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The Prevalence of Porn

Micah Watson, Assistant Professor of Political Science & Director, Center for Religion and Politics
May 7, 2010

It caught the corner of my eye as I left the gas station. It was that regrettably familiar symbol that Hugh Hefner had been making famous since founding his magazine in 1953. No, I hadn’t noticed a magazine rack with brown paper covers behind the cash register. What jumped out to me was the Playboy bunny icon plastered all over a high-energy drink next to the other brands like Monster and Full Throttle.
 
This was an odd thing to see. Perhaps it’s my old-fashioned upbringing, but the connection between the magazine and the ginseng and caffeine-soaked energy drink is not obvious. More importantly, however, the unabashed presence of a mainstream grocery product hawked by a company that has made its name selling pictures of naked women is a small but significant sign that the pornification of our culture continues as a rapid pace. The observer of cultural mores will ask two questions about this. One, is it true that pornography has become increasingly mainstream in our culture, and two, is that such a bad thing?
 
One need not merely look at the newest energy drink. Consider the change that has occurred over just one generation with regard to porn.  As a young teenager in the mid-1980s, the only sure way to get my hands on one of Hefner’s magazines was to actually go into a store, look a cashier in the eye, and pay for it. Regardless of any moral considerations, the sheer embarrassment of that prospect kept me on the straight and narrow.

Consider the situation today facing the adolescent male. The advent of the internet has made entry into the most extreme and explicit forms of pornography as easy as a click away. While there have always been “adult material”, anecdotal and social scientific evidence demonstrate a quantitative shift in the volume of pornography produced and consumed and a qualitative change in the “hard-core” and extreme offerings that by comparison make Playboy appear almost Victorian.
 
But so what? Isn’t concern about pornography so much moral preening and masked sexual repression? Boys will be boys, right? And why is it a matter of public concern in the first place?
 
The answer is that if pornography shapes people in private, then it will by extension shape the sort of culture that we all share. The debate about pornography’s effects on men, women, and children has recently been joined by a new report sponsored by the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton. This report,[1] authored by accomplished experts in the fields of psychiatry, sociology, law, neurophysiology, and philosophy, uses the tools of social science to measure pornography’s harms. The report is a valuable contribution because it complements in a measurable way what had been mainly religious, moral, and feminist arguments against pornography.
 
The simplest explanation of the attraction of pornography also reveals the moral case against it. Men—and pornography is almost entirely consumed by men—are attracted to pornography because it offers them a make-believe world that seems to fulfill an impossible desire. Consider a calendar full of vintage and classic cars. Most men realize they will never own a vintage 1967 Corvette Stingray, but it sure would be nice to drive one for a day or two, wouldn’t it? In the same vein, most men realize they will not marry or “know” the women portrayed, or better, manufactured, in the sex industry. But it sure would be nice to pretend . . .
 
And thus the secret of the attraction of pornography betrays what is morally repugnant about it. For it is one thing to yearn for the enjoyment of a car given that a car is a manufactured thing designed to be used. It is quite another to lust after the use of another human being. Women are not cars, not objects designed for the mere use of men. It is beneath their dignity as human beings to treat them as such, and beneath the dignity of men as human beings to do so. The culture that rejects these truths, if the Witherspoon report is accurate, will not have long to wait before it produces the bitter public fruit of purportedly private behavior.


 

This op ed originally appeared in the May 7 edition of the Jackson Sun


[1] http://www.socialcostsofpornography.org/