Is pornography doing us damage?

Over the last week I’ve been pondering our Two Nights project, the play Anna Flaherty and I are taking around schools as a way of giving young people permission to start talking about pornography openly, and also as a way of challenging what feels to us to be the misguided complacency of the dominant narrative. As the discussion broadens, we’re increasingly being asked to defend the stance we’ve taken, and that’s a good challenge to face. The last thing the world needs is more uninformed polemic, and it’s quite valid to ask, what’s all the fuss about?

A good way of thinking about this is in terms of two competing narratives, not so much binary opposites as two ends of a continuum. At one end is the argument that actually pornography is fairly benign; just a form of escapism and stimulation that users recognise as removed from the world of real experience, and at the heart of this hypothesis is the claim that constant exposure to such material as a means of stimulation doesn’t alter the way intimacy plays out for us in the real world. Or as a character puts it our play ‘I play Grand Theft Auto, but that doesn’t change the way I drive my car. Why would it?’

The alternative hypothesis is that pornography use is changing the way we behave. It’s changing the way we think about one another, and about the way we express ourselves sexually. And, for those of us who believe this is cause for concern, there is the added claim that these changes are in many cases anything but benign. Put simply, it’s my belief that there is a direct line of causation between pornogrpahy consumption and sexual abuse. That’s a big claim, and one many would dispute, and so I’ve been thinking about how I might go about justifying this stance. How do I know this isn’t just my prejudice running amok?

The first thing I’d say is that we’ve thought about this pretty carefully, and have spoken to a lot of people, from the chief censor, to the Ministry of Health’s chief advisor on sexual and reproductive health, to counsellors, teachers and teens, and we’ve read a bunch of research as well. And while this is a massively difficult area to get a firm fix on, in part because it’s very hard to get people to offer honest accounts, but also because we’re talking about social mores that are influenced by complex array of factors, there are still some things I feel we can be confident about at this point. Here are some of things that have most swayed my thinking:

I was surprised ot learn that the pornogrpahy industry is controlled by a very small number of people (sometimes expressed as ‘ten men control the bulk of the world’s pornography). Perhaps more surprising is that their particular field of expertise is computer algorithms. Which is to say, success in this industry relies upon a real  time feedback cycle of knowing exactly who is accessing what and for how long, and then constantly refining the product in response to these evolving tastes. This has the obvious potential to create an automated race to the bottom, so to speak, if it turns out that it is the shocking and transgressive that is most likely to capture the attention (for how quickly today’s shocking becomes tomorrow’s everyday).

Next is the clear evidence that something of this type is happening. Research consistently suggests an increase in the prevalence of violence, coercion and abuse over time, to the point that such is now the dominant presentation of sexual activity within pornogrpahy.

Take those two points, the changing, and unmanaged nature of the material and add in the next rock solid fact we have – young people are accessing an awful lot of this material. Unless surveys around the world are consistently off the mark, we can say most teenage boys are looking at this stuff most days. The rise of the smart phone appears to accelerated this trend. And so, we can say without fear of contradiction that we now have a world in which our young men in particular (there are females accessing pornography too, I don’t want to give the impression otherwise, but the numbers still skew heavily towards men, and the power dynamic within heterosexual relationships makes this focus all the more important) are having their first impressions and experiences of sexual activity dominated by interaction with images of violence and abuse. To be blunt about it, and I apologise for a kind of crassness here but in this case it is central to the point, our young men are typically experiencing some years of masturbating to violent, coercive and degrading images before they enter into their first sexual relationships.

Now, maybe the complacents are right, and this will have no impact upon their ability to sensitively and respectfully interact with their partners. Maybe it will have no impact upon their ability to engage in the joyful expression of their sexuality. But that’s a hell of a bet to be placing I think, and the precautionary principle in this case asks that the burden of evidence lies with those who would claim there is nothing to worry about. What’s more, even if you are so inclined, I think I have evidence that might sway you. More of that soon. One other short digression though, because it’s important. These kinds of arguments are very often built upon gut response, and one gut response many of you will have is ‘people are scared of pornogrpahy because they’re scared of sex in general. They’re just prudes.’ And here I would caution against binaries of this type, because it seems there is something going horribly awry at the point where we conflate being comfortable with sex and comfortable with using sexual abuse as entertainment. In fact, I would argue the two are diametrically opposed.

So, do we have any evidence that pornogrpahy use is altering behaviour? I think we do. Here’s a thing you might not know. Some young men in schools openly trade naked images of their peers. They collect them, in the way youngsters once collected photos of their sporting heroes. Where did that culture come from, do you think? Here’s another. If you talk to health professional they will tell you of a rise in injuries to young women that coincide with the pornography industry’s fetishising of particular activities. If you talk to counsellors they will tell you of young women increasingly speaking of the pressure they feel to engage in types of activity they are uncomfortable with and again the pattern is reflective of trends in pornography. If you present to young people, as our play does, scenarios in which a young man manipulates his partner into believing there is something wrong with her if she won’t engage, young women will come up after the show to recount their own experiences. Actually they don’t need to, for the moment of recognition that ripples through the audience in that scene is palpable.

At the end of our play we sometimes ask, does the scenario we present here, where young women are being pressured and manipulated into a kind of sexual engagement that is fuelled by pornogrpahy exposure, feel real to you? We offer a continuum of responses and the sad thing to report is they tell us, yes, this is the world as we experience it.

That’s not slam dunk evidence of the kind that assures us of the inverse square proportionality of gravity, for example, but it’s enough to suggest that those who claim pornography is mostly harmless, or at least act as if this is their belief by conveniently ignoring the issue altogether, have a case to answer. For my part, I don’t think the statement ‘the pornography industry promotes and enables sexual abuse’ is hyperbole. And we’re all against sexaul abuse, right?

And to tiptoe a little beyond the horizon of solid evidence, I personally think the problem runs much deeper. I think the greatest danger lies in the way behaviour becomes normalised, such that the victim of the abuse ceases to even believe they are being abused (but do not cease suffering, sadly). Young people aren’t born with knowledge of what makes for a satisfying, or even just psychologically comfortable, sexual experience, and truth is that we as a nation are lousy at telling them. Entering into their first sexual experiences they are fragile and uncertain, just as we were, and eager to please, terrified of being judged poorly. The historical record tells us that cultures are perfectly capable of convincing young women that fear, discomfort and feelings of worthlessness are just their lot, to be expected and hence not complained about. Once disempowerment is normalised, in the way pornography is currently normalising it, it becomes very difficult to shift. People don’t complain because they don’t believe they have a right to complain. Talk to women of any age and very quickly you will discover a narrative of people uncomfortable with their partner’s use of pornography but feeling unable to raise the issue with them. When I was growing up, many of the mainstream churches were complicit in just this kind of misogyny, teaching women it was just their lot to suffer a discounted and at times brutal version of sex. Today it is the pornography industry that is picking up the baton. That might seem a strange association, old style conservative religion and pornographers, but both share an obsession with baseness and a vested interest in the disempowerment of women.

Too often people feel the urge to stay quiet on the issue of pornogrpahy for fear of harming their liberal credentials. I would argue that there is nothing liberal about supporting an institution that continues the timeless tradition of sexaully imprisoning half of the adult population.
*Scroll down a few entries and you’ll find another piece entitled ‘Pornography – 13 Reasons Why Not.’

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