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.


Amanda Gouws

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...

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