Censoring Pornography Is Counterproductive

Businesses in Union County, Ohio, have been pressured by religious and political leaders to ban pornography from their shelves. Not surprisingly, then, The Columbus Dispatch reported on August 27, 2000 that more households in Union County subscribe to Playboy than to Newsweek.

Attempts to suppress pornography and other adult entertainment often have that effect. They are also counterproductive in other ways.

The Feb. 10, 1997 issue of U.S. News states that the U.S. government launched a “war on pornography” in the 1980s. This crackdown included enforcement of some of the toughest restrictions on sexually explicit materials in the Western industrialized world.

Despite those actions, domestic consumption of sexually explicit materials increased drastically. And the U.S. became by far the world’s leading producer of pornography.

The same U.S. News article reports that after Denmark repealed its obscenity laws in 1969, demand for pornography eventually underwent a long and steady decline in that country. A few years after the decline began, a survey of Copenhagen residents found that most Danes came to regard pornography as “uninteresting” or “repulsive.”

Subsequent research by the University of Copenhagen’s Berl Kutchinsky, who studied the effects of legalized pornography in Denmark for more than 25 years, confirms those findings. He relates: “The most common immediate reaction to a one-hour pornography stimulation was boredom.”

The contrasting American and Danish experiences uphold a truth that religious people, in particular, should know: forbidden fruit appears sweetest and becomes inordinately fascinating. Or as Chaucer put it in The Canterbury Tales:

When something’s difficult, or can’t be had,
We crave and cry for it all day like mad.

Thus, by denouncing and trying to close establishments offering adult entertainment, the morality busybodies are often the greatest benefactors of the sex industry.

Censoring pornography is also wrong for other reasons. There is strong evidence that pornography has positive effects for society and some individuals.

The 1970 Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography reports that pornography may provide a harmless sexual outlet for persons who might otherwise seek antisocial ones. Denmark’s experience is consistent with this thesis, because sex offenses there declined following legalization of pornography.

Likewise in Sweden and the former West Germany, sex crimes against children went down significantly in the years after restrictions were lifted on the availability of pornography.

Similarly in England, the British Inquiry into Obscenity and Film Censorship couldn’t find a link between sexually explicit materials and sex crimes. Instead, its report shows that sexual assaults declined during a five-year period of increasing explicitness and availability of erotica. The study also notes an increase in sex crimes following a crackdown on hardcore pornography.

Sexologist Milton Diamond, Ph.D., a professor at the Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii, identified similar occurrences in Japan. “It is certainly clear from the data reviewed that a massive increase in available pornography in Japan . . . has been correlated with a dramatic decrease in sexual crimes and most so among youngsters as perpetrators or victims.” (Emphasis sic.)

Edward Donnerstein, of the University of California at Santa Barbara, is a leading expert on the effects of pornography. He reports: “A good amount of research strongly supports the position that exposure to erotica can reduce aggressive responses in people who are predisposed to aggress.”

And in this age of HIV and many other serious sexually transmitted diseases, the pornography outlet would have to be classified as a safe-sex practice. The same cannot be said of many other sex practices common today.

Diamond mentions additional benefits of erotica: “Pornography is unequivocally a substitute for sex for people who don’t have or don’t want a real sex partner or who see it as more pleasurable and less bother than other options. It can also be a means of arousing oneself or a partner, a welcome aphrodisiac.”

Sex therapist and sex educator Lloyd G. Sinclair says the benefits of pornography also include “an increase in the likelihood that viewers will talk about sex (a generally positive effect since most sexual partners benefit from these discussions). . . .” Another positive outcome he notes is “the introduction of medically and relationally safe variety into couples’ sexual interactions, something many long-term couples find helpful in maintaining sexual interest and pleasure in their relationships.”

Philip D. Harvey points out in his book The Government vs. Erotica that the benefits aren’t just for the young. “Older Americans are having sex, enjoying it, and even using toys and watching explicit videos,” he writes. “As many hundreds of couples have reported on surveys, such activities provide pleasure and intimacy in their lives and their happiness is increased.”

Further, pornography is often used successfully as part of sex therapy in treating sexual dysfunctions. And pornography has been useful as an adjunct in sex education programs designed to help persons overcome other problems associated with body guilt, shame, and fears.

Although adult pornography appears to be harmless and often beneficial, police crackdowns can have devastating effects on those arrested for involvement with it. The fallout can include losses of jobs, assets, liberty, or worse.

For instance, Ohio State University philosophy professor emeritus Andrew Oldenquist wrote in 2003: “I remember a news story in central Ohio from more than 30 years ago. A middle-aged man was arrested for having adult pornography in his home. He killed himself. Isn’t it time we stop tormenting people for what they do in private and which harms no one?”

Indeed, society would benefit greatly by using law-enforcement resources against real crimes involving clear victims and injustices. It is counterproductive to oppose the freedom of consenting adults to work in and patronize the sex industry.