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.

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5 Comments on “A moral position, or just a moralising one?”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    *…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*
    I think that one should be very careful in not conflating different issues here, while any form of human exploitation should be strongly condemned (sexual, as well as the one taking place in ‘third world’ sweatshops which provide some of the clothes sold on the high street), labelling pornography tout court as such is a bit of a simplification.
    I wrote my PhD thesis on Angela Carter, a quirky, original, feminist writer, who held some controversial views on pornography, her celebration of de Sade as the “moral pornographer” who would “use pornography as a critique of current relationships between the sexes” raised some feminist hackles. Still Carter raised important questions with regards to the power dynamic at work in the relationships between men and women. Similarly
    debating pornography in an academic context, or elsewhere for that matter, is extremely useful in discussing sexuality today where, while we have a return to the sentimental-domestic ideals of the 1950s, women are also offered the chance to become the makers and users of pornography. As Carter remarked thirty years ago, the core question is: Sex on whose terms?


    • Anna, I’ll go with that to a point, on the assumption that your definition of pornography here is different from mine. And indeed I accept that it is often a matter of definition. There is of course a whole lot of academic and other debate about the difference between pornography and erotica. For example, this exercised the Canadian courts when required to judge on D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover. On the whole I am basing my comments on the line of reasoning that emerged from that – that pornography is by definition exploitative. For the avoidance of doubt, I think that issues of sexuality, and of the erotic, are totally different, and erotica makes an important contribution to art, literature and even philosophy. But in the end pornography is about power and money.

      • anna notaro Says:

        * I am basing my comments on the line of reasoning that emerged from that – that pornography is by definition exploitative. * That is exactly the point I disagree with , i.e. that something is *by dfinition* this or that, actually it makes it even more radically interesting, if you like, to address the established definitions…For me the remedy to the very real potential of exploitation of pornography lies in the application of the law, a law that should protect choice and the most vulnerable in society, in the end the issue at stake in the pornography debate is nothing less than the age-old conflict between individual freedom and social control.
        As for the distinction between pornography and erotica it is not always so easy to draw the line between “good” erotica and “bad” pornography, a patina of celebral intellectualism often is not sufficient, also I think that one cannot make a sharp distinction between issues of sexuality and the erotic for the reason that they both represent our very human desires …


        • Sure, and I don’t think we disagree on substance. Definitions do matter, though, and so I suppose it depends on what exactly the Cambridge students thought they were approving as a ‘public good’. But whatever it was, unless they had offered or been offered a tighter definition their vote was IMO suspect. Equally anyone opposing the motion in a censorship frame of mind would not have my support. I agree it’s complex, and a denial of human desire is not what I am looking for here…

  2. Martin Parker Says:

    Pornography may not be ‘erotic art, literature or photography’ but it is Big Business. Around 2004 America was spending $10 billion dollars a year on pornography – the same amount it spent on foreign aid.(50 facts that should change the world by Jessica Williams, publisher Icon Books).

    Like it or not it has also been somewhat of a driver for some of the technologies we take for granted on the web now; streaming video technology, hosting technologies, credit card scrubbing technologies etc. (same source as above).

    As the above discussion illustrates, whether we like it or not, it (Pornography) has become ‘mainstream’.


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