The Pornography Problem
The issue nobody wants to touch.
I want to preface this piece by emphasizing that it will be totally secular in nature, absent of any ‘holier than thou’ attitude, and driven by an interest to see a happier, healthier, and more disciplined society. More often than not, critiques of this subject are slanted by evangelical or generational bias and fail to sway those that find religious teachings wholly unconvincing or older people out of touch. While it’s essentially undisputable that the teachings of Abrahamic faith repudiate sexual promiscuity, it's important to consider the empirically verifiable, addictive and exploitative aspects of the most overlooked and noxious social issue facing society today, pornography.
Pornography consumption is not a small scale issue, especially among younger generations who have grown up almost their entire lives exposed to the material. For reference, 39% of men, ages 15-29, reported viewing pornography daily, 79% of men, mostly between the ages of 18-35, reported viewing it once or twice in the past week, while 95% reported viewing it in the past month. The data also marks a substantial increase in exposure over the past several years; in 2008 the percentage of boys under the age of 13 that had been exposed to pornography was 14.4%, whereas in 2011 the number grew to 48.7%, then jumping to 69% in 2017. Furthermore, the average age of exposure is 11, 12% of all online sites are pornographic, and 25% of internet searches are related to sex, so anyone that tells you this isn’t a widespread issue or that anti-porn activists are reactionary, fearmongering nut-jobs is either lying, coping, or both. Pornography is unprecedentedly accessible, effectively infinite in supply, and freely available, however, those favorable or even neutral to pornography don’t usually deny this trend; where disagreement arises is in the addictive nature and implications of porn itself.
Pornography is addictive. A landmark 2018 review, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that there were three major observable components to addiction:
“Desensitization of reward circuits, which dampens the ability to feel pleasure and the motivation to pursue everyday activities; the increasing strength of conditioned responses and stress reactivity, which results in increased cravings for alcohol and other drugs and negative emotions when these cravings are not sated; and the weakening of the brain regions involved in executive functions such as decision-making, inhibitory control, and self-regulation that leads to repeated relapse.”
All three of these characteristics have been well documented in pornography users. In the case of sexual activity, the Coolidge effect (the general idea that males seek out sexual novelty) serves to verify “desensitization,” but in the case of porn, study, after study, after study, after study also corroborate this element of addiction. The second hallmark of addiction, “stress reactivity,” has been observed in pornography users too. The emotional impulses like anxiety, depression, and irritability that come when cravings aren’t satisfied make the behavior exceedingly difficult to break and contribute to its addictive nature. The last aspect to addiction is the weakening of executive brain functions. Your pre-frontal cortex serves as the decision maker of the brain, deciding when, why, and how to act. Multiple studies have linked prefrontal dysfunction to pornography consumption, in a manner completely distinct from other forms of dopamine compulsion. This is also why brain scans of pornography addicts mirror those of drug addicts.
Although, the most drastic side effect associated with this kind of addiction is “desensitization,” whereby the abnormally frequent release of dopamine, brought on by pornography, numbs dopamine receptors and dulls the pleasure of everyday activities. Declines in dopamine signaling have been associated with decrease in sexual motivation, increase in anxiety, decrease in attentiveness, and increased likelihood of depression, in addition to the increases in stress, paranoia, and narcissism that have also been linked to pornography addiction. This section could honestly go on forever, but I think you get the picture: despite viral headlines that say watching porn can help with your prostate or make you better at math, the behavior is uncompromisingly addictive and emotionally ruinous.
This isn’t to mention the intensely exploitative aspects of the pornography industry. Last December, Mastercard, Visa, and Discover all cut ties with Pornhub after reporters at the New York Times found evidence of child abuse and non-consensual content posted on the website. Unfortunately, stories like these are not isolated incidents. In fact, the porn industry has long enabled human sex trafficking. In 2017, the International Labor Organization found that 4.8 million people were victim to forced sexual exploitation, 1 million of which being children, and 99% of which being women or young girls. Fueled by profit and enabled by negligent (at best) pornography platforms, these crimes flourish and non-consensual content becomes the norm. To this, most would say that they oppose forced content, but are okay with consenting adults who decide to produce porn voluntarily. However, even if every participant were engaged in full agreement, this would not negate the aforementioned harmful effects of porn and the material it normalizes. There’s nothing ‘empowering’ about OnlyFans, and there is nothing ‘conservative’ about sex work.
Aren’t you the party of small government? The market wants what the market wants! Who cares what someone does in the privacy of their own home? To these objections I would agree, the mere existence of a social issue does not automatically warrant the use of government coercion, however, pornography and the industry that supports it are dangerous. Therefore, before conservatives can drive cultural awareness towards this issue, they must escape the sense of enlightened indifference, “this but no farther” stance on social issues. It hasn’t worked. Conservatives can no longer be progressives driving the speed limit, and addressing pornography is one of the best ways to start pumping the brakes.
I fully understand that this take will be unpopular, especially among a college-aged audience. I was hesitant at first to even talk about it. But I don’t think the rapid decline in mental health I’ve seen my generation undergo is a coincidence, and I want to give credence to a potential cause that has become all too normalized in our society today.
Author: Aedan Yohannan