It is not a scandal. It is a sex crime. It is a sexual violation. It’s disgusting. The law needs to be changed, and we need to change. That’s why these Web sites are responsible. Just the fact that somebody can be sexually exploited and violated, and the first thought that crosses somebody’s mind is to make a profit from it. It’s so beyond me. I just can’t imagine being that detached from humanity. I can’t imagine being that thoughtless and careless and so empty inside. [….]
I started to write an apology, but I don’t have anything to say I’m sorry for. I was in a loving, healthy, great relationship for four years. It was long distance, and either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he’s going to look at you.
That’s Jennifer Lawrence’s reaction to her nude photos being stolen and published online. Whether she intended to or not, she’s exposed four of the most common lies that we tell ourselves about sex and pornography, beginning with these two:
Lie #1: Pornography isn’t cheating.
Lie #2: The world of online pornography isn’t part of the real world.
Jennifer is right to describe the theft and publication of her nude photos as “ a sex crime” and “a sexual violation.” But that acknowledges a basic truth about pornography that we don’t want to admit: that it’s inherently sexual. This is glaringly obvious, but we pretend to be ignorant of it, because it’s inconvenient.
If you’re married, but you spend your evenings hiding out in trees, watching through your neighbor’s windows as they have sex, that’s cheating. It doesn’t matter if your neighbors know what you’re doing or not, because what you’re doing is contrary to monogamy and to marital fidelity.
But for some reason, if you’re watching people undress through a computer screen rather than a window, we treat it differently. This is a sort of digital illusion. Even if you spend a majority of your life online, it’s easy to think of the offline world as “the real world.” In a way, we’re talking about a cognitive limitation common to humans, not entirely different from the way that people think about credit cards differently than cash. The money doesn’t feel as “real” when it’s only accessible electronically, so they overspend.
This illusion, this self-deception, causes a lot of damage. We see it in the case of online bullying, and the general nastiness of YouTube comments: people say awful things to one another, things that they would never say in person, because everything seems less real when it’s online. So it is here: pornography users act towards women online in a way that they (hopefully) would never think of acting towards women “in real life.” Jennifer’s response, like the response of the victims of cyber-bullying or the credit card statement at the end of the month, reminds us that the things we say and do online are very real. So stop thinking about pornography any differently than any other context in which you watch people undress or have sex. It’s cheating, it’s contrary to fidelity or monogamy, and it’s morally wrong.
Lie #3: Pornography empowers women
Jennifer Lawrence was exploited, and her dignity violated, by the hackers who stole her photos, by the websites who made money off of these photos, and by the Internet users who served as consumers for this exploitation. And she was rightly outraged about this, as her response shows.
But she was exploited by someone else, too: her boyfriend. Jennifer’s explanation for why she felt like she needed to pose naked in the first place was that he lived far away, and “either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he’s going to look at you.” Think about that: Jennifer Lawrence, one of the most powerful, most beautiful young women on the planet, didn’t feel like she could say “no” to producing pornography for her boyfriend, since she was competing against an entire Internet’s worth of naked women.
That’s awful. When we look out at other parts of the world, we talk about how polygamy “usually is anathema to women’s economic, social and emotional well-being.” A society in which men are able to play their various wives against each other isn’t one that’s good for women. But we’re generally blind to the ways that we’re guilty of the exact same thing here at home, only without the pretense of marriage. Jennifer didn’t say that this was something that she wanted to do, or even that she was willing to do something she wasn’t altogether comfortable with because she wanted to please her boyfriend. She said, in essence, that she did it because the alternative was even worse.
So it’s not just that pornography is exploitative of the real-life women being leered at. It’s also disempowering to every woman who has to compete against it, because it makes it that much harder to say “no” to things to which she’s morally opposed, or with which she feels uncomfortable. And worse yet, it has a cascading effect: the more women give in to this pressure, the more pressure there is on every other woman.
Lie #4: Pornography is a victimless vice.
Imagine that you’ve got a family business selling widgets. Your widgets are lovingly made, and the price reflects the quality. One day, a Wal-Mart opens up down the block. Overnight, you and all the other small widget businesses become an endangered species. Wal-Mart is virtually giving the widgets away. If you don’t want your customers to leave you for Wal-Mart, you’ve got a couple of options: either (1) lower your prices, or (2) convince people that your widgets are better than Wal-Mart’s.
There are more parallels than we’d like to acknowledge between the marketplace and the world of sex, romance, and marriage. If your boyfriend, Brad, wants you to do something that you’re not morally or emotionally okay with, it’s a lot harder to say “no” if you know that Brooke from the local Applebee’s is more than willing (my apologies to Brookes for this gross stereotype). In the past, women have responded to this situation the way small businesses respond to Wal-Mart: by denouncing their rivals as cheap and trashy.
In economic terms, women operated a bit like a price-fixing cartel. Just as OPEC says, “we’re not going to sell oil for less than x amount per gallon,” women said, “we’re not going to have sex with you without (for example) a wedding ring.” Of course, there are women who broke with the pack, just as there are OPEC nations who undercut the fixed price, seeking personal advantage over the good of the others. But in both cases, the “cartel” responds by condemning the “price cutter.”
These denunciations served as an important counterbalance. The “Brads” of the world pressure women in the direction of promiscuity: they want to drive the value of women’s sexuality down. Other women (the ones condemning the “Brookes” of the world), apply pressure in the opposite direction. These days, however, we’re told that this is “slut shaming” – which, of course, it is. So now, you’re not allowed to be not-okay with Brooke’s behavior. Or at least, you’re not allowed to voice your objections, because we pretend that Brooke’s actions only impact her. And so the sexual pressures on women are increasingly only in the direction of promiscuity. In the name of preserving Brooke’s right to do what she wants without suffering the consequences, those consequences are felt by every woman who has to compete against her.
Virtually everything that I’ve said here is true in reverse, too: men feel enormous pressures to fornicate, in order to “be a man.” But for a variety of reasons, this phenomenon is easier to see in those cases in which the man is pushing for commitment-less sex, and the woman is wanting something more, like a wedding. And this is particularly true when we’re talking about pornography, because women aren’t just up against Brooke, but untold scores of disrobed women. As long as we accept the framework that “either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he’s going to look at you,” your only option is to lower yourself to appease whatever his sexual appetite happens to be.
So we’ve already seen two ways that pornography is anything but victimless: it’s a form of cheating, and it helps to create the social conditions in which women don’t feel comfortable saying no to sexual demands. But there are other ways, as well.
If someone spent their days looking at child pornography, you wouldn’t doubt for a moment that there were real victims. Not only is the dignity of the children depicted violated anew every time someone looks at the pictures of them, but it damages the user’s relationships with all of the children that he interacts with. You can’t spend your days watching child pornography, and come away with a healthy view of children. And of course, that’s true even if you’re not looking at real pictures, but just fantasizing about children in this way.
So, too, with pornography depicting adults. Consider the number of people you meet in the course of a day, or a month, or your whole life. If you’re a consumer of pornography, consider now the number of women you see in a particular sitting. For some of you, most of the women you’ve seen in your life have been naked, or about to get naked, and presented to you as sexual objects. You can’t live that life without it damaging your view of, and interactions with, women. It’s just not possible to compartmentalize that dramatically.
The person most directly harmed by your pornographic consumption (besides yourself) is your spouse. Recent studies have shown how pornography consumption damages the sexual behavior of men:
the more pornography a man watches, the more likely he was to use it during sex, request particular pornographic sex acts of his partner, deliberately conjure images of pornography during sex to maintain arousal, and have concerns over his own sexual performance and body image. Further, higher pornography use was negatively associated with enjoying sexually intimate behaviors with a partner.
Women who consumed pornography had more positive attitudes toward extramarital sex, adult premarital sex, and teenage sex. Women who consumed pornography also had more sexual partners in the prior year, prior 5 years, and were more likely to have engaged in extramarital sex and paid sex.
All other things equal, more frequent exposure to sexual media was related to ever having had sex, coercive sex victimization, and attempted/completed rape but not risky sexual behavior.
Of all people, the actor Russell Brand recently spoke out against this, speaking candidly about the effects of pornography generally, and in his own life: the way that pornographic consumption hyper-sexualizes media and culture, desensitizes viewers (including unwitting ones), impedes intimacy; and impacts how users view women. In his words, “Porn is not something I like, it’s not something I’ve been able to make a long-term commitment to not looking at, and it’s affecting my ability to relate to women, to relate to myself, to my own sexuality, to my own spirituality.” Those injuries don’t just hurt the users themselves, but their loved ones, the culture and society more broadly. If anything good is to come out of Jennifer Lawrence’s humiliation, it should be that it forces us to reassess our baseless assumption that pornography is harmless for individuals, couples, or society.