Earlier this week Get Real Philippines raised the issue of pornography in the Philippines, which despite being illegal generates over a billion dollars (nearly 65 billion pesos at the current exchange rate) in annual income, making the local porn “industry” the eighth-largest in the world. To get some idea of the scope of the economic activity involved, consider these statistics detailed by Pinoy journalist and lecturer Noel Sales Barcelona:
“Almost every month, the [Optical Media Board (OMB)] confiscates hundreds of thousands of counterfeit VCDs and DVDs. From January to September 2008, the OMB has confiscated 4,807,012 CDs costing P1.4 billion ($29,400,000 based on the prevailing peso-dollar exchange rate in Sept. 17, 2008).”
And that’s just the amount that is removed from the consumer market; take a quick look around any tiangge, palengke, or well-traveled urban sidewalk anywhere in the country, and the efforts of the OMB are clearly a spit against the tide, and that does not even take into account the unfettered access to Internet-based pornography Filipino citizens who are ostensibly subject to a ban on the stuff have.
Just like the classic example of well-intentioned failure in America’s Prohibition Era, the ban on pornography in the Philippines is clearly incapable of preventing its availability, which should come as no surprise to anyone with a basic understanding of economics; standard economic theory predicts that prohibiting any mutually-beneficial exchange – in this case, the exchange of money for a little boom-chikka-wow – will inevitably fail.
The standard arguments offered in support of a continuing ban on pornography in the Philippines have little to do with economics, and everything to do with “guarding against immorality” and “preventing sexual crimes and deviance.” But is there any objective validity to the anti-pornography stance?
Is Pornography Harmful?
This response in a comment thread on a Philippine-based anti-pornography blog is typical of the reasoning behind anti-pornography activism:
Firstly, Pornography is a form of Adultery which means that it violates the 6th commandment of God “You shall not commit adultery.” Thus, it is immoral. What is Immorality? In my own words, it involves actions that are against the personal and social ethics. Pornography is against the personal ethics, social ethics and the CULTURE of our country.
Second, it corrupts the innocent minds of young people. Instead of doing their daily responsibilities, they engage in Pornography.
What is the bad effect? The best example that I can give you as of the present time is Hayden Kho. He recorded and kept sex videos of him, having sex with other girls. When he was asked why he did such a thing, he can’t answer anything. Will he do such a thing without any reason? The main root of his actions is most probably Pornography. His mind was corrupted by Immorality. Like him, Pornography watchers can be turned into SEX ADDICTS when they grow up.
Moreover, it abuses women. In sex videos, women are more abused. Their dignities are being stepped on whenever someone watches their videos.
Another slightly more coherent anti-pornography group, the Pro-Life Philippines Foundation, doesn’t bother to try to explain why pornography is bad, but makes the same sort of moral implications in citing the causes of pornography as explained by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications:
-A pervasive moral permissiveness, rooted in the search for personal gratification at any cost. Associated with this is a kind of despairing moral emptiness, which makes sense pleasure the only happiness human beings can attain.
-The profit motive. Pornography is a lucrative industry. Some segments of the communications industry have tragically succumbed to the temptation of exploiting human weakness in order to make money from productions of pornography.
-Bad libertarian arguments. People engaged in the porno business believe that nobody has the right to attempt to stop or limit the production or distribution of sexually explicit materials. Such materials according to them is protected freedom of expression, and anyone who tries to interfere with it as an intolerant, narrow-minded censor. Some even falsely say that the best way to combat pornography is to legalize it. Faulty libertarian arguments such as these are espoused by small groups who do not represent the moral values of the majority and who fail to recognize that every right carries with it a corresponding responsibility. The public responsibility for promoting the moral welfare of the young, for fostering respect for women and for the protection of privacy and public decency.
-The lack of carefully prepared laws or the ineffective enforcement of laws which already exist to protect the common good, especially the morals of the young.
To summarize, the arguments used to support the assertion that pornography is harmful are:
- It constitutes adultery, in the sense that the viewer is likely having lustful feelings towards the persons or acts he is viewing, and not his own partner.
- It encourages young people to be unproductive and neglect their responsibilities.
- It leads to sex addiction.
- It abuses and disrespects the women who are participating in the pornographic activities.
- It contributes to personal gratification and sense pleasure. The implication is that these are bad things.
- It is a lucrative business, and it is wrong to exploit human weakness for profit.
- Those who support legalization of pornography do not represent the moral values of the majority.
By contrast, actual empirical studies have found no causal links between the availability and viewing of pornography and social behavior or attitudes. The Barcelona article cites the conclusions of the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography formed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1969:
- That there was “no evidence to date that exposure to explicit sexual materials plays a significant role in the causation of delinquent or criminal behavior among youths or adults.”
- That “a majority of American adults believe that adults should be allowed to read or see any sexual materials they wish.”
- That “there is no reason to suppose that elimination of governmental prohibitions upon the sexual materials which may be made available to adults would adversely affect the availability to the public of other books, magazines, or films.”
- That there was no “evidence that exposure to explicit sexual materials adversely affects character or moral attitudes regarding sex and sexual conduct.”
- That “Federal, State, and Local legislation prohibiting the sale, exhibition, or distribution of sexual materials to consenting adults should be repealed.”
In a 1995 article (also cited by Barcelona), Avedon Carol, one of the founders of the UK-based feminist group, Feminists Against Censorship, asserts that
“As those among us who have studied child abuse and sexual violence (or experienced it) know all too well, rape and abuses are problems that go deeper and are more intractable than anything that can be blamed on the camera and the printing press. Abusive relationships take many forms and almost anything can be seen as the ‘cause’ of abusive behavior. As many husbands have harassed and humiliated their wives over cooking and housework as have done so over sexual issues – and many women have learned, to their chagrin, that abusers are often more likely to try to suppress sexual expression in their wives than they are to try to force such expression. And most abused women – including those who have suffered sexual abuse – have little to say about pornography as a specific problem in their relationships.
“Indeed, criminologists and clinical workers alike are largely in agreement that pornography is not causal to sex crime and abuse. In the United States, treatment centers and law enforcement agencies have collected data on sex crime for over 50 years, showing no correlations linking it to pornography.”
And finally, an even more recent (2009) study by researchers at Montreal University confirmed the earlier conclusions that, despite the widespread consumption of pornography, no connection between exposure to it and later actions or attitudes on the part of the viewers could be drawn. Taken altogether, the evidence seems to suggest that:
- A ban on pornography does not prevent access to pornography, and
- Access to pornography does not lead to behavior that harms the public welfare, thus
- A ban on pornography has no impact on public welfare.
The Economic and Social Costs of the Pornography Ban
In fact, the ban on pornography may do more harm than good by hitting the country with an economic “double whammy”: forcing the porn industry to function as a significant part of the extralegal economy, and requiring the diversion of additional human, organizational, and financial resources in the form of the OMB (which had a budget of P25 million at the time the time the statistics cited earlier were collected). Consider that the 12% VAT alone on 65 billion pesos’ worth of pornography would amount to over $168 million in additional government income annually, to say nothing of the taxes on income generated from those who make a living in the porn industry, or the positive effect of having that much revenue (an amount that exceeded the 2009 net income of Meralco and the San Miguel Corporation combined) flow through the mainstream economy.
Redirecting government resources from pursuing an unenforceable blanket prohibition to monitoring trade practices, labor standards, and tax compliance in the industry would more effectively address the social problems that can be associated with the porn industry – not the imagined negative effects on “public morality,” but the actual incidents of exploitation and abuse that do occur in connection with the production of pornographic materials. Legalizing pornography does not mean it should be unregulated. Existing laws against unfair labor practices, exploitation of minors, and physical and emotional abuse can be better applied if the industry is legalized, because the definitions of what are “acceptable” and “unacceptable” can be clearly made. As it stands now, those who continue to champion the ban admit that pornography is actually hard to define; better, perhaps, to focus on what can or cannot be allowed in the narrower and easier-to-manage context of clear, existing laws that have universally-accepted civic as opposed to debatable and subjective moral consequences.
As with anything that does not present a clear danger to the common good, pornography should be left within the realm of personal choice; after all, it seems a little hypocritical that a country that accepts one Biblical immorality – homosexuality – as worthwhile entertainment and creatively finds ways around another – divorce – by selectively misinterpreting its own Annulment Law should futilely continue to stick to its moral guns concerning a bit of human nature that has existed since the Stone Age. A bit of human nature, it is worth pointing out again, that is an economic goldmine – understandably distasteful to some, but one that does no more harm than that, and one that requires nothing more for the country to benefit from than to just let people do what they’re already doing anyway.