Porn is a privilege not a right

porn prison

Once again, the issue of prisoners’ right to pornography is up for debate; this time in Canada.

In 2013, Correctional Service Canada blocked inmates’ access to TV channels showing late-night pornography after complaints that female correctional officers were feeling harassed.

“It was found that sexually explicit material undermined a person’s sense of personal dignity, and in the circumstances under consideration, particularly that of female correctional officers,” state the records.

Haris Naraine, who was an inmate at the time at Archambault Prison in Quebec, filed a grievance, eventually taking his case to federal court, arguing that banning access to porn infringed on his constitutional right to freedom of expression. The judge concluded that banning the channels was not legal but, it seems, Quebec Minister of Public Security Lise Thériault disagrees. After learning that inmates at Quebec’s Amos detention centre were accessing porn via a late-night movie channel, she vowed to install parental controls in prisons across the province in order to block access to channels that showed porn.

Correctional Service Canada is still reviewing the court ruling and the policy so, in the meantime, there is ample opportunity to debate things like “sexuality” and “morals” and to prove how sexy and unprudish we really are when it comes to men’s right to misogyny.

In a repulsive but revealing report by Brigitte Noël for Vice, she accuses Thériault of “pearl-clutching” and goes on to discuss the issue of “sexuality in prison,” as though male sexuality is inseparable from pornography. This kind of commentary is useful as it gets at one of two key issues here: 1) the “right” to access any media one likes, and 2) the idea that men are unable to function in a healthy manner without access to pornography.

What these arguments tell us is that, as a society, it’s time to stop pretending as though pornography is simply “entertainment” and, therefore, innocuous. Pornography is not a neutral form of “entertainment.” Rather, it is a form of media that reinforces and celebrates female degradation and abuse as well as racist stereotypes. Unless we are prepared to argue that racism and misogyny are either integral aspects of male sexuality or simply neutral — and therefore harmless — forms of entertainment, we cannot treat porn as “sexuality” or as a “right,” like access to education or health care. As such, we must acknowledge that it is unacceptable for everyone — not simply for inmates.

If pornography is an innate part of men’s sexualities, then we must also argue that men naturally want to hurt and abuse the women they have sex with and that men are not capable of masturbating without simultaneously degrading women, as these behaviours feature so prominently in porn. We must also argue that, for example, adult men naturally want to have sex with teenage girls and that “facial abuse” is a healthy expression of male sexuality.

While folks like Noël assume that access to porn reduces rates of rape and male violence, there is no strong evidence to support this and, moreover, it is an irrational claim. Both porn consumption and male violence are ubiquitous. If it were true that porn reduced violence against women and sexual assault, you’d think we’d have seen a notable drop, seeing as pornography is so easily accessible online and so commonly-used by men and boys. Yet sexual assault and other forms of violence against women continue, every day, globally.

There is also plenty of evidence that shows younger and younger boys are acting out scenes from pornography on girls, resulting in rising levels of violent sex crimes. We know from both reports and from personal experience that both men and boys are pressuring their female partners to engage in sex acts they saw in porn videos. We also know, from not being stupid, that the images we see in media, more generally, have an impact on our view of the world and people around us. Racist propaganda teaches people racism, sexist propaganda teaches people sexism, fast food propaganda teaches people to buy fast food. Advertising works, that’s why companies use it to sell products.

The problem with pornography is not, in any case, simply rape. The objectification and sexualization of women is completely normalized today, a result of the mainstreaming of porn and the entrenchment of porn culture. So the idea that women are things to look at and that our bodies exist for the purposes of male pleasure and titillation is something that must be discussed in all of this. Porn isn’t only about teaching men to ejaculate to violent acts and it isn’t only teaching them to be sexually selfish; it’s also teaching them how to see and treat women, more generally — it teaches men what we are for.

Today on CBC’s The Current, Anna Maria Tremonte spoke to Naraine and his lawyer, Todd Sloan, who said that from a “human rights perspective,” prisoners should be able to watch the same programming as the rest of society.

This argument is actually a useful one to consider. If “the rest of society” agrees that porn is simply another form of expression, sexuality, and entertainment, why shouldn’t prisoners be able to watch it? I mean, isn’t this the crux of the matter? That most of society accepts that women’s safety is less important than men’s ability to “express themselves” through misogyny? And that most of society takes for granted that men “need” both racism and sexism in order to masturbate and that violence is an innate part of men’s sexualities?

We see examples of this argument all the time, including recently with the case of Jian Ghomeshi, who defended his violence against women on the basis of “sexuality,” arguing that his violence was simply a “sexual preference” and that “sexual preferences are a human right.” In the end, society did not accept his excuse because the women he assaulted made clear that his violence wasn’t “consensual.” But what if it were? The fact that Ghomeshi believed his own rhetoric and employed the language of “human rights” in his self-defense is notable.

Women in pornography technically “consent” to violence in their contracts. They agree to accept money in exchange for being degraded, abused, gang-raped, choked, and called misogynist and racist names. Does “consent” make that imagery that a healthy expression of male sexuality? Are depictions of sexualized violence a human right simply because it exists and some people enjoy it? Is racism and sexism ok so long as one woman agrees to be the target?

If you believe the answer to these questions is “yes,” do you also believe that hate speech is a human right?

What baffles me is that pornography is not, as of yet, legally defined as hate speech, considering the amount of literal hate speech in porn.

What should be clear, at very least — even to those who wish to pretend “consensual” racism and sexism are acceptable — is that porn makes women feel harassed, disrespected, and unsafe. While Sloan argued that there was no evidence that inmates’ porn consumption lead to an increase in harassment of female correctional officers, you have to wonder why, if there was no impact, these women complained in the first place… You have to wonder why, more generally, porn is banned in workplaces because women interpret it as sexual harassment, which is, you know, illegal nowadays.

Despite the fact that this decision to ban porn was made with the safety of women in mind, Naraine and many others believe this infringes on men’s human rights.

The thing is, hate speech and sexual harassment are not human rights. So this debate about porn access is not about rights at all. It’s about privilege, specifically male privilege.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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