porn, the phantom menace

Of all the sins that worry the religious right, lust, in the form of pornography, seems to dominate their every other waking thought.

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It’s hard to dispute that our culture is permeated with sexuality. From sales to entertainment, there’s at least some hint of sex in everything rated stricter than PG. Considering that our biological goal in life is to pass on our genes as much as possible to propagate our species, that makes perfect sense. But there’s a very vocal group of people who say that these expressions of what makes us human are not just wrong and shameful, but that they’re actually destroying our society, especially in the form of pornography. Wow, who knew sex was a WMD? Well, they did I suppose…

Even decades after its swift rise into the mainstream, porn is still one of the dominant culture war topics. Its critics say that 43% of families consider it a problem in their households. They also attribute it to the soaring divorce rate in the United States which they say caused “the collapse of the nuclear family” and key societal values in general. Passionate crusaders for public decency sometimes invoke the fall of Rome as a threat of what will befall Americans if they don’t get their act together and crack down on the sin and immorality of sexual expression in the media and adult entertainment.

Of course as a skeptic through and through, I have to ask whether the cause for our society going down a slippery slope of excess and total moral decay lubricated by adult films has any serious factual backing, or if this is just an imaginary plague that exists primarily in the minds of people who make our sex lives their business for the lack of anything better to do with their time. It seems to me that the furor over porn is more of a useful political tool than a reaction to an imminent societal crisis.

First, let’s take a look at the numbers. The 43% stat comes from research done by Focus on the Family. It’s not exactly an organization known for objective, impartial studies of human sexuality. In fact, think tanks on the far right generally tend to use convenience samples and refer to their own research for which there are no provided methodologies. And their idea of peer review is sending their conclusions to a sympathetic group of morality crusaders for guaranteed confirmation and an alarming press release about “sobering findings” by such and such organization with the word “family” somewhere in the title to make them sound extra wholesome and moral.

Let’s note that the studies aren’t mentioned by name or date and that the findings are vague at best. What do they really mean by “a problem in their households?” Is it a problem if junior finds a bookmark to an adult site? Is it a problem that you can’t find time to watch it? Is it a problem of watching it too much? What kind of problem are we talking about? The word alone doesn’t tell us anything, which is why it’s being used as a rhetorical device with a negative connotation. Basically, Focus on the Family and their allies are telling us to make whatever we will of their findings, just as long as it’s something bad.

When it comes to the charge that porn fueled a rise in divorces across the United States so much so that every other marriage fails, we have a classic case of correlation being confused for causation. We could find a correlation between the number of skyscrapers and the weight of an average American over the last 50 years and come to the conclusion that skyscrapers cause obesity. If we were to compare average portion sizes, typical caloric intake and the weight of an average American over the same time period, we would be on to something. After all, we know that more calories and too much food are the direct causes of an expanding waistline according to many years of peer reviewed medical research.

Now, we can certainly admit that there are marriages that implode due to porn addiction. However, so many marriages collapsing over graphic images of sex seems incredibly unlikely. Instead, we should consider that as the divorce rate soared, there were drastic cultural and societal changes rippling across the nation. Porn was really just a bit player in the sexual revolution. Whereas before, couples in unhappy and frustrating marriages had to stay together for the sake of appearances, that pressure loosened. Divorce laws became more liberal and there was less and less shame in parting ways. The high divorce rate was a sign that marrying quickly, at a young age wasn’t a good idea and speaks more about our abilities to pick spouses than it does about our tastes in adult entertainment.

Finally, we should turn back the clock to the ancient world and note that what we would consider pornography and indecency today, was present everywhere in our ancestral societies, and modern day morality watchdogs would be appalled to the point of a heart attack were they to take a trip through the classical world. And yet, for all their liberal views on sexuality and sex in general, the ancients had strict laws and an almost draconian social order. Because sex and its public expressions were treated as normal and healthy, our ancestors simply didn’t make a fuss about these things.

This is why using the fall of Rome as a metaphor for our alleged immorality falls so flat on its face. The Roman Empire broke apart because of political and economical challenges rather than sexual artwork and licensed brothels. When monotheistic zealots spread through the ancient world, they defaced ancient art that glorified sexuality and virility because it was usually part of pagan religious imagery. We got our current prudish definitions of morality from this suppression of ancient ideas about sex rather than a consensus. Instead of embracing our sexuality as healthy, we’re supposed to put it somewhere dark and far away, practicing it according to strict rules of our self-appointed guardians of morality, the polar opposite of our long held historical conceptions of reproduction.

But don’t expect the clash over porn to end anytime soon. For any political opportunist gunning for public office, jailing lawful porn makers on vague definitions of “morality” and “public decency” and speaking out against the “corruption of society” is an easy way to score points and attract powerful right wing factions along with their substantial donations. Porn may be a phantom menace but there are a lot of people who need it to stay a nearly omnipotent, unstoppable, faceless villain for their lofty ambitions. Being swept into office on a wave of populist anger at something that can’t really be controlled, then pretending to fight it once you’re elected, is a good way to spend several decades with a six figure salary…

# politics // history / media / pornography


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