Free Internet Porn and America: A Report on a Natural Experiment

Marty Klein

Dr. Marty Klein’s involvement with the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry (CFI) goes back many years. On several occasions, he has spoken to local groups and CFI branches around the country. Ten years ago, he gave a memorable lecture at CFI’s Amherst, New York, headquarters on his then-new book, America’s War on Sex. Dr. Klein has also keynoted an American Atheists annual meeting and has spoken at meetings of the American Humanist Association.

We are pleased to present adaptations of excerpts chosen by Dr. Klein from his latest book, His Porn, Her Pain: Confronting America’s PornPanic with Honest Talk About Sex, which was published by Praeger in September.

—The Editors


Imagine that you and I were sitting in my backyard during a warm Labor Day weekend in 1999, sharing a nice bottle of Cabernet. “What do you suppose would happen,” you might have wondered playfully, “If America were flooded with free pornography?”

Now that would be an interesting question, and we would have enjoyed speculating about it together for fifteen or twenty minutes. Would everyone go on a diet, wanting to look like a porn star? Would everyone get divorced? Would people stop using contraception, or stop having sex with their mates altogether? Would people quit their jobs so they could stay home and watch porn all the time? Would Playboy go out of business? Would sexual violence skyrocket? Plummet?

We actually don’t need to guess about this, because only twelve months later, that’s exactly what happened: broadband Internet brought pornography into tens of millions of American homes—for free. Within just a few years, the entire country was wired. And watching.

Americans are still watching, more than ever. Most of them are loving it. But for millions of men and women, the pain—and the anxiety—are piling up. They’re afraid for their marriages, their families, and their country. Some are even afraid for themselves.

The introduction of broadband Internet porn into American homes created what scientists call a “natural experiment.” This is the rare chance to empirically observe and study the effects of a specific intervention on a group of people selected by circumstances—the equivalent of being selected at random, making the results very, very informative.

To make it even more interesting, this natural experiment has been replicated in many other countries—with virtually identical results to America’s.

So what would happen If America were flooded with free pornography?

Now we know. Rather than speculate, we can examine the actual results. By doing so, we can learn quite a bit about human beings, sexuality, and other things. My book is about America’s refusal to do so—and precisely how this refusal to look at the facts about pornography is hurting marriages, families, kids, and individuals.

We can also look at the social and political forces at play here. Exactly who has driven this rejection of the facts? As it turns out, there’s a lot of money and power to be gained from scaring the hell out of Americans about pornography.

 

For thousands of years—from pottery to Guttenberg, from rubber to nylon—every new technology has been adapted to sexual purposes. This provokes even more anxiety about the strange new technology, and so these cycles of technological innovation and sexual adaptation are almost always followed by public outrage and fear.

In 1844, for example, Charles Goodyear patented a process for vulcanizing rubber. A few years later, the first rubber condoms were produced, and a few years after that, Congress criminalized the mailing or advertising of condoms. They were even condemned by Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first female physician, who predicted they would increase prostitution.

Each time, the outcry subsides and in retrospect usually seems quaint and overblown. If the fear is later vindicated (The birth-control pill did lead to an increase in nonmarital sex), change is ultimately called “inevitable,” and eventually dismissed as “progress.”

In our own lifetimes, we’ve seen the demonization of then-new erotic commodities and services such as adult bookstores, hotel-room porn rentals, thong swimsuits, swingers’ clubs, mass-marketed sex toys, and sexting. Many of these are still criminalized in some states—despite the fact that millions of ordinary people use them regularly.

The pornography industry’s early adoption and promotion of the Internet is just the latest example of this two-thousand-year-long historical trend.

Like all previous technology/sex developments, the public has responded to pornography’s development and use of the Internet with massive anxiety and resentment. I now see that concern every week in my therapy office, as spouses, parents, and porn consumers struggle with a dreadful sense that technology has unleashed yet more opportunities for unpredictable, uncontrollable sexual behavior.

 

Today’s “PornPanic” is part of a long, troubling American tradition of moral panics about sexuality. Like clockwork, every few years we can see the public’s renewed obsession with sexual degeneracy, pollution, profligacy, debauchery, and inversions of social order. Over the last century, these moral panics have included satanic ritual abuse, rock ’n’ roll, comic books, and childhood masturbation.

Moral panics are symbolic crusades against artificial threats inflated by the media and public figures. They are a response to perceived threats to social order and to future generations (like the panic over the “homosexual agenda”). Moral entrepreneurs whip up fear and outrage disproportionate to any actual danger with lurid stories of depravity and innocent victimhood (like the panic over the videos allegedly showing Planned Parenthood “harvesting” fetus parts).

The result is a volatile emotional climate in which people energize into constituencies united to defeat a common social threat (the way antiporn feminists are now working with the anti–women’s-rights religious Right). Facts and logic become incidental to the “real” story of deviance, conspiracy, or betrayal (as with today’s anti-vaccination activists), and anyone challenging the crowd’s panic response is punished publicly (as with scathing attacks on lifelong gender-rights activists like Dan Savage and Germaine Greer for not being sufficiently “transgender-friendly”).

Today’s panic about broadband porn (what I call PornPanic)—complete with “modern” ideas about brain imaging, the biology of addiction, lab studies of rape ideology, and rumors of the overwhelmingly violent, homogenous content of Internet porn—is just the latest turn of the moral panic wheel. Future generations will judge these ideas silly and old-fashioned, much as we think of leeches, blood-letting, exorcisms, insulin shock therapy, and gay conversion therapy today.

Our centuries-long tradition of conceptualizing sexuality as a profound danger requiring vigilance and regulation was the fertile consciousness on which the seeds of broadband Internet pornography began to fall in 2000. It launched the current moral panic that demonizes porn, marginalizes its consumers, lies about its content, speculates wildly about its effects, invents new diseases that it allegedly causes, willfully misinterprets its spirit and artistic conventions, and uses it as the stand-in for everything scary and confusing about the digital age.

Some people might have imagined that ultraconvenient, free porn would be welcomed as a great addition to Americans’ sexual expression. But all this broadband porn was not dropped into a society eagerly waiting for it. Or ready for it. In fact, it was dropped into a society that had significant difficulties regarding sexuality. One could have easily predicted that it would have an explosive, and not entirely welcome, impact.

In fact, we cannot minimize the fact that in 2000 the American public was confronted with round-the-clock free porn at the same time they were learning about the most profound technical innovation of the last five thousand years. Clearly, dealing with anything new while learning how to integrate the new high-speed Internet into our lives would be complicated—all the more so with something taboo like porn.

So while the country didn’t exactly come to a standstill in 2000, it did rather quickly plunge into a PornPanic. The people and organizations who led the way did so because of money, power, personal agonies, or because they were true believers. Or some of each.

This sudden “PornPain” was (and continues to be) masterfully exploited. It’s continually fed by existing morality groups that leaped at the chance to renew their relevance. Groups like Morality in Media (rebranded with a new title focusing on danger, not morality) and Citizens for Community Values gave themselves new missions, such as eliminating pay-per-view pornography in hotel rooms (succeeding dramatically in Ohio). Without any data whatsoever, radically antisex, self-proclaimed “feminists” like Andrea Dworkin and Patrick Trueman linked adult pornography to sexual violence and sex trafficking. Those myths are stronger today than ever.

 

After the sexual and cultural revolution of the 1960s, America became less religious, and “morality”—especially conventional morality—became a less salient social narrative.

How, then, could moral entrepreneurs like Morality in Media, Concerned Women for America, Parents Television Council, and Family Research Council continue to oppose pornography in a world in which the public consensus on “morality” and “immorality” was unraveling and the concepts themselves had become less relevant, less motivational, and less discussed by the public?

And how could they energize and expand the base of the antiporn movement just as pornography (carried by broadband Internet) was arriving in everyone’s home, looking as if it might become as American as apple pie?

Such a crisis was also a tremendous marketing opportunity. The response was reinventing pornography as a public health menace. These days, almost no one talks about the immorality of watching porn anymore; instead, almost everyone who opposes porn now talks about how dangerous its use and existence are to consumers and to society.

And so government, activists, decency groups (both old and new), and even most churches switched the antiporn narrative from “porn is immoral” (vaguely bad for users) to “porn is dangerous” (concretely bad for everyone). Americans started hearing that viewing pornography caused consumers to rape and molest. And that it ruined marriages, damaged brains, stole erections, harmed teens, supported crime, scarred children, perverted adult desires, distorted men’s ideas about “normal” sex, damaged the actors and actresses who made it, led men to dehumanize women, and created addiction. This justified the demands, continuing to this day, that porn be restricted or even criminalized. Such attacks do not consider porn use a “private” behavior.

The net effect was a broad attack on pornography by a variety of civic players—including some groups traditionally at odds such as feminists and the Catholic Church brought together in a de facto alliance against a shared enemy. Essentially, an ad hoc array of civic propaganda militias launched a full-scale war on a legal product used by sixty million Americans. That war continues today.

As America continues to grapple with the chaotic, exponentially growing world of the Internet, anyone can identify oneself as a stakeholder regarding its supposed effects. Concerned about pornography, a wide range of groups has done so: addictionologists, feminists, psychologists, religious leaders, child advocates, government, sexual violence activists, media scholars, morality groups, and law enforcement, to name a few. This has led to odd political alliances; for example, conservative feminists working with anti-choice activists, Internet safety activists working with antitechnology home-school advocates, or addiction therapists working with child-safety advocates.

Acting mostly independently, each group uses its own tactics. In no particular order, these include:

  • inventing the disease of “porn addiction,” blatantly redefining the word addiction without any clinical rigor;
  • declaring porn use a threat to marriage, without any studies comparing marriages in which porn is and isn’t used;
  • resurrecting thirty-year-old laboratory studies of porn’s effects on college student attitudes without acknowledging what, exactly, they measured and found;
  • citing tiny, exploratory neuroscience studies and implying they indicate that porn use affects long-term brain function;
  • inventing the disease of “pornography-induced erectile dysfunction” (PIED), despite the lack of data showing an increase in erection problems;
  • defining porn use as “infidelity,” despite most couples having no prior agreement about whether either will use porn during the marriage;
  • defining porn as “demeaning to women” despite most porn showing willing women in states of desire and pleasure, being fulfilled by a partner;
  • describing porn actresses (without any evidence) as emotionally damaged people exploited by an uncaring industry;
  • saying the production and consumption of porn encourages sex trafficking, despite a lack of data indicating this;
  • saying that porn use is bad for teens’ brain development, using extremely hypothetical models;
  • conflating the effects of watching a lot of porn with the effects of high Internet and smartphone use;
  • ignoring the historic data on the incidence of sexual dissatisfaction in marriage; and
  • distorting the typical content of porn, claiming it’s all dramatically violent.

None of these arguments or strategies was used to oppose the creation or use of pornography as recently as forty years ago.

So what has happened since 2000? The facts are straightforward. Government data documents the decrease in rates of sexual violence, teen pregnancy, divorce, and other social pathologies since broadband made porn accessible to everyone, all the time. The data are collected in figure 1.

Yes, the rates of rape, divorce, suicide, and child sexual exploitation have all decreased since porn flooded America. We might wonder why so many passionate people and large organizations are so committed to fighting the wrong thing.

Good News about a Common Concern

One of the objections that some women have to their partners watching porn is “I can’t compete with the women in those videos.”

The idea that a woman has to compete with the women or activities in porn films is an unfortunate misunderstanding.

Now, some women feel they have to compete with mainstream celebrities like Scarlett Johansson and Beyoncé (and before that, with Sharon Stone or Marilyn Monroe, and before that, with Cleopatra). That’s a fool’s errand that no one should attempt. These are professionals; do not attempt to do their job in your home.

If you’re smart enough to realize you can’t (and don’t need to) compete with J.Lo or J.Law, why would you feel compelled to compete with Candye Kisses or Rosie Cheex?

While making superficial comparisons in life is inevitable, most men know that porn is a fantasy, not a documentary. No one actually expects his girlfriend to pay the pizza delivery guy with oral sex, and no grownup really expects his partner to look or act like a porn star. Like the National Football League and Cirque du Soleil, people in porn are selected for their talents and unusual bodies. Very unusual talents and bodies.

Sadly, sometimes it’s women, not their men, who are comparing themselves with porn stars. Ladies, you’re not competing with a real person, you’re competing with a cinematic character—who has the benefit of lighting, editing, a fictional partner with unlimited energy and desire, and a script instructing her to defy gravity while moaning on cue.

You can’t compete with that character any more than your man can compete with the James Bond character, the Captain Kirk character, or the Sherlock Holmes character.

Perhaps a glance at “supermodels without makeup” will help put things into perspective. Ladies, unless you’re a porn actress with professionals working on your makeup, hair, and lighting, you won’t look like a porn actress when you have sex. And without editing equipment in your bedroom, you won’t sound like one, either.

By the way, let’s be honest—plenty of women love to consume images of gorgeous females, too. Who else makes up the audience for People magazine, E! News, and those award-show red-carpet previews? And please don’t say you’re interested in “fashion” or “style” (or “news”)—the majority of the audience’s interest is in beautiful women wearing clothes that reveal more than they cover. Admit it—aren’t you a little disappointed when some famous babe shows up in a pantsuit or something that hides her cleavage?

That said, plenty of porn features women who are not conventionally beautiful. There’s amateur porn, granny porn, saggy-boobs porn, and in-law porn, to name a few. People who view such things are looking for something other than perfect bodies. They may enjoy watching ordinary-looking people doing ordinary sexual things. They almost certainly enjoy the erotic enthusiasm they see, whether it’s been scripted for professionals or it’s authentic from amateurs.

If there’s any way in which a man compares his partner to porn, it most likely concerns enthusiasm—which for almost all men trumps a perfect body any time. Good news: this means a typical woman’s less-than-perfect body doesn’t disqualify her in bed.

When women are convinced that their partners are thinking about porn stars while having sex with them, I ask how they know this. During sex, does he call you the wrong name? Does he seem a million miles away? Does he keep talking dirty even when you’ve repeatedly asked him not to? Most women answer no. Instead of evidence, they say “Why would he focus on my lumpy body during sex when he could be thinking about Ophelia Rump, who’s perfectly round and firm?”

Why would he? What about feeling desired, touching and being touched, kissing, nibbling, smelling, pleasing someone else, and feeling part of the ongoing human erotic parade? Sex with Mary FiveFingers while watching porn may provide more perfect stimulation and a more reliable orgasm, but when it comes to sex, friction isn’t everything.

So if your question is “Why would he focus on me during sex?” you may need to look at your sexual self-esteem. I’m very sympathetic if you can’t imagine why he’d rather focus on the live, imperfect naked woman he has with him rather than a maybe-perfect-looking body in a movie.

You might want to check how much your self-consciousness or despair about your body is undermining your mutual sexual enjoyment. It’s not like you’re going to wake up next week with the perfect body or boundless energy of a twenty-four-year-old (unless you’re twenty-four right now), so you both need to figure out how to eroticize the conventional body of a person your age, in your condition.

At work, at the supermarket, in the airport, the world is full of beautiful bodies, male and female. Porn or no porn, every man and woman has to figure out how to feel OK with themselves when they aren’t as good-looking as others.

And how to feel OK when they don’t have as much money as others, don’t have jobs as prestigious as others, or don’t have kids as smart as others. This is the fundamental existential task of all people who want to enjoy life, and porn didn’t invent it.

 

Memo to any guy who resentfully asks a woman “Why can’t you look like the women in porn?” or “Why can’t you do what the women in porn do?”: Dude, the “women in porn” are acting. They’re following scripts designed to get you hot. Very few people do those things in real life, and very few people look like they do in real life. They’re like the characters in Lord of the Rings.

If you want your partner to be more enthusiastic or adventurous about sex, criticizing her and comparing her to fictional characters—like Wonder Woman or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—is guaranteed to fail miserably.

Marty Klein

Marty Klein, PhD, has been a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist for more than thirty years. His career has focused on telling the truth about sexuality, helping people feel sexually adequate and powerful, and supporting the healthy sexual expression and exploration of women and men. He is the author of seven books and more than one hundred articles and a frequent speaker at Centers for Inquiry around the country. This article was adapted from his new book His Porn, Her Pain: Confronting America’s PornPanic with Honest Talk About Sex (Praeger, 2016).


“Broadband Internet brought
pornography into tens of millions of American homes—for free. Within just a few years, the entire country was wired. And watching.”

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