Is Porn Culture Better Than Its Alternative?

Reading Sex and God at Yale by Ricochet’s very own Nathan Harden, I came across an interesting fact (two, actually) about porn consumption in the United States and abroad:

Porn advocates often cite the fact that Utah, one of the most religious and most politically conservative states in the United States, also has the highest rate of porn subscribers in the nation. Pakistan, a largely Muslim nation with extreme cultural restrictions on sex and public indecency, also ranks number one in the world Internet searches for pornographic content per person. A nation where women are commonly compelled to wear head coverings and head-to-toe robes in order to safeguard their “modesty” is the same nation that leads the world in Google searches for the terms “rape sex,” “donkey sex,” and “child sex.”

(This is particularly interesting to think about in light of the Taliban’s recent attempted assassination of the fourteen-year-old Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai, who was an outspoken proponent of education rights for young women.)

I find these porn statistics fascinating. Why is porn most highly consumed in very conservative cultures where promiscuous sexuality is most repressed? Harden offers his two cents: “Wherever there are severe cultural restrictions on pornography, people are all the more compelled to access it privately–without risk of cultural stigma–via the Internet. It begins to look like there is a pattern of hypocrisy: Those who condemn porn publicly consume it privately.”

Here’s another way to think about it: Whenever you make something taboo, it becomes even more desirable and sought after–it becomes risque and sexy. As Salman Rushdie recently said, “Terrible ideas, reprehensible ideas, do not disappear if you ban them. They go underground. They acquire a kind of glamour of taboo. In the harsh light of day, they are out there and, like vampires, they die in the sunlight.” He was talking about the anti-Muslim video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” but I think his point applies more broadly, and offers some insight into why porn is so popular in the very places where it is most restricted. Though I don’t like porn culture, I would agree that it’s better to let the culture exist unrestricted, and to criticize it, than to try to hide from it by restricting it.

  1. Douglas

    People do all kinds of things personally they’d never do publicly. There’s an element of hypocrisy in human beings that we’re born with. It doesn’t make moral teachings against bad behavior wrong, and if anything, reinforces the lesson: without controls of various sorts… especially strong social stigmas… people would start doing those nasty things openly and more often.

    The argument for “porn culture” is essentially the same kind of flawed argument that we should de-criminalize and tolerate vice. The argument is that “hey, if people can do it without stigma, it won’t be a big deal anymore, and there will actually be less of it”.  The Netherlands embraced this idea for decades until they got tired of needles piling up on public streets and parks. Vice is like any other crime. You’re never going to be rid of it, but to stop resisting it is madness, and will only bring more if it, and more brazenly. In a free society, you have to make some allowances for the personal use of vice… to a point. But it’s insanity to embrace it as a virtue and not set limits on it.

  2. Devereaux

    I have long felt that the principle that you define is true of most things.

    I am a shooter. I taught both my children to shoot at a young age. They view guns as merely things that they kind of like to shoot from time to time but have no other urges about them – much like any tool.

    Down the street there was a family that had 2 boys where the parents were vehemently antigun. The boys were not even allowed to have play guns. The result was that whenever THEY cam over to play, they were rabid about playing with my son’s toy guns and asked questions about mine incessantly. Other children, some of who I took to ranges to teach to shoot alongside my son, were like my children – not terribly impressed.

    It is, as you say, the rarity, the unavailability, of porn that makes it magic. Else it’s just grimy.

  3. Mel Foil

    Porn advocates often cite the fact that Utah, one of the most religious and most politically conservative states in the United States, also has the highest rate of porn subscribers in the nation.

    Subscribers? If that indicates that they’re paying for it, and not getting it for free, maybe that implies that they’re novices–not “experts.” The experts trade it like others trade Hollywood movies and music online. If you’re paying, it either implies that you’re a novice, or you don’t approve of stealing. I’d guess, most porn consumers have no problem with stealing. That’s the only way it makes sense to me.

  4. Devereaux
    Douglas:   … The Netherlands embraced this idea for decades until they got tired of needles piling up on public streets and parks. Vice is like any other crime. You’re never going to be rid of it, but to stop resisting it is madness, and will only bring more if it, and more brazenly. In a free society, you have to make some allowances for the personal use of vice… to a point. But it’s insanity to embrace it as a virtue and not set limits on it. · 0 minutes ago

    Ah, but you do make a difference between legality and social acceptance. Recollect that in THIS nation we had legal prostitution for many years. It was viewed in varied ways, depending on where it was practiced. But it was never socially considered a great job choice. So you saw it a lot in places like mining camps, but not much in Philadelphia. And rape got you hung quickly, a more accurate assessment of social value.

  5. Pseudodionysius

    I don’t think the analogy holds. When you forbid something by simply saying its forbidden, you haven’t gotten to the root of the vice. If, instead, you restrict something and explain that indulging in it will slowly, perhaps imperceptibly at first, damage your ability to form legitimate friendships, find and honor a spouse and raise your children in the image you wish to form them, I think you send a more powerful message.

    You also have to mention that Divine Grace is an aid to chastity and continence: we aren’t Pelagians.

  6. Guruforhire

    Taboos are great things, and are meant to be violated.  It sort of marks the boundaries of acceptable behavior.  When adults are looking to push the boundaries a little bit, it keeps that kind of thrill seeking in a safe and reasonable territories.  When you mainstream things like BDSM and the more perverse kinds of kink, where does the average have to go to be kinky and exciting?  I want you to seriously consider what the 12 year old girl that was singing along with britney spears to songs about group sex, and Rhianna to songs about bondage and sadomasocism is going to have to do to be exciting and fun when she is in her thirties and forties?  I mean holy hell what is a guy going to do to have to please HER?  I mean my god, there is nowhere to go.  So yeah, let adults engage in a little pornographic fantasy, and keep it something that should be done privately.

    I remember a time when getting to second base a heart bounding barely able to breathe event.  Now.  Meh.  Normalizing things is BAD for human sexuality.

  7. Illiniguy
    Devereaux: I have long felt that the principle that you define is true of most things.

    Including alcohol and tobacco. When I was about 6 or 7, I asked my mom, who smoked at the time, to let me take a puff on her cigarette. After I got up off the ground after gagging myself, to the sound of her laughter, I never touched a cigarette again. I’m also convinced that children who grow up with alcohol as a taboo, especially in homes where the adults drink, will overdo it at first opportunity.

  8. Illiniguy
    Pseudodionysius: [W]e aren’t Pelagians. · 14 minutes ago

    No, we’ll leave that to the utopians of the progressive movement.

  9. Guruforhire
    Mel Foil

    Porn advocates often cite the fact that Utah, one of the most religious and most politically conservative states in the United States, also has the highest rate of porn subscribers in the nation.

    Subscribers? If that indicates that they’re paying for it, and not getting it for free, maybe that implies that they’re novices–not “experts.” The experts trade it like others trade Hollywood movies and music online. If you’re paying, it either implies that you’re a novice, or you don’t approve of stealing. I’d guess, most porn consumers have no problem with stealing. That’s the only way it makes sense to me. · 23 minutes ago

    But there are people who put it online for free.  Its a new facet of exhibitionism.

  10. Sabrdance

    While in this case I think we might be able to take the statistics at face value, there is a third, methodological explanation which should always be kept in mind.

    Without individual data, we can’t make statements about individuals.

    So yes, Utah might have a lot of pornography subscribers.  This does not indicate Utah is filled with hypocritical secret websurfers.  It is entirely possible that 50%+1 of Utah has made other types of porn nearly impossible to get, driving the other 50%-1 to the Internet.  (And my recollection of the report is that it was worse than that -the data used aggregated credit-card data, so we can’t even be sure that each data point represents a single person).  Similar argument can be made about Pakistan.

    Howell’s Rule of Statistics #3, Aggregated data cannot be used to draw conclusions about its constituent parts individually.

    Rule #1 is also relevant, All statistics regarding sex, marriage, divorce, religion, and family are wrong until proven otherwise.

    (And Rule #2 is, Collect data such that your unit of analysis is the same as your unit of interest, which leads right into rule #3.)

  11. Fred Cole
    Mel Foil

     The experts trade it like others trade Hollywood movies and music online. If you’re paying, it either implies that you’re a novice, or you don’t approve of stealing. I’d guess, most porn consumers have no problem with stealing. That’s the only way it makes sense to me. · 26 minutes ago

    Yeah, it’s not like that.  If you’re paying for it, it just means you don’t know where to get it for free or choose not to.  There’s tons of it out there for free.

  12. Aaron Miller

    Who is more tempted by a box of donuts — a person who eats whatever she wants or a person on a diet? The restriction needn’t be imposed by others to exaggerate temptation.

    Also, who do you think Satan is more eager to corrupt — the low-hanging fruit or role models? For every leader you can convert, you convert ten followers.

  13. Clem Comly

    I wonder how much of Utah’s and Pakistan’s #1 rankings are due to lack of competitive substitutes?  if you were to tell me that per capita beef consumption was highest in Muslim areas, I would ask if they still are highest if one ranks consumption of beef and pork combined. 

  14. Douglas
    Illiniguy

    Pseudodionysius: [W]e aren’t Pelagians. · 14 minutes ago

    No, we’ll leave that to the utopians of the progressive movement. · 11 minutes ago

    Libertarians are, in their own way, just as Utopian as progressives.

  15. Misthiocracy

    So jurisdictions that consume the most porn are also the jurisdictions that put the most restrictions on women?

    How is that a good thing?

  16. Knell

    No matter the statistics we must never think to try and normalize porn.  It is not and will never be normal.  Pornography a big lie.  It’s kind of like the contrast between Paul Ryan and Joe Biden last night — Earnest vs icky.  Sure there’s a lot of porn out there and it’s easily available and it has “gotten by” all these years and people like it — it has superwhite teeth and smiles and laughs while people are dying.  But it’s hiding something isn’t it?  It got its start on false transcripts and plagiarism. 

    Just because the damage is overlooked by many (most?) it does not mean we should just turn it loose and see what happens.  The existence of pornography demeans us all — we must never forget that.

    (Are you asking this because Camille Paglia is pro porn?) 

  17. KC Mulville

    It begins to look like there is a pattern of hypocrisy: Those who condemn porn publicly consume it privately.

    It isn’t necessarily true that those who did the forbidding and those who did the consuming are the same group.

    Now you might argue that if you live in a state, you vote for its representatives, and that surely they represent you. Not true.

    • I live in Maryland. But Maryland is abortion-friendly, and I am most certainly not.

    • The people who decided Maryland’s abortion policy don’t represent my views on that.

    By the same logic, you can’t say that the people who condemn pornography in Utah are the same ones who consume it privately, and are therefore hypocrites.

    After all, the USA is majority pro-life, and yet the Obama Administration is decidedly for abortion. Does that mean we’re all hypocrites? No. That conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises.

  18. tabula rasa

    Whatever your opinion of porn is and what we should do (or not do) about it, you should at least read the latest compilations of studies on the subject.

    In 2005, Dr. Jill Manning, working under the auspices of the Heritage Foundation, presented a paper to Congress entitled the “The Impact of Internet Pornography on Marriage and the Family:  A Review of the Research.” Here.

    In 2010, Mary Eberstadt and Mary Anne Layden prepared a damning indictment of pornography entitled “The Social Costs of Pornography.” Here.

    Their conclusions:  porn destroys relationships between men and women, husbands and wives, and it destroys children.

    I’m not advocating prohibition, but let’s at least acknowledge that chronic porn consumption is not victimless.

  19. Misthiocracy

    It begins to look like there is a pattern of hypocrisy: Those who condemn porn publicly consume it privately.

    Has the author of this quote stopped to think that he might have the correlation backwards?  Maybe those who consume porn privately are more likely to condemn porn publicly.

  20. Schrodinger
    What is the alternative? Legalize all forms of pornography, including pedophilia? Isn’t this relative moralism which leads to chaos?