The purpose of this research is to provide a prospective on the issue of pornography, including the identification of the ethical considerations involved, the various approaches for resolving the matter, and finally a definition of my personal position on the harm pornography can do when sold in public places where children are exposed to it.
David Holbrook, in the book he edited, The Case Against Pornography, provides in his preface a telling description of the primary moral issue involved in the matter of pornography. Holbrook writes of the situation in Nazi Germany where the important issues of the time grew “beyond access of moral debate.”
Holbrook goes on to say that:
Something of the same seems to be happening today,
in the face of the increasing amount of brutaliza-
tion of sex in our culture. At the moment of writ-
ing, the Advisory Center for Education has declared
”the present heated debate on pornography is no ser-
vice to education” while the Assistant Librarian
speaks of the “myth that explicit sexual material
corrupts and depraves.”
Whether one believes pornography to be beneficial or destructive, one can still clearly understand the dangers in attempting to close public free debate on the issue, or on any issue with such potential ramifications as could affect any segment of the population to any degree.
The heart of the matter to Holbrook is the ethical element in danger in the corruption of the symbolic content depicted in pornography. Holbrook feels that the truth is that symbolism is the foundation of human identify and of culture. If symbolism is corrupted, then civilization itself is in danger of corruption. He says that in pornography, symbolism on a philosophical-biological level is reduced to mere “acting out” of the deeper significance and intentions of sexual reality. This reduction of symbolism, says Holbrook, has an inevitable “educational effect,” which tends to discount the declarations of The Advisory Center for Education and the Assistant Librarian and other sources which contend that pornography has no deleterious impact on society or on members of society exposed to that pornography.
Holbrook adds that when pornography fills a large portion of its sphere of mass commercial culture, and especially when it directs itself to children, it is obviously an educational matter, and, even more basically, an ethical and philosophical matter as well.
Though Holbrook says that the pieces he gathered in his book do not exclusively feel that pornography should be suppressed, they all do,
support the view that we urgently need a “social
psychology” capable of looking seriously at the
problem and invoking appropriate ethical consid-
erations. They certainly all convey the impres-
sion that in its implicit denial of love and
tenderness, pornography threatens meaning, and has
in it somewhere . . . a hatred of man. . . . (I)t
is a stealer of dreams—and so threatens the
imaginative life, which is the basis of all per-
ception and effective living.
Michael J. Goldstein and Harold S. Kant, in Pornography and Sexual Deviance, present in their review of literature on the effects of pornography on behavior their opinion on the importance of distinguishing between immediate and long-term effects.
Goldstein and Kant write that the immediate effects of pornography can be reactions of an emotional nature, such as sexual arousal, anger or disgust. Erotic stimuli may also instantly elicit fantasies of a sexual nature. These fantasies might be brief or they may persist and recur. A third response in the immediate level may be overt sexual behavior.
The authors differentiate between immediate reactions as pictured above, and long-range effects. Goldstein and Kant write that:
Exposure to erotica at a particular age may shape
an individual’s sexual attitudes and values, al-
though the results of this shaping proces will not
be evident until much later. Part of the social
concern regarding pornography derives from the fear
that young children or adolescents may be adversely
affected in maturity by early contact with porno-
To support such a statement on long-range effects of pornography on personal behavior, the authors cite a 1961 study by Bandura wherein it was demonstrated that children can learn and suppress antisocial behavior which will then perhaps surface later when condition facilitate such manifestation.
Though the authors state that most research to date on the effects of pornography have concentrated on the short-term impact, the most vital concern, they write, should properly be placed in research on long-term effects. The long-range effects, write Kant and Goldstein, include primarily shifts in sex attitudes, practices, and values, on both social and personal levels.
The authors cite Mosher’s 1970 study wherein it was determined that two weeks after viewing erotic films, for more sexually experienced individuals opinions about premarital sex became somewhat more liberal.
Finally, in this section on the review of literature on the effects of pornography on behavior, Goldstein and Kant write that, in the area of sex offenders, the few existing studies on long-term effects of exposure to pornography on such offenders have focused on adult-level experience and response. However, such studies have indicated that:
Sex offenders . . . do not appear to report
greater use of erotica than various comparison
groups. Variations in usage within these samples
are closely related to educational level.
Thus, though the authors declare that the most important aspect of pornography’s impact on behavior is its long-range effect, studies on such effects have been minimal and limited, and as well have only covered a brief time period after exposure. The authors recommend an approach in future research which will include greater open debate, both scientific and ethical, increased and more in-depth long-range studies, and attempts,
to enlarge the empirical factual base on which
judgments can be intelligently and objectively
founded concerning the relationship between ob-
scenity and antisocial behavior, and the need,
if any, for pornography either to be prohibited
or redeemed by the addition of socially amelior-
Before we turn to The Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, a decidedly liberal concluding document, we turn first to The Erotic in Literature, by David Loth. Loth’s work is as well in the liberal category, and will present an opposing view to the anti-pornography stances of The Case Against Pornography and Pornography and Sexual Deviance.
Loth, simply put, believes more in the discrimination of the average reader than do either Holbrook’s authors or Kant and Goldstein. The writers in Holbrook’s work and Kant and Goldstein feel that the damaging effects of pornography are essentially involuntary, meaning that though the reader or viewer of pornography may feel he is discriminatingly preventing its having a negative effect on him, such effect may be occurring whether he wishes it or not. Loth, to the contrary, feels that the reader or viewer or pornographic materials is much more capable of filtering out or denying consciously the negative effects of that material. Such a difference of opinion constitutes the basic opposition viewpoints in a debate on pornography.
Loth addresses himself to the issue of the approaches to the matter of pornography taken by various sources. Loth is sweeping in his concluding recommendations:
The obscenity laws should be abolished as useless
appendages to an overburdened legal code, a nuisance
to the agencies charged with their enforcement, and
a menace to the society they are supposed to protect.
The substitution for such laws according to Loth would be the requirement that all publications and communications dealing in sexual material carry the name and address of their source. Under Federal law then, says Loth, the sender of such material, whether for private use or public retail sale, would be identified and would thus be discouraged from selling and sending such material “under plain cover.” As well, buyers of such material would be similarly discouraged.
Loth does not convince us. The liberal attitude he assumes seems to us more smug and light-hearted than it should be. His opinion that “the only force capable of regulating reading material fairly” is “the weight and sense of the community’s own taste and standards” does not address itself to the most vital concern of studies on pornography – the impact on children. Though Loth has a supportable point when he says that obscenity laws merely cause sellers and makers of such material to be more clever and subtle and devious in their proliferating of such material, his attitude and coverage of the issue leave that most vital area uninvestigated for the most part.
Though the Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography has been generally accepted as a liberal document recommending minimal legal limitations, it still contains somewhat more stringent recommendations in the area of children and their exposure to pornography.
The Commission recommends that the State legislatures pass laws which prohibit “the commercial distribution or display for sale of certain sexual materials to young persons.” The Commission further recommends legislation regarding limitation of the sale or distribution of such materials through the mails. Generally, however, the Commission is careful to set broad guidelines as to what specifically constitutes pornography, leaving such specifically up to the States.
Many of the recommendations presented in Holbrook’s book as related to pornography’s impact on children center around the importance of sex education, as both educational enlightenment, and as a defense against the increasing amount of publicly displayed pornography.
Holbrook writes that to combat damaging pornographic exposure children should be encouraged to adopt a loving attitude toward sex, a necessary delicate and personal enlightenment.
Tom Stacey, in Holbrook’s book, in an article called “Letter to the Author’s Children” writes poignantly that what he is essentially saying is that:
sex is for doing – not for studying (beyond a few
elementary facts and topics), or for plotting and
thinking about. There is a current spate of por-
nography, and there must be many sorrowful little
people shut in their rooms alone with their over-
fed imaginations slavering over this or that sexual
experience which will never come true. It is a
lonely practice which, indulged, makes deeper the
loneliness. Men and women are not made for this.
Such frank and inconclusive statements seem to us the most effective means of minimizing the negative effects on children of pornography to which those children will in our present society be almost inevitably exposed.
Even should all pornographic material be restricted to areas where only adults are present, still children would be inevitably exposed to material in newspapers, other areas of the media, and material brought or distributed outside those restricted areas. Pornography has always been available to children, and exposure to such material has always to some extent been likely in some form at some time. We feel that, nevertheless, legislation should be passed, preferably at the state level, whereby public display or pornographic material should be prohibited. The difficult arises wherein that state or community must determine what constitutes pornography. In that matter there is no preferable alternative to leaving it up to the citizens of that state or community, regardless of the outcome. Such a decision requires faith, of course, in the communal standards and tastes.
However, we repeat the legislation is not the answer ultimately, and not only because exposure of children to pornography appears inevitable. The primary reason for our feeling that education is the most powerful tool in preventing the anti-humanity aspects of pornography is that we believe that most people, if educated to the loving aspect of sex and its opposite inhuman, coarsening aspect as represented in pornography, will select human love over coarse self-gratification through illusional material. This as well requires faith in the human personality on an individual level.
This is not to say that legal remedies to the problem of pornography should be abandoned. It is merely to point out the fact that delineating what constitutes pornography, and limiting that material designated to adult areas, is more difficult than presenting to the child what constitutes activity which furthers and encourages human sexual interaction of a healthy normal nature, and what constitutes activity which tends to encourage solitary or exclusively selfish sexual activity. The necessity, the vital necessity, of education comes even more clear the more public becomes pornographic material. If a child is almost inevitably exposed to such material, it is even more vital that the child be presented the information that there are fulfilling loving sexual possibilities between people, and there are additionally possibilities for sexual encounters with one’s self or with others which are far from fulfilling or growth-encouraging experiences. Such unfulfilling experiences, they should be informed, are often the result of experiences based on the distance, illusion, and coarseness of pornography.
Goldstein, Michael J. and Harold S. Kant. Pornography and Sexual
Deviance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.
Holbrook, David. The Case Against Pornography. La Salle, IL:
Open Court Publishing, 1973.
Loth, David. The Erotic in Literature. New York: Julian
Messner, Inc., 1961.
Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. New
York: Bantam Books, 1970.
David Holbrook, The case Against Pornography (La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing, 1973), p. xv. ↑
Ibid., p. xvi. ↑
Michael J. Goldstein and Harold S. Kant, Pornography and Sexual Deviance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), p. 13. ↑
Ibid., p. 32. ↑
Ibid., p. 164. ↑
David Loth, The Erotic in Literature (New York: Julian Messner, Inc., 1961), p. 228. ↑
Ibid., p. 229. ↑
Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography (New York: Bantam Books, 1970), p. 62. ↑
Holbrook, p. 238. ↑