Saturday, December 31, 2016

"Common Ground" On Pornography?

I saw this article recently published by the Washington Post and, after reflecting on what it had to say, wondered if it didn't have larger lessons for all of us.

The boundaries of what constitutes pornography have always been hard to define.  For that reason, it's always been difficult to address much of the social harm it creates, except indirectly.  For example, the porn industry has often been connected other activities, such as human trafficking and substance abuse, that are by common consensus activities that must be criminalized.  By prosecuting those activities, we effectively put some sort of boundaries around the problem.  We don't, however, get at the problem itself--or, even more importantly, at the root causes of its existence.

Direct bans on pornographic materials and exhibits have always been overturned on First Amendment grounds, for the simple reason that it is impossible to craft language in a ban that would allow mature depictions of sexual activity and relationships while forbidding ones that are designed to do nothing more than arouse our most physical instincts.  (Example:  I had to write that last sentence with extreme care, so that I could be as clear as possible about making a distinction to what are commonly reduced to the words "art" and "smut."  I hope I was successful.)

However, this is where social and psychological research has been helpful, in identifying the personal characteristics that lead people to not only create porn, but consume it as well.  One example, from several decades ago:  Time magazine published an article about a research study conducted by interviewing strippers, attempting to find out whether their were any common characteristics that might have led them into that particular career.  The study found that many of these women came from backgrounds with absent or abusive men as fathers.  This suggests the possibility that a combination of low-self-esteem with a negative perspective on men might be a factor in leading a woman to choose stripping as an occupation.

It's obviously difficult to generalize about human behavior from the results of a single study, or even from many.  But there is enough out there to suggest that porn is a industry largely fed on reduced self-esteem, especially when it comes to sexuality.  A person with a strong sense of sexual self-esteem doesn't need to watch other people having sex; they'd rather be a participant than a spectator. If that's the case, than it makes sense to treat the problem as the gentleman from Virginia suggests--not as a problem to be addressed through the criminal justice system, but as one to be addressed through the public health system.

If his bill is passed and, at some point, it simply becomes a pretext to enact some sort of ban on certain types of media, then those of us on the other side of the partisan divide can and should fight every effort to enact such bans.  If it passes and, instead, it becomes the framework for addressing the social and personal harms connected to porn in a positive, proactive way, and leads to a healthier society, sexually and otherwise, then it deserves to be supported now.  Perhaps, one day, it can lead to the framework for legislation on a national basis (that is, if we can ever get Congress to work on something other than its own re-election).

I hope that Democrats in Virginia will work with Delegate Marshall on his bill.  He seems likely to accept such support, as he has apparently worked across party lines in the past.  If that happens, it could lead to two positive results, besides the passing of the bill.  First, it would illustrate the value of research in helping us all to learn more about ourselves, and therefore more about how to solve our problems.  Second, it would show that, even now, when it comes to a truly hot-button issue, democracy can still find a way to bring people together on a solution.

In any event, when I read this, I felt that perhaps, even in the coming year, when our national government threatens to become a reality show at best and a fascist nightmare at worst, there are still some small glimmers of hope in the darkness.  I root for many more in 2017--for you, for your loved ones, and for all of us.

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