Pornography does not corrupt; it is corrupt By Roger Scruton SOME of us still remember the Lady Chatterley trial and the extraordinary things that were said by the Great and the Good as they stood up to defend D H Lawrence's worst literary production with mealy-mouthed encomia to its beauty. And some of us recall those days in the early Sixties with a certain nostalgia, as a time when people were still aware of the distinction between pornography and erotic art, and when erotic books and films could pass the censor only if a case could be made for their artistic value. Everything changed very suddenly, according to the poet Philip Larkin: Sexual intercourse began In nineteen sixty-three. Between the end of the Chatterley ban And the Beatles' first LP. But still, even though the permissive habits spread rapidly through society, breaking down taboos and breaking up marriages, people remained sensitive to the distinction between art and pornography, and had no objections to a law which forbade explicit sexual imagery. The recent judgment of the High Court, upholding the decision of the Video Appeals Committee (another collection of the Great and the Good) to allow the sale of videos showing explicit scenes of sexual intercourse, suggests that the last vestiges of decency are being finally chased from the law. Like many distinctions which are intuitively obvious, that between the erotic and the pornographic is not easy to explain. It has been said that pornography is obscene, whereas erotic art is merely suggestive. But what is obscenity? The old test laid down in the Obscene Publications Acts of 1959 and 1964 holds that matter is obscene if it tends to deprave and corrupt those who are likely to come across it. But that test is flawed, since it looks for obscenity only in the effects of a thing, and not in the thing itself. Moreover juries are by no means competent to predict the effects of watching any particular film or reading any particular novel, and are easily swayed by smooth-tongued barristers who represent pornography as a healthy "safety valve" for feelings which could erupt in far more dangerous ways. The fact is that the desire to watch explicit scenes of carnal lust is in itself depraved. It is not that explicit videos have a tendency to corrupt: they are corrupt. In the sexual sphere this is what corruption consists in - namely the display of sexual appetite divorced from the personal relations that redeem it. To justify pornographic videos on the grounds that they don't make people worse than they are is like justifying gladiatorial combat because it doesn't make people into murderers. What was wrong with the Roman circus was precisely that it excited people into watching it. The same is true of pornography. An erotic work of art like the Maja Desnuda of Goya is not obscene. Goya's model is not displayed as a female body offering its favours in a state of impersonal desire. She is displayed as an incarnate person, who could offer her favours, but who must be approached with proper respect. To imagine her embraces is also to imagine her love. There is nothing prurient or sick in this, any more than in imagining the love between Romeo and Juliet. The purpose of erotic art is not to arouse impersonal lust, but to lead us to sympathise with a sexual passion that is directed from one person to another, and redeemed by the relationship between them. Of course, if you think that nothing is at stake in our sexual relations besides pleasure, and that everything that happens between consenting adults is morally unimpeachable, then you will see nothing wrong with pornography. But if you think in this way you will be hard pressed to understand the enormous value that people have placed on sexual love, the central role that it has played in their lives, or the fear and alarm with which they contemplate its desecration. You will fail to understand the torments of jealousy, the joy of requited love, or the sacrifices that are made for fidelity's sake. You will be hard pressed to explain why rape is a crime more serious than theft, why paedophilia is evil, why sexual harassment is more than just a nuisance, and why prostitution is degrading. You will have failed to see the crucial fact about sex, which is that it is not just an animal function but an existential choice, one that involves the freedom, personality and moral ideals of the one who embarks on it. We wish children to be shielded from obscenity and from the lusts of adults because we believe that they are not ready for sex - even when they are quite capable of performing it. This concept of "readiness" shows that we do not accept the view that the pornography industry wishes to force on us, that sex is nothing more serious than titillation. On the contrary, we know that it is the most serious thing that we do, and one that puts the greatest inner strain on our emotions. Premature sex is immature sex; and immature sex is what pornography offers - sex without the constraint of adult love. And once people get the habit of immature sex, they stay immature. The capacity for love is killed in them, and with it the hope of a true and lasting consolation. When sex is demoralised - as it is demoralised by pornography - it ceases to be the interpersonal force around which our life-forces congregate. People who experience sex in this way therefore drift in and out of relationships, while remaining in a state of inner solitude. You can do this, of course, only if you yourself are sexually attractive. For the majority of porn-addicts, the scenes that they relish provide substitutes for sexual adventure, and cause them to live in a condition of onanistic fantasy, with their most important source of generous feeling turned in on itself and atrophied. We cannot pretend that the sexual liberation of the Sixties did not occur. Nevertheless, there is a line between permissiveness and indecency, and it is a line that ought to be clearly drawn and legally defended. In surrendering responsibility to a "Video Appeals Committee" - whose selected representatives of the liberal establishment include the author Fay Weldon, child psychiatrist Philip Graham, and the lawyers Neville March Hunnings and John Wood - our legal and political system has in effect abrogated all responsibility for the moral life of the nation, and given the pornographers free rein. We should perhaps take a lesson from America, where pornography is protected by liberal judges who imagine it to be a constitutional freedom. The result is a culture in which sexual licence and sexual litigiousness flourish side by side. American women are now increasingly suspicious of men, and disposed to sue them at the first opportunity for abuse, harassment and date-rape. For when men see sex in the way that pornography encourages, women are deprived of their most important weapon. They can no longer make a gift of themselves, since their sexuality has in effect been stolen from them and made available on the screen, as an impersonal commodity. This reduction of sexuality to a consumer product jeopardises many of the things that give a woman confidence in her sexual feelings: love, commitment, marriage, and a responsible father to her children. The fury of the American feminist conveys the heartbroken recognition that female sexuality has been deprived of its natural goal and its social fulfilment. The result of this, as anybody who has taught in an American University - as I have - will know, has been a collapse of trust between the sexes. Young American women are taught that sex is no different from chocolate or marijuana: a form of quick fix that is fine if your metabolism can take it. At the same time they are told that men are all rapists, and that men have no desire to receive as a gift what they can take by force or trickery. The resulting hatred of men is also a fear of men - a fear most of all of the demeaning attitude to female sexuality, which makes every woman into a piece of hydraulic machinery, and which assumes a right to possess without the duty to cherish. The only member of the Video Appeals Committee who voted against the explicit videos that are now to be sold in our shops was Nina Bawden, a writer of children's books, someone with a professional commitment to the old idea of childhood, as a condition of innocent unreadiness. It is surely no accident that the growth of the pornography industry has coincided with a widespread public alarm at paedophilia. Both are assaults on innocence. Both undermine the process whereby sexual feeling accumulates until it can be released as love. Both replace erotic desire - the desire for another as an individual - with a generalised titillation. And both are ways of demoralising the sexual act. Indeed, pornography is the most effective way to recruit children to the world of lust, and part of the standard equipment of the paedophile. At the same time, such is the tyranny of the liberal world-view that people are reluctant to say that pornography is as damaging to adults as paedophilia is to children. Having come so far along the path of permissiveness, people think, how can we resist the next stage of it? What people ought to recognise, however, is that pornography is itself the damage. That people are encouraged to see sex as a spectator sport, with no real costs to the participants, is exactly what we should deplore.
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