The Weight of Bullshit

JESUSLAND—Mary Eberstadt, a "research fellow" at the conservative Hoover Institution, has just the right credentials to write about the harms of porn. No science, psychology or sociology training, of course, just a good list of publications in conservative/right-wing whackadoodle journals like the Weekly Standard, the American Spectator, Policy Review and the Wall Street Journal. Moreover, she used to be a speech writer for Reagan's Secretary of State George Schultz and a "special assistant" to Reagan's U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. How much more "qualified" can you get?

So perhaps it's not too surprising that she doesn't know shit about the effects of porn on either individuals or society—but that didn't stop her from writing "The Weight of Smut" for First Things, a fundamentalist Catholic magazine.

Of course, lots of people are concerned about their weight these days, and Eberstadt uses an Atlantic article "America the Obese" as her jumping off point to claim that there's an "emerging social phenomenon" called "sexual obesity," which anti-porn zealot Dr. Mary Anne Layden—she's a favorite witness for anti-porn Sen. Sam Brownback—defines as "the widespread gorging on pornographic imagery that is also deleterious and unhealthy." Not surprisingly, though, that "gorging" won't show up on the bathroom scale.

"She [Layden] also knows what most do not," Eberstadt intones. "Quietly, patiently, and irrefutably, an empirical record of the harms of sexual obesity is being assembled piecemeal via the combined efforts of psychologists, sociologists, addiction specialists, psychiatrists, and other authorities." (Well, that might be true if one puts "conservative" in front of each of those specialists ... and while "empirical" means "based on observation or experiment," you can bet it's exclusively the former; one thing anti-porn zealots don't do is "experiment," 'cause if they did, they'd have to publish ... and watch real scientists tear apart their methodology and results.)

"Young people who have been exposed to pornography are more likely to have multiple lifetime sexual partners, more likely to have had more than one sexual partner in the last three months, more likely to have used alcohol or other substances at their last sexual encounter, and—no surprise here—more likely to have scored higher on a 'sexual permissiveness' test," Eberstadt claims, as if those are Bad Things.

"They are also more likely to have tried risky forms of sex," she continues. "They are also more likely to engage in forced sex and more likely to be sexual offenders."

"Risky forms of sex"? Does she mean without condoms? Nah, couldn't be; she and her ilk oppose comprehensive sex education in schools. Does she mean anal sex? Gay sex? Who knows—and Eberstadt ain't sayin'; it'd ruin the soundbite-iness. And when she claims that porn viewers are "more likely to engage in forced sex," does she mean more likely to be raped or to commit rape? Probably the latter, but there's no scientific evidence for that, and Eberstadt doesn't provide any links or footnotes—but that's okay; the bulk of this article is a set-up to plug "The Social Costs of Pornography," which Eberstadt "prepared" with Layden, based on a symposium conducted by the ultraconservative/ultrareligious Witherspoon Institute. But more on that later ...

"As for the all-purpose cop-out that 'all this shows is correlation' ... [n]o one reasonable would doubt that there is a connection between watching sex acts and trying out what one sees," Eberstadt claims, "especially for adolescents, who rather famously and instantly ape the other influences on their lives, from fashion to drug use and more, as has also been copiously studied."

No, actually, it hasn' t... unless by "studied," she means the "empirical record" claimed above which conservatives have no problem pulling out of their asses. To be fair, sure, people—mostly adults—who watch porn sometimes try to emulate what they've seen on the screen, usually to add "spice" to their relationships ... which is why many porn movies begin with a disclaimer that "the sex acts depicted in this movie are performed by professionals, and should not be attempted at home." But the idea that a 12- or 14-year-old boy can watch porn and go out and pick up a babe off the street (or at the local mall) and fuck her like a porn star does is simply adolescent (conservative) fantasy.

"[E]vidence also shows that sexual obesity does share with its counterpart this critical common denominator: It afflicts the subset of human beings who form the first generation immersed in this consumption, many of whom have never known a world without it—the young," Eberstadt later claims.

Let's see: Sex is pleasurable. When boys and girls reach puberty, they become interested in sex—and quickly find that just about every adult in their lives, including just about every school and church official, is scared shitless to talk about it except in vague, uninformative terms, with the first words out of their mouths usually something like, "You don't want to try it; you're too young." And with that attitude, we expect kids not to seek out porn?

Yes, of course, it's more available now, and from a wider variety of sources than ever before, but kids have always sought out porn, whether it's "French postcards," 8mm loops, "little dirty comics," erotic novels, Playboy/Penthouse/Hustler or what-have-you. In fact, ACLU attorney Marjorie Heins actually wrote a book which discusses the history of kids and porn, aptly titled, Not In Front of the Children.

But when you start with the assumption that looking at pictures or videos of other people having sex is a Bad Thing, almost any statistic evokes horror.

So when Eberstadt moans that, "One 2008 study focused on undergraduate and graduate students ages 18 to 26 across the country found that more than two-thirds of men—and one out of every ten women in the sample—viewed pornography more than once a month," the first question that should pop to mind is, "So?"

Likewise, when she claims that, "Another study showed that first-year college students using sexually explicit material exhibited these troubling features: increased tolerance, resulting in a turn toward more bizarre and esoteric material; increased risk of body-image problems, especially among girls; and erroneous and exaggerated conceptions of how prevalent certain sexual behaviors, including risky and even dangerous behaviors, actually are," it's reasonable to point out that while she uses the language of addiction—"increased tolerance"—nowhere has she demonstrated that viewing sexual material is in any way comparable to actual addiction like, say, heroin or methamphetamine use; that when she talks about "body-image problems," surely porn has to take a back seat to the plethora of TV, magazine and billboard ads hawking everything from makeup to fashion to jewelry to diet foods to exercise equipment; and that she actually has no conception of what much of America is doing in the privacy of its own bedrooms when it comes to "certain sexual behaviors," some of which she calls "risky and even dangerous." (Again, what behaviors? Condomless? Anal? Pedophilia? Surely not erotic asphyxia, which over-the-counter porn movies don't show? Of course she never deigns to define what a "risky" or "dangerous" sexual behavior is.)

"Finally, to connect the dots between 'monkey see' and 'monkey do,'" Eberstadt claims, "a 2004 study in Pediatrics reported, in the words of its title, that 'Watching sex on television predicts adolescent initiation of sexual behavior'—an ominous connection, given that Internet sex is vastly more realistic than anything available on television ... A Kaiser Family Foundation study from 2005, for example, revealed that the number of sex scenes on television doubled between 1998 and 2005. The Foundation had previously noted that some 70 percent of youths aged 15 to 17 accidently [sic] came across pornography online."

Yeah; kids—whaddya gonna do with 'em? They reach puberty, their hormones start flowing, and next thing you know, they're thinking about the sex those hormones are stimulating them to have! Sure, their parents and grandparents used to get off (literally) on the underwear ads in the Sears Catalog, and turn-of-the-(20th)-century newspaper editorials (and religious revivalists) used to warn about "dandies" always looking for the turn-on of catching a glimpse of a young girl's "smartly-turned ankle" under floor-length dresses—but all of that pales before the "sex scenes" kids can now see on TV!

Of course, there are no "sex scenes" on TV. Hell, you can't even show a half-second glimpse of Janet Jackson's nipple without the FCC trying to fine you millions of dollars. No, you can see about as much "sex" (by which the censorship types usually mean the "bare skin" of "certain anatomical parts") on TV as you can in the average Calvin Klein or Victoria's Secret ad in a magazine—or on a five-story high billboard in Times Square. And if parents are dead set against their kids seeing bare tits 'n' ass on cable, there are parental controls on every TV set nowadays, and for the internet, just about every fundamentalist religious group has a "porn-free" ISP you can subscribe to, and beyond that, several companies sell filtering software that will block similar fare ... until your kids get computer-savvy enough to work around it. (Hormones, remember?)

But of course, Eberstadt and her ilk aren't really worried about whether the kids are seeing bare skin or (God forbid) people actually having sex; to them, the mere existence of sexually explicit content is the real problem:

"But even this impressive array of data cannot answer a question almost as ubiquitous as pornography itself: So what?" Eberstadt writes. "Why should people who are not part of that consumption even care about it? The varieties of the libertarian shrug extend even to those averse to it. Pornography indeed may be morally wrong, many of those people would also say (and of course major religions would agree); but, apart from the possible damage to the user's soul, if you believe in such a thing, what really is the social harm of smut?"

And as if you couldn't guess, that question is simply a set-up to plug her "book" (at 57 pages, little more than a pamphlet, really), "The Social Costs of Pornography," supposedly "A Statement of Findings and Recommendations" that "is not the work of one or two but rather scores of people[,] most of them academics and medical professionals."

AVN will soon be taking a more in-depth look at "The Social Costs of Pornography"—or rather, the so-called "academic studies" underlying the claims in that pamphlet, since the pamphlet itself contains almost no scientific data—much as it frequently references "voluminous amounts of data," "abundant empirical evidence" and "professional and expert agreement." And of course it's written in "academically neutral language"—to disguise its (all too obvious) agenda.

And speaking of "agenda," get ready to try to find the actual science behind "the very human stories that went into it all: the marriages lost or in tatters; the sexual problems among the addicted; the constant slide, on account of higher tolerance, into ever edgier circles of this hell; the children and teenagers lured into participating in various ways in this awful world in the effort to please romantic partners or exploitive adults."

It's not there, of course—well, at least not here—but Eberstadt's article tries to whet the reader's appetite with a couple of anti-porn claims, beginning with the concept that "Pornography use is a private matter."

"Perhaps the queen bee of lies about pornography, this is also the easiest to take down," Eberstadt boasts. "For while consumption of the substance may be private (or not, as airline travelers and library patrons and others in the public square have lately been learning), the fallout from some of that consumption is anything but."

And what evidence does she have? Well, "[a]dolescent users of pornography are more likely to intend to have sex and to engage in more frequent sexual activity." "Intend"? Most people intend to be rich someday, but it'd be a mistake to bet the house on that. Beyond a claim that these same adolescents are "more likely to test positive for chlamydia"—somehow, the fact that the disease is often passed to babies during childbirth has escaped Eberstadt's attention—"Three separate studies have found among adolescents a strong correlation between pornography consumption and engaging in various sexual activities." Didn't anybody ever mention to these "academics and medical professionals" the well-known statistical axiom that "correlation is not causation"? (That's probably Day 1 of any course in statistical analysis.)

Eberstadt's other "evidence" for porn use not being private? Sixty-two percent of the 350 attendees at a matrimonial lawyers' conference reportedly said "the Internet had played a role in divorces during the last year"—not "porn"; "the Internet." She also quotes "research not yet published"—or peer-reviewed, one might add—from a "General Social Survey" on divorce of which a couple of economists are "examining data ... to assess the negative impact of pornography on other aspects of marriage." Of course, one might ask what expertise economists have in assessing the effects of porn on divorce, but perhaps it would just be better to wait until their "research" is completed and see what actual social scientists and statisticians have to say about it.

But in fact, science isn't held in high regard by Eberstadt and her ilk. Just a couple of paragraphs later, she assures her readers that "not everyone needs it [science] to know that pornography is more than just a private thing." Common sense—that's all they really need! Or maybe just a feeling in their gut ...

"Imagine your teenage daughter walking down the beach," she continues. "Half the men on it have been watching sex on the Internet within the last few days, and half have not. Which ones do you want watching her? How can their 'private' behavior possibly be said to be confined to home, when their same eyes with which they view it travel along with them everywhere else?" What's that a proscription against? The "hairy eyeball"? Cooties? Forget daughters; how is any woman harmed by a guy looking at her—no matter what he's looked at before? (Of course, the implication is that porn viewers are more likely to try to seduce—or rape—the girl, but since there are no statistics to back that up—in fact, the stats say exactly the opposite—Eberstadt has to leave it at an implication.)

Another "untruth" Eberstadt wants to debunk is, "Pornography use is a guy thing. It only bothers women." The temptation is to give her that one: Most porn is watched by men, and men can be just as crazy (in a bad way) about sexual speech as women can—and if Eberstadt had stopped there, there'd be little argument.

But no; she's got to quote Pamela Paul, who "interviewed in depth more than 100 heterosexual users of pornography" for her 2005 anti-porn screed, "Pornified."

"Countless men," Eberstadt quotes Paul summarizing her interviews, "have described to me how, while using pornography, they have lost the ability to relate to or be close to women." How disingenuous can she be? One hundred porn users is hardly enough of a sample to base any conclusions upon—and it's one hell of a lot less than "countless"!

"At least some of the shame and disgust that users sometimes report to therapists may be due to another phenomenon well documented about chronic pornography use: habituation and tolerance," Eberstadt writes, referencing the work of "medical authorities" including Dr. Norman Doidge. "Just as heavy drinkers and drug users over time require higher doses of substances to achieve the same effect, so apparently do some chronic users of pornography come to require harder-core and edgier material ... This same descent into the particular pit of knowing that one is doing something wrong, and still being unable to stop oneself, echoes through other accounts by clinicians of what they hear from some patients."

Gosh, what do we call people who are troubled by "intrusive thoughts that produce anxiety, by repetitive behaviors aimed at reducing anxiety, or by a combination of such thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions)"? That's right: Obsessive-compulsives! But that's got nothing to do with porn; obsessive-compulsives can obsess over anything from hand-washing to hoarding to overeating ... to praying. And sure enough, Eberstadt trots out quotes from a couple of people who've had firsthand experience with an obsessive-compulsive person—because after all, science doesn't really matter when it comes to porn bashing.

The final "untruth" Eberstadt wants to debunk here is "It's only pictures of consenting adults," because "pornography is never only about pictures. Every single person on the screen is somebody's sister, cousin, son, niece, or mother." Apparently, the fact that those folks voluntarily want to show the world, through photos, videos or the internet, that they're less sexually screwed up than the general population is of no consequence. Porn is bad and anyone who would do it is bad as well.

One might expect some mention of anti-porn activist Shelly Lubben at this point, but Eberstadt simply makes the unsubstantiated claim that the porn community is "a world rife with everything one would want any genuinely loved one to avoid like the plague: drugs, exploitation, physical harm, AIDS." It's all bullshit, of course, and if Eberstadt ever wants to check that out for herself, visits to porn sets and offices for her and her fellow ignoramuses can easily be arranged.

Another "finding" of Eberstadt's "research" is that porn and trafficking of women and children for sex are "associated" because "cameras and film equipment [are] found when trafficking circles are broken up." Hey, swingers (and parents): Better hide that Nikon!

But, "Once again, who even needs all that social science?" Eberstadt asks, sadly likely not rhetorically. "Perhaps the most telling response to the 'pictures' defense is rhetorical. Ask even the most committed user whether he wants his own daughter or son in that line of work—and then ask why it's all right to have other people's daughters and sons making it instead."

Um ... because this is America? You remember: "Land of the free, home of the brave"? You probably read about it in school ...

But beware: "Several experts have also noted one more interesting phenomenon that most people who have ever written on this thankless subject will verify: Telling the truth about pornography is practically guaranteed to elicit malice and venom unique in their potency from its defenders."

Gosh, thanks! We try!

But seriously, these people wouldn't know "the truth about pornography" if every producer, director and actor in the business camped out on their front doorsteps. And that most certainly includes National Review Online's Kathryn Jean "K-Lo" Lopez and Family Research Council "Senior Fellow" Cathy Ruse, who "served for several years as the chief spokesperson on human life issues for the U.S. Catholic Bishops," both of whom got "terrifying," "horrible" emails when they wrote their own bogus anti-porn screeds.

"Such unique vituperation," Eberstadt writes, "which has so far gone unremarked in any public discussion of pornography despite the fact that it is commonplace, demands inspection in its own right. In fact, it may be the surest proof altogether of just how addictive Internet pornography can be. Although academic experts may continue to battle over exactly what is meant by 'addiction,' surely the tremendously defensive response in the public square by itself settles the question to any reasonable person's satisfaction."

First of all, pretty much all the anti-porn crowd does when it isn't spreading lies about the industry is to whine about how badly they're portrayed in the adult-friendly press. (Concerned Women for America's chief counsel Jan LaRue once called us "domestic terrorists.") Beyond that, it's a no-win situation for defenders of adult content if their only choices are either to ignore the falsehoods of Eberstadt, Layden, Lopez, Ruse and their ilk or to give those bozos' apocalyptic rhetoric the derision it deserves. So if "some reliable subset of defenders can be counted on to respond more like animals than like people," it's only because we (occasionally) sink to your level, Mary.

So ... what do Eberstadt and her cronies want to do about "this other obesity epidemic"?

"For starters," she advises, "we could use a campaign that might promise to do to pornography what was ultimately done to tobacco—a restigmatization based on the evolving record of fact. What's needed is nothing less than the kind of leadership that turned smoking, in the course of a single generation, from cool to uncool—one eventually summoning support high and low, ranging from celebrities, high-school teachers and principals, counselors, former users, and anyone else who knows they belong in the coalition of the willing on this wretched issue. Perhaps when the First Lady concludes her campaign against 'regular' obesity, she or someone else of similar public stature can spare time for this other epidemic, too."

There's just one problem with that: There's verifiable, falsifiable, peer-reviewed scientific proof that tobacco use causes lung cancer, among other ailments, while on the porn side, there's ... absolutely nothing with scientific validity.

And once again, it is (or soon will be) Obama's (or his wife's) fault.

But believe it or not, there's hope!

"After all, just look at the tremendous effort that goes into attempts to break the habit," Eberstadt writes. "Look at the energy fueling all those attempts to repair the damage done—the turns to counseling, the therapists, priests, pastors, and others working in these awful trenches to help the addicted get their real lives back. Look at the technological ingenuity too—the new software, the filters, the countercultural and uphill efforts here and there to thwart pornography's public crawl. To survey that multifaceted record of struggle, fledgling but growing by the day, against the also rapidly growing empirical record of the beast's harms, is to grasp a truth about this new obesity beyond the ridicule of the jaded or the vituperative recriminations of those still in the pit."

The "fledgling but growing" struggle? Who does she think she's kidding? These assholes have been trying to get porn banned since even before Gutenberg invented the printing press. They're well-funded by a combination of well-meaning but clueless religious types and the conservative political machine that sees suppression of sexual speech as a means to regain political power in government in order to "protect" everyone's kids from the possibility that they might get an inkling of what those below-the-waist body parts might do someday besides tinkle—not to mention, "protect" parents from having to answer the questions their kids are bound to ask the first time (and there will be a first time) the kid sees a bare tit, an erect penis or a hairy (or even shaved) pussy: "Mommy, what's that for?"

Because that's what Eberstadt and her "coalition of the willing" are all about: Controlling the population by controlling sex. It's an epic battle that won't end anytime soon—but it's one that needs to be fought for the survival of the American (if not humanity's) way of life.