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A debate about the moral neutrality of pornography

Herman Goodden
Issue: July/August 2004

When the Christian men’s group The Promise Keepers first announced their conference in London, Ontario, last year where 1,000 participants publicly condemned and personally renounced the evil of pornography, their initiative was criticized on two different fronts.

Megan Walker, executive director of the London Abused Women’s Centre, dismissed this initiative out of hand, saying these men “don’t even understand why it (the problem of pornography) exists.” “You can’t end pornography through prayer,” she told the London Free Press. “You end pornography ultimately through achieving equality for women.”

Tim Kelly, executive director of Changing Ways (a group committed to helping men overcome patterns of violence in their relationships) said he’d like to see a broader debate on pornography than anything the Promise Keepers had planned.

So a couple days before the Promise Keepers conference, Changing Ways hosted that supposedly broader debate in a downtown hall, inviting your faithful scribe and three well-known London feminists to debate the question: “Why are men conspicuous in their absence when it comes to speaking out against pornography?” Joining me on the panel were Barb MacQuarrie of the Centre for Research Against Women and Children, Shelly Yeo of Women’s Community House, and Dr. Joan Mason-Grant, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Western Ontario.

The evening was full of surprises. When I called around to a few Promise Keepers earlier in the day to make sure they’d be on hand for the question and answer period, I was appalled to learn that no one in their group had been invited to take part in this supposedly broadened debate. I’d always thought you broadened a debate by inviting others to join in, not by ignoring the first people to raise an issue and then rustling up a whole different raft of speakers instead.

Thankfully, there was a comical explanation. All invitations had been e-mailed and when the filtering systems on the Promise Keepers’ computers saw the ‘P’ word in the subject title, “A Forum on Pornography,” those invitations were automatically discarded. Considering they only had four hours’ notice, the Promise Keepers made a pretty good showing, constituting about a quarter of our audience and asking at least half of the questions.

The other big surprise – in light of that question we’d all been set to debate - was that the lone man on our panel, moi, was the only panelist who unambiguously spoke out against pornography. While my co-panelists weren’t fond of violent or misogynistic forms of pornography, not one of them rejected in principle the idea of viewing or reading material solely designed to arouse sexual feelings.

When it was my turn to talk, I suggested that our earliest encounters with certain subjects often contain intuitive insights that aren’t so clearly or powerfully apparent to us later on. At the age of 18, I’d cajoled my way into a newly opened strip club as a journalist for my high school newspaper. My enjoyment of this raw spectacle had been uneasy to start with, then quickly turned to ashes when the second ‘girl’ on stage was someone I knew—a classmate who’d dropped out of school the term before.

Before that, when I was about ten years old, I’d eagerly leafed through a stash of Playboy magazines that my friend unearthed from the lowest drawer of his father’s bedside table. Oh yes, I drank in the astonishing physical details so deeply that I believe I could sketch for you today a fairly accurate semblance of the postures and proportions of at least two of those pin-ups. But I also remember being deeply grateful that my dad did not maintain a similar collection at our house. I instinctively felt—and still do—that harbouring such materials constituted a significant form of infidelity and disrespect to one’s wife.

In both those situations, titillation in this most intimate of spheres depended on complete anonymity, on impersonal objectification. The idea that someone I knew or loved or cared about might be involved in either providing or partaking of such entertainment made the whole prospect suddenly turn rancid. And if I felt so strongly and instinctively that pornography wasn’t good enough for them, then why on earth did I ever think it might be good enough for me?

After the debate a friend told me that, as I’d been speaking, my co-panelists repeatedly smirked and rolled their eyes, presumably at my naiveté. I, in turn, couldn’t help wondering if my three highly educated co-panelists had always felt so sanguine about porn. Or had they learned to bury any instinctive twinges of conscience or revulsion in this matter under a suffocating hillock of diplomas and degrees in feminist history, sexual politics, and queer theory?

“There are some ideas that are so stupid that only an intellectual could believe them,” George Orwell once famously opined. The moral neutrality of porn, I’m sure, is one such idea.


© Copyright 1997-2004 Catholic Insight
    Updated: Apr 6th, 2005 - 14:29:00 



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved