Measures Against Porn Abuse Are Not Enough

In many ways, pornography is the perfect teaching tool, except for the fact that everything it teaches you is a lie. ~Dr. Mary Anne Layden

Warning: This post includes some descriptions of sexual assault.

Early in December of last year, Nicholas Kristof wrote about the tragic lives of young people affected by the gross abuses of pornography. Read for instance his description of the darker side of Pornhub:

[Pornhub] is infested with rape videos. It monetizes child rapes, revenge pornography, spy cam videos of women showering, racist and misogynist content, and footage of women being asphyxiated in plastic bags. A search for “girls under18” (no space) or “14yo” leads in each case to more than 100,000 videos. Most aren’t of children being assaulted, but too many are.

How and why does such vile content exist? One reason is that Pornhub allows videos to be easily uploaded and downloaded, which means that even if an objectionable video is removed by a moderator or law enforcement, it may already have been downloaded and shared among others, only to be re-uploaded at a later time. This indeed is what happened to several of the victims profiled in Kristof’s article: they either shared pictures or videos of themselves naked (or were recorded without their knowledge, or, in the worst case, coerced into a recorded sex act), and the videos were distributed across various digital platforms without their knowledge or consent. Their lives were ruined as a result. They deal with crippling shame, depression, homelessness, drug abuse, and the knowledge that Pornhub profits from their suffering. “That’s a recurring theme among survivors,” writes Kristof. “An assault eventually ends, but Pornhub renders the suffering interminable.”

Kristof reported some tentative good news in a follow-up piece. Lawmakers, activists, and credit companies vowed to launch investigations and take more regulatory and preventive measures. Pornhub publicly declared it would take concrete steps to verify the identity of users uploading videos, increase/improve monitoring of content, and prohibit the downloading of videos (in short, all the measures proposed by Kristof). It’s heartening to see how journalism and the courageous voices of victims can precipitate such positive change.

But Kristof knows that there are counter-strategies to these strategies, and that much structural reform is needed to address the root causes. You can practically hear the frustration in his voice at the end of his first article: “Columnists are supposed to offer answers, but I struggle with solutions”; “I don’t see any neat solution”; “These measures wouldn’t kill porn or much bother consumers of it.”

Yet even with these honest admissions, I am not sure Kristof is sober enough about the enormity of the situation. For me the main clue is that he is at pains to say that pornography is not, in itself, a problem:

The issue is not pornography but rape. Let’s agree that promoting assaults on children or on anyone without consent is unconscionable. The problem with Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein or Jeffrey Epstein was not the sex but the lack of consent — and so it is with Pornhub.

To be sure, rape is evil and should be stopped at all costs, and consent in sex is a basic moral principle that (I hope) all but the most nihilistic of individuals could agree on. But shouldn’t we dig further than that? For example: Can you really succeed in cutting out the “bad” or “extreme” parts of porn while “mainstream” porn continues to be so readily available? What are the effects of the mainstream stuff, anyways? Does watching porn over and over influence a person’s conception of what sex should be like? If so, how does this influence work in a person over time? What does porn teach about beauty and gender roles and sexual satisfaction? Does it enhance intimacy or does it undermine / diminish it, and if so, to what extent? Does regular porn use contribute to sexual health and fulfillment, or does it contribute to indifference towards marriage or to marital breakdown, jealousy, shame, and distrust? Is porn addictive or is it relatively easy to stop viewing if one so chooses? Does it incrementally push viewers towards the more “extreme” content? Is it connected with horrors like sex trafficking, and if yes, how? Is it possible that even in its most “wholesome” form— i.e., when mature adults consent to it and there is no obvious physical harm involved—that porn is fundamentally objectifying and therefore morally detrimental both to the actors and consumers? If there is compelling evidence in the affirmative w/r/t to any of these questions, what then?

Kristof begins down this path when he begins brainstorming on solutions, but he doesn’t get far. Perhaps that’s because he wants to tackle one problem at a time. Perhaps it’s because the questions are controversial. Passing moral judgment about porn is not exactly democratic.

Still, if I ever had to opportunity to speak with Kristof, I would ask him whether he thinks we really have a strong grasp of the nature of pornography as a business and as a force that shapes our psychology. As David Foster Wallace wrote in a remarkably prescient article in the ’90s, it is quite possible that porn’s widespread accessibility—so easy and abundant now with smartphones, as compared to when Wallace was writing—is precisely what engenders the demand for the exploitative sexual content that Kristof denounces, and incentivizes entrepreneurs to find creative ways to supply it. The following is from an extended footnote in the printed version of Wallace’s essay:

In nearly all hetero porn now there is a new emphasis on anal sex, painful penetrations, degrading tableaux, and the (at least) psychological abuse of women. In certain respects, this extremism may simply be porn’s tracing Hollywood entertainment’s own arc: It’s hardly news that TV and legit film have also gotten more violent and explicit and raw in the last decade. So maybe. And yet there’s something else.

The psychodynamics of porn seem always to have involved a certain real degree of shame, self-loathing, perception of ‘sin,’ etc. […] We note, though, that the faces of today’s fans at the Adult CES seem different, the affect more complex. An observer gets the odd sense that the average fan here feels slightly ashamed of being slightly ashamed of his enthusiasm for porn, since the performers and directors now appear to have abandoned shame in favor of the steely-eyed exultation that always attends success in the great US market. Wherever else it is, porn is no longer in the shadows and slums. As Max’s scarlet-clad crewman put it, ‘In a way, it’s kind of a drag. Now everybody’s watching it. We used to be rebels. Now we’re fucking businessmen.’

The thing to recognize is that the adult industry’s new respectability creates a paradox. The more acceptable in modern culture it becomes, the farther porn will have to go in order to preserve the sense of unacceptability that’s so essential to its appeal. As should be evident, the industry’s already gone pretty far; and with reenacted child abuse and barely disguised gang rapes now selling briskly, it is not hard to see where porn eventually is going to have to go in order to retain its edge of disrepute.

In short, the porn industry is not only incentivized to satisfy what you might call the average consumer’s sexual appetite, but the appetites of those who, dissatisfied with the “usual stuff,” are looking for something more extreme. Surely companies like Pornhub don’t want to be seen as suppliers of child or rape porn, but if Kristof’s reporting is accurate, then to this day there is a non-trivial demand for it; and if Wallace’s analysis is true, then it is likely that this demand is fueled rather than impeded by the easy availability of porn. And if that is true, then the gains that Kristof describes, while certainly commendable and worth pursuing in their own right, are nevertheless unlikely to lead anyone to reassess whether porn may actually be a bigger problem than we realize. That there is in fact a vigorous debate over whether porn, in all its forms, is harmless as long viewers are responsible, or whether it is so toxic and morally destructive that it should be banned, will not be taken seriously. Porn is too normalized.

This is a problem for many reasons, and it is important to note that the debate over porn is not a mere shouting match between conservative and liberal voices. There are now feminist scholars and science professionals—people trained to rise above partisan opinions and present evidence-based conclusions—coming together in support of non-profit organizations like TruthAboutPorn.org and FightTheNewDrug.org, which are dedicated to enumerating the latest findings on pornography’s insidious effects.

Heed, for example, this extended statement from Dr. Gail Dines:

Now the problem is that pornography is a kind of stealth public health crisis. I think people especially over the age of 35 do not understand the world of young people. They do not understand what it means to grow up in a society saturated by pornography. […] Today what happens is when they put porn into google, they get catapulted into a world of sexual violence, degradation, dehumanization … they get catapulted into a world that for many, they had no idea this is what they were going to get into. And I think it traumatizes them, I think it really has a terrible impact on the way they think about themselves, they way they think about sexuality, intimacy, and connection.

More from Dines:

People who often criticize pornography are called anti-sex. To which I would argue that, if you want to be pro sex, you have to be anti porn. You can’t be pro porn and pro sex. You have to pick one. And I think those of against who are against pornography, are against pornography because we can’t stand what it does to sex. We can’t stand to see the way in which it reduces sex to an industrial toxic product, which is exactly what pornography does. The free porn sites were designed as a way to get young boys into pornography, so that by the time they get their credit card, they’re addicted and they’re using it and using it. It’s a perfect business model. And I don’t know what kind of adult men these boys are going to grow up into, because we have robbed them of so much by introducing them to pornography at such an early age. We have allowed the pornographers to come in and to hijack our kids’ sexuality. Into a sexuality that is predatory, that is violent, that is disconnected, and that reduces humans to just basically sex objects. Men and women. So this is why pornography’s a public health crisis. It goes from the individual and radiates out to families, to communities, to the culture.

Next, consider this from Dr. Mary Anne Layden:

In many ways, pornography is the perfect teaching tool, except for the fact that everything it teaches you is a lie. […] Pornograhy was telling you that you were going to have a great sex life. And yet what it’s producing is sexual dysfunction. […] [P]ornography is sexual fast food. And there’s a feast out there, and I don’t want you to miss it, I don’t want you to miss it. And the pornography is a fake version, and I want you to have the real version. […] Get the real kind. Get the real kind.

Dines and Layden aren’t just commenting on the lies that pornography teaches. They insist that reversing the far-reaching consequences of porn will require us to be pro “real sex.” That means that addressing the problem of porn must go hand in hand with a better, truer vision of what sex is and what it is for. It won’t be enough to name porn the farce that it is and lobby against its abuses. Even wholesome porn, if it can be called that, has profound social consequences, and to fight it we need to replace it with a better story about intimacy and love.

Which, ironically, lands us back in the same dilemma presumably faced by Kristof: In pluralistic society can you really tell people that porn is fundamentally problematic, and promote a different narrative about sex without reference to a coherent moral framework? I could be wrong, but to me that’s an uphill battle in a culture that distrusts moral hierarchies—whose common answer to the question of what is right is a set of utilitarian mottos like “figure things out for yourself so long as you don’t hurt anyone.” In the long run I think we will not only to read scientific and rational resources to inform us, but leaders and communities to help us press into deeper questions about who we are and what moral resources we can leverage to live out a more humane vision of sex.