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Naked truth about porn on television

When TopTV announced it was planning a fresh bid to screen adult content, a number of the self-appointed guardians of South Africa's moral fibre rushed to our aid. The usual suspects (African Christian Action, the Family Policy Institute) spoke of the "flood of filth" that would destroy our families, corrupt our children and, in general, violate more rights than I was aware we even had.

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) hearings on these adult-content channels took place on March 14 and I was one of only two people who presented in favour of TopTV's application (besides the applicants themselves, of course). The written submissions received by Icasa were overwhelmingly disapproving – 440 against, 16 in favour. At the hearings, the ratio shifted to a more balanced two in favour and six against.

That is where the impression of greater balance began and ended, for the most part. If you were keen on getting examples of how to marshal anecdotes, logical fallacies and statistical innumeracy in favour of a moralistic conclusion, the Icasa office was the place to be that day. As I said in my submission, porn seems to reliably increase only two things: arousal and religious outrage, but perhaps negative causality in relation to common sense needs to be added to that list.

It is not true, as some might think, that you need to think pornography entirely unproblematic to defend the right of a broadcaster to screen it or viewers to watch it. I am convinced that porn can alter expectations in the bedroom and in relationships more generally. But so can just about any entertainment product you can imagine. Porn becomes a big problem only if it automatically causes harm, or causes injuries that are more severe or of a type distinctive to porn.

For some, porn seems particularly interesting just because it is porn. It is about sex and sex is about families and families involve children and healthy societies. We do not like to talk about sex, or watch it – especially not the kind of sex shown in porn. Ergo, porn harms children and families.

Communication breakdown
Except that we do not have any compelling reasons to believe it does: no harm in ways attributable to pornography specifically, rather than other variables such as poverty, communication breakdown or the pressures of fulfilling Calvinist, hetero­normative, nuclear-family-type social expectations that are increasingly ill-suited to the interests and desires of the 21st-century human.

Introducing one or more pieces of research here will probably only serve to stoke a cherry-picking contest, so I will say only this: the past few decades have allowed for a global social-science experiment that allows us to compare class, income, race, gender, religion and whatever else you like with porn and sexual violence. Looking at that data, it requires a fair amount of contortion to avoid the conclusion that people who are educated and living in a functioning and responsive state commit fewer crimes of all sorts, regardless of porn access.

Pornography is a red herring in this argument, particularly with regard to the anecdotes about the effects of porn that the Icasa commissioners were told. There is no question that South Africa is experiencing obscenely high levels of rape (not that any level is not obscene), but it is not possible to blame porn for this. The sexual violence clusters in areas that are poor and have less access to porn than the average reader of this paper. The middle and upper classes should be doing most of the raping and they are not. Yes, there may be a correlation between porn and sexual violence, just as there may be a correlation between hours spent on church pews and lower backache. But correlation does not imply causation. It is easy to use correlation to stir moral panic. It is less easy to show a clear causal link.

To wheel out a young man to testify that his cousin's consumption of e.tv porn led to rape at age 13 is not to show a causal link. For every example of this type, we could find thousands of South Africans who watched Emmanuelle, or Debbie Does Dallas, without resorting to sexual violence. Note also the apparent contradiction between the "rape is about power, not sex" narrative and the "porn on your TV screen causes rape" narratives.

Moral preferences
It does not make it so to assert that porn is as addictive as heroin or cocaine and it takes only five minutes of exposure for a child to be irreparably harmed. The editors of the diagnostic standards manual for American psychologists and psychiatrists do not include pornography as an addiction, evidence that this claim is at least contested, not established fact.

The real – and honest – narrative here is one of a contest between various moral preferences, in which pornography, sex-worker trafficking and rape are treated as interrelated, just because people say they are. The facts can never be settled by shouting, by our (legitimate) fears for our safety, or by anecdotes involving claims such as that serial killer Ted Bundy "got started in porn".

The joy (albeit one experienced all too rarely) of living in a constitutional democracy that is mostly secular is that you do not have to consume porn if you do not want to. There are risks in allowing people choice, yes. It is difficult to predict or control what choices people make and, therefore, what you or your children might be exposed to.

This means that the task of parenting, or of providing moral guidance in other contexts, is a difficult one. This is as it has always been and is as it should be. But none of us has the right to prescribe morality for others, especially not on the basis of cherry-picked data and moral hysteria.

Jacques Rousseau works at theUniversity of Cape Town and is chairperson of the Free Society Institute

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