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

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

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

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

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

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

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