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America's love-hate relationship with porn
We consume a lot of porn. We also look down on it.
 
Hot and then cold.
Hot and then cold. (Geoffrey Gove/Corbis)

Pornography has been a fixture of human culture since the dawn of civilization, if not before. Yet it's safe to say that, thanks to advances in technology, there's never been a culture that's produced and consumed quite as much porn as ours.

The number of porn-related websites worldwide has been estimated at 25 million, with a quarter of all search-engine requests involving sexually explicit terms. That adds up to a nearly $5 billion-a-year industry, with over half of that amount coming from the U.S. — though that number doesn't fully capture the industry's size, since so much porn is available for free online through massive clearinghouse sites such as YouPorn, PornHub, and Xvideos. The last of these — the single largest porn site on the web — receives roughly 4.4 billion page views per month. That's about three times the size of CNN.com.

And yet the pervasiveness of porn doesn't translate easily or instantly into acceptance and approval. On the contrary, a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that Americans overall have highly negative views of pornography, with 65 percent of the country believing that viewing porn is morally wrong and only 29 percent considering it morally acceptable.

Not that American attitudes toward pornography are simple or straightforward. Unless nearly all viewers come from that approving 29 percent, these figures suggest, rather, that Americans are deeply conflicted about porn, not only in the country as a whole but also on an individual level.

A volatile mixture of arousal and shame, attraction and disgust may partially explain why the Duke University undergraduate who was recently outed as a porn actress has become the target of vicious verbal abuse online. With 70 percent of men aged 18 to 24 admitting to watching porn, I find it hard to believe that all of those threatening her with violence unambiguously disapprove of her choice of career. More likely, they find it simultaneously alluring and repulsive to think of one of their peers acting in a porn movie — and react by turning their self-loathing outward toward the external source of their discomfort.

But the conflict goes further, touching on the way we approach pornography as a matter of public policy. Given how much Americans disapprove of porn, one might think we'd be receptive to the kinds of arguments founding neoconservative Irving Kristol marshaled against it in an essay written in 1971. Kristol based his case on the claim that pornography debases and brutalizes the people who perform in it, as well as those who view it, by treating everyone involved in a dehumanizing, obscene way. We don't hesitate to regulate and restrict products — like tobacco and alcohol — that pose a risk of physical harm. Why care less about spiritual or psychological harm? Kristol didn't think such a distinction made sense, so he favored the regulation and restriction of pornography — and called on liberals to join in him doing so.

They declined the invitation. If anything, Americans seem even less interested in legally restricting access to pornography today than they were in the early 1970s. There seems to be little public support for the kind of modest regulations currently being attempted by David Cameron's government in the U.K., which is forcing subscribers to the country's largest internet service providers to "opt in" if they want access to sexually explicit content, leaving all others in a porn-free zone.

Having become accustomed to treating our rights to free speech and expression as absolute, we now view with deep suspicion any attempt to use the law for paternalistic, educative purposes. When it comes to regulating and enforcing moral norms, Americans prefer to rely on good, old-fashioned, informal, noncoercive social disapproval.

But there's just one problem: Disapproval only works if there's a public dimension to the shameful activity — and thanks once again to the internet, porn is more private than ever. Those who wish to view it need no longer venture into filthy triple-X movie theaters in seedy parts of town. They don't even have to brave the modest humiliation of purchasing a "dirty" magazine at the local newsstand. All they need is a high-speed internet connection and a search engine to gain instant, free access to vastly more porn than one could ever possibly consume, all in the privacy of their own homes.

All of which means that America seems destined, at least for the time being, to remain conflicted about porn. We will continue to view it and disapprove of it, while failing to take even modest steps to regulate it.

But over the long run, that is bound to change. As we've seen repeatedly in polling data on support for gay marriage, the Millennial generation (ages 18 to 33 in the PRRI poll) is much less inclined than the rest of the country to make moral judgments about sexual matters. It's hardly surprising, then, that 45 percent of Millennials see no problem with viewing pornography — a rate five times higher than one finds among members of the so-called silent generation (ages 68 and older).

Unless Millennials reverse course as they age (possible but improbable), America's overall disapproval of porn is likely to decline dramatically over the coming decades. As that happens, the country's conflicted feelings about it will likely get resolved, too, replaced by an easygoing, nonjudgmental acceptance of any and all consensual sexual behavior, very much including the conspicuous consumption of porn.

O, brave new world that has such freedom in it!

 
Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also a consulting editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, a former contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.

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