Opinionista Jacques Rousseau 13 March 2013

Pornography is coming to eat your children

TopTV’s strategy for rescuing itself from financial ruin includes a second application to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) for the right to screen pornography channels. As with the previous application, religious lobby groups are up in arms. But with there being no good reasons to believe that pornography is harmful, Icasa will hopefully remember that its mandate does not include the enforcement of religious moralising.

At some point on the day after this column is published, I’ll be presenting at Icasa’s public hearings, arguing in favour of On Digital Media’s (ODM) application for a licence to screen three pornography channels on TopTV. Besides myself and a colleague, ODM itself might well be the only presenter speaking in favour – the submissions received before the January deadline numbered only 16 for, compared to 440 against.

ODM’s previous application was denied, for what I’ve previously described as very poor reasons, but the company has decided to try again – this time dropping the most hardcore channel (Playboy’s AdultXXX) from the application, and also pledging to appear at the hearings, by contrast to its conspicuous absence at the time of the previous application.

Late last year, ODM applied for business rescue under the Companies Act, and perhaps hopes that being allowed to screen the pornography channels will help with its financial survival. I’m sceptical that there’s enough of a market for pornography distributed in this fashion, and therefore whether being given permission to screen these channels can help TopTV to survive.

Whether it survives or not might be thought mostly of concern to its stakeholders, of which I’m not one. It should however be allowed to try any legal and morally defensible strategies available for survival, of which giving paying subscribers access to pornography of a legally permissible sort should surely be included.

Furthermore, we should stand behind it while it tries to survive, and especially in this particular matter, because Icasa is not a moral authority, and should not be allowed to take on the authority of one. Icasa’s own response to the previous application demonstrated a desire to take on that role, though. Despite explicitly acknowledging that the data don’t demonstrate this to be true, Icasa’s “reasons” document reported that it regard the “consumption of pornography as one contributing factor, amongst others, to the normalisation of violence against women in South Africa”.

When we stack what appears to be a hunch up against our constitutional freedoms, it’s the hunch that should give way – at least up until the point where there is hard data to turn the hunch into something that should be regarded as fact. But these hearings are of course taking place in a context of extreme – and justified – sensitivity with regard to sexual violence, and Icasa will perhaps be understandably wary of the public response if it were to grant ODM’s application.

It shouldn’t be. Just as it’s condescending to tell every woman that she’s demeaned by pornography – regardless of whether she herself procures, participates in or produces pornography – the South African population at large should be insulted by being told that all it takes is a little airbrushed televised sex to turn them into rapists.

I won’t rehash the practical arguments of my previous column on this topic, linked above, here. In short, though, the children are safe. TopTV’s PIN code protection is robust enough that any child who is able to crack it would most likely be at MIT – or at least surfing the Internet for porn – instead of becoming the putative victim of TopTV’s relatively softcore offerings. So, thinking that allowing this license will somehow increase the availability of porn to the average child is implausible at best, and adults already have access to all the porn they want.

This won’t be perceived as any obstacle to many of the presenters, though, who all (save one) have some version of “Christian”, “God” or some cognate term in their title or description. I point this out not to say that this isn’t a legitimate interest group, but rather to point out that it is a group with particular interests – which is to defend a Christian version of morality regardless of what empirical evidence might say – or not say – about pornography’s effects on society.

They want Icasa, and the government more generally, to plant their flag in the territory of Christian morality. This is understandable, but for Icasa to do so would be a dereliction of its duties as an independent communications watchdog in a state that bills itself as secular. The data – not the hysteria – needs to support pornography as being a cause of increased sexual violence for TopTV’s opposition to persuade Icasa.

The data do not support that view. As mentioned above, even Icasa is prepared to say that the data are agnostic. I’d go further, and suggest that the US, Germany and Japan are only a few examples of countries that legalised pornography and saw no resultant increase in sexual violence. As with most social ills, the problem of sexual violence probably involves a nexus of poverty and resultant powerlessness more than anything else.

In South Africa, it is looking increasingly clear that we need to add tik to that causal nexus, thanks to how methamphetamine results in increased sexual arousal and aggression. But perhaps above everything except economic empowerment, I’d argue that what we need to focus on is fostering respect for the choices of others, whether in serious matters such as saying no to sex, or in trivial matters such as watching pornography. Compelling citizens in a secular state to obey the prescriptions of (your interpretation of) Biblical morality does nothing to respect autonomy, but instead treats us as permanent infants.

There’s no question that rape and other forms of violence are a problem, no – but there’s no reason to think that porn has contributed to causing that problem. Without such reason or reasons, all that Icasa would be doing in denying this application would be to award another victory to religious moralisers, and to chalk up another loss to our freedom. DM

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