NPN’s Jendi Reiter reviews Pamela Paul, Pornified: How Pornography Is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families (New York: Owl Books/Henry Holt & Co., 2005).
Freelance journalist Pamela Paul, a contributor to Time Magazine, The Economist, Psychology Today and numerous other mainstream magazines, undertook this study of the pervasiveness of pornography in modern American culture and how it affects our intimate relationships. Paul conducted over 100 interviews with heterosexual Americans aged 21-39 (most were in their 20s and 30s, and about 80% were men) about the role of porn in their lives. Working with the Harris Interactive polling firm, she commissioned the first nationally representative poll to deal primarily with pornography. Respondents were asked such questions as whether porn improved their sex lives, the frequency and nature of their viewing habits, how their tastes changed over time, and whether they considered it “cheating” to use porn when in a relationship. (pp.10-11)
Unlike many authors who write about porn, Paul doesn’t seem to have a strong political agenda. For a long time, she felt porn was “no big deal”. But when she was assigned to research the topic for a Time article, she was stunned by the number of young men and women who feared their real-life relationships were being damaged by their own or their partner’s porn addiction. (pp.2-3) “[F]rom dozens of men, I heard about how something that once seemed fun was having unexpected side effects. A twenty-eight-year-old New Yorker wrote me an email that said, ‘I used to view porn online, but I began to find it more difficult to stay aroused when having sex with a real woman.'” The same man added that the availabilty of Internet porn when he was between girlfriends had “‘made it easy to glut–to the point where now, even though the dry spell is over, real sex has now lost some of its magic.'” (p.3) Paul found this story was all too common among the men she interviewed.
Meanwhile, many women were saying that porn had made their partners more judgmental and disrespectful about women’s bodies. Because porn was so mainstream, it was no longer “cool” for women to voice their discomfort. The conventional wisdom was that men’s sexuality had always naturally required a great deal of visual stimulation and variety. (p.13) In fact, Paul found, both the demand for porn and the content of porn had undergone an extreme cultural shift since Playboy launched in the 1950s. Our sexual expectations are more malleable than porn’s defenders would have us believe.
Violent Porn Goes Mainstream
While adult-industry stars enjoy unprecedented acceptance in the mainstream media (e.g. Ron Jeremy signing autographs for kids at DisneyWorld), porn films themselves are becoming ever more violent and intense. “Old school defenders of pornography may not be familiar with the direction in which Internet and DVD-era pornography has gone. They might not understand the infinite possibilities offered by online pornography and the intoxicating effects of the anonymity, accessibility, and affordability of the Internet.” (p.8) We’ve come a long way from sneaking a peek at grandpa’s nudie playing cards. Human beings have always been interested in erotica, but never before has the pornographic model of sexuality–one that is hardcore, often violent, and detached from actual relationships–been promoted in such a technologically sophisticated, seductive fashion.
Anyone with a VCR can now enjoy such films as Gag Factor #15, “the latest in a popular series of pornographic movies in which the action takes place in a room full of men in head scarves and masks holding photos of torture from Abu Ghraib.” The high point of the film is an “Arab” man threatening to behead a girl with a sword, followed by “multiple oral sex scenes in which the girl is shown to choke on genitalia and semen.” (p.8) This twisted cross-pollination between wartime atrocities and the pornographic imagination should give pause to anyone who thinks porn is still only a private matter.
Why Men Watch Porn
According to recent polls, 70% of men aged 18-24 visit a porn site in a typical month. So what exactly is the appeal? The men Paul interviewed gave a variety of answers. Some said porn helped them discover what turned them on in real life. Male bonding was also crucial. Many men’s first exposure to porn was in the pre-teen years, being initiated into manhood by an older relative or friend who passed along his copy of a girlie magazine. Thus, they learned to associate porn usage with being a normal adult man who is accepted by his peers. (p.16) Men reaffirm their masculinity on the message boards of porn websites. They compete to see who can show the most aggression and sexual prowess, in comments making fun of the female models’ supposed flaws or bragging about what they’d like to do to these women. (p.37) Paul wryly observes: “This isn’t quite the aesthetic appreciation that men make pornography viewing out to be, nor does it seem to be about men loving women.” (p.38)
Porn is also a sexual outlet for overworked professionals who have no time to sustain an actual intimate relationship. (p.17) Masturbation becomes a way to self-medicate the stress of a busy, perhaps unfulfilling work life–a daily habit, like the morning cup of coffee. Some men said experimenting with porn felt safer than trying out new sexual possibilities with a partner who might reject them. (p.24)
In porn, women make no demands on men. They don’t want conversation, foreplay, or a phone call the next morning. Pregnancy and STDs are nonexistent. There’s no performance anxiety, no erectile dysfunction. No matter what the man does, the woman loves it. Porn becomes a refuge from the real world in which women seem to be gaining more power, both in relationships and in the competition for jobs. (p.41)
Contrary to the myth that porn users are lonely, depressed single men, Paul found that many of her male subjects used porn as a supplement to (or at times an escape from) their committed long-term relationships. They felt that access to a variety of willing partners, at least in fantasy, was an essential part of male sexuality that they were entitled to express. Porn users claim it has no effect on how they view the real women in their lives, but how easy is it to maintain such double vision? One of the young men Paul interviewed reported that porn use made him more inclined to think sexual thoughts about women he met or saw on the street, despite being in a satisfying monogamous relationship. (p.47) Another man found himself comparing his 29-year-old wife unfavorably to the 19-year-old porn actresses he preferred to watch. They were always fresh and different, and always completely enthusiastic about sex, unlike real women. (p.45)
How Porn Affects Men’s Beliefs About Sex
It’s commonly claimed that porn is mere fantasy, with no impact on users’ daily lives. “But to argue that pornography has no effect on the people who consume it would be like arguing that the multibillion-dollar advertising business is all for naught, that people aren’t influenced by what they see, read, or hear, and that all media are inconsequential.” (p.72) Reactions to porn, or any media product, will be varied and complex, but to say that its unreality makes it harmless is to deny the power of ideas to influence behavior.
One way porn affects people is to change their definition of normal sexuality. In a landmark 1980 study by University of Alabama communications professor Jennings Bryant and psychology professor Dolf Zillmann, 80 students at a large northeastern college were divided into four test groups with different levels of exposure to sexually explicit films over a six-week period. The porn films were far tamer than today’s average material, only depicting consensual heterosexual acts with no violence; the other films the students watched had no sexual content. The more pornography the subjects had viewed over the six-week period, the more likely they were to greatly overestimate the number of Americans who practiced group sex, sadomasochism and bestiality. (pp.77-78)
In light of this study, one can see how long-term porn use would make men more likely to expect or demand sexual behavior from their partners that most women actually don’t enjoy, especially since today’s porn often eroticizes rape and sexual violence. How can a man believe “No means no” when a porn performer’s No usually means Yes?
Porn also promotes a self-centered view of sexuality, as even porn users admit. According to Gary Brooks, a psychologist at Texas A&M University, porn gives the false impression that sex and pleasure are entirely separate from relationships. A man watching porn is only interested in his own pleasure, using the women on-screen as means to an end, like a consumer product. The men in their 20s and 30s whom Paul interviewed said they had to struggle to keep porn women separate from real women in their minds: they knew they were supposed to treat real women with respect, but in the porn world, both men and women were just sex objects. (p.81)
Habituation and Addiction
Paul compares porn to junk food. It stirs up your cravings and seems to satisfy them in the short term, but because there’s no nutritional value or variety, you’re still hungry and more frustrated than before. (p.85) This cycle of desire and disappointment is what leads to addictions, whether to porn, gambling, alcohol, or any other highly advertised product that falsely promises happiness. Paul quotes several regular porn users who became bored with ordinary heterosexual porn and needed more and more unusual thrills—group sex, bisexuality, anal sex—to replicate the original high.
Paul writes, “Despite its premise of relieving tension, pornography often creates tension for men, leaving them increasingly insecure, with the need for continual validation through ongoing conquests. Pornography, with its mutual objectification and teenage mentality, can bring back the worst of adolescent fears about manhood (with its requirement for youthful vigor and a boundless constitution). This mounting tension then leads to the search for temporary relief—and a more intense drive toward more porn.” (p.82) But porn will never be as satisfying as real sex because it does not offer emotional intimacy, affection, or individuality–aspects of sex that men also need, however difficult it may be for them to admit it. (p.85) This gives the lie to the “porn as safety valve” argument we hear so often.
Porn industry professionals are certainly aware of the habituation that drives demand for more hardcore material. Once a person becomes a regular viewer, he starts spending more time online, always searching for something he hasn’t seen before. “In a 2004 Elle-MSNBC.com poll, nearly one in four men admitted they were afraid they were ‘overstimulating’ themselves with online sex. In fact, that routine is an essential ingredient in the financial success of high-tech porn.” (p.87) The Internet makes it easier to sample or stumble across material you formerly considered off-limits, like bondage or child porn. You tell yourself it’s just this once, just out of curiosity. After awhile you’re no longer shocked. (p.88)
Porn and Acceptance of Rape
This desensitization has been shown to affect men’s views about rape. At the conclusion of the Zillmann-Bryant study, the students were asked to respond to a newspaper article about the rape of a hitchhiker. Both men and women in the group that viewed the most porn recommended significantly shorter prison terms for the rapist than students in the control group. The men in the porn-watching group were also less sympathetic to women’s political issues and three times less likely to favor expanding women’s rights. (p.89) Zillman concluded that porn leaves men both sexually overstimulated and emotionally numb, with unrealistic expectations about sexual pleasure but more difficulty achieving satisfaction. (p.90)
This study was so conclusive about porn’s harmful effects that subsequent researchers have been unable to get approval from ethics boards for more studies on human subjects. (p.90) However, the data is still valid: “Today, men who use Internet pornography typically reach the usage levels of the massive exposure group of this experiment, and the material they look at tends to be more hardcore.” (pp.90-91)
Expectations in Relationships
Many of Paul’s interview subjects said porn use made them more judgmental of their real-life sex partners. One thrice-divorced 34-year-old subject, who had been watching porn since age 10, said that he would break up with any woman who wouldn’t give him the kind of pleasure he saw men getting in porn films. If the woman takes too long to reach orgasm, or doesn’t enjoy swallowing semen, she’s history. (pp.92-93) Other young men said they wanted their girlfriends to be “slutty” and submissive (p.94).
In 2002, a professor at Texas Christian University conducted a survey of straight men who spent an average of five hours a week looking at online porn. The study found that the more porn they watched, the more likely they were to describe women in sexualized and stereotypical ways, and to want women to be subordinate to men. (p.92)
How Porn Affects Women and Couples
Porn used to be something embarrassing that men secretly indulged in and women were supposed to overlook. As society became more egalitarian and more open about sexuality in general, feminists split over what porn represented. Was it another form of male domination, or an exclusive club of sexual power and pleasure that women now had the right to join? These days, the latter view seems to dominate popular culture. Women’s magazines and television shows tell us to be realistic and open-minded about men’s interest in porn. If you want to be a modern, attractive, exciting woman, you should try to enjoy it too. (p.109)
Sociologist Michael Kimmel of SUNY-Stony Brook, who has studied pornography for 20 years, sees women’s embrace of porn as a decidedly mixed blessing. On the one hand, it reflects women’s increased comfort with their own sexual desires and agency. On the other hand, those desires have become more jaded and dehumanized since porn became part of women’s lives. “Compared with ten years ago, women’s fantasies are more likely today to include violence, rough sex, strangers, and descriptions of male physical attributes.” (p.113) Kimmel calls this the “masculinization” of women’s sexual imaginations. He worries that women are being taught to internalize the crudest forms of male-dominated sexuality.
Kimmel has also found that “male sexual fantasies have been increasingly shaped by the standards of porn. Two-thirds of male fantasies feature more than one woman, almost always strangers or near-strangers.” Women are described in terms of their physical aspects alone, and the focus is on serving the man’s pleasure, not their own. (p.27)
Women who like porn are generally looking at more soft-core films and images than the typical male user. Gloria Steinem once distinguished erotica from pornography by saying that the former is about a mutually pleasurable, consensual, positive experience shared by two people, while the latter is about violence, domination, and objectification—sex that reinforces inequality, or makes victims seem to be enjoying pain. (p.121) Erotic films aimed at women have storylines involving romance between couples, whereas the average male-oriented porn film shows a woman being slapped, cursed and humiliated by a group of men. (pp.121-22)
The women Paul interviewed, even those who considered themselves sexually experienced and adventurous, frequently reported problems with their partners’ porn use. One woman in her 30s told Paul that she felt cheapened and alienated from her lovers when she noticed them using porn-film moves on her. She could tell when a man was a heavy porn user because he treated her as an object to be viewed, keeping her at an emotional distance. (pp.128-29) Other women said their partners constantly deceived them about how much porn they were watching. Women who made the concession to watch “couples” erotica with their partners felt betrayed and second-rate when they discovered the men were still secretly indulging in hardcore porn. They felt anxious that their men were not sufficiently fulfilled by a relationship with them. (pp.146-47) Just as when a wife discovers her husband’s adultery, these women wondered if it was their fault that the men looked elsewhere for sexual satisfaction. (pp. 170-71) Meanwhile, acceptance of porn was a romantic deal-breaker for many of Paul’s male subjects; they would rather sacrifice a relationship than kick the habit. (pp.134-35) This is a common symptom of addiction.
Porn versus Fantasy
Monogamy can be difficult, and couples’ therapists generally agree that fantasy can be a healthy way to keep passion alive. Moreover, we all have the right to our private thoughts and fantasy lives. We may be committed to another person, but we’re still separate individuals. So how is porn different? Mark Schwartz, director of the Masters and Johnson Clinic, says porn is more dangerous than imaginative fantasy because it provides such a compelling substitute for reality. There’s a real risk that a man will start “making love to a picture” instead of his partner. (p.141) Porn is also not an expression of one’s individuality. It’s a mediated, manufactured, standardized product. Sharing a personal sexual fantasy can bring two people closer. Passing along a porn video or website link feels more like a distancing mechanism—I want a porn star, not you. (p.141) Women who try to share their men’s porn use often find that the men actually want to keep this part of their lives private, like a boys’ clubhouse, safe from the emotional entanglements of real life with women. (p.148)
Porn also undermines respect for marriage vows. The Zillmann-Bryant study found that only 39% of the massive porn exposure group thought marriage was an important institution, compared with 60% of the control group. “This shouldn’t be a surprise: loving wives and faithful husbands rarely feature in a porno. Pornography is the fantasy of permanent and unfettered bachelorhood; married characters who do appear are pursuing sexual adventures on the side. In pornography, partnered life hampers sexual pleasure.” (p.141)
Porn use takes away time and energy that a man could be spending on his real partner and family. In psychologist Jennifer P. Schneider’s 2000 study of women whose partners were involved in cybersex, 37% of respondents reported that their partners spent less time with the children because of online porn use. (p.155) Other researchers found that watching porn made men less enthusiastic about starting a family at all.
Porn and Children
These days, it’s a challenge for any kid with a computer to avoid exposure to porn. A 2001 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 70% of 15-17 year olds admitted accidentally encountering porn online; 35% of girls and 6% of boys said they were “very upset” by the experience. (p.174) Pornographers use deception to lure kids to adult sites, by buying search engine keywords associated with cartoon characters, actors and musicians who are popular with children and teens. (p.175) A 1999-2000 nationwide study of children aged 10-17 found that nearly 75% of the subjects’ accidental exposure to online porn occurred because of such keywords or misspelled website addresses. (p.175) Teachers’ own porn addictions, which they indulge in the workplace, are another common channel for this material to reach children. Online video gamers can’t avoid a barrage of soft-core images and pop-up ads for adult material. “For teenagers, pornography is just another online activity; there are no barriers to entry and almost no sense of taboo.” (p.181)
What are the effects of letting children get their sex education from the adult video industry? University of Pennsylvania professor and clinical psychologist Judith Coché, who has practiced for 25 years, sees an alarming new trend: pre-teen boys who already need treatment for online porn addiction. Their nascent sexual feelings are being trained to attach to a computer image instead of a real person. Children’s immersion in porn is a risky social experiment whose long-term fallout could be substantial. Coché worries that pre-adolescents are being stimulated to engage in age-inappropriate behavior, and don’t know how to handle those feelings. Internet porn “‘is where they’re learning what turns them on. And what are they supposed to do about that? Whereas once boys would kiss a girl they had a crush on behind the school, we don’t know how boys who become trained to cue sexually to a computer-generated porn star are going to behave, especially as they get older,'” Coché says. (p.181)
Paul recounts incidents of pre-teens and teenagers making videos of their own sexual behavior (including rapes of their peers) and posting explicit pictures of themselves on the Internet. Girls who emulate Jenna Jameson don’t realize how their attempts to fit in with porn culture make them vulnerable to sexual predators. (pp.182-84) Children and teens interpret the media they consume in a more literal way than adults; they’re less likely to understand that porn represents a particular, skewed version of human sexuality, not the way things should be for all men and women. (p.186) Porn sells a vision of sex as a self-centered process that takes place in a fantasy world. Kids raised on porn learn to disconnect their arousal from their feelings and those of the other person–a recipe for boundary violations and sexual abuse. In one 2003 incident in Ontario, two boys, ages 12 and 13, and a 13-year-old girl came up with a “game” that included sexually molesting their babysitting charges, who were ages seven to 10. When caught, they claimed they got the idea from cable TV and Internet pop-up ads. (p.187)
Child Pornography Resurgent
Child pornography cases, almost a non-issue for law enforcement in the 1970s, have exploded due to the growth of Internet porn. The number of such cases handled by the FBI’s cyber-crime squad increased 23-fold between 1996 and 2004. (p.190) While child-porn users undoubtedly include many lifelong pedophiles, Paul’s research found that regular adult porn was acting as a gateway for many other men who would never have expected to find such material desirable. Most of them encounter it for the first time by accident while looking at adult sites; 75% of the porn users Paul interviewed said this had happened to them. Though at first they were usually repulsed, some were drawn back by curiosity and the constant search for new thrills. The profusion of “barely legal” magazines, movies and websites, featuring young women in schoolgirl outfits and settings, makes it easier to smudge the line between acceptable and deviant fantasies, until suddenly a man finds himself desiring actual children. These schoolgirl images can tap into a man’s primal memories of rejection by some unattainable teenage queen, the root of the revenge fantasy that drives some of the demand for violent porn. (pp.196-98)
Paul tells the story of “Charlie”, a long-time porn user who began looking at magazines when he was eight, preferred watching porn to sex with his wife, became an online porn addict and eventually molested his 14-year-old niece during the period of his addiction to kiddie porn. (p.201) He is currently in a 12-step program that includes strict filtering and monitoring of his Internet use. (p.210)
Unfortunately, “Charlie’s” struggle is not an anomaly. Although porn users and advocates talk a lot about personal freedom, the porn habit can be surprisingly difficult to break even when the person wants to stop. The availability of online porn makes it easier for a sporadic user to become a compulsive one. In her interviews, Paul found that “men who were regular users (of Internet pornography in particular) said they logged on to look at it daily, whereas before the Internet, pornography had become a much more occasional pursuit. Moreover, almost a dozen men–again, self-described ‘normal’ users of pornography–had made efforts to cut down on their consumption, with only limited success, typically hard-won.” (p.214) More informal studies, such as a humor website’s poll of 94 online porn users, found that 52 of them couldn’t last a week without porn, and 24 couldn’t make it three days; only 28 respondents said they had stayed porn-free for the two weeks of the challenge. (p.214) The website’s author reported being surprised at how these men, most of whom were online acquaintances of his, naturally fell into the language of recovering addicts, talking about “withdrawal” and “tough days”. (p.215)
Dan Gray, director of the Utah-based sex addiction clinic AddictCARE, observes that the problem affects people from all walks of life, even those whose feminist or religious principles condemn porn. Paul’s own study reached a similar conclusion. “Despite stereotypes claiming otherwise, the vast majority of sex addicts interviewed for this book suffered no early childhood sex abuse or molestation. Most went to college and came from stable homes. Most started looking at pornography the way all boys in the pre-Internet era did: flipping through the pages of a girlie magazine—borrowed, bought, or passed down.” (pp.217-18) Psychologist David Marcus, who runs sex addiction recovery groups in San Jose, believes that biological dependence can occur when one starts using porn not as occasional amusement, but as a habitual way to relieve stress. (p.218) Like any quick-fix escape, the brain becomes accustomed to the endorphin rush, but since porn is only a distraction and not a solution to the stress, the user needs repeated and more intense stimuli to recapture the original feelings of relief, Paul concludes.
Paul relates several stories of marriages and lives ruined by porn addiction. Such men found it increasingly hard to avoid objectifying the real women in their lives, which caused them to get in trouble at work for treating colleagues inappropriately, withdraw from their spouses, and have difficulty maintaining friendships. All women seemed interchangeable to them.
Porn users tell their partners that this emotional disconnect is what makes porn harmless–they’re just pictures, they don’t mean anything to me. “But despite what wives get told, there is an emotional component to pornography–the satisfaction of a need to feel desired, to transgress, to be a man, to fill whatever’s missing from the psychological cocktail he equates with happiness.” (p.223) The problem with porn is that it encourages men to satisfy this need by withdrawing from reality, which damages his self-esteem more in the long run (and compounds the addiction) when he sees how his relationships have fallen apart. This cycle can lead to an unbearable tension between the user’s public and private selves, requiring the ultimate stimulation of real-life acting out. Some men became voyeurs, masturbated in public, or hired prostitutes. One addict, a married father of three, found himself hitting on 15-year-old girls during a family vacation; shortly after that, he started molesting the teenage girls who babysat for his children. (p.238) Another man’s 14-year-old stepdaughter was severely traumatized when she found pictures of him wearing her underwear. This man had tried for years to stop looking at porn, but always relapsed after a few months. (p.237)
Porn and a Free Society
Supporting porn has become de rigueur for today’s progressives and libertarians, though the actual content is often at odds with the values they hold dear, such as autonomy, human dignity and the rights of women. Well-known author Salman Rushdie, for instance, has argued that a free society is measured by its tolerance for pornography. Paul objects:
[S]uch seemingly liberal observations ignore the similarities between the sexual repression outside pornography and the repression within it. As a prisoner tortured and photographed pornographically at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq explained, “We are men. It’s okay if they beat me… But no one would want their manhood to be shattered. They wanted us to feel as though we were women, the way women feel, and this is the worst insult, to feel like a woman.” For the prisoner, to be made into pornography–to be pornified–was to be dehumanized; yet when presented in the context of pornography proper, it’s acceptable, even entertaining, for people to be treated as such. In the United States, the outrage over the actions at Abu Ghraib was accompanied by a strange hush regarding the inspiration of those acts and images, which are perpetrated in pornography, in this country as elsewhere in the world, every day. (p.240)
Porn is the new hip-hop, a form of media that is seen as cool and transgressive, a way of resisting repression and conformity in mainstream culture. However, Paul observes, porn is really a symptom of our unhealthy attitude toward sexuality, not the cure. “Hypocrisy and guilt still dominate sexuality in many ways, and pornography isn’t the cure for Puritanism or the sign of its defeat–it’s an emblem of its ongoing power to isolate and stigmatize sex. A truly liberated society would be one in which there were no need to ‘rebel’ via commercialized images of sex.” (p.247) Far from being a revolutionary enterprise, porn is the ultimate capitalist industry, with low-paid and exploited workers, high profit margins, and a sophisticated marketing and distribution machine.
Feminism’s “sex-positive” turn and the progressive defense of porn may be reactions against the humorless and censorious political correctness of 1990s liberalism. Yet porn itself actually inculcates deeply regressive attitudes about sex roles. (p.248) The cheap, degraded sex in porn films mimics the prudery of yesteryear in its distaste for the body, particularly women’s bodies. (p.248)
Paul has little patience for how porn merchants have dressed up the issue as one of free speech and inalienable rights. The industry loves to distract people from critiquing the actual content and impact of adult media, instead tying us up in theoretical debates about the Constitution. This allows porn to be reconfigured as political dissent, immune from criticism as well as regulation.
In fact, most of the regulations that are proposed for porn, such as requiring porn website visitors to type in their credit card numbers as proof of age, are no more onerous than limitations we accept on other forms of communication, from restrictions on telemarketing calls to keeping unaccompanied children out of R-rated movie screenings. Porn should comply with the same standards as any other commercial product. “Name a business in America that is not subject to trade regulations, taxes, zoning restrictions, pricing controls, distribution limitations. Asking an adult to punch in credit card numbers in order to access [adult] material is as much censorship as asking a youthful-looking adult trying to purchase cigarettes for proof that he or she is over eighteen.” (p.255)
In the name of privacy, civil-liberties groups like the ACLU oppose even credit-card authentication requirements for porn websites, as well as everything from obscenity prosecutions to adult-use zoning ordinances. Paul counters that porn use is never a purely private matter; as the evidence of this book shows, it can have a dramatic impact on spouses, families, workplaces and the body politic. The privacy of the home is not absolute. Our laws now recognize that privacy is no shield against prosecution for spousal abuse, for example. Technology has brought us to the point where people who wish to avoid porn in their homes are the ones whose privacy is under siege. This actual balance of power gets obscured by debates that treat the porn consumer or producer as a civil-liberties hero. (p.253)
Another reason the anti-porn movement has stalled, says Paul, is over-broad and moralistic arguments from religious conservatives, who often lump the issue in with a broader critique of female sexuality, gays and lesbians, and sex education. This only feeds progressives’ fears that opposition to porn would spell the beginning of the end for sexual freedom generally. Radical feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon entrap themselves in pursuing reforms through the courts and legislature, which are likely to fail because the causal interactions between media consumption, environment, behavior and free will are too complex to satisfy the deterministic legal standards of proof of harm. (pp.258-59)
Solutions: “Censure not Censor”
Paul’s proposals for resisting pornification are deceptively modest, but if taken seriously, could be the beginning of a cultural transformation. It all starts with personal awareness. How do your consumer choices perpetuate the spread of porn? What media do you read, or watch, or sell? What attitudes about women and sexuality do you enact in your daily life? Reducing the demand for porn is more effective as a long-term plan than trying to cut off the supply. Prohibition didn’t work for alcohol. By contrast, once the tobacco industry’s deceptive and addictive business practices received enough media attention that no one could defend them with a straight face, popular culture shifted from glamorizing tobacco use to stigmatizing it. (pp.264-65) Meanwhile, men and women who oppose porn need to be willing to endure taunts that they are unmanly, sexless, or humorless feminists. Paul ends her book with a rallying cry for the ordinary people who feel violated or exploited by pornography to speak out.
Although this book is repetitive in spots and could have used a tighter organizational structure, it is an invaluable source of raw data about the effects of contemporary pornography on individuals and relationships. Paul’s strength is not in providing a theoretical framework or an action plan, but in speaking for the average person whose actual experience of porn is at odds with the glamorous, risk-free image presented in the media. To the extent that one can determine her own views, she seems to be speaking from a secular, moderately liberal standpoint (she is in favor of comprehensive sex education in schools, for example). Progressives who dismiss the Meese Commission report as the product of a right-wing religious administration will have a harder time waving away Paul’s more current and apparently unbiased data.
Furthermore, common sense supports her findings. The assumption behind education is that our character, reactions and self-understanding can be shaped by the media we read and watch. As extreme as some of Paul’s anecdotes may seem, it would be more shocking if daily exposure to eroticized violence and humiliation did not produce individual and social pathologies. Self-knowledge can be painful, but this book shows that self-deception can be more painful yet.