Paid to watch porn

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In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, porn is produced and controlled by an agency called 'Pornosec', staffed exclusively by teenaged girls. ''The theory was that men, whose sex instincts were less controllable than those of women, were in greater danger of being corrupted by the filth they handled''.

Other pop cultural references to censors show porn as both scintillating and corrupting. In a Not the Nine O'Clock News sketch, innocuous videos such as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory are signed off, classified and approved for public viewing by a single censor. The much racier Lesbian Lavatory Lust, however, is viewed and rated by a dozen censors. Clearly, they all wanted in on that screening.

In Australia, there are no censors, but ''classifiers'' who look toward ''community standards'' when rating material. But here's the thing – some material will be refused classification, and therefore will become technically illegal, not fit for mainstream public consumption. However, since the internet is a one-stop-shop for all of one's pornographic needs regardless of how esoteric they might be (as per rule 34), and since illegal material is sold as a matter of course in adult stores across the country, censoring material is futile.

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In his new book, Money Shot, Jeff Sparrow explores censorship and pornography. Pretty quickly, his interpretive gaze shifts from the people who classify materials to the debates surrounding whether we should even bother trying to censor material in the first place.

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The debate, as Sparrow explains, is weird. It's weird precisely because of the strange alliances it brings out.

On the one side are feminists who say that porn objectifies women, damages those who watch it, and puts a host of expectations on young girls who are expected to be and look like porn stars. The expectations are formed by boys who have been taught all they know about sex from porn. Violent porn, it is argued, begets sexual violence. These feminists are aligned with Christian Lobbies who think that depictions of pre-marital sex are immoral. Said lobbies usually also want to end legalised abortion. An uncomfortable alliance indeed: Sparrow even encountered a Christian lobbyist who suggested he explore the anti-porn sentiments of radical feminist and lesbian Sheila Jeffries.

On the other side are lefties and libertarians (including some feminists) who simply think that people should be left to enjoy whatever it is they enjoy. As long as the actors consented to being in the show and as long as nobody is forced to watch materials that discomfort them, nobody is harmed. They are aligned with the adult industry. While many in the adult industry do try to produce porn that is respectful to women, sexism is rife in the industry. As is racism. Porn websites are often derogatory, on some sites the word ''woman'' seems to have been auto-replaced with the word ''slut'', and racial slurs are entirely run-of-the-mill. People in the adult entertainment industry aren't necessarily the kind of people who would be reading their weekend Age over a latte on Lygon Street talking about ''consenting adults'' and marching at their local SlutWalk.

At Sexpo, Sparrow compares the role of the host, Russell Gilbert, dressed deliberately in a ''suburban'' manner, positing himself as the every-man, with the celebrity, female porn stars onstage who periodically remove their shirts. Maybe the stars feel ''empowered'' and good about their job. They probably earn a lot of money. Nonetheless, it's clear enough what the dynamic is – Sexpo is meant to fulfil male sexual desires. Echoing the theory behind Orwell's 'Pornosec' committee, female sexual desires simply don't exist.

Despite that the sex industry can be sexist, Sparrow doesn't endorse a pro-censorship view. Censorship is impractical and only tends to work to increase the edginess and therefore popularity of banned material. Even Lesbian Lavatory Lust wouldn't be so salacious if it were mandatory viewing. Moreover, porn is a product of Western culture, a symptom rather than a cause of sexism, mixed with the idea that ''empowerment'' is found through profitability.

Given that porn will always be found, making it completely taboo can itself be damaging. If a young person encounters porn (which is inevitable) without any sense of what it is and without being able to talk about it, then it's far more likely it's going to cause problems than if the dialogue is open. Moreover, if a girl is asked to do something compromising, she is more likely to be victimised if she doesn't know anything about the raunch culture that surrounds her. This is already the case. Images of young, drunk women are exploited on Girls Gone Wild, and through the (now defunct) website, 'Is Anybody Up?', where vengeful men post naked pictures of female ex-lovers (along with their Facebook and Twitter information) which had been given to them during the relationship in confidence.

Instead, openness and education is the answer. For instance, some level of porn-literacy is important for young people to realise that what they are seeing is fake. Maybe being frank and realistic about sex and taking the edginess away from porn would stop boys from falling over themselves to access it.

There also needs to be some way in which women can redefine the terms in which their sexuality is expressed. At the moment, ''It [is] entirely your choice whether to send your boyfriend a nude picture. But if you don't, you're frigid, and if you do, you're a slut''. You're either the girl on the 'Pornosec' committee, or one of the cast of Lesbian Lavatory Lust. Neither choice is empowering because neither choice expresses the reality of one's full character.

The contribution Money Shot makes is that it redefines the terms of the two-sided debate of strange bedfellows into something more constructive – how to best empower all of us in a society where porn will invariably play a part.