Calm Down, It’s Just Pornography


And it shrieks, "Won’t somebody please think of the children?"

Helen was wailing and gnashing her teeth all over the place when I opened my browser window to read The Age online, only to see yet another opinion piece asserting that the Internet is clamouring for the souls of our young people.

Well, basically. Most of the coverage of Kevin Rudd’s proposed "clean feed" treated it with the derision it deserved, but a few talking heads plunged straight into a round of the let’s-blame-the-internet game. Like that’s not getting old.

David Corlett and Maree Crabbe aren’t by any means the only well-intentioned opinion writers spreading panic about the corrupting influence of new media, but their Lovejoy-esque article struck me as being emblematic of the way parts of the old media misunderstand the internet – and also, to a degree, the children they are trying to protect. According to them, the internet and its phalanx of abusive and "not so abusive" images is driving our men – and especially our boys – into violent and desensitised attitudes towards sex and women, culminating in a tolerance towards sexual abuse and in one case, actual rape.

Yes, Corlett and Crabbe actually do go so far as to say that the behaviour of one rapist, Andrew Bowen, who accessed pornography to facilitate a rape fantasy scenario, "highlights the link between pornography and violent attitudes and behaviour towards women." It’s a shaky corollary at best – one not particularly well-backed up by the "research" they cite – and it highlights the two major flaws in their argument.

The first is that while some research has demonstrated links between pornography and violence, these studies often fail to take into account other causal links, such as alcohol, drugs, predisposition towards anti-social behaviour or mental illness. In fact, a quick search brings up hundreds of articles debating these links, studies showing varying levels of causality across age and social demographics, and several studies that dispute these links entirely, such as economist Todd Kendall’s study into incidences of rape against the pecuniary cost of pornography.

Kendall found that a 10 per cent increase in access to internet pornography corresponded to a decline in reported rape victimisation of about 7.3 per cent amongst 15- to 19-year-old men. He theorised, as have others, that pornography allowed a way for young men to play out sexual fantasies in a safe and consensual way – that it was a substitute for rape. The fact that pornography was accessed on the internet was much more strongly related to its pecuniary costs than any inherent tic of that particular media. That is, internet porn is free, so people watch internet porn.

That brings us neatly to the second flaw in Corlett and Crabbe’s argument, which is that they seriously and fundamentally misunderstand the way in which people use the internet, and to a lesser extent, pornography. It’s frustrating, but understandable, that old media would theorise a one-way model of media reception that almost mimics indoctrination – we transmit, you receive. But that model, which was basically debunked in the ‘80s anyway, has absolutely nothing to do with the way people – especially younger people – consume new media.

The internet, for all its quirks and inanities, is basically one big information democracy. The transmission/reception model falls apart because on the internet, everyone is transmitting information and everyone is receiving it. User-generated content, the nightmarish spectre that gives every newspaper editor the cold sweats, means that people are as likely to be uploading their own homemade porn to the internet as downloading it.

Additionally, this democratisation means that it’s not just fake-breasted women being degraded by waxed studs any more. The internet has given rise to the massive popularity of sites like Suicide Girls, an ‘alternative’ erotica site featuring women who veer away from the Barbie-doll mainstream porn norm. It’s given young disabled kids access to porn in which their bodies are celebrated, not marginalised. It allows teenagers coming to terms with non-heteronormative sexualities an opportunity to explore gay, bi or trans sexuality.

And another thing? Adolescents might be hormonal, but they’re unlikely to sit at their computers all day and every day, watching pornography and gradually becoming desensitised to violence against women, as Corlett, Crabbe and a sizable chunk of the commentariat seem to suggest.

We young people apparently have remarkably short attention spans – the polite version is the ability to ‘multi-task’ – and most, I’m willing to bet, would also doing their homework, instant messaging their friends, updating their Facebook profiles and watching the occasional YouTube clip. You know, all the other healthy, normal things that teenagers fit around their burgeoning curiosity about sex.

Moral hysteria over young people’s consumption of internet pornography, accidental or intentional, only alienates and shames those kids who are curious about porn. Teenagers are also canny enough to understand that the power relationships depicted in the scenarios Corlett and Crabbe suggest are rather unsexy exaggerations, and ludicrously clichéd ones, at that. Any child raised in a loving and responsible home will have had it explained to them that men and women are equal and equally deserving of respect. If not, that’s not really the internet’s fault, is it?

Society didn’t collapse because of the Marquis de Sade; it didn’t collapse because of the bikini; it didn’t collapse because of sexually explicit rap lyrics and it sure as hell won’t collapse because of the internet. Seriously – go ask your kids. Just make sure you’ve hidden that Sports Illustrated first…

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