Porn and moral panic

By Razib Khan | June 29, 2010 4:41 pm

Social conservative blogger Rod Dreher points me to this interview of a Left-wing sociologist on the malevolent influence of pornography on modern relationships. She has a book out, Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked our Sexuality. Her conclusion:

To turn this around there needs to be a massive public health awareness campaign. Unless people begin to understand the role pornography is playing in our culture, I can’t see any reason that this won’t get worse, because all of these men who started watching pornography young are going to want more and more. Pornographers themselves say they’re having trouble keeping up with what fans want because they want it so hardcore.

Where is this going to end? I don’t know. What will an 11-year-old boy want 10, 20, or 30 years from now? Nobody knows. The truth is we’ve never brought up a generation of males with hardcore pornography. No one can really say what’s going to happen. What we do know, from how images and media affect people, is that it’s going to increasingly shape the way men think about sex, sexuality, and relationships.


A lot of the rest of the interview is going to, or not going to, make sense depending on your priors. Just as Christian evangelical psychotherapy, or a rabbi making a ruling based on the halakhah, uses terms and logics which may seem totally meaningless to outsiders, so people trained in sociology operate in their own lexical universe which operates in a parallel empirical world (when I actually spent some time around young evangelical Christians I recalled that they often interspersed their banal conversations with phrases such as “glorifying God,” or “glorifying my Lord and Savior,” which seemed to have a lot of meaning for them, even if it was about their workout regime*). As an intellectual exercise I often take an interest in what sociologists say, but it’s equivalent to theology as far as I’m concerned insofar as it makes any pretense to mapping onto reality. In contrast, I think economists are guilty of hubris and error, but they at least aim for some clarity so you know when they’re wrong. I am here thinking of Noam Chomsky’s attitude toward Post Modernism.

On a personal note I come from a generation which spanned the period when pornography was scarce, and when it was ubiquitous. It’s an empirically correct observation that it takes two seconds to find extremely disgusting fetish material, whereas before the internet you may not even have been aware of the existence of whole genres of pornography! A case in point, I did not know of the existence of bestiality until I was sixteen years old (a friend took me to a Christian youth group meeting, and the pastor started talking about all the disgusting perverted things you weren’t supposed to do, but he had to define a lot of it in the process). A few years after I happened to walk by a computer in a family room, and I saw that an eight year old boy was deleting disgusting fetish porn spam from his Hotmail account! What had been beyond the ken of my comprehension even into adolescence was a nuisance for this individual in their elementary school years.

Over the past 15 years we’ve run a massive sociological experiment in the United States of America. A whole generation has grown up with easy access to hardcore pornography. Many of the boys exposed in the 1990s are now 30 and older, and starting families. And yet violent crime is still declining in the United States, including rape. There is also no robust evidence that the youth of today are more sexual than those of the past.

That’s why I say that the sorts of sociologists profiled above live in a parallel world, where porn is a primary determinant of the decline in morals in manners. They wouldn’t say morals and manners, but I think that’s what really going on, and explains the attraction of social conservatives like Rod Dreher to the Left-wing critiques. The terminology may differ, but it isn’t too hard to do a search & replace across the arguments and see that they have a similar structure. There was in the past, in some idealized nation, a world of companionate partnership from which we’re declining. In the details the ideal partnership of a Left-wing feminist sociologist and a socially conservative Christian obviously differs a great deal, but both feel besieged by the destabilizing and amoral impact of technology and capitalism, which is saturating us with choice, information and plenitude of perversion.

The repulsiveness of modern pornography is not a trivial matter. I do believe that societies need values, that we’re not simple pure hedonic machines (this is a matter of aesthetics and taste, some may differ as to the necessity of this binding of values). But we need to keep some perspective. Foot binding, corsets and shotgun marriages were parts of the cultural landscape in the past, without the influence of porn. More fundamentally I think Left-wing and conservative critiques of the modern culture of pleasure are overly alarmed because they neglect the biologically rooted essentialist aspect of the experience. Porn arouses despite the fact they’re pixels on the screen. But it is no substitute for a real flesh & blood person, because the essence of the source of the pleasure matters. Some social conservatives worry that the youth will be “converted” to homosexuality. The mainstream generally rejects this perspective as ludicrous on the face of it. Graphically, consider the prospect of a straight male receiving oral sex from a male as opposed to a female. On low-level hedonic grounds one would assume that there is no distinction, but many would demur and say that it was “different.” Similarly, pornography can never replace a real relationship.

Technology and the market, the radical and rapid turnover over lifestyles and choices, make people rightly fearful. But as I suggest above despite our biologically rooted fear of change things are getting better. Of course not all change is always for the good, but to actually differentiate the good from the bad, we need to remain rooted in the real world.

Note: Most of the studies I’ve seen which show that perverts have viewed the grossest of porn don’t establish the arrow of causality. That is, if you’re a pervert obviously you are going to seek perversion by definition. Though arguably exposure to perversion can render you a pervert, I see no reason why this has to be the null.

* The sacralization of all aspects of life is not exceptional or atypical, I simply observe that a lot of the references to it operate in its own universe of meaning which is pretty opaque to outsiders.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Psychology
MORE ABOUT: Porn
  • Pingback: Tweets that mention Porn and moral panic | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine -- Topsy.com

  • John Goes

    The fact that violence and rape are down does not seem to me to be much of an argument on the impact of pornography from an evolutionary point of view. The more interesting question is how this affects procreation, through marriage for example.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    yeah, and it isn’t much of an argument from the craniometric, or oceanographic point of view either. can we please talk about the post initially before shifting off onto tangents? it’s weird to refer to a “more interesting question” when you’re addressing a question which isn’t even mooted in the content of the post.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    John Searle, er … deconstructs, deconstructionism here.

  • John Goes

    “…points me to this interview of a Left-wing sociologist on the malevolent influence of pornography on modern relationships”

    Excerpt from reference: “What we do know, from how images and media affect people, is that it’s going to increasingly shape the way men think about sex, sexuality, and relationships.”

    If you want to address the question of how pornography shapes attitudes toward sex, sexuality and relationships, you have to look at the big picture. That means discussing how pornography affects the nature of procreative arrangements, as well as sexual expression.

    As a side note, your abrasive tone is disproportionate to the content of my comment. Chill out.

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    . But it is no substitute for a real flesh & blood person, because the essence of the source of the pleasure matters.

    How much does the essence of the source simply depend on social norms?

    I’m not convinced that actual sex will in the long-run be more desirable than porn. Porn is already an example in many ways of a supernormal stimulus. Once it passes a sufficient threshold, it will become more pleasurable than the real thing.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    If you want to address the question of how pornography shapes attitudes toward sex, sexuality and relationships, you have to look at the big picture. That means discussing how pornography affects the nature of procreative arrangements, as well as sexual expression.

    nice to know i have a mind reader who knows what question i want to address! that being said, just so you really know outside of the boundaries of your omniscience, i wasn’t talking about anything so deep. simply refuting the idea that ubiquitous porn has affected a huge change in our lives. it hasn’t. human generation times are on the order of 25 years, and i don’t think the pornographic media at issue here is going to be so persistent to change gene frequencies in any appreciable manner (i.e., i doubt this particular discussion will relevant in the year 2500). but anyway, thanks for trying to be my content editor!

    As a side note, your abrasive tone is disproportionate to the content of my comment. Chill out.

    again, nice to know i have an ombudsman out there! i guess as to the terms of your employment you didn’t realize i am often quite abrasive to commenters, because i don’t think much of them as a whole (though i recall you tried to facebook friend me at some point, so you should know how abrasive i can get with commenters who i think have crossed the line in presuming a level playing field when there isn’t one). unless you have an reputation in the comments for adding value i won’t cut you slack, and i won’t be polite. this isn’t an egalitarian set up, and i have no time for politeness. if i feel you’ve overstepped and presumed too much i’ll make that clear. if you feel the ground rules are obnoxious i assume you’ll do the rational thing and never comment again. you’d be the first in a long line. the fact that i responded to you indicates i at least take you seriously, as i know your institutional affiliation and educational background (if a comment is obviously written by a dull person i ignore them so long as they don’t comment too and are polite [impolite dulls are labelled spammers]). but just because you have a valid point to make doesn’t mean that’s a point i was trying to make, or want made at this time.

    I’m not convinced that actual sex will in the long-run be more desirable than porn. Porn is already an example in many ways of a supernormal stimulus. Once it passes a sufficient threshold, it will become more pleasurable than the real thing.

    i think once you have VR and other types of sensory emulation the gap will start to close in a reductionistic sense. but my point, an insight take from paul bloom’s understanding of pleasure, is that our response to a stimulus psychologically depends upon our innate conception of the source of that stimulus as well. as an example, a nipple-slip of a famous actress who is less attractive objectively than a ponographic actresses may still result in more arousal because of the differences in the source of the stimulus. i’m alluding here to innate ideas and aliefs as important background considerations.

    once we start ‘rewiring’ our brain we may need less guarantee of ‘authenticity’ in our experience because that comes preloaded into our software and we need to uninstall it. but until that state there’s nothin’ like the real thing.

    the main caveat is interpersonal variation. i’m sure a lot of the readers of this weblog would be more favorable toward VR and less inclined toward authenticity than the general public. but i think they’re atypical.

  • http://contourintegral.blogspot.com Tyler DiPietro

    The internet may make fetish porn more readily available, but I suspect it still constitutes a small minority of the porn actually consumed. I doubt that porn has the power to significantly alter the proportions in which sexual desires fall outside of the mainstream, vanilla stuff.

    The main worry I have about pornography is not the fetish stuff, it’s the mainstream stuff on the internet that is often outright violent toward women. It’s fairly disturbing to see a woman spit on, called names, made to beg, and act like they’re in pain through the whole duration of the film. That obviously reflects some darker impulses among its viewers.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    it’s the mainstream stuff on the internet that is often outright violent toward women.

    isn’t that stuff outside of the mainstream by definition? this was a major focus of the secular critics of porn even before the internet, and i believe quantitatively it always comprised a very small proportion in the USA. though i guess with the internet ‘community standards’ are worldwide.

    in any case, i suspect that the power-low distribution holds in regards to the consumption of porn in general, as well as the warped stuff. i’d like to see some data though.

  • John Goes

    I agree with your argument in the last comment that there is little substance to the case for pornography’s impact (in and of itself, at least, as opposed to its role in a broader cultural change) on human evolution. My point was that this seems to implicitly be the question of interest and there ought to be some evidence one way or the other.

    I will take care to be less terse and offhand in my comments knowing your incapacity or unwillingness to charitably interpret comments.

    As to the broader cultural changes that one might consider pornography to be a part of (generally different attitudes toward sex, changing metaphysics on the role of marriage, increase in hedonism), I don’t see how one could refute the charge that these “winds of change” destabilize the American social fabric and contribute to demographic changes. The positive case for destabilization also seems difficult to build in rigorous fashion as these sorts of social variables seem intrinsically difficult to untangle; but the case seems at least plausible anecdotally.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    I don’t see how one could refute the charge that these “winds of change” destabilize the American social fabric and contribute to demographic changes. The positive case for destabilization also seems difficult to build in rigorous fashion as these sorts of social variables seem intrinsically difficult to untangle; but the case seems at least plausible anecdotally.

    first, as i note above, i don’t think is the main effect. the ubiquity of internet porn is a reality, but i think in many ways it’s a superficial issue. IOW, the rise in porn’s ubiquity is not continuous and gradual, there was a huge shift between 1995 and 2000, as the internet became pervasive. there wasn’t a concomitant correlated increase toward destabilization of family life, or marriage rates. whatever trend has been occurring (e.g., increased illegitimacy rates among the white working class) have been gradual. so even granting all the issues you’re talking about, the critics on the left & right who are fixated on the ubiquity of porn are looking at a symptom at best.

    secondarily, the increased destabilization. i think one can make a case for that on specific metrics…but the secular trend doesn’t extend as far as many people think. one example: drinking in the united states peaked around 1840. as you know, violent crime peaked in the late 1980s, though there were previous peaks.

    so my two major points would be:

    1) porn’s recent ubiquity isn’t that important (relationship collapses attributed to porn today would i think the 1950s be given a post hoc freudian explanation)

    2) the past, recent or distant, was not as idealized as conservatives, and to a lesser extent moralistic left-wingers, would make it out to be in terms of various social metrics which they would prefer. therefore, i think the apocalyptic tones are unwarranted, because periods of social chaos have often passed. though of course “this time it’s different” will be correct at some point.

  • znz

    As an intellectual exercise I often take an interest in what sociologists say, but it’s equivalent to theology as far as I’m concerned insofar as it makes any pretense to mapping onto reality.

    On that note,

    (totally NSFW) part 1 part 2

    (I’ve posted these before, but … but I don’t have a problem with that.)

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention Porn and moral panic | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine -- Topsy.com

  • http://math-frolic.blogspot.com “Shecky Riemann”

    actually, the “ubiquity” of porn (whatever porn is — still hard to define, though yes, I know it when I see it!), really is the issue or concern… never before in history will a such a young and widespread generation (and in particular, males) have grown up with such routine exposure to porn as a norm (whether it’s mainstream, outside-mainstream, or whatever). No one knows for sure what the long-term effects of that will be on social relationships… but it’s difficult to see it as a long-term overall positive (indeed, even today a lot of relationships are breaking up over internet porn addictions). Time will tell…

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/ Uncle Al

    The American age of puberty is now down around 11 years given universal superior nutrition. Ms. Bluenose would have us believe bonerific teenagers must be kept celebate for 10 years – 50% of their lives to that point. Pornography is a robust foundation of male heterosexuality. Either put brothels on every middle and high school campus, let them see what they should be accessing, or stop whining about gay recruitment. They’re gonna put it somewhere. Where would you have them put it?

    Require by law that all brothel staffing be 60 years of age or more. That puts a nice government twist on it. American women are monsters. One need not wonder why those who can choose overseas feminine women over the local product.

  • jeeb

    I swear I wasn’t a pervert before internet porn.

    http://www.southparkstudios.com/clips/166189/

  • Coty Thomas

    @Uncle Al: Wait, are you implying that the reason there are homosexuals is because adolescant males aren’t exposed to pornography?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    No one knows for sure what the long-term effects of that will be on social relationships… but it’s difficult to see it as a long-term overall positive (indeed, even today a lot of relationships are breaking up over internet porn addictions).

    as i noted above

    1) we do know what 10-15 years will do. not much.

    2) you do know that the reasons people give for relationships breaking up may not be the true cause? as i indicated above, psychological rationales are often dependent on the particular time (e.g., men running away from life around 1900 because of “nervous exhaustion”, relationships breaking about due to freudian complexes circa 1960).

  • http://www.cindygallop.com Cindy Gallop

    This is a huge and very complicated area – and the reason I launched http://www.makelovenotporn.com at TED in February 2009:

    http://blog.ted.com/2009/12/cindy_gallop_ma.php

    and expanded on the issue in this longer speech at the L2 GenerationNext Forum in NYC last month:

    http://fora.tv/2010/05/14/Cindy_Gallop_Make_Love_Not_Porn

  • http://math-frolic.blogspot.com “Shecky Riemann”

    “we do know what 10-15 years will do. not much”

    respectfully, Razib, I think you’re looking too short term, at data that means little — I don’t believe the ease, ubiquity of, and attention to porn 10-15 yrs. ago was close to what it is today (even though it was around). What I want to know is how the 10-yr. olds of TODAY behave 15-25 yrs. from NOW, and that data we have to wait for. (The counter argument I s’pose some may make is that massive exposure to porn will simply cause it to LOSE any major effect, in the same way that ’4-letter’ words lose their punch when used repetitively.)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    I don’t believe the ease, ubiquity of, and attention to porn 10-15 yrs. ago was close to what it is today (even though it was around).

    what are you’re intuitive numbers. give me mean # of minutes per day, stdev if you could, at 5 year intervals.

    obviously you aren’t logically wrong in the type of argument you’re using. but it’s the same form as those worrying about ‘information overload’ and all sorts of other things. the cocktail is simple:

    1) take something that’s a big change

    2) project into the future big harms

    the sample space of possibilities are large. but we focus on stuff that impacts sex and violence, for example, mostly because of the importance of sex & violence. in other cultures it might not be porn, but changing norms in how women dress.

    also, give me some concrete consequences. i know lots of different people have different ideas, but i’m curious as to where your worries are coming from (these are, by the way the issues which social conservatives have pondered for centuries).

  • Chris T

    This is similar to the moral panic over video game violence. Never mind that tens millions of people have been playing them for over twenty years and the murder rate has been going down during that time; they must be making complete monsters out of anyone who plays them!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    also, i’d appreciate it if people left citations of social science on this topic. don’t have time to do a lit search myself.

  • MK

    ***Over the past 15 years we’ve run a massive sociological experiment in the United States of America. ***

    I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but there do seem to be subtle changes in s8xual attitudes and activities. There is more role modelling of s8xual behaviour so blow j8bs are improving.

    “According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control, the number of heterosexuals having an*l s*x nationwide has almost doubled since 1992.

    While on tour promoting her memoir, Jenna Jameson was reportedly stunned that 13-year-old girls kept telling her she was their role model. In a survey of 1,000 British girls between the ages of 15 and 19, roughly 25 percent said they aspired to become professional lap dancers.”

    ://www.details.com/sex-relationships/porn-and-perversions/200907/how-internet-porn-is-changing-teen-sex?currentPage=2#ixzz0sNg3RsZm

    Meanwhile in Sweden group s8x is becoming more common amongst teens.

    http://www.thelocal.se/3827/20060517/

  • http://www.libertypages.com/clarktech Clark

    “In a survey of 1,000 British girls between the ages of 15 and 19, roughly 25 percent said they aspired to become professional lap dancers.”

    If that isn’t a sign of a problematic survey with kids intentionally giving silly answers I don’t know what is. I remember when a bunch of sociologists came to our high school to do careful surveys by interview. After they left everyone was laughing about the answers they gave.

    There is good sociology and bad sociology but it often isn’t easy to tell them apart merely from the papers themselves.

  • http://ironrailsironweights.wordpress.com/ Peter

    Pornography is at least partly responsible for the near-triumph of the Hideous Pedophilic Bald Eagle. Porn actresses started shaving, perhaps to make things more visible, and the habit spread to almost all women – even women who never watch pornography themselves. Twenty years ago it was just a few porn actresses who shaved, today an estimated 75% of American women in the 18-50 age range are completely hairless.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    peter, do you have a citation for that?

  • http://ironrailsironweights.wordpress.com/ Peter

    I base it on the amateur photos on Voyeurweb. Note that in most of the photos the women’s faces are not shown, so it’s likely that most of the women are very much “normal” types.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    normal women don’t post photos of their vaginas on the internet. or perhaps i don’t know any normal women :-)

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Speaking of goofy survey answers, five percent of New Jerseyans who voted for Obama think he’s the antichrist. If you put stupid shit on a survey, they will answer.

  • Idlewilde

    About the kid with the hotmail account-maybe he should’ve used gmail. hotmail is ridiculous–it’s absolutely lousy with spam. also, what does and eight year old need an e-mail account for anyway?

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT

RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »