Pornography: A Harmful Product for Society’s Moral Ecology

29 Jul 2014

This article summarizes and analyzes the social harms of pornography as considered in "Los costes sociales de la pornografía" (Ed. Rialp). The review was written by Fernando Rodríguez-Borlado and published by Aceprensa on June 11, 2014 in Spanish.

When the consumption of a product is addictive, it’s within anyone’s reach, and it’s often free, it’s not surprising that it become “normalized.” But that doesn’t mean it is innocuous. In the Internet age, pornography has invaded not only computers but also many people’s minds. This is taking a toll in terms of mental health, tensions between romantic partners, and the depreciation of sexuality.

The Witherspoon Institute, the Institute for the Psychological Sciences and the Social Trends Institute began some years ago to organize a round of conferences on pornography’s effects. Experts from many areas participated: psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, legal scholars and anthropologists. The texts of the speeches were later collected in the book "Los Costes Sociales de la Pornografía", recently published in Spanish (1).

The normalization of pornography

The book is divided in three sections, plus a summary bibliography of the most relevant studies of the matter. In the first, the harm that ensues from the veritable “avalanche” of pornography, as the authors define it several times, is studied. These harms are studied from a cultural and a neurological perspective, as well as in relation to violent behavior and social relations. In the first of the essays, the writer and journalist Pamela Paul explains how pornography has emerged from the dark, clandestine corner it occupied until the 80s and has installed itself in popular culture. It’s not just that pornographic material is much more accessible thanks to Internet, nor only that every year more videos of this nature are produced (and with a worrisome prevalence of violent or degrading pornography). The worst, Paul considers, is its increasing social acceptance. Young people pose unashamedly in pornographic positions on social media; porn stars are often featured in the same pulp magazines as singers, actors and other renowned celebrities.

Pornography spawns a cynical view of love and a view of sexuality as simple power over another.

Part of this normalization of pornography has been achieved thanks to a premeditated strategy to “demystify” this type of material, abolishing the aura of the forbidden that surrounded it and instead presenting it as something “sexy” and even fun. To illustrate, Paul points to some recent comedies in which the leading characters are happily sign on to work in the porn industry without any apparent consequences to their daily lives.

A matter of public health

Jill C. Manning, a family therapist who writes a chapter on pornography’s influence on women, remembers how she was struck by seeing an adolescent girl wearing a T-shirt sporting the message “future porn star”. That made Manning ask herself “What leads a young girl to pronounce such a message? What does it mean? Who does she intend to offend or attract? Who gains from this type of product? And if it’s just meant to be a joke, “When did working in the sex industry become fun rather than desperate or abusive?”

The example of this girl, as well as many other young women Manning has been able to work with in therapy, led her to recognize that, unfortunately, pornography is ever-present in the lives of young people today and is their main source of sex education.

Keeping in mind the message that pornography sends to its consumers about the relationship between men and women, this omnipresence of pornography poses a problem of the first order to public health. Women and adolescent girls come up against a sexual culture molded by pornography, which influences the way they see themselves and the type of relationships they form with men.

According to her experience as a therapist, Manning affirms that “adolescents put up with ever-more emotional, physical and sexual abuse in their dates.” The author points out the irony that new generations of young women reject in practice the old feminist ideas that asserted women’s self-determination and liberation from male dominance.

Problems in romantic partnerships

All the authors concur in pointing out some of the problems associated with pornography, collected as well in an ever-growing body of literature. Repeated exposition to pornographic material provokes in its consumers an exaggerated perception of the prevalence of sexual activity in the general population; a reduced desire to achieve sexual exclusivity with one partner (thus making less attractive the ideal of marrying and forming a family); an increased risk of developing low self-esteem, especially in women; a cynical view of love and a view of sexuality as nothing more than power over another.

A revealing fact is that among women who have consumed pornography regularly, whether directly or by having been exposed to it at home, a lenient attitude towards rape and physical abuse is much more common. The connection between pornography and the legitimization of violence is ever clearer to researchers and therapists.

Another trend that is clearly documented is the increasing prevalence of pornography-related problems in divorce cases. Declarations by both men and women confirm that it has proved prejudicial to their sexual satisfaction, their relationships and their ability to be intimate with their spouse. The majority of women consider their partner’s repeated consumption of pornography to be a “betrayal.” Conversely, among men, there is less of an association between the consumption of pornography and the feeling of cheating on their spouse, even though the majority judges pornography negatively. Several associations of judges have stated that the consumption of pornography – almost always by the male – is more and more often among the main causes of divorce litigation.

An educator of behavior

Part of pornography’s success is due to the fact that it fulfils criteria to become a powerful “educator” of behaviors and beliefs: the fluidity of images, combined with the particular vulnerability of the brain in moments of mental excitement and the easy gratification that pornography offers make it a highly efficient instrument of indoctrination.

Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, studies how pornography takes advantage of the brain’s plasticity in sexual matters to form what he calls “a new brain map.” Harkening back to some Freudian theories, Doidge explains that the human libido “is not a hardwired, invariable biological urge, but can be curiously fickle, easily altered by our psychology and the history of our sexual encounters.”

Exposure to pornographic material in childhood, a critical period for the development of one’s sexuality, is an ever more frequent phenomenon, and can have permanent consequences. Furthermore, fast Internet connection “satisfies each and every one of the prerequisites necessary for neuroplastic change.”

Tendency towards violence

Doidge calls attention to the change that has happened over the last few decades with respect to the categorization of pornographic material: what was once considered “soft porn” is no longer considered pornography at all today, and is omnipresent in advertizing, music videos and television series for general audiences. What used to be “hardcore pornography” now constitutes the norm in this sector, and hardcore material is now showing a dangerous tendency toward violence.

This paradigm shift in pornography perfectly parallels that which is produced within the brain of the habitual consumer: at first one is repulsed by certain content, but habituation makes ever-stronger doses necessary to achieve the same effect. This is why one of the common consequences of habitual pornography consumption is that normal sexual relations with one’s partner lose their appeal.

Nevertheless, Doidge points out, the same brain mechanisms that allow us to acquire problematic appetites can, through intensive treatment, lead us to generate healthier brain maps.

A fundamental anthropological flaw

The book’s introduction explains that it is impossible to understand the drama of pornography based solely on the evidence of the social harms it causes; rather its harmfulness to the human person must be understood from an anthropological point of view.

The second part of the book, in particular the chapter by writer and philosopher Roger Scruton, addresses this end. Scruton’s main thesis is that pornography alienates sexuality insofar as it strips it of its fundamental element: the interpersonal giving of oneself to another.



(1) James R. Stoner y Donna M. Hughes (ed.), Los costes sociales de la pornografía, Rialp, Madrid (2014), 317 pages, 20 € (paperback) / 11,99 € (digital).

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