The Porn Myth: Exposing the Reality Behind the Fantasy of Pornography (Ignatius, 2017).,
Earlier this year, the Florida House of Representatives passed a resolution declaring pornography a public health risk. The vote took place in the immediate aftermath of the shooting at Parkland High School. Consequently, most of the media coverage derided the House for focusing on something “harmless” in the face of horrific violence in schools. In a Time Magazine article, Florida representative Carlos Guillermo Smith was quoted as asking, “Has anyone ever been killed as a result of the health implications of pornography?” The article goes on to quote Smith declaring, “I’m not aware there’s a base of voters who are losing sleep every night over the epidemic of pornography as a public health crisis.” Because of the salience of the school shooting, the import of this legislative action was largely overlooked, as Florida became not the first state to make such a resolution, but joined Tennessee, Utah, South Dakota, Arkansas, Virginia, and Kansas in making similar declarations. These states undoubtedly passed such resolutions following the lead of the Republican Party, which in 2016 declared pornography a “public health crisis” in its official platform.
Still, pornography is not simply an issue conservative, red state politicians are issuing warnings about. Unlikely though this might seem, some in Hollywood and Washington have made common cause in opposing it. Like their counterparts in the state legislatures mentioned above, more and more well-known celebrities are not merely opposed to pornography, but are actively working against the industry. In a 2015 video, actor and comedian Russell Brand—not exactly known for sexual prudery—released a video on YouTube attacking pornography (and, in particular, the book and movie Fifty Shades of Grey) because of the negative effects it has on the lives of those who consume it and also on the culture at large. At one moment, he states, “Our attitudes toward sex have become warped and perverted and have deviated from its true function as an expression of love and a means of procreation.” In a frank exposition of the negative effects of pornography, Brand admits that he identified with the temptation of viewing women as objects as a result of his own use of porn. The video went viral and, as of this writing, stands at almost 4 million views. Other celebrities, too, are speaking out, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Terry Crews, Hugh Grant, and even Pamela Anderson who appeared on the cover of Playboy several times.
The response to these kinds of objections to pornography is typified by Guillermo Smith’s interpretation: pornography is essentially harmless and can even be beneficial in certain cases. While it should be enjoyed within the privacy of one’s home, and probably shouldn’t be shown to children, it doesn’t really hurt anyone. At the end of the day, objections to pornography are merely remnants of a puritanical, misogynistic patriarchy.
Enter Matt Fradd’s book, The Porn Myth (Ignatius Press, 2017). In the introduction, Fradd, speaker, best-selling author and host of the popular podcast Pints with Aquinas, states explicitly that his purpose is “to expose the myth that pornography is good or at least not bad.” He sets out to “debunk the most commonly held beliefs about pornography, either explicitly stated or implicitly understood,” and to do so using arguments supported by neural, social, psychological, and behavioral scientific data. He states his position clearly: pornography is an extension of prostitution. It is the commodification of women’s bodies for the express purpose of the sexual gratification of the client. He asserts, “The producers of pornography intend for the consumer to interact with the material as one interacts with a prostitute—it is a product that serves an erotic function." Once he establishes this, he goes on to claim that porn harms because it misuses the nature of human sexuality, as a physical and psychological reality, and thus has negative consequences, not only for the user, but also the performers. One of the key elements of the book is his explanation of what happens in the brain of a porn user and how it is negatively affected; the brain actually changes as porn use continues. The prefrontal cortex erodes resulting in “hypofrontality, in which the person slowly loses impulse control and mastery of his passions.” Additionally, studies have shown that porn causes alterations in the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, septum and a reduction in gray matter. Fradd then spends the rest of the book supporting this position by systematically addressing twenty-four “myths” which contribute to the proliferation of pornography in the wider culture.
The body of the book is divided into five sections that deal with various dimensions of the issue of pornography. In “Porn Culture,” Fradd seeks to dismantle the idea that porn is a cultural non-issue—as benign as cream in your coffee—and deals with such myths as “Porn is just adult entertainment,” and “There is no difference between porn and naked art.” In “The Porn Industry,” he sets his sights on unveiling the true nature of the porn industry and the harm it does to the very individuals who produce pornographic materials. Specifically, he deals with ideas such as that porn is safe for the performers, porn performers are well-rounded individuals, and that viewing so-called free pornography isn’t contributing to the industry at large.
Turning to “Porn and Our Sexuality,” Fradd unravels the myths that paint porn use as harmless to the viewer. He addresses the belief that women do not struggle with pornography, or that men need to masturbate to be healthy. The most important myth that he addresses in this section, however, is that pornography isn’t addictive. He demonstrates that even though pornography is not a substance that is consumed or injected, a porn user becomes dependent on it to maintain a sense of normalcy. (He points to gambling addiction as a similar phenomenon.)
“Porn and Our Relationships,” unmasks the idea that porn is used in isolation and deals with the damage porn does to the individuals closest to the user; porn isn’t merely a fantasy disconnected from real life. Getting married will not relieve a porn obsession, and shared viewing of pornography cannot help a couple grow in their intimacy. Finally, Fradd addresses those who are trying to fight against the influence of pornography in their own life. He gives valuable advice on overcoming porn and protecting one’s children from the scourge.
The greatest strength of The Porn Myth is Fradd’s decision not to rely on religious arguments to make his case. Not only does this enable him to write on a level playing field on which a person of any faith conviction could meet him, but it compels him to meticulously define his terms, not relying on assumptions a religious audience may have about the nature of pornography. Too often, when reading religious sources on the topic, pornography is deemed an offense against the sixth or ninth commandments and the argument against its use largely ends there. Fradd, however, builds his argument from the philosophical and scientific “ground floor,” if you will. Grace builds on nature, and Fradd focuses on arguments from nature that eventually will strengthen “arguments from grace.” As the patron of his podcast, St. Thomas Aquinas, would do, Fradd presents his opponent’s arguments with philosophical rigor—as well as he can without portraying those arguments poorly and easily. An honest reader of any conviction must respect his argument and method. And his conclusion. Even the way Fradd organizes the book—moving from myths at the level of culture down through the industry proper, and then to pornography’s effects on human sexuality, relationships, and individual integrity—serves to fortify his powerful and persuasive argument that porn is not a benign product, that it warps and corrupts everything it touches at every level of its influence.
On this point, two things must be emphasized. First, the extensive research that went into writing this book is remarkable. Fradd includes a full thirty-three pages of works cited—impressive for a text that is less than two hundred pages long. And practically every page includes footnotes citing biological, sociological, psychological, or medical studies to support his arguments. The second point is the style in which Fradd lays out the arguments themselves. He has a particularly delightful way of cutting right to the heart of the matter when it is easy to get lost in the weeds of argumentation. For example, after presenting the arguments of Kendall and D’Amato, claiming that porn actually reduces rape and sexual violence, and after presenting evidence that porn influences sexual violence outside of current legal categories, Fradd dismantles the whole issue when he asks, “Should we congratulate a man who says, ‘Well, I’ve never raped anybody’? Is this the essence of mature manhood—not raping women?” As he goes on to say, even if a man never commits an act of violence, he is at the very least harming himself as he engages in violent sexual fantasies of women being violated on screen. In another myth, claiming that porn work isn’t sex slavery because it is freely chosen, one line completely cuts to the core of the entire rebuttal: “No matter the level of consent, it is a manly thing to treat a woman who has forgotten her dignity with dignity nonetheless.”
While the strengths of this book could be enumerated at length, brevity suggests one last remark. Fradd wrote The Porn Myth to take on the culture and practice of pornography head-on—a massive undertaking that required extensive research and careful argument. His first two appendices are key to this endeavor. They are a gold mine of resources for anyone trying to engage in the battle against porn. In appendix one, he lays out the arguments of his book in condensed, bite-sized bullets which get to the heart of each issue. These are immensely valuable, especially in a bumper sticker, slogan-driven age of 140 character sound bites. This appendix is truly the tool box of the anti-porn evangelist. The second appendix includes almost fifty different resources, print and online, for individuals struggling with pornography, spouses of porn addicts, parents, and those seeking more education. A good book inspires a person to continue learning about the topic treated in the text, and Fradd provides a road map.
The Porn Myth is an excellent resource that provides clarity in an age of confusion. It not only provides smart responses to the positive claims for porn use, it demonstrates that religious people can step out into the secular world, on the world’s own turf, and make a rational and philosophical case. Pornography is a devastating disease of Western culture and by directly confronting the lies that accompany it, The Porn Myth is part of the answer to healing that disease.
Richard Budd is the Director of Marriage and Family at the Catholic Diocese of Lansing, Michigan and an alumnus of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. He co-hosts a weekly podcast called The Armchair Catholic which seeks to draw everyday Catholics deeper into their faith. Episodes can be found at armchaircatholic.com.
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