The Great Internet Porn Debate

There’s an interesting conversation going on at WordPress, the hosting site for many of our blogs. It’s a conversation about how to handle porn blogs.

Here’s a little bit of background: As some of you might know, a few months ago, I volunteered to write a weekly post on a site called Best Blog, which is dedicated to promoting the diversity of writing on WordPress. It’s run by a courteous, thoughtful man named Ken. The reason he sought out volunteers to help with his site is because he lives in China and the Chinese government blocks access to WordPress. There are ways to get through the “great firewall” but they’re not perfect and they don’t always work. Hence, the delegation of this fun job to volunteers, of whom I am the newest. This blog is on the WordPress front page along with a few other links that direct people to sites that might interest them. Its audience is wide and broad: pretty much anybody with a WordPress blog might stumble into it at one time or another.

Which brings me to porn. A few days ago, someone brought up on the WordPress comments board the issue of what to do about the many sites on WordPress that contain “adult content.” This writer was offended by these sites — as I am. I hate clicking on the next blog button and hoping I’ll see something interesting and then seeing instead someone’s breasts. Another writer suggested that maybe the links on the wordpress front page, the ones that catalog blogs, including the most hit on blogs and posts, and Ken’s Best Blog effort, be shut down because they link to porn. Thinking that maybe Ken’s Best Blog might have mistakenly offended someone in that comment forum, I went over and checked it out. (Turns out, the woman who began this discussion was concerned about the automatic listing of “top blogs” and “top posts” which is not a subjective listing, but just a tally of the number of hits a site receives. She didn’t care in the least about Best Blog; but it did offend her greatly to keep seeing porn sites and posts listed as “top ten” most beloved blogs or posts — something that bugs me too. If you’d like to see what she has to say about this issue, it can be found here.)

My answer is at the end of the link. It’s kind of rambling. I hadn’t really thought it through. But this is the executive summary, Dear Reader: I don’t like porn. But I like speech, and craziness and experimentation. And I don’t think private parties, like the great people at WordPress who just want to write code and think up cool new widgets, should have to go into the business of spotting adult sites and tagging them with a warning label. We’re adults. If we don’t like something, we’re capable of clicking right on by. And when private entities, who are unsupervised, get into the business of censorship they make regrettable mistakes. And those mistakes can’t be rectified. At least when the government tries to censor someone, they can be sued and a first amendment loving judge (there are still quite a few of those in America) will make them stop because this debate has pretty much been resolved in America: the answer to offensive speech is more speech not less.

Still, I don’t like porn and I wish it didn’t exist. I also wish loud shouting about politics didn’t exist. I wish kids didn’t eat lunchables and Big Macs. I wish there weren’t violent video games. I wish people praised each other rather than condemned.

Tell me, if you have a moment, what you think about tagging sites for adult content. And tell me what you wish didn’t have a place in our world and what you wish there was more of. It’s a meme of sorts. Or a meta something.

Best, BL

(Oh, and P.S. I forgot to mention, because it hardly needs to be said, but all discussions here obviously have to be civil. One of the most basic rules of effective advocacy, not to mention one of the best ways to proceed in life, is to be civil to those with whom you disagree. For that reason, ad hominum attacks and accusations are just not a good idea and I’ll delete them when they show up. If you want to convince someone to respect your position, you have to behave in a way that will encourage people to respect you.  If you’re not nice, people won’t respect you and there’s a good chance they’ll write off your opinion.  And for all readers who’d rather talk about books and food and stationery items, the channel on this blog has been re-set to exactly that.)

18 thoughts on “The Great Internet Porn Debate

  1. No. Inviting a tool of censorship, especially into the internet landscape, is dangerous. I don’t look at porn but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think my neighbor shouldn’t. As long as nobody is being hurt (of course, that is debatable and worthy of an entirely different thread) it’s none of my business.
    It’s a gradual breakdown. You give them tagging and all of a sudden, I can’t use an occasional profanity in my writing to express an emotion I’m feeling or my character is feeling. I’m an adult, I know what is good for ME, and I don’t need anyone else filtering that for my sake.

  2. I think you’re right Jessica to identify two issues: one is a very complex question about what pornography is and what harm it does. The second is the question of filtering and censoring material on the internet. There is obviously overlap (for one thing, if something on the internet is outright harmful — child porn comes to mind — then I’m fine with those people being prosecuted for what they’re doing.) Anyway, I don’t want to spend my time thinking about the first issue, because I’ve got a life to run. As for the second, well, you know how I feel about it.

  3. I think that any time you label the “witches” of our society, there is likely going to be a bonfire. That goes along with the porn.

    I am not the greatest person in the world. But I will say that any time a site or a magazine or a video or any kind of media undergoes a scrutiny period, it infringes upon all of our first amendment rights. Again, assuming that the players are not willful participants (regardless of the truth of the matter — we can endlessly debate about blame and permission and manipulation, but that has no place here). Assuming that all viewers are willing, and all participants are subjectively willing — the idea of categorizing a site as worthy or not is beyond the pale, as far as I am concerned…

    On the flip side, it is perfectly legit to warn perspective viewers of the subject matter so they can make an educated choice about whether or not to view the said subject matter. THAT is okay — the denial of presenting such material is not. At least, until our country changes its constitution.

    Thanks for the thoughtful and engaging conversation. A far cry from what I just left behind….

  4. I won’t even ask where you’ve been, Mick. I’m just glad you stopped by. Earlier today it occurred to me that this issue, like so many others, is much easier to figure out when people are interested in it but not implicated by it and when they listen to each other more than they talk. There’s a lot of shouting out there these days about a lot of things, both on the left and the right and honestly it just makes me want to eat a lot of cookies and go to sleep.

  5. BL,

    I read the forum. Nice job. You should be a lawyer.

    I agree with you, WP needs to be the wild and wooly incubator that it is.

    However, I hate being blindsided. And as a parent, I hate it even more. I remember watching the Little League world series with my nine year old son. It was a Saturday afternoon on the hallowed FOX network. Commercial break I turn to get us a beverage and when I return there is a trailer for Howard Sterns’Private Parts complete with a naked woman jumping about (breasts partially blocked by “electical tape” editing) and deep throating a large sausage (again electical tape edited). This was Saturday afternoon – LL World Series – twelve and under. Did my email to FOX change their behavior? There are many parents like me who feel powerless no matter how much we speak up. Sex translates nicely at the bottom line and that is that.

    Regarding parental supervision. I feel sorry for those parents who can’t always be around due to their work hours. I feel sorry for the kids whose parents don’t care.

    I sometimes think there ought to be some kind of “red light district” to keep adult and children’s content separate. Don’t go in the street honey there are cars in it. Don’t go over there honey, it is not for children. We have lost the ability to give children succinct descriptions of what to avoid. The cars are driving up on our lawns and onto the playgrounds.

    Admittedly, what is adult vs young adult vs children content is fuzzy. It is made fuzzier every day by the likes of Hollywood which insists on making movies marketed to children which are PG.

    Sex inately gains our attention. We are hard wired that way. My biggest day at QAZSE was when I ran a 6/6/6 joke and entitled it “sex sex sex”. I still get hits on it. In a way it is somewhat comical and cute.

    But as “timethief” so passionately pointed out there is a massive underbelly of abuse and exploitation. On a slightly lighter note :when debating public education and its mediocricies one often hears “well if everyone is a star – who is going to collect the garbage?”. Now it can be argued, “well who is going to perform pornography?”

    In my heart of hearts I say do what you like but don’t besmirch the sensibilities of the community spaces and children’s spaces. I believe private enterprises could be persuaded to be more judicious if there were a way to enter into dialogue with them. I own the name ChildSafeWorld.com and had hoped to create a site which would provide a conduit between parents and corporations/media. Make it easy for a parent to address their concerns. “Well that would be censorship Herb.” No, it is dialogue. Right now the only thing being listened to is the bottom line. I don’t care what you do but don’t screw with childhood. For example have the “family friendly” time on network tv actually be family friendly. If you market films to little children, make them PG. Common sense. Voluntary.

    I think children ought to be free to be children. It is a wild and wooly time of incubation and exploration.

    PS: We watch little tv at home. Sometimes the tv is off for weeks at a time. Not out of fear, but rather, out of disinterest.

    PPS what is it when people want to see no firewalls but also no spam. To me it is the same as being anti abortion rights but pro capital punishment.

    PPPS Maybe we don’t know right from wrong anymore. How many people graduate each year into the world who have never taken an ethics course? Does anyone teach citizenship anymore?

    Thanks for the opportunity to ramble around ranting.

  6. First of all I think pornophobia is a bit of an adult thing. Most children aren’t in the least bit interested in porn, they’d close the window, maybe they’d have a good laugh first about the silly things adults do. There are a lot more dangerous things online, like many political or religious sites. And how about news sites? I’d rather have children look at pictures of naked people having sex than at pictures of slaughtered and maimed people, or of people slaughtering or maining other people. But then again, I’m a godless and immoral European, who still thinks sex is good and violence is bad.

    More to the point, the internet is full of stuff. Some of it you like, some of it you don’t. Clicking through the net you will come upon lots of pages in both categories. It is impossible to tag and label every page on the internet so that you can filter the net to your wishes. If only because people would soon start to mis-tag pages to lure you into their deprived sites. The best way might be educating your children about sex before the internet does that for you.

  7. qazse – BL actually is a lawyer. :) We have two of them in our family, along with three programmers. What a combination.

    As far as this issue goes, I’ve not made up my mind. My kids are all grown and long gone. My granddaughter is figuring out how to use Google and has her own site. But her internet time is very limited. Her parents don’t allow her to use their computers. She has her own at our house.

    So BL, do you have some sort of child safe software installed for the boys?

  8. I am the childsafe software, Sue! (And I’m pretty sure Q knows all about my, um, profession. I suspect he might have been teasing, although who knows about Q??)

    Q, That’s a wonderful description and discussion of all that seems out of control in the world we’re offering our children. And Edwin, I think your European perspective is quite sane. It’s been my experience that before children are teenagers they take their cues from you about things like sexually exploitive images — and as Qazse points out, they’re everywhere, not just on porn web sites. And so I tell my children what I don’t like and why — that sexualized images of women are bad for both men and women because they don’t allow people to be themselves.

    And now?  I’m going back to books, food and the things that give pleasure.

  9. Like most issues, there are valid views on both sides. There is a crude joke that brings one point to mind–Two women are sitting in a movie theater and one turns to the other and exclaims–the man next to me is beating off. Her friend replies–Let’s get up and move. The other says–I can’t –he’s using my hand.
    Freedom of speach often requires turning a blind eye or deaf ear to what we find offensive. If your child can find this rare but somewhat off the beaten track site, I would submitt to you that he or she can more readily find more graphic pornographic sites. It has been my experience that lack of interest in a posting discourages future postings. I will fight my urge to go and find the offensive posting…and keep my hand out of the mess.

  10. Hey Sis–sorry about the ramble….was on the phone yelling at a client while I was typing….hard to multi-task for us southern lawyers.
    “We be educated–just a little slow at times”….

  11. Yes I was teasing:) But I repeat, I thought BL did an excellent job in the discussion forum.

    I like the term pornophobia. I agree that parents can get whipped up about things. NPR All Things Considered just finished a three day series on the issue

    I am a proactive parent. Sex education and life education is an ongoing process in our home. However, there are many children who are raised in predominately reactive or inactive households for many reasons other that the child’s fault. Their sex ed comes from the street, pop media, and internet. Look at the movies, listen to the music, surf the net. It can be a bleak dark mindscape for many.
    Then add the violence into the mix and it gets geometrically worse for many. Depression, promiscuity, gang culture, drug use, etc are rampant among children at ever decreasing ages. I think it is our responsibility as adults and citizens to dialogue about this and see what ought/can be done without undermining our freedoms. It takes a village…

    ” because they don’t allow people to be themselves.” perfect

  12. Tom, Don’t worry. The euwww factor on your joke was pretty high, but your intentions are good and your point very well taken! There are indeed important points to be made on both sides of these issues. What it seems to be coming down to is this: adults can take care of themselves (except for adults who are being exploited by pornographers, and that’s a subject I don’t deal with her, but it’s admirably covered by Timethief (see the link in my post to her piece about this) — but we must all put our heads together and deal with how to raise children in an increasibly sexualized and violent atmosphere. Q, it’s true, we take care of our own children, but we are a village. The question of how we help children whose parents are not paying attention is an important one. I don’t know the answer. But it’s something I’m going to be paying attention to.

  13. I’ve just finished writing an academic book on pornographic tropes in contemporary French literature and film and it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. And this was because the novels and films were so so miserable. Really, they were about squeezing the vitality out of life, but their aesthetic intentions were often good. They were about trying to force representation to turn into something real, which is a noble pursuit but one doomed to failure. As such it was an awful project but a very interesting one. So all this is to say that no, I don’t like porn either, but it often makes a statement about society and not the statement that people are expecting either. As to wordpress blogs, though, the people who run it are fab and creative. They must be able to produce a brief ‘adult content’ warning that could suggest to those who aren’t looking for that sort of thing, that they move on. And the breasts could be moved elsewhere…

  14. The porn on blog thing is an odd thing. I discussed nude beach bathing in a recent blog posting, as it was an issue in a local newspaper and there had been some discussion about it (I live on a remote archipelago of islands) in the community. A couple of days later, checked the blog stats and found they had tripled; basically it was people doing searches on “nude”, “naturist” and the like, and finding their way to my blog. I suspect that many of them would end up very disappointed to just find lots of pictures of (empty) beaches on them, and not a single pixel of naked flesh. Hey ho; maybe a few of them will have taken a new found interest in remote Scottish beaches, in which case it’s been beneficial?

  15. Coming somewhat late to this debate…I’m anti censorship and pro free speech too- but that said it is not a breach of free speech for private parties like WordPress to refuse to publish pornography. It is, of course, also their right to publish it or at least not censor. One thing they should keep in mind though is that if porn blogs- particularly commercial ones- become too prevalent it will likely destroy the community they are obviously interested in having around their product as people will leave in droves. Its the same as running a forum- a certain amount of spam and aggro can be dealt with but too much and the community dies.

    I don’t like pornography myself but if all parties are consenting adults it is none of my business. As my daughter gets older I’m not going to hide its existence from her. I’d rather teach her strategies for dealing with its existence (see something you don’t like- click away, don’t tolerate boys at school using porn to sexually harass you etc) and make it clear to her that porn is not what sex or being a woman is about.

    PS. On an unrelated note I’m a lawyer (now law academic) married to a programmer.

  16. Ms. Tea Not War — This is an important point about first amendment law and something people often don’t realize: the first amendment protects citizens from government intrusion into their speech. It doesn’t prohibit private parties, like wordpress (and like every blogger on wordpress) from regulating the sort of speech they’d like to see occur on their site. And if you are trying to run a forum that attracts and welcomes a wide range of people, then you’re well within your rights to limit what shows up — like commercial porn. Thanks for clarifying that in such an eloquent way.

    My dear Silversprite — I so love your remote Scottish beaches and it amuses me greatly to think of all the disappointed people who’re hoping to see frolicking of a certain kind going on in the outer hebrides only to see, well, beautiful shots of deserted beaches.

    Litlove — This is a very interesting point. Pornography, once it’s out there, can be read in a variety of ways. It doesn’t always accomplish what it intends to and, as you say, can indeed be revealing of something deeper. I like what you say about these sorts of representations squeezing the vitality out of life when their intentions are quite otherwise.

    Thanks to all of you for these very insightful views on this issue. It sounds like many people would be quite fine with wordpress doing a little adult tagging; they’re certainly reasonable, smart people. It’s one reason so many of us are here and not someplace else. And so it’s likely that their decision about this issue will be as intelligent as their decisions about so many others.

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