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.