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Pornography: The harm of discrimination

By Helen Pringle - posted Monday, 10 October 2011

Women opposed to the pornography industry are often asked whether there is any evidence for the harm of pornography. I usually reply by asking what sort of evidence they are looking for from me, and the usual response is that they want to see evidence that men who ‘watch’ pornography will at some point after that commit sexual assault.

One of the most bizarre things about such a response is that it misrepresents what people do with pornography, in using it. People don’t simply ‘watch’ or ‘see’ pornography. A very common use of pornography is as sexual discrimination, itself a well-recognised form of harm in our society. And the evidence of pornography’s harm in this respect stares us in the face as we go about our everyday lives. Take your car to be serviced at a garage. Ask a lifesaver for his help in the clubroom. Call in at a fire station. Check out an army camp’s walls. Accompany Tony Abbott on a visit to the factory at Digga Manufacturing. Now ask me again about evidence of harm.

The walls of the garage, the clubroom, the fire station, the camp or the Digga factory form ‘an environment which itself amounts to sexual discrimination’. That phrase comes from a decision of the Equal Opportunity Tribunal of Western Australia on 21 April 1994.


The 1994 case was brought by Heather Horne and Gail McIntosh, who complained of sexual discrimination in employment, and victimisation contrary to the WA Equal Opportunity Act. In its decision, the Tribunal noted, ‘It is now well established that one of the conditions of employment is quiet enjoyment of it.  That concept includes not only freedom from physical intrusion or from being harassed, physically molested or approached in an unwelcome manner, but extends to not having to work in an unsought sexually permeated work environment.  An employer who requires an employee to work in such an environment is subjecting the employee to a detriment and may be held to be unlawfully discriminating against that employee.’

The Tribunal held that ‘quiet enjoyment of employment’ includes freedom from discrimination, which would require an employer to ensure a workplace free from the display of ‘sexually explicit or implicit cartoons…photographs of naked men or women, and publications featuring such photographs or containing other lewd or sexually suggestive printed material’.

That is, the display of the calendar at Digga Manufacturing is prima facie a sign of unlawful discrimination in that factory. And it is evidence of the harm of pornography as discrimination.

In the WA case, Heather Horne and Gail McIntosh had taken jobs in a heavily male-dominated workplace. Their duties included cleaning the amenities and crib rooms of the workers. When they complained to their union and to the company about the pornographic ‘wallpaper’ in the amenities, men in the workplace escalated the displays. For example, a poster of a man and a woman having anal sex, which was the property of a union shop steward, appeared on a crib room wall. The women found about a dozen posters on one wall, including a statue of a panther performing cunnilingus on a woman, two women having sex, and a woman placing a banana in her anus. One full-length nude poster, of the soft porn variety, had been used for dart practice, and it had also been violently stabbed through the heart, head and genitals. 

Heather and Gail found these posters not merely offensive but threatening and degrading, that is, as discriminatory intimidation. They were called troublemakers, and were subjected to other forms of harassment and ridicule, including obscene graffiti about them in the toilets. When they complained, Heather and Gail were told that they were prudes and wowsers. Union officials and workers told them ‘that it was a male workplace, the Complainants had no right to bring a women’s perspective into it, they were lucky to have jobs and if they wanted to work in a male environment they would just have to “cop it”.’ At a Christmas party, they were attacked with high-pressure hoses, like the marchers for the vote in Selma, or the demonstrators for democracy on the bridges of Cairo.

Heather and Gail saw the use of pornography in their workplace as a threat to their dignity and to their standing as equals in the workplace. They described the effect of the use of pornography as ‘Degrading; we felt total lack of respect; we felt threatened; we felt that these people didn’t consider you as a part of their workforce – you were treated as someone totally different. You were alienated from them and it made me want to be sick; fear, because every time one went up it was an attack on me, a personal attack.’


Heather and Gail’s story of the harm of pornography is not an isolated one. Many women wrote letters to them after the case telling similar stories from other Australian workplaces, and other successful cases were brought, such as at Mt Isa Mines by Narelle Hopper. Heather and Gail’s courage and strength deserve to be remembered as a landmark of women’s struggles for equality in Australia.

And the next time someone asks you for evidence of the harm of pornography, you can tell this story. For starters.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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