Much has been said about the most recent round of internet blockings and arrests which, as ever, have been passed under the flag of “sweeping away the yellow”, i.e., eliminating pornography. This campaign, as with those that came before it, has been waged haphazardly, and the general focus of the Western media and the Chinese internet has been the completely legitimate, non-pornographic sites that have been caught in the crossfire. Certainly, many of these blockings appear to have a political bent. But there’s another question that no one has been asking about the pornography crackdown in China: what’s so bad about pornography in the first place?
China followers will have noticed that in the past few years, the number of celebrity sex videos (and amateur sex videos) that make their way around the internet seems to be increasing. Certainly, the past week has seen an explosion of such videos, with “Shoushou-Gate”, “Zhang Yaru-Gate”, and “ICBC Girl-Gate” all exploding onto the scene. All three are amateur sex videos, and all three are making the rounds rapidly even as professional websites are forced to close. Needless to say, some of these videos — such as Zhang Yaru-Gate — appear to be shrewd self-promotion, but others — such as Shoushou-Gate — appear to be cases of revenge that effectively prey on the Chinese internet’s appetite for sexy scandals. And the ICBC girl video is an even more unfortunate case; a regular person whose life may be essentially destroyed because of her boyfriend’s carelessness, a stranger’s callousness, and the Chinese internet’s unending thirst for — let’s call a spade a spade here — pornography.
Apparently, the ICBC girl’s video found its way to the internet only when her lover lost his cell phone, and its finder — clearly, a scrupulous sort of man — found the video and kindly uploaded it to the internet. Thanks to the Chinese internet’s famed “human flesh search engine”, netizens tracked down the woman’s name almost immediately. Obviously, this will be a stain on her — but thanks to sexism, not his — reputation forever. But could this sort of thing be avoided?
It could, and easily. While celebrity videos are always going to be popular — sorry Shoushou — amateur sex videos rarely, if ever, take the internet by storm in the US the way they do in China. Certainly, there is plenty of amateur sex to be seen online if one so chooses, and that is probably exactly why amateur sex videos don’t spread like wildfire — there existence in and of itself is not interesting or newsworthy. Certainly, people enjoy viewing them, but no one bothers to track down the participants’ names.
And what does China stand to lose, really, from legalizing pornography? The buzzword, as always, is “harmony” — pornography detracts from a harmonious society. But how harmonious is a society that feels the need to track down and identify by name and address every woman whose flesh, through her own mistakes or others’, graces the internet? And how much damage can pornography really do?
Fundamentally, pornography’s supposed sin is that it objectifies women, and increases the likelihood of men who watch it to treat women like objects in real life — that is, to rape or otherwise abuse them. Both claims are difficult to verify — conflicting studies exist, as they do for every controversial issue — so what follows is my own personal assessment, based on the available scientific data, and a fair helping of common sense.
That some pornography — probably most pornography — objectifies women is undeniable. But so do car advertisements, soda commercials and the amateur sex videos that are dominating Chinese message boards right now. Porn, like soda commercials, doesn’t objectify women by definition, though. There is plenty of pornography that puts women on equal footing with men and, of course, a fair amount of pornography that puts women above men. Still, laboratory studies like that conducted by McKenzie, M. et al in 19901 have indicated that after watching pornography, men are more likely to focused on women’s sexual characteristics, and more likely to exhibit sexual goals in conversations immediately following the viewing of pornography. Common sense, though, reminds us that showing pornography and then being surprised that men are interested in sex afterwards is a bit like being surprised that a hungry person would want to eat a hamburger after watching a McDonald’s commercial.
China, of course, already has issues with sexism, and the government is understandably hesitant to legalize something that might increase sexist attitudes among the general populace. Yet China is not a sexless society, and the objectification of women happens on billboards nationwide, just as it does in the United States. What separates pornography from regular old sexiness is, perhaps, its correlation to real-life violence against women.
Except, of course, that there doesn’t seem to be any such correlation. While various “family” related think tanks have made findings that connect pornography to real-life violence, independent laboratory studies have shown that even violent pornography has no real effect on men’s actual behavior. One 1986 study found that “exposure to the violent or nonviolent pornographic stimuli did not affect […] aggression,” and a 1996 study found that “exposure to violent pornography, even after provocation, produced essentially no antiwoman aggression, fantasies, or attitudes.”2 Some studies have even shown that porn can be good for you, and that many people feel it helps in their marriages or with their self-image.
There are, of course, studies that contradict these findings. But a true causal relationship between pornography and violence is difficult to support even on a large scale. According to the ACLU:
…a causal relationship [between pornography and sexism or violence] has never been established. The National Research Council’s Panel on Understanding and Preventing Violence concluded, in a 1993 survey of laboratory studies, that “demonstrated empirical links between pornography and sex crimes in general are weak or absent.”
Correlational studies are similarly inconclusive, revealing no consistent correlations between the availability of pornography in various communities or countries and sexual offense rates. If anything, studies suggest that a greater availability of pornography seems to correlate with higher indices of sexual equality. Women in Sweden, with its highly permissive attitudes toward sexual expression, are much safer and have more civil rights than women in Singapore, where restrictions on pornography are very tight.
So, back in China, is there any real reason that pornography is banned? If there is no correlation between legalized pornography and sexism or sex crimes, then there’s little likelihood of pornography seriously effecting China’s “harmonious society”. Furthermore, a legal domestic pornographic industry would provide massive economic benefits. Pornography is a multibillion dollar industry in the US and has the potential to make even more money in China’s massive marketplace, which already boasts more internet users than the US has people. Legal pornography would likely also cut down on the number of amateur sex scandals that rocked the internet, as netizens became used to the one-time novelty of seeing real Chinese people naked. Quite frankly, it could also serve as a form of sex education in a nation that still lags behind much of the Western world. And the Chinese government is certainly capable of regulating what can or cannot be shown in pornographic films to prevent films that do promote negative attitudes towards women from being legally disseminated.
What, one wonders, does the Chinese government gain from banning pornography? Certainly, many Chinese share a belief that pornography is bad, but if there’s science to prove that pornography doesn’t really have a negative affect on society, then wouldn’t it be relatively easy for the government to overcome these stereotypes with a few PSAs and, perhaps, some tactful propaganda banners? And don’t the potential benefits (discussed in the paragraph above) seem to outweigh the risks?
If nothing else, a domestically-regulated porn industry would free many Chinese from the horrors of having to watch pornography imported from — gulp — Japan. But what do you think?