What gets people to reconsider issues of public concern on which they have a settled opinion? Only rarely does a new argument do the trick, though often it should. Especially on moral questions, all but the young think they have heard most everything that could be said on every side, and—whether after soul-searching inquiry, cold-blooded analysis, peer group pressure, or simple resignation—most have pretty fixed views, both regarding their personal habits and regarding public policy. Still, no one who takes pride in being thoughtful and open-minded considers that quite the end of it: Great public catastrophes such as a foreign attack or an economic collapse surely force us to reassess settled assumptions, and less dramatically, technological change or scientific discovery might sufficiently alter the landscape that responsible citizens in democracy feel obliged to look at an issue afresh.
The question of pornography is precisely such an issue ripe for reevaluation. Thoughtful scholars from a variety of disciplines are engaged in the task of reviewing its purported benefits and dangers and recalibrating the implications for sound public policy once its social costs are weighed. The technological change here is evident to everyone: as a result of widely available high-powered computing, expanded cable television, and the development of the internet, pornographic images and videos are readily accessible in almost every home and now indeed on almost every cell phone and portable device. The numbers are alarming, with estimates that as much as 35% of all content on the internet is pornographic; that two-thirds of college-age men view pornography with some regularity; that a majority of high school students visit pornographic websites, some trading obscene images of themselves electronically. Even those who make no use of these “services” experience the cultural effects of saturation, as ordinary television, respectable magazines, and popular songs regularly include provocative images, situations, and lyrics that a generation ago would have been labeled “soft porn.” Reports from those who have looked describe what now counts as “hard-core” in terms that would astonish the imagination and shock the conscience of anyone who is not a hard-core pornography user himself.
Less well known, but in some respects even more impressive, are the scientific discoveries concerning the effects of pornography use on the chemistry and physiology of the brain. As neuroscience maps the workings of memory and desire and explores the brain’s plasticity—as the power of habit and addiction, long experienced, is now explained, in short—it is becoming clear that pornography use can physiologically impede normal sexual function. At least in the case of men who use pornography to stimulate sexual release, it appears that, as with most addictions, something like increased dosage is needed to achieve the same effect—in this case, usually images of increased perversity or violence. Meanwhile, the connection of sex and violence—of pleasure and pain—that is a noted feature of hard-core pornography, seems amenable to neuroscientific explanation in terms of synapses formed by early experience or repeated practice. From the perspective of neurochemistry, it is even unclear whether the distinction between virtual and actual experience is a matter of kind, not merely one of degree. In short, the more we know about the brain, the more suspicious we become that it traps the images that cross its screen. That pornography is harmless to its consumers can no longer be presumed.
While the technology of the internet and the advanced science of the brain are new phenomena, research on the old question of whether pornography use promotes sexual violence remains as unsettled as research on the deterrent effects of the death penalty. Recent claims attributing the decrease in reported rapes to easy access to pornography have not been disproven, but they can hardly be said to be established. While feminist arguments in the 1980s that pornography should be redefined in law as depiction of sexual violence against women did not succeed in overcoming the constitutional protection granted soft-core pornography on First Amendment grounds, they did reorient people’s thinking, and in practice the pornography industry has apparently made the definition true by its increasingly brutal products. One consequence has been a focus of research attention on the general effects of pornography use on marriages and relationships, where both statistical evidence collected by sociologists and case reports from professional counselors suggest that ready access to pornography on computers has brought the social effects of pornography in from the margins of society to the heart of married life, with predictably devastating effects.
It would not quite be fair to say that all of this has happened so fast that there was no time to reassess the pre-internet consensus reached in the 1980s that the Constitution allowed legislatures to suppress only child pornography and hard-core pornography, though they could regulate where and when indecent materials might be purveyed. Congress passed several laws in the 1990s regulating indecency and obscenity on the internet, intending to protect the young, only to find the laws struck down or confined by the courts. Even the prohibition against child pornography has been weakened by giving constitutional protection to animated images of children so long as no acts are performed by real children in making the films. But it is not only the courts. At times, the political will has been lacking to pass statutes forbidding the pornographic content that courts do permit government to suppress. Frequently, government won’t even enforce the statutes that exist on the books. Constitutional doctrine remains a genuine obstacle to sound policy, I think, but often public sentiment seems more permissive or more resigned than the courts.
While I for one am not ready to propose a comprehensive public policy on pornography—not least because constitutional considerations suggest that any reform needs to be carefully navigated—I am persuaded that all that has been learned in the last couple decades about the personal and social costs of pornography should impel thoughtful Americans to take a fresh look at the subject. For some this may mean becoming informed about the latest findings of neuroscience; for some it will mean facing the facts we already half-know (and our children all-too-fully know) about sexual materials that are easily at hand electronically; for some it might mean pausing to reflect upon what is now a forty-plus year experiment with the sexual revolution and what it may have taught us about the nature and meaning of human sexuality and love. What does not seem plausible to me is that anyone who is informed can insist that the pornography all around us contributes to human liberation rather than degradation, nor that those who are involved in its production, purveyance, or even its defense are the friends of freedom.
James Stoner is Professor in the Department of Political Science at the Louisiana State University. He sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse.