Americans have a love-hate relationship with pornography. On the one hand, porn is an excellent facilitator of erotic stimulus, an aspect of couple’s sexual relationships and the sexual relationships some have with their hands or toys. On the other, pornography is the bane of human existence, a sinful crutch for those with diminutive willpower and perverted lives.
Pornography’s newsworthiness hasn’t helped matters any. When PornHub and Vocativ released the results of a study showcasing American porn habits, actor Terry Crews came clean to the media about his “porn addiction.” A couple of years ago, a story broke about a young Duke University student who turned to porn to help pay her school expenses and the Internet had meltdowns on both sides of the argument, while the blowback from the story cost the student her financial aid.
Each instance when pornography has become a component in a story with wide-reaching social implications, a line is drawn and people are quick to jump on either one side or the other. Either you think pornography allows women to control their bodies in a way not normally seen in American society, or you think she’s a whore. Either you see pornography as a way for people to confront their sexual fantasies and be true to themselves, or you think the people are perverts, deviants, and sinful. Either you view pornography as something kinky to do with your partner, or you consider pornography, in any capacity, adultery. Either you view pornography as a part of our society that should continue to exist, regardless of your personal feelings on the matter, or you grab pitchforks, torches, and assemble a mob to shut it down at all costs.
I believe it’s this polarizing effect pornography has on the American public that has prompted so much study into why cross-cultural views on pornography are so stark. I believe these effects are also what prompted the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), in 2014, to get down into the minutiae of the divide and attempt to discern what socioeconomic causes may be contributing to America’s failure to find common ground in the discussion about the efficacy of porn.
Above is pretty much as vanilla as pornography gets. The actors in the video aren’t diving into murky waters of fetishes and other acts that may draw ire upon themselves alone. There is no anal sex in the scene, nor bondage or potentially offensive fantasies or anything. It’s heterosexual sex on a bed in a manner that isn’t really dissimilar from what average, everyday couples do in the privacy of their own bedrooms. The video above is a replication of an intimate experience any John or Jane Doe would have with their significant other, partner, or spouse.
Yet, even something this tame is a lightning rod for controversy. Why? When diving into the demographic information of American on both sides of the pornography argument, some of the answers revealed make a fair amount of sense.
According to information gathered by PRRI, only 29 percent of people believe it is morally acceptable to watch pornography. Think about that for a moment. Just less than 3-in-10 people see no problem with viewing pornographic materials. When broken further down gender lines, 23 percent of women find it acceptable, while only 35 percent of men share the sentiment.
That number blows, like, 35 percent of all male stereotypes out of the water. The old adage — “all men look at porn and anyone who says otherwise is a liar” — apparently doesn’t hold up. But even if we were to further humor the adage, that means 65 percent of men feel bad about looking at porn after they do it, which is still mind-blowing.
Another interesting finding by PRRI is the variation between how people feel about pornography as an internal viewpoint compared to how they feel about it legally. On the whole, 39 percent said they would oppose legal restrictions on pornographic material (as in making pornography illegal or blacklisting the hell out of it), compared to 29 percent who supported changing pornography’s legal status on moral grounds.
According to PRRI, a college student and their grandmother both believe that pornography should not be restricted on the Internet (42 percent), but the college student is far more likely to think it is morally okay to watch it (45 percent versus 9 percent).
Views on pornography also showed interesting insights in partisan politics. People who identify as Democrats and people who identify as Tea Party Republicans are nearly the same when it comes to the idea of legal restrictions on pornography (41 to 40 percent opposed, respectively), while Tea Party Republicans are far more morally-accepting of viewing pornographic material than their more “moderate” conservative counterparts (27 percent versus 19 percent).
I would surmise this has more to do with partisan attitudes on liberty, as far-right conservatives (“Tea Party Conservatives”) are more concerned with autonomy than moderate conservatives. Many Tea Party Conservatives are basically hyper-libertarians, most of the time. It’s inconsistent, but they are.
Of course, while the PRRI analysis yielded some interesting results (to say the least), other results were standard fare. White evangelical Christians and people over the age of 68 were least likely to approve of watching pornographic material — 10 percent and 9 percent, respectively. On the opposite side of the playground, millennials and the religiously unaffiliated approve of pornography the most — 45 percent and 53 percent, respectively.
These numbers highlight a fairly well-known factor in the debate: religious attitudes and age contribute greatly as to whether or not someone approves of pornography, both dependent and independent of each other. The uptick in the religiously unaffiliated is a recent trend most commonly seen in younger Americans. Religious identity was a powerful aspect of who someone was through even Generation X, and its importance had a lot to do with community (and to a political extent, separating themselves from the “godless Commies” during the Cold War). Considering that, as of 2016, 68-year-old’s are the children of World War II combatants, who were themselves members of a generation with a large religious identity, it makes sense that drop off would start with their kids.
But even within religion, there are some shocking results. White Catholics were twice as likely than Hispanic Catholics to find viewing pornography morally acceptable (28 percent versus 14 percent). At the same time, while only 14 percent of Hispanic Catholics think watching pornography is morally acceptable, a staggering (by comparison) 66 percent do not believe it is morally acceptable to legally restrict it.
If all of this data has a central theme, an undercurrent, it’s that Americans, on the whole, just do not morally support pornography. While it doesn’t seem likely that there will be any meaningful legislation of pornographic material (insofar as regulation of content availability), the results that PRRI compiled are important in the sense that they help shed light on certain viceral reactions we have when it comes to human sexuality, the promotion of it, and gender roles.
At it’s core, the debate over pornography has more to do with rights than anything else. Sure, we can consider the topic on moral grounds, and we do, but morality is not something easily dictated when stark viewpoints make up the argument and no middle ground seems to exist. When Americans open the dialogue surrounding pornography with each other, it’s not normally centered around anything except what is the right thing (as is “liberty”) to do. When Belle Knox became a media sensation, the debate was centered around whether or not she should be allowed to get paid to have sex — to the point where she had to defend her right to choose sex work as a vocation amidst a flurry of threats of rape and violence. Around that same time, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s “porn filter” was activated, kicking into overdrive the conversation over whether or not a government has the right to regulate what its citizens view on the Internet.
While we spice up conversations about pornography with anecdotes derived from stories that may or may not be true and indoctrinated beliefs that may or may not be relevant or moral attitudes which may or may not have any concrete basis in either of those things, at its core, the debate over pornography is about autonomy. It isn’t about whether or not pornography is socially-detrimental or innocuous; it’s about whether or not someone should have the right to view it, or in some cases, do it.