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The porn/rape/consent debate, again

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Last week, an Irish Examiner journalist attended the launch of the Rape Crisis Network Ireland’s Factsheet on sexual violence and older women in Ireland – and came away with the impression that the most newsworthy aspect of the launch was what the RCNI’s Director had to say about porn. In his report, titled Overexposure of young people to porn is “like a car crash”, the journalist wrote:

Teenagers are being damaged by overexposure to pornography, with Ireland in the grip of a “catastrophe” of sexual violence, the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland has warned.

Executive director of the RCNI Fiona Neary said such was the prevalence of pornography in society that it could affect young people’s views of sexual consent which, matched with growing levels of alcohol use, was “like watching a car crash”.

She said young people were being exposed “to much more pornography than we realise”.

“I think if the Department of Education doesn’t clearly start looking at programmes which address the messages of pornography, we are really running into trouble,” she said.

I wasn’t at the launch, so I don’t know if that really was a significant theme on the day, or if the journalist just thought it made for better copy than a report on older people who survived sexual abuse. But I thought it was a strange issue to be raising at that launch anyway, given what the statistics in the Factsheet show. Of the 77 women who attended a Rape Crisis Centre in 2010 to discuss their own sexual abuse, 57.1% had only been abused in childhood, and an additional 16.9% had been abused in both childhood and adulthood. The Factsheet doesn’t break down the “adulthood” category any further, but it’s probably safe to assume that a significant proportion of this abuse happened in early adulthood; in this study 72% of Irish rape victims were found to be between the ages of 18-30 at the time of the event.

So what we can conclude from this is:

  • Most of the abuse discussed in the Factsheet took place prior to 1973 (when a person aged 55 in 2010 reached adulthood); and
  • A pretty big chunk of the rest of it took place prior to 1985.

All of which makes for a pretty tenuous link between pornography and the acts of sexual violence discussed at this launch. Sure, porn existed before 1973, and was accessible even in what was still a strongly Church-dominated Ireland in 1985, but it’s hardly likely that the rapists behind this Factsheet had the kind of “overexposure” to it that the Examiner piece describes. So I’m not really sure why this launch was used as an opportunity to blame sexual violence on the ready availability of porn.

The article goes on to say:

On the consistent levels of sexual violence across generations [the RCNI Director] said: “It is a catastrophe in Irish history that has not been officially recognised.”

And that just emphasises the point. I don’t know if the levels of sexual violence have truly been consistent across generations – that’s one of those things you’ll never get accurate measure of, anyway – but there’s an obvious logical difficulty with claiming that something in modern society is making a social problem worse while simultaneously accepting that that problem has actually always been as bad as it is now.

It’s certainly arguable, of course, that the increased availability of porn is preventing a reduction in sexual violence that would otherwise occur. That’s the only way I can think to reconcile those two contradictory premises. But that premise itself is so wildly speculative, unprovable and intuitively unlikely, it’s not surprising that nobody seems to be making that argument – at least openly.

This isn’t the only time recently I’ve seen porn blamed for something that clearly predates it. In a recent AlterNet article called The Absurd Myths Porn Teaches Us About Sex, authors Noah Brand and Ozy Frantz quote “college student Lynette” as saying:

I actually had a guy tell me I was wrong…If I was rubbing my clit, it wasn’t real masturbation. He didn’t even know about the G spot…

Um, I’m pretty sure men were largely ignorant about women’s bodies and how we reach orgasm long before there was porn, AlterNet. Anyway, back to the RCNI launch. Neary went on to helpfully spell out exactly why she thinks porn leads to sexual violence:

One of the problems with pornography is consent is never discussed. People in pornography, regardless of what they are doing, are always presented as being up for it, or else rape is presented as being enjoyable.

So, either there’s not enough consent shown in porn, or there’s consent shown where it wouldn’t actually be given. There’s an element here of trying to have it both ways, but consent isn’t always a black-and-white issue in real life and I think it’s a fair criticism that those nuances are typically ignored in porn. But is that really as problematic as Neary claims? It might be, if porn was the only exposure that men and boys had to (hetero)sexual negotiations – perhaps then they really would start to believe that women never do say “no”. But very few men and boys see nothing but porn, and female rejection of male advances is a common enough theme in mainstream media – particularly that which is aimed at adolescent males. What basis is there to assume that young men only internalise what they see in porn?

But I have another, more serious, concern about this line of thought: it has the potential to create a “porn defence” to rape. In Irish law (which was modelled on a similar British statute), rape is defined as having sexual intercourse with someone in the knowledge that they are not consenting or with recklessness as to whether they are consenting. Thus, if the accused genuinely believes that consent has been given, legally there is no rape. The jury doesn’t have to simply take his word that he believed that, of course, and when they’re deciding whether he really did think consent was present, one of the things they must take into consideration is whether there were reasonable grounds for him to think so. But – and this is really important – ultimately what matters is whether the jury thinks that he did believe it, not whether they think it was reasonable for him to believe it. In legal terms, it is subjectively rather than objectively assessed. So if the jury finds that it was a ludicrous belief but one genuinely held, they are obliged to acquit. They are only obliged to convict if they consider the belief so ludicrous that the accused couldn’t possibly have really held it.

And the problem is, it’s precisely the Rape Crisis Network here who are telling us that it isn’t a ludicrous belief; that in fact this is what porn does to its viewers. (As the similarly-minded Catharine MacKinnon put it in Only Words, “pornography makes rapists unaware that their victims are not consenting”.) Do the RCNI really want to be pushing this line? Do they want to see their own words free an accused rapist who claimed that he watched so much porn, he genuinely believed that his victim meant “yes” when she said “no”? What response will they give when defence counsel tells the jury that “even the Rape Crisis Network acknowledges that pornography can have this effect on men”?

Of course, societal factors influence our behaviour, and the line is sometimes fine between acknowledging this and absolving people of responsibility for their own actions. But in a culture already predisposed to rape apology, surely the last thing we should be doing is inventing more reasons for why the men just can’t help themselves.

One thing I do agree with Neary on, and it’s a point made even more strongly in that AlterNet piece, is the urgent need for proper sex education. In that regard, it’s worth pointing out that only around a quarter of Irish secondary students are getting any sex ed at all in the schools – and it’s likely that the quality ranges from mediocre to abysmal for most of that quarter. But this too is a longstanding failure in Irish society (AlterNet is US-based, but the situation is hardly much better there) and shouldn’t be framed in terms of its relevance to a porn-saturated world. Give the patriarchal state a choice between cracking down on sexual expression and actually teaching young people the things that they need (and have a right) to know about sex, and you can bet it will opt for the former.

Finally, even though I don’t agree that porn’s portrayal of consent is the catastrophe the RCNI makes it out to be, that doesn’t mean I think it’s not worth discussing. There are a lot of people these days making what they call “feminist” (or otherwise “transgressive”) porn; what those labels actually mean is debatable, but at the very least they imply a willingness to depart from the usual conventions of the genre and there’s no reason the conventions of consent can’t be one of them. Perhaps there is porn out there that does depict the issue in a realistic fashion – I’d be happy to hear about it if there is. And if there isn’t, it’s certainly a valid question why not.

About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

2 responses

  1. The Rape Crisis Network’s core funding was pulled last year – and looking at the above, is it any wonder?

    They do not provide any services at all, they just exist to collate data, apparently with no great attention to accuracy which is odd, because they seem to be significantly over staffed..

  2. Interestingly on the point around sex education, I never received ANY sex education apart from the biological aspect in terms of Biology, more emphasis on the scientific aspect to pass an exam than any actual acknowledgement of the usage of the organ. There was almost nothing about contraception, STIs, absolutely nothing about hygiene in terms of sexual organs, etc.

    Quite frankly I feel this was one of the biggest let-downs in the education system, I think even the number of former classmates who’ve since experienced unplanned pregnancies, infections, etc. is a shocking indictment of that, and shockingly most aren’t over 25 yet but have been playing catch up ever since.

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