Porn again

It's called The Porn Report and it is the product of a three year "Understanding Pornography in Australia" research project, brought to you by "senior academic researchers" Katherine Albury, Alan McKee and Catharine Lumby courtesy of the government funded Australia Research Council. Complete with pink and black cover.

Three years! Did it really take that long for three academics to survey a thousand porn consumers, watch a bunch of dirty DVDs, sample the websites, explain their sophisticated views on censorship, feminism, the "ethics" of the porn industry, and "debunk current misconceptions" about pornography? Mind you, there are an estimated 4.2 million pornographic websites to choose from, so that could slow things down. Or perhaps it was the search for an ethical angle on the multi-billion-dollar industry that took the time. Most of us thought porn was the absence of ethics. 


"The report takes a self-selecting sample of porn users who say porn is
good for them and doesn't give them a negative view of women. Well,
they would say that. Who is checking this?" - Melinda Tankard Reist

Just who are these myth-busters? Catharine Lumby is a well-known Sydney academic who holds radical views on sexuality and has been an adviser on "gender issues" to outfits as diverse as the producers of Big Brother and the National Rugby League. Her colleague Katherine Albury has similar interests -- gender diversity and the portrayal of women. Alan McKee teaches film and television at the Queensland University of Technology and, according to the QUT website, "has spent his career involved in research that fights for the rights of minority cultures and opposing oppression and bullying in all its forms". Hands off our persecuted porn sops!

Credit must be given where credit is due, and to add to these qualifications it must be noted that, "Catharine's first brush with [pornography] was in Year 5 when a group of schoolboys started reading out passages from The Joys of Sex… Kath was seven when she discovered one of her father's Playboy magazines… [and] Alan discovered an abandoned magazine in the woods behind his house in his early teens."

It is thanks to this experienced and dedicated team that society now has a resource by which we can all have an "informed debate" about pornography's "role in society", "what's in pornography" and "who consumes it".

Women make it all right

On the last point, Albury et al seem particularly keen to let us know that women are a growing sector of consumers. Of those interviewed for the report, 17 per cent were women -- up from 10 per cent in a 1996 survey. We are told a lot about their preferences: they like watching porn DVDs on a laptop in the privacy of their home (adult shops and greasy cinemas put them off); they like "fantasy porn" which apparently has something to do with "idealised body types" found in Penthouse; they have a strong aversion to violence, abuse or rape (well, that's a relief); and a growing number are using the internet to post images and videos of themselves performing sex acts.

Feminism and the internet have combined to open up a new world of pornographic possibility for women, according to Ms Lumby, who is clearly thrilled at this development. And if you are still wondering about the ethics angle, this is where it seems to come in: the involvement of women as producers and consumers has made porn much nicer -- not so violent or coercive, you understand. 

These are the sorts of "facts" which should be guiding the debate about pornography, the writers claim. But how representative are they?

Melinda Tankard Reist, director of Women's Forum Australia, points out: "The report takes a self-selecting sample of porn users who say porn is good for them and doesn't give them a negative view of women. Well, they would say that. Who is checking this? How do we know how they really view or treat women? Are we supposed to take their word for it?"

An older generation swallowed the "facts" about sexuality revealed in the Kinsey Report which, despite Kinsey's highly questionable research methods, was used to propagate myths that still affect social attitudes and policy today.

Ethical concern, or moral panic?

Lumby and co would have us believe that the "objections to pornography that are persistently raised in the media" are simply cases of misplaced hysteria, instigated by "the same well known figures", bent on creating society wide "moral panic".

But perhaps these "well known figures" are really concerned about the moral well-being of society; in what other circumstances would expressions of genuine concern be equated to incitement of panic? Since when did insisting on an ethical appraisal of a cultural trend automatically brand a person as an irrational scaremonger? Indeed, if that were the case, why would Lumby, Albury and McKee themselves bother to talk about the so-called ethics of the porn industry?

Ultimately, the trio play a numbers game: "the fact that up to one third of Australian adults consume pornography" means that "it makes no sense to treat porn consumers as an aberrant group", they assert.

No? Not when media reports of pornography fuelled crime are becoming more common? Not even when psychologists and counsellors increasingly warn about the way porn -- so easily accessed on the internet -- is poisoning marriages and young people's attitudes to sex? In view of the risks, the argument that "everyone is doing it so it must be OK" is worse than puerile. It is downright irresponsible.  

Debunking common sense

Granted, the authors have debunked the original stereotype of the porn user (they "are not all uneducated, lonely and sad old men") but are we supposed to be cheered by their announcement that users are now "of all ages…and all incomes"? Not many Australians simply yawned and turned the page when they read last year that a once highly respected senior crown prosecutor, Patrick Power, had been convicted of possessing both adult and child pornography. The story illustrates their point, but it is not one to be celebrated.

Perhaps they have also debunked commonsense itself if they want society at large to endorse porn consumption when it is common knowledge that members of the porn consumer club includes convicted sex criminals. Late last year a Melbourne judge sentenced a man to 11 years in jail on a rape conviction, saying that offender had acted out a fantasy seen in material from the internet.

Our intrepid researchers must find that difficult to believe since, despite their "extensive efforts", they "didn't manage to find any photographs of real rapes on pornographic sites on the internet". Nevertheless, when it comes to images of "fantasy rape" websites the fine print apparently makes all the difference; Albury and co are strangely satisfied by the mere presence of a disclaimer stating that all those photographed are licensed and over the age of 18. But who's to say that they are? They note that, "It's clear when you look at the photos that these scenes are faked" and that "most websites make it explicit that they are offering fantasy rape situations". Perhaps such considerations are meant be further evidence of the "ethics" of the pornography industry in practice.

So much for debunking the "misconception" that pornography doesn't objectify women; just put up the proper signage and it's all good, it would seem.

Even porn users can feel shame about their addiction. One quoted in the report said it was hard to come out and say, "Yes, I advocate pornography", because that would make people think, "eeeuw, you're dirty". But Albury, McKee and Lumby have no qualms about advocating dirt so long as it is "good" dirt and not "harmful" dirt, because apparently there is a difference. Yet, for the record, Patrick Power was using both adult (good) and child (bad) pornography. No prizes for guessing which led to the other.

But there's hope. The Porn Report's limited and useless findings will be challenged later this year by Women's Forum Australia's research paper on the harms of pornography, entitled The Real Porn Report.

"It will include research on the role of pornography in sexual aggression and violence against women, including in indigenous communities and its role in fuelling the demand for women's bodies through trafficking. It will also include those The Porn Report forgot - personal accounts of the devastation to relationships caused by compulsive pornography consumption," Ms Tankard Reist said.

The report will be written by women researchers and academics, and will be released later this year.

Helena Adeloju is a third year journalism student at Monash University in Melbourne.

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