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Why is violent porn not taxed like alcohol and tobacco?

Yesterday, a random day in June 2022, a visitor to Pornhub, a company with offices in Ireland, might have found two things.

First, they’d have found the Pornhub logo, decked out, as befits the month, in a rainbow configuration.

And secondly, there’s a reasonable chance, depending on what the algorithm tossed up, they’d have found this:

The hypocrisy alone should be enough to churn the stomach, even if the content is not. That scene, incidentally, is listed under a tab called “popular in Ireland”. How accurate that tab is, only the people who run Pornhub will know. But the fact that they put it on the front page certainly suggests that watching a college aged girl scream from rough sex is something that they think will appeal to Irish viewers.

The US Senate Candidate in Ohio for the Republican Party, JD Vance, suggested recently that all pornography should be banned. This is, of course, implausible: the internet being what it is, it seems highly unlikely that a ban like that could ever work. There’s also a fair question about whether it should work: censorship as a general rule is a bad idea, and, much like cannabis and alcohol, it’s reasonable to assume that the truly porn addicted and porn addled are a tiny fraction of the overall number of people who view pornography regularly, or semi regularly.

But of course, in the case of cannabis and alcohol, that fact is no impediment to Governments acting in the best interests of public health. Minimum alcohol pricing, for example, is explicitly targeted at poor people who the Government apparently feels are most at risk of alcohol dependency. And yet, at the same time, porn companies based in Ireland who promote violent and misogynistic sex are spared any kind of penalty at all.

A 2017 report from our friends at the journal noted that the company which owns Pornhub, Mindgeek, racked up almost half a billion in revenues in its subsidiary based in Ireland over two years. The subsidiary, MG billing, collects revenues from people who pay premium fees to access pornographic websites. Some of these sites are mild, some of them have extreme content.

It is reasonable enough, I think, to categorise pornography, particularly premium pornography, as a luxury item. It is not food. It is not clothing, and it is not needed for sustenance. In fact, it is almost the perfect item on which to levy additional taxes, both as a source of revenue for the state, and as a societal statement that says “we disapprove strongly of much of this content”. We have no problem doing that for cigarettes, so why wouldn’t we do it with porn?

After all, you won’t find a politician, or an NGO, in Ireland, willing to publicly defend content like that above. We live in an era of “#metoo” and feminism and men must do better, and all of that. And yet, at the same time, we have companies making massive revenues in Ireland from content involving a real young woman, or women, being degraded and abused solely for the entertainment of men with violent sex fantasies. It’s absurd, to use one of the milder possible descriptions.

Nor, of course, are there any effective regulations on porn. You cannot buy alcohol in Ireland until you are 18. You cannot buy cigarettes until 18. You cannot legally buy cannabis for recreational use at all. There are restrictions on gambling. Yet there are no penalties for making pornography of that nature available to everybody.

In part, I think, because of a long history of censorship of “adult” material in Ireland, there’s a sense that any call for regulation makes you a bit of a square. That it puts you on a par with those old dears who were so eager to ban Playboy, and so on, in decades of yore. But I’d hope we might all agree that, to paraphrase Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, we’re not in Playboy territory any more. We’ve come a long way from still nudes.

It’s important too, I think, to note that all porn is not the same. Conservatives have a tendency to lump everything in together under a broad umbrella of “indecent and immoral” – and perhaps that’s right, at least morally. But practically, there is intuitively a difference between what is portrayed in regular pornography and what is portrayed in violent pornography. We might find it relatively easy – at least if progressives have an ounce of consistency – to build a coalition against the latter.

Free speech is, at the end of the day, a vital value, and worth defending. But we would all agree, I’d hope, that there is little value to depictions of violent, aggressive, painful sex that is purely marketed as being for the satisfaction of one partner, and where the entertainment is the deliberate degradation of a young woman. Those are not the kinds of fantasies that a sensible society would want to legitimise or encourage. And it is right, and legitimate, even if we differ on whether to ban them outright, to at least consider financial penalties targeted at porn companies who host them.

We have no problem recognising that alcohol, tobacco, and gambling are bad for us. And yet in not one of those pursuits is a young person violently humiliated for the entertainment of others. If we believe in sin taxes, and regulation of harm, then targeting this stuff is not just right or just.

It’s an imperative.

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