I was in fifth grade when whispers circled the playground that a student had Googled a forbidden word in the computer lab and, despite school Internet regulation, had uncovered startling results. The few of us familiar with the term gasped or giggled at the rumors before shyly explaining to the others, “It means, like… pictures of naked people,” or something of the sort. What perplexes me is the same cloud of childish reticence within which we discuss pornography today. Our aversion to confronting the subject stems from our denial of its reality: that the American pornography industry captures the attention of millions of regular viewers and accrues an average annual revenue of over 2.8 billion dollars, according to 2012 research published in Gale database’s “The Scope of Online Pornography.” The United States’ rampant consumption of online pornography, enabled by the anonymity of the Internet, is problematic as it warps male and female perceptions of sexuality, condones sexual violence against women, and addicts viewers, leading to continued use and the deterioration of relationships. In order to curb this national epidemic, the United States must commission a new report on pornography that supports further federal regulation of online obscenity and pornography education.
Pornography, or explicit material intending to sexually arouse viewers, is disproportionately used by men. In fact, findings in “The Scope of Online Pornography” display that two-thirds of American pornography users are male, and seventy percent of males ages eighteen to twenty-four view online pornography monthly. Notably, this digitized pornographic material is radically evolved from that of pornography’s “golden age” of Playboy magazines and adult film releases in the 1960s and 70s. The Internet introduced unprecedented affordability, accessibility, and anonymity in viewing pornography to the industry. Now, users can freely stream both amateur and professional content from popular websites like YouPorn, RedTube, XVideos, and Pornhub at any hour of any day in any place with an Internet connection.
The anonymity of online pornography is its most concerning development. Jae Woong Shim of Sookmyung Women’s University and Bryant M. Paul of Indiana University in their 2014 study “The Role of Anonymity in the Effects of Inadvertent Exposure to Online Pornography[...]” surveyed eighty-four college-aged males to discern how feeling anonymous affected individuals’ pursuits of explicit materials. They found that participants who felt alone and unmonitored were more likely to pursue extreme pornography than those who felt tracked. This they attribute to the psychological state of deindividuation one enters when feeling anonymous. In this state, one’s self-awareness declines, along with one’s sense of individuality, personal responsibility, and self-control (823-825). Thus, the anonymity of the Internet increases the likelihood that individuals who receive accidental exposure to pornography (through spam emails, pop-up advertisements, etc.) will pursue the material, even if they would not pursue it normally.
This pull of online pornography appears benign to some, who glorify it as female sexual liberation. While this is plausible to say of some erotica, it is impossible to say of all pornography. Aside from the ideological argument that sexual stimulation from fantastic interaction is inherently degrading to performers, viewers, and humanity, qualitative evidence suggests that pornography is detrimental to perceptions of women and sexuality. A 2015 “Analysis of Representation of Sexuality on Women's and Men's Pornographic Websites,” by Shim and Paul evaluated two-hundred images randomly selected from two men’s and two women’s pornographic websites. It revealed that, while fifty-three percent of images from women’s sites depicted reciprocal themes like consensual sex, only four percent of images from men’s sites did so, implying that men’s pornography repeatedly normalized nonconsensual sex (57-60). Contrastingly, sexual objectification occurred more frequently on women’s sites “in the name of representing women's sexuality” than on men’s sites (58). The pervasiveness of such themes across men’s and women’s sites elucidates how both male and female pornography viewers are susceptible to the subconscious messaging of pornography’s patriarchal portrayals. This evidence corroborates “Gender (In)Equality in Internet Pornography[...],” a 2015 study by Marleen J. E. Klaassen and Jochen Peter of the Amsterdam School of Communication Research that analyzed four-hundred top-played videos from the four most-visited pornographic websites. The study uncovered that sixty percent of videos instrumentalized women, or portrayed them as tools for male sexual gratification, while only eighteen percent of videos instrumentalized men. A disparity in the portrayal of power also abounded, as forty-three percent of videos displayed women in submissive poses as compared to eleven percent of videos that displayed men in submissive poses. Most disturbingly, thirty-seven percent of videos depicted violence against women while a mere three percent of videos depicted violence against men (724-728). Such diminishing and abusive practices of instrumentalization, inequality, and violence are unjustifiable against any human in any context. Yet in pornography, they are celebrated and marketed as acceptable forms of entertainment. Far from misguided notions that it liberates women from traditional appearances of prudishness or sexlessness, pornography perpetuates the perception of women as sexual objects. It simply transitions women from one narrow social confine to another.
Still, some argue that if the price of pleasure is an inimical attitude toward women, so be it. But, attitude and action are not isolated entities. Viewing pornography tangibly affects not only users’ perspectives but their interactions as well, as exhibited in the 2014 study “Pornography and the Male Sexual Script[..]” by Chyng Sun, et. al. published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. Among nearly five-hundred American college men examined, men who consumed greater amounts of pornography were more likely to request their partners to perform sexual acts they had viewed online. This outcome is explained by the cognitive script theory: the concept that media content serves as a code of behavior which viewers follow (983). Considering the prevalence of violence and patriarchal practices in pornography, it is highly alarming that pornography provides the “script” for many Americans’ sexual relations. Feminist Sarah Ditum in her article, “Why I Changed My Mind About Porn,” renders “[t]he pornographic vocabulary of sex as the violent debasement of the female body,” recounting how pornography “seeped out from screens and into the lives of the women [...she] knew,” women whose boyfriends “wanted to choke them, or [...] slapped them about in bed, or pressured them to do anal, or wanted to film it all.” Appallingly, these women felt obligated to comply in order to compare to pornographic performers. By portraying women consenting to harmful sexual practices, pornography standardizes the use of such practices in actual sexual relations with the false justification that women find pleasure in pain.
Pornography impedes not only dating relationships but marital relationships as well. Gerard V. Bradley, in The Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy’s Prolegomenon on Pornography, cites another of Sun’s studies to demonstrate how pornography’s uninhibited accessibility divides married couples by amplifying the male/female sex-differential (493). The sex-differential describes how, when released into “the prevailing free market in pornography,” men are exceedingly more partial to using pornography (and paraphilia and masturbation) than women, who display at most “moderate, intermittent interest” (494). Thus, pornography creates power inequalities between wives, who perform to compare with pornographic performers, and husbands, who readily return to pornography should their wives underperform. Bradley asserts that “in relationships which endure the stress introduced by the man’s pornography use, the achievement of a genuine mutuality, reciprocity, and equality across the whole of the life together is adversely impacted” (494). This stress affects husbands, too, who struggle to maintain interest in their spouses and with sexual and body-related insecurity after using pornography, even despite previous marital satisfaction and self-confidence (493). Pornography breeds disconnect, discomfort, and distrust between men and women. At every level of committed relationship, “Pornotopia drives men and women apart” (Bradley 494).
Some pro-pornography advocates cite the simultaneous decline in incidences of rape and sexual assault and increase in pornography use as evidence that pornography gratifies sexual desires which would otherwise be exerted as sexual violence. Firstly, Sun’s study disproves this conjecture, asserting that viewing violent pornography heightens viewers’ likelihoods of actuating sexual violence (983). Additionally, the simultaneity of the two statistics does not prove the causality of one; the decline in incidences of sexual violence may be attributed to a variety of other factors. The rise of social media, for example, likely contributed by widening the reach and virality of anti-sexual violence campaigns like the #MeToo movement.
Considering pornography’s detrimental effects, the prosperity of the industry is confounding. William M. Struthers, Wheaton College psychology professor and author of Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain, ascribes pornography’s success to its exploitation of the neurological rewards system: “[pornography works] through the same neural circuit [and] has the same effects with respects to tolerance and withdrawal” as any narcotic (qtd. in Bennet). This is because the area of the brain that controls sexual arousal is especially plastic, allowing pornography use to permanently alter neural pathways. So, when one views violent pornography, two previously unrelated neurons fire together, causing the brain to associate physical violence with sexual arousal thereafter. This reinforces Sun’s cognitive script theory, which asserts that viewers mirror media interactions (983). Additionally, Struthers expounds that sexual arousal from pornography does not satisfy the brain’s sexual appetite by releasing endorphins as actual sex does. So, viewers seek more novel forms of pornography like incest, sadomasochistic, or child pornography to be satisfied. Accordingly, viewing nonviolent pornography increases users’ tolerances of and creates demand for illicit pornography. Both a consequence and, successively, a cause of viewing pornography, pornography addiction extends pornography’s grasp on Americans in a vicious, self-renewing cycle.
We cannot comprehensively end this cycle. But, we can abate the expansion and effects of pornography by combining federal regulation and education to ensure that those who do not seek pornography do not receive inadvertent exposure and those who do seek pornography do not (inadvertently or intentionally) receive exposure to illicit or degrading pornography. However, the United States must first commission a new report on pornography. The most recent federal commission on pornography, the Meese Commission, was issued in 1986 before the rise of ubiquitous online pornography. Consequently, the investigation fails to adequately address the affordability, accessibility, and anonymity of online pornography. Its outdated report cannot justify the new legislative steps online pornography necessitates: banning illicit, violent, and degrading online pornography, mandating pornographer licensing, introducing an industry code of conduct, and including pornography education in adolescent sex education. Moreover, the Meese Commission failed, as the United States still fails today, to enforce existing obscenity laws and prosecute pornographers who violate those laws. As Bradley reports, “the distribution of material which is unquestionably obscene [in the United States] [...] has been effectively decriminalized” (483). Congress attempted such enforcement in 1996 with the Communications Decency Act (CDA) and again in 2004 with the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), both of which criminalized and attempted to regulate the circulation of online pornography to minors. However, the ACLU successfully contested both acts, claiming they violated the First Amendment and infringed upon adults’ rights to view pornography (Bradley 462). Rather than attempting to pass another overbroad piece of legislation as a definitive solution to pornography, Congress must pass smaller, more precise regulations that target pornographers without denying American adults their rights to view (legal) pornography.
Some argue that government has no place in the pornography debate. Yet, unless the federal government asserts that pornography is detrimental to society, the notion will continue to be dismissed as solely an issue to women or the conservative, traditional, or religious-minded. Not only will a new federal commission on pornography organize multitudes of research and analysis to prove pornography’s harms, but it will initiate a nationwide conversation on pornography. It will convince Americans of pornography’s pertinence, of how, as Bradley affirms, “our common culture has been decisively shaped by pornography, and so therefore have we” (487). Undoubtedly, this commission will incite fervent opposition from pornographers and pornography websites, who wish to conceal pornography’s degradation of women and exploitation of users, and from users themselves, who would rather ignore pornography's psychological and social ramifications than confront them. Yet, if the United States is to protect Americans against the institutionalized objectification and abuse of women, the deterioration of relationships, and addiction, it must not be deterred by opposition.
Some claim that, because of the omnipresence and widespread acceptance of pornography, all endeavors to eradicate it are futile. This argument misinterprets the aims of my proposition. A new federal commission on pornography aims to prompt education and legislation. Education aims to initiate a conversation on pornography. Legislation aims to ensure that, when curious fifth-graders or overly-anxious college-grads furtively Google “porn,” the images and videos that instantaneously flood their screen depict compassionate, consensual sex, not glorified violence in the nude. Conversely, others claim that simply “purifying” pornography is not enough; as long as it persists, so will Americans’ distorted perceptions of sexuality. Yet, the sexualization of American culture is ingrained in (social) media, celebrity culture, family values, individual values, and more. Pornography is but one factor. So, rather than combat pornography’s existence, we must combat forms of pornography that are illegal or obviously degrading. We must demand pornography that reflects American freedom and egalitarianism. Neither helpless enough to continue in our broken ways nor capable enough to start afresh, we must seek to reform what we began. After all, we live not in Dystopia nor in Utopia. We live in Pornotopia.
Contrary to claims that it epitomizes women’s liberation, pornography is the propaganda of sexual violence. It is the perpetrator of sexual objectification. It warps male and female perceptions of sexuality by institutionalizing the desire to practice violence against women and obligating women to perform sexual acts that sacrifice their comfort, safety, and dignity. Thus, pornography completes the sexualization of male dominance. We can no longer dismiss the problems pornography poses to women and society; we must advocate for government-led change within the industry. If the price for pleasure is female humanity, then it is not a price we can morally pay.
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