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Is there a difference between good pornography and bad pornography?

By Alan McKee - posted Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Is there a difference between good pornography and bad pornography? You wouldn’t think so to listen to Gail Dines. Gail is an anti-pornography activist who has been touring Australia promoting her latest book Pornland: how porn has hijacked our sexuality. You may have seen her recently, in the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald. Or heard her on one of her many radio appearances. Or seen her on Q and A. Her message is proving irresistible to media outlets. And it is a simple one. All pornography is bad. All pornography is equally bad.

In her Sydney Morning Herald article on ‘How the hardcore porn industry is ruining young men’s lives’ Dines starts by talking about This is a progressive Australian porn site. The models on the site get to choose what they want to do and how they want to do it. They are filmed by entirely female crews. None of the models have had breast enhancement surgery. Most of the images on the site are of solo women masturbating, or pairs of women making love. In the few images of heterosexual sex, only real couples appear. The women who have appeared on the site describe it as a positive experience for them. And the industry appreciates that the site is doing something genuinely different – it won the 2008 Adult Video News award for Best Amateur series.

But for Gail Dines, this doesn’t ‘look much different from the industry norm’. It is just another example, she says, of pornography which is full of ‘fear, disgust, anger, loathing and contempt’, in which men ‘make hate’ to women.


In our 2008 study The Porn Report, Kath Albury, Catharine Lumby and myself wrote a ‘Manifesto for Ethical Porn’. We called for sex education for young people to teach them how to make sense of sex-related media and ensure that nobody misunderstands pornography as a straightforward ‘how to’ guide. We pointed out the need for ethical marketing and distribution, asking for fair descriptions of porn in publicity materials. We called for regulation so that no-one is exposed to pornography against their will. And we called attention to the need for ethical production practices:

We absolutely believe that porn should only be performed and viewed by consenting adults who are above the age of consent…We support porn production that emphasizes and promotes pleasure and consent. We condemn porn production that emphasizes and promotes sexual manipulation, coercion or forced sex

The consumers of pornography see the difference. When we surveyed over 1000 of them for our study and asked them what makes for good pornography the top three answers were attractive performers, enthusiasm in sex scenes and real-looking bodies. Enthusiasm in sex scenes, as respondents put it, meant models who were ‘enjoying themselves’, who ‘genuinely want to be there’.

But Gail Dines doesn’t see the difference. When she looks at images of sex – any image of sex, no matter how consensual, no matter how centred on women’s pleasure - all she sees is violence. Male violence against women. I don’t know what has happened to Gail to bring her to this point in her life. She is clearly driven by deeply held, passionate responses to sex. That’s completely understandable. But Gail doesn’t just want understanding and support. She wants all pornography banned. And here is the problem. Her personal pain is real and must be respected. But it isn’t a strong position from which to make decisions about public policy. When we hear someone in the media telling us about the pain that they feel when they think about sex our response should be, of course, understanding. We should offer all the support that we can. But the correct response is not to say ‘How would you like public policy changed so that you feel better?’.

There is a difference between and ‘hate’ pornography. This is clear to the models involved. It’s clear to consumers. It’s clear to the industry. The only person it isn’t clear to is Gail Dines. That is heartbreaking for Gail. But it isn’t a useful guideline from which to think about Australian government policy. 

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About the Author

Dr Alan McKee is Chief Investigator of the 'Understanding pornography in Australia' research project and Consulting Editor of Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies. He is based at Queensland University of Technology.

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