Rejoice! The NYT Finally Published a Pretty Good Article About Sexuality

The New York Times has an article about the effects of pornography on teenagers, and it’s actually such a well-written piece that I got really excited and wanted to share it with you. This happens very rarely with the NYT‘s reporting on sexuality.

The article is mostly about research on teens and porn and includes lots of quotes from actual researchers. Amazingly, there are no quotes from fearmongering religious leaders or politicians to provide “balance.” (I will be very very happy if that particular proud journalistic tradition is finally going the way of independent print media [ugh]).

Since it’s presumably written for the lay public, the article could be a little clearer about the correlation-vs-causation problem, but this paragraph sums up the problems with this type of research pretty well:

After sifting through those papers, the report found a link between exposure to pornography and engagement in risky behavior, such as unprotected sex or sex at a young age. But little could be said about that link. Most important, “causal relationships” between pornography and risky behavior “could not be established,” the report concluded. Given the ease with which teenagers can find Internet pornography, it’s no surprise that those engaging in risky behavior have viewed pornography online. Just about every teenager has. So blaming X-rated images for risky behavior may be like concluding that cars are a leading cause of arson, because so many arsonists drive.

This, I think, is actually not entirely fair. A better analogy would be if a study found that arsonists drive at a significantly higher rate than non-arsonists, which still wouldn’t be enough to show that cars cause arson. An alternate explanation could be that people who commit arson have a greater need than other people to be able to get around quickly on their own, perhaps in order to escape a crime scene, so they are more likely to have cars and to drive.

When it comes to sex and porn, it’s more likely that a particular type of teen (say, one who has a high sex drive or is just really curious about sex) is more likely to both watch porn and to engage in risky sexual behavior, not that watching porn causes the risky sexual behavior.

This study also demonstrates the same issue:

Among the most prolific and revered researchers to examine teenagers and pornography is a duo in the Netherlands, Jochen Peter and Patti M. Valkenburg. The pair has been publishing studies about this issue for nearly a decade, most of it based on surveys of teenagers.

They found, as Mr. Peter put it in a recent telephone interview, that “when teens watch more porn they tend to be more dissatisfied with their sexual lives. This effect is not really a strong effect, though. And teens with more sexual experience didn’t show this effect at all.”

This correlation is not at all surprising. People who are dissatisfied with their sex lives (whether because they’re not having sex or because the sex they’re having isn’t great) are probably more likely to watch porn because it’s a way to vicariously experience what they don’t have the opportunity to experience. Whereas people who are sexually experienced may be more satisfied with their sex lives, and those of them who watch porn may be doing it for other reasons.

However, some of the studies discussed in the article seem flawed enough so as to actually show very little:

If academia can’t shed a great deal of light on this issue, perhaps teenagers can. Miranda Horvath, one of the lead researchers behind the Children’s Commissioner report, says that the most revealing part of the research came during an improvised debate, where a group of teenagers — ages 16 to 18, both girls and boys — were divided into two camps. One was instructed to argue that pornography had an impact on them, the other that pornography did not.

The pro-impact camp did not lack for fodder.

“They said it had an impact on their body image, on what young people think sex should be like, what they could expect from sex,” says Ms. Horvath, a professor of psychology at Middlesex University in London. “They talked about how if you see things in pornography, you might think it’s something you should be doing and go and do it.”

The no-impact camp could not fill up its allotted 15 minutes. There were more giggles than arguments. After a couple of minutes, the person chosen to speak turned to the rest of the team and asked, “What else should I say?”

Of course “the pro-impact camp did not lack for fodder,” as these sorts of messages about the effects of pornography are so pervasive and emotional in the media that it’s no wonder teens would pick them up and parrot them. It could even be a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy; you’re told porn will damage your body image, and so it does. But that’s not to discount the possibility that it really does; that’s just to say that this study is a rather poor way of demonstrating that.

It’s also important to note that these teens were told what to argue, and that it’s basically impossible to argue that something hasn’t affected you. All you can really say is “Well uh it hasn’t affected me.” To argue that something has affected you, you just have to list all the ways, hypothetical or otherwise.

This part of the article stuck out to me as a little odd:

“I have a son,” says Professor Reid of U.C.L.A., “and I don’t want him getting his information about human sexuality from Internet porn because the vast majority of such material contains fraudulent messages about sex — that all women have insatiable sexual appetites, for example.”

I think it’s fair and reasonable not to want your children to learn about sex through porn, but Reid’s specific concern seems strange. If anything, mainstream porn probably suggests that women are less interested in sex than they really are, or that their “insatiable sexual appetites” are limited to specific sexual acts that straight men happen to enjoy. I would actually much rather a teenage boy believe that women generally like sex than believe the common cultural script, which is that women don’t really like sex and need to be cajoled and coerced into it, or they do it to entrap men into relationships.

The article also notes the difficulty of operationalizing variables when it comes to research on pornography. What exactly is porn? What is harm? And here’s where we run into some issues.

American research on teenage sexuality tends to define a number of things as “bad”: starting to have sex at a young age, having sex a lot, having sex with many different partners, having sex casually, having unprotected sex. These are the sorts of factors researchers tend to look at when they examine things like the efficacy of sex education and the effects of porn on teenagers. While the latter item is something we should rightfully be concerned about because it directly leads to negative health consequences, the other ones are more a reflection of how our culture views teenage sexuality (and sexuality in general) than anything else.

In general, Americans on both sides of the political spectrum tend to believe that it’s best to start having sex later rather than sooner, to be less sexually active rather than more so, to have fewer partners rather than more, and to have sex in more “serious” relationships rather than more “casual” ones. So when someone conducts a study that purports to show that teens who watch porn have more sexual partners or have more sex in general, that’s only supposed to be “troubling” because our culture has constructed it that way.

What is hardly ever talked about when we talk about “negative sexual consequences” of this or that? Being in an abusive relationship. Violating someone else’s consent. Not being aware of what consent even is. Not feeling comfortable talking about sex with one’s partners. Having judgmental and shaming attitudes about others’ sexual choices. Feeling judged or shamed for your own sexual preferences or gender identity. Believing that some types of people exist for your sexual gratification and objectification. Believing that there are things that others can do to “deserve” abuse.

If watching porn increases the likelihood that teens experience or believe these things, I want to know, because that’s a lot more concerning to me than someone losing their virginity (itself a mostly-bullshit concept) at 16 rather than 17.

“Porn,” too, is a vast category of films and videos that encompasses everything from homemade tapes by couples looking to make some cash or get off on being watched, to huge professional productions that employ well-known actors and make a profit. I’d have to, er, go deep into the methods sections of these papers to see what they mean by “porn” (if they bother to define it), but a lot of this research begins from the premise that things like multiple simultaneous orgasms, 8-inch dicks, and inhuman flexibility are necessarily features of porn. Of some porn, sure. Maybe not of the porn most teens watch. Who knows, unless we actually research it?

My favorite part of the article is the end:

“One of our recommendations is that children should be taught about relationships and sex at a young age,” Professor Horvath continued. “If we start teaching kids about equality and respect when they are 5 or 6 years old, by the time they encounter porn in their teens, they will be able to pick out and see the lack of respect and emotion that porn gives us. They’ll be better equipped to deal with what they are being presented with.”

At a minimum, researchers believe a parent-teenager conversation about sexuality and pornography is a good idea, as unnerving to both sides as that may sound. The alternative is worse, according to Professor Reid. Putting a computer in a kid’s room without any limits on what can be viewed, he said, is a bit like tossing a teenager the keys to a car and saying: “Go learn how to drive. Have fun.”

Something that’s always struck me about discussions of porn and teens is the hypocrisy of adults complaining that teens are learning about sex through porn…while not suggesting any better ways for them to learn about sex. The common solution seems to be “ignore the problem and hope it goes away” or “pretend that if teens don’t know much about sex they will not have sex until they get married at which point they will magically immediately have a pleasurable, fulfilling, mutually consensual sex life.”

Of course teens seek out porn to learn about sex. Their sex ed programs either yell at them that they’ll get pregnant and die if they have sex, or they awkwardly have them learn to use condoms and name all the parts of the reproductive system, all without any mention of the central reason humans have sex to begin with: pleasure. They are discouraged from learning how to masturbate if they don’t already know how, so even that avenue to sexual pleasure is closed off to many teens, or else filled with shame and fear. Porn, for all its faults, is a wonderful way to see for yourself what sex might be like.

If porn is a bad way to teach teens about sex, then they need a better way. And that way must include discussion of the positives of sex as well as the negatives.

"Traditional" Morality and Anti-Porn Arguments That Fail

So the Republicans have added a section to their official party platform that calls for a crackdown on pornography.

Whereas previously, the GOP platform had only addressed child pornography, the new language reads: “Current laws on all forms of pornography and obscenity need to be vigorously enforced.”

Although this sentence does not technically suggest a push for more regulation, the “anti-pornography activist” (I’m giggling) quoted in the Reuters piece I linked to claims that Romney has promised to somehow increase the use of blocking software to combat internet porn.

I have no idea how he would do this, and I doubt that a Republican-led White House would manage to crack down on porn given that most reasonable people agree this is a ridiculous thing to be spending time on right now.

However, I want to examine some of the ludicrous things that have been said by Patrick Trueman, the “anti-pornography activist” I mentioned. Trueman is president of Morality in Media, a religious nonprofit that seems intent on defining morality for the rest of us. About porn, Trueman says, “It’s a growing problem for men in their 20s….It’s changed the way their brain maps have developed. This is the way they get sexually excited.”

As usual, research appears not to be necessary here. I don’t even know what these “brain maps” are that Trueman is referring to; I doubt that he does, either. (To quote Hunter from the Daily Kos: “I think ‘brain maps’ is the most science-ish thing said by any Republican in at least a week, so there’s that. Now if we could just get them to believe in ‘climate maps’ we’d be getting somewhere.”) And it’s interesting how he thinks that porn is a bad thing because it’s supposedly harmful for men specifically. What about women? Do we even exist?

A press release from Morality in Media does seem to mention some actual research:

Research shows that children and adults are developing life-long addictions to pornography; there is a very substantial increase in demand for child pornography because many adult-porn users are finding that they are no longer excited by adult images; on average four out of five 16 year-olds now regularly access pornography online; 56% of divorces cite Internet pornography as a major factor in the breakup of the marriage; girls consuming pornography are several times more likely to engage in group sex than those who do not; significant and growing numbers of men in their twenties are developing “porn-induced sexual dysfunction.

No citations are provided, so I can’t vouch for any of this. I would be rather surprised if all of these findings came from research universities or other independent-ish sources, though.

It’s interesting that anti-porn crusaders always cite the fact that pornography can be addictive as proof that it’s Morally Wrong. Alcohol and nicotine are addictive, too, but they are legal–as they should be in a free society. They are also addictive in a much more physical and tenacious way than porn is.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if the bit about porn factoring into divorce is true. When romantic relationships break up, I’ve noticed, it seems pretty common to blame other things that are going on rather than the obvious: that the relationship itself just isn’t working. The couple just isn’t attracted to each other anymore. They’re not in love. Whatever. It’s not hard for me to imagine that in a failing marriage, at least one person might turn to porn for distraction or sexual release, and the other would be hurt and would cite that as a reason for the subsequent divorce.

Point is, causality is never easy to establish in cases like this.

I also find it interesting how the tone of this press release assumes that girls engaging in (safe, consensual) group sex is necessarily a bad thing, and how it likewise assumes that because people are getting bored of adult porn and are moving on to child porn (?!), the former should be cracked down upon as well.

In an interview, Trueman also said that men who watch porn for years before getting married end up being “dysfunctional sexually because their brain maps are changed. They enjoy what they’ve been doing for 10 to 12 years. Normal sex is not something that gets them excited.”

Again with the brain maps. It’s so difficult to debate these statements because they are never, ever backed up by research, so anyone who agrees with them can just trot out some anecdotal evidence and consider the argument won. So here’s some anecdotal evidence of my own: I know plenty of people who are fairly into watching porn, and they are not “dysfunctional sexually.”

I also wonder how many of pornography’s negative consequences are due to 1) its taboo nature; and 2) the dominance of exploitative, misogynistic, and otherwise oppressive forces within the porn industry, as opposed to the “immorality” of pornography itself.

Greta Christina wrote something wonderful about this over four years ago, and I will quote it here. Although she was referring to anti-porn arguments made by feminists, not Christian Republican men who want to run your sex life, what she said still applies:

I think anti-porn writers have a very bad habit of ignoring Sturgeon’s Law. They fail to recognize that, yes, 90% of porn is crap… but 90% of everything is crap. And in a sexist society, 90% of everything is sexist crap. I’ve seen some very good arguments on how most porn is sexist and patriarchal with rigid and misleading images of women… but I’ve never seen a good argument for why, in a world of sexist TV and movies and pop music and video games, porn should be singled out for special condemnation — to the point of trying to eliminate the genre altogether.

But I also think that pro-porn advocates — myself included — need to stop pretending that there isn’t a problem. We need to recognize that the overwhelming majority of porn — or rather, the overwhelming majority of video porn, which is the overwhelming majority of porn — is sexist, is patriarchal, does perpetuate body fascism, does create unrealistic sexual expectations for both women and men, does depict sex in ways that are not only overwhelmingly focused on male pleasure, but are rigid and formulaic and mind-numbingly tedious to boot. And we need to be trying to do something about it.

Read the rest of the post; it’s good.

I’ve seen porn made by the dominant industry forces, and it’s horrid in all the ways you would expect. But I’ve also seen porn made by individuals and by small, socially-conscious producers, and it can be really awesome.

One recent study shows that 70% of men and 30% of women watch Internet porn. Keeping in mind that these numbers are probably deflated because of the stigma that porn carries (some studies suggest up to 80% of women watch porn), that’s still a lot of people. It’s especially a lot of men. Are all of these people really addicted to porn and incapable of being aroused by their partners?

In general, I agree with the stance that Greta Christina outlines in her post that I linked to. That said, I’m much more receptive to anti-porn arguments when they’re coming from a feminist perspective than from a “traditionally moral” perspective. I have little interest in traditional morality. I think we should all have the ability to create our own morality, and that means allowing people to access and experiment with porn if that’s what they want.

“Traditional” Morality and Anti-Porn Arguments That Fail

So the Republicans have added a section to their official party platform that calls for a crackdown on pornography.

Whereas previously, the GOP platform had only addressed child pornography, the new language reads: “Current laws on all forms of pornography and obscenity need to be vigorously enforced.”

Although this sentence does not technically suggest a push for more regulation, the “anti-pornography activist” (I’m giggling) quoted in the Reuters piece I linked to claims that Romney has promised to somehow increase the use of blocking software to combat internet porn.

I have no idea how he would do this, and I doubt that a Republican-led White House would manage to crack down on porn given that most reasonable people agree this is a ridiculous thing to be spending time on right now.

However, I want to examine some of the ludicrous things that have been said by Patrick Trueman, the “anti-pornography activist” I mentioned. Trueman is president of Morality in Media, a religious nonprofit that seems intent on defining morality for the rest of us. About porn, Trueman says, “It’s a growing problem for men in their 20s….It’s changed the way their brain maps have developed. This is the way they get sexually excited.”

As usual, research appears not to be necessary here. I don’t even know what these “brain maps” are that Trueman is referring to; I doubt that he does, either. (To quote Hunter from the Daily Kos: “I think ‘brain maps’ is the most science-ish thing said by any Republican in at least a week, so there’s that. Now if we could just get them to believe in ‘climate maps’ we’d be getting somewhere.”) And it’s interesting how he thinks that porn is a bad thing because it’s supposedly harmful for men specifically. What about women? Do we even exist?

A press release from Morality in Media does seem to mention some actual research:

Research shows that children and adults are developing life-long addictions to pornography; there is a very substantial increase in demand for child pornography because many adult-porn users are finding that they are no longer excited by adult images; on average four out of five 16 year-olds now regularly access pornography online; 56% of divorces cite Internet pornography as a major factor in the breakup of the marriage; girls consuming pornography are several times more likely to engage in group sex than those who do not; significant and growing numbers of men in their twenties are developing “porn-induced sexual dysfunction.

No citations are provided, so I can’t vouch for any of this. I would be rather surprised if all of these findings came from research universities or other independent-ish sources, though.

It’s interesting that anti-porn crusaders always cite the fact that pornography can be addictive as proof that it’s Morally Wrong. Alcohol and nicotine are addictive, too, but they are legal–as they should be in a free society. They are also addictive in a much more physical and tenacious way than porn is.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if the bit about porn factoring into divorce is true. When romantic relationships break up, I’ve noticed, it seems pretty common to blame other things that are going on rather than the obvious: that the relationship itself just isn’t working. The couple just isn’t attracted to each other anymore. They’re not in love. Whatever. It’s not hard for me to imagine that in a failing marriage, at least one person might turn to porn for distraction or sexual release, and the other would be hurt and would cite that as a reason for the subsequent divorce.

Point is, causality is never easy to establish in cases like this.

I also find it interesting how the tone of this press release assumes that girls engaging in (safe, consensual) group sex is necessarily a bad thing, and how it likewise assumes that because people are getting bored of adult porn and are moving on to child porn (?!), the former should be cracked down upon as well.

In an interview, Trueman also said that men who watch porn for years before getting married end up being “dysfunctional sexually because their brain maps are changed. They enjoy what they’ve been doing for 10 to 12 years. Normal sex is not something that gets them excited.”

Again with the brain maps. It’s so difficult to debate these statements because they are never, ever backed up by research, so anyone who agrees with them can just trot out some anecdotal evidence and consider the argument won. So here’s some anecdotal evidence of my own: I know plenty of people who are fairly into watching porn, and they are not “dysfunctional sexually.”

I also wonder how many of pornography’s negative consequences are due to 1) its taboo nature; and 2) the dominance of exploitative, misogynistic, and otherwise oppressive forces within the porn industry, as opposed to the “immorality” of pornography itself.

Greta Christina wrote something wonderful about this over four years ago, and I will quote it here. Although she was referring to anti-porn arguments made by feminists, not Christian Republican men who want to run your sex life, what she said still applies:

I think anti-porn writers have a very bad habit of ignoring Sturgeon’s Law. They fail to recognize that, yes, 90% of porn is crap… but 90% of everything is crap. And in a sexist society, 90% of everything is sexist crap. I’ve seen some very good arguments on how most porn is sexist and patriarchal with rigid and misleading images of women… but I’ve never seen a good argument for why, in a world of sexist TV and movies and pop music and video games, porn should be singled out for special condemnation — to the point of trying to eliminate the genre altogether.

But I also think that pro-porn advocates — myself included — need to stop pretending that there isn’t a problem. We need to recognize that the overwhelming majority of porn — or rather, the overwhelming majority of video porn, which is the overwhelming majority of porn — is sexist, is patriarchal, does perpetuate body fascism, does create unrealistic sexual expectations for both women and men, does depict sex in ways that are not only overwhelmingly focused on male pleasure, but are rigid and formulaic and mind-numbingly tedious to boot. And we need to be trying to do something about it.

Read the rest of the post; it’s good.

I’ve seen porn made by the dominant industry forces, and it’s horrid in all the ways you would expect. But I’ve also seen porn made by individuals and by small, socially-conscious producers, and it can be really awesome.

One recent study shows that 70% of men and 30% of women watch Internet porn. Keeping in mind that these numbers are probably deflated because of the stigma that porn carries (some studies suggest up to 80% of women watch porn), that’s still a lot of people. It’s especially a lot of men. Are all of these people really addicted to porn and incapable of being aroused by their partners?

In general, I agree with the stance that Greta Christina outlines in her post that I linked to. That said, I’m much more receptive to anti-porn arguments when they’re coming from a feminist perspective than from a “traditionally moral” perspective. I have little interest in traditional morality. I think we should all have the ability to create our own morality, and that means allowing people to access and experiment with porn if that’s what they want.