Why The European Plan To Ban Porn Is A Bad Idea

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"Why The European Plan To Ban Porn Is A Bad Idea"

Early next week, the European Union Parliament is planning to vote on a resolution calling for a sweeping ban on pornography in the name of gender equality. If it passed, the resolution could be the first step towards a continent-wide ban on pornography on a wide swath of media. But, good intentions aside, that would actually be a bad move for both Europe’s women and the EU’s commitment to free speech.

The Parliament vote scheduled for next week would recommend this resolution on gender equality (which includes the porn ban) to the EU Commission, which would then turn it into legislation which would then, finally, be enacted into binding law by the Parliament. As Wired UK notes, the Commission would have the discretion to simply leave out the provision calling for “a ban on all forms of pornography in the media” — which could well cover all online pornography — in the final law.

But if the ban were to make it into the final law, it would likely do more harm than good. Though a few studies have found that, under laboratory conditions, porn makes men more sexually aggressive, there’s no real-world evidence bearing out the claim that this translates into sexist attitudes or sexual violence. According to Professor Milton Diamond, director of the Pacific Center for Sex and Society at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, “[t]here’s absolutely no evidence that pornography does anything negative.”

There is, however, empirical evidence that it reduces the incidence of sexual violence. One 2007 study by Todd Kendall compared the rates of crime between U.S. states with greater and lesser access to the internet. After controlling for other crime-inducing variables (like rates of urbanization and alcoholism), Kendall found that more internet access led to lower rates of two crimes only — rape and prostitution:

I find that internet access appears to be a substitute for rape; in particular, the results suggest that a 10 percentage point increase in internet access is associated with a decline in reported rape victimization of around 7.3%…internet has no apparent substitution effect on any of 25 other measured crimes, with the exception of the only other well-defined sex crime, prostitution. Moreover, I show that the effect on rape is concentrated among states with the highest male-to-female ratios, and that by age, the effect on rape is concentrated among teenage men, who are the prime consumers of pornography, and for whom the internet induced the largest change in availability.

Two other studies support Kendall’s finding — one correlating the international spread of the internet with a concomitantly international decline in sexual violence, the other presenting survey evidence that, as Scientific American puts it, “patients requesting treatment in clinics for sex offenders commonly say that pornography helps them keep their abnormal sexuality within the confines of their imagination.”

Moreover, pornography bans defeat feminist aims in a more direct way: they result in restrictions on feminist and pro-LGBT speech. Since pornography is notoriously hard to define, laws generally ban “violent” or “degrading” depictions of sexual activity. However, such terms mean different things to different people: feminist literature often contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault, and, to a right-wing evangelical, same-sex sexual activity is intrinsically degrading.

As Nadine Strosser of the ACLU notes, this sort of vague law has long been used, historically speaking, to clamp down on activists agitating from women’s and LGBT rights on grounds that the content of their speech was, in a variety of ways, “degrading.” Indeed, a Canadian Supreme Court ruling (R. v. Butler) allowing for bans on pornography if it “predisposes persons to act in an anti-social manner” did not actually restrict “violent, misogynistic heterosexual materials” — but rather access to feminist and pro-gay writing, forcing the lead group whose briefs were cited by the Court’s ruling to “unanimously [condemn] the use of the Butler decision to justify the discriminatory use of law to harass and intimidate lesbians and gays and sex trade workers…[the ruling has been exploited] to harass bookstores, artists, and AIDS organizations, sex trade workers, and safe sex educators.”

Pornography crackdowns also tend to spillover more broadly, restricting free speech more broadly and stifling the real tech innovations (often of use to, say, Middle Eastern revolutionaries) created by online porn.

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