In Gabe Deem’s adolescence, pornography was as prevalent as schoolwork or acne. Fifteen years later, from an adult movie consumer, Deem became one of the youngest activists against pornography for a reason that many overlook.
Emancipation. Liberation from prejudice and religious legalism. Creativity, exploration, freedom, adventure. No regrets, no fear, no guilt, no looking back, no obligations. Just pleasure. Why not? These are, to a large extent, the key promises and/or arguments behind the invitation to consume pornography. And the porn industry boasts that it has convinced a huge number of people.
Not only an increasing number of people, but increasingly younger too. In 2016, a Bitdefender study created shockwaves when it made public that 22% of porn users under the age of 18 are children under the age of 10 (in total, 10% of porn site users are children under the age of 10).
There is, however, another growing group. Belinda Luscombe wrote in 2016 that “a growing number of young men are convinced that their sexual responses have been sabotaged because their brains were virtually marinated in porn when they were adolescents.” Among them, Luscombe mentions Gabe Deem, who became an anti-pornography activist because he was amazed to find that after years of watching increasingly perverse adult movies, he had become unable to have sex with his real partner even though he was very attracted to her.
For a reason that Deem now describes as the desensitizing to real stimuli as a result of exposure to hyperstimulation provided by pornography, the otherwise physically healthy young man could only perform sexually alone, in front of a screen. At the age when he was at the beginning of his sexual life, Deem found himself facing a problem that is more likely to affect those who are at the end of theirs: impotence.
Luscombe’s analysis, published by Time, argues that pornography has a direct and negative effect on virility.
“Their generation has consumed explicit content in quantities and varieties never before possible (…) all at an age when their brains were more plastic—more prone to permanent change—than in later life,” Luscombe says.
The journalist believes that, if given time, consuming more and more violent, depersonalizing, and hyperstimulating pornographic content could generate sexual dysfunctions of the proportions of a public health crisis.
Commenting on this prediction, Denny Burk, a professor of Bible studies at Boyce College, said that what Time identifies as a potential public health crisis is more than that. It is a generational crisis, believes the professor, whose moral premises cannot be ignored. “This article is the latest evidence of our diminishing ability to speak about sex in moral terms,” the professor says.
“We are at a place in our culture in which sexual morality has been reduced to consent. Our society has embraced total sexual license. If anyone suggests any other moral norm beyond consent, they are dismissed as a puritanical, repressive throwback,” says Burk.
And then, in the absence of the acceptance of moral criteria as reference points for evaluation, what other criteria do we have left to assess whether or not there is something harmful in pornography? We turn towards history and science.
Who was the one who pressed “REC” for the first time?
No one knows exactly when pornography appeared, although historians have identified erotic objects since prehistoric times. However, to blithely conclude that pornography must be harmless, since it has accompanied generations and civilizations throughout history, would be at best reckless, foremost because the spread and content of pornography today has no term of comparison in history. The Internet has uninhibited and enhanced the aggression of the two, in ways that were unimaginable, even recently (during the Sexual Revolution, for example).
The first explicit adult film, Blue Movie, was released in 1969 and was directed by Andy Warhol, the founder of the pop-art movement. In the same year, Denmark became the first country in the world to abolish censorship of pornographic productions, 102 years after the United Kingdom became the first country to criminalize pornography among other addictive habits, such as the “profanation of the Lord’s Day.”
Warhol’s production marked the beginning of the “Golden Age of Pornography,” a prolific period for adult movies that spanned 1969 to 1984, but which now seems like a joke when compared to the massive industrialization of pornography that took place after the invention of video cameras for household use. The video player allowed one to watch movies at home, at a much lower price—movies which, until then, could only be seen at the cinema. With widespread Internet access, however, consumers have begun to devour free pornography.
The net worth of the global porn industry today is estimated at $97 billion, enough to feed at least 4.8 billion people a day.
Today, profits are generated following the model that made online social networks economically viable. This means that users can access countless movies for free, and the platforms that host them sell this traffic to those interested in buying advertising. Just to be able to imagine the traffic we are talking about, one of the most popular porn sites proudly announced that its users spent 4.5 billion hours browsing its pages. At the same time, the platforms also sell “premium” content, accessible only to users willing to pay.
The internet knows what you want
An under-discussed consequence of the fact that online networks are the main source of consumption today is that platforms with pornographic content have begun to know their users as Facebook does. Pornographic networks also collect data about their users, especially in terms of their sexual preferences.
It’s easy to see why: the better they know their audience, the more tailored content they can deliver, and persuade them to come back to the site and increase the site’s profits. Here, however, the old vicious media circle comes into play: an increase in demand in a certain segment leads to an increase in production in that segment, which in turn strengthens demand.
Fetishes that were once marginal have come to circulate at an unprecedented rate, and this has become in itself a premise for other currents.
This trend has intensified over the past 10 years, says Paul Mason, a BBC Newsnight reporter. Mason said in 2013 that we were witnessing an accelerated change in pornography content. His statement was not new to industry observers. In fact, some have mapped out these changes very precisely.
A 2005 study of the top 60 best-selling adult DVDs, which portrayed 304 scenes, found that 88% of them contained physical aggression, mostly against women, and 49% of scenes contained verbal aggression. The target of both forms of violence was portrayed either as pleased by it, or ignoring the aggression.
“It is very common in today’s pornography for women to be beaten, spit on or treated to the limit of their physical capacity, as pure objects. It is a leitmotif of ordinary pornography, that is, I am not referring here to that of sadomasochism,” says Peter Johnson, the representative of the UK Authority for Television on Demand (ATVOD).
Hormones and neurons
Psychologists warn, without being contradicted, that the impact of this distorted portrayal of sexuality is dramatic for adolescent consumers. Exposure to adult productions overstimulates them sexually, and their still-developing brains learn to react to solitary sexual stimuli, outside a relationship, which inhibits the instincts of healthy sexuality in the context of a relationship.
Researchers have also found that teens who watch adult movies have fewer progressive views about gender differences.
In addition to the fact that young people end up turning a sexual caricature into a rule of conduct, by normalizing sexual aggression, pornography opens the door for the abuse of the child who will come to believe that it is not unusual to be treated violently by another person. The “sexting” trend makes this seem all the more harmless as the practice is widespread among children, even by other children. As a result, children “are becoming desensitised to the very activities that make them vulnerable to abuse”, as James Schlackman, a teacher in the United Kingdom, puts it.
What science says about pornography
As for the impact on adults, things get even more complicated. Very little research in the field passes the test of scientific rigor. Many of them, say the authors of a huge meta-analysis of over 40,000 studies, are in fact just aggressively articulated opinions. Out of the tens of thousands of studies, only 267 met the rigorous criteria set by the authors of the meta-analysis.
The shortage is reflected even in the fact that the first scientific study to analyse the impact of pornography on marital stability was published only two years ago.
The results of this research are proof that, although we talk more openly than ever before about this subject, what we really know about pornography may be much more inaccurate than we think.
Most studies on pornography and the well-being of romantic relationships undoubtedly point to a negative correlation between the two. In other words, the use of pornography is associated, in most cases, with a deterioration of romantic relationships. However, although this research has brought very important nuances to the study of the impact that pornography has on relationships, they have recognized the limitation of not being able to distinguish the causal direction. Is it pornography that leads to a deterioration of relationships? Or do deteriorating relationships drive unhappy partners to seek refuge in pornographic movies?
Sociologist Samuel Perry acknowledges that this is the great challenge of studies that want to come up with something new in this field. He argues that the research conducted by himself and his colleague, Cyrus Schleifer, provides an answer to this problem. Perry and Schleifer looked at the long-term evolution of relationships in 2,000 American couples and asked them about relationship satisfaction and explicit media consumption.
Married people who start watching adult movies are twice as likely to divorce than those who do not watch such movies. Counterintuitively, the impact is greater on women. When they start watching adult movies, the risk of their marriage falling apart is three times higher. Pornography seems to have little negative impact if the two watch movies together. In the same study, sociologists found that giving up the habit of watching porn movies reduces the risk of divorce for women, but it does not have this effect for men.
This study is the first longitudinal study that looked at the effects of pornography not on the relationship itself, but directly on marital stability. Sociologists based their research on data collected from two groups: adults who had not watched porn by the first interview, but had started watching it by the time of the second interview, and adults who had watched adult movies before the first interview, but had stopped watching by the second.
Analysing the data revealed that 11% of people who started watching adult movies between the two interviews were already divorced by the time the second interview took place. Only 6% of couples whose consumption behaviour remained unchanged during the research period ended up in divorce. Among women who started watching porn by themselves, 16% were already divorced by the second interview.
In contrast, women who gave up these types of movies were almost three times less likely to divorce. Researchers say that they did not find the same differences between men, but this, they assume, could be a consequence of the fact that very few men who consumed pornography gave it up during the study. Therefore, the studied segment was too small to be statistically significant.
Perry and Schleifer’s study has the advantage of being carried out over a long period of time. This increased the chances that participants who did not watch pornographic productions would start watching adult movies on their own initiative, and researchers were able to compare subjects in the two stages.
If the participants had been asked by the researchers to watch pornographic films and the research had found negative effects, the blame for these undesirable consequences would have fallen on the scientists. Therefore, such research would have been unethical. In the past, however, scientists have also conducted such experiments. One of the best known is the one conducted by Neil Malamuth, back then a psychology student at UCLA.
Malamuth recruited 42 men whose “predisposition to rape” he measured. He then divided them into three groups and exposed those in the first group to aggressive pornography with scenes of rape and sadomasochism. He exposed those in the second group to non-violent pornography, and did not show anything to those in the third group.
The following week he invited the same men to a new test, without telling them it had anything to do with the first experiment. During the test, each man was put in a position to play a riddle game, with a woman who conveyed in advance she was not attracted to him at all. Men had the option of punishing the woman every time she got the wrong answer.
After this experiment, and others with the same subject (to which the researcher dedicated his entire career), Malamuth concluded that men prone to sexual aggression are more likely to commit aggressive sexual intercourse after consuming a substantial amount of aggressive pornography.
Today, however, it is not as easy to perform such experiments, and Malamuth says he does not think they are beneficial. “We and other researchers have come up with a dilemma of ethics committees saying, well, we believe your effects are valid and, therefore, we’re very afraid that at some point we might be sued if even one person claims that they went out and committed an act of rape by having been exposed to certain materials in your research.”
On the other hand, there are scientific studies that show that the normalization of pornography is sometimes associated with a decrease in the incidence of rape or other acts of sexual violence. But the fact that they are associative, not causal, often makes these studies considered inconclusive.
Without reference points, we return to the primitive
The paradox of our generation is that while science has failed to make an unequivocal verdict on the toxicity of pornography to individuals and society, common sense still tells us that there is something rotten in a society in which the price of the “liberalization” of sex is paid by 10-year-olds. But the solution may come from the heart of the matter.
If it were to relate strictly to scientific discoveries on this subject, society would not be able to build from scratch the principles that would guide it when it comes to pornography, because it does not have enough information. And waiting for new discoveries is, at best, unreasonable, and at worst, costly.
However, science is not the only real reference point that shapes public opinion. In addition to science, there are shared values that have stood the test of time and proved viable. I am not referring here to the superficial concept of “traditional values”, which everyone interprets in the way they want and which have been blamed for extremism, on the model of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I am referring to those life principles that have been questioned before in history, and the results of which have suggested that progress against them is in fact a setback.
Towards a horizon of normality
In order to resume functioning at optimal parameters and to be able to truly evolve, society needs a counter-narrative to the brand of pornography seen as a catalyst for sexual emancipation. Such a counter-narrative can only start with the help of proactively implemented education, i.e., education designed with the intention of preventing and fixing in the collective mind healthy principles about relationships and sexuality, before the porn industry implements its own, economically-directed vision.
Do these principles also include some religious ideas? Definitely, yes, because the quality of the religious argument also depends on the quality of education.
Then, society can also protect itself by the constant search for a balance between the stimulation of the mind and physical exercise, because both eliminate the extreme laziness that robs humans of a complete and healthy life. A culture that values the woman for her mere existence and appreciates the man for something other than force will react with revulsion to the aberrant and deformed portraits that pornography generally constructs for the two.
A society in which fidelity is guaranteed by responsibility for one’s own choices and in which compassion and empathy are not just rainbow concepts to be paraded around, is a society that will not tolerate the transformation of relationships into live meat exchanges and will not grant video prostitution the rank of “art”. It’s easy to see why.
We cannot claim to have emancipated ourselves while doing the same things that our prehistoric ancestors did in pagan temples, where slaves were abused and the rich indulged in pleasure in the name of a mirage.