All porn is bad or good

What is porn? There is no universally agreed upon definition. There is what we refer to as erotica, which gets a much better press – but one person’s porn is another person’s erotica and vice versa. So where do we draw the line? When porn is discussed in the media, we are meant to automatically assume that all porn is the same. The often repeated statement that all porn humiliates, degrades and abuses (women in particular), is never challenged. Yes, porn that does all that definitely does exist, but it isn’t the only kind of porn. There is porn made by women for women where the performers are enthusiastically consenting to the action taking place, i.e. they are doing it because they are turned on, not because they are coerced or damaged in any way. There is feminist porn, ethical porn, (real) lesbian porn, and so much more. There is porn made for many tastes and preferences and watched by people of all genders, whether alone or with sexual partners. Porn is used by many millions of people all over the world. Still, the overwhelming majority carry on with their lives without major disruptions and are largely indistinguishable from non-users. Is it really probable that such a significant proportion of the population is as damaged as you would expect if you were to believe that all porn is bad?

We are told that porn harms those who use it. The fact is that there is no conclusive proof of that beyond bad science and moral panic. If you use faulty logic, you can bend research findings to fit whatever agenda you’re trying to promote and reach conclusions that can’t be logically justified. This isn’t exclusive to porn. In the case of violent videos, there is a rarely challenged consensus that they lead to aggression in viewers. It is important to understand that finding a correlation (i.e. those who view violent videos also act aggressively) isn’t the same as finding a causal link (i.e. they act aggressively because of viewing the videos – they could be viewing the videos because they are aggressive, or there could be a third factor causing them both to view the videos and to be aggressive). It is impossible to conclude from any existing evidence that porn causes harm. A carefully designed experiment could perhaps prove (or disprove) that, but it is impossible to design such an experiment that will also be ethical.

The problem with labelling all porn as harmful is that it stops us from understanding the real effects of different types of porn and which aspects are responsible for these effects. It kills all nuanced discussion that could lead to better and more valid research on the subject. If we lump all porn together, we are unable to isolate specific characteristics of different types of porn, label them accurately and examine them separately to see how they are used and how they affect the user. Valid research requires focusing on clearly defined specifics rather than having a subject matter that is so wide and generalised that it loses all meaning.

When we label all porn as bad, we end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We risk diluting the message about the harm some porn does to women, to their body image, to their ideas about their own sexuality and consent, to men’s ideas of what women should both look and behave like. When we do that, we are in effect disempowering women when we claim to be acting in the interest of women. We could end up losing educational ‘how-to’ porn which can be helpful to many people. We could lose the kind of porn that is used to enhance our sex lives and enjoy sex more, whether alone or with someone. It will remove an important and useful tool that is also used by therapists to help people with sexual problems. We could lose what is an important part of sexuality for many people, including many women, who do like many different types of porn (depending on their sexual likes and dislikes and not on their gender!). We could end up stigmatising a consensual and healthy expression of sexuality and making everyone who is turned on by porn feel so much guilt and shame.

It would be better to be more critical of this blanket approach to the subject of porn rather than shying away from any discussion. It would be better to recognise that there are many very different types of porn and to investigate each one separately. It would be better to recognise porn users as a diverse population that makes up a significant proportion of society, rather than stigmatising them as perverts or freaks. If you do that, then people will be less reluctant to talk about porn and less likely to lie about it. Then we will start to get a truer picture of who uses porn, how, why, and how it affects them. We will learn more about human sexuality and the many forms it takes. We will be able to really make up our minds about different types of porn, based on real knowledge instead of knee jerk reactions.

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