Media Coverage and Pornography’s Role in Abuse
In a highly publicised move in December 2020, Pornhub (one of the largest pornography platforms) announced that it would ban and remove unverified video uploads in response to allegations that the site hosted content depicting actual sexual violence and child sexual abuse. As a result, the site reduced its content from 13m videos to ‘merely’ 4m. This, however, is far from sufficient according to activists and those working with perpetrators of sexual abuse, such as counsellors. In a series of articles on pornography’s role in abuse published around the ‘Pornhub purge’ in The Guardian, charity and social workers critiqued not only the easy access to online pornography, but also the type of pornography on offer. Both present significant problems, according to the UK children’s charity Barnardo’s. The lead on child sexual abuse at the charity, Amanda Naylor, notes in an interview that so-called ‘incest fantasy’ and other ‘deviant’ content is normalising child abuse. Contents found online are leading younger viewers to re-enact ‘deviant’ behaviours, like hitting, slapping, kicking and punching. Girls report being pressured to have anal sex even when this is their first sexual experience. And boys are cited as saying: “Girls might say no, but they aren’t really saying no, by the end they will love it.” According to Naylor: “We ask where they get this idea and they say it’s porn. It is a picture of confusion – they don’t know what ordinary sexual behaviour is.”
That Pornhub is removing unverified content and putting into place safeguards to prevent images of abuse from being circulated as ‘sexual fantasies’ is no doubt a move in the right direction. (Though it is worth noting that they only did this after Mastercard and Visa blocked the use of their cards on the site given the allegation that unverified content was circulating on Pornhub.) Child sexual abuse and distribution of images that document this is an urgent and horrifying global phenomenon, and there is no justification or excuse for the wrongs done. Having said that, the public debates surrounding online images of sexual abuse and the so-called ‘deviant’ materials leave much to be desired. The shape of mainstream discourse exemplified by The Guardian articles cited here does not, in my view, foster a debate that advances effective and constructive remedies against the problems that some pornography presents.
[T]he juxtaposition of ‘deviant’ and ‘ordinary’ sexual behaviour is simplistic and questionable.
To begin with, the juxtaposition of ‘deviant’ and ‘ordinary’ sexual behaviour is simplistic and questionable. According to a child sex abuse expert interviewed for The Guardian: “If you look at the videos on mainstream porn sites you can see ‘teen’ themes, ‘mom and son’ themes, lots of incestuous porn. It’s pretty deviant stuff. To watch this you have already lowered your threshold of what is acceptable. Porn is an entry drug for a lot of [abusers].” In line with Naylor from Barnardo’s, what is deviant in pornography is its content: certain scenes, narratives and themes; sex acts like anal sex; and behaviours during sex (slapping, kicking). Relative to this, it seems that ‘ordinary’ sexual behaviour involves penal-vaginal penetration, missionary position, behaviour that takes place between two people of the opposite sex, and that generally can be described as ‘vanilla’ variety. Furthermore, some pornographic themes and narratives just are taken to be pre-theoretically deviant on the basis of what they depict, where ‘deviance’ is a highly moralised notion.
Admittedly, those interviewed do not spell out what ‘ordinary’ sexual behaviour amounts to and take this to be obvious. But if ‘vanilla’ is what ‘ordinary’ sex amounts to, I think that the juxtaposition is deeply misguided. Irrespective of the depicted content, what makes some pornography problematic is that it celebrates the lack of genuine consent. In other words, there is a difference between what pornography depicts and what it does or communicates – a distinction made by feminist philosophers already 40 years ago. What is problematic about pornography is that it represents “sexual behavior that is degrading or abusive to one or more of participants in such a way as to endorse the degradation” (Longino 1980, 43). For pornography to endorse degradation is for it to communicate its approval and recommendation of sexual behaviour that devalues women or children. More specifically, that the degradation is represented as pleasurable for everyone involved (“Girls might say no, but they aren’t really saying no, by the end they will love it.”) and there is “no suggestion that this sort of treatment of others is inappropriate to their status as human beings” (Longino 1980, 43-44).
Whether the depictions are of the ‘extreme’ or ‘vanilla’ variety, both can communicate that genuine consent does not matter – something that I contend is the crux of the problem, being deeply problematic and objectionable. This point, however, is lost in recent pieces highlighted. Whatever the depicted sex acts and whatever the circumstances in which sexual behaviour takes place, when some pornography communicates that genuine consent should be lacking, this is (in my view) reprehensible. Pitting ‘ordinary’ and ‘deviant’ sexual behaviour against one another as is done in recent public discussions looks to me both wrongheaded and unhelpful in that they are superficially focusing on what is depicted, rather than what is communicated.
Irrespective of the depicted content, what makes some pornography problematic is that it celebrates the lack of genuine consent.
Of course, one might hold that ‘teen’ and ‘incest’ genres in pornography are especially problematic in fostering certain deviant desires that then whet the appetites of abusers, who go on to seek images of child sexual abuse and perpetrate contact child abuse. The usual sceptical response to this thought is that these types of materials cater to those who already have a taste for them, while leaving the ordinary good ‘chaps’ unaffected – as they have no interest in such materials, they won’t seek to view them. In another Guardian interview, Michael Sheath who counsels people with “deviant sexual interests” notes that: “There is a school of thought that these men we work with were already interested in children and went off to look for it – that they are born paedophiles. But that’s not my thoughts. I think a lot of the men we work with go down what I call a potentially escalating pathway.” To think that viewing large amounts of pornographic materials has no effect on people’s desires and behaviours strikes me as woefully naïve and there is evidence that people’s tastes are modified by the pornography that they view (see Dines 2011). (Frankly, given how easily our desires can be manipulated by advertisers and media in general, it would be astonishing if pornography consumption had no effect on us at all.)
That said, the causal chains from virtual abuse to contact abuse are not easy to establish. In a study published in 2007, Neil Malamuth and Mark Huppin (a psychologist and legal communication scholar, respectively) discussed conviction statistics from the USA: those convicted of online visual-abuse (for possessing indecent images of children) had not generally committed contact-abuse, and those convicted of contact-abuse were not generally speaking users of (what legally would fall under) child pornography. Only a surprisingly small segment of offenders had committed both visual- and contact-abuse, which undermines the idea that there is a straightforward causal connection between viewing child sexual assaults and committing them. Of course, a causal connection hasn’t been debunked either. As Malamuth and Huppin discuss, visual-abusers might have gone on to commit contact-abuse had they not already been caught and convicted: moving from virtual-/visual-abuse to contact-abuse requires overcoming social taboos and restrictions, which may place barriers that merely slow down the causal story.
Establishing the facts of the matter is tricky when we are dealing with pornography, and one usually can find empirical evidence to support both the view that pornography is deeply harmful and that it isn’t harmful at all. We may also need more time to establish these facts given that modern life during the Internet-era is somewhat of an unsanctioned social experiment. Be that as it may, I am less convinced that in public debates sensational headlines of the kind that one finds regularly in mainstream media are particularly helpful. To call “extreme” pornography a gateway drug (as The Guardian does) ignores many ways in which social interaction have radically changed over the past few decades due to the Internet and social media platforms. A number of sexual and non-sexual behaviours that in my childhood would have been considered beyond the pale are now everyday occurrences – and this isn’t due to online pornography alone, but by a plethora of problematic interactions that the web’s anonymity enables.
I am not an apologist for the pornography industry, and I think that online pornography platforms can distribute problematic materials far too easily. As with any big industry (legal or illegal), abuse unfortunately seems to be inevitable when large sums of money are involved. But in many mainstream discussions that condemn pornography platforms and the entire industry, there is a conspicuous lack of consideration to the issue of why young people turn to pornography in the first place. As Nancy Bauer asks: Why is it that consumers “acquiesce to the pornographer’s point of view” (Bauer 2015, 80)? Why are certain effects in the world possible at all?
What enables the lack of consent to be eroticised is the blatant lack of good educational efforts to give young people sexual and relationship guidance outside of pornography.
Some empirical evidence suggests that pornography has special authority insofar as young people (young men and boys in particular) are increasingly treating pornography as sex education. In thinking about pornography’s authority, Rae Langton (2017) discusses the 2013 report from the UK Office of the Children’s Commissioner (Coy et al. 2013). This large-scale report found that many respondents take pornography to educate them about sex and that such education is in many ways problematic. Consumption of pornography was linked to heterosexual boys’ unrealistic expectations about sex with corresponding feelings in girls that they must submit to boys’ expectations irrespective of their own wishes. The report offers compelling evidence for the claim that many young people consider pornographic materials to offer authoritative guidance on sex, which is also reflected in the more recent public discussions noted above.
If young people are turning to pornography for guidance, however, I contend that it is not only the pornography industry that is to blame for distorting ideas about ‘ordinary’ sexual behaviour. What enables the lack of consent to be eroticised is the blatant lack of good educational efforts to give young people sexual and relationship guidance outside of pornography. I find it hard to imagine that in the absence of hardcore pornography, our sexual lives would somehow magically become just and devoid of abuse. In fact, mass produced and consumed industrial pornography is a rather new phenomenon while sexual abuse (of adults and children) isn’t. Moreover, pornography’s disvalue as sex education isn’t straightforward. The educational value of pornography seemingly differs significantly for heterosexual and non-heterosexual youth. Gender non-conforming youth and those who fall outside of heteronormative sexualities more often find pornographic depictions of non-heteronormative sexualities valuable educationally and in legitimating their identities (Albury 2014). Disability activists have also welcomed pornography with atypically functioning bodies in order to disrupt the stereotype of ‘disabled’ people as asexual. In these ways, pornography is also authoritative and educational, but in beneficial ways.
Furthermore, in a novel move in 2017, xHamster (along with Pornhub, one of most popular pornography platforms) redirected users from the state of Utah to a YouTube channel that offered non-explicit sex education videos after the state legislators voted down a bill to allow sex education in schools. Although I have a healthy suspicion of corporate responsibility efforts of sites like Pornhub and xHamster, there are ways in which these sites can work to improve sexual lives and to advance a sort of guidance needed due to gaps that national and regional governments leave open. I do not, however, think that cooperation of this sort will be forthcoming for as long as public debates are done with sensational headlines and moralistic condemnation. To effectively respond to pornography’s problems, I doubt that a “Just say ‘No’!”-campaign will be effective if all else remains the same.
Albury, Kath. 2014. “Porn and Sex Education, Porn as Sex Education.” Porn Studies 1 (1-2): 172-181. doi: 10.1080/23268743.2013.863654.
Bauer, N. 2015. How to Do Things with Pornography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Coy, Maddy, Liz Kelly, Fiona Elvines, Maria Garner, and Ava Kanyeredzi. 2013. “’Sex without Consent, I Suppose That Is Rape’: How Young People in England Understand Sexual Consent.” London: Office of the Children’s Commissioner. Accessed August 1, 2015. http://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/publications/sex-without-consent-i-suppose-rape-how-young-people-england-understand-sexual-consent
Dines, G. 2011. Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked our Sexuality. Boston: Beacon Press.
Langton, Rae 2017. “Is Pornography Like The Law?” In Beyond Speech: Pornography and Analytic Feminist Philosophy, edited by Mari Mikkola, 23-38. New York: Oxford University Press.
Longino, Helen. 1980. “Pornography, Oppression, and Freedom: A Closer Look.” In Take Back the Night, edited by Laura Lederer, 40-54. New York: William Morrow.
Malamuth, Neil, and Mark Huppin. 2007. “Drawing the Line on Virtual Child Pornography: Bringing the Law in Line with the Research Evidence.” NYU Review of Law and Social Change 31 (4): 773-827.
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