Should public spaces, like libraries, ban pornography? This past week, the San Francisco Public Library made it easier for those who want to use the library’s online services to view illicit materials by installing shields on 18 of its public computers at the Civic Center branch. In the tradition of anti-censorship, the librarians refuse to censor websites, including those containing pornographic materials. Yet, they want to address concerns from some of their patrons who were troubled that they might accidentally see inappropriate content while visiting the library. A librarian reported to KTVU that they are “always looking for any kind of elegant solution that strikes a balance between the right to privacy and folks that want to use the library for any other intended purpose.” The privacy shields attempt to achieve this balance by protecting unwanted eyes from viewing others’ screens.
Not surprisingly, this new policy has stirred up controversy both in San Francisco and across the nation. Fox News reports that anti-pornography advocacy groups like Morality in Media think the shields will not be effective because patrons can simply look over the shoulder of someone seated at a computer and see what he/she is viewing. A spokesperson from Morality in Media further argued that access to pronographic content should be prohibited by common sense: “I mean porn in the library? There’s no place for that.”
Underlying some of these concerns about unwanted viewership is the fear that children might be exposed to sexually explicit materials. This San Diego blogger explains that libraries should be places for children to be children, arguing that we should “let children enjoy their childhoods by keeping open displays of porn and profanity as far away from them as possible.” Still, the anxiety over children and pornography is neither surprising nor new. As Feona Attwood (2011) describes in her Sociology Compass article, children’s sexuality, particularly around pornographic images, has a tendency to incite public discourse and disapproval.
Yet, I think these concerns will turn out to be unfounded. On a practical level, how many people will look over someone’s shoulder to view the content on their computer? However, my support for the privacy shields is grounded in my anti-censorship perspective. Like the San Francisco librarians, I do not support censorship, especially of pornographic materials. This stance is informed by my position as a feminist and a researcher of pornography.
Since the 1970s, many feminists have called for the eradication and censorship of pornography. Anti-pornography feminist organizations, like Women Against Pornography in the 1970s and Stop Porn Culture today, argue that pornography is harmful for women: Pornography causes violence against females. The perceived (yet ultimately unfounded) connection between pornography and violence against women led to public initiatives like the Minneapolis Anti-Pornography Civil Rights Ordinance , which sought to hold pornographers civilly responsible for violence caused by pornography. Yet these initiatives were short sited and politically disingenuous, especially since empirical evidence has yet to show a significant link between violence and pornography consumption. They did lead, however, to unlikely – and unhealthy - alliances with political conservatives who shared only the concerns about pornography and not the larger feminist goals of gender equality. In places where anti-porn ordinances actually passed, like in Canada, the result was a disproportionate amount of censorship of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender erotic materials, showing that such political moves can be co-opted to further other forms of discrimination (see Segal in More Dirty Looks). Given this history, we have reason to be wary of censorship, especially since these types of initiatives can be so easily co-opted by those who ultimately may not share similar goals.
The San Francisco librarians are also wary of censorship, but they have found a solution that should appease most people. The privacy shields are a good middle ground. They allow people to access illicit materials without exposing others to the content. People can make the choice to view pornographic materials or they can avoid the 18 computers with the privacy shields. What do you think? Do you support the San Francisco library policy?
Attwood, Feona. 2011. “The Paradigm Shift: Pornography Research, Sexualization, and Extreme Images.” Sociology Compass 5(1): 13-22.
Bronstein, Carolyn. 2011. Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement, 1976-1986. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Ciclitira, Karen. 2004. “Pornography, Women and Feminism: Between Pleasure and Politics.” Sexualities 7(3): 281-301