I’m sitting in the fifth row of McCosh 10. the hall is largely empty. I count ten girls and twenty or so guys, mostly white and sitting alone. More people trickle in after the talk starts—they sit in the far back. The rows in front of me are empty except for a cluster of student hosts. They belong to Princeton’s Anscombe Society, a group devoted to the protection and affirmation of traditional family values, including “a proper understanding for the role of sex and sexuality.”
Elizabeth Anscombe, after whom the Princeton student group is named, was a 20th century British philosopher. According to the organization’s mis- sion statement, Anscombe is known for her “penetrating analysis” of sexual ethics. The group meets for weekly discussions and recently celebrated its tenth anniversary.
I overhear two hosts comment that this lecture (The Hidden Costs of Porn) has drawn a smaller crowd than they expected. Onstage, Mary Anne Layden, Ph. D., tells us that she is about to talk about what “may be an un- comfortable subject for many of you.” The resolute silence in the room tells me she may be right.
Layden is the director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program at UPenn. An old but surprisingly vigorous woman, she walks slowly and speaks quickly. Her delivery is self-assured. She tells us that her main goal for the night is to “dispel the notion that there’s no research” concerning the harmful effects of porn.
Three slides in, she asks us to keep a couple of questions in mind as we listen to her speak.
“What kind of a person do you want to be?”
“What kind of a person do you want to be with?”
She repeats these questions periodically throughout the lecture.
Layden proceeds to the body of her talk. Her machine of a presentation is generously oiled with psychological studies and runs smoothly from point to point. She starts out by defining porn along a spectrum of sexual invasion and commodification that includes rape and sex trafficking. “Porn is the perfect learning environment,” argues Layden, “except for the fact that everything you learn is a lie.”
She pauses on this mean- ingfully before moving on to ‘permission-giving’ beliefs. That porn is normal, that it doesn’t hurt anyone, and that everyone does it—these are all things that people tell themselves in order to justify their behavior, says Layden. She attacks these “How bad can it be?” mentalities, citing work she has done with addicts and sexual trauma victims. According to her research, these ideas all buttress the sexual miseducation that comes from watching porn.
“Pornified thinking,” as she puts it, is pervasive. Layden claims that it’s been widely documented—psychologists call its influence the “dosage effect,” a
phenomenon found in numerous reports studying exposure to porn. In these studies, participants watch about five hours of programming that either contains no porn, minimal amounts of porn, or maximum amounts. All of them find that the participants’ attitudes towards women, relationships, and certain feminist issues change considerably after exposure.
Attitudes towards other things also change, says Layden. She talks through a couple graphs showing that men become more permissive of group sex and bestiality after having ‘massive’ exposure to porn. It’s significant that these categories are linked together by the heading, Projections of Other Sexual Behaviors, as if group sex were just as deplorable as sex with animals. As if both were unquestionably Other. There is a palpable horror in the room as Layden emphasizes the nearly
doubled measure of tolerance. She closes her reasoning with the idea that attitudes, already harmful in themselves, are proven to also affect behavior. Layden cites data that suggests violence and sexual harassment are linked to pornwatching. In her words, “we have made violence a sex act; we have made it sexy.”
Women and children are also affected, she claims. Her discussion broadens to include these two victimized groups, claiming that teenagers are likely to start having sex earlier because of pubescent exposure. Layden’s assertions become increasingly judgmental, especially once she gets to the point that porn can supposedly be linked with teenage pregnancy.
The last part of her data deluge is focused on sex workers. Layden cites rape, low life expectancy, homelessness, child abuse, head injuries, and mental health issues as the common plight of prostitutes. She reels out disturbing statistics, asking us repeatedly, “Is this an industry? Is this a job?” In one particularly graphic section, Layden shows a series of mug shots of female prostitutes, each set of photos spanning no more than two years in a woman’s life. They are distorted images, severe in their remote and dehumanizing police record aesthetic.
Layden lets the visual aids sink in. She tells us that these distressing realities are linked to the harmful miseducation that porn provides. Men are “carriers” of these pernicious attitudes and suffer from sexual narcissism. In one riveting anecdote, Layden describes brain imaging studies showing that people (both men and women), when shown even slightly sexual images of women, are found using the tool-oriented parts of their brains instead of the human-oriented parts. The idea of sexual objectification, in other words, is more than a metaphor.
Her talk ends with a brief note on individual and societal solutions, an attempt to re-energize the now submissively silent room. According to Layden, who advocates for the enforcement of decency laws, the legalization of prostitution is actually counterproductive. She cites the increase in child prostitution and sex trafficking in the Netherlands as one example. Sweden, a country that has enforced the criminalization of prostitution and reversed the standard perpetrator-victim dynamic, is Layden’s model for change.
There is a short Q&A ses- sion that follows her talk. One student asks about the role of sexual education in schools. Another asks about the differences in how porn affects men and women. Then one guy—a grad student by the looks of his distinctly European scruff and accent—breaks the ice.
He confronts Layden about her data, claiming that her statistics are utterly fabricated. His source (a quick Wikipedia search) seems unreliable compared to her thirty years of re-search, and yet his reaction shouldn’t be discounted. Why does this anonymous grad student feel so vehemently that Layden must be wrong about specific statistics? Does negating the data undermine the validity of her general proposition, that porn isn’t as harmless as we assume?
Their tense debate ends in hostility, with both sides claiming fraud. An Anscombe host has to step in awkwardly and announce pizza.
The outburst, even as its shockwaves subside, initiates some of my own doubts. I think about Layden’s angle and about the fact that the event is hosted by the Anscombe Society, a bastion of social conservatism. Her choice to focus the lecture on the consequences of porn (as opposed to the ideology that outlaws it) is smart, certainly a strategic move. It’s easy to agree that rape is bad; it’s not so easy to convince people of the traditionalist doctrines that lie be- hind her rhetoric.
And yet, her calculated stance and personal politics seem insufficient to deny all research. We can dispute some of her interpretations, though, especially those that seem, on further inspection, to link certain crimes rather tenuously to porn. Her presentation isn’t necessarily wrong to point out the possibility of connections— it’s just that her view often excludes competing viewpoints and implies causality where much greater proof has yet to be shown.
It’s especially interesting to consider how her conception of porn seems contradictory to notions of female empowerment and body positivity. A couple of years ago, a scandal at Duke formed out of the discovery that a freshman female was involved in the porn industry. The student, writing under her stage name Belle Knox, stated that the main reason she started was to help pay for tuition: “I saw a way to graduate from my dream school free of debt, doing something I absolutely love.”
Yet Layden, following her definition of porn, would consider Knox’s situation as some form of sexual exploitation. Plus, in all of the slides on prostitution, there wasn’t a single concession that, for some, sex work can be economically liberating. She neglects to consider alternative outlooks on porn, and this omission-fueled imbalance is where her socially conservative bias manifests itself most prominently.
Maybe the grad student’s (over)reaction had something to do with this bias. The lecture, framed as it was by questions of ethical self-fashioning, couldn’t but be moralizing. And Layden, cognizant of her audience, seemed careful about concealing her political and religious leanings. But her rhetoric was crucial to revealing the presentation’s underlying messages.
She closed the talk with a bizarre and reductive analogy that likened porn consumption to unhealthy eating habits. I quote: “Tiger Woods may have been physically fit, but he was sexually obese.”
The lecture’s tone was problematic, to say the least. Nonetheless, I come away wondering why liberal activism speaks so little to some of the issues raised by Layden. Why is it that I feel like I’m hearing about most of this for the first time? It’s not as if I’m unaware that porn isn’t realistic, that it leads to delusional ideas about sex, etc. I would say, however, that it’s the first time porn has been represented to me as not just a matter of personal preference or of healthy sexuality, but as morally dangerous.
Are we continuing to enact violence on women by collectively accepting porn? Is liberal discourse about equality and empowerment uncritical when it comes to sex work? Maybe some of her data is worth taking a closer look at.
It’s true, for example, that porn, in response to industry demand, has become increasingly violent. The idea of a snuff film—a.k.a. death on screen— was around even in 1998, when David Foster Wallace wrote his essay “Big Red Son” about the porn industry. In it, he makes a spectacular point about how the more mainstream porn becomes, the more it has to be “extreme” in order to “preserve the sense of unacceptability that’s so essential to its appeal.”
It’s also true, however, that some of Layden’s claims are widely overblown. At a different lecture a few years ago, she is quoted as having said that women who watch porn are “more likely to be victims of nonconsensual sex.” If that sounds like victim-blaming to you, it’s probably because it is.
David J. Ley, another psy- chologist who studies sexual behavior, has written a column debunking some of Layden’s assertions. He has also published a well-received book against the myth of sex addiction. What’s interesting about
his view, though, is that he says people like Layden aren’t neces- sarily wrong when they say that porn is dangerous. He doesn’t completely disagree with them, but he denies that there’s trust- worthy research to support their claims. Moral arguments, as Ley says, should “remain in the realms of ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts.’”
We don’t want to confuse scientific data with moral arguments, but maybe both liberals and anti-porn activists like Layden have important contributions for the ongoing conversation. After all, liberal discourse often shies away from making any kinds of prohibitions. It insists on freedom of action in a way that might obscure some of the finer de- tails with respect to cultivating healthy sexual expression. After all, we don’t necessarily need to ban porn in order to educate people on its unrealities.
This is important to remember, particularly because porn has been, to some extent, encoded into our society in a way that is similar to the way we think about trashy, pubescent “classics” like American Pie. It’s just raunchy enough that we’d feel embarrassed about watching it with parents—yet the movie’s popularity and All- Americanness reveal that it’s far from being truly taboo. Porn, too, is more acceptable now than it must have been when VHS was still a thing.
It seems like the Pornified LifeTM is here to stay. But if you’re looking for alternative entertainment, I’d recommend reading “Big Red Son.” It’s fantastic and disturbing—one might even say pornographic.