tells us what is to be done. Perhaps the author thought the article was long enough, but this is a considerable omission, without which could only be persuaded by implication, not direct refutation. The "prohibition" objection is the first argument which occurs to most people, and the author does not get to the point in the argument where it should be addressed. Secondly, I disagree about the author's arguments against evolutionary psychology. The author summarizes how the Testosterone Rex myth both perpetuates and is perpetuated by the porn industry. According to the author, patriarchy (not male biology) is the originator of Testosterone Rex. I'm not convinced by this argument at all. It seems obvious that the male sexual drive creates the demand for porn. Testosterone Rex emerges from that drive, not the other way around. On the other hand, I absolutely agree with the author concerning the faultiness of Pinker's "evolutionary morality." As a philosophical point, our evolutionary programmed intuitions are not necessarily moral. As an aside, I have analyzed some of Pinker's essays on altruistic evolutionary morality and have been forced to conclude that Pinker knows next to nothing about moral philosophy, as he attempts to extract moral realism (universal, absolute morality) from contingent features of the universe (how we evolved this way instead of that way). It's impossible by definition. He evidently knows nothing about Hume's "is-ought problem" either. However, I disagree with the arguments the author makes to the effect that gender and sex cannot be unified by evolutionary theory. For one, the author never contradicts the claim that men evolved to want to procreate frequently. The claim seems irrefutable to me, because the theory of evolution assumes procreation as its goal. What could the alternative possibly be? Men don't want sex? They don't have a sex drive? Their sex drive doesn't create the desire to consume porn? The author can't outright oppose these claims because that would deny the obvious. The appeals to patriarchy as the origin or porn consumption are specious appeals to those already convinced by feminist arguments, and fail to convince outside their circle even when paired with the bloated scientism of evolutionary psychology (or "folk evolution"). Reading the last paragraph, I got the impression that the article was not really about pornography at all, rhetorically bundling up Testosterone Rex with any inappropriate sexual conduct by males. While feminists have every reason to attempt to control male behavior (the only time feminists are concerned about "men's issues") in the case of sexual predation, abuse and harassment, they should not conclude that the male sex drive itself is a root of evil and seek to control it in private. Yes, men have lots of testosterone. That doesn't mean they're T-Rex monsters.

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