Is pornography free speech?

Submitted by cathy n on 24 November, 2006 - 3:39 Author: Maria Exall

Sofie Buckland’s article Pornography and censorship ends with a call for both the unionisation of sex workers and building a feminist movement that will pose real alternatives to sexist ideas. Both of these demands are surely correct and I think many socialist feminists would agree with her. However on her way to making these important points Sofie presumes other political positions that I do not think can be justified from either a socialist or feminist point of view.

Sofie says it is “shockingly naive to entrust the state ... with the power to decide which ideas should be allowed.” There are, I believe two problems with this statement. Firstly, the view that pornography is about ideas and can be compared to free speech, and secondly that censorship always goes against the aspiration for human liberation.

Firstly, Sofie seems to think that the issues of the availability of pornography are similar to the need for free political debate in the working class movement. I think these are two different political issues and therefore need to be judged differently. Free debate in the workers’ movement has little to do with the lack of regulation of a multi billion pound industry worldwide that not only exploits workers (as all capitalist industries do) but is connected to the abuse of large numbers of girls and women (and boys and men) whilst they do this work. The porn industry, like other sectors of the sex industry, is intimately connected to human trafficking, forced prostitution, the illegal drugs trade and gang violence.

Free speech, the expression of ideas that can aid the development of a better world where people can lead freer lives, seems light years away from the images of women that as feminists we see “encapsulates pretty much everything we find objectionable and upsetting”. Sofie says she does not wish to be a cheerleader for mainstream heterosexual pornography, but this is overwhelmingly what is produced by the porn industry, an industry 99% plus aimed at men. The fact that the vast majority of images of women having sex together are produced for a male audience should give pause for concern about how whether these images encourage a diverse approach to sexuality.

The freer expression of sexuality by more marginalised groups in society is often found away from the commercialised pornography industry, in private clubs, in some LGBT venues, amongst S&M networks. These also have their commercial side, often connected to sex work, but in general are more experimental and innovative. There have been attempts to prosecute people having sex in a way that society disapproves of, such as the notorious Bolton Seven case. In such circumstances we should campaign for freedom.

We should not underestimate the way in which the vast majority of commercial porn promotes a single narrow view of how sex should be, how women should be. So to be for an unregulated porn industry does not mean that you are for diversity in sexuality. In fact you could (naively?) be promoting the opposite — diversity can be driven out by the constant repetition of degrading and objectionable images of sex as normal. The idea that sex is “unavoidably dirty, shameful and wrong” is produced by a hypocritical society, one where not only is there a message against sex, but also one where the representations of sex that sell best are often the ones that are far removed from the reality of equal and respectful human sexual relations. They representations of sex produced by the porn industry are often misogynistic and disempowering of women. The porn agenda is mainly a reactionary one.

Secondly, Sofie argues that censorship of pornography by the state is wrong. She has argued also for sex workers to be unionised. There is however no contradiction between being for censorship and regulation and being for the unionisation of sex workers. In other industries we argue both for regulation by the state of the running of an industry and for union rights, they go together. Sofie has also said the issue of child porn is a different issue. I do not there is a simple demarcation line that all adult porn is OK, or indeed that viewing child porn is a separate ethical issue.

On the matter of adult porn, it is not clear that this should always not be censored,. It depends, doesn’t it, on what sort of censorship, and for what end? An example to illustrate what I mean. I think that it is appropriate to censor pornography in the workplace. I am for this being a matter of workplace discipline. This is because the overwhelming result of pornography being freely displayed/used in the workplace is to intimidate and humiliate women workers. This is far from a marginal issue in my workplace. In the company I work for 500 people have been sacked in the past four years for “inappropriate use of the internet” (overwhelmingly accessing porn) in works time or on works equipment. This is despite the vast majority of them knowing what they were doing something that could lose them their job. I think we may have a clue here about a key feature of pornography, its addictive nature.

On the issue of child pornography, there is a glaring civil liberties issue that makes the matter of violent pornography and its perceived effects a sideshow. At present in the UK people are imprisoned for accessing images without committing any act against a child. Think about it, just for accessing images. I am not arguing against this legislation, indeed I think I am as un-objective as the average vigilante in thinking that almost anything is justified if it stops the abuse of just one child. But the civil liberty point remains.

Sofie began her article by saying that socialists should debate the issue of pornography politically rather than as a matter of “personal morality or as a way of expressing distaste”. But building a socialist feminist movement does not mean we discard our sense of morality. We should not be afraid to call something exploitation, when it looks and feels like exploitation. We should not pretend that how many girls and women, many boys and young men are treated in the sex industry is something that we think is OK. Equally we should not deny that the aspiration for non-exploitative, respectful and loving human sexual relationships (often something that we have to struggle for in our individual lives) is part of our liberation.

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