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Why Are We Still Talking About Whether Porn is Good or Bad?

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Thu, Nov 15, 2012 at 4:10 PM

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In this Sunday's New York Times, nine authors debated the benefits and drawbacks of porn in a piece called "Should Pornography Come Out of the Closet?". The writers trotted out the same old arguments: porn is either a healthy outlet for sexuality, or damaging to relationships and the way society views women.

In other words, after all these years of humans being sexual, it's still hugely controversial for us to record coitus for public consumption. But it shouldn't be; at some point, we should come to accept that, much like Kate Winslet's heart in "The Titanic," porn will go on.

The question of whether porn is healthy or harmful has always been around, but the current debate, says Shira Tarrant, PhD, an associate professor in the Women's Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at Cal State Long Beach, really got started in the 1980s.

"We've been having Madonna/whore arguments for millennia," she said, "but the watershed moment is the 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality. By the mid-1980s, the right-wing evangelical Christian coalition and the antiporn feminists came together, and it really split the feminist community."

Since then, no one has been able to agree on what to do about pornography. In the Times' segment, Gail Dines and Robert Jensen of the nonprofit Stop Porn Culture wrote:

Pornography is the industrialization and commodification of sex, and like all big industries, its product is generic, formulaic and plasticized. These images tend to rob sex of its creativity, playfulness and intimacy, and hence are ultimately profoundly alienating. The performers, the consumers and the culture deserve better.

At the same time, feminist pornographer Candida Royalle wrote that in the absence of sexual trauma or poor body image:

...pornography can certainly have benefits. Counselors sometimes suggest it to help people become comfortable with a particular fantasy they or their partner may have. Pornography can reboot a couple's sex life. It can give you ideas, or help you get in touch with what turns you on.

As the debate rages on, though, our society is still woefully unclear about what we want when it comes to sex. In some parts of the country, purity rings and chastity balls abound. Kids in most states are lucky to get any kind of sex education. And we're immensely quick to shame -- and at the same time obsess over -- people's extramarital affairs.

But more to the point, as the debate rages on, porn itself also rages on. No amount of discussion or back and forth has caused people to stop consuming the product or companies to stop making it. Our appetites for watching naked people bump and grind, and the willingness of performers to be recorded, has stayed refreshingly consistent.

What the incessant bickering about porn has done, though, is create a divide among women and among society, reinforced a culture of negative feelings towards sex, and made what for many people is a normal curiosity into a shameful habit.

As long as humans are sexual beings, porn is going to be alive and well. This shouldn't come as a surprise to anybody anymore; instead, we should accept it, make it safe and talk openly about it.

Or, as Tarrant said, "Why are we having the same fights that we had in the 80s -- where does that get us?"

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