Social Impacts: Pornography and the Internet

Social Impact of Pornography

Sex is everywhere these days--in books, magazines, films, television, music videos and bus-stop perfume ads. It is printed on dial-a-porn business cards and slipped under windshield wipers. It is acted out by balloon-breasted models and actors with unflagging erections, then rented for $4 a night at the corner video store. Most Americans have become so inured to the open display of eroticism--and the arguments for why it enjoys special status under the First Amendment--they hardly notice it's there n3.

Pornography appears to be a social problem for many people in America, but the specific nature of that 'problem' is a contested matter in which interested parties struggle to define or even prevent its definition as a public problem. Some religious groups preach that pornography propagates perverse sexualities and its proliferation portends the poverty of morality. Some women promulgate the view that pornography preserves and promotes patriarchal power. Some other women claim that pornography in popular music leads to all kinds of teenage pathology. On the other hand, producers of pornography argue that their products have the postive potential of catharsis, channleing off sexual desires into maturbatory fantasies. And many people who purchase pornography consume it in the privacy of their homes and cannot comprehend why a private matter should become a public problem n4.

The word 'social problem'suggests a negative condition, that something is amiss or warps the social fabric. In order that a situation or state of affairs be perceived as a problem, value judgments are passed to make the situation appear distressing, evil or inmoral. There is thus a moral dimension in the structure of a discourse on social problems. Moral assumptions and values are always brought into the orbit of discourses against pornography because even though pornography is not sex itself, it is about sex; and for many people it is about 'deviant' sex n4.

A recurrent feature of pornography debates is the conflation (and often confusion) of media and moral issues; debaters continually mistake pornography for the actual sex act. Those who object to pornography are actually those who are morally squeamish about the kinds of sexual acts that are represented. Pornography is a representation of something, an image in words or in pictures. Pornography is not the sex act, but the representation of the sex act; in protecting freedom of expression, one protects the representation of something, not the thing itself n4.

It is perhaps not precise enough to say that people's reactions towards pornography are based on their moral assumptions. Actually, people's moral assumptions lead them to define what pornography is in the first place. This is particuarly so since pornography is so flexible and so difficult a term to really pin down. Words like 'sexually explicit', 'obscene', 'vulgar' are all subject to different interpretations, a fact well known in the legal history of obscenity trials. Since there is no precise definition of pornography, people tend to identify 'pornography' with any representation of sexuality which they object to n4.

Indeed, every new medium of expression has been used to disseminate information about sex. Something about the combination of sex and computers, however, seems to make otherwise wordly-wise adults a little crazy. As shocking and, indeed, legally obscene as some of the online porn may be, researchers have found nothing that can't be found in specialty magazines or adult bookstores. Most of the material offered by private BBS services, in fact, is simply scanned from existing print publications n3.

But pornography is different on the computer networks. You can obtain it in the privacy of your own home--without having to walk into a seedy bookstore or movie house. You can download only those things that turn you on, rather than buy an entire magazine or video. You can explore different aspects of your sexuality without exposing yourself to communicable diseases or public ridicule n3.

The great fear of parents and teachers, of course, is not that college students will find this stuff but that it will fall into the hands of those much younger--including some, perhaps, who are not emotionally prepared to make sense of what they may see n3.

There are numerous types of pornography that are freely available to anyone on the Internet. The entire spectrum of pornographic material available on computer networks including images of soft-core nudity, hard-care sex acts, anal sex, bestiality, bondage & dominion, sado-masochism (including actual torture and mutilation, usually of women, for sexual pleasure) scatological acts (defecating and urinating, usually on women, for sexual pleasure), fetishes, and child pornography. Additionally, there is textual pornography including detailed text stories for the rape, mutilation, and torture of women, sexual abuse of children, graphic incest, etc n5.

Virtually anyone with an account or access to the Internet can access pornography. Once "on-line" there are no truly effective safety measures to prevent children from accessing all of the pornography descibed above. This unlimited access to pornography, with no accurate, enforceable age check and no verification procedures, has never occured in print, broadcast, satellite or cable media before. Cyberspace is currently the free speech absolutist's dream world n5.

The appearance of pornographic material like this on a public network accessible to men, women and children around the world raises issues too important to ignore--or to oversimplify. Parents have legitimate concerns about what their kids are being exposed to and, conversly, what those children might miss if their access to the Internet were cut off. This is a unique, disturbing and urgent circumstance, because it is children who are the computer experts in our nation's families n3.

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Created by Debra Deardourff
Graduate Student at The University of Florida
Spring Semester 1997: Electronic Publishing: Dave Carlson