Pornography, Censorship and the Bailey Review

Before getting back to the business of chronicling Nadine Dorries’ spiralling descent into Palinesque fucknuttery, I need to take a bit of a detour via a recent post on the Bailey Review to respond to a moderately interesting comment, albeit one which nicely illustrates both the complexities of the pornography debate and the polarised attitudes that surround it.

To begin with, I’ll give the comment in full without any commentary:

“Pornography is a certainly poor sex educator if it’s the only source of information about sex that young people can readily access but that’s not an argument for more censorship, rather its an argument for better and more comprehensive, universally available, sex education, particularly as there is some evidence from both the United States and Japan which shows a correlation between an increase in the availability of pornography and a decrease in the prevalence of sexual assaults and rapes. Porn is not a universal panacea for male sexual violence but there is at least some evidence to suggest that it may deflect some potential offenders away from acting out their sexual fantasies in real life and at the cost of one or more victims.”

I was very much agreeing with your post until this paragraph, where you abruptly cease to reference any evidence based research and draw spurious conclusions based purely on your own views.

While I would agree that more sex-education is certainly a good thing, you seem to ignore the possibility that such education could be delivered alongside ‘censorship’ of, for example, online pornography.

Flood identifies a number of ways in which pornography can be harmful to developing sexuality, but you seem to conclude that because it is not harmful in all circumstances then there is no need to restrict access to it. One could easily make the case that were the legal drinking age lowered to 11, some people would not be harmed by it, and as such there is no case for having a higher legal age.

You also strangely fail to cite the ‘evidence’ of the quantity ‘some’ which shows that pornography deters potential offenders, when in fact that claim has been repeatedly debunked. If you have access to the ‘some evidence’, presumably published and peer reviewed, of which you speak, I suggest you cite it in the body of your text, or acknowledge that it should carry no weight in this issue.

In many ways, yuo have committed the same crimes as Bailey, by ignoring the available evidence and stating the conclusion which you have clearly long held. Shame on you.

Now let’s deconstruct the argument advance by ‘Guest’ – I do have a name from the email address used to post the comment but as this is clearly a genuine, if somewhat misguided, attempt to engage in meaningful debate rather than an attempted troll, I’m content to leave it there.

So, to begin with “Guest’s” opening gambit:

I was very much agreeing with your post until this paragraph, where you abruptly cease to reference any evidence based research and draw spurious conclusions based purely on your own views.

It’s obvious isn’t it? If I don’t litter my post with citations then I must obviously be making up my arguments as I go long based on my own prejudices.

That, of course, is a false dichotomy – what I in fact did was make a fairly cautious reference to a body of research that I read some time ago but didn’t happen to have to hand at the time I was putting the post together. Still, if its sources our guest when then source they shall indeed be given.

Much of the epidemiological research I’ve read on the relationship between pornography and sexual violence derives from the work of Dr. Milton Diamond who retired from his post as a Professor of anatomy and reproductive biology at the University of Hawaii in December 2009. Diamond is perhaps best known for his work in the field of intersex disorders and for a long-running feud with the psychiatrist, John Money, and for his follow-up work on the notorious John/Joan case of David Reimer.

So, if you’ll bear with me for a little longer, I will throw in a link to a recent paper by Diamond which not only provides supporting evidence for my argument on pornography but also includes a solid selection of useful references for anyone wishing to examine the evidence base in more detail. Even if I don’t provide citations, I do read the literature, take careful note of the credibility of my sources, and try to provide, in my own articles, an honest and measured account of the material I’ve been reading.

In this case, Milton Diamond, is a particularly eminent figure in the field of sex research and not an academic whose work can be easily dismissed out of hand.

Now, getting back to the comment.

While I would agree that more sex-education is certainly a good thing, you seem to ignore the possibility that such education could be delivered alongside ‘censorship’ of, for example, online pornography.

No, I didn’t ignore this issue, I simply chose not to comment on it as wasn’t particularly relevant to point that I was making in regards Flood’s comments on pornography as a poor sex educator. Give me a fracking break here, I writing a blog post not a doctoral thesis on pornography and online censorship.

Still, as the general question of censorship has been raised, my own view that I see no problem in principle with the idea that access to pornography should be ‘controlled’ to limit, as much as possible, children’s access to age-inappropriate sexual material. What I’m not in favour of, however, is the blanket network-level censorship of the internet either by the state or by unaccountable industry organisations.

If parents want to install a net-nanny at home then that’s their choice, and the industry should make it easy as possible for parents to exercise that choice, if that’s what they wish to do. Personally, I don’t much like net-nannies but then, as a parent and techie, I’m in the enviable position of knowing far more about computers and the internet than either of my kids, particularly when it comes to the limitations of relying on software to play porn whack-a-mole, even at the network level. To date, even the best net-nanny is no substitute for parental vigilance, even if they’ve improved somewhat since the days when the ‘walled garden’ software used by many schools and colleges routinely refused to admit to existence of Scunthorpe.

Flood identifies a number of ways in which pornography can be harmful to developing sexuality, but you seem to conclude that because it is not harmful in all circumstances then there is no need to restrict access to it. One could easily make the case that were the legal drinking age lowered to 11, some people would not be harmed by it, and as such there is no case for having a higher legal age.

Dear oh dear, our guest has been shopping at Fallacies-R-Us here.

What Flood identifies is compelling evidence of staging in children and adolescent’s cognitive and psychosexual development.

A young child encountering a ‘sexualised’ or pornographic image will typically display either curiosity or indifference. To a young child who lacks any conscious awareness of their existence as a sexual being, a copy of Hustler left lying around is merely another strange object in their environment which, like a bunch of keys, might have some short-lived curiosity value as a ‘novelty’ item but will otherwise be discarded no soon as something more interesting catches their attention. Were anyone to run a comparative attention-span study on a group of four olds, pitting Debbie Does Dallas against The Teletubbies, then I’d happily put money on Tinky Winky, Dispy, La La and Po coming out on top and by quite a distance – not that I’d expect that experiment to secure the approval of any reputable ethics committee, of course. By the same token, I doubt that any of the parents who complained to the Bailey Review about the cover images on Lads Mags has ever geninely wound up with a distressed child as a result of an unexpected encounter with a semi-naked picture of Abi Titmuss, but I’d happily predict that several have been left red-faced with embarrassment as a result of their sainted offspring staring fixedly at such cover for a couple of minutes after it unexpectedly caught there attention.

At that young age, its unlikely that anything short of extended exposure to porn videos would give rise to any significant problems and only then where a child took it on themselves to innocently imitate what they’d seen on screen without any real understanding of how those behaviours will be interpreted by adults.

Teenagers, as Flood notes, tend to express much the same irritation as most adults when they run into porn online and they’re not actually looking for it, which is what you’d expect from young men and women in late adolescence at a stage in their lives when most have started to develop a reasonably clear sense of their own personal – and sexual – identity, even if they’ve not crossed the Rubicon by engaging in a sexual relationship with one of their peers. Teenagers, at this point, know what porn is, what its for and – more often than not – when the can get hold of it if they want it and so porn become problematic largely because, in the absence of good quality sex education, it can too-easily give teenagers entirely the wrong idea about sex and relationships are really all about.

That leaves with a formative stage which runs, roughly from around 8 years of age through to the early teens when young people are actively seeking to establish an individual sense of their own identity, a stage which, generally speaking, starts at the point that children naturally seek to assert a degree of personal privacy by chosing to change in their room and not ask for adult assistance at bathtime, and ends roughly at the point when they start to take a serious interest in things like dating and music which pisses off their parents. It’s here that there seems to be some genuine potential for harm of a kind if children are gaining unsupervised and uncontrolled access to pornographic material and its here that parental control needs to be exercised and supported.

The question this raises is whether there is sufficient evidence of harm occurring at this stage to warrant direct state or private-sector censorship of the Internet and, in my estimation, there isn’t – in fact there isn’t anything here in terms of harm than cannot reasonably be addressed with a little parental vigilance and a willingness to take responsibility for your own children and their wellbeing.

That doesn’t imply support for a free for all, it merely makes the point that if 10 year old kids are getting access to porn and fucking themselves up with it then the first questions that need to be asked is just what the fuck are their parent(s) doing and why aren’t they taking some responsibility for their own kids?

You also strangely fail to cite the ‘evidence’ of the quantity ‘some’ which shows that pornography deters potential offenders, when in fact that claim has been repeatedly debunked. If you have access to the ‘some evidence’, presumably published and peer reviewed, of which you speak, I suggest you cite it in the body of your text, or acknowledge that it should carry no weight in this issue.

If you’re looking for citations then perhaps the most readily accessible paper I can think of is by ‘Pornography and Sex Crimes in the Czech Republic‘ by Diamond, Jozifkova and Weis (2010) in which – if you check the references – you’ll find citations for Diamond’s earlier paper on Japan and a reference to an upcoming paper on Finland. You’ll also find references to Kutchinksy’s 1973 Denmark paper, McElroy’s 1997 ‘A Feminist Defence of Pornography’ and a few other useful references besides.

To suggest that the displacement hypothesis, which is what we’re actually dealing with here, has been repeatedly debunked is to seriously underestimate the complexity of human sexual behaviours, the issues facing researchers studying the relationship between pornography and sexual violence and the methodological limitations of the research in this field.

Even without having the benefit of citations to work with, one can reasonably be infer that ‘guest’ is a proponent of the ‘gateway hypothesis’, which finds considerable favour amongst some feminists and amongst anti-porn campaigners and view pornography as gateway to and trigger for, sexual violence. Much of the argument for the gateway hypothesis tends to be found in feminist philosophical and sociological tracts which are often noticeably lacking in supporting empirical evidence, leaving us with an empirical evidence base to work with which has, for the most part, been derived from studies of convicted sex offenders using methodologies which range from self-report studies to the experimental measurement of offenders’ physiological and – more recently – neurological responses when shown pornographic images. Yes, we are talking about the whole business of attaching electrodes and other physiometric measuring devices to the extremities of sex offenders and then showing them porno vids in an environment not so far removed from the fictional Ludovico’s Technique.

Leaving aside the issue of any methodological problems that may be specific to particular studies – and there are many to choose from – the overriding problem that prevents these studies from providing conclusive causal evidence of general relationship between pornography and sexual violence is the fact that the subjects of these are almost always sex offenders and one cannot, therefore, legitimately generalise research findings derived from studies of this sub-population to the general population, most of whom aren’t sex offenders.

The most than can be said with any confidence is that there are some men – and a lesser number of women – for whom pornography does appear to serve as a gateway to, or trigger for, sexual violence. One cannot, however, legitimately make this assertion for all men (or women) nor can one even reliably predict, in advance, which men/women are likely to respond to pornography in this manner.

As for the displacement hypothesis, most of the evidence to date comes from epidemiological studies which have found an inverse correlation between the liberalisation and widening of access to pornography and the prevalence of sex offending, although evidence is also starting to emerge from offender studies which appears to support the displacement hypothesis, most controversially in the area of child pornography and sex offending:

Issues surrounding child pornography and child sex abuse are probably among the most contentious in the area of sex issues and crime. In this regard we consider instructive our findings for the Czech Republic that have echoed those found in Denmark (Kutchinsky, 1973) and Japan (Diamond & Uchiyama, 1999) that where so-called child-pornography was readily available without restriction the incidence of child sexual abuse was lower than when its availability was restricted. As with adult pornography appearing to substitute for sexual aggression everywhere it has been investigated, we believe the availability of child porn does similarly. We believe this particularly since the findings of Weiss (2002) have shown that a substantial portion of child sex abuse instances seemed to occur, not because of pedophilic interest of the abuser, but because the child was used as a substitute subject…

Important to note are recent findings by Swiss investigators that viewing child pornography does not seem to be a risk factor for future sex offenses (Endrass et al.,2009).These investigators checked recidivism rates for ‘‘hands on’’ child sex-offenders with porn-viewing-only offenders and concluded‘‘ Consuming child pornography alone is not a risk factor for committing hands-on sex offenses….The majority of the investigated consumers had no previous convictions for hands-on sex offenses. For those offenders, the prognosis for hands-on sex offenses, as well as for recidivism with child pornography, is favorable.’’

Before anyone jumps to conclusions, Diamond et al. make it clear that they are not condoning child pornography, least of all as a substitute for ‘hands-on’ abuse. Rather, they suggest that artificially generated pseudo-images might serve the same purpose without, obviously, the need for anyone to be sexually abused.

We do not approve of the use of real children in the production or distribution of child pornography but artificially produced materials might serve. As it is, with restrictions on even materials for the scientific study of the phenomenon forbidden to all but police enforcement agencies, these real life studies are the only way to begin to understand the phenomenon.

Our own government has, of course, criminalised the possession and distribution of artificially generated pseudo-images, giving the clearest possible indication that it regards any sexual interest in such images to be a thought crime, irrespective of whether any real children were harmed or victimised in the course of creating these images.

To be absolutely clear, the evidence for the gateway hypothesis does not debunk the displacement hypothesis, nor is the opposite the case. These two hypotheses are complementary rather than contradictory in the sense that they describe and seek to account for the influence of pornography on two different sub-populations. Crucially, neither hypothesis is capable of making reliable predictions about individual behaviours, not because they’re wrong but because human behaviour is complicated and individuals cannot easily and uniformly be placed into neat little boxes.

One cannot, in the absence of reliable data from which one could quantify the risks associated the gateway effect and compare them the benefits of the displacement effect, one cannot say that that the evidence currently legitimises (or delegitimises) any particular position on pornography. One can only make a value judgement and my own personal judgment is that the risks associated with network-level censorship of the internet, not least in regards to the potential for function creep, are sufficiently serious to warrant opposition to censorship of this kind even at the the risk of online pornography facilitating the violent impulses of a minority of individuals.

Others may disagree, either because they interpret the evidence differently or because they’re motivated by the own moral and political beliefs, which I don’t share, but what they cannot do is claim that the evidence conclusively supports their position. It doesn’t.

In many ways, yuo have committed the same crimes as Bailey, by ignoring the available evidence and stating the conclusion which you have clearly long held. Shame on you.

Bias is hardly a crime but, in any case, I’ve hopefully demonstrated that I’m certainly not ignoring the available evidence, even I don’t always take the time to explore even last jot and tittle of a particular issue in painstaking detail. You’ll have to excuse me for this, but in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I tend to regard my readers as being capable of filling in any gaps in my arguments for themselves, if that’s what interests them.

Tomorrow, I’ll get back on track with the next Dorries’ post.