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by Pamela Paul
Owl, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jan 30th 2007


In Pornified (an awful choice of title for an interesting book), Pamela Paul builds a sustained argument showing the detrimental effect of pornography on American life.  The initial chapters are fairly neutral in tone, but as the book progresses her stance against pornography becomes more pronounced.  Her assumptions are not religious and she does not repeat old anti-porn arguments that insist the pornography leads to rape.  Rather, she provides evidence that most pornography is degrading to women; men use pornography in secret and especially with Internet pornography, they tend to spend hours each week using it, and this changes their expectations of how their female partners should look and behave and thus hurts their relationships; many men start using pornography compulsively, and drift into more hardcore pornography, bestiality and child pornography; children and young people are starting to learn about sex from pornography and model their behavior on what they see; and all the while mainstream culture becomes increasingly accepting of pornography, with porn stars on prime time TV shows, Hugh Hefner and his playmates on family TV, and doctors and psychologists recommending the use of pornography as healthy and normal. 

Paul's claims rest on individual cases and opinion polls more than strongly confirmed psychological research.  She says she interviewed over 100 people, about 80% of them male.  She also commissioned her own opinion poll, which she says is the first nationally representative one of Americans to focus on pornography.  She also uses many other polls, which while either not nationally representative or not scientifically valid, nevertheless provide striking information. 

The different polls give quite different statistics.  One from 2000 reported that 32% of men and 11% of women have visited a sexually oriented web site.  For the 18-24 age group, the number goes up to 37%.  A 2004 poll indicated that 75% of men and 41% of women had viewed sexual videos from the Internet.  On the other hand, the same poll said that one in five men abstain from Internet pornography.  Yet another poll reports that 70% of 18 to 24 year-old men visit a porn site in a typical month.  Christians are just as likely to use porn as others, it seems: 40% of clergy in one poll said they go to porn web sites, while another said that 50% of pastors do so.  A large proportion of evangelical Christian men say they struggle with pornography. 

Paul also documents how pornography has infiltrated everyday culture: men's magazines such as Maxim and FHM, feature pictorials of nude or partly nude women; major publishers publish memoirs by porn stars, and well-known novelists such as Salman Rushdie defend pornography in print. The porn industry is now more financially successful than Hollywood.  The annual revenue from the adult film industry exceeds $10 billion.  Companies like AT&T Broadband make millions of dollars on adult entertainment, according to Paul, and hotel chains such as Holiday Inn, Marriott and Hilton profit hugely from sales of pay-per-view porn in their rooms. 

The evidence that pornography is causing people relationship problems is rather sketchy.  Paul claims that there's a general progression from watching softcore to hardcore pornography, and this can cause sexual dysfunction in relationships.  She suggests that men tend to become immersed in a fantasy world in which their partners are sexually excited by their very presence and will want to engage in acts that most women find unpleasant and even degrading.  Their expectations of their real partners start to change, and they become frustrated when reality does not match their fantasy.  This makes them retreat even more to their fantasies.  She does quote several men who say that masturbating to pornography is more satisfying than having sex with their wives.  Paul also suggests that when men spend hours a week, or even a day, sexually pleasuring themselves, their abilities to have satisfactory sex with real human beings will sometimes decline. 

Connected with all this is the secrecy involved.  When men hide their pornographic consumption and lie to their families about how they are spending their time, they become more separated.  If their activities are discovered, then their partners feel betrayed and it becomes more difficult to establish trust in the relationship.  If on the other hand men are open about their activities, women often feel resentful or inadequate because they are being compared to fantasies, and they inevitably cannot compete with them.  The wives and girlfriends are especially concerned when their partners become obsessed with depictions of more bizarre sexual practices, involving rape, human waste, pain, explicit degradation, animals, teens and "barely legal" girls, and children.  They may be open minded and even sexually adventurous, but still they have strong gut feelings against much of the pornography that is so easily accessible on the Internet, and they don't feel comfortable with their partners masturbating to such content.  This can create serious problems in the relationship.  At various points, Paul indicates that use of Internet pornography is now becoming one of the main causes of divorce in the USA.

While people now in their thirties or older mostly first saw pornography through magazines, cable TV or videos, young people these days get their first exposure to pornography through the Internet.  According to a 1995 study, 83% of high school boys and 48% of girls said they had seen explicit porn videos.  On average, boys said their first time with porn was at age 11, while for girls it was 12.  The percentages are likely to be higher today, and the average ages are likely to be lower.  A 2004 study found that 60% of children who use the Internet regularly come into contact with pornography.  Other surveys have found higher percentages of childhood exposure to various kinds of sexual material.  There has apparently been little careful study of the effects of such exposure to pornography on young people; Paul merely reports a few studies of what people think those effects would be, without any strong evidence showing that those opinions are right.  The book does have many anecdotes about disturbing cases reported in newspapers, but these are at best just indications of how children are affected by what they see, and don't supply any proof.  Nevertheless, the fact that minors are being exposed to material that they would have had very little ability to see in previous decades is cause for concern.  This concern is heightened when rock bands and rap artists use porn stars in their videos, and female pop stars emulate and imitate porn stars.

The solution to the problem of porn, according to Paul, is not to for society to rush to more censorship and restriction of personal freedoms.  However, she makes the important distinction between allowing personal freedoms and expressing approval for pornography.  Paul argues it is time for women and men who are uncomfortable with pornography to say so openly.  She says it is inappropriate for pornography to be 'cool' and socially accepted.  She pours scorn on euphemisms such as "adult entertainment," and recommends that when depictions of men and women are obviously degrading and objectifying, they should not be praised or passed off as harmless titillation.  While pornography has been popular for decades, and sexually explicit imagery has been part of most societies for millennia, the Internet seems to be causing more compulsive use of pornography, and there are indications that it is leading to an explosion of extreme forms of pornography that were not previously so easily available to people in their own homes or workplaces.  Paul urges that Americans at least need to be aware of these trends and they need to take steps to defend themselves against the dangers of pornography.

Paul probably overstates her case and relies too much on anecdotal evidence.  The dangers she points to are not quantified and she does not cite proof of causal connections between pornography and sexual or relationship dysfunction.  Yet her emphasis on the emerging problems with the prevalence of Internet pornography and the growing respectability of pornography in popular culture is thoughtful.  Her perspective is important, and it deserves wide attention.

The weakest part of the book lies in Paul's quick rejection of sex-positive feminism and alternative approaches to depictions of sexuality.  Her attitude is dismissive; she says that these ideas are naïve, unpopular with men, and swamped by mainstream pornography.  She also has little sympathy with "couples" porn that is meant to please both women and men by including more narrative and less exclusive focus on genitalia and showing women performing subservient actions; she argues that men just do not like such pornography.  However, if she condemns commercially successful pornography and thinks that the more independently-minded efforts to create sexually explicit material are a waste of time, then it seems that she does expect that all pornography will simply die away when the public starts to think about it clearly.  Such a hope itself seems quite naïve.  Whatever the reason, the porn industry is here to stay and most men are going to continue to consume pornography.  If there is no way to influence the kind of pornography that is made, and make it more positive and creative in its portrayal of sex, then it is hard to see any hope at all for the future. 

Readers interested in pornography as a social phenomenon and an ethical issue will certainly benefit from Pornified.  Ideally, sociologists, psychologists and sexologists can take it as inspiration for research work that needs doing on the influence of Internet pornography, especially on young people.  Even if Paul's case is not watertight, it is an important contribution to current debates on pornography. 



Link: Author website


© 2007 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.


Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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