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.