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Cultural ‘pornification’ is a hot, sexy myth

30 Jul
British PM David Cameron's war on porn is not likely to succeed.

British PM David Cameron’s war on porn is not likely to succeed.

I’m heading to Washington D.C. today where I’ll be a guest on Al Jazeera’s The Stream program, wherein we’ll be discussing recent efforts by the British government to ban online porn. The show airs live at 3:30 p.m. Eastern and is streamed online on the network’s website. I’ll be sure to provide a link to it after it airs.

At the core of the discussion will be British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent declaration that internet providers will have to institute a default-on porn filter for their services, and that if someone wants access to such content, they’ll have to specifically ask their ISP to reinstate it.

As I wrote in a column for The Globe and Mail last week, I’m of two minds on the issue. On the one hand, I’d really like to see Cameron’s plan succeed because it would result in the mainstreaming of the sorts of encryption tools that are now mainly the domain of the tech savvy. Such tools desperately need to become cheaper and easier to use in light of all the warrant-less spying on regular citizens by governments and other authorities. A ban on porn without somehow magically eliminating demand for it will only increase awareness of such capabilities, which can only be a good thing.

On the other hand, there’s no way such a filter will work, either technically or for its given purpose. Previous, similar attempts in countries such as Australia have proven fruitless, with internet users either quickly finding ways around the blocks or the filters themselves catching far too much innocent, non-pornographic content. Moreover, the people who are looking for things like child porn are already using other tools, such as peer-to-peer file sharing, meaning that simple web filters won’t affect them in the slightest.

An issue that’s sure to arise during our discussion is whether or not pornography is escalating sex in our culture. It’s a topic I looked at a bit in my first book, Sex, Bombs and Burgers, but it’s also one I’m addressing further in my upcoming book, Humans 3.0, which is all about how technology is affecting various aspects of what it means to be human, including our sex lives.

Some politicians and writers, including Pornified author Pamela Paul, have claimed that the easy availability of pornography through the internet (and other media) has had the effect of “pornifying” our culture, leading to more sex and/or unhealthy views toward it, especially with young people.

Diane Abbott, British Labour party politician, puts it thusly:

The rising numbers of girls having under-age sex is alarming. It is not a cost-free phenomenon. It poses public health policy challenges and social challenges. The underlying cause must be the ‘pornification’ of British culture and the increasing sexualization of pre-adolescent girls… Too many young girls are absorbing from the popular culture around them that they only have value as sex objects. Inevitably they act this notion out. Government needs to respond to spiraling under-age sex, not with pointless schemes to teach abstinence, but with better… teaching in schools for both girls and boys.

This is actually one of the things I’m trying to determine in Humans 3.0: are we having more sex than ever before because of this supposed technology/media-inspired pornification?

It seems like a logical conclusion to come to, but the problem I’ve encountered is that there just isn’t any data to support it. In fact, there are some strong indicators that show this not to be the case.

Over all, the incidence of sex did increase through most of the 20th century, largely thanks to two technological innovations that weren’t the internet or media of any sort: the condom and the birth control pill. In 1900, only about six per cent of unwed teenage females engaged in premarital sex, a number that skyrocketed to about three-quarters by the end of the millennium. The low incidence a century ago is due entirely to the very strong chance – seventy-two per cent – of pregnancy.

But ahoy there: along came the condom, and then the birth control pill. Between 1960 and 1964, those delightful new developments were respectively used in about twenty-two per cent and four per cent of pre-marital dalliances. By 2002, their usage had climbed to sixteen per cent and fifty-one per cent. There’s no doubt: the contraception revolution was the key to the sexual revolution. Before it came along, people just didn’t have sex for pleasure all that much, simply because it was too risky.

Although the pornification arguments seem logical, internet and media exposure hasn’t resulted in any measurable growth in sex. In the United States, the Center for Disease Control reports that the average American man has 6.1 sexual partners in their lifetime, while women have 3.6. That hasn’t grown much over the past few decades, with men averaging five or six in 1988 and women having one or two.

Bryant Paul, associate professor at Indiana University and affiliated scholar at the Kinsey Institute, which studies sexual issues, considers the pornification argument to be nonsense. Sex is an ongoing phenomenon that ebbs and flows with the times and cultural changes, he says. What’s taboo today likely wasn’t during different points in history. As uncomfortable as the thought may be to many people today, sexual relationships between grown men and boys were cherished in ancient Rome, for example. “The sexualization of youth is not something that’s very new,” he says.

There is also evidence to suggest that technological advancement actually stifles sexual activity. In sub-Saharan Africa, men often have three or more sexual relationships happening concurrently, which puts to shame that six-person lifetime average for American men. Justin Garcia, also an assistant professor at Indiana University and research scientist at the Kinsey Institute, says the Nagunda farmers and foragers in Africa have “way more sex” than people in developed nations. “It’s viewed as baby-making work. It’s regimented,” he says. “You have sex three times in a night then you take four days off.”

Where pornification may be happening, at least according to the data, is in the kinds of sex people are having. In 1990, only half of American men and a quarter of women reported to regularly being on the receiving end of oral sex, a number that rose to eighty per cent for both genders by 2006. The same goes for anal sex – only a third of women reported to having tried it in 1992, compared to nearly half by 2010. People often don’t really tell the truth about their sexual escapades, so they may in fact have been doing these things all the time, just not talking about them. Still, at the very least the numbers reflect significant changes in social mores. But does that amount to “pornification?” I don’t think we can go that far, especially in light of the other data.

It’s impossible to document the entire human history of sex numerically but, given cultural and historical relativity, it’s not out of bounds to suggest that technological advance is actually resulting in less sex than ever before. Of course, that’s not something any politician wants to hear.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on July 30, 2013 in sex

 

2 responses to “Cultural ‘pornification’ is a hot, sexy myth

  1. Marc Venot

    July 30, 2013 at 8:42 pm

    If the filtering is on the hand of the user that’s good news.

     
  2. russellmcormond

    July 31, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    The particular justification-of-the-day for filters isn’t of interest to me: whether it is porn, copyright infringement, “hate” speech, partisan political speech, sports, or any other thing some people don’t like and want to filter.

    Sure, they can’t ever work — but they will cost a lot of money to manage (Continual updates of the false positives and false negatives) and are effectively a tax increase whether the politicians are smart enough to realize this or not.

    I’ve been to countries that have implemented these schemes, and it is always the people *not* using the filters that are taxed to pay for the filters for someone else. It is a rob Peter to pay Paul scheme, whether it works for it’s alleged purpose or not.

    Filtering is something that must be controlled by the individual citizen/household, and paid for by that citizen/household. They should be the ones deciding what they want filtered, and what company/entities they are willing to trust to manage the filter rules. Allowing yet another government created monopoly to expensively and ineffectively create filters that are imposed by default is not only unfair economically, but makes the alleged objective far less likely to achieve without competition between providers.

     
 
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