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recently visited a friend whose Edinburgh street hosts a free library comprising two small shelves of books, protected by a wooden door, bolted to railings. Anyone can borrow or donate books, and I felt like browsing. Both shelves were crammed with paperbacks, and the previous donor had wedged their hardback into the cupboard, supported only by the closed door. When I opened it, An Illustrated Anthology of Erotica (Little, Brown and Co, 1992) fell into my arms.
On the cover, directly beneath a large-font ‘EROTICA’, was Heinrich Lossow’s painting of Leda and the Swan. Leda hadn’t gone to the riverbank to feed the ducks; that was clear. So too was the fact that I hadn’t heard the approaching footsteps of an elderly gentleman of military bearing. His look of disdain as I spun around — affording him the chance to register ‘EROTICA’ above the recumbent Leda in my trembling hands — was withering, and I scurried off, unwilling to wrestle the troublesome anthology back into place.
“Mmm,” was my wife’s unenthusiastic response to this true account, and ‘mmm’ is my unenthusiastic response to this anthology; the visual equivalent of a symphony played on one note. Having plunged in, as it were, to emerge with my eyes duly boggled, I turned to the foreword, which quotes the German art collector Eduard Fuchs (1870-1940), who claimed that “eroticism lies at the root of all human life”. Really? In that case, I can’t help feeling how dull I am.
When does eroticism become pornography? Possibly when subdued lighting yields to floodlit spectacle. And pornography is about more than sex, otherwise there wouldn’t be a demand, say, for a dominatrix in a jacuzzi full of custard.
But despite the absurdity of blank-eyed purveyors of customised — even ‘custardised’ — sex, pornography is no joke. For example, in Raymond Cleaveland’s Pornography and Priestly Vocations (www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=6182), his tale of porn-drenched priests includes the observation: “Like never before in the 2,000-year history of the Roman Catholic Church, the young men called to the priesthood today have been immersed in a pornographic world from the day of their birth.” Unsurprising perhaps, since as Shakespeare’s character Angelo demonstrates in Measure for Measure, nothing corrupts like virtue.
And if, as Fuchs notes above, eroticism does lie at the root of all human life, then there’s the risk of courting a sexually-transmitted disease, especially among those who cavort on computer screens. For instance, when Hill et al considered ‘Condom use and prevalence of sexually-transmitted infection (STI) among performers in the adult entertainment industry’, their results, published in the International Journal of Sexually Transmitted-Diseases and AIDS (2009, 20: 809–810), showed that men who had sex with men (MSM) reported higher rates of condom use “than either women or heterosexual men (25 per cent, versus 0 per cent, versus 7 per cent, respectively)”. There was a high prevalence of STIs among the study group, who had attended the STI clinic over 400 times. Thus, eight MSM had a total of 123 STIs, 14 heterosexual men had 135 STIs, and 15 heterosexual women had 22 STIs.
Given examples such as these, let us leave aside the question of the morality and ask whether pornography is a public health problem, as the US state of Utah declared in 2016. Perhaps the Utah state legislators had read Dr Mary S Calderone’s ‘Pornography as a public health problem’ in the American Journal of Public Health (March 1972, 374-376). Calderone complained that our capacity to judge when the expression of eroticism is appropriate “is so poorly developed in such a large proportion of individuals that the term ‘pornography’ begins to be applied with faulty judgment — one might almost say — promiscuously”.
But when it comes to determining what is eroticism and what is pornography, who, asks Calderone, “is to arbitrate and adjudicate the question, and on what basis?”
The answer appeared to be public health physicians. Dr Calderone, incidentally, was the Executive Director of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, which she founded in 1964.
Which dovetails into Prof Irving Zola’s essay Healthism and Disabling Medicalisation, where he cites Dr P Henderson’s 1971 address to the British School Health Service Group. Henderson called for school health workers’ involvement in a series of “health problems”. Zola cites 10, including maladjustment, juvenile delinquency, children in care and maladjustment. “One wonders,” asks Zola, “who or what is left out?” Pornography, I suggest.
My inclination is to favour the views expressed by David Boaz, writing in the Business Journal (22 July 2016), whose title asserts that “Porn is not a ‘public health crisis’”.
He warns that bureaucracies are notorious in their wish to expand: “So, true to form, the public health authorities have broadened their mandate and kept ongoing.” And it seems to me that the exclusion of a pornography subtype of hypersexual disorder from the DSM-5 was probably a close-run thing.
Erotica or pornography? Either way, it seems to me that sex is about a feeling… which a tastefully-illuminated dominatrix in a jacuzzi of custard will never evoke.
Everyone needs an editor”, observed London-born American writer Tim Foote (1926-2015), pointing out that Hitler’s original title for Mein Kampf (1925) was Four-and-a-Half Years of Struggle against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice.
Leaving aside the thought that what Hitler needed more than an editor was an early demise, his rise to power and the collapse of the Weimar Republic enfeebled Germany’s hitherto vibrant medical press. For example, in his Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis (1988: p70), Robert N Proctor notes how, in December 1933, Germany’s leading medical journal, the Deutsches Ärzteblatt, drooled over the benefits conferred by Nazism: “Never before has the German medical community stood before such important tasks as that which the national socialist ideal envisions for it.”
This “national socialist ideal” included human experimentation of appalling depravity. Decades later, the ethical backwash of those crimes stimulates contemporary debate in the biomedical community. For example, Dr Robert L Berger, in the New England Journal of Medicine (17 May 1990), considers ‘Nazi Science — The Dachau Hypothermia Experiments’, finding that some scientists insist on banning citations of these tainted data, while others advocate their dissemination, claiming that they might save lives.
Yet the assumption that the lessons of publishing and/or citing ethically-suspect experimental results might not have been lost on those who exercised medical editorial clout in the post-war era is mistaken. For example, published results acquired from the infamous 40-year Tuskegee Syphilis Study in Alabama evidently met editorial and ethical standards of scrutiny.
But in what other ways might patients’ lives be risked for the want of moral and editorial rigour? In a recent paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics, the philosopher Prof Thomas Ploug asks: ‘Should All Medical Research be Published? The Moral Responsibility of Medical Journal Editors’, contemplating the permissibility of conducting research but not publishing results. One example Ploug cites in support of his contention that publishing certain studies may harm patients is the analysis by Abramson et al in the BMJ (22 October 2013), titled ‘Should People at Low Risk of Cardiovascular Disease Take a Statin?”, where they note that “[t]he side-effects of statins… occur in about 20 per cent of people treated… ”
Ploug cites one study’s claim that “as many as 200,000 people in the UK have stopped taking statins” following media coverage, apparently increasing the likelihood of harmful effects to these people.
Ploug’s faith in editors’ ability to foresee “the potential harmful effects of publishing research” is evident because “[m]ost if not all editors have a background in research and therefore must be expected to be able to understand and critically engage with the content of research publications. And, very importantly, they are aided in these efforts by the reviewers, who may have a firmer grasp of specific areas within a particular field of medical research.”
So, did the editors/reviewers of the British Journal of Sports Medicine (online 21 January 2018) act irresponsibly in publishing ‘Statin Wars: Have we Been Misled About the Evidence? A Narrative Review’, a challenge to the efficacy of statins from Dr Maryanne Demasi, stating that “[d]octors and patients are being misled about the true benefits and harms of statins, and it is now a matter of urgency that the raw data from the clinical trials are released”?
Conversely, the notorious Naudé review raises questions about the extent to which certain editorial boards and reviewers are “able to understand and critically engage with the content of research publications”. In July 2014, the journal PLoS One published Naudé et al’s ‘Low Carbohydrate versus Isoenergetic Balanced Diets for Reducing Weight and Cardiovascular Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis’. It reported that when the energy consumed by people following low-carbohydrate and balanced diets was similar, there was no difference in weight loss. This conclusion was crucial in Prof Tim Noakes — a leading promoter of low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets — being charged with “disgraceful conduct” by the Health Professions Council of South Africa two months later; a charge which he defeated… twice.
In ‘Lore of Nutrition: Challenging Conventional Dietary Beliefs’ (2017) by Noakes and Sboros, Noakes describes how his and UK researcher Dr Zoë Harcombe’s reanalysis of the review uncovered 15 material errors. Harcombe and Noakes corrected these errors, repeated the meta-analysis and found that the lower-carbohydrate diet “produced significantly greater weight loss than did the balanced diet”.
Harcombe and Noakes reported their findings in the South Africa Medical Journal (2016, 106: 1,179-1,182), asking whether the Naudé review was “mistake or mischief?”, with Noakes commenting in ‘Lore of Nutrition’ (p 128) that “the reluctance of the editors of PLoS One to properly investigate the nature of the material errors raises questions of who the journal is protecting, and why”. To date, the Naudé review remains unretracted. A correction that was issued on 2 July 2018 fails to address many remaining substantive issues raised by Harcombe and Noakes.
Scientific facts and human values are intertwined, entailing a moral responsibility on researchers and editorial boards to promote a spirit of genuine enquiry and constructive criticism based on ethically-acceptable content, but not unsubstantiated opinion nor authorial reputation.