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The Problems with Porn

And whether or not one believes that sex is sacred, it is hard to deny that the porn industry has commodified sex in ways that rid it of all that made it human.”

We need to talk about porn. Yes, it might get uncomfortable. And no, it will not be fun. But we have put this off for far too long. It is time.

Let us start with the facts. Porn has gone mainstream. In 2014, Pornhub alone had 78 billion page views, and XVideos became the 56th most popular website in the world. Studies show that, given the ease with which one can access porn in the Internet age, the average age that a boy first sees porn today is 11, and, by age 15, most teenagers have watched it. Only the Amish seem capable of escaping its clutches (and this is only speculation). 

Moreover—and this is really important—porn is not what it was a few decades ago. In fact, it is nothing like it. Long are the days of pin-up girls, nude mags, and feature length films with poor—yet real—attempts at acting. Today’s par for the course makes Hugh Hefner’s taste both antiquarian and prudish. We have entered the era of “Tube” sites, where what would have lived on the hardcore fringes only a few years ago has become commonplace. For those who want to know the gory details I recommend this TedX talk by Gail Dines. For everyone else, I will just say this: Due to the internal logic of porn consumption, ever-new forms of sexual objectification, violence, and brutality have become a staple of the average browsing experience.

The long and short of it is that today’s porn is unlike any other. So we should treat it accordingly. 

Still, contrary to certain criticisms of porn, there is little empirical evidence that consumption encourages rape or sexual assault. As a recent article in The Atlantic makes clear, young men today are less likely than their forbearers to abuse their female peers, despite consuming far more porn than previous generations. But the fact that porn does not (so far as we know) produce rapists ultimately reveals precious little. As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry makes evidently clear in his science-based case for ending the porn epidemic, porn’s toll is primarily psychological in nature (though it certainly holds physiological consequences). Thus, young men are more likely to become lonely and depressed recluses than rapists, at least in the short term. Moreover, Gobry’s review shows this is happening both at an astonishing rate and on a global scale. Porn may have its greatest visible impact on those who consume it. 

Gobry argues that the porn epidemic is “the number one public health challenge facing the West today.” He cites reams of evidence that Internet porn is severely addictive, and that it hijacks our biological drive for dopamine, trapping users into a harrowing cycle of dependence. He warns, “what smoking does to your lungs, porn does to your brain.” 

Gobry advances the most sophisticated evidence-based case for taking large-scale and sweeping action to address what he calls the “porn epidemic.” I laud Gobry for his efforts, and I agree wholeheartedly with him that we are (all of us) in the midst of a crisis of epic proportions. But I think his epidemiological framing of the issue is wrongheaded. Porn obviously has deleterious health consequences, especially for those who become addicted to it—in addition to experiencing erectile dysfunction and losing their desire for real sex, men who become addicted (and it is primarily men) become anti-social, anxious, and end up severely dependent on porn to cope. In these ways, porn addiction is much like any other. 

But porn is also in important respects different: There are inescapably moral and political dimensions to porn, which we would be wrong to overlook. 

The Conservative and Progressive Cases Against Porn

Of course, conservatives and progressives disagree over what these dimensions consist of. But I want to argue that—when it comes to the problem of porn—there is plenty of opportunity for bipartisan agreement. 

Consider both the conservative and progressive cases against porn.

The conservative case against porn should be obvious. Most everything porn reflects and encourages social conservatives detest. Porn desacralizes sex and divorces it from any sense of commitment. It makes a mockery of sexual modesty and devalues sexual restraint. It serves a cultural logic of instant gratification, rather than hard work or commitment. Porn privileges an individualistic consumer model of sex, devoid of communal purposes or obligations. By creating unrealistic and false expectations it poisons relationships. Porn also inspires lying, as the many wives who have caught their husbands watching porn can attest to. For conservatives, the case is relatively simple: Porn is damaging to the moral fabric of society as it colonizes the sexual imagination and makes the attainment of character that much more difficult.

It is unfortunate that so few progressives champion the case against porn. It is as though they assume that in taking up the mantle of crusading against porn they betray their progressive origins. This is wrong. There are myriad reasons—moral and political—why progressives should not support porn or its industry.

Consider the following: Gail Dines argues that, by severing our capacities for intimacy and love, porn actually makes for worse sex—not to mention poor relationships. Although not couched in explicitly moral terms, this is a kind of old-fashioned sexual revolution argument: If one wants really good sex, ditch the porn. While there is no doubt something to this, I think a stronger progressive argument centers on porn’s impact on women and their standing in society. 

Most of today’s porn is unbelievably degrading of women; porn actresses are regularly and repeatedly subject to humiliation, treated in brutal and despicable ways by the men onscreen, and forced to commit sex acts that few would ever do willingly (the mere fact that most people would have trouble reading about these scenes—let alone watching them—gives some indication of how extreme their content is). Whether or not this leads the men who masturbate to these scenes to become rapists, the notion that this has no impact on how they view the female sex is laughable. The acts graphically depicted in porn serve to shape consumers’ views in both conscious and unconscious ways. 

If one doubts this, then he has failed to grasp the most basic truth of advertising: Cognitive associations are everything. A Coca-Cola ad strives to get one to associate the company’s products with good feelings, perhaps the feeling of being with friends. If the ad is successful, the viewer learns to associate feeling good with friends with Coca-Cola. Porn does this in the most visceral way possible: It presents graphic degrading portrayals of women to its (largely male) consumers while they orgasm. Over time, this cognitive association—between female subjugation and the pleasure of orgasm—gets etched into the brain, creating a neurological pathway of its own. It is no wonder the more men watch porn, the more violent and extreme their tastes become.

This is what makes porn not merely an individual—but also a social—problem: Even if one does not consume it himself, he cannot escape its influence. Just ask the women who found themselves in a relationship with a man who was addicted to porn

If today’s porn is to be classified as speech, it is best thought of as hate speech—primarily against women.

What progressives need to accept is that—whether or not they agree with the conservative views of sexual morality—the ubiquity and character of Internet porn today undermines the quest for social equality; it is fundamentally at odds with social justice. 

Pornography is protected under the law as a form of free speech. This made sense in the 1970’s. It no longer does anymore. If today’s porn is to be classified as speech, it is best thought of as hate speech—primarily against women. Feminist philosophers Andrea Dworkin and Catherine Mackinnon argued in the 1980s that porn exploits and subordinates women. Perhaps they were wrong then. They are spot on now. 

Some “pro-sex” feminists claim that porn is empowering for women, that it reflects a form of sexual liberation. It is difficult to take this seriously. For one, equating sexual liberation with the porn industry is like equating romantic love with the wedding industry. One need not be against sexual liberation in order to be against sexual degradation and the codification of misogyny.

But even if we grant the “pro-sex” feminists the provocative (if counterintuitive) claim that porn can be a source of sexual emancipation for women, it goes without saying that this does not adequately capture the situation of the vast majority of porn actresses. Indeed, the fact is the majority make porn because their material situation forces them to—in other words, because they need the money. In short, the porn industry preys on the most vulnerable—the weak and marginalized—precisely who progressives care more about.

This leads me to my final progressive argument against porn: Porn reflects the very worst aspects of capitalism. For one, the porn industry operates with almost zero accountability to its workers; it chews them up and spits them out, forcing them to fend for themselves. No one who calls himself or herself a progressive should be okay with this. And whether or not one believes that sex is sacred, it is hard to deny that the porn industry has commodified sex in ways that rid it of all that made it human. Porn does not celebrate sex, as the generation of 68’ had wished-for; it degrades and commodifies it and then sells it back to us in an anemic and putrid form. The porn industry co-opts our deepest desires to connect physically with one another and channels it for the sake of profit. As Marx prophesied, “All that is solid melts into air.” 

What should we do?

The arguments against porn are powerful, from both sides of the political aisle. Let us imagine that we had the political will to enact change. What should we do? 

First, let me state what we should not do: We should not seek to revive a Victorian morality. Our present porn culture is the byproduct of a sexual revolution that justifiably rejected the overly oppressive and repressive standards once privileged in Western societies. I have no interest in returning to such dull and dreary times. I am glad the cultural pendulum was swung the other way. I just fear it has swung too far. However difficult this might be, I think we need to find a humane middle way. 

What would this look like? For one, I certainly do not think that masturbation is sinful, and I celebrate sex of all kinds, among all types. I also have no problem with public nudity, when it is in good taste and serves a justifiable purpose. I agree wholeheartedly with Gail Dines that porn destroys good and healthy sex, such that if we want more of the latter we need to get rid of—or at least seriously reform—the former. So I am not against sexual freedom or sexual pleasure. I just think we need to take into account how Internet porn undermines key social goods, such as love and justice. We need to be willing and able to talk about human dignity when we talk about sex—and about what basic ideals of decency and integrity require of us.

What would this entail? I think the porn industry needs to be regulated far more than it is. It is way too easy for children and teens to get access to porn. We need to make it much harder for minors to view it. And there is not enough regulation of the industry. Performers are exploited, traumatized, and sometimes not even compensated. There are few protections for these incredibly vulnerable people. This is unacceptable. The industry requires far more oversight. But this will not do it alone: The problem also requires systemic change in society. While some might go into the industry voluntarily because they have always dreamt of being a porn star, this is far from the norm. Most do porn because they need the money. So we need to create a society where these people have other choices. This entails a fairer and more just economic system.

I would also be in favor of creating more barriers to accessing porn online. It is worth noting that we regulate the sale of alcohol considerably; one has to go into a store and show identification to purchase it. This is also true of guns and cigarettes. Why not treat porn similarly? One of the main problems with porn today is that it is readily accessible to anyone with a smartphone. This can make it incredibly difficult to resist. As a society, we have the power to create safeguards for our children and ourselves; we should act from enlightened self-interest, in recognition of what is best for our fellows and ourselves.

The fault lies with the producers of porn and those who fail to regulate it, not with the people who consume it. 

Conclusion

I do not endorse demonizing those who watch porn. Porn addiction causes untold suffering, and, given porn’s ubiquity, I do not blame people for indulging. I blame industry and government. As Gorby makes evident, porn hijacks our evolutionary drives, making us slaves to powerful biological impulses. We are like crack addicts living in a crack house, only the crack house has an unlimited supply of crack, and indulging costs no more than monthly bandwidth. While the impacts of porn are deeply moral, chastising those who consume it (and the statistics suggest this is most of us) is both unfair and unproductive. The fault lies with the producers of porn and those who fail to regulate it, not with the people who consume it. 

While conservatives and progressives may disagree over the reasons why we need to take action against the porn industry, there is room for mutual agreement on this issue. In fact, if there is any silver lining contained in this crisis, it might be that it could help to close the widening partisan divide. But in order for this to happen, we first need to view it as the crisis it is. 

We have for too long dug our heads in the sand—or played down the severity of the problem. The evidence is there: Porn is undoubtedly a public health crisis. But it is much more than that. It is slowly sucking the soul out of our society, leaving many of our young and old lifeless and poisoning our sexual imaginations. While we may not be strong enough—as individuals—to resist its command, as a collective, we have the power to resist. Let us not shirk at the task.

Galen Watts is a Banting Fellow at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven’s Centre for Sociological Research. 

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Goodwins
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Goodwins

I agree with you that limiting access to porn for children and teenagers is vital. But it’s difficult to achieve. Focusing on helping children, teens and adults overcome the temptation to view porn and overcome the viewing habit is just as important. One of the best resources for doing so that uses the latest cognitive behavior science is the book Power Over Pornography. Last I checked, it was being offered for free (+shipping and handling fee) at freebook.poweroverpornography.com. You may want to check it out.

Ismail
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Ismail

This is really helpful