Sex & Relationships

Why Obscenity Laws Must Be Fought

What's defined as healthy sexuality in this country is narrowly defined and schizophrenic -- and the government should not have final say.
Last week, just after writing an article praising the adult industry for supporting a Max Hardcore, a man that largely disgusts them, I came across a drawn image of a naked girl pinned to a wall by knives, including one that was wedged between her legs. There was blood at at every point of contact. I couldn't imagine what type of person would want to post this on their personal blog (which was where I encountered it) and, in a clear case of poor judgment, I followed the link back to where it the image was found.

Of course, the images I found were more graphic than the original. They mainly involved extreme violence inflicted on naked girls. There was also a forum for discussion where members wrote about the types of violence that aroused them. (Not violence they enjoyed doing to others, but violence they thought about, and did not necessarily enjoy thinking about.) One particular post outlined a consensually violent scenario that the author and his girlfriend wanted to undertake. This was not a scenario that involved flogging or knife play, or breath play, or piercing. It was a scenario that involved amputation.

The people posting there seemed sincere and even vulnerable. They recommended that new visitors not look at the images. (Occasionally, they seemed to regret the fact that they themselves were drawn to do so.) They recalled being aroused by violence -- just violence, not violence in a sexual context -- as children. They weren't celebrating this condition; they were seeking advice and understanding in a community where they felt safe.

I'm not a total neophyte when it comes to ero-guro; I've seen In the Realm of the Senses, which features actual people. And let me emphasize that all of what I saw was unmistakably drawn. It wasn't even CGI. It was cartoons, but they devastated me. I felt like someone had upended a garbage can in my brain. I was a zombie for hours afterwards. But when I finally started waking up from my shock-coma, I realized that even though the images and ideas there repulsed me, there were no grounds on which I could support them being illegal. In fact, aside from the obvious side effects of making me a total hypocrite and setting a precedent to threaten my own speech, eliminating that forum would be a profoundly unwise thing to do. Was the man who wants his girlfriend to sever a part of his body going to be somehow healthier if he doesn't talk about that impulse? Right. Just ignore the desire to hack off a limb. Never talk about it again, and I'm sure it will go away. Or maybe go see a therapist. You have the time and money to regularly see a therapist, don't you? Sure you do. Everyone with weird impulses does.

Whenever certain content is particularly challenging to me, I remind myself of a line I read years ago in Nadine Strossen's Defending Pornography, which I remember as: "The answer to speech you don't like is always more speech." More speech, not less. Speech you don't like is an opportunity to create speech that you do like, particularly speech that replaces confusion with clarity, or speech that replaces lies with truth.

So this brings me to Barry McDonald, the law professor debating John Stagliano in the LA Times on the the issue of obscenity laws. According to McDonald, people are "harmed" by the existence of obscene materials even if people are not harmed in the creation of said materials. He goes on to helpfully clarify "I'm not a psychologist or sociologist, but it seems to me that viewing them to obtain sexual pleasure cannot be the healthiest way of experiencing sex." Perhaps it hasn't occurred to non-sex-expert Dr. McDonald that some of us, dare I say most of us, might have the capacity to enjoy "obscene" things in the context of a healthy sex life. It clearly hasn't occurred to him that we don't all have cookie-cutter sexualities, and that some of us might be born with a mind that will never adhere to society's dictates of what is arousing and what is not. As John Stagliano responds, referring to his company's pornography, "[t]o me, the pleasure I get from viewing such material is simply a wonderful expression of my biological nature." If a child is watching zombie movies -- government approved, standard horror movie fare -- and feeling some kind of sexual charge, as was described on the guro board, that child may not be in for a life of what society deems "healthy" sexuality.

Let's remember that what is defined as "healthy" sexuality in this country is schizophrenic at worst and narrowly defined at best. Not so long ago, the only healthy orgasm for women was understood to be obtained through vaginal intercourse without any clitoral stimulation. And not so long before that, the healthiest orgasm for women was understood to be no orgasm at all. Our society doesn't have the best track record when it comes to recognizing and encouraging the infinite ways sex is meaningful and satisfying. Maybe what's healthy for me is now what's not healthy for Mr. McDonald. Maybe what's healthy for me is being with a partner of the same sex, or not having a regular partner, or not having any partner at all, and maybe that doesn't hold true for others. This is a possibility I'm willing to consider, so I'm going to be good enough to not require that Mr. McDonald mimic my own sexual habits. Nor will I require that he spend the rest of his life pursing pleasure through my means exclusively, simply because I've told him that it's the healthy thing to do.

McDonald goes on to explain that "[s]uch laws are also designed to protect minors and unwilling adult viewers from advertent or inadvertent exposure to obscene materials." "Advertent" exposure. So, these laws are designed to protect adults from seeing something they've sought out for viewing. I'm not an English expert -- actually, I allegedly am -- but if you stop an adult from watching a movie they want to see, what you're calling protection is, to them, actually just prevention. As Marty Klein has already articulated on this very website, part of being an adult is that you don't expect the government to constantly protect you from your own emotions, particularly not when your emotions arise from something as trivial as the decision of what to watch for fifteen minutes when you're feeling horny, or what link you click on when you're being foolish.

Of course, the media we consume is not actually trivial. It can have substantial impacts on our emotional and mental well-being, as people have proven with government sanctioned content, like advertising and violent films. There's a certain type of media that makes me feel alternately incensed, hopeless, manipulated, and offended; it's known as the news.

There was a post on the guro board asking if pedophilia is actually rape. His reasoning went like this: a rapist wants to harm someone, but a pedophile loves children, and so while he might want to be sexual with a child, he doesn't want to harm them. That question offends me, and the train of thought offends me, but censoring that author would be the wrong thing to do. It wouldn't answer his question and it wouldn't correct the flaws in his thoughts. It would leave him with his own confused (and dangerous) logic, in a void.

If something's forbidden, it takes on air of power and often an air of truth as well. While we might agree that certain concepts are deeply offensive and wrong-headed, outlawing any mention of those concepts would only embolden those who believe in them. Suppression is a non-response. It's the reaction of those who don't have the evidence or the tools to address an argument they don't like, and so the only way they can cope with encountering that argument is to eliminate it. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised, then, that our sexually repressed, sexually obsessed, sexually confused country's response to pornography is still a non-response. But the truth of this statement can't be ignored: The only adequate answer to any type of speech is more speech, not less.

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