Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Porn: A Public Health Crisis?

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.


19 comments:

  1. A good post, but, as has been seen all too often, it's much easier to legislate than educate, especially since that plays well in the right-wing "isn't it dreadful" press.

    It's also always simpler to find a convenient scape-goat for society's ills with post hoc justfications of "well Person X did this horrible thing and they read/ looked at/ watched Y (which we don't like), therefore the one must have been caused by the other". The fact that there may have been other issues involved either doesn't occur to them or is conveniently ignored :-(

    The real crisis is that people's freedom of expression is being slowly whittled away, one small piece at a time. "Let's ban A because we know it's bad". "Great, but that didn't work, so let's ban B as well". "Hmm, still not working, a ban on C might help..." and once slice at a time your right to express yourself is reduced.

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    1. I agree wholeheartedly, Graham. Banning material that some people find offensive is much easier than critically examining the societal attitudes toward sex that undermine effective education about sexuality.

      Of course legislating against smut never works....which as you note, just encourages more stringent censorship.

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  2. "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."

    Excellent point. Another possibility to consider is that, if just about everyone has viewed porn, then it's logical that just about everyone who has experienced sexual violence has also viewed porn. It's like if this therapist had said, "Eating breakfast cereal has been a factor in every case of sexual violence I have treated." I'm sure that if you asked every perpetrator and victim whether they'd ever eaten breakfast cereal, most of them would say yes. But to claim there's a correlation between cereal-eating and sexual violence (not even causation, but just a simple correlation), you'd need to show that people who have NOT experienced sexual violence are LESS likely to eat cereal. (Or in this case, watch porn.) You can't show a difference between groups if you only collect data from one group.

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    1. Excellent point, Sybil. Unfortunately, relatively few people examine scientific (or pseudo-scientific) statements at all critically. I was a researcher for years and still teach experimental methods. I don't believe any claims unless I see the detailed data and analyses!

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  3. If porn is the most powerful form of sex education, there is something seriously wrong with our schools. The solution is not to regulate porn, but to improve sex education in the schools.

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    1. Exactly my point! And there is something seriously wrong with our schools, I think.

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  4. I'm probably going to pull my child out of the sex ed at school because I don't want her to get all those wrong ideas that she's as nasty as used gum because she has sex... no one needs that.

    She's grown up in a very sexually open and aware household, and I answer her questions honestly and as thoroughly as she wants to know.

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    1. So the sex education in your child's school teaches that sex is shameful? Exactly what we don't need.

      Of course, it sounds like she has got the info she needs from her family, along with a healthy attitude. I worry about her peers, though.

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  5. Lisabet:
    Apparently there are more than 24 hours in a day where you live. I don't know how you find time for you many activities in support of the craft. Thank you.

    Some great thoughts here. Wish I had one to offer. I have two millennial children, boys now 20 and 23 not that far out of school. Education is the hope but not a possibility as long as the neocons set the agenda. Hell is the impossibility of reason.

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    1. Have you ever talked to your sons about sex?

      Maybe they should read some of your stories...

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    2. My wife and I decided early in our parenting career we would teach a respectful healthy attitude about sex. When #1 was still a toddler and in still in daycare we were changing him together at home one evening. He was pulling on his penis so hard I thought he would pull it off. "I asked, "What do you call that?" expecting him to recite the proper answer. He gave it another yank. "Bucky." My wife nearly hit me with the poopy pull-up. "I didn't teach him that." I protested. She had cause to doubt me as I attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, home of Bucky Badger. But alas, I was innocent. He must have learned it at daycare- a Montessori school where they also teach proper stuff.Sex education was downhill from there. Every time I tried to talk to my boys about sex they covered their ears and turned up the radio. They must have learned. They have healthy attitudes about women and haven't fathered any children (yet). About reading my stories, that's whole blog post.

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  6. Great post as always, Lisabet. I live in California, don't have kids myself,
    but all my friends do and sex ed in the schools just isn't happenin'.
    My friend's 9 yo daughter said the 'f' word during recess at her private
    school and all the parents of the kids in her proximity had to called and told what happened. Really??? We had a terrible, terrible case out here
    where a 15 yo was partying with some friends, got drunk, and these
    boys raped her and took photos on their iPhones of her naked posting them to some social media site. The young woman committed suicide.
    I think her mother is working with Congress to have harsher sentencing
    for boys who do things like this. Lisabet, you're a powerful smart woman. If anyone can change things, it's you.I have more questions than I do answers.

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    1. I think parents are the ones who have to speak up here, Mary. I'm just an old lady who writes dirty stories. Who is going to listen to me?

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  7. Thanks for an interesting article. Raises lots of crucially important issues as food for thought. And raising issues for discussion is surely a good, positive, constructive place to begin any attempt to understand the issues better.

    Personally, I've never subscribed to, or seen any evidence to support, the idea that pornography necessarily harms the sex lives of people who partake thereof.

    And there must be reasons why people gravitate towards it - perhaps because it is fascinating, exciting, inspirational, educational?

    As for teens, I would suggest there are many aspects of education which are inadequate in equipping them to deal confidently with the world. And perhaps formal education as such will always fall short, including in areas of relational and sexual discovery. But to blame pornography for sexual violence is like blaming movies for war.

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  8. What they call "sex ed" in the schools in my town consists of showing young people pictures of diseased organs in end stages of STDs and telling them their privates will rot off if they have premarital sex. I sat in on a curriculum night presentation once, and after the very young teacher was done, I raised my hand and asked her if they teach anything about condom usage. She looked furtively around and shook her head, "Only as it pertains to married people seeking to limit the number of kids they have." Really? The other parents nodded agreeably while I seethed. We taught our own kids sensibly, but I worry about the rest of the kids in town, whose parents think if they hide their heads in the sand, their kids won't ever think about "those kinds of things"...while living in a culture that glorifies slut-shaming along with putting pre-teen girls into shorts with cute words on the ass. Sigh...

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  9. Lisabet, I'm glad you tackled the anti-porn lobby, which has been around for many years. As a young woman in the 1970s wanting some relief from harassment on the street & on the job, I thought maybe "porn" was the source of the perception of too many males that all females over puberty were dirty jokes. No one in those days seemed to be discussing "rape culture." I came to realize that banning "porn" doesn't accomplish anything good, and that "porn" is often in the eye of the beholder. It makes a handy target for those who don't want to look at other sources of sexual violence.

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  11. "I don't think porn is a public health crisis. However, it may well be an educational crisis. "

    Hear, hear. As Roberta said, it's a convenient but ultimately useless target.

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