By Lisabet Sarai
Just over a month ago, I happened on a syndicated column in my local newspaper, entitled “Porn in the US ‘a public health crisis’”. As soon as I’d digested it, I knew I had the topic of my next blog post for ERWA. I didn’t bother to save the article; I was sure I could find it on the ‘Net when I was ready to sit down and write. Sure enough, this afternoon I googled “porn public health crisis” and got pages of links to the basic story. For example, here’s more or less identical text to what I read, from www.telegraph.co.uk:
I noted some of the other domains where the item appeared: christianpost.com, christian.org.uk, sermonaudio.com, godlikeproductions.com. Clearly the religious establishment loved this article.
The content derives from a press conference preceding the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation Summit, held in Maryland suburb outside Washington, DC in May. The primary points of this rather histrionic report are that most US teenagers have viewed Internet porn by the time they’re thirteen or fourteen and that exposure to these “degrading misogynist images” has extreme negative consequences. To quote the article:
Mary Anne Layden of the University of Pennsylvania, who specialises in sexual trauma, said pornography has been a factor in every case of sexual violence that she has treated as a psychotherapist.
“The earlier males are exposed to pornography, the more likely they are to engage in non-consensual sex – and for females, the more pornography they use, the more likely they are to be victims of non-consensual sex,” she said.
Strong claims. I would like very much to see the scientific evidence supporting them. I’d also appreciate information on sample size and sample selection. Was the non-consensual sex self-reported, or independently verified? Was there any control for demographic or historical factors such as economic level, educational level, family conflicts, substance abuse, or other mental health issues unrelated to sex?
There’s also a serious logical flaw hiding in Dr. Layden’s statement. When treating victims of sexual violence, she has noted that porn shows up in most cases. This does not necessarily mean that porn leads to sexual violence. The causality could very well work the other way: individuals prone to commit sexual violence tend to use porn as fantasy material or a substitute for action. Furthermore, her personal observations in the therapeutic environment say nothing about the effects of porn on the population as a whole.
The article then shifts to discussing the effects of porn on the individuals who participate in creating it, a journalistic sleight of hand that leads the reader into thinking that perhaps this is the ultimate fate of the poor teens who’ve become porn addicts.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not generally in favor of young people being exposed to hard core porn. I don’t subscribe to the hysteria evident in those attending this conference. However, I’m concerned by the fact that, to quote Dr. Gail Dines, “”Porn is without doubt the most powerful form of sex education today.” This may well be true, and I find it most unfortunate, because porn is not intended as education.
Whatever you think about visually-oriented commercial pornography – I’m assuming that everyone’s talking about photos and films here, not written material – you have to admit that it does not present a realistic picture of human sexuality. Most porn utilizes stereotyped scenarios and body types, building an ideal world to help the viewers get off. Nothing wrong with that, if you’re an adult, with real world sexual partners. You know that it’s all fantasy, intended as hot fun.
Teens, though, don’t have the basis to make accurate judgments. A young man who sees porn studs with huge cocks pounding away for hours is all too likely to feel inadequate about his own more normal endowment. A young woman who watches big-boobed bimbos eagerly taking facials may believe this is what’s required in order to appeal to the opposite sex. The lack of emotional connection one sees in a lot of porn may mislead teens into thinking that sex is a purely physical activity, a sort of sport, as opposed to one of the most profound and important aspects of human experience.
The article doesn’t explicitly cite a solution for the so-called crisis, other than to get the government involved (often a very bad idea). Dr. Dines suggests we need “programs out there that get kids to understand how porn is manipulating them.” The subtext of the article, though, is that the whole problem would go away if porn just disappeared.
I have an alternative solution. How about some serious sex education? Education that honestly acknowledges the fact that teens have sexual desires, that offers them reliable information about their own bodies and feelings as well as about those of the opposite sex? If we’re worried that porn is sending the wrong messages about sex, let’s expose kids to positive, pleasurable, respectful models of sexual experience. Let’s teach them that sex is natural, not dirty; that it’s an act of connection, not of conquest; that they can always say no, but that they’re also free to say yes. Teach them about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases, so they can protect themselves. Debunk the myths. Encourage them to ask questions and to communicate their uncertainties. Help them get past their embarrassment to real knowledge. And yes, do explain that porn is a business designed to make money, and that they shouldn’t take it too seriously. Don’t condemn it, though. That which is forbidden only becomes more attractive.
While we’re at it, too, how about allowing fiction to be frank about teenage sexual liaisons? Would you rather have your adolescents read an explicit book about kids their own age having sex, or watching Kink.com?
America is notoriously squeamish about sex, though. In fact, I believe that various bans on portraying sexual images and describing sexual relationships in mainstream media are part of the reason the porn business is thriving. (Technological issues also play a major role, of course.) The more puritanical the country becomes, the happier the porn purveyors will be. Every restriction on erotic content makes their products more valuable.
I don’t think porn is a public health crisis. However, it may well be an educational crisis. Public media do shape both opinions and behaviors. I’d hate to think that an entire generation knows nothing about sex except what they’ve learned from watching porn. They’d never realize what they were missing.