by Loren Seibold
BBC4's recent documentary "Porn on the Brain" (still available on youTube) generated a lot of ink in the UK and the US. Indeed, it was remarkable in several ways. First, that it originated in secular Britain, a country with low regard for the standards of sexual morality that are still given lip service in Christian America. Second, it was hosted by Martin Daubney, best know as the ex-editor of "lads mag" Loaded, which gives it the allure of witnessing an enlightment and conversion of sorts. (Lads mags aren't hardcore porn, but unquestionably fall in the "boys will be boys" objectification of women genre. A popular American example is Maxim.) Third, and most important, it's a popularized acknowledgement that ready availability of pornography might have serious psychological ramifications, particularly for those whose brains are still forming. This is from Daubney's accompanying piece in the Daily Mail:
"I'd been invited to sit in on a forward-thinking class led by sex education consultant Jonny Hunt, who is regularly asked into schools to discuss sex and relationships. To establish what these kids knew about sex - including pornography - he had asked the children to write an A-Z list of the sexual terms they knew, no matter how extreme. Most of these children had just hit puberty and some were clearly still children: wide-eyed, nervous, with high-pitched voices. Some of the girls were beginning their first forays into make-up. Several wore braces on their teeth. Everybody was smartly turned out in school uniform, and the most anti-authority statement in the room was a tie worn deliberately short.… These were clearly good children, from good homes. So far, so very, very ordinary.
"But when Jonny pinned their lists on the board … the first word every single boy and girl in the group put on their list was 'anal'. When questioned, they had all - every child in a class of 20 - seen sodomy acted out in porn videos. I was stunned they even knew about it - I certainly hadn't heard of it at that age - let alone had watched it and as a result may even have wanted to try it. One 15-year-old girl said, 'Boys expect porn sex in real life'. And one boy - to choruses of approval - spoke of his revulsion for pubic hair, which he called a 'gorilla'. When Jonny pointed out that pubic hair was normal in real life, the boys scoffed, but some of the girls were angry that the boys' template of what to expect from real girls had clearly already been set by porn.
"By the end of the hour-long class - and three others that followed with other children - I was profoundly saddened by what I had witnessed. While teenage boys will always be fascinated by, and curious about, sex, what's now considered 'normal' by under-18s is an entirely distorted view of intercourse and the way relationships should be conducted."
"Porn on the Brain" hasn't the journalistic seriousness of, say, Frontline, but it's pretty sobering, and probably right for the audience it aims at. Daubney presents evidence that exposure to pornography in the young is addictive, and messes with development, mental health, sexual performance and relationships.
A thought that struck me watching it is how different this is from what we used to handle under the heading of "morality". "Porn on the Brain" is about what is or isn't good for you. Is that moral argument, or merely an observation about health, like tobacco use will give you cancer or exercise helps you live longer?
A quick and dirty definition of morality is that it's the study of right and wrong. Certainly "Porn on the Brain" isn't Christian morality (though some have used this documentary to back a Christian view.) Yet there is here no sense that a sexual act is wrong because of some innate sexual morality that can be described with concepts like adultery, sin, or purity. Daubney assumes the existence of porn and rampant masturbation; he merely mourns for the innocent porn of his youth, smiling topless girls you had to sneak around to find, as opposed to porn made by "sexual psychopaths" and available at a click.
In spite of the slightness of its moral component, "Porn on the Brain" may have opened a conversation with a group that is used to pornography being talked about as legal or illegal, but haven't understood why it might be good or bad. It occurs to me that this may be the future of all discussion of sexual morality in a secular and libertarian world: to talk about what may or may not be healthy. The problem, of course, is that it is then subject to whatever scientific studies one wants to cite, and there are others quite willing to argue the other side of this issue.