JUST days after the recent surprise intervention by former Playboy cover girl Pamela Anderson in the on-going debate about pornography and its effects on individuals and society, the Rutland Centre in Dublin warned that Ireland was facing a “tsunami” of sex and porn addiction.
When the former Baywatch star co-authored an article for the Wall Street Journal, a number of commentators stressed the oddity of Ms Anderson’s intervention, given that she has built a career on the exploitation of her body rather than her mind.
She was a favourite of Playboy founder and publisher Hugh Hefner, who put her on the cover of his magazine no fewer than 14 times — more than any other actress, model or singer. For her op-ed article, which is entitled “Take the Pledge: No More Indulging Porn”, she teamed up with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.
“From our respective positions as rabbi-counsellor and former Playboy model and actress, we have often warned about pornography corrosive effects on a man’s soul and on his ability to function as husband and, by extension, as father,” they wrote.
“This is a public hazard of unprecedented seriousness given how freely available, anonymously accessible and easily disseminated pornography is nowadays.” Anderson and Boteach wrote that we should tackle the damaging effects of pornography head on.
“Now is the time for an epochal shift in our private and public lives. Call it a ‘sensual revolution’,” they said.
Just days later, Dr Erica Ruigrok, clinical services manager at the Rutland Centre in Dublin, said that, as with gambling addiction, the internet was providing a limitless outlet for sex and porn addiction.
“It’s a game-changer... With the internet you can find a sex partner within 15 minutes — as quickly as you can find a takeaway. We can expect to see an increase in sex addiction. In the US, they estimate two-thirds of kids are looking at porn as they do their homework . . . I’d say we have a tsunami coming our way in terms of sex addiction.”
Pamela Anderson may be an unlikely advocate of an anti-pornography campaign, given the number of nude photo shoots she did for Playboy, but that in itself doesn’t invalidate the concern she now expresses about the challenges to the individual and society by the rapid spread of pornography in the age of the internet.
However, the key question remains — is pornography inherently harmful?
The pro-porn versus anti-porn debate has trundled on for decades. Arguments on the pro-side tend to be anchored in concepts of freedom of expression and freedom of choice, while those on the anti-porn side postulate that “pornography is the theory, rape is the practice”, insisting on a link between pornography and violence against women.
Two books by two American academics — both women — encapsulate the arguments on both sides of the debate. In her book, Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women’s Rights, Nadine Strossen, professor of law at New York Law School, who also served as president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), powerfully articulates the “free speech” defence of pornography.
“In the past decade, some feminists have dramatically altered the long-standing debate in this country about sex and sexually oriented expression,” she writes.
“Liberals — including those who advocate women’s rights — had long sought increased individual freedom, and decreased government control, in the realm of sexuality. According, liberals have urged the repeal both of laws restricting consensual private sexual conduct between adults, and laws restricting the production of or access to sexually oriented materials, including books, photographs, and films.
“Conversely, conservatives — including those who opposed women’s rights causes — had consistently advocated strict government controls over both sexual conduct and sexual expression.”
On the other side, the argument about how porn shapes and distorts social and sexual norms, is given muscular justification by Gail Dines, professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelcock College in Boston, in her book entitled Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality.
“The messages that porn disseminates about women can be boiled down to a few essential characteristics: They are always ready for sex and are enthusiastic to do whatever men want, irrespective of how painful, humiliating, or harmful the act is.
The word ‘no’ is glaringly absent from porn women’s vocabulary. Men in porn are depicted as soulless, unfeeling, amoral life-support systems for erect penises who are entitled to use women in any way they want.
“These men demonstrate zero empathy, respect, or love for the women they have sex with, no matter how uncomfortable or in pain these women look... The power that men have over women in porn sex is encoded into the sex acts and the physical and verbal abuse that accompanies them.”
The debate over pornography really dates back to the 1960s and the growth of what came to be known as “the permissive society”.
In 1967, the US Congress set up a commission to investigate the effects of pornography and obscenity on the people of the United States, with members appointed by President Lyndon Johnson.
The central problem facing the commission was outlined in an article by Clive Barnes of the New York Times: “We are living in a permissive society, and yet few of us can decide how permissive we want our society to be, or, alternatively, how nonpermissive we think our society should become. How divided is the nation on the subject of obscenity and pornography?”
The commission published its report on September 30, 1970, though reaction to its findings was mixed. The majority report of the commission concluded: “Public opinion in America does not support the imposition of legal prohibitions upon the rights of adults to read or see explicit sexual materials”.
On the other hand, a minority report from dissenting commissioners started with these striking words: “The commission’s majority report is a Magna Carta for the pornographer”.
The spread of permissiveness was hastened by the invention of the contraceptive pill, which ushered in what Playboy (among others, most notably Newsweek and Cosmopolitan magazines) proclaimed to be “a sexual revolution”. This happened to coincide with the emergence of what was in the beginning called the women’s liberation movement (later, this morphed into “feminism”). As a consequence, the assertion of women’s rights spilled over into the sexual sphere.
With the new openness about sex, barriers started to come down; critics would assert that the floodgates were opening, leading inevitably to what is often described nowadays as the “pornogrification of society”.
Back in 2003, just days before her memoir hit the bestseller list, former adult film star Traci Lord told newspapers: “When I was in porn, it was like a back-alley thing. Now it’s everywhere”. This is even more true in 2016 than it was in 2003. The internet, as Dr Ruigrok emphasised, is a “game-changer”.
WITH the advents of the internet, young people are consuming more porn than ever. Research in the USA, for instance, has revealed that the average age of first viewing porn is now 11.5 years for boys. If this hasn’t altered the nature of the debate over pornography, it has certainly added an important new dimension.
Back in 1970 the US Commission could talk of “the imposition of legal prohibitions”, but censorship won’t work in the 21st century. There was indeed a time, as we well know in this country, when a national government could regulate what its citizens read in literature, whether in books, newspapers or magazines, or viewed in films or on television.
The internet has radically changed all of that.
Technology has rendered regulation inoperative, it has been outpaced. With society now becoming increasingly pornography-saturated, the “tsunami” that Rutland Street warned against in this country is not at all fanciful.
Now that pornography is so widely available today and so readily accessible, the worry for parents of teenage boys and girls is that exposure to it will leave them with a distorted understanding of sex and with exaggerated or unreal expectations about it.
Traditionally, the pro-porn versus anti-porn debate has been about adult-only access to pornography. Today the internet has made age limits redundant — everyone today, irrespective of age, can access pornography. That’s the new challenge society faces, and it raises serious questions about the quality of sex education in Irish schools.
It is believed that up to 50% of Irish schools do not deliver appropriate relationships and sexualities education (RSE). If it is true then it is an intolerable situation in 2016.
A recent survey revealed that Irish teenagers are some of Europe’s most prolific sextors. Yet we are stuck with an education system that appears to take no account of new attitudes to sex, the impact of new technology, or the proliferation of porn culture among the young.