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Columns

Pornographic Ethics

We must not shy away from candid discussion on pornography

By Rachel L. Wagley

A 2008 study on university campuses found that a whopping 87 percent of "emerging" adult men (aged 18-26), and 31 percent of emerging adult women report using porn at some level. Twenty percent of young men report using pornography daily or every other day, and almost half use it at least weekly. But the shock factor of pornography consumption statistics do not stop there: The sky is blue and men view porn—we’ve lost the shock value in our passive acceptance. Perhaps the more telling pornography statistic is that slightly over two thirds of young men, and nearly half of young women believe that porn consumption is morally acceptable.

This statistic of acceptance is particularly interesting because it is pulled from our generation, which often defines right and wrong in terms of consequences. Consequence-based morality maintains that if something doesn’t hurt yourself or others, it’s not wrong. The principle of “Thou shalt not hurt” thus becomes the backbone of discursive moral reasoning, as observed by the National Study of Youth and Religion. Removing an external moral standard from moral reasoning makes it difficult to condemn sex trafficking, exploitation, and violence, much less explicit sexual content and nudity. But even in terms of a “Thou shalt not hurt” moral code, passively accepting pornography overlooks the very real consequences of porn consumption.

Healthy sexuality combines emotional, social, intellectual, and physical elements, but pornography separates the mechanized components of intercourse from real sexuality itself. It leads to decreased sensitivity toward women and increased aggression. It also leads to a decreased ability to build healthy relationships or experience sexual satisfaction; users are increasingly unable to properly link emotional involvement with sex. Indeed, porn fosters incredibly unhealthy views about sexuality and human beings. Most porn portrays women as sex-obsessed, mindless objects, promiscuous and subordinate. As feminist scholar Catharine MacKinnon might propose, the prevalence of pornography begs the question: Are women human? Though that question seems extreme, ask yourself if a good society can intentionally engage in a medium that portrays half of its members in such a derogatory manner.

There is much discussion on how the government should regulate the big business of pornography, seesawing between freewheeling libertarianism and heavy-handed censorship.

Indeed, we are increasingly desensitized to discussion about porn use and regulation, even as research proves the effects of pornography are life altering, and stories of sex exploitation, psychological problems, and abuse dominate inspections into the porn industry. Many Americans embrace fair-trade coffee, concerned about the industries that produce their goods, but few consumers express concern about porn industry operations, and its employees and victims.

Even by the often-cited moral standards of individual choice and “Thou shalt not hurt,” the porn discussion demands our moral attention. Recent work by neurologists illustrates the very real addictive properties of pornography. Porn addictions restrict real individual choice. University of Texas-San Antonio’s Dr. Donald L. Hilton, Jr.’s research on porn addiction explains that pleasure chemicals in the brain are gradually overused when a person views pornography; the brain then limits dopamine production, causing the viewer to become starved for dopamine.

Despite the personal and social costs of pornography, health services are absurdly silent on the issue of such an exploitative and harmful industry. Harvard’s University Health Services and Office of Sexual Prevention and Response dance around the issue without offering services or information to students about porn consumption and addiction. OSAPR refused the requests of True Love Revolution officers to assist with the White Ribbon Against Pornography Week without citing any reasons. OSAPR should make a concerted effort to reach out to students who are struggling with porn and educate students on the harmful effects of pornography. University offices shy away from addressing the porn issue as a tangible part of students’ personal lives; they instead turn it into a vague, elusive matter.

Perhaps the University avoids the porn issue in order to avoid moral or social controversy, but fear of stirring up debate does few favors for students who struggle with porn consumption. University of Chicago professor Jean Bethke Elshtain argues in The Social Costs of Pornography that we should not dismiss the “moral” in our avoidance of the “moralistic.” Elshtain maintains that in order to be responsible citizens, we must ask ourselves, “What sort of community is this? Is it reasonably decent and kind? Is it a fit place for human habitation, especially for the young? What happens to the most vulnerable among us? How do we ill-dignify the human body, and how do we forestall such affronts?” Such questions demand long-winded, nuanced answers, yet it is worth seeking these answers. They are pertinent to those who are involved in the porn industry, and they are pertinent to our own lives. We should all be asking ourselves whether pornography is compatible with a respectful and good society.

Rachel L, Wagley ’11 is a Social Studies concentrator in Quincy House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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