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Tuesday, 14 May, 2002, 15:13 GMT 16:13 UK
Is porn good for society?
Labour, the UK's governing party, is being partly funded by a porn magnate. The revelation has outraged many, but MP and feminist Glenda Jackson sees no reason to object.

He's the publisher behind some of Britain's best selling top shelf titles, including Forty and Over, All Girl Action and Horny Housewives, and he's also a generous Labour Party donor.

News that millionaire tycoon Richard Desmond, who is also chief executive of Express Newspapers, donated 100,000 to the party has provoked a chorus of protest from many of its supporters.

Richard Desmond
Richard Desmond showing off his assets
Labour MP Alice Mahon when she said: "What Richard Desmond does is exploit women and that's not what the Labour Party is about."

But her colleague Glenda Jackson, a feminist, believes his money is as good since porn provides a useful service.

"If people need this kind of product surely it's better that it's available to them rather than they have to exercise their desires in a criminal way."

Can of worms

And with that defence she re-opened an age-old can of worms.

Glenda Jackson
Glenda Jackson says porn is necessary
In the eyes of Ms Jackson, porn is a morally defensible industry since it helps stop men raping women (and therefore taking money from the porn industry is OK).

There has certainly never been a more sympathetic climate for Ms Jackson's argument. Porn seems to be more widely acceptable than ever.

Thanks to video and the internet, the porn industry in the US is estimated to be worth $10bn a year. Porn revenues are bigger than Hollywood's domestic box-office receipts.

Objectifies women

In the UK, hardcore pornography can be bought legally on video, following a landmark ruling by film censors in 2000. At around the same time, extensive consultation by the British Board of Film Classification found the vast majority thought adults have the right to see explicit sex if they wish to.

The only thing pornography is known to cause is the solitary act of masturbation

Gore Vidal
Yet anti-porn campaigners have lost none of their zeal. Porn, they say, exploits and degrades women. Women in porn are portrayed as objects rather then people with feelings and opinions of their own.

"Each inch of nakedness is an inch of worthlessness and lack of social protection," says feminist anti-porn campaigner Andrea Dworkin.

Rather than protect women, as Glenda Jackson believes, porn incites men to commit violent sexual acts. As activist Robin Morgan famously proclaimed: "Pornography is the theory and rape is the practice."

Catharsis theory

The theory that "porn = rape" was dismissed in the US by the presidential Johnson Committee report in 1970. But 16 years later, the Reagan-appointed Meese Commission found "substantial exposure to sexually violent materials... bears a causal relationship to antisocial acts of sexual violence".

Playboy's Hugh Hefner
Good for profits: Playboy's Hugh Hefner
Ms Jackson's view that porn is good for society is more than just hunch. In academic circles her theory is known as "catharsis".

Its supporters point to places such as Scandinavia and Japan, where liberal attitudes to pornography go hand in hand with low rates of sexual crime against women.

The "Danish experience" is often held up as good example.

In 1969 Denmark lifted all restrictions on pornography, and sex crimes declined. For example, between 1965 and 1982 sex crimes against children went from 30 per 100,000 to about 5 per 100,000. Similar evidence was found for rape rates.

Cinema first

Anti-porn activists say the true picture is more complicated and other factors are at force in those countries. So it seems the "porn is good/porn is bad" argument is as far as ever from being resolved.

Porn actress Linda
"Everytime someone sees [Deep Throat] they're watching me being raped"
But for the moment at least, the liberalisation lobby seems to be having its way. Last year censors in the UK gave the green light to a film called "Intimacy" which meant, for the first time in British cinemas, real sex could be seen on screen.

And women themselves are starting to take the reins in the sex industry, lending it an air of much needed respectability with new style sex shops such as Ann Summers, Myla and Coco de Mer.

By comparison, titles such as Richard Desmond's Horny Housewives and All Girl Action do sound somewhat dated and seedy.

Some of your comments on this story:

I personally have nothing against people wishing to see pornography. I don't believe it degrades women - the women who appear in such videos/magazines are there because they want to be, and most are paid. If you, personally, find pornography to be degrading, you don't have to view it, but don't let your views stop others.

The hypocracy of Blair's government is staggering. How can Labour claim to be a party that supports equal rights, when it takes donations from a known pornographer ? It is widely known that porn workers have one of the highest suicide rates, and are more likely to become drug addicts. Porn degrades all participants, including the viewer. But as we have seen with Channel 5, this government is prepared to sink to any depths to be seen as 'popular'.
Mike, England

I think that this argument is all but irrelevant - the internet is by far the most popular way to access pornography.
Anonymous, UK

More often that not the objections to porn is that it "exploits women". What about men? The gay pornography business is massive, are these men also being exploited?
Mathew O'Marah, Slough, UK

See also:

13 May 02 | UK Politics
Media attacked over Desmond donation
12 May 02 | UK Politics
Labour defends Desmond donation
13 May 02 | UK Politics
A question of morals
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