Nos Paenitet – A Response to the Cambridge Union Pornography Debate | Matthew Taylor


Despite being an Oxford Union member myself, I spent the evening of the 14th May 2020 tuned into a debate hosted by the Other Place, the Cambridge Union, motioned as follows:

This House Regrets Online Pornography

Whilst the usual criticisms regarding the degree of responsibility “this House” could even possibly hold for the rise of sexually explicit material on the internet could of course be made, I was indeed glad to have this debate brought to my attention for it is a matter increasingly present in the wandering thoughts of my self-isolated mind.

The relevance of this debate is of course heightened by the present lockdown during which internet use in the privacy of one’s home dominates the daily activity of the masses. What better opportunity could ever arise for smut-merchants to find and hook more customers into the habit?

As a porn-sceptic and general prude, I must confess that I did not enter the virtual chamber with an open mind, but I suspect in this matter I am not alone. On such matters as human sexual expression, can anyone have a truly neutral stance?

In the internet generation of the Zoomers, our worldviews are increasingly defined by our opinions on digital content. As such, the power of MindGeek et al. far outweighs the influence of the racy lads’ mags of days gone by. The future of sexual intimacy will be in large part defined by this generation’s stance on adult videos. This conversation must be engaged with, widely and imminently.

There is no denying that the panel members were knowledgeable, with the motion proposed by Haley McNamara, Director of the International Centre on Sexual Exploitation, a group dedicated to the abolition of pornography, prostitution and sex trafficking, alongside Raquel Rosario Sánchez, a speaker for the feminist association FiliA and Jo Bartosch, a sex-positive, anti-porn, liberal journalist. This gave the proposition the ability to pincer round porn from both the moralist right and the egalitarian left, removing general partisan politics from the debate.

Such diversity was not to be found on the opposition, with all three being porn-profiteers of some variety. Whilst Ela Darling and Epiphany Jones are both performers, Jerry Barnett ran an adult film site from 2004 to 2013. Unlike the proposition who are motivated by belief, there was a clear financial interest in this side of the isle, which whilst not impossible to overcome, certainly muddies the moral waters.

Haley McNamara had the unenviable position of first speech. Nonetheless, in my view, McNamara stood out as the finest speaker of the night. She raised the awkward truth that exposure to pornography often precedes even the early romantic contact of the first kiss, distorting minors’ minds on the topic of relationships and intimacy. Claims were raised as to the effects on the viewer’s neurology, relationships, tendencies to violence and even the ability to maintain an erection. Alas, whilst McNamara did elaborate on these symptoms, the format of this event prevented a proper analysis of the sources and a lack of direct citations prevented the audience from engaging in any degree of thorough verification.

McNamara raised the crucial issue of desensitisation and escalation. Whilst the first-time viewer may be satisfied by so-called “vanilla” content, the hardened addict may develop a taste for extreme and violent videos to grasp at the pleasure once gained from simple nudity. One need only glance at the multitude of “step-brother” and “step-mother” memes on mainstream and Safe-For-Work social media to see the impact of incest fantasy in modern pornography, a theme completely unspeakable not long ago.

The idea was raised that a failure for real life to resemble pornography can in fact lead to a decrease in sexual satisfaction by the viewers. This is an obvious but oft-overlooked point. When we move from the higher thing “beauty” to the lower things, “beautiful object” we will always be left unsatisfied. As such, it is no surprise that a fixation on fantasy leaves reality a place of boredom and malcontentment. Therefore, even the most sex-positive amongst us must surely concede that pornography poses a real threat to the broader sexual experience.

The psychotherapist Mary Anne Layden was quoted as listing two paths which lead children to sexually harm others. First, the well-known cycle of abuse in which those who perpetrate were themselves perpetrated against and second, the neglected factor of violent pornography. McNamara made a compelling case, drawing upon horrific crimes, that these videos have an awful effect on the psyche of some children, leading to abominable acts.

She further expounded on the link between the well-known “Porn Hub”, the largest site in the MindGeek family of filth, and videos of trafficked and underage girls. Whilst such footage is of course already illegal, the general tolerance for pornography in society allows videos to slip through the net and allows stakeholders to profit from this loathsome material. How can such sites verify that consent was valid and not coerced, especially when themes of rape form a major component of their libraries? The simple answer is that they cannot, this fact alone being sufficient in my view to end the debate in the mind of any decent person who recognises the repugnant nature of rape and sexual violence.

The opposition opened their side with Epiphany Jones. Her defence of the industry was primarily based around the nature of a cam-girl job as flexible work that supports her as a single mother. If this is all she desires from a job, I struggle to understand why the porn-industry is the best fit. With so many people working regular jobs from home with their kids during the lockdown right now, it would seem that digital sex work in no way is the only path with these benefits. There is of course the advantage that unlike other forms of employment, the adult entertainer requires only a thick skin and a good figure, with no need for niche knowledge.

Whilst I was relieved to hear the website she uses do enforce a code of conduct on performers and voyeurs, though her claim that “everything that is morally wrong in this world… is banned on the sites that I work on” seems questionable at least to me. Such restrictions if truly in place would surely forbid adultery and therefore such websites would not allow married individuals to watch. Somehow, I doubt that this is the case. Admittedly the measures to disallow the searching for terms such as “child porn” and “rape” are indeed the sort of things I am glad are in place. However, I am sufficiently familiar with the internet to know that word-selective filters can be easily circumvented by use of euphemism and codewords, with “force” being an obvious substitute in this case.

Jones herself conceded that “verification could be stricter” and so she for one was in no doubt that the industry she was defending had its flaws. This is a welcome breath of fresh air from the blanket blindness employed by the type of keyboard warriors who like to stick up for the industry on social media. Alas the credibility she gained in my eyes by this admission was quickly lost by her presumption that an end of online pornography would lead to all the current workers turning to the streets. Whilst indeed the collapse of any industry will mean that some turn to selling sex in dark alleys, I see no reason why this would be the only other source of employment for these (mostly) women. To claim that they could be employed in no other field is an insult harsher than even I would levy at this demographic.

Nonetheless, I cannot judge Jones too harshly for I see no reason to doubt her claim that “We don’t want to harm or damage anyone, we don’t want to morally corrupt or deprave the society. We just want to entertain adults and have fun.”

Alas good intentions alone save no one from harm.

The proposition then turned the corner into feminist critique of the industry by Bartosch and Sánchez. Together they made a convincing case that this industry degrades sexuality itself by its monetization and that the raw forces of the market simply do not care for the sexual wellbeing of the workers or consumers.  Whilst I am no socialist, I cannot help but agree. The market can solve many things, but it cannot be trusted with the sacred, for everyone has a price, but that does not mean that the price should be paid. Both speakers acknowledged the impact on men, as covered by McNamara, but, as feminist campaigners, understandably focused on the impact on women and girls.

Bartosch raised concerning statistics at the link between coercion and violence in partnered sexual acts and the content of the porn watched by the men of these couples. She rightly pointed out that if any other factor showed such strong causal connection, it would be the first target of societal and state action. Perhaps, as Bartosch herself suggested, embarrassment over the nature of coital acts leads to a collapse of our critical thinking. Certainly, in conversation, many people avoid the topic for fear of speaking out of turn. If domestic abuse could go from a private matter to a public crime, Bartosch sees no reason why the porn pandemic cannot be so metamorphosed in the eyes of society and the law.

The harrowing tale of “Rose” was raised in which a young teen was abducted and abused by multiple men, only to find footage of the incident linked to her social media in the aftermath. The view counts of this material were shocking, showing that under the puppetry of the porn industry, there is a great demand for such videos.

Embarrassingly for the opposition, Bartosch raised the incest and racist themes of films put out by a producer that had worked with one of the adult performers on the panel. I would hope that even regular viewers of pornography who find themselves reading this piece will recognise the problems there.

Bartosch made a case so compelling on the exploitation of women by pornography that one hardly need be a feminist oneself to see the evils within.

With the return to the opposition, we bore witness to an unusual opening from Jerry Barnett. On account of the livestream from home nature of the debate, he warned that there was a chance that his young children would enter the room and he would have to pretend to speak about children’s TV instead. If pornography is indeed so guiltless as he would like us to believe, why was he so scared for his child to hear about it, when children access such videos, perhaps even those he was involved in, every day? Like the Silicon Valley tech giants who do not allow their children to have smartphones, he does not allow his own offspring access to the same poison he pumped out into the water for many years.

Not only did Barnett argue that pornography was harmful to neither viewer nor performer, he went as far as to say that porn is of benefit to our society. The fact that he himself was a player in this business must not be forgotten when he says this. What man would stand up and say that his company harmed the broader world by its existence?

His claim that it acts as sexual education for homosexual and transgender people seems deeply suspicious to me, especially given that the final speaker, Ela Darling, would go on to say that pornography was not for education and denied that any pro-porn person would say so. Every species that reproduces sexually is perfectly capable of working out the mechanics, and I see no reason why he presumes that LGBT individuals lack the intelligence to do the same.

Barnett was eager to give some of the credit for the fall of domestic violence in the United States to pornography. Such a claim strikes me as ridiculous, especially when compared with the data raised earlier by Bartosch. Surely a general societal drift away from accepting such behaviour in the wake of the women’s rights movement can claim the credit for this positive development. He additionally noticed that American states with faster uptake of the internet had a steeper decline in such violence than the average. Once again, I see no reason to give adult entertainment the credit when in fact a decrease in boredom could easily be the dominant factor. Similarly, the fall of rape and child abuse in Czechoslovakia as they legalised pornography will likely have more to do with the collapse of a communist society in which abuses are swept under the rug for the police are not trusted, than the legalisation of the pornography itself.

The fact that Barnett was so eager to dismiss “objectification” and “sexualisation” as just words thrown around reflects badly on his character and makes me wonder in what regard he views the women that featured in videos for his profit. Similarly, he denies that porn actresses are prostitutes, despite the fact that they have sex for money, the central essence of prostitution. I cannot help but conclude that he is too blinded by his involvement to view this debate from anything even resembling a reasonable point of view.

Barnett additionally dismissed the views of the religious right on this matter showing a clear anti-faith bias. Why should the moral views of the faithful be dismissed whilst his should be reflected in law? The only answer I can see is that such dismissal benefits him and balms his conscience. He additionally drew a dichotomy between “morality” movements and “women’s rights” movements, despite the fact that anyone who takes women’s rights seriously, does so for moral reasons. In matters of regret, the very motion of this debate, what factor could possibly be more important than morality?

His celebration of the rise of online pornography will do nothing to ease the pain of those trafficked and abused in its path to supremacy.

FiliA’s representative, Raquel Rosario Sánchez, brought the focus back to female exploitation, building off the groundwork laid earlier by Bartosch. Sánchez laid out the position of FiliA on this matter, namely that “Pornography is a form of male violence against women and girls”. Given the data laid our earlier by Bartosch, I have no choice but to agree, regardless of my usual scepticism of such gender-heavy statements. She gave a solid defence of the notion that the porn industry creates and supports a market for female exploitation. Sánchez additionally brought up the practice in India of the selling of rape footage for the price of a meal. Why should we allow suffering to be monetised?

Nothing short of abolition will be satisfactory.

I am afraid to say I found the case put forward by Ela Darling to be the least convincing. Her notion that pornography can act as a social and intimacy substitute rings hollow and sounds to me like a projected rationalisation. It is perfectly evident that para-social relationships do not in any way satisfy the viewer, not just in the blue movie field but in any creator-client relationship where they do not truly know one another. Just as your favourite YouTuber does not really regard each viewer as a friend, neither does the cam-girl see their top donor as their boyfriend. The controversial social commentator, Carl Benjamin explains this matter effectively, if a tad crudely, in saying that simping (a practice in which a male idolises and chases after the attention of a female who is out of his reach) is to relationships as masturbation is to sex. It will achieve nothing but dissatisfaction and distraction from genuine opportunities for relationships and intimacy. A transactional relationship is fundamentally different to one of mutual investment and enjoyment and to pretend otherwise is a sign of either malintent or pronounced naivety.

The “warm community of people who have connected through pornography” is hardly a Burkean platoon that deserves its space defended in civil society. Rather, like the opium dens of years gone by, it is a home to a community of addicts not attempting to rid themselves of their malaise but resigned to its continued place in their lives. Out of compassion to such people, society must open its arms to embrace once again the men who have retreated to pornographic obsession and open the door to a life free of its influence.

Whilst I was glad to hear of the medical protections, both physical and mental, that porn stars receive, a feat for which Darling was partly responsible, does she and her allies not realise that the very necessity for these protections imply that this is not necessarily a good career to be involved in. If I were to tell you that a job required regular health testing and therapy sessions, you would likely assume that I was discussing a role in the armed forces. Unlike the military, pornography does not defend the nation. As such, I cannot see the harm it brings to its workers being in any way justifiable.

Her argument that porn companies do not want children to watch since they do not possess credit cards was very weak. Whilst I would like to think that the industry would not want a child viewership, this reasoning is quite markedly flawed on account of the advertisement-based revenue of several porn sites. A child can watch adverts with or without access to a bank account.

Overall, I was impressed by both sides of this debate and thought that all spoke far better than I would, despite my disagreements. Whilst I came into this debate as an anti-porn individual, I left it an anti-porn activist. This is not a fight I will drop any time soon and I hope you shall join me.


This debate can be viewed on the Cambridge Union YouTube Channel here: https://youtu.be/kz8lgI9YXs8


Photo by Calvin Le on Flickr.

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