On its arrival in Townsville in 2011, manager Rob Goodwin was keen to frame Sexpo as a lifestyle event that should be welcomed in any Australian city seeking to cultivate its tourist industry. Sexpo isn’t just about sex.
It’s a persuasive, position. This year, the Australian Sex Party had a booth at Sydney Sexpo. They believed that connecting sex with politics was a great way of getting Australians to think about citizenship. Australian media scholar Alan McKee shares their conviction. McKee is a long-term critic of the position that pornography is bad for society. In fact, he thinks the reverse is true.
His research argues three points.
First, when you talk to ordinary porn consumers -and there’s a lot of them about- you tend to find moral people with a well defined sense of right and wrong who feel, very passionately, that pornography should only be available when it features adults engaging in consensual, enjoyable sex. Coerced performances are entirely unacceptable to these folks.
Second, like Goodwin, McKee believes that pornography is best understood as an entertainment industry; something that works in the same way as, say, popular television.
Third, the marriage of sex, retail, tourism and politics, as dramatised by Sexpo, exhibits the positive social value of commercial media culture. Good porn lets people be who they want to be, and shows the benefits of letting the media market do its thing.
McKee’s position is based on his distaste for social scientific research on the effects of pornography. This research takes two forms. Some studies use surveys to find associations between the amount of pornography people consume, and their tendency to hold sexist and misogynist opinions. Others use experiments. Large samples of people- usually college students- are herded into movie theatres, shown violent pornography, then tested for aggression and anti-social opinions. Many of these studies have found experimental exposure to porn makes people more belligerent and insensitive. McKee dismisses this research as highly contrived. Simply put, the world of porn experiments isn’t anything like the world of the porn consumer, so it isn’t fair to regulate one based on evidence from the other.
The things is, a closer look at social scientists shows they agree that the question of pornography’s effects is a complicated one. A recent Danish survey found most young Danes think that watching porn is a healthy thing to do. Effects researchers agree that when you ask people about pornography, what you get are answers that are really about how those people see themselves.
McKee’s research finds that the pleasure people get from porn hinges on the belief that the people on the screen are having a good time too. However, when thinking about porn performers, it’s important to distinguish between what people want to do, and what they are willing to do as professionals. In today’s media world, we not only have more porn, we also have more stories about the porn industry. Louis Theroux’s recent revisiting of the Californian Adult Film scene featured an interview with rising star Stefania Mafra. Mafra conceded that her film career demanded acts she preferred not to perform in her private sexual life. She didn’t mind, and accepted this as a professional obligation. But it was work catering for a demand.
In this sense, McKee’s right to say that porn is just like any other part of media culture. In Australia, when we look at that culture, we see a series of debates about regulating media in the public interests. These discussions are guided by the strong sentiment that markets can’t just be left to do their own thing. Commercial porn is good for people when they believe they are watching people having fun. But to watch commercial porn is to watch people working in response to perceived public demands. According to their own logic, that’s an uncomfortable truth for porn fans.
Talking about Sexpo isn’t so different from talking about games classification or press regulation. Each topic reflects the same qualms about the dangers of living in a world where media resources, which have become integral to social well being, are not run with social well being in mind. Once this is recognised, a major pillar of the story that lets good people enjoy porn wobbles. But perhaps all of that is simply to say that McKee and the Australian Sex Party are absolutely right; Sexpo isn’t just about sex, because the porn debate is really about how we want the world, and ourselves, to be.
Dr Andy Ruddock is a senior lecturer for the School of English, Communications and Performance Studies in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University.