The right to harm ourselves: advice for anti porn activists

7 Nov

It was John Stuart Mill who considered that the law should intervene only in other-regarding actions, but never in what we do to ourselves:

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his [sic] will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. (My emphases).

Mill acknowledged that what we do to ourselves can seriously affect others. However, with the exception of something that can be clinically proven to cause harm such as passive smoking, establishing how and how much harm comes to others as a result of self-harming actions is a tricky business, and likely impossible to legislate.  Mill recommends that society and public opinion take responsibility for the control of self-harming actions that offend others, not the law, and that this be achieved primarily through education.

The question of pornography 

If adult performers choose for whatever reason to participate in the production of pornography, does the state have the right to stop them? Even if someone else believes them to be brainwashed, suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, or so badly damaged by life that the question of choice doesn’t really come into it, nevertheless, unless they are under age or of diminished mental capacity do they, like everyone else, have the right to choose what they will do?

Then there’s the definition of harm. While viewing pornography may cause a variety of reactions, not all of them pleasant, is experiencing an unpleasant reaction the same thing as suffering harm? How does porn actually hurt us? What damage do we sustain? Is it realistic to demand a world in which adults must be protected from the possibility of suffering harm, and what would we have to lose to gain such a world?

The consumption of pornography by adults is generally a private affair conducted within a private space. The law cannot invade these private spaces. We are unable to prevent domestic, child and sexual abuse within the private space of home, even with laws in place against all three. In the case of pornography, who will be the complainant?

A great deal of internet porn is amateur, uploaded from the privacy of bedrooms by people who want to share their sexual experiences. Does the state have the right to censor this with, for example, the introduction of an internet filter?

Kidnapping, sexual assault, false imprisonment, inflicting bodily harm, etc are already criminal offences in Australia and if they are perpetrated in the production of pornography they are criminal acts, just as if they are perpetrated in any other circumstances. To this degree adults participating in porn production are already protected by the law. Whether or not adults complain about abuses is another matter, and likely beyond legislation. How is it possible to force a woman to make a complaint? We don’t currently attempt to do this to rape victims. Are we to make exceptions when sexual assaults occur in the production of pornography?

The production of porn films is already restricted or illegal in Australia, with varying laws depending on the state. We also have a strict classification system, albeit at times confusing and mysterious. It’s worth remembering that the government’s proposed list of banned internet sites is itself banned. That is, we have no idea and will not be told just which sites the government intends to prevent adults accessing once the filter is in place. If this isn’t an attack on liberty, I don’t know what is.

What I understand Mill to be saying is that human beings, regardless of the apparently self-harming choices they might make, are entitled to respect by virtue of their humanity. If you want people to stop engaging in self-harming behaviour you don’t go about it by first shaming and marginalizing them. You first acknowledge their inalienable right to their subjective experience, however vastly it may differ from your own.

It’s a matter of respecting the human being without having to endorse her choices, and respecting her right to make those choices on the basis of  her life’s experiences. Anti porn activists totally fail to appreciate this. Instead they frame women in porn as a deviant underclass exploited by other members of that same class. They make them “other,” outside of what is considered mainstream “normality.” They construct women in porn as victims, brutalized, and incapable of choice and they seek to appeal to them as such. In this they are completely misguided. It doesn’t matter how damaged one might be, human beings still desire and need recognition of our inalienable right to totally fuck ourselves up, and unless we get it, we’re unlikely to hear anything else.

So my message to anti porn activists is, read your JS Mill. Learn a bit of respect for women who are different from you. Lose your morality and your ideology, gain some humanity and humility. Your middle class moral outrage only serves to alienate just about everyone, particularly those you claim you want to “help.”

There endeth the lesson for today.

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15 Responses to “The right to harm ourselves: advice for anti porn activists”

  1. Matthew November 7, 2011 at 12:49 pm #

    But the anti-porn (some of who merge into the anti-sex work) activists don’t give a crap about the performers. Name one anti-porn/sex work activist who has talked with porn performers and/or sex workers. They don’t want to know how they feel about their work, why they do it or if they want out. Knowing their needs and wants (especially if it’s contrary to their point of view) doesn’t get the porn or sex work banned. The women (and men) in these productions and the sex workers generally have their own voice or organisations who can speak for them.

    There’s also the belief that those in these kinds of jobs are “harming” themselves. There seems to be no evidence there is. For example in California the STD rates for porn actors is much lower than the general population. For sex workers there’s this perception most of them are street walkers or are trafficked or do it to feed a habit or are coerced into doing it. However there seems to be no real statistics to back up these perceptions. We know that sex trafficking statistics are often just made up or grossly inflated. No one seems to have any real figures.

    Evidence based policy is what is needed, but I really don’t think many in government, law enforcement or the lobbyists want this. There’s just this knee jerk reaction to ban and restrict anything to do with the sale of sex.

    Like

    • Jennifer Wilson November 7, 2011 at 3:47 pm #

      I don’t think any of them want evidence, because the evidence may not turn out to be what they want and then they’ll have no grounds to ban and censor and they’ll have to shut up and go away and find other ways to earn a living and have people listen to them.

      Like

  2. gerard oosterman November 7, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

    It is sometimes difficult to come up with a reply as we meander through the forest of cunt and self-harm and back to porn with generous portions of Malaysian detentions and Orang Utans. All I can say (at this point of time, there are so many points) I enjoy the smorgasboard. I have now been seduced by twitter, taking me to even greater heights. What next?
    About the porn business!
    I wonder how many, right now, are standing in front of the computer with trousers (or gala dresses) down around their ankles, slapping the monkey? Thousands, millions? And what is the harm in that? Primitive men did it behind the banana tree or under the bear-skin.

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    • Jennifer Wilson November 7, 2011 at 3:50 pm #

      I never seem to find any of your tweets, Gerard. Have you chucked me off your list of followers?

      I’m glad you like the variety here at Sheep – I get bored with the politicians sometimes.

      Like

      • gerard oosterman November 7, 2011 at 4:35 pm #

        You are on both lists; the ‘followers’ and the ‘following’. Chucking you off? As if!

        Like

  3. paul walter November 7, 2011 at 4:56 pm #

    Is there a limit with porn, tho? If minors or the gullible are coerced into performing certain acts that bespeak of self harm and pain, must there not be moves to defend these people, despite any impact on the flow of the finished product? I know this goes against the Free Trade mantra and so forth, but you could argue that a person whose a) income or b) gratification rests conciously on the suffering of another tests the concept of personal autonomy to the limit, without some sort of Kantian qualification relative to the rights of others.
    The people who create such material are surely like the gas frack miners who can knock down your gate and drill next to your home on nothing better than verbal assurances running to plausible deniability, that there is no harm or polution to follow, but later leave people sick from the fumes or with their livelihoods ruined by water table pollution.
    Erotica, yes, crude porn, once again between the adults involved.
    But gonzo they can and should snuff, when it involves minors or slaves, for in that situation the purveyor of porn’s personal autonomy intrudes physically on others lives. If you are complicit in the suffering of a raped child for personal gratification or profit, where is your mentality and is your freedom yours if it comes at another’s expense, rather than in the privacy of your own bedroom with others who also freely consent?

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    • gerard oosterman November 7, 2011 at 5:21 pm #

      I doubt that a crime can ever be porn, especially involving minors or slaves. The internet seem to lose rapidly its haven for the purveyers of child porn. It might never be able to catch everyone.

      Like

    • Jennifer Wilson November 8, 2011 at 6:56 am #

      The limits I draw are when it involves children, and when its production breaks the laws already in place. I do feel consenting adults have the right to do and watch whatever they like provided it doesn’t involve children and it doesn’t break laws concerning assault, kidnapping etc etc.
      I don’t know how we can control hardcore porn internet access unless we have a filter, and that seems to me too big a price to pay for preventing consenting adults from watching that kind of porn.
      I think the laws in place are adequate to protect the vulnerable adults, however, like any law, there’s no way of forcing people to make a complaint when they’re injured. Like Mill says, the only real answer is education at the beginning of life, early intervention in situations of abuse, follow-up so abused kids don’t grow up into abused and abusive adults. As he claims, it’s a social responsibility rather than a legal one.
      The more I read and think about it, the less I believe the law can control this stuff. It will result in sending it even more underground than it already is, and that doesn’t help anyone except those producers who make money from it.

      Like

      • Matthew November 8, 2011 at 12:23 pm #

        Most of the really “bad stuff” is underground. Go look up (but NOT go to) the “Hidden Wiki”. My little mind was blown. Apparently there was commercial production of child porn in the late 1960’s. In particular a Danish (I think) company called Colour Climax produced numerous films and a lot of magazines. Mind blown again. Wikileaks hosts a document called “An insight into child porn” which look into the production of this material, however it does read like a pro-paedophile piece. I also read that Colour Climax produced a number of bestiality films, some of which were compiled into bootleg tapes and smuggled into the UK in the era of Mary Whitehouse and the “Video Nasties” (1982 onwards, see the recent documentary “Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape”, it’s hilarious) which was copied and copied and spread far wide across the country. I actually found out that Japan pornographers still make commercial bestiality videos today. Saw the cover of one. Amazingly weird.

        It’s odd, it’s only due to Conroy’s great big filter and the backlash against it, that I’ve discovered the existence of this stuff. Otherwise I’d probably never hear of it. But yeah, trying to filter out porn is like trying to stop people thinking about sex. You’re not going to stop it. Unless you cut the undersea cables.

        Like

        • Jennifer Wilson November 9, 2011 at 6:59 am #

          Well there you go, that just proves Foucault’s comment that you can’t engage in protest against porn without using the same language, thus perpetuating what you intend to censor. Which has been my long standing complaint against MTR’s spreading on the internet images she simultaneously protests.

          Like

  4. Gruffbutt November 8, 2011 at 3:21 am #

    Yes, the fact we can’t be trusted to know the list of banned sites is a worry. How many ‘experts’ are going to be involved in the bans? Will Senator Conroy swallow the list a la Maxwell Smart?

    If you’re found to have been watching kiddy porn or provable sexual assault beyond an accidental two second ‘OMG, this isn’t what I was looking for’ viewing, the law’s there to convict you.

    If you’re a maker of these same websites, there are laws for you as well, if you actually get caught (and depending on the country you’re in).

    And many hacks have already told the guv that it won’t work, but hey, let’s do it anyway.

    An Internet filter will most likely target the more reputable sites because they’re also the most well known (they’re popular because they don’t transgress the above boundaries, like most of the people using them?). Meanwhile, innocent children and some not-so-innocent adults can stumble upon thousands of very dodgy sites precisely because they’re not on the guvmt’s radar. (Although GO’s comment (I think) about the dying of these sites or their influence is encouraging if true, in which case, another reason for no filter.)

    Apart from affecting our freedom of choice, a filter (if it works) is death by a thousand cuts as each new guv adds more restrictions (oh, yes, they will).

    And will there be tracking of anyone who tries to hit a site that, unbeknown to them, is on the list?There’s potential for good citizens not even looking for porn having their reputations trashed, accidentally or at a corrupt guv’s behest, via some word or image or errant click that shows up in their records, regardless of one’s personal opinion of the site in question. (I see the word ‘porn’ in the title of this thread and several times over. Hmm…)

    Just thought I’d express my paranoia and get it over with now. (I wonder when this filter will extend to the ‘war on drugs’?)

    NBN good, filter bad. You just had to go too far, guvmt, just like my rant.

    Like

    • Jennifer Wilson November 8, 2011 at 6:47 am #

      I didn’t think of the possible ramifications of having words like “porn” on a blog, but you’re right, we could be banned for even discussing it and then have to make applications taking twenty years and five thousand expert witnesses to get back up again. And then spend the rest of our lives with a bad reputation. Whoa! No clean feed!

      Like

    • Matthew November 8, 2011 at 6:58 am #

      Gruffbutt, the big ISPs (Telstra, Optus, iiNet) and a few of the smaller players are already filleting a list of “child porn” sites from a list supplied by Interpol. Bet you didn’t know that. There’s been practically zero publicity about this. Though Optus has already publicly stated that changing your DNS will defeat their filter. You really have to wonder why they bother really. Child sexual abuse images are illegal to distribute everywhere on this planet. Police in those counties where the material is hosted could easily take it down. In 2009, German anti-censorship AK Zensur emailed the hosting companies for several sites hosting child sexual abuse images (culled from several leaked European blacklists) and in the first 12 hours, 60 sites where removed by the hosting companies. The question is a civilian can do this, why can’t the police?

      As for scope creep, in the UK the Internet Watch Foundation initially only complied lists of child sexual abuse, but moved on to “criminally obscene adult content” and then hate speech and now file sharing sites like Newzbin are being added to the list. You also have monumental screw ups like the blocking of the Web Archive and the whole Wikipedia/Virgin Killer debacle.

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      • Gruffbutt November 8, 2011 at 10:31 am #

        Thanks, Matthew. No, I didn’t know that, but there’s a lot I don’t know about it, like most unsuspecting technophobes/illiterates.

        Scope creep – I must remember that term (I might not, as my memory span is possibly getting shorter from using the interweb thingy, and maybe from that other less useful box sitting in the corner).

        Cheers

        Like

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