My blood runs cold, my memory has just been sold… On Ormond College’s porn ban

Although I’m on the ‘Boo! Porn bad! Let’s all be repressed!’ side of the argument, this week’s discussion about Ormond College’s ban on pornography was surprisingly shallow.  From op-eds that handwaved the idea of ‘freedom’, to Internet lawyers coming up with baffling arguments about how the NSW Residential Tenancy Act applied to a Victorian university’s student accommodation, nobody really engaged with the spectrum of ideas at play.  I wondered if it’s because we’re still uncomfortable as a society to discuss sexuality beyond platitudes: liberals must say liberal things and anti-liberals must say anti-liberal things, and the fact that this says something about sexuality is immaterial.

The best thing about the Ormond College porn situation is that there’s no clean answer to the problem, but a host of smaller questions that invite serious intellectual engagement to test our personal intuitions.

Back when it was established, the University of Melbourne was forbidden to have religious associations.  It was to be a secular place of learning, teaching the up-and-coming middle classes how to pursue educated careers.  The major churches, always eager to maintain their links to universities, established residential colleges for students.  Ormond College is one of these, established as the Presbyterian college.  Although the colleges no longer impose particular religious requirements, the religious history informed the development of their values and ethos.  Ormond, in particular, focuses on values-driven ethos rather than rules-driven.

This background sets the framework for the discussion that arose this week.  Ormond College provides cheap internet ($200 a semester) to the students in residence.  This week, it imposed restrictions on the use of that internet: no more access to pornography.

The internet’s reaction was fairly predictable.  In Twitter’s anarchic, Wild West variant of liberalism, any restriction on the use of internet is antithetical to progress.  Porn was identical to every other piece of ‘information’ on the Internet, and should be easily and freely accessible to everybody with a connection.  ‘Freedom’ of speech and whatnot demanded that all 1s and 0s should flow free, regardless of what those 1s and 0s mean.

And then various paid hot-takers delivered steaming hot takes.  What about the ‘freedom’ from pornography, asked one very confusing article.  Why do young people think they have a right to private internet connections when they’re in public residential colleges, asked another asinine article.  Will the title of this half-cooked take be inflammatory enough to drive clicks, asked another.

We can do better.

Take the extreme reductionist view.  A consumer buys a service from a vendor; what role does the vendor’s morality influence the transaction?  We’ve seen bizarre versions of this play out in the marriage equality debate: should the suppliers of wedding cakes be permitted to deny service to homosexual couples on moral ground?  Intuitively, the answer is no.  The individual’s choice has to be trumped by our social need to promote nondiscrimination.

We might think differently under other circumstances.  If I run a conference venue, can I refuse service to neo-Nazis?  KKK?  The Australian Christian Lobby?  Why should I be compelled to enter into commercial arrangements with hate groups?

Consider another scenario: I have an effective monopoly on supermarkets in a remote town and I have a moral objection to pornography.  Should I be compelled to stock it?

Our intuitions vary depending on how we characterise the relationship between the student and the college.  Should the college be compelled to provide a service to which it has a moral objection?  When we were talking about wedding cakes for homosexual couples, we felt there was some overriding social concern that trumped the individual’s choice.  When we were talking about the monopoly supermarket in the remote town or providing a service that would be used to thwart my moral views, things became less clear.

This gets us into the serious conversation about pornography.  Does providing access to it break down taboos about sexuality, challenging prudish, conservative norms about sex?  Or does it reinforce existing social norms about women, promoting misogynistic, conservative norms about sex?

We don’t have a healthy dialogue about pornography.  Even the basics question — what is pornography? — relies on intuitions that are socially influenced.  Is there a gap between pornography and erotica?  Is there a gap between pornography and nudity?  Is the use of real people important, or do non-photographic pictures, written words, and robots change our intuitions about pornography?  What about non-erotic pictures of naked children, like those of Anne Geddes?  On this last point, do some of our social conventions about pornography influence the way we discuss non-erotic pictures?  Would the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind be made today?

Academic discourse on the subject isn’t translating into public discussion for a few reasons.  First, it’s difficult.  Second, it’s not fun.  The conversation directly tackles commonly held intuitions about liberty and freedom, and there’s no market in our individual-centric society for voices who want to say: ‘Your individual fun is irrelevant in this discussion.’

And yet it’s directly this conversation which is needed to untangle more of the Ormond College issue.  Is it patriarchal fuddy-duddyism which wants to regulate the expression of sexuality, or is it about creating a safe, inclusive environment in a place that, until very recently, was a male-only space?

It should worry us that the two protagonists of the Ormond College pornography discussion was a male Master of Ormond, Dr Rufus Black (who is a theologian, ethicist, and lawyer), and a male first-year law student in residence, Mr Thibaut Clamart.  It was a battle devoid of female voices and yet, at least in this instance, the core question was the safety of female students.  Is this something that the female students of Ormond College wanted or was it imposed on them to protect them?  Better yet, what are the range of female voices in Ormond College and what is informing those views?  Finally, if the collective view of the female students is that they want a porn-free environment, how do we balance that against liberal intuitions about the autonomy of the individual?

Personally (as a straight, white, conservative male), I feel that there’s something a bit fake about the media presentation of the discussion.  Ormond College has a no pets policy, for example, and yet nobody’s losing their shit about the individual right to own pets.  It also has no smoking policies, but only the wingnut libertarians seem to care about that one.  When it came to pornography, the ‘Boohoo!  What I do in my private time!’ whinge erupted over everything.  Ormond College appears fine to regulate everything else except internet pornography, because ‘privacy’ and ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ are words that people know.

The problem is clearly that liberalism has white washed itself into the discourse and now we can’t discuss anything without loud people angrily shouting liberal slogans.  The media’s false balance syndrome means that the ‘debate’ boils down to soundbites from people who disagree: anti-fun prudes who hold the radical view that pornography depicts unhealthy attitudes towards women, and pro-sex fluff bunnies who hold the radical view that restricting pornography reinforces unhealthy attitudes towards sexuality.  Burn it all down.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s