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Pornography in New Zealand: do we really still need to be concerned?

Posted on 19 January 2016 by Deputy Chief Censor Jared Mullen

CONTENT WARNING: This article includes discussion of sexually explicit, and in some cases sexually violent, entertainment content.

I am often asked whether, in this day and age, New Zealand media regulators should continue to care about pornography given its almost universal availability - particularly over the web to highly portable hand-held devices.

Colleagues, family and friends also quite rightly remind me that New Zealand is a very tolerant country that values freedom of expression and where people dislike being told what to do. They ask whether it is possible or even desirable for regulators to try and restrict the flow of pornography to New Zealanders as a whole and to our young people in particular.

In this blog post we discuss the following:

Neon 'XXX' sign

Porn through the ages

The enjoyment of sexually explicit imagery is a fundamental aspect of human expression. For example, the Israel Museum displays fragments of 4000 year old terra cotta works depicting a range of sexual acts. These ancient works date from a period of Mesopotamian history where mass produced terra cotta plaques depicting such subjects were popular.

Pornography experienced a relative boom during the renaissance with the advances in artistic capability and the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. I Modi (The Ways) was an erotic book produced in 1524 by the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi based on the art of Giulio Romano (a pupil of Raphael). Sadly, Raimondi was imprisoned on the order of Pope Clement VII and almost all copies of the illustrations were destroyed.

Unsurprisingly, the popularity of such images remained undiminished and frequently adorned the walls of palaces and homes throughout the period. As printing became cheaper, easier and more common it became more and more difficult for authorities to control its spread.

Ancient mesopotamian sexually explicit carving
Mesopotamian terra cotta plaque
16th century sexually explicit drawings
The erotic book I Modi (The Ways)

Is today's porn really more harmful?

What's changed?

Pornography has advanced with each technological innovation from pottery and paper, through to the printing press, film, home video technology, the internet and now, digital distribution to a fully mobile and linked world.

But, today's mainstream pornography is not the careful drawings of a renaissance master, neither is it a glossy magazine centrefold of days gone by, nor the relatively benign erotica that some generation x and older adults may remember watching on VHS cassettes. Producers of porn, particularly online, are going to greater extremes to make an impression in an increasingly crowded market for pornography. Porn has become more violent and degrading and dehumanising as it seeks to keep ahead of the competition.

A 2010 study [1] looked at a range of the most popular adult titles for sale in the United States finding that 88% of scenes include physical aggression and 48% of scenes include verbal aggression.

The physical aggression included gagging (aggressive oral sex that obstructs breathing and/or swallowing and/or triggers a gag reflex) in 54% of scenes, choking (one or both hands around the throat) in 27% of scenes, and spanking in 75% of scenes. Verbal aggression included intimidation, belittling, humiliation and other forms of psychological abuse.

In 94% of incidents, the targets of the aggression were female performers. Unfortunately, 95% of aggression was met with a neutral or positive response suggesting that violent sexual behaviour is acceptable - even sexually arousing to women. As a result, it is somewhat unsurprising that consumption of pornography has been associated with increased sexism, coercive sexual behaviours and sexual aggression.

In 2013, the UK Children's Commissioner [2] noted.

We had frequent accounts of both boys' and girls' expectations of sex being drawn from the pornography they had seen. We also found compelling evidence that too many boys believe that they have an absolute entitlement to sex at any time, in any place, in any way and with whomever they wish.

Equally worryingly, we heard that too often girls feel they have no alternative but to submit to boys' demands, regardless of their own wishes.

The solo, anonymous nature of the way that pornography is often consumed is also associated with a range of significant harms for the viewer. For young people in particular, it can reinforce a sense of isolation, marginalise social networks and lead to peer relationship problems [3].

Access and exposure to pornography are also linked to children and young people's engagement in 'risky sexual behaviours' (e.g., engagement in sexual practices from a younger age and engaging in riskier sexual behaviours such as unprotected sex) [4]. Condoms are used in only 2-3% of online heterosexual pornographic scenes [5] - so it's hardly surprising that young people who view porn can get the message that unsafe sex is ok. These same young people can then expose themselves to the risk of sexually transmitted infections and consequent, serious illness.

Case study: Love and Sex in an Age of Internet Pornography

Still image of young man from documentary 'Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography

R18: contains explicit sexual material

A 2013 Australian documentary Love and Sex in an Age of Internet Pornography explores the impact of pornography on the lives of young Australians with candid interviews of young people, and with those involved in the porn industry.

One of the young people, Jake, aged 18, tells of his experiences with porn - at one point watching between 4 and 5 hours a day:

First time I had sex, cos I'd watched so much porn, I thought - all chicks dig this. All chicks want this done to them. All chicks want it up here. All chicks love it there. So I tried this stuff and it turned out bad.

After having sex for 20 minutes or so, I decided to go anal. (She) didn't like that. Pulled out. Decided I wanted head. Tried to get her to suck, (she) didn't like it. Blew all over her (she) didn't like it.

Protection from harmful effects

How do we currently protect New Zealanders from the harmful effects of pornography?

In New Zealand adults still have access to almost anything that they choose to view - including explicit sexual material. In keeping with New Zealanders' tolerance and values, very little is banned by the Office of Film and Literature Classification. It is far more common for sexual material to be restricted to those over the ages of 13 or 16 or, in the case of explicit sexual material, to adults over the age of 18 to reduce the risk of harm to young people. Children and young people need time to develop their own sexual identities in their own time - without premature exposure to complex, sometimes extreme, adult sexual concepts.

Even though any restriction on adult material represents some compromise on the right to freedom of expression enjoyed by all New Zealanders, our current legislative framework provides for this valuable right to be restricted when it is outweighed by the likely harm of material in any format (including online, broadcast, cinema or good old-fashioned hard copy). Clear criteria are set out and decisions are subject to review.

Although very little of the vast amount of adult pornography available online makes its way to the Office for classification, we still see enough adult material to provide clear signposts and boundaries about what's ok and what's not - particularly for young New Zealanders at various ages and stages of development. These signposts are even more important now that pornography is more widely available - and can provide a guide for families as well as form the basis for ongoing public discussion and debate.

Occasionally, the Office finds that a particular image, film or text is objectionable and that, according to the criteria established in law, the harm arising from its possession and wider distribution is too great. In these relatively rare instances, the Classification Office's decision to declare this material objectionable (effectively banning it) can form the basis of enforcement action and establish important precedents in addition to addressing future harm arising from the availability of the material.

Case study: Objectionable pornography - Hung and Huge

Cover art for pornographic video 'Hung and Huge'

Classified as Objectionable by the Office of Film and Literature Classification

The feature consists of five scenes of explicitly depicted sexual activity. The "star" of the feature is Ramon, a Cuban man with a very large penis. He appears in each scene alongside different women.

The feature depicts sexual conduct which degrades, dehumanises and demeans the women participating. A large part of the feature's focus is on how the women struggle to accommodate the penis orally. There are protracted sequences in several scenes in which the man holds onto the woman's head in one or both hands, and pushes on the back of her head while his penis is in her mouth. This causes the woman to gag and contort her facial features in obvious discomfort. The male performer enjoys this and sometimes shifts the woman's hands away when she tries to control the oral intercourse for herself. Some of the camera angles chosen also strongly accentuate the difficulty the women are having.

The male performer often slaps the women in the face with his penis, an activity which is highly degrading and which the women do not appear to enjoy. The feature contains other dehumanising sexual conduct, including facial ejaculations.

The overall effect is highly degrading, dehumanising and demeaning. The feature, which is designed for adult sexual arousal, presents these women merely as orifices to accommodate the male performer.

In the case of child sex abuse images, Police, Customs and Internal Affairs work together, and with their international counterparts, to detect, investigate and prosecute those who exploit children for sexual gratification.

The New Zealand Government also works with the more responsible internet providers on a voluntary basis to block access to identified sources of child abuse images. This process does not include all internet providers (as it is voluntary) and focuses on child sexual abuse images rather than any other illegal content (such as sexual imagery based on rape, murder, torture and bestiality).

The 'pornification' of mainstream entertainment

The influence of pornography has spread beyond its boundaries as a genre and has come to be increasingly felt in other forms of mainstream entertainment including advertising, music, movies and television. Porn is both pervasive and persuasive - which means that advertisers, studios and artists find it easy to adapt its direct, sexual appeal to sell products and entertainment. Porn sometimes provides a readily understood reference, a common language to easily and convincingly convey messages and ideas.

The Office of Film and Literature Classification often examines mainstream entertainment that includes themes, images and references that can be tied directly to the popularity and pervasiveness of increasingly degrading and extreme pornography.

Case study: Inside Amy Schumer

Cover art for show 'Inside Amy Schumer'

R18: explicit sexual material

Amy Schumer is an American comedian who is known for her clever deconstruction of what life is like for young, single women whose urban heterosexual lifestyles are a minefield of uncomfortable pressures.

Schumer satirises a culture that degrades and demeans women in numerous skits and jokes that are aimed at women's self-obsessions including body-sculpting, the fitness industry, sexual "selfies", quick-fix methods of weight control and plastic surgery aimed at "vaginal rejuvenation". Schumer constantly exposes the difficulties of meeting male expectations.

Some of the material deals quite candidly with the "pornification" of American culture. For example, a "gang-bang" skit, relies on the over-used but still relevant feminist trope of women as sex objects. The disc has strong sexual content, particularly a skit that lampoons "scat porn" (faeces used in a sexual context) and segments where "golden showers" (urine used in a sexual context) are mentioned among other sexual proclivities of interviewees. Schumer does not shy away from presenting material dealing with anal sex, ejaculation on women's faces, or frank discussions of sexual parts, male and female. Extreme sexual practices, such as those commonly portrayed in porn, are discussed frankly and explicitly.

To help assess the level of age restriction required, the Office consulted with senior staff and counsellors at Wellington High School. The concerns identified by classification staff mirror those raised in this consultation process. The sexual content is clearly likely to cause harm if the DVD is available to children or young teenagers. However, injury is also likely if young people in their mid-teenage years access the material. The DVD confronts its viewers with strong sexual content that includes unusual sexual practices. Adults are presumed to have the ability to critically assess difficult content, but the bulk of 16 or 17 year-olds will not have the sophistication required to fully understand the irony and satire that is a feature of the comedy.

Some young people are likely to be disturbed or intimidated by the material and it could place expectations and pressure, particularly on young women, who might then feel that they "should" be more fully engaged in a sexualised world.

On one hand Schumer brings a feminist perspective on issues for young women, such as body image, diet and sexual attractiveness. The content of the stand-up routines, in particular, might well give young women permission to talk about sex and sexuality. However, these positive outcomes depend on a reasonably high level of sophistication in the areas of sex and sexuality, and gender roles and expectations. Therefore, the Classification Office concluded that the publication required restriction to adult viewers.

Limiting harmful pornography using technology: the UK experience

The United Kingdom has gone further than New Zealand and Australia and has responded to the harm caused by pornography, particularly to young people, by suggesting (under threat of tighter regulation) that internet service providers automatically provide adult filters from which families can choose to opt out.

In addition, UK internet providers have - since the middle of last decade - operated their own organisation (the Internet Watch Foundation) backed with a privately run national cyber wall that blocks access within the UK to websites believed to contain illegal content.

There are critics of the United Kingdom's approach. Critics of the default filter placed on consumer connections by the Internet Service Providers point to the fact that the filters often blocks sites that are useful - such as services for drug education and sexual abuse survivors. Critics also claim that it isn't easy for consumers to opt out of the filter and that filters applied by different UK internet service providers operate inconsistently.

Critics of the UK's Internet Watch Foundation, and its operation of a privately run national cyber wall, point to the fact that there is no official oversight or public transparency relating to blocking information to UK citizens and that the cyber wall can, and has, been used to protect private commercial and copyright interests as well as block child abuse sites.

These critics raise very valid issues, nevertheless, the UK approach does demonstrate very clearly and definitively that it is possible to tackle web-based porn using technology that has been readily available for over a decade. In New Zealand, the view is that it is largely impossible to tackle harmful web-based pornography without the hugely restrictive and resource intensive approach of the sort applied in China. The UK experience shows that this view is wrong.

The European Union has recently come out against the United Kingdom approach to filtering prompting contrary political statements from the UK Government who appear unwilling to alter their policy.

Conclusion

New Zealand is a tolerant nation that values our freedom of expression. Sexually explicit images, art and entertainment are a natural and vital part of human expression. However, we still need to be concerned about the harm that can arise from unrestricted access to pornography that is particularly degrading and extreme - especially the harm to young people. As a nation, we can't simply say that, just because it is a difficult problem to tackle, we should simply shrug our shoulders and permit increasing amounts of harm to young New Zealanders.

Given New Zealand's acknowledged problems with sexual and family violence and the demonstrated harm caused by pornography that degrades, dehumanises and demeans people (particularly women), the choice for Government and regulators, must be about how far we are willing to intervene - rather than whether we are prepared to intervene at all.

Intervention should be part of wider Government goals and actions for the promotion of public health and prevention of sexual and family violence. A comprehensive approach should include a substantial element of education and discussion - debunking some of the fundamental misperceptions relating to sex that underpin mainstream pornography.

There is also a continued role for active regulation and enforcement to prevent and address the worst abuses of the public interest for profit and/or personal gain and to restrict availability of harmful material in the rare instances where it is necessary to do so.

Jared Mullen is Deputy Chief Censor at the NZ Office of Film and Literature Classification. Keep up with our blog posts by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

Footnotes

  1. Bridges, A, Wosnitzer, R, Scharrer, E, Sun, C & Liberman, R 2010, Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best-Selling Pornography Videos: A Content Analysis Update, Violence Against Women.
  2. UK Children's Commissioner's Report, 2013
  3. Flood, M 2010, Young men using pornography
  4. Horvath, M Alys, L, Massey, K, Pina, A, Scally, M and J Adler, (2013), Basically... Porn is everywhere: A Rapid evidence assessment of the effects that access and exposure to pornography have on children and young people
  5. Megan S C Lim, Elise R Carrotte, Margaret E Hellard, (2015) The impact of pornography on gender-based violence, sexual health and well-being

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