Pornography: What We Can All Agree On

There’s a lot of passionate talk about pornography these days. The loudest voices involve a lot of false assumptions, a lot of fear and rage, a lot of predictions about porn’s destructive aspects.

Some of us insist on looking at the science of it all—exactly how much (or how little) violence there is in porn, about porn’s effects from both the neuroscience and marital counseling side, about the nature of human sexual fantasy.

We’re often shouted down. We’re often accused of being “pro-porn.” When I toured after my 2016 book (His Porn, Her Pain) was published, that was usually the first question everywhere I spoke—“are you pro-porn or anti-porn?” My answer frustrated a lot of people: “I’m neither pro-porn nor anti-porn; I’m in favor of thinking clearly about porn, and understanding the science about it.”

I also think the debate should include the voices of pornography consumers. These consumers are actually the only group whose voice is missing from this very contentious dispute.

Imagine having a public debate about limiting or eliminating Little League baseball, because people were afraid it was bad for kids. Now image this debate without any input from scientists or Little League participants or their parents. It would never happen.

But of course it is normal for public debates about porn—no science, no consumers.

To help us out of this dichotomy, here are a handful of key issues on which virtually all sides in the porn wars can agree. And we—people from a range of views—should be talking about these issues every time we get a chance. We should all be framing the porn debate by making these issues central to the question.

So what do we all agree on?

* There’s a lot of porn out there, and it’s easily available

The needs of the porn industry built the consumer side of the internet—the shopping function, the video-synched-with-audio, the high speeds—because porn was by far the most popular use of the early internet. Of course porn is still incredibly popular, and so there’s a huge amount of porn out there. And now it’s available on devices as well as computers.

* Some of the content is extreme

Just as with real sex, people disagree on the meaning of “extreme”: Threesomes? Spanking? Cunnilingus? Ejaculating on a woman’s face? A high heel grinding a testicle?

But no matter what standard you use (and without saying “extreme” means “bad”), we can all agree that there’s some pretty exotic stuff on internet porn.

How much exotic (or “violent”) stuff? Actually, it’s only a small fraction of all porn sites—because most consumers don’t want to watch women gagging, men gagging, or anyone pretending to be in serious pain. But a very small fraction (extreme stuff) of a very large number (all porn sites) is still a big number. There’s no need to deny that, just as there’s no need to inflate its actual size.

* Lots of couples argue about porn-related behavior

As a couples therapist, I know only too well just how many couples quarrel about pornography.

They argue about whether porn use is infidelity; whether it makes consumers less interested in their own wife or girlfriend; how much porn use is “normal;” and whether porn use leads to violence or disrespecting women.

A lot of arguments that look like they’re about porn really aren’t—for example, wives who want sex with husbands who don’t desire them  should talk about that instead of complaining about porn. But talking about sexual abandonment is far more painful, so most couples don’t do it.

Most lawyers, therapists, clergy, and popular media agree that there’s a lot of porn-related conflict in American couples. Whether that conflict should be blamed on porn use or on other factors—unrealistic expectations, inability to talk honestly about sex, defensiveness about not looking or behaving like porn actresses—is another matter.

But if everyone agrees that a huge number of couples argue about porn, there’s clearly a need for a new way to talk about it. Most people aren’t looking for that.

* We’re all concerned about what kids are learning from it

Nobody thinks porn should serve as sex education, especially for young people with little or no experience. Kids don’t have the media literacy to understand that they’re looking at unusual people with unusual bodies who have been hired to do unusual things.

They also don’t understand that some adults like to play sex games—like “let’s pretend you’re forcing me,” or “let’s pretend I’m jealous,” or “let’s pretend you really want sex with that stranger.” Pornography shows actors and actresses pretending to play those games, which of course aren’t labelled “games.”

Just like tennis, these games have rules and boundaries, and they don’t reflect how people behave outside the game. You may hit the ball so your opponent can’t reach it, but when the two of you have lunch afterwards, you don’t keep the salt away from him or her.

While people may disagree about strategies for limiting kids’ exposure to pornography, and people may disagree about how kids should learn realistic and important facts about sex, we can all agree that young kids shouldn’t be turning to porn to learn about sexuality.

For that matter, neither should adults.

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