Due to catching covid recently, I have spent a lot of time watching TV programmes.
One was the BBC documentary Banned! The Mary Whitehouse Story. It was an insightful and balanced programme about the campaigner who shot to fame in the 1960s for her protests against declining moral standards on TV and pornography.
All the contributors to the programme, whether supporters or opponents, agreed that Whitehouse was a hugely significant figure in the cultural journey of our country during this period. She had incredible energy, strength of conviction and was highly skilled in communicating her message and galvanising others.
There are similarities with Margaret Thatcher. Both were seen as strong, indomitable female leaders who polarised opinion – but neither were associated with the burgeoning feminist movement.
The documentary does an admirable job of giving a fair perspective, there is welcome lack of snide comments and many fascinating insights.
For example, as a young woman Whitehouse fell in love with a married man and walked away from the relationship. The programme speculates on how her personal battle between powerful desire and morality shaped her future activism.
There is of course much criticism. Her legal disputes in the 1970s, such as her blasphemy case against Gay News and obscenity case against the play Romans in Britain are strongly criticised. Also she appears paranoid and petty such as when she protested about Alice Cooper’s song Schools Out for being subversive. The singer said it was the best possible promotion for the record.
What is most fascinating is the appreciation of Whitehouse’s views by younger feminists who have revaluated her legacy and especially her views on porn.
Whitehouse argued vehemently that the relaxation of laws relating to porn would lead to the exploitation of women and young people. Incredible as it may seem now, paedophilia was not viewed in the same way it is today and the programme includes interviews with campaigners who were openly advocating for it.
Whitehouse saw, more clearly than most, was that what presented itself as freedom was nothing of the sort. In a debate at the Cambridge University Union she said:
‘Porn is a male commodity, made by men, for men… we must consider the effects of porn on women and children.’
Today the internet has taken pornography and the objectification of women and abuse of children to levels unimaginable in Whitehouse’s day. It is a good time to revisit her concerns because more than ever, sex has become a tool of coercion, abuse and exploitation.
A powerful contemporary example of this was profiled in another documentary I watched presented by Stacey Dooley Spycam Sex Criminals.
She was investigating the explosion of the crime known as molka in South Korea. This is the practice of placing hidden cameras in apartments, hotels, showers and toilets to capture (and often live-stream) intimate footage of partners or strangers without their consent.
The proliferation of this crime is fuelled by Korea’s high-grade Wifi and cheap, tiny cameras which are easy to place and very hard to detect. It’s a problem on an epidemic scale which the authorities are struggling to combat.
Porn kills sex
Dooley interviews a young man who has been convicted of molka offences. Dooley discovers that the man has never had actual sex and instead has just used porn. From there got drawn into watching molka and then graduated to filming it himself. And then he got caught.
Dooley discusses how in South Korea, and across the world, people are having less ‘real sex’ than ever. And the proliferation of porn is a key reason.
It confirms Whitehouse’s view that porn is far from being sexually liberating. Actually, it can imprison people and easily leads to more coercive practices. Porn is not ‘sex-positive’, actually it is reducing the amount of real sex people have. Porn kills sex.
Matters of sexuality will always have enduring fascination, significance and power because they lie at the heart of what it means to be human.
But it is a mirage to think human flourishing and health is found in isolated individualism, in just doing what we want.
Instead our humanity is found in our relationships with others. This is why we call someone who does great things for others a humanitarian. We are relational beings and the key to a truly rich life is mutuality: that your welfare is bound up with the welfare of others.
This is why sex is best when expressed in mutual generosity and trust with someone you are deeply committed to. Its why monogamy, as an aspiration and life-choice, is so enduringly popular.
Sex involves something of your heart and soul being exposed and shared. When reduced to just the physical, it easily becomes manipulative, dysfunctional and depressing.
Porn has allure but it reduces and objectifies people because of its lack of mutuality. It leaves people empty and, like many addictive behaviours, leads people to escalate their use to maintain stimulation. This is what leads to the perversion of molka.
Being on ‘the right side of history’ is no a straight-forward matter. And you don’t have to agree with all Mary Whitehouse said or did to appreciate her concerns about the impact of porn.