In the past fifty years we have been the victims of many ill-advised social experiments. One such experiment was the relaxation of censorship.
It began in a major way in the early 60s and at first it didn’t seem like it was going to be a major problem. But of course it didn’t stop with just a relaxation of censorship. The relaxation continued until it reached the point where censorship became almost non-existent. There are many on the right who consider this experiment have been a disastrous failure. On the whole I agree with them although my views on the subject are a bit more complicated and I have no doubt that many in the social conservative and traditionalist camps are not going to approve of some of those views.
I should probably make the point here that I’m speaking of censorship in a broad sense. In the days of the Production Code Hollywood movies weren’t subject to government censorship. The censorship was done by the industry itself. The end result is however the same. It is important to emphasise that whether censorship is imposed by government or by corporations it is still censorship.
In my view there are two separate issues at stake when it comes to sexual material and censorship. There is sexual material that is imbedded in popular culture (and these days it is very deeply and thoroughly embedded) and then there is actual pornography. To my way of thinking it’s the sexual material that so thoroughly permeates our popular culture that is the biggest problem.
The reason I see this as the main problem is that sexual material in popular culture is inescapable, it is all-pervasive, it often takes the form of outright propaganda and it is extremely difficult to protect children from it.
It’s worth mentioning as an aside here that the Hollywood Production Code was introduced as the result of pressure by groups like the Legion of Decency and their main concern was not so much the explicit content (which was pretty tame even in the pre-code era) as the attitudes towards sex that were being encouraged. There was some nudity in pre-code Hollywood movies (such as the notorious scene of Jane skinny-dipping in Tarzan and His Mate) but the bigger concern was the number of movies that not only dealt with subjects like adultery sympathetically, they glamourised and celebrated that kind of immorality. Such attitudes were seen, quite correctly, as being extremely dangerous. Even more dangerous in that the immorality was sometimes presented in a less obvious way. Hollywood was always good at propaganda and while the propaganda was sometimes blatant it was often done in a more subtle and more pernicious way. The Production Code laid down very strict guidelines governing not just overt sexual content but also the messages that films were delivering.
And that’s the problem today with popular culture. It’s not just that there’s a good deal of inappropriate overt content. There’s also a relentless message encouraging and celebrating sexual depravity. The overt content is often graphic enough to be a huge problem in itself but the insidious messages are worse. A pop song glorifying anal sex probably does more harm than a fairly graphic sex scene in a movie. No matter how hard you try it’s just about impossible not to encounter such material and there really is no way you’re going to prevent children from being exposed to it.
Pornography is a different matter. My views on this subject might not be popular but to me it’s a matter of context. If you’re watching music videos or you’re watching a TV drama series or a thriller and suddenly you’re presented with graphic sexual content or messages then to me that’s a case a wildly inappropriate context for such material. You’re not prepared for it and you’re being exposed to it even if you don’t wish to be. And your kids are being exposed to it.
On the other hand if you buy a girlie magazine or visit a website that specialises in pictures of nude women then you’re expecting pictures of nude women. If you watch a porn movie you’re expecting to see people having sex and it’s hardly going to come as a shock. It’s an appropriate context. If you don’t wish to see pictures of naked women then you don’t have to visit that website or buy that magazine. If you don’t wish to see people having sex don’t watch a porn movie. It’s avoidable. It’s compartmentalised. You have to seek it out and it’s your choice. It’s not suddenly thrown at you when actually you’re expecting to see a straightforward thriller.
As long as you have to make a conscious decision to view the material it doesn’t worry me all that much. Of course there should be limits and restrictions and depending on the graphicness of the material there should be some hoops to jump through before you can access it, in order to make sure that people don’t stumble upon it by accident and to ensure that minors can’t access it. I do realise that these restrictions don’t work as well as they should in the internet age but to me that’s a technical problem rather than a moral problem.
My attitude towards this subject also varies depending on the exact nature of the material. There’s an extremely wide range of pornography, but broadly speaking to my mind you’re dealing with three categories. There’s softcore, which is basically naked women and simulated sex scenes. There’s hardcore, basically explicit images of real sex. And there’s the extreme end which covers some very disturbing and frankly disgusting stuff. The extreme stuff worries me and I’d be happier if people didn’t want such material and it is possible to make a fairly sound argument for banning a good deal of it outright.
Hardcore material worries me a good deal less as long as it is confined to the depiction of normal heterosexual activities (and perhaps I should mention in passing that I most certainly do not consider sodomy to be a normal heterosexual sexual act). If it stays within such limits I don’t think it’s a huge problem although of course it should be made impossible (or as near to impossible as can be managed) for minors to access it.
As for softcore porn, I have to be honest and say I don’t really have any problems with it at all. I can’t really imagine anyone being psychologically scarred by seeing pictures of naked women.
My principal concern is that pornography should be kept separate from mainstream popular culture, and that pornographic material should not be permitted to be infiltrated into mainstream popular culture. In my view this is where the real harm has been done. Sex is part of life but when popular culture becomes pornographic it encourages the idea that sex is all that matters in life.