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Porn bad for the brain, bad for women

Jacques Rousseau’s article in the Mail & Guardian (March 22-27 2013) titled “The naked truth about porn on television” cannot go unchallenged. Rousseau is the chairperson of the Free Society Institute and defends the viewing of pornography on television. His intervention in the recent debate about whether we should allow pornography on television is clearly uninformed and stems from a liberal perspective that pornography is a form of speech or expression.

Rousseau argues that “porn becomes a big problem only if it automatically causes harm”. According to him there may be a correlation between harm and pornography, but we cannot show causation. As he puts it “ … there may be a correlation between porn and sexual violence, just as there may be a correlation between hours spent on church pews and lower backache”. He also chastises those who think it is an issue of morality (like the ACDP). Indeed it is not only a moral issue and often feminists who criticise pornography end up in the same category as conservative church leaders, but for very different reasons.

Dr Judith Reisman, an American neuroscientist, gave evidence to the American Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on the effects of pornography on the brain. According to her, emotionally arousing images imprint and alter the brain, triggering an involuntary but lasting biochemical memory trail. These neurochemical pathways are nearly impossible to delete. Because these images are directly linked to the state of arousal during orgasm, viewers of pornography become addicted to watching pornography in order to trigger the same chemicals. Her research has shown that watching pornography overrides cognitive speech processes (so it’s not only speech).

What Rousseau fails to see is that harm is something that happens to bodies and that acting out pornography in films is not just about images, it’s something that is being done to bodies and most often to women’s bodies. Even when women participate un-coerced in the making of pornography they have to enact the script that is written for a male gaze. What pornography does is define the nature of women’s sexuality for male consumption and it takes the power away of women to define their own sexuality.

The lack of power of women to define their own sexuality is what pornography does. The harm it does is imperceptible. But it affects all women, not only the ones participating or the partners and lovers of men who think they can enact pornographic sex on women’s bodies. (Porn has got nothing to do with sexual intimacy.)

While Rousseau is looking for a visible causal mechanism between pornography and violence against women, and rape (which pornography also causes) there is another causality at work here — how pornography constructs women’s sexuality and how this gets normalised. We can see it in the way it’s taken up in the advertising world and the way in which many men talk about women — reducing them to objects and body parts. Pornography contributes to construct the world in which women live and where the way in which they would like to define their own sexuality gets diminished and even obliterated.

Moreover pornography creates an equality-freedom dilemma. It creates the freedom to watch pornography in opposition to the equality of women. As Catharine MacKinnon, the American feminist legal scholar, puts it in Feminism Unmodified (1987).

“Substantive issues are at stake on both sides of abstract issues, and women are allowed to matter in neither. If women’s freedom is as incompatible with pornography’s construction of our freedom, as our equality is incompatible with pornography’s construction of our equality, we get neither freedom nor equality under the liberal calculus.”

Those who are freedom of speech absolutists do not understand that even if we define pornography as speech it has consequences for men, women and children. Rousseau thinks it should be the responsibility of parents to prevent children from viewing pornography, not the community. He argues the middle class has more money and therefore more access to pornography and yet we see less violence among the middle class. What he does not understand is that money buys them good lawyers for divorces, medical and psychological help. The shame that goes with pornographic consumption in the middle class most often gets covered up. The lower classes have fewer resources, causing a greater awareness of violence.

Speech absolutists also play into the hands of the producers of pornography, a billion-dollar industry. It is estimated that pornography is a $30 billion a year industry and growing (that is only the formal industry). Let us not forget the millions of unregulated porn sites on the internet and cellphones. South Africa has the greatest cellphone penetration (no pun intended) in the world and many people get unsolicited pornography on their phones. Those of us who have teenage children are regularly informed to watch out for unsolicited cellphone pornography. How much control do parents have here?

This billion-dollar industry will not give up its power and links to human and drug trafficking as long as there is a demand for pornography.

Research and police evidence in other countries have long proven this link.

I think it’s time we start thinking about what pornography does to the world and the women who live in it before we make glib arguments about just how harmless it is.


  • Amanda Gouws is a professor of political science at the University of Stellenbosch and a commissioner for the Commission for Gender Equality. Her research deals with women and citizenship, representation and the women’s movement. She regularly writes for Die Burger. She writes here in her personal capacity.


  1. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 10 April 2013

    Did you notice the feminists who are in favour of porn? But in order to patronise you some more, I dug this one up since this is a person who chose to perform in porn, who was a socialist activist and currently identifies as a liberal (whatever that means). Her views are most likely at odds with whatever you chose to represent capitalism this week:

    Do we preach tolerance on one hand but we see it fit to prescribe morality to others? Those were the main points, not whether there is a market for porn or not.

    I’m merely interested in combating the creeping fascism of those who hide their wet nurse tendencies behind their shockingly undeveloped morality. Sour grapes, if you ask me. You should grasp at more straws to complete your straw man. Then again, if this ‘male gaze’ hypothesis makes sense to you, you can watch all the porn on the internet and your brain can’t possibly be damaged more.

  2. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 10 April 2013

    [The myth that this industry is all consenting adult actors is simply not true.]

    The industry consists only of consenting adults and it’s a tightly regulated industry. All pornography is not ‘industry’, and of course there are backstreet film productions of all kinds of dodgy things.

    [How many of you would be happy if your daughter came home and said great news folks I have a job as a porn star?]

    I’d be more disappointed if she came home and told me she’s going to pursue a career in humanities.Regardless, if my daughter is an adult, I would like to think that I did a good job as a parent. Good enough that she’d be able to make decisions on her own, and live with the consequences. Even if she does end up in literary criticism, I would not disown her. I would respect her enough to think she can define her own identity, as she sees fit.

    [The last thing this country needs apart from perhaps more alcohol is increased access to porn.]

    TopTV channels are subscription channels. The country will not have more access to porn, only TopTV subscribers would have the option of enabling the service.

    What is a valid concern is many internet users report unwittingly being exposed to porn. I think the .xxx domain was a great idea and would have solved such problems, more or less.

    I do not subscribe to this tabula rasa that gets programmed by The Media and erototoxins hogwash. If that were true, I’d be a Christian preacher today.

  3. Isabella Van Der Westhuizen Isabella Van Der Westhuizen 10 April 2013

    Yea there you go steadfastly reject any evidence shown to you of the contrary

  4. Isabella Van Der Westhuizen Isabella Van Der Westhuizen 10 April 2013

    There is a great little book called High heels by a local Afrikaans girl who got sucked into our local porn industry. She performed on stage at some of our strip clubs and describes having to shove a tampon up her vagina during her periods so she could keep working during her period. It had other quite disturbing little stories in it. She was quite bitter about her whole experience. Why does Godzilla not read that. How much evidence does he want that the sex industry in general is not a healthy place for a young woman to work

  5. Stephen Browne Stephen Browne 10 April 2013

    @Brent: what an amazing guess at my background! Virtual high five? If you’ve read a few of Isabella’s comments, that’s mostly why I’m letting fly. And you also don’t seem to get it. Who gives a toss what is considered ‘good for ones soul’? What exactly is a soul?

    I’ve yet to see some genuine research indicating widespread abuse in the porn industry. Isabella linked a pro-life, Baptist, feminist (get it!) who seems to rely on isolated, highly emotional cases to get her points across.

    Your last sentence is where we are missing each other – you call it the gutter, I call it pretty darn normal. Unlike you, I don’t have the arrogance to assert what everyone must or must not do. Couldn’t care less if you hate or love porn, just don’t force me to your view.

  6. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 10 April 2013

    Isabella Van Der Westhuizen #

    I’m not into that type of thing Isabella but if you are then it is your prerogative. I’m not sure how many men you had at once and it is none of my business. Providing it was consensual and among adults then good for you

  7. Uncertain Uncertain 10 April 2013

    I think people are not simply the product of their neurological processes inasmuch as you make state the matter. Sure we are basically a bunch of chemicals and our brains do the thinking. But the brain is a terrifically complex organ. My point is that one also uses your brain to make choices, sometimes because you are addicted or feel compelled by some chemical reaction but also but you actually make cognitive decisions based on long term prerogatives too. Besides, most people seem to understand the difference between fantasy and reality. And having known more than my fair share of women in the industry I can tell you that most of them were thinking quite clearly about their decision to become involved. And, there is almost nothing less erotic than working on a porn set. If anything that is a common complaint from the actors involved – especially from the men who regularly cannot get it up. It is hard work to make a 30 minute video. Oddly this lack of eroticism is possibly where one might locate a whole series of complaints re industry: its quickly strips away your holy cows and leaves you with the rather dull business of tending the business. It is not for the romantic of heart (and nor for the unfit). In fact most of the women I know from this industry make a a fair amount of money and honestly say that they simply do not have the education, nor the opportunity to do something else (much like their male counterparts for whom porn does not not a lucrative opportunity ).

  8. Dan Dan 10 April 2013

    You’re going to use Judith Reisman to start your argument, seriously? She’s an anti-sex homophobic conservative who invented simply invented erotoxins. Maybe one day she’ll find them or perhaps some leprechaun gold. And then you go on to Catharine MacKinnon who should be classed as an anti-feminist, standing against the liberty women were supposedly fighting for, to be treated as adults, equal to men, not infants needing special protection and rules. Claiming that pornography defines women’s sexuality is itself insulting to women who make their own decisions because, well they’re adults, and they take responsibility for their bad choices. Drink too much, have sex with someone you wouldn’t touch when sober? Well that’s only your own fault. Many of us men have woken up in that situation, but we don’t run around claiming rape. No we decide to be more careful in future, and we admit it is our own fault only.

  9. Dan Dan 10 April 2013

    Drug trafficking I take no issue with. It’s thoroughly immoral that some people think they have the right to persecute people who use certain drugs. But that some criminals might invest in pornography production is neither here nor there. It’s a ridiculous red herring, as though we should shut down all businesses because some examples might have links to criminals. There is no general proven link. By the same evidentiary requirements I can state that Christianity has proven links to drugs and crime.

    As for the tampon statement above, well I’ve known many women who have had to use tampons to avoid bleeding everywhere. So what point are you trying to make?

  10. Brent Brent 10 April 2013

    Stephen Browne you miss the point, porn is what enslaves millions of (mostly poor) young women worldwide. I had exposure to Europe’s sex/porn industry in the 80’s and it was virtual slavery how these poor, unsophisticated girls (mainly from SE Asia, E Europe) were used by the porn/sex industry and then when ‘old and used before 30’ spat out to lower levels hence the use of the term gutter. The rule is simple, whether one is faith based or not; do not allow things to happen to others that you would not wish on your mother, sister, daughter or girl friend. The is no such thing as safe, soft porn it all feeds into a trillion dollar industry that exploits women. Brent

  11. Brent Brent 10 April 2013

    PS – Garg you live on another planet and your naivety is criminal. Yearly millions of genuinely naive young, poor girls are tricked, forced into porn/sex slavery and forever their lives are ruined. You are not much better than the criminals running the trillion dollar industry. Brent

  12. Isabella Van Der Westhuizen Isabella Van Der Westhuizen 10 April 2013
    Here you are Momma and Stephen
    Why not go and surf here and see some porn for yourself.
    Channels advertising 18 and abused sound really cool. As people watch porn so their demand for it becomes more extreme. On these channels every possible fetish is catered for and they do become more extreme. So you are happy for 18 year old teenagers to be used in porn you guys do sail close to the wind. As I keep pointing out to Momma Bundi is that it is not really consensual if you are poverty stricken marginalised and then forced into doing porn.

  13. cid cid 11 April 2013

    The whole argument that one must show “proof” that something is bad is a distorted one. It is used in the Us to allow dubious products to be sold, when the damage might only show up over a generation or so, whereas the EU will withdraw a product if there is convincing likelihood that it might damage people. The first argument cares about the rights of the purveyor of the product, the second takes a commonweal point of view. The second is more practical, of course, because it is preventative. The first argument is legalistic and short- sighted, allowing for risks and harm to be done before any action taken . Regarding porn, I went to a panel involving a porn actress, a porn distributor, a porn producer, and a pro-porn academic. The biggest thing I learned from them is that it is addictive, and that they have to keep pushing the threshold as porn addicts get bored with stories and formats. This they agreed was moving into more dangerous ground as there was no longer the thrill of breaking a taboo, which kept things in check a little. They also agreed that with the net there are numerous mom and pop and other groups, including criminal groups making porn, often edgier and more distasteful, and that the older industry is being weakened by this competition.
    So having some legal limits can serve to keep a boundary without which the limbic brain could keep hyping itself into more and more depravity. I thought that was a major revelation.

  14. cid cid 11 April 2013

    The idea of women not being able to develop naturally and over generations their own sexuality is crucial, and apt. Tantra is more of a female-centred sexuality, and it is the basis of some of the oldest religions, before patriarchy took over sexuality. The influence of porn and coercive male sexuality shows up most strikingly with the boys and girls, who are learning what they think is normal adult behaviour from porn. There are quite a few studies about it. Boys think that they must come in a girl’s face hair or body or it’s not good sex, or pee on the girl, etc . Girls think that they cannot say no to anal sex, have to pretend to like being humiliated when they actually do feel humiliated etc. They also think that they must get rid off all body hair, including pubic, because the porn actresses do, and the boys act disgusted at their natural bodies. The normal, good sex role modelling and erotica and healthy love of body is not exactly all around, and girls think they have to totally deodorise their natural smells, instead of glorying in their natural woman sexualiiy, because the boys brains are colonised by advertising and porn.

  15. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 11 April 2013

    I won’t read such a book because I’m not obsessed with porn nor am I obsessed with vilifying others. What’s the difference between reading that book, or 50 shades of grey and the like, and watching porn on TV? I have better books to read and more interesting films to watch, but if that’s your sort of thing, I have no qualms with it. You’re an adult, presumably, and you can make up your own mind about what sort of reading material you bring into your own home. Why not grant others the same courtesy?

  16. MIssing the point MIssing the point 11 April 2013

    Louis Thoreaux’s doccie on the industry, which I viewed last night (DSTV) was so sad. Compulsory viewing for those who deny that the “actors” are harmed. What really got to me was the impact of the industry on the men and the very fragile veneer and bravado that they put up to justify their lifestyles. Somehow it seemed more destructive than the impact on the women. And yet there was the very human pride of being able to get it up and keep it up – in other words, of doing a good job. In the cold lilght of day it is a ghastly, dehumanising and destructive business in terms of its toll on people. Their loneliness was quite evident and point was made so clearly that they were not able to have meaningful relationships, including family and children. An awful price to pay and one which can only be understood after the fact and often once its too late. Even the psychology student (and its always psychology) had a defensive and see-through attitude. Nothing any sensible person would want to be a rt of .

  17. Ladyfingers Ladyfingers 12 April 2013

    Isabella, you have a pretty reductive idea about what porn is available. Many women choose to view porn aimed at homosexual men.

  18. Isabella Van Der Westhuizen Isabella Van Der Westhuizen 12 April 2013

    Oh Ladyfingers maybe in California. What qualifies you sweetheart to speak on behalf of womankind any more than me apart from the fact that you choose to have blog so you can put your opinion out on blogspehere. Grow up sweetheart

  19. Foom Foom 12 April 2013

    Regarding Judith Retiz, your so called neuroscientist:, from Wikipedia “Judith A. Reisman …is a controversial American conservative writer best known for her criticism and condemnation of the work and legacy of Alfred Kinsey.”

    Qualifications: “She has a Ph.D. in Communications” So, not actually a neuroscientist.

    And what of her scholasticism?

    “By 1986, Reisman concluded her investigation of “372 issues of Playboy, 184 issues of Penthouse and 125 issues of Hustler”…The report drew contemporary criticism in regards to its cost and its quality.[10][12] Sex crime researcher Avedon Carol commented that the report was a “scientific disaster, riddled with researcher bias and baseless assumptions.”[13] The American University (AU), where Reisman’s study had been academically based, refused to publish the completed work”

    She also hates gays:

    “Reisman has claimed that the homosexuals employ recruitment techniques that rival those of the United States Marine Corps.[1]…”


    “…she believes that a homosexual movement in Germany gave rise to the Nazi Party and the Holocaust”

    As for the claims you refer to in the article: “Reisman has postulated a physical mechanism to account for the dangers she ascribes to pornography…No observational evidence has yet been given to support her claims”

    In conclusion: he’s a bigot who makes claims without any evidence, oh, and she supports abstinence only sex education.

    Excuse me while I…

  20. Zeph Zeph 13 April 2013

    Some women make good money out of porn and some men are fools to pay for it. So who looses?

  21. Linda Linda 30 April 2013

    Gosh, I just love porn. Isn’t it great!

  22. Ben Jovski Ben Jovski 25 June 2013

    Porn is boring and “plastic”

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