Rants, Feelings & Opinions

Here’s What’s Wrong with the “Porn is Dangerous” Argument

May 1, 2018

The porn wars are back. Troy Michael Bordun describes the anti-porn sentiment today and how this position could be dangerous for porn performers, porn consumers (us!), and marginalized individuals.

“We talk about pornography, and the effects of what that does to the minds of players and the distractions, and how that leads to abuse of—domestic abuse—to abuse of women.”

– Dayton Moore, manager, Kansas City Royals, August 2017

“…a child who views pornography is at a higher risk of developing low self-esteem, an eating disorder, and a desire to engage in dangerous sexual behavior.”

Resolution HR-157, “Public Health Risk Created by Pornography,” adopted by the Florida House of Representatives on Tuesday, February 20th, 2018

The porn wars are back. Whether we like it or not, porn is dangerous… again. The laughable superhero porn parodies, Easter-themed videos, stills of Anastasia Steele, and hardcover collections of Bob Mizer’s photography are all equally harmful these days (especially if you have kids! but especially if you’re a white heterosexual male!!).

The anti-porn crusade, 2018 edition

The internet went public in 1991 and, by the middle of the decade, online porn was a subject of moral panic. For instance, a July 1995 Time cover features a pale-faced child straight out of a horror film – face aglow in artificial light, the kid stares, mouth agape, at “cyberporn.” The corresponding article, “On a Screen Near You: Cyberporn,” details the dangers of easy access to online porn and politicians’ budding attempts to do something about it.

Time cyberporn cover

Skip ahead 20+ years and conservative politicians, liberal media, celebrities, and non-profits are again vocalizing their concerns about porn consumption. I’ll call them anti-porn crusaders, APCs for short, and their state of panic has translated into action: politicians have created anti-pornography resolutions and, in an effort to combat “porn addiction” and sexual health issues (largely erectile dysfunction), men have written books and blogs, and created counselling services, support groups, and online communities. Today’s APCs believe that in order to be better individuals, we need to kick the nasty habits of porn, masturbation, and orgasm (or PMO, an acronym employed by APCs such as Noah Church, a firefighter/entrepreneur who “counsels” porn addicts for $100 via Skype).

Perhaps most forcefully, a bevy of contemporary politicians and lawmakers have declared pornography consumption a public health hazard, risk, crisis, and/or epidemic, despite no consensus amongst health care professionals, researchers, scholars, or the general public as to porn’s actual dangers. On the one hand, the use of this kind of inflammatory language helps APCs scare the public into thinking there is, in fact, a severe public health issue. Calling attention to the dangers of porn is more than just that, however. Behind anti-porn resolutions are morals, traditions, and ideology which translate into attacks on sexuality and a defense of nuclear families. On the other hand, politicians’ difficulty in providing a common label for the “problem” indicates the general confusion about being against pornography. No one is clear about what exactly needs to be censored (just online, or also print, literature, photography, ancient vases…?), nor who is precisely being affected, how they are being affected, and what actions need to be taken to “fight the new drug.”

In the US, eight states have adopted resolutions and up to four others have put forward similar ones that unhesitatingly declare porn a danger to public health. In Canada, Conservative MPs recently placed a motion on the table to study the effects of “pornography addiction,” but the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health thankfully shut it down. As we’re beginning to see, this is a porn war unlike the “feminist sex wars” from the late 1970s to the early 1990s in which feminist thinkers and activists fought over the rights of women and the nature of freedom of expression. The war also isn’t going to slow down with similar discussions and legislative moves erupting in the UK and Australia.

In 2016, Utah was the first state to declare porn dangerous, a few years after research suggested the state had the highest rate of porn consumption. (According to PornHub, the state ranked 34th in US porn consumption in 2016, has slightly less women users [19%] than the national average [23%] and, humorously, Utahns are 50% more likely to search for “Mormon” porn than users in other states).The most recent and perhaps most controversial adoption of the “porn is dangerous” discourse comes from the Florida House of Representatives. On February 21, just days after the Parkland high school shooting, a motion to debate the sale of assault weapons was put to the House only to be quickly dismissed in favor of debating, and later adopting, anti-pornography resolution HR-157. Florida, we should note, has been a booming state for porn production since 2012 when Los Angeles County introduced a law requiring condom use in pornographic films (see Hot Girls Wanted, dirs. Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus, 2015).

Led by Republican Representative Ross Spano, HR-157 recognizes the (alleged) dangers of online pornography, particularly for children, and acknowledges “the need for education, prevention, research, and policy change to protect the citizens of the state [from pornography].” Precisely which kind of pornography citizens need protection from is not mentioned. According to the resolution, however, two of the many abstract things threatened by porn are marriages (presumably traditional and heterosexual) and families (presumably traditional and nuclear). In fact, porn is cited as responsible for the decline of both. If you’ve just said to yourself, “What the fuck?”, you’ve responded appropriately. Declining family and marriage rates, as everyone knows, are linked to multiple factors including but not limited to socio-cultural changes, economic disparities, a rejection of the institution of marriage altogether, and women now having the option (to varying degrees) to not bear children or be forced into wedlock. Moreover, the definition of family has drastically changed in recent decades to include same-sex parents and multiple parental figures (due to divorce and/or non-traditional parenting styles and arrangements). Whether society and culture is more “pornified” may be a drop in the bucket for declining marriage rates.

White male fragility or, #MensRights

As sex therapist David Ley outlines in his recent article in Porn Studies, the so-called “scientific” studies on the dangers of porn consumption wielded by APCs are marred by “theoretical weaknesses” and “methodological limitations.” Put simply, there has been no conclusive evidence that porn addiction is quantifiable, curable, or even real. Ley notes, moreover, diagnosing someone as an addict without sufficient evidence of such a condition may actually increase that person’s feelings of “shame and distress.” We don’t need more institutions or groups or individuals trying to sell us morality and negative feelings around sex, whether we do it alone with our laptops or with a dozen others.

These days we’re even being slut-shamed via outlets like TED talks and the NoFap movement. This diversification of approaches to sex-negativity moreover points to a gendered shift; today men are leading the crusade against porn. Conversely, in the 1980s and 1990s, anti-porn feminists were actively working to ban porn. They firmly believed that 1) porn production is sexual abuse and 2) the men viewing porn mimic that abuse.

The first belief takes as a given that women are abused, trafficked, and face low wages and precarious employment in the porn industry. But such claims miss the larger issue: women in all industries face issues like abuse and precarity disproportionately more than their male counterparts.

The second belief championed by second-wave anti-porn feminists — that watching porn is a catalyst for sexual harassment and abuse — wasn’t even backed by the very studies and research they were citing as evidence. As the anti-anti porn feminists Lisa Duggan, Nan D. Hunter, and Carole S. Vance observe in their chapter in Caught Looking (1988), at best some experiments found that viewing “some pornography promotes some sexist attitudes and beliefs in some subjects,” while another study demonstrated the importance of porn education (compared to a control group that wasn’t exposed to porn, if subjects received post-porn “debriefings,” i.e., debunking porn myths, the test subjects had less sexist attitudes when retested months later). In 2018, hopefully most people know that the cause and effect argument against media is a bad one: people don’t simply act out what they see on a screen, whether porn, video games, or action movies. How people are influenced or informed by their media is far more complex than APCs, past or present, are willing to admit. Yet the anti-porn feminists’ crusade against sexual violence, harassment, and abuse was nevertheless a just one.

Today’s APCs have turned the tables. Their main argument against porn relies heavily on the unscientific belief that heterosexual men’s mental health is endangered by porn consumption. As the Kansas City Royals manager’s statement (see above) and resolution HR-157 clearly indicate, what is at stake here is the well-being of male consumers – porn is a drug, it is addictive, and like drug addiction, it can be overcome by going cold turkey (in this case, eliminating porn from one’s daily diet) and seeking counselling.

The “porn is addictive (to men)” position isn’t interested in educating the public about the positives and negatives of online media. Moreover, it doesn’t employ as primary evidence the (albeit false) claim that porn viewers might copy what they see and then abuse women. Contemporary APCs still mention that porn might cause men to harm women, but only after they’ve outlined just how damaging porn it is to men’s health. The extreme concern over men’s well-being and the pseudoscientific argument that pornography consumption (not its production) is a public health risk is certainly tied to the upsurge of men’s rights activism, white male fragility, and the backlash against movements such as #MeToo. Anti-porn popularity hinges upon these other warped perspectives of reality.

A strong example of this male fragility is a recent workshop for the Royals baseball team hosted by Fight the New Drug (fightthenewdrug.org), a non-profit anti-porn group created by four Mormon men in 2009. FTND uses “science” to cure/fix/assist/counsel so-called drug users and exemplifies the men first, neo-liberal project in its approach to teaching players and staff about the dangers of porn: “In FTND’s awareness-raising presentation to the players, we specifically focused on how porn can impact a consumer’s overall well-being, which in turn can affect productivity, performance, and personal image.” Put differently, a life without porn means a general improvement in an individual’s well-being, which in turn makes them more efficient, better workers, and better men (whatever that means).

Before APCs blame the male consumer for not being able to “safely” use his media and manage his mental health, it likely hasn’t occurred to many of them that online media content is consumed by men, women, and non-binary and trans folks with a range of sexual identities, orientations, preferences, and tastes. For instance, in the USA and Canada, women make up approximately 25% of PornHub’s visitors and both men and women share the number one most searched for category, “lesbians.” Additionally, approximately 37% of PornHub Gay visitors are women. As Laura U. Marks writes in her account of viewing gay porn, women’s interest in this subgenre might be because “Gay porn offers me a way to look at men, overtly sexually, without being looked back at, or in the process pulled into a heterosexual power relation that would inevitably disadvantage me.” These two examples suggest that the multiplicity of porn users and their preferences could put “porn is dangerous” discourse to rest.

Attacks on Porn are Attacks on Sex

The lasting effects of the #mensrights anti-porn discourse are potentially grave. The impact of this discourse may result (and has already resulted) in destructive actions on the part of politicians, lawmakers, and police. Politicians may propose bans of a certain type of representation (in the past, usually gay and/or sadomasochistic), lawmakers will make it happen, and police will crack down on everyone from workers in the industry to the suburban teenager’s parents who encourage their child to freely roam the web in search of sexual education and expression. It’s crucial to acknowledge  that the history of porn censorship and regulation has also been a history of attacks on marginalized groups: sex workers, precarious labourers, artists, LGBTQ+ individuals, and people who participate in non-normative sexual activity and alternatives to monogamy and marriage.

A few examples: in the 1950s, one way to access porn was through the mail; however, the Comstock Law prohibited the distribution of “obscene” materials as well as information about “contraception, abortion, and physical implements designed for such purposes.” The Postal Service was therefore in charge of policing pornography and sex education. Additionally, at this time homosexuality was illegal in every state and, correspondingly, gay pornography was frequently seized and its publishers and consumers arrested and tried. According to porn scholar Tom Waugh, consuming gay porn prior to Stonewall thus became a highly politicized activity for gay men: “using pictures was an act of belonging to a community.”

The 2018 “porn is dangerous” debate isn’t just a conservative issue – in fact, I would call this a centrist movement if we exclude specific political figures. FTND has celebrity backers such as Terry Crews, Emma Thompson, and Hugh Grant, and opinion pieces have been piggy-backing onto #MeToo momentum to argue for porn regulation. However, an anti-porn center must align itself with a powerful conservative agenda if they want to see any kind of censorship or restrictions. The point I’ve been making here is that pornography censorship, and the outcries over its addictive nature, trickle down to affect already marginalized individuals on the one hand and, on the other, has the tendency to silence political dissent . This is why education and research on the gamut of pornographic representations, historical and present, is of the utmost importance for today’s media-saturated populace.

Troy Michael Bordun recently taught a course on pornographic photography at Concordia University. His writings about porn and sexual representation can be found in Genre Trouble and Extreme Cinema: Film Theory at the Fringes of Contemporary Art Cinema (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), and Porn Studies, Synoptique, Cine-Excess, and Studies in European Cinema, among others.

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