The Real Price of Porn

Conor Friedersdorf, a writer I respect and enjoy, disagrees with my old professor Denny Burk about the impact of porn on culture. Burk’s original blog post was a reflection on Time’s recent cover story about a generation of young men who believe their years indulging in pornography had greatly affected their capacity for sexual and romantic flourishing. Denny pivoted off that point to reflect, accurately I believe, that porn was a “civilizational calamity” that was fostering an insidious form of enmity between men and the real-life women they’ve spent so long objectifying and avoiding.

Friedersdorf isn’t sure about this. Without passing a moral judgment either way, Friedersdorf says the data just doesn’t quite support the idea that a pornified culture turns against its women.

As I wrote two years ago, Western culture isn’t so far removed from an era in which 14- and 15-year-old girls were married off to middle-aged bachelors with whom sexual congress was terrifying and obligatory, often because the resulting union benefited the father of the bride financially. American culture isn’t so far removed from an era in which wives were expected to have intercourse with their husbands whether they wanted to or not, so much so that an intoxicated husband forcing himself on his wife as she fought and screamed “No! Stop!” wasn’t legally defined as rape.

More recently, over the same period that pornography has grown much more common, the rape rate has plummeted. It was higher throughout the aughts than it is today. There is no more extreme or pernicious act of using and abusing women as sexual objects rather than treating them as humans. And to get rape rates as low as porn-saturated 2013 and 2014, you’ve got to go back to the 1970s.

Friedersdorf goes on to make similar points with statistics of domestic abuse (likewise falling as the internet has grown) and international women’s rights (“Lots of countries with ubiquitous pornography seem to be much more successful, and to treat women much better…than countries where porn is more restricted or unavailable”). In short, what Friedersdorf sees is at best a conflicted account of the effect of porn on culture. It may be true, he concedes, that today’s generation of pornified youth will grow up to use and abuse the vulnerable, but until we have data on that, porn’s effect on culture is ambiguous.

Friedersdorf’s reply here seems to embody some of the strengths and weaknesses of data-oriented cultural arguments. Obviously, at first glance his statistics seem to be defeater for the evangelical claim that porn harms women. After all, if rape and domestic abuse are actually down in the age of digital porn, doesn’t that settle it? Well, not quite. A more careful look at the exchange happening here reveals that Friedersdforf is working off some assumptions that most critics of porn—evangelical and otherwise—don’t share.

Friedersdorf seems under the impression that if porn were really such a threat to culture, the decline of patriarchal systems and attitudes that we’ve seen over the last few decades wouldn’t have happened. But is this a valid equivocation? I don’t believe Burk or any other serious critic of porn would actually say that wherever porn flourishes, the force of law is less willing to protect women from harm, or that women are de facto viewed as second class citizens.

Most conservative critics of porn culture that I’ve read are careful to avoid implying that cultures that don’t have newsstands, theaters or streaming video automatically treat their women better. That’s a rather vacuous claim anyway, since it could be applied to obscure moral reality in a lot of cases. For instance, most would agree that children are better off with modern child labor and abuse laws, but it would be a pernicious folly to infer that modern proflieration of child pornography has had no effect on culture or the well-being of children. In other words, there’s no contradiction in saying that women and children may be protected by law much better in the age of porn than before it, and yet are still victimized through it.

In any event, I wonder: is it really wise, or even effective, to use rape statistics as the ultimate metric of porn’s impact on culture? This seems to be a rather egregious case of low expectations. Violent crime as a whole has been descending throughout the last two decades, and the decline in reported rapes has actually not kept pace with the decline in overall violent crime. Again, this data would be more compelling if the argument being made by Burk and others was that the objectification of women in culture by necessity leads to more open violence. But that’s not the argument. We should absolutely welcome any and all decline in sexual violence, but we need not invite pornography to the celebration in order to do so.

I think Friedersdorf misses the crucial point. The reason that Time, and many other publications, are covering the pornification of American culture is not a sexual violence epidemic, but it’s an epidemic nonetheless. It’s an epidemic of sexual and spiritual dysfunction. Psychologists and social scientists are literally just beginning to uncover porn’s terrifying neural imprint. As Aaron Kheriarty has noted in an excellent essay for The Public Discourse, the mental and emotional stakes of sexual habits are high, and where those habits involve isolation, fantasy, and authoritarian control of the sexual ritual, the human brain quite literally begins “fusing” reality with unreality.

This psychological phenomenon has consequences. As Time and others have noted, those addicted to porn tend to struggle with even the basic elements of interpersonal relationships. But the consequences also go far beyond social skills. Pornography doesn’t just absorb libido, it replaces it with something completely different. This is why, for example, Kevin Williamson saw scores of men paying for access to an adult entertainment convention when cheaper and legal prostitution was nearby. What these men want, by definition, isn’t a sexual experience but a pornographic one. They aren’t getting bootleg copies; they’re going into another business altogether.

This gets at the heart of what I think professor Burk meant when he said “civilizational calamity.” Porn doesn’t supplement sex. It replaces it. And what many in our culture are beginning to understand is that whatever it replaces it with is an acid to healthy sexual psychology. Lest we pat ourselves on the back for ending the kind of patriarchy that Friedersdorf mentions, let’s remember that in the porn-saturated world of the internet, women are still subjugated to the language, attitudes, and behavior that exemplifies a culture where they are in real physical danger.

Using a different currency doesn’t mean you can’t still get robbed. Don’t underestimate the price of porn.