Pornography as a Teacher

Saturday Book Pick: The Social Costs of Pornography


A Collection of Papers

Edited by James R. Stoner Jr. and Donna M. Hughes

Witherspoon Institute, 2010

288 pages, $30 (Accompanying DVD, $9.95; “Statement of Findings/Executive Summary, 68 pp., $5)

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In 2005, Pamela Paul coined the term “pornified” (in her book of the same name) to characterize the ubiquity and mainstreaming of pornography in contemporary American society, in large measure because of the Internet. Her book described the deleterious impact this phenomenon is having on marriage, women, young people and men.

Five years later, Princeton’s Witherspoon Institute has published this impressive collection of 11 papers from its 2008 conference, further detailing how corrosively widespread Internet pornography has become. The essays are divided into three main groups: evidence of the harm pornography causes (including a new essay by Pamela Paul); moral perspectives (including Roger Scruton’s thought-provoking essay busting various modern sex myths); and how public policy might combat this ill (including essays by James Stoner and Gerard Bradley discussing the very real impediments certain trends in contemporary constitutional jurisprudence could interpose).

“Pornography is a potent teacher of both beliefs and behaviors, and in fact provides the ideal conditions for learning. It can teach not only specific sexual behaviors, but general attitudes towards women and children, what relationships are like, and the nature of sexuality. … [T]he great majority of our beliefs and behaviors have been learned. Once we learn them, we also learn if it is acceptable to engage in the behaviors and are sometimes stimulated to do just that. … As we shall see, pornography is a very effective teacher of beliefs and behaviors, and one that also teaches its users that the behaviors are acceptable and stimulates them to do so. However, what it teaches and what it stimulates can be toxic.”

What does pornography teach? That sex is a quest for egocentric pleasure. That women are just sources for one’s erogenous satisfaction. That children have no inherent relation to sex (except, perhaps, among the bizarre and perverted sexual behaviors that pornography presents as normal and acceptable). What does pornography stimulate? Biochemical changes in the brain that pervasively ingrain such behavior. Progressive desensitization to the degradation inherent in pornography, joined with a progressive quest for ever-increasing depictions of sexual violence. Adverse influence on marital trust, community and conjugal relations. “Once they are led by their porn addiction to see sex in the instrumentalized way that pornography encourages, they begin to lose confidence in their capacity to enjoy sex in any other way than through fantasy.” There is another author in the collection who recognizes that “a sexualized culture presents [a threat] to both children and people committed to marriage” (emphasis added).

Whether such personal and interpersonal damage is allowed to challenge the at-least $2.5 billion annual “business” that Internet pornography is believed to represent is another question. Still another is if and how the courts might tolerate legal efforts to rein in this plague.

All the essays in this book are valuable, though I would take issue with points of style and substance in a few. Ana Bridges’ would sometimes benefit from sounding less tentative, while, in places, K. Doran brings to mind the worst stereotype of the dry economist in horn-rimmed glasses. Hamza Yusuf’s essay on a Muslim view of lust suggests some thought-provoking points of intersection between Christianity and Islam, but how much it actually reflects average Islamic theology may be another question. I also take exception to his covert double-entendre at the end of the essay, which can be read to justify the veiling of women.

The essays in this book deserve serious attention by persons concerned with the ethical ecology of American society. Given the occasional and somewhat graphic descriptions of the content of contemporary pornography, they are recommended to mature readers.

Register correspondent John M. Grondelski writes from Bern, Switzerland.