A moral position, or just a moralising one?
This isn’t really a post about Cambridge University and its students, but it has to start there. This past week the Cambridge Union, which says of itself that it is the oldest student debating society in the world, addressed the motion that ‘pornography does a good public service’. The speakers included past and present porn stars, a pornography film director, a sexologist, a child psychologist and a feminist activist. There was, by all accounts, a robust debate, at the end of which the students present (in a packed house) voted by a majority of 44 in favour of the motion. So, pornography is a public good.
Well, student debates are student debates, and you can maybe imagine the mood in the chamber, apparently ignited a little by the contributing former porn star whose born-again Christian tub thumping against pornography may not have helped matters. But there are topics where it’s not quite so easy to feel OK about a serious issue having been derailed by a mood that wanted a bit of fun; nobody would feel altogether relaxed, I’d venture, about a vote favouring genocide because the last speaker against had been a bit shrill.
Actually, as I said at the outset, I’m not really here to poke a stick at Cambridge students. I’m more worried that, as a society more generally, we are sometimes ambivalent about forms of exploitation. In the case of pornography, it’s not just exploitation, it meanders into some of the worst remaining forms of slavery and human trafficking. A recent report about Romania, for example, has highlighted the sale of teenagers from there to different countries for the purposes of prostitution and pornographic modelling.
Pornography so understood is not erotic art, literature or photography, which is something quite different. It is the exploitation and abuse of vulnerable people. Universities represent values of civilisation and freedom, and in my view at least, none there should be ambivalent about the fate of people who become victims of those who believe that human dignity is just one more thing that can be consumed without guilt. I hope we are educating people to understand that. I really do.