Is porn corrupting sex?

Sunday 14 October, 14:0015:30, Frobisher Auditorium 1Sexual revolutions

In the internet era, pornography has become widely available like never before. While libertarians would argue that a person’s consumption of pornography is their own business and no one else’s, others are worried about the impact of pornography on morality, mental health and attitudes to women and relationships.

For example, the NSPCC’s chief executive, Peter Wanless, has said: ‘A generation of children are in danger of being stripped of their childhoods at a young age by stumbling across extreme and violent porn online.’ Many campaigners today believe that porn is leading boys to sexual assault and to a casual attitude towards rape.

Internet pornography has been framed as a public health crisis, with easy and cheap access to vast quantities of ‘porn in your pocket’ on smartphones. The ‘Your Brain on Porn’ movement presents pornography as addictive, producing the same chemical effects as drugs and even causing an epidemic of male sexual dysfunction. Inspired by this idea, there are now online forums where self-diagnosed ‘addicts’ help each other ‘recover’.

However, since the 1990s, ‘sex-positive feminists’ have been producing their own ‘non-sexist’, ‘female-friendly’ porn. Fifty Shades of Grey was an international bestseller and it appears that many more women are looking at internet porn than had once been thought. Many researchers challenge the claim that porn has bad social effects overall and criticise the public health approach for being alarmist and pseudo-scientific.

Pornography has always provoked polarised reactions. Society has become more tolerant of it, but familiar objections continue to be aired. Critics of pornography consumed by heterosexual men have long argued that it promotes misogyny by objectifying and even silencing women. There has long been concern that performers are tricked or coerced into it or are abused in its production.

But with these debates in the foreground, might we not be overlooking ‘old-fashioned’ moral objections – for example, that the endless supply of replaceable fantasy images undermines love, commitment and responsibility, and desecrates the intimacy and reciprocity of desire? Is opposition to pornography a mere panic, or is it rooted in a legitimate revulsion towards the obscene depersonalisation of the human body? What should be our attitude to pornography today?