How does one argue in favour of free speech but against pornography?

The debate around pornography, from my perspective, is almost always framed in a way that distracts us from the reality of porn and from the concerns many women, in particular, have about porn.

I always feel obligated to add the caveat that of course not all women have a problem with pornography. Some women watch it, some women make it, many women think they have no say, so quash their concerns as instructed, repeating, “It’s just a fantasy,” “It’s not real,” “Men are irredeemable perverts,” etc. “Boys will be boys” is an easier approach, to be sure, than continually banging one’s head against the wall, trying to convince porn lovers to understand our perspectives, hurt, anger, or disgust.

I think many of us — myself included — go through periods of helplessness, knowing that the porn industry is not likely to be defeated, and male consumption of porn unlikely to ever be fully curbed. And the truth is that boys will be boys — it is unlikely that the sex trade will ever cease to exist or that men will ever stop wanting to consume images of sexualized women. So even that approach makes sense to me, despite the fact it means women have to then separate the parts they love about their partner from the parts that upset them or make them feel disrespected. We do need to contend with reality, whether we like it or not.

I recently tried to address the problem of reality (a thing that unfortunately eludes many progressives, feminists included) when it comes to men who use porn and visit strip clubs, and add some nuance to the conversation, which was received well by some and less well by others. I think the problem is that people want clear, easy answers and arguments, and I truly don’t think there are any when it comes to porn (or, for that matter, many other issues). Not all porn users are the same, not everyone uses porn in the same way, not all porn is the same, questions around regulation and censorship are complex and not to be taken lightly, sex and sexuality are complicated and personal, and questions of morality and ethics are up for debate.

It’s easy to say a thing is immoral and therefore those who engage in that thing are bad, and end the conversation with that, but that tends not to be an accurate or effective approach. If we want to truly engage and convince others of our views — or at least help them understand — we need to explain ourselves, and actually engage with our critics and adversaries ourselves. We can’t demand people listen to and understand us if we refuse to listen to and understand others.

I recently participated in an online panel, organized by Free Speech Champions, called, “Sex and Censorship in the 21st Century.” The panelists offered a refreshingly diverse set of arguments and perspectives, that spanned well beyond the porn as “free speech” framing, but nonetheless, I find this to be one of the only things that puts me add odds with many libertarians and free speech advocates today.

I am a free speech absolutist, and lean closer to libertarianism, nowadays, than ever before. I support free choice, autonomy, and liberty for all. Individual freedom is paramount, and I have little trust in the government to determine what may and may not be said, shared, or produced online. That said, it is clear that within that, we are obligated to protect others from harm as best we can. We don’t have the right to inflict harm or violence on others, and we do still need to have conversations about ethics and morality, outside the law. My perspective on porn is not black and white, and I am always open to changing my mind, as well as to honest, open conversation, but I would like to outline where I’m at now, as I find myself misunderstood or misrepresented on both ends of the debate.

To start, porn is not speech. I don’t know why it was ever framed as a free speech issue, as porn is most accurately framed as filmed prostitution. It is about paying women to perform sexual acts, and it is about buying sex from and sexual access to women. So in terms of legislation and regulation, it would be more effectively addressed in that way. This means that in a country like Canada that criminalizes pimps, johns, traffickers, and brothel owners (or claims to, in any case — enforcement is another issue), one wonders why men who profit from sex acts performed by women in porn are left alone. If you are profiting from selling women, you are breaking the law. Applying this to pornography would allow women who genuinely want to sell filmed sex acts or images of their sexualized bodies to men who wish to pretend those women are just wild and free nymphomaniacs who truly love sharing their most intimate body parts with random losers online, and are totally turned on by said randoms, not just trying to rinse them, to do so without punishment, but would reduce the drive and incentive for men to exploit and abuse and dehumanize women for profit.

If you do truly want something called “ethical” porn (whether this is truly an achievable goal is doubtful, but hey, we could try to get close), you should support this model. I don’t want men making millions off of women’s bodies, who, in porn, are chewed up and spat out at exponential rates, only for the benefit of the men who profit or who consume the product, and neither should you. So long as women are treated as products to be bought, sold, and used, pornography is going to dehumanize women.

There are other issues beyond this, surrounding the broad objectification of women and the fact pornified imagery is completely mainstreamed — all over Instagram, as women scramble for attention, validation, and to build their audiences as “influencers,” but in as far as what we can do legally, I think a version of the “Nordic model,” applied to pornography, could work.

While I may not be pro-censorship, I am perpetually confused by the hypocritical legal approach to pornography.

Among many, a key issue in porn is exploitation and abuse, which I would hope we can all agree we would like to avoid. I am baffled that countries that have hate speech laws (which I do not support, for the record), laws against workplace sexual harassment, and that understand domestic abuse to be a crime allow pornography to be produced and profited from. If hate speech or violence happens within the context of paid sex does it become legal? The entirety of the sex trade allows workplace sexual harassment — it is literally the job of the stripper, prostitute, or porn star to be sexually harassed. I genuinely do not understand the logic behind a legal sex industry, within countries that criminalize so-called “hate speech,” sexual assault, and sexual harassment in the workplace. The sex industry seems to operate in a strange loophole legally, as well as politically, personally, and morally.

To be clear, I do not wish to police what happens in individuals’ bedrooms. But what we are talking about, I am told, is a “job” — employment, which indeed is subject to laws and regulation, and is very much up for public scrutiny, unlike the private sexual inclinations of consenting individuals. What we are also talking about is a product — a business, I am told. Also subject to rules, regulations, law, and public scrutiny.

This is the tricky thing about porn and arguments in defense of it: it is insisted we cannot police sex and sexuality, lest we be labelled moralistic, repressive, censorial prudes, but are told in the same breath that this is simply “work,” a “job,” a “business.” Is this a private thing we cannot judge? Or a public thing subject to public debate, judgement, and regulation? It seems the fact that porn is all of these things allows it to exist outside the law and outside moral judgement. Convenient. For those who profit and consume porn, anyway…

Porn is allowed to exist on Twitter, for example, but not so-called “hate speech,” which apparently includes referring to males who have adopted female pronouns as “he.” Men who use trans ideology as an excuse to harass, threaten, and insult women who advocate against delusion and in favour of sex-based rights are permitted access to the platform, but to tell the truth about male predators, harassers, abusers, or fetishists who identify as trans is a bannable offence. The political hypocrisies and irrational censorship carried out by Twitter expands far beyond their approach to pornography, but is particularly shameless, considering the company’s claims to want to protect users from harassment, and considering pornography is often used to harass women on and off line. It makes no sense that graphic, misogynist, racist pornography should be permitted on Twitter, but not actual scientific facts, if those facts don’t fit the preferred political narrative.

Unless of course you consider profit.

And so we come full circle. We are told porn is untouchable because sex is untouchable, but what we are talking about isn’t really sex: it’s money — it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. Sex is private, personal, and an incredibly powerful, important part of the human experience. I wouldn’t give it up for anything. But should we give up the sale of female bodies for male profit and public consumption? I’d argue yes. One cannot simulataneously use the “personal and private” argument when we’re dealing with a thing that only exists as it does today because of the profit motive. It there were no profit, there were be very little pornography.

But the “personal” aspect matters too. Porn has a real impact on individuals and relationships, and that impact is too often shushed.

Men will often tell their partners that porn is “just a fantasy” — that it’s not real and should be of no threat. Women “shouldn’t be jealous,” and should accept that male sexuality is different than female sexuality, and that perhaps we can’t understand what men contend with, in terms of desire. And I think this is probably true in a lot of ways. And so I strive to understand. But I also think men need to contend with their own ethical choices, both in terms of the public and the private.

The women in porn are real women and those are real sex acts — yes, they are “acting,” in that they are pretending to enjoy themselves, but they really truly are being penetrated in various ways, hit, choked, and so on and so forth. So there is the fact that if you are consuming pornography, you know next to nothing about what the women on the other end of the screen are feeling and experiencing, so can’t possibly know whether they are experiencing abuse, coercion, or exploitation. But there is also the private fact that if your porn use makes your partner feel disrespected and dehumanized, you should, theoretically, care about that. This is not something she should have to push aside and shut down — to pretend away — because so much of the world has normalized porn use. Certainly it shouldn’t be acceptable for you to shame and dismiss her because the porn-saturated world has given you that excuse.

These are just some of my concerns — many of which I feel go unaddressed by proponents of pornography, and which have (oddly) been ignored by those angered by my suggestion feminists approach this topic with nuance rather than oversimplistic judgement and attacks. I’m not demanding censorship, nor am I shaming people for enjoying or desiring sex. I enjoy and desire sex, and yet (imagine!) I find pornography disgusting, offensive, hateful, and dehumanizing. And I find that those who refuse to contend with critiques of pornography and many women’s inherent disgust at pornography fail to engage in good faith. I’m not dismissing people who like and watch porn — I know a ton of them. Yet I do feel that porn producers and fans are incredibly dismissive of those critical.

I support free speech and am no fan of censorship; yet I think pornography is bad for men and women alike. And what I would like is for free speech advocates to stop pretending this is only a conversation about censorship vs freedom. I am talking about so much more: relationships, sexuality, exploitation, psychological and physical harm, the impacts of objectification, and respect. There will never be easy answers to all of that, but I think it’s important we move the conversation forward on that basis.

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 The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, 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 very beautiful dog.