Freedom of speech is not always ‘fair speech’.
Can free speech really be called ‘free’ if it is not free and fair for all?
This is a question posed by writer Betty McLellan in the book ‘BIG PORN INC: Exposing the harms of the Global Pornography Industry’ (M.Tankard Reist & A. Bray). She discusses the concepts of freedom of speech and censorship versus fair speech, concluding that freedom of speech should never support inequality or trump a person’s right to safety.
“There seems to be an irrational fear on the part of Western governments, lawyers and other devotees of absolute freedom of speech, that to censor anything at all will result in the eventual loss of all human rights.
…(Society) has all manner of laws governing behaviour, including defamation laws, classification laws, road rules, and laws against physical and sexual violence. In order for people to live together in fairness and equality, any individual behaviour that has the potential to cause harm to others ought to be subject to laws governing behaviour.” (p253).
When arguing against the misconception that pornography is a harmless form of free expression, McLellan scrutinises it against 2 themes: power dynamics and the potential for harm.
Pornography ‘fails on both counts’, she says (p254).
Below is a summary of the author’s argument (p254-255).
“The power differential in pornography involving [children or adults] is clear to many, but discounted as unimportant by producers and consumers of pornography: mostly men (supported by a male-dominated society, by a global multi-billion dollar industry and by politicians and high profile free speech advocates) exploiting women. The power differential is overwhelming.”
Potential for harm
“…the evidence is indisputable that pornography does cause harm to women, to men and to relationships.
“Women are depicted as subordinate to men, as enjoying hurt and pain, as existing only to give sexual stimulation to those men who find pleasure in the humiliation and pain of women.”
Put more simply, “Women are dehumanised, humiliated and reduced to body parts by pornography (MacKinnon, in M.Tankard Reist & A. Bray, 2011, p254).
McLellan also expands on these themes of free/fair speech in relation to men.
“While a man may wish for a satisfying sexual relationship in real life, once he starts using pornography, it often happens that sex with his partner never quite measures up to his fantasies.”
This last statement is also backed up by Dolf Zillman, a leading researcher in the field of pornography and relationships, who states that long-term use of pornography “…breeds discontent with the physical appearance and the sexual performance of intimate partners (in Tankard Reist & Bray, 2011, p254).”
McLellan concludes that pornography is indeed NOT fair speech, because it does not promote equality, safety, or fairness to all who are involved.
“Any activity which encourages men to enjoy, and be sexually turned on by, images of women being hurt and demeaned and humiliated, any activity which subordinates women to men in such an obvious way, will never result in equality and fairness”, she writes.
“In free speech terms, it is not simply a matter of personal choice. It is a highly political activity…The power dynamics involved…show pornography to be an activity privileging men’s desires over women’s rights” (p255).
I find these arguments very interesting, intelligent and hard to argue against. It is sad that our governments fight for equality of their citizens, enforcing thousands of laws to ensure public safety, and yet do very little when it comes to tackling the equality and safety issues of pornography. How often do you see the government educating the public about pornography dangers, let alone even attempting to make this industry somewhat safer? (introducing compulsory regulations for condom use would be a start!)
Never underestimate your power to speak up against these issues.
MacKinnon, C. (1987). Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law. In M.Tankard-Reist, M & A.Bray. (2011). ‘BIG PORN INC: Exposing the harms of the Global Pornography Industry’. Victoria: Spinifex.
McLellan, B. (2010). Unspeakable: A Feminist ethic of speech. In M.Tankard-Reist, M & A.Bray. (2011). ‘BIG PORN INC: Exposing the harms of the Global Pornography Industry’. Victoria: Spinifex.
Zillman, D. (1989). Effects of Prolonged Consumption of Pornography. In M.Tankard-Reist, M & A.Bray. (2011). ‘BIG PORN INC: Exposing the harms of the Global Pornography Industry’. Victoria: Spinifex.