Taryn Hodgson’s pornography problem

The Christian Action Network’s (CAN) “international coordinator”, Taryn Hodgson, seems to be on some sort of PR offensive. Last month, she was accusing the Cape Times and Argus of denying the “hidden holocaust” of abortion, and more recently, she took time out from being upset at things to offer an apology for the lies told by CAN around an aborted debate between Peter Hammond, myself and Tauriq Moosa.

This apology has now resulted in the editing of some text on the reports of that debate – it’s still deeply misleading (you can read the document trail here, if you like), but it’s at least something, and even a recognition of some wrongdoing is at least progress towards becoming a decent and honest human being.

But in her most recent foray into the scary territory of making arguments, we can unfortunately detect no improvement in her reasoning abilities since that time she pretended to be a student, back in March 2009. This time the subject of her disapproval is DSTV, who are currently trying to gauge public interest in the addition of a pornography channel to their offerings.

If they went ahead and added such a channel, Hodgson says, they would be fueling the “fires of sexual abuse and exploitation“. The statement released by CAN reminds us of the high incidence of sexual violence against (especially) women and children, and claims that in this context, it is unacceptable for DSTV to introduce a porn channel. So Taryn is suggesting a causal connection here – that pornography is likely to increase sexual violence. She goes on to say that those “who ignorantly believe that there is no evidence that porn is harmful have imbibed the lies of the porn industry”, and that porn “violates women’s constitutional rights to dignity and equality”.

There’s plenty that’s wrong with this response, besides its hysterical tone. The first, and perhaps most obvious response, is to accept Hodgson’s premises for the sake of argument, and then to ask whether DSTV’s introduction of a porn channel would make any difference to the rates of sexual violence. Given that porn is freely available already, and that DSTV’s channel would require an extra subscription amount to be paid (which “perverts” could otherwise spend on a porn DVD or download), it seems unlikely that this channel will result in any significant increase in the amount of available porn. So the attack on DSTV is somewhat opportunistic, in that her focus should be on lobbying government to ban porn entirely, rather than railing against DSTV for trying to maximise its profits by giving viewers content that they may want.

Leaving aside the niceties of accepting her claims for the sake of argument, a related point to highlight in the above is that this channel will be operated on a strictly opt-in basis, meaning that it’s only people who want to watch the porn that will be able to, after having paid the required fees. Again, they can already spend that money to get porn. And if the response is that “innocents”, however defined, may be caught in the porn crossfire, well, that’s already the case as well. Rather rail against parents who leave their porn lying around, or who fail to use the existing parental controls on their DSTV decoders to block content they don’t want their kids to see.

Then, as for the claims regarding “constitutional rights to dignity and equality”, these same women (and men) have constitutional rights to freedoms of various sorts, including the freedom to (mostly) make their own moral judgments. If Hodgson wants to argue that the freedoms should step aside for her version of “dignity and equality”, she’ll first have to convince me that her version has any intellectual merit, rather than simply being derived from a bunch of Bronze-Age mythology.

Lastly, on the causal claims she makes: yes, some people may indeed have swallowed the claims of the industry, and have perhaps ended up believing that there is nothing problematic about the porn industry. And there are problematic things about the porn industry, as there are in any industry. We need evidence that the porn industry is intrinsically or necessarily harmful, rather than harmful in ways that can be limited or eliminated by robust legislation and enforcement of that legislation. And a generous respondent would say that the evidence for this is far from clear. But any sensible respondent would know that there is genuine evidence to be had here, and that we don’t have to rely only on porn industry “lies”. A cursory look at some of this independent research quickly reveals that the data suggest a negative causal relationship, ie. that the availability of porn may even decrease sexual violence.

I don’t think that porn is without its dangers, and agree with quite a bit of what Naomi Wolf says in New York magazine, where she argues that porn may be responsible for “deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as ‘porn-worthy'”. But to approach this complicated problem from the point of view that Christian values will save us from various social ills is stupendously naive, in that it ignores other data we have suggesting that the religious are no better off in terms of protecting what Hodgson refers to as the “basic building block of society” – the family. In fact, census data in the US tells us something quite contrary to that, in revealing significantly higher divorce rates among conservative Christians “than for other faith groups, and much higher than Atheists and Agnostics experience”.

Any Christians out there who want to try and save their marriages via porn, don’t be alarmed if DSTV don’t go ahead with this channel. There’s more than enough porn for you on the interwebs, along with all sorts of interesting stuff they call “science”.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.