Prepare Yourself for the Next Moral Panic

I have news for you--gay marriage is totally passe.  In saying that, I don't mean that LGBT people will stop getting married; surely that will continue apace.  No, gay marriage is passe as a vehicle for generating moral panic.  One might suggest that those who have been pushing the "the gay agenda is coming for your kids" have realized that this line is losing its effectiveness, and thus are abandoning ship.  I think that's basically true, but be that as it may, it is becoming clear that folks are moving on.

"But surely, Mike, folks are not going to give up on decrying the culture and reducing all problems to some readily identifiable cause, are they?"  Surely not!  Instead, it is clear that there is a new moral panic on the horizon, one that both our evangelical and Catholic brothers and sisters of a conservative stripe are already beginning to rally the troops.  That new moral panic is pornography.

To prime the pump for this new talking point, the evangelically-affiliated Barna Group released a new survey on attitudes toward pornography, especially among young people.  You can see the results here, but a core take-away is that young people, including young people who identify with Christian churches, generally don't see porn as a moral problem.  To take the headline talking point, a greater percentage of people age 13-24 think that "significant consumption of electricity and water" is always or usually wrong than they think "viewing pornographic images" is always or usually wrong.  Likewise, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops recently released a new report, "Create in Me a Clean Heart," about porn, and stated that fighting against pornography will be a priority for the USCCB.

When I first read the USCCB report, I wondered if we would see the kind of bad science we see in the anti-gay marriage pieces.  And, indeed, there is.  It is always important to read these sorts of articles carefully carefully, especially the footnotes.  As an example, on page 14 we read, "[s]pouses who discover their husband’s or wife’s pornography use will often feel betrayed, and many experience a sense of trauma akin to post-traumatic stress disorder."  That's a pretty bold claim, but fortunately it is footnoted.  The first article cited in support of this proposition is “The traumatic nature of disclosure for wives of sexual addicts,” by Barbara A. Steffens and Robyn L. Rennie, Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity 13 (2006).  The second is "Your sexually addicted spouse: How partners can cope and heal," by Barbara A. Steffens and Marsha Means (2009).  As the names imply, the articles are about sexual addiction (let's put aside the question of whether sexual addiction is a real thing).  These are relevant citations only insofar as one assumes that a person who uses pornography and a sexual addict are perfectly overlapping Venn diagrams.  That is an exceedingly dubious proposition--it would be like saying that walking home to discover your spouse has been drinking will "often" cause PTSD, and then citing to experiences of the spouses of uncontrollable alcoholics.  This doesn't inspire confidence in the neutrality and utility of this report.

The problems, though, are more fundamental.  We should start, as always, with defining our terms.  The USCCB statement quotes the Catechism with this definition:  "Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties."  That definition would seem to imply that porn is limited to depictions of actual sexual acts.  I think that is a problematic definition, one that limits the discussion in an unhelpful way.  I would define porn as "audiovisual material that was made for the purpose of fostering sexual arousal in the viewer."

Consider the video below.

Now, for most people, this is an innocuous, if pointless, video of a woman trying to pop balloons with her feet. And, under the USCCB definition, this is not pornography, as it has nothing to do with sexual acts.  However, there is a slice of folks that find balloon popping sexually arousing and, although the creator of the video is somewhat coy about it, the video seems to have been made for the purpose of arousing the folks for whom balloon popping is their thing.  I would argue that the video should absolutely be considered pornography.  Just because it doesn't appeal to most folks, and doesn't involve sexual acts explicitly, doesn't make it not pornography.

This bad, limited definition of pornography sets up the core problem with the USCCB document, and that is a lack of a distinction drawn between porn as such and the content of porn.  This is a critical distinction, because it involves two conceptually different questions.  For porn as such, the question is "is it OK to watch material that was made for the purpose of sexual arousal so that one may become sexually aroused?"  For the content of porn, the question is "is this particular content, which some might use for sexual arousal, OK?"

In the example of the balloon popping, I don't think anyone would have an objection to the content of the video--we don't believe popping balloons to be inherently objectionable or obscene.  Insofar as you have a problem with the video, it must be with the fact that it is being used by some folks for the purpose of sexual arousal, and thus it is problematic regardless of the content.  On the flip side, there are certain categories of material that are improper based on their content alone, regardless of what one thinks in general about using material for sexual arousal (child pornography being the clearest example).

The USCCB clearly wants to argue that porn as such is a problem.  But all of their examples of why porn as such is a problem (with one exception I will get to below) have to do with the content of porn.  Scenes involving underage people, physical or sexual violence, exploitation of various sorts, racial themes--these are all objections to the content found in some pornography, but they don't speak to pornography as such.  But the Bishops' report marshals these realities as arguments against porn as such, which is like using the existence of the Saw films as evidence of why all movies should be banned. There is much in the commercially-available pornography industry on the content side that one can fully and legitimately oppose without necessarily accepting the premise that porn as such is a problem that must be rejected in toto.

But when you strip away the content-based objections from the Bishops' report, you are basically left with a single argument--watching porn will lead to increased masturbation.  It is difficult to argue with this as an empirical claim.  But this leads to the more salient question at the heart of this moral panic--how serious are we really about fighting a War on Masturbation?  I have a hard time coming up with a more challenging military campaign--a land war in Asia seems like a training exercise by comparison.

Snark aside, the argument for the immorality of masturbation is incredibly thin, perhaps non-existent.  The famous story of Onan in Genesis 38, in which God kills him for "spreading his seed on the ground," has far more to do with Ancient Near Eastern property rights law than sexual behavior.  Moreover, all of the traditional commentary assumed that the notion of "male seed" was literal, not metaphorical--semen contained a complete human being in nascent form, a homonculus.  As such, releasing seed in a context where it cannot grow in the "soil" of the womb is a death sentence for these fully-human homonculi.  Needless to say, none of this is actually true--no actual human beings are killed as a result of masturbation.  Not to mention that there are potential affirmative health benefits of masturbation.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that the USCCB and other members of the conservative Christian establishment are going to shift their focus to all of the evils of pornography, and the corresponding problem of masturbation.  This may be a new front, but it is part of the same basic campaign--all of this is about the Sexual Revolution.  There is segment of people, likely the majority (and I consider myself among this group), who view the entirety of the complex and multifaceted phenomenon that is the change of sexual mores and ethics over the last 50-100 in the same way as any other complex social change--a mix of good and not so good, and in any event a moving target that is in the process of evolving and changing.  But there is a segment of people who view that same basket of events as an unmitigated and unqualified disaster.  These folks are looking to find something, anything, that might be a vehicle for rolling back this tide.  Having become locked in seemingly permanent stalemate on abortion, and crashed and burned on gay rights and gay marriage, this is the next vehicle in the line.

What is particularly unfortunate about this newest campaign is that there are completely legitimate things to be concerned about with regard to modern, commercial pornography on the content side.  Beyond the topics that everyone agrees are unacceptable, like child pornography, commercial porn really is consumer culture at its most vulgar.  There is an undercurrent of violence in much of it, both on-screen and apparently off-screen.  The use of racial stereotypes and themes is mind-bogglingly retrograde.  These are real issues, issues are worth talking about.  But no genuine conversation is going to occur on these fronts if the goal of some of the players is to get a large segment of the population to stop masturbating.  Folks are just going to tune this campaign out.

On a certain level, I understand the desperation of the the anti-Sexual Revolution folks to stick their finger in the dike to prevent the torrent of water they believe to be behind the wall.  If I thought the water was behind that wall, I would join them in trying to plug the whole.  But I don't think the torrent is really there.  As such, I cannot sign up for the newest front in what I think is their misguided and doomed campaign.  And, by declaring all pornography and masturbation to be an appropriate target, they lose credibility and miss the chance to talk about the real, if more targeted, problems with certain kinds of porn. 


I understand the desperation of the the anti-Sexual Revolution folks to stick their finger in the dyke

I... ok.
Michael Boyle said…
So, I'm embarrassed---the word can be spelled both ways, but the more accepted spelling for a wall keeping out water is "dike." I did not intend to slur anyone, so I have just changed the spelling to the more common usage. Sincere apologies to everyone.
I know the expression and merely found it amusing in the context of "anti-Sexual Revolution folks."

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