Shifting Positions: Humanist Perspectives on Porn

By Bollman, Melissa | The Humanist, September-October 2010 | Go to article overview

Shifting Positions: Humanist Perspectives on Porn


Bollman, Melissa, The Humanist


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PRIOR TO THE sexual revolution of the 1960s, pornographic material was kept private amid a culture that labeled it too risque for the public eye. With the mass production of magazines like Playboy and Penthouse, porn's increasing visibility elicited outrage from the more conservative members of society. Twenty years later, pornography became a full-blown civil rights issue.

The 1980s gave rise to some of the most vitriolic critiques that had ever been aimed at the subject. While moral objections to pornography were nothing new, it was only starting in the '80s that many outraged feminists and humanists willingly teamed up with the religious right to oppose what both considered to be a truly sick and disturbing trend in adult entertainment.

Not surprisingly, the creation of this unlikely coalition put the allied humanists in a very awkward position. How could they, as strong proponents of social equality and sexual freedom, ever justify siding with the kinds of people who took their philosophy from an overtly misogynistic and homophobic text? It was a controversial move that provoked much debate within the humanist community.

For one, humanists were typically pornography's sympathizers and not its assailants. Unlike the members of the so-called moral majority, who objected to porn mainly because it showed people fornicating in a slew of "unacceptable" ways, humanists found nothing inherently obscene about the graphic depiction of sex. They certainly weren't appalled by the act itself--provided that it was consensual--and couldn't point to any reason why sexually explicit material deserved to be labeled, automatically, as indecent. Moreover, many humanists believed that pornographers, like anyone else, deserved the right to freely express whatever they wished, regardless of how uncomfortable it made people feel.

On the other hand, some porn appeared much too appalling to tolerate on the basis of free speech. The '80s snuff films in particular seemed to defiantly overstep the boundaries of what ought to be marketed as sexy. From an ethical standpoint, what these movies glorified--the raping and killing of women--was absolutely disgusting to anyone who believed that human life deserved to be treated with respect and dignity. Unfortunately, the rise of these films was just one of several new manifestations of moral decay. Another was the questionable content of popular men's magazines; the June 1978 cover of Hustler, for example, featured a crude clip-art collage of a woman being fed face-first into a meat grinder. The violence and misogyny present in such images led some feminists to believe pornography was something that deserved to be banned, quickly and permanently.

However, not all humanists agreed with them. While none condoned the sexual violence expressed in certain types of pornography, some were more hesitant about placing their trust in legislation to bring about its end. The outspoken sexologist Sol Gordon, as an adamant opponent of censorship, pointed out that a causal relationship between exposure to pornography and effects on attitudes might be shown, but that no one could show such a relationship between exposure and behavior. 'Anything we ban," he added, "we make readily available ... haven't we learned the lesson?" Besides, he argued, the legal restrictions the feminists were proposing could easily be twisted and used against them--it could be their writings on sex and their beloved pro-feminist erotica that the obscenity censors would target first. (Consequently, he turned out to be right; immediately following a 1992 Canadian court ruling declaring pornography an obscenity subject to government regulation, two LGBT bookstores were raided, and their "offensive" lesbian erotica was seized.)

By 1985 the conflict over pornography was nearing its climax. Although humanists generally agreed that something had to be done to fix the social ills porn promoted, they nonetheless couldn't reach a consensus on what exactly this was. …

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