This is not just a porn problem

… by Ruth Limkin

Published on 23 April 2010 by Sydney Morning Herald / National Times

We have a problem – and it’s much bigger than whether soft-porn magazines should be removed from convenience stores. For while this has been an issue raised in the past few weeks, with child experts calling for restrictions on the display and sale of such material, it is only a shadow of a much bigger, and more complex issue.

Australian media recently reported on a letter, signed by those such as Alastair Nicholson, former chief justice of the Family Court; Tim Costello, of World Vision; and more than 30 interested parties, including academics, advocates and child health professionals. It was sent to the standing committee of attorneys-general/censorship ministers and requested that outlets such as newsagents, convenience stores and supermarkets no longer be allowed to sell magazines such asPlayboy and Penthouse. It asked that instead, their sale be restricted to adults-only premises.

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, the signatories are “particularly disturbed by the prevalence of ‘teen sex’ magazines featuring women styled with braces and pigtails but in highly sexualised poses and sometimes performing sex acts”. Their concerns related to the sexualisation of children that such images contribute to, particularly when freely displayed in current outlets.

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Without wishing, in any way, to minimise the significant issue they have raised, it could be suggested that this issue is a symptom, and there will be no end to symptoms like these while the cause remains undetected, or at least unwilling to be discussed.

Issues such as these are seemingly becoming more prevalent, and more contentious, and while the answers are far from simple, we can be aware of some contributory issues that can help frame our conversation.

We live in a free society but one that is increasingly fragmented. Our isolation from one another manifests in more ways than simply being less likely to speak to (or know) our neighbours than what occurred in our parent’s day. We are increasingly likely to marry later, or not at all, and single dwelling households are more prevalent than ever. Social exclusion is rife. Dr Jonathon Welch, AM, who has worked with charities and community organisations for more than three decades, has suggested that isolation and loneliness are the biggest challenges we face in the 21st century.

Herein lies a challenge, for such dislocation from community can blind us to the fact that we are all inextricably linked, and our behaviours affect one another, either at a personal level, or at the level of creating the social environment we all share. We seem either unaware, or unwilling, to acknowledge that our actions affect more than just ourselves and such a stance hampers conversations about social issues.

When the mention of restricted access has us rushing to defend our delectations, perhaps its time to have an honest, even if uncomfortable, conversation about the true cost of consumption.

There’s often a fierce reaction when a suggestion is made about curtailing or moderating the content in video games or on television. We demand our freedom, decry the authoritarian nature of “big brother” or the “nanny state” and bemoan an Orwellian future. At the extreme end of this conversation, we hear rhetoric we would be reluctant to endorse, yet find it difficult to respond to, without being accused of harbouring draconian, prudish ideas.

Yet concurrent to such conversations, we collectively wring our hands in despair when we read of young people acting out with violent or sexual behaviour in the school playground. The most recently reported incident, where it is alleged that a 14-year-old girl and a slightly older boy were filmed having sex in a school gym, with “half the school” seeing the video on mobile phones, is a stark reminder of what’s at stake. For a start, it is expected that five students will be charged with making child pornography. These are not behaviours without consequence.

Herein lies our difficulty. On one side of the issue, we are expressing a desire for personal autonomy to view or consume whatever material we desire. Yet on the other side, we are being reminded that our personal autonomy has sometimes unintended influence and consequences for others.

Admitting the interdependent nature of community is confronting when we are so often focused on ourselves. However, while such an admission begins another conversation, such as how we decide behavioural parameters and social boundaries, the complexity of charting the way forward shouldn’t discourage us from acknowledging our need to do so.

Until we are willing to address the underlying cause of so much of our social schism, we will remain in a holding pattern of claim and counter-claim, staking out mutually exclusive positions. Without a shared understanding of the underlying causes of conflict, we will struggle to even begin a discussion. Surely, we can do better than that.

ruth@ruthlimkin.com