On Tuesday evening I managed to secure a very last minute ticket to a debate about pornography at the Royal Institute.
Speaking at the event in favour of the motion ‘Pornography is good for us: without it we would be a far more repressed society’ was the UK’s first female porn film director Anna Arrowsmith and reader in sexualities and cultures from University of Sunderland Clarissa Smith. Against were Professor Germaine Greer and Dr Robert Lefever, an expert on addiction treatment.
The stand out speaker for me was Arrowsmith, who was quick to highlight that porn is acting out an imagination that is influenced by a wider arena and was on point with her responses to audience questions. She reminded us that porn is a performance and porn stars are there to act out fantasies not realities, equating criticisms of porn directors for showing unrealistic sex to criticising a comedy film director for showing life to be funnier than it is in reality. In highlighting the performers, Arrowsmith was also able to make the point that if you attack an industry you attack the people in that industry and linked this to the stigma faced by sex industry workers because of their choice of career. “We’re divided and ruled. It’s always with the same kind of moral reasoning,” she argued in her closing statement. “There is nothing wrong with being known for your body.”
One thing that seemed to hold back discussion was that the speakers were often debating about different elements to a wide spectrum of porn. In her opening, Smith was quick to highlight the problem with definitions and thinking that there is a singular thing such as porn, arguing that there is actually a huge variety. Despite this, Greer and Lefever often talked about quite narrow ideas about pornography and impact of porn. There were two points in particular that Greer seemed to return to. The first was what seemed to be a narrow understanding of desired sex. “Any person who is penetrated is degraded,” she remarked in her opening statement, later arguing for a reinvention of intimacy and encouraging people to include conversations in sex. The flaw in this approach is that it assumes everyone wants to achieve intimacy in the same way, or wants to achieve intimacy at all, and suggests that Greer is applying her own sexual desires onto other people. The second difficulty I had was with her argument that the ‘porn industry’ is a commercial machine that perpetuates one idea of penetrative sex. “Porn is a business and the target audience is male,” she said, ignoring the fact that many ‘home made’ porn films are not made for money. One member of the audience challenged Greer’s knowledge of the porn that’s available in the modern day, suggesting her idea of penetrative heterosexual sex being dominant doesn’t reflect today’s wide interests and desires catered for by porn.
The strength of those arguing for the motion were their references to scientific research and use of examples, such as women who had told Arrowsmith that her films had been a lifeline to them. Greer and Lefever more often used their own experiences to demonstrate a wider points. Greer referenced her ‘experience’ as a pornographer in the seventies and although Lefever discussed the experiences of addicts he has worked with, he never specifically referenced a love or sex addiction nor did he link his point specifically relate to pornography. Smith and Arrowsmith challenged these assumptions by pointing towards a wider range of pornography but I don’t think they argue strongly enough against Greer’s seemingly out of date suggestions about penetrative sex being degrading, which could have been an easy win.
An interesting point, which I think was raised on the night, is that if you take the word ‘porn’ and replace with ‘films’ what are you left with? A discussion about a form of entertainment that some people like and others don’t – it becomes a matter of taste. So why, when we bring sex into it, does it become so problematic? Are we too precious about sex? Or is a desire to have sex with someone different to other social needs such laughing or having a conversation and therefore should sex be valued differently? These are really questions for another day’s discussion but I bring them up now because the marginalisation of sex is one reason why I think fears and ‘moral panics’ take off so uncontrollably – and it does link back to Arrowsmith’s point mentioned above on prejudices made about the sex industry.
Returning to the debating floor, before the debate, audience votes for the motion were at 45%, against at 22% and don’t knows at 33%. At the end of the discussion it had moved to 50% for, 44% against and 6% don’t know. Although a win for Smith and Arrowsmith overall, most of the ‘don’t knows’ went to Greer and Lefedev, likely won over by Greer fantastic delivery of her points, even I disagreed with a lot of what she was saying. Damn it.