Saturday, 28 February 2015

Pornography in the permissive society

Mary Whitehouse gave the impression to many that she regarded pornography as presenting the greatest threat to society. In contrast, during the early days of the permissive era pornography was one of the main touchstones of sexual liberation since it offered clear evidence to the liberal revolutionaries that society was moving in a 'progressive' direction. However, this 'let it all hang out' initial phase was relatively short lived, and by the early seventies the growing influence of feminism within liberal circles led to a sharp change of outlook. Feminists argued that pornography 'objectified' women, encouraging the assumption that they were the sexual playthings of men. They feared that exposure to pornography fostered an image of women that depicts them as mere 'sex objects' and that this puts them at greater risk from rape and sexual assault.

Feminists tended not to make much distinction between any of the images of women they branded as pornographic. So, for example, a Miss World contest, or an image of a Page 3 girl in The Sun, would be just as objectionable as a hardcore video. Indeed many of them argue that the Page 3 girl is more dangerous, since it is shown in the mainstream media, rather than consumed more covertly. Campaigns by militant feminists became more vocal and extreme, seeking bans on anything they defined as pornographic, some going so far as branding all men as rapists. Many of them dressed in an unfeminine, man–repellent way - dungarees, cropped hair etc becoming the (perhaps unfair) stereotypical image of sisterly solidarity. The suspicion arose that a militant lesbian man-hating nucleus within the feminist movement had a hugely disproportionate influence on feminist thinking. What is not in doubt is the manner in which obeisance to the feminist credo became a core value of the liberal political class.

So, pornography was attacked by critics from both the right, such as Mary Whitehouse and the Festival of Light, and from the left, chiefly the feminist movement. An interesting fact is that although the numbers willing to defend pornography has always been relatively small, such material nevertheless, in the pre-internet age attracted huge sales, almost exclusively from men. This contrast between actual practice and openly expressed opinion suggests that, although the use of pornography by men is widespread, it constitutes a compulsive activity mostly carried out furtively, sometimes accompanied by shame and guilt, although this is less so today given the prevalence of this material on the internet. There is no doubt that the feminists are right in their conclusion that most pornography presents a degrading image of women. Contrary to some claims, pornography is not about celebrating scantily clad female beauty, such as was claimed for the early issues of Playboy magazine, or just an opportunity for the lads to catch a glimpse a Sun Page 3 girl with her kit off. Instead, the defining feature of pornography is the illusory fantasy it provides that women are always sexually available and that their primary function is to act as sexual playthings for men.

Although the imagery in much pornography is highly degrading it should not be forgotten that sexual attraction is natural and entirely legitimate. Sexual activity itself is also normal and, of course, pleasurable. Moreover, the human body is not in itself inherently 'indecent', contrary to some views on the subject. So the way in which pre-permissive society branded such matters as 'dirty' or 'immoral' clearly lack credibility and a return to that mindset would be pointless. It was for these reasons that the traditional forces of puritanism quickly crumbled when they came under sustained attack in the sixties. So it would be advisable not to become too closely associated with the more eccentric musings on this subject from religious fanatics, who sometimes manage to ally themselves with the political Right, such as those who condemn dancing, or mixed swimming, as likely to give rise to 'male lust'. Nature does not take chances on the need to reproduce, and male physical desire provides the driving force to ensure that it occurs. So without 'male lust' there is no guarantee that any of us would be here. Condemning sexual drive and physical desire as intrinsically wrong in themselves is therefore misplaced and unrealistic.

Although the critique of feminists on the nature of most pornography is valid it does not necessarily follow that their remedies for combating what they see as a menace are practicable. The more militant members want to see an end to all pornographic material, broadly defined, believing that it encourages men to commit rapes and other sexual assaults against women. However, the evidence for this appears to be lacking, since the number of men using pornography vastly exceeds those accused of sexual offences against women. Furthermore, men would have to be seriously mentally challenged to be unable to distinguish between the fantasy image of women presented in pornography, and their real life experience of ordinary women. Notwithstanding this, there is no doubt that the attitude of many men towards women is less than gentlemanly, but this has more to do with the general deterioration in manners, rather than the easy availability of pornography. Unfortunately, it is a poor reflection on so many men that they should feel the need to use this kind of degrading material.

Measures that could be taken to curb consumption are to exert pressure on magazine distributors not to handle pornographic titles, to ban all 'sex shops' selling such material, and to pre-install filtering software on all computers. As a further step the possession of any form of pornography could be made a criminal offence. However, there is little evidence that any Government would have the appetite to introduce such action against the private activity of its adult citizens. There would be the additional difficulty of finding a definition of pornography that attracted general support, and the further complication of getting juries to convict. The Government has legislated to make the possession of violent pornography a criminal offence. There can be no doubt about the disgusting and degrading nature of this repulsive material. However, criminalizing what people view in the privacy of their homes is fraught with danger, and is likely to tie up police resources which could be better employed. By all accounts the consumption of pornography, in one form or another, is now widespread amongst adult men, and it does not appear possible for it to be prohibited without considerable interference with individual liberty. This is still more the case since the growth of the internet, where pornographic images can be viewed at the click of a mouse. This easy availability has led to significant falls in the sales of 'top shelf' publications. It could be argued that the internet is the least bad means of distributing such images since it facilitates their removal from more visible mainstream outlets such as newsagents and cinemas, thereby reinforcing the stigma against such material. Society should continue to maintain this stigma since pornographic images, which portray women as readily available 'sex-toys', are intrinsically degrading. But realistically any attempts to address the problem through additional legal measures against consumers are likely to end either in an expensive and time-consuming failure, or an unacceptable erosion of individual liberty.


  1. Not entirely sure about your thesis about the worries concerning pornography being viewed as "a bad thing" because it encourages men to view women as always sexually available.

    Though I'm sure that applies, I also think a deeper social angst is precisely the opposite, that is to say that women desire to have an awful lot of sex. That is a profoundly disturbing idea and if you browse through early sixties films, a frequent meme is the woman who cannot resist the allure of an [alpha] male. The notion of the female deteriorating into Nymphomania is a plain concern in these movies. The women are often depicted as making poor choices, with some virtuous ma always there for them, but they keep on going for the "bad boys".

    Modern pornography is graphic but it involves real women with real bodies, and unless one subscribes to the enslavement theories of feminism, I think the worry that such women exist, is some kind of existential crisis for "womanhood".

    I won't dwell on another aspect too much, since this is a family blog, but I also nurse a pet theory that the ubiquity of the male erection has caused a major dislocation in Anglo-Saxon culture. Many years ago I asked a girlfriend why she and by extension all women, were not interested in pornography. By this time, men were in the images but always photographed discreetly since erections were prohibited. She replied that she was never interested in porn because she could not see the thing that she was mostly interested in. Such are anecdotes... :-)

    1. Some interesting observations.

      I’m a little sceptical about your views on nymphomania. I dare say it sometimes happens but I would image it to be relatively rare. I suspect the kind of films you mention were aimed more at titillating male audiences rather than reflecting a ‘deeper social angst’. However, I would agree with you that women often make bad choices of partner, as graphically illustrated in the latest murder trial.

      Regarding your observations on the reasons for the lack of interest by women in pornography, I doubt whether the greater explicitness of male imagery now available on the internet has much more than curiosity value for most women, although to be honest I make no claims to being an authority on this subject. The reason for this lack of interest may be due to biology, as males generally tend to be the more active party in generating sexual encounters and thus porn would have much more appeal to them.

    2. Misunderstanding about nymphomania. I don't mean that nymphomania is necessarily prevalent; what I was trying to get at was that the fear of sexually available women as nymphomaniacs is a deep-seated Anglo-Saxon phobic thing. Hence the movies, where as soon as women were becoming sexually independent via the pill, the culture started having the collywobbles.

      The films I'm referencing were not titillation. One starred Lee Remick, a very serious New England actress

    3. I defer to your deeper knowledge of this kind of film from the early sixties when I was still quite a youngster. My memories are that most young men of that period would have had no problems with nymphomania as what they were invariably faced with was young ladies uptight about sexual relations, probably influenced by their mothers to 'save themselves' for the right man and marriage. Adult society would have taken a more censorious view on nymphomania on the grounds of promiscuity.