Pornography, we have a problem… | Lorraine Spiteri

Pornography is distorting our image of healthy sexual relationships, argues MCWO chairperson LORRAINE SPITERI. But while it can be regulated at law, the porn industry can never be eradicated

MCWO chairperson Lorraine Spiteri: “Every time we speak out against, for instance, the decriminalisation of prostitution, and in favour of the criminalisation of clients, many people (mostly men, but sometimes women too) comment that we are ‘against sex’.”
MCWO chairperson Lorraine Spiteri: “Every time we speak out against, for instance, the decriminalisation of prostitution, and in favour of the criminalisation of clients, many people (mostly men, but sometimes women too) comment that we are ‘against sex’.”

There is never really a dull moment in Malta, it seems. Even with temperatures soaring into the high 30s, and the islands plunged into an annual miasma of soporific heat, controversies still seem to follow each other at a seemingly unstoppable pace.

And just in case the Opposition wasn’t raising enough political issues to keep us all busy this summer, the government recently dropped a minor bombshell of its own. Out of the ‘blue’, as it were, it announced a reform of Malta’s antiquated obscenity laws... resulting in the decriminalisation of pornography, and with it the possible proliferation of hard-core pornography on sale ‘at an outlet near you’.

That, at any rate, was how the legal amendments were initially interpreted. On closer scrutiny, it turns out that the law ultimately deals with much wider and more complex issues: including the abolition of the last vestiges of State censorship. Yet it was this aspect of the law that clearly captured the popular imagination... prompting the Malta Confederation of Women’s Organisations to issue a strongly-worded statement, deploring the new law as a ‘huge step backwards for women’s rights’.

As things stand, the sad truth is that pornography is probably the main sex educator of our children today

“We have a problem with porn,” the MCWO’s chairperson Lorraine Spiteri soon tells me as we meet to discuss the confederation’s concerns with the new bill. “When it comes to pornography and prostitution, and human trafficking, and gentlemen’s clubs: it is all considered to be one, giant, multi-million dollar industry. They are all interlinked. It’s related to trafficking, drugs, to violence... and it’s mainly against women.”

As it happens, the MCWO statement already made these concerns quite clear. It complained that “the porn industry seeks to make profit from material that is targeted mainly for male consumers, with lack of mutual pleasure and a void of crucial concepts of mutual consent and respect between women and men”.

But both the statement and Spiteri’s own comments seem to point towards a much broader definition of ‘pornography’ than is usually implied by the word. Echoing the MCWO’s earlier position, Spiteri talks of ‘prostitution’, ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ and ‘human trafficking’ as if they were all, in fact, part of the same category.

“They are,” she promptly confirms. “When you boil it all down, what you’re left with is the objectification of women, the glorification of violence against women, and the normalising of abuse and aggression against women... and not just women; in many cases it is young people in general. Most of these start out in the industry

– whichever industry we are talking about – when they are really young. And that is very problematic, because these people will be vulnerable. There will be different situations at home, family problems, upbringing... this draws them into the industry. Even here in Malta.”

At this point, however, the question of which industry we are talking about does become rather important. With the proliferation of gentlemen’s clubs, it is clear that some aspects of the international sex trade are very much alive and kicking in this country. But Spiteri seems to be implying the existence of a local industry dedicated to the production of porn.

“Are you so certain it doesn’t exist?”

Certain? No, not at all. But I admit I am now very curious. Does this industry exist?

“To be honest, I can’t say I’ve ever watched porn myself. But I hear what people say... for example, I’ve heard a lot of people saying that there is a place in Qormi where people go and, you know, film porn. A lot of people know about it...”

Really? I confess that this is entirely new to me...

She smiles. “They don’t have a big sign above the door, you know. But yes, it happens in Malta too. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg. We may be surprised or even shocked when we say ‘even in Malta’... but from statistics it emerges that the websites most accessed in Malta are, in fact, porn sites. So why should we be shocked? Do we think that Maltese men are different from other men?”

We are not moralists, but we are very concerned with how the State deals with issues such as violence against women

The same Internet usage statistics very emphatically suggest otherwise. In 2009, it was revealed that Malta was amongst the highest consumer of online porn of all European Union member states. ‘’ ranked as the 21st most visited website in Malta: three positions higher than the Bank of Valletta website, four up from the University of Malta, seven places higher than news portal, and 16 places higher than HSBC.

Lorraine Spiteri is not at all surprised by these revelations. “Like I said, I am not a consumer of porn. But I’ve read a lot about it, and sometimes you come across it, even by accident. My background is in gender issues, sexuality and so on. And when you Google something along those lines, that’s the sort of site that will come up. And this is what’s happening to young people today. Pornography is very easy to access online. So easy, that you can access it without even looking for it.”

This brings us to the MCWO’s reservations concerning the recent legal reform, which would appear to make pornography even more accessible than it already is. Spiteri however admits that many of the MCWO’s initial concerns may have been misplaced.

“After issuing that statement we had a meeting with the minister [Owen Bonnici]. There were a lot of really important points raised. As the minister said, and we agree, the original law concerning censorship had been passed in 1938. So there was a need to bring it in line with today’s reality. The question of vilification of religion, for instance... we understand that a law passed in 1938 would need to be upgraded. The reality today is that not everyone in a Roman Catholic. The law has to reflect this. And as for censorship, it was a bit archaic to stick to a 1938 law. We’ve progressed a bit since then...”

The new bill also addresses issues that had previously been overlooked. “On the issue of revenge porn, for instance. Previously there was no law at all, as until recently this sort of thing never really happened. These are three issues that we are in favour of...”

If I’ve understood correctly, the MCWO has no objection to the amendments concerning vilification of religion and censorship of the arts... and it also welcomes the new laws concerning revenge porn...

“Yes,” she nods. “And there are other things that needed to be clarified. During the meeting, we

were given assurances that ‘nothing would be changed’ with regard to, for instance, the legal broadcasting of pornography on locally licensed channels. The situation with the Broadcasting Authority would remain the same, we were told, because they are regulated by European law. Those regulations will not be affected by the amendments.”

Hang on a minute, though: ‘European law’ does not forbid pornography on TV. The Maltese BA may not licence local porn channels, but other European regulators – acting under the same EU legislation – can and do. It is perfectly legal (within restrictions) to show porn on TV in France, Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, etc...

“That’s true of Malta as well,” she counters. “Pornography is shown on TV. But only through satellite. The Broadcasting Authority has no remit over satellite transmission. But they will not issue licences to, for instance, Melita and Go to show porn.”

Yes, but that’s a decision taken by the local BA. It has nothing to do with EU law...

“Maybe, but from our point of view, we were very satisfied that, contrary to what was reported – i.e., that now, there was going to be a seal of approval for pornography in Malta – the situation as far as the BA is concerned will remain as is.”

At the same time, however, the new laws will also remove existing restrictions on sex shops, which by definition are outlets licensed to sell and distribute pornography. There are limitations: ‘extreme pornography’ – including necrophilia, bestiality, non-consensual sex and excessive violence, etc – remains illegal. But anything outside that definition will be able to be sold legally over the counter at a licensed shop.

So why can’t a television station get a licence to broadcast pornography, when the same thing is already for sale in the street? Isn’t there a contradiction there?

“No. Because the BA, as a regulator, has no remit over DVDs sold in a shop. It never had a remit to begin with...”

Yes, but the impression one gets is that the MCWO seems to be satisfied merely because pornography will not be shown legally on TV. And even then, only on cable television (satellite being largely unregulated). Yet the overwhelming majority of porn consumers access porn over the Internet. And with the new law, they might even be able to buy it from shops. So isn’t the MCWO satisfied with very little?

Spiteri here explains that part of the issue concerns the message sent out by government. “As it was initially reported, the impression

was that the BA would be giving the go-ahead for pornography to be shown locally. For us, this was a problem. If the government permits the local broadcasting regulator to issue licences, it would mean that the government itself is advocating the proliferation of porn. That’s how we see it...”

And yet, the same government has just given the go-ahead for porn shops to open legally. So isn’t it sending out that message anyway?

“Until we had a meeting with the minister to clarify this, that was our impression too. But after the meeting we are satisfied that the minister shares our concerns, and that the purpose of the law was to provide more protection...”

How so?

“At the moment, people can go into a bookshop, and there will be magazines like ‘Playboy’ for sale. They have to be sealed in plastic, but they are still visible on bookshelves. For me, ‘Playboy’ and similar magazines fall under the label of ‘porn’. So as things stand today, a person – or even a young child – might be offended by viewing this material in a shop. But with the new law, any outlet selling pornographic material has to have a separate section just for that... with a warning to advise clients beforehand. This already offers more protection than the situation at present...”

But this only raises questions about the MCWO’s definition of ‘pornography’. Not many people would consider ‘Playboy’ to fit the description. Even the legal definition provided in the new law specifies that ‘porn’ has to include graphic representation of sexual activity. ‘Playboy’ limits itself to nudity, which is not quite the same thing...

“For me, whether you classify it as ‘porn’ or not... we see beyond the definitions. It’s all part of the subjugation of women. How women are exploited as objectified as products for male consumers...”

But couldn’t the same be said for a lot of perfectly legal things like advertising, which sometimes very blatantly exploits the female body to sell all sorts of unrelated products?

“Yes. But who says that’s OK? We have objections to that, too. Why should you use a half-naked woman to sell a car?”

The question, however, is whether such advertising – and we can extend the argument to music videos, which the MCWO also singled out in its statement – constitutes ‘pornography’, according to Spiteri’s definition. It seems to fit the same general template as Playboy...

“No. On top of the exploitation, pornography also involves the humiliation and degrading of the human body and sexuality in general. And unfortunately, through technology, it is now much more accessible than ever before. This is the reality the new law is trying to confront. A lot of young people today – 16 years old and younger – come across porn either by chance, as I said before... and would be naturally interested to know more... or go onto the Internet specifically to look for it.”

Research shows that this is giving a distortion impression of sexual relations, she adds.

“This affects both males and females. It affects their expectations of a relationship. So what they see as ‘normal’ when watching pornography, they interpret as what they themselves are supposed to do. We are not going into the question of whether anal sex, oral sex, or ejaculating on the face of the woman is ‘OK’ or not... but the thing is, in porn it is always presented as something pleasurable, when most of the time this is not the case at all...”

Young women, she adds, may feel pressured to do things they wouldn’t want to do. And the same distorted image of sex affects men, too.

“If a young man watches porn, and sees a man with a big penis, he might assume that that’s the ‘normal’ size. It might cause embarrassment, and he might even conclude that he’s not performing well. Research shows that this affects a lot of men: they have preoccupations about the size of their organ, and so on. But in reality it’s not the size of a man’s organ that matters. There are other aspects that go into a healthy relationship.”

Spiteri argues that pornography affects not just individual relationships, but society as a whole. In Malta, its effects can already be felt.

“Until a few years ago, if a young couple had sex, it was something that was kept secret. There was a social stigma attached. Nowadays, the situation has been reversed. Young people feel that if you don’t have sex, you’re not ‘cool’. So suddenly it becomes ‘OK’ to have multiple relationships. There are health implications, too. Unprotected sex, with no condoms, is ‘normalised’ through pornography. That’s what they watch...”

These have all along been the MCWO’s main concerns when it comes to the porn industry, and other related issues. But she admits that the Confederation is often misunderstood when airing these concerns in public.

“Every time we speak out against, for instance, the decriminalisation of prostitution, and in favour of the criminalisation of clients, many people (mostly men, but sometimes women too) comment that we are ‘against sex’. That is totally not the case. We are not moralists; we don’t go into what happens in the bedroom, or on the kitchen table, or wherever... but we are very concerned with how the State deals with issues such as violence against women, and the subjugation of women. ”

This raises the inevitable question: how should the State deal with such issues? Is a total ban on all forms of pornography the answer?

Spiteri replies that there is no point in pushing for a total ban, because it cannot be achieved in practice. “There is no way to stop people accessing pornography over the Internet or on satellite TV... at least, not without resorting to State control, which would clearly be a step backwards. My view is that, to counter something which you cannot stop in practice, you must invest in education. We have to go beyond the level of sex education currently provided at schools. There is more to it than ‘man plus woman equals baby’. As things stand, the sad truth is that pornography is probably the main sex educator of our children today. That’s where they’re getting all their information from. We have to counter this, by providing our children with the skills they will need to cope with these things later in life.”

More in Interview