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The New Status of Pornography—Worthy of Academic Attention?

Sex addiction has resulted in a great deal of pain and loss to those entrapped: from severe marital problems–many of which lead eventually to divorce, to job disruption and loss of career opportunities, to depression and thoughts of suicide.  (see CSAT Media Kit [1]Studies [2] of people who view internet pornography extensively are showing increasing evidence of actual changes to brain development.  And yet, a new journal is now being released with a seeming unawareness of just how dire the situation of pornography abuse and addiction has become. 

The Washington Post [3] calls Porn Studies “[t]he world’s newest scholarly journal.”  The journal’s editors describe its Aim and Scope [4] as follows: 

Porn Studies is the first dedicated, international, peer-reviewed journal to critically explore those cultural products and services designated as pornographic and their cultural, economic, historical, institutional, legal and social contexts.  Porn Studies will publish innovative work examining specifically sexual and explicit media forms, their connections to wider media landscapes and their links to the broader spheres of (sex) work across historical periods and national contexts.”

The editors go to great lengths in the opening pages to justify the need and neutrality of their venture, insisting that “now is the right time” to have pornography studied in a scientific manner.  One would think that the existing professional journals such as the American Journal of Sexuality Education, Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, and Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy might have provided adequate venues for such “needed” research.  However, the editors make a comprehensive, if not reasonable, argument for the existence of their journal, which they describe (I hope with tongue planted firmly in cheek) as a “labour of love.” 

The Best Defense Is A Good Offense

The professed neutrality of the editors is easily dismantled by their own writing, however.  They take an academically-unorthodox approach of referencing and detailing popular media reaction to their launching of the journal, discussing feedback received by different interest groups. They briefly engage in a naval gazing exercise about whether the title of the journal should have been “Studies in Pornography” rather than the decided upon “Porn Studies.”  Of critical importance, however, the editors implicitly dismiss, as mere hyperbole, concerns raised that the proposed journal was at high risk for becoming, at best, a vehicle for advancing the acceptance of pornography as normative and, at worst, a cheerleader for the porn industry.   The particular opposition they discuss came from concerned persons who signed an online petition by the anti-pornography campaign group, “Stop Porn Culture.”  Many signing this petition suggested that “porn is harmful and that – above all else – a recognition of this should inform the way it is studied and discussed;” not an unreasonable position given what is already known [5] about the dangers of pornography use and its addictive potential. 

 Notably, there is precedent to validate their concerns about potential publishing bias.

The Journal of Homosexuality is published by the same publishing group.  It, too, upon launch, was put forth as an objective place for the study of a (purportedly) poorly-understood phenomena.  In its current place, however, it is merely a mouthpiece of a particular (gay affirming) perspective on the phenomena of same sex attraction, one that does not allow for a viewpoint that puts forth evidence of harm from the lifestyle. 

Whether Porn Studies will follow a similar trajectory of disallowing evidence of the harm of pornography remains to be seen; the first edition notably is absent of articles outlining the negative impact of pornography on others and the harms to those in the industry, while there are multiple articles that are arguably more “celebratory” in tone, the very thing the editors promised to eschew.  (“Of course, we are feeling the pressure to offer, alongside our ambitions and hopes for the future, a first issue that will pre-empt or prevent howls of irritation that we have not answered the most pressing questions about pornography.”)  Why so much effort and focus on the anticipated objections, if so confident that there is an unbiased approach? 

The [gentleman] doth protest too much, methinks.

The Most Pressing Questions

The Journal’s editors propose that because pornography is becoming an important part of an increasing number of peoples’ lives, it is important to study it more thoroughly.  That may be true enough, as it is well documented [6] that the availability of free, instantaneous pornography on the internet has undoubtedly resulted in a large increase in the number of people suffering from compulsive pornographic addiction; addiction that has been likened to the entrapment by narcotics. 

More study is needed, they argue because much of the popular discussion about pornography “is based on guesswork,” and what pornography means to the user “is something we still know very little about.” From a psychological perspective, this seems a bit naïve, if not disingenuous.  Theoretically, I suppose, there may be some value in studying pornography in a meaningful way that “requires the close and contextualized study of different facets and aspects of specific pornographies… (inorder to) understand a variety of porn practices in their particularity,” much in the way one might need to study the various actions of differing types of cancer cells.  But in the end, the more apt analogy is likely one referencing the study of alcoholism and intoxication, in which the most pressing question is not whether the person’s proclivities tend towards Dewar’s or Jack Daniels. 

In surveying the landscape of pornography, the editor’s offer manifold premises and articulate a myriad of theoretical viewpoints, and yet, those premises or viewpoints fail to acknowledge that which is most central to the discussion of the issue at hand: the dignity of the human person.  Though the phrase is bandied about by the editors, it is arguably used in a superficial manner.  The full import of that truth has yet to find a place in the work thus far. 

Those suffering from intransigent pornography use, or stuck in the throes of the damaging industry, deserve the best that science has to offer in eradicating the dehumanization and stripping-of-dignity of which it consists.  A professional journal that does not have the objectivity to present the fullness of the phenomena studied can easily confuse the general public and media sources that have historically relied on such information with unquestioned trust.  Many people, especially the young, will read headlines touting the benefits of pornography or some such position, and innocently wander into what is clearly a minefield strewn with wrecked personal lives, the stories of which fill Anonymous group meetings around the country.

As uncomfortable as the topic is, which is the reason most seek help anonymously, the dangers are too great to keep silent; the great benefits that can come from preventing the exposure to our children require that we all become educated and willing to speak clearly about the reality of the dangers pornography presents to our children, families, and society.

Human Sexuality
The Washington Post calls Porn Studies “[t]he world’s newest scholarly journal.” Editors claim it will critically explore those cultural products and services designated as pornographic and their cultural, economic, historical, institutional, legal and social contexts. Do we need this?