Debating porn: overactive hormones meet freedom of expression

29 Sep

One must only enter through the gates of a University during Fresher’s week to realise that sexism in Ireland is alive and well. Where young women advertise a local business with slogans like “ask to see our bits” emblazoned across their chest and posters for ‘pimps and hoes’ parties line the walls, the University atmosphere successfully reproduces an adolescent boy’s teenage fantasy in real time. The UCD Historical and Literary Society debate on pornography was no exception to such an overt display of laddish culture, where overactive hormones met freedom of expression, as 2 teams debated the motion that “This house believes porn causes more pain than pleasure”.

The night began with a show of hands as to how many people watched pornography. Amid the hoots and macho roars of the mostly male audience, almost every person raised their hand. It was at this time that I realised I was on the losing side. In support of the motion that porn causes more pain than pleasure, I was accompanied by Prof. Linda Connolly from UCC and two male students from the Society. The other side comprised of one guest speaker, a male journalist from Ireland’s one and only porn magazine, and three male students. A female porn star was originally recruited to argue for the opposition but called in sick at the last minute. The disappointment at her absence was keenly felt by many audience members who had obtained tickets to the event particularly to see her.

As the debate began, Linda and I were immediately labelled ‘the feminists’ by the opposition. The only 2 women out of 8 speakers and both self-identified feminists, we were pigeonholed into an unflattering stereotype that we tried, unsuccessfully, to counter. The anti-sex, humourless feminist is a character I am familiar with, but not one I wish to portray. With a distinct lack of female representation, and both women on the ‘anti-porn’ side, the debate lacked a balanced perspective with the overarching theme emerging that pornography exists to allow boys to be boys. On the pleasure side of porn, the students argued that porn serves as an education, a release and a right of passage. On the pain side, the negative effects on women, cultural implications and dark underbelly of the porn industry were exposed. Points of information covered a number of topics including the question ‘what’s wrong with sexualising children?’. Needless to say, my team did not win.

Though I did not expect the debate to be academic or serious, and even though I risk identifying myself as the ‘humorless feminist’ yet again, I found the whole night overwhelmingly depressing. Cocooned in a feminist bubble for the last year, the naked display of machismo was unsettling to say the least. I found myself rolling my eyes and clicking my tongue when the boys in the audience applauded at innuendo. I resented being set apart from the girls who accused ‘the feminists’ of trying to say that women didn’t, or shouldn’t, like sex or watch pornography. Finally I hated the fact that, though we were debating whether porn causes more pain than pleasure, the argument degenerated into a censorship debate on which I found myself unwittingly arguing on the ultra-conservative side accused by the opposition of wanting to ban all pornography (though we never suggested that as a solution).

At the age of 22, I felt upset at how distant I was from kids who are only a couple of years younger than myself. The event took me back to a time when I was like some of the people in the audience, desperately trying to fit in with a crowd so at odds with my own world-view. It reminded me of the rape jokes told by acquaintances, the 1-10 ratings the boys gave the girls on my course and nights where my friends and I would participate in heavy drinking games, just to show the boys we could. I was sad to see that things haven’t changed and, though I have moved on, the university culture may have even regressed.

It’s sometimes easy as a feminist moving in liberal circles to forget what we’re fighting for. However, I can personally recommend that an hour at a fresher’s week debate will successfully serve as a swift and lasting reminder; not for the faint of heart!

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