Will countries like Australia soon become “uninhabitable” for women and girls? That was the question asked recently in On Line Opinion by Caroline Norma, who seems to think that easy access to pornography via the Internet spells a new “dark age” for women.
Porn, she argues, corrupts young Australian men, normalising the abuse and mistreatment of women. It “trains” men to commit sexual violence. But is this really the case? Should we start locking up our wives, sisters and girlfriends to protect them from the impending tsunami of sexual violence?
Evidently not. Norma bases her argument on a 2007 study that found “links” between porn and sexual violence. The authors of the study found that pornography consumption “adde[ed] … to the prediction” of male sexual aggression. However, this is not proof of a direct causal link between the two.
While there’s evidence that rapists and sociopaths consume pornography, it doesn’t follow that everyone who uses pornography is prone to committing rape or sexual violence. And, as Jessica Friedmann observes, “these studies often fail to take into account other causal links, such as alcohol, drugs, predisposition towards anti-social behaviour or mental illness”.
In her tendency to “blame the media”, Norma’s lament is similar to conservative claims that violent music contributed in some way to the Columbine High School shootings in 2001. Sure, many criminals undoubtedly listen to Marilyn Manson (he did top the charts there for a while), but many criminals also eat fast-food and watch football. A correlation is not meaningful unless you can prove causality.
Norma also seems to have a rather dim view of men. In her eyes, they are thuggish automata, unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality:
When the day comes that a woman - either inside or outside a man’s bedroom - objects to something that he wants, pornography is right there in the man’s head as a resource. He has learnt from pornography what women are, and what rights he has in relation to them. It doesn’t matter whether or not a woman is keen, he will go ahead and exercise his “rights” regardless.
This is a retread of the radical feminist line in which men are “socialised” within a system of “patriarchy” that institutionalises and normalises sexual violence against women. Porn is a tool with female subjugation as its end-goal, a sort of Pavlovian trigger that activates the “training” that men receive from society.
For her, “developing a sexuality that’s not connected to the humiliation of women is surely a difficult task under these circumstances”. Really? The three quarters of young men who have seen an X-rated video easily dwarf the 1,000 drink-spikers to which she refers - so where’s the link?
Echoing Rousseau (“man is born free, but is everywhere in chains”) Norma’s view is taken to indicate that “patriarchal” social conditioning can be reversed or advanced using the tools of social policy. That is, we should ban porn and then sexual violence, apparently, will evaporate overnight.
However, Norma has a rather naïve view of human sexual urges, which would flow around a porn ban like water over rocks. As Freud argued, human aggression and sexual urges are not socially inscribed; they are an expression of a prehistoric state of “barbarism” which predates and underlies our human socialisation. See in this view, male sexual urges are innate, in the theoretical sense that humans, stripped of socialisation, have no ethical compass except self-gratification - even at the expense of others. Far from being “patriarchal” and oppressive, our socialisation is designed to repress those human impulses most inimical to human communities - rape and sexual violence among them.
Pornography, then, acts like a release valve, channeling male sexual aggression into fantasy worlds that are sometimes ugly or grotesque, but which prevent those fantasies from ever being enacted in the real world. A 2006 study by Todd D. Kendall (PDF 303KB) found that, contrary to Norma’s assertion, the increasing availability of the Internet between 1998-2003 actually reduced the incidence of rape, especially in that demographic (young men aged 15-19) who have most benefited from access to online porn. Porn, as Kendall shows, may actually prevent sexual violence.
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