David Cameron v. Pornography

by Benjamin Studebaker

British Prime Minister David Cameron has decided to oppose pornography. Among his new anti-porn measures are a default “off” setting whereby internet service providers block access to erotic material barring user override and an outright ban on what Cameron calls “extreme pornography”, erotic material that depicts fictional violent sex. Are these policies (and others like them) good ideas?

Cameron justifies the new policies on the grounds that they protect the innocence of children:

This is, quite simply, about how we protect our children and their innocence…Children can’t go into the shops or the cinema and buy things meant for adults or have adult experiences – we rightly regulate to protect them. But when it comes to the internet in the balance between freedom and responsibility, we have neglected our responsibility to our children.

The argument is more or less a modern permutation of a very old Platonist argument concerning what the Greeks referred to as “mimesis” or “imitation”. Plato argued that there were three levels of truth:

  • The form, the idea of something, created by the gods (e.g. the idea of a table).
  • Man’s approximation of the form (e.g. a table built by a craftsman).
  • Man imitating himself (e.g. a painting of a table, a fake table). This is “mimesis”.

Plato believed that imitation was twice removed from truth, and therefore more misleading. To apply the levels to sex, we would get:

  • The form, the idea of sex.
  • Man’s approximation of the form, people actually having sex.
  • Man imitating man, people pretending to have sex.

When the way that people pretend to have sex differs vastly from the way that people actually have it, those who have limited knowledge of the form of sex are mislead about its nature. Insofar as pornography differs from real sex and sexually inexperienced people watch pornography, it distorts their view of what sex is or ought to be. Because they have nothing real to compare it to, this distortion occurs even if they themselves are aware that pornography is distorting. Children, of course, are not likely even to be aware.

This line of thinking readily leads to Cameron’s position:

  1. Misleading imitations disinforms inexperienced people about the true nature of things.
  2. Pornography presents a misleading imitation of sex.
  3. Insofar as inexperienced people view pornography, they are disinformed.
  4. The state is obligated to prevent harm when doing so does not further increase other harms.
  5. To disinform people is to harm them.
  6. Therefore, the state should oppose pornography.

However, I think Cameron’s position misses something important. To the extent that pornography is so disinforming, it is so because children have limited sexual experience or knowledge in the first place. It is the innocence of children itself which makes pornography as potent as it is at distorting young people’s sexual expectations.

Compare for example the prevalence of violent movies and television. Of all developed countries, Japan has one of the very lowest homicide rates, 0.4 per 100,000 (for comparison, the United States loses 4.8 per 100,000 to homicide each year; the UK loses 1.2). Yet despite this, Japan has a much more violent film and television culture than the US or UK. Long before The Hunger Games came out in 2012, Japan came out with a film called Battle RoyaleWhile Hunger Games casually announces the off-screen deaths of most of its child combatants, Battle Royale depicts every (or at least, very nearly every) single gory death until only 2 of its 42 child actors remain. While anecdotal, this illustrates the very real tendency for Japanese culture to take a more permissive attitude toward realistic depictions of violence. Japanese children are consequently likely much less innocent of the terrible consequences of violence than their American counterparts. They take violence more seriously not because it was hidden from them, but because they were exposed to it and have a sense for the damage it inflicts. Because young people in Japan see realistic depictions of violence, they are more readily able to identify when a depiction is unrealistic. Our view of violence is not affected when we watch an animated character get hit with an anvil, because we have a sense of what would really happen if someone were really to be hit with an anvil, and it wouldn’t be pretty.

The same theory could potentially be applied to sex. If instead of attempting to maintain the innocence of children, we attempted to inform them about sex in a comprehensive way, such that they were well and truly aware of what real sex is like, we could perhaps improve their sexual outcomes as adults. Sexually well-educated children would be aware that pornography is not realistic, not because they would simply have been told that it wasn’t, but because they would actually have had the experience of seeing realistic sex.  By normalizing sex, we would take the mystique out of it, in the same way that by say, legalizing drugs, we would reduce their appeal to rebellious teens. A society in which sex is normalized is also a society in which people can have more sex more openly without embarrassment.

How might we do this? For one, perhaps children should be exposed to their parents having sex from infancy. This is a notion that readily repulses those of us who grew up in a society in which sex was, to some degree or other, to be hidden from view, but this discomfort itself arises from the fact that when people encounter their parents having sex, it is an usual experience, it hasn’t been normalized.  If infants and toddlers were exposed to their parents having sex from the get-go, they would have no reason to be discomforted. They would look at sex in an entirely different way from you and me. I would venture to say that the way an infant raised alongside sexual activity would view sex is so different from the way I anticipate the average reader or myself views it that we ourselves are wholly incapable of imagining fully what the view would entail.

We give precedence to the notion that innocence is the best way to raise our children because it is how we ourselves were raised and because, given that it has not really been tried in any comprehensive way in recent history, it presents us with uncertain outcomes. But if innocence itself leads to misinformation and subsequent deviance, perhaps the best way to get normal, healthy sexual behavior (whatever that is) from people is not to keep them in the dark, but to lead them into the light. The very fact that the average person finds the idea of their parents having sex a discomforting thought is itself evidence that perhaps we are doing something wrong. Every person who has ever existed was produced by sex, and very nearly every long-term romantic relationship includes a sexual component, one which is both healthy and usually a significant part of the relationship, the loss of which would aggrieve both parties. For us to find the thought of our parents having sex disturbing is indicative not that parents having sex really is disturbing, but of our own messed up, truncated education on the subject.