Is pornography bad?

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve written about pornography sporadically over the years, including this 12-year-old post on why I liked the idea of the .xxx domain, an idea that finally came to fruition in 2011.

You don’t find too many people who will admit to watching pornography, at least regularly. Chances are though that if you are on a website at any given moment, you are on a porn site. Two of the top ten websites are porn sites (xvideos.com and pornhub.com) at #8 and #9 respectively as of this writing. Each gets more views than Wikipedia or amazon.com.

I freely admit watching Internet porn. It would be hard to write posts about it otherwise. But I will also freely admit that it’s not something I do everyday. It helps to be married and to reach an age where testosterone levels decline. Also likely a factor: the more you see the more you get inured to it.

Many people will tell you that you should feel bad for watching pornography, such as Megan Johnson whose TED Talk I watched today. Ms. Johnson makes a pretty compelling case that pornography fuels sex trafficking. A lot of (mostly) women who get into sex trafficking get their start being forced to watch nonconsensual pornography. They often end up as sex slaves, arguably for people like the recently deceased Jeffrey Epstein and perhaps some of the many famous and moneyed men in his circle. These potentially include Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Prince Andrew.

When I compare pornography online today compared to stuff I saw ten, twenty, thirty or more years earlier, it’s quite clear that it’s no longer your grandfather’s pornography. For one thing, it’s online now. It used to be available largely only in printed form, and you had to pay for it. Now it’s free, sort of, but you will get endlessly harassed to buy premium porn on these sites, see live sex via webcams and find people near you into kinky sex. Ms. Johnson says that if you bite from that apple, you facilitate sex trafficking and prostitution.

Also unquestionably, pornography today is both more lurid and transgresses more boundaries than it used to. It might be strange to think that there were ever boundaries in the world of pornography, but there were. During the Playboy era the photographs of models were retouched and their naughtiest bits were usually hidden or suggested. Today, arguably a lot of what passes for pornography on these websites is not pornography. The new pornography is all about transgressing boundaries. That’s apparently the new hot. The other stuff: not so much.

For example, one of the hottest trends these days on porno sites is incest. Of course there is no way to know if any of these videos involve actual siblings and/or parent/child sexual encounters. If they are all of legal age it is probably not illegal, but I’d bet that at least 99% of the time no actual incest is being filmed. Even porn sites seem uncomfortable with real incest. Instead, it’s mostly hot stepmothers or hot stepsisters. Another clue: they look too professionally done to be real.

So, yeah, it’s weird but actually the incest theme is not all that shocking these days. The stuff I really object to is abusive “pornography” which in my mind is just abuse. There’s probably at least as much of this as there is the other kind. Mostly women are constantly being abused, i.e. slapped in the face, yelled out, told they are c***s, whores and other derogatory terms. Sometimes they are urinated on, not just by one man, but by groups of men. One woman having lots of sex organs in various orifices, often at the same time, has been standard stuff for decades.

Is this pornography though? Not in my book. It’s just plain abuse. I have no desire to see this sort of stuff. Many of us suffered from abuse in our childhood. I didn’t suffer sexual abuse, but I did suffer emotional and physical abuse. This is not something I want to relive or inflict on anyone else, let alone teach to those who haven’t experienced it. In fact, I’ve spent time with therapists trying to work out my feelings on what I experienced. What I experienced was probably relatively minor though compared to the abuse my own government is now inflicting on children crossing our border with Mexico. Our government is committing child abuse on a massive scale. It’s your tax dollars at work. Aren’t you proud?

“Pornography” which depicts simulated or actual abuse of people gives what I thought of pornography a bad rep. If these sites had filters where you could filter this stuff out, I certainly would. Pornography and the way real people have sex rarely intersect anyhow. Since many people are sexually awoken on pornographic websites, we shouldn’t be too surprised if more of us expect real sex lives that model a lot of pornography. If you don’t know any better, you might think this stuff is normal in most sexual relationships. It’s not.

About the time I turned a legal adult in the mid 1970s, the available pornography was IMHO pretty harmless. I don’t feel that way anymore. I think most people have a right to watch the stuff if they want, but like Megan Johnson I wish they wouldn’t. If I knew of a curated sites where pornography was just as lurid as men like but where the actors were obviously having fun and modeling healthy, consensual relationships I’d find that much more of a turn on than what passes for pornography today. Watching people actually enjoying sex and their partners is a turn on. The rest, for me, is not.

Ms. Johnson is probably right that these sites at least indirectly lead to human trafficking. It’s unclear to me how many (mostly) men going to these sites though take the next step that lead to real life sexual encounters with sex slaves and prostitutes. However many it is, just one is too many, but I’m betting that fewer than ten percent of porn viewers take this step.

On the other hand, if you are not in a sexual relationship, would like to be in one but for whatever reason can’t be in one, pornography is a reliably way to get your rocks off. Whether it is safe sex is arguable. You won’t catch a disease, but a pattern of watching pornography suggests an addictive behavior. Unfortunately, our sex drive is entirely natural, which is not true of nicotine addiction or alcoholism. Watching pornography that is not abusive is probably better “sex” than you will have with an average real life partner, and it doesn’t come with hurt feelings and human complications. My guess is that without pornography, the incidents of sexual assault would be a lot higher. So maybe some pornography is good, or at least socially useful?

It’s clear to me that today’s pornography does make it much more difficult to have good, healthy sex with someone else. It sets false expectations. In reality, a good sex life is a bonus that rests on the foundation of a healthy relationship. Those are hard to find and harder to keep. If we taught more of these skills, we’d likely have a lot fewer people finding sexual relief in pornography, and a lot fewer exploited people as well.

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