How Porn Destroys Lives - Interview with Pamela Paul

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How Porn Destroys Lives
Pamela Paul was shocked by what she found while researching how pornography is changing our culture: everyone is doing it.
BY: Interview by Rebecca Phillips

"Porn is for everyone," says author Pamela Paul, whose new book, "Pornified," details how the widespread use of pornography is changing American culture and relationships. Paul expected to find pornography use mainly in the realm of "losers who couldn't get a date" when she started researching the book. Instead, she found that it was mainstream, bridging religious, ethnic, educational, and socio-economic barriers. She was even more surprised, however, by how often pornography use ruins relationships, increases sexual dysfunction, and changes what men expect from women. Paul spoke with Beliefnet recently about pornography addiction, how the internet has changed porn consumption, and what secular culture can learn from the way religious groups confront pornography use. Paul will also lead a three-week dialogue group to answer questions and discuss with readers how pornography has transformed their own lives.

What surprised you the most about the use of pornography in America?

Honestly, I didn't think pornography was that huge an issue before I wrote this book. I started writing this book before the Janet Jackson fiasco, before the Paris Hilton tapes. I knew there was a lot of pornography out there, but I didn't think it was anything that affected my life or the lives of anyone I knew. The question I wanted to ask was, "With all this pornography out there, does it have any effect?"

I was absolutely shocked by what I found. I talked to people whose lives were really destroyed by pornography. Even the people who didn't bottom out--total porn addiction, marriages breaking up, people losing their jobs, which did happen--even the people who didn't go to that extreme were profoundly affected by porn. Sometimes they realized they were, but often they didn't realize the effects pornography had on them.

Can you share an example?

There was one woman who said to me, "I'm totally fine with porn. I think it's fun, I look at it, my boyfriend looks at it." Half an hour into our phone conversation, she tells me that her boyfriend and she do not have good sex, that this is the first time she's had a bad sexual relationship, that he looks at porn all the time, and that now she's considering getting breast implants. This is someone who seemed very bright and cheery about pornography, but if you scratch beneath the surface, you find out that's not at all the case.

To answer your original question, given that everything was shocking to me--and I don't consider myself a naïve person--I was shocked by the fact that so many men and women say that porn can help people sexually, that it helps them open up, that it's fun and harmless, but at the same time men who were fans of pornography were reporting that their sex lives were damaged. They had trouble maintaining erections, they were having trouble having intercourse with their wives, they simply couldn't enjoy real human sexuality any more. These men had programmed themselves to only sexually cue to computerized, commercialized pornography.

You mentioned that not everyone takes pornography to the extreme, but your book catalogs the stories of many people who do. How do people go from being a casual consumer of an occasional pornographic magazine to someone who is addicted?

I wrote a chapter about how pornography affects men and I went through the steps for how it affects casual users: it desensitizes them, then it escalates into more extreme and excessive interest. And then I did a chapter on men who had completely bottomed out and were addicted to pornography. And I went through the same steps. It's scary--the casual user was showing the same effects, just to a lesser degree than the addict was.

I expected pornography fans to be very defensive about their use of pornography, and to a certain extent they were, but they were often happy about it and proud of it. But when I asked them, "Do you think you could ever become addicted to porn?" two-thirds of the men who didn't think they were addicted said, "Yeah, I could see that happening." Before the internet, I don't think we would have had this problem.

So the internet has really changed things?

There's a chicken-and-egg conundrum of asking if the internet created this problem or if porn helped spread use of the internet. It's probably a combination. We have internet pornography and satellite television pornography and DVD pornography, and it's all over the place and always available. Fifteen years ago, someone might have picked up Playboy now and then, might have rented a videocassette--these people have now become daily users. The casual user has gone from someone who looks at a magazine on occasion or rents a video when he travels for business to someone who now spends half an hour or 45 minutes online a day.

Is there a profile of a typical pornography consumer?

There isn't, and that's what is scary, too. It was naïve on my part, but I thought, "It's no one that I know, it's no one who's really well-educated or self-aware or who has been in a serious relationship. Porn is for losers who can't get a date." And I thought porn was for kids--a phase that all teenagers go through. In fact, porn is for everyone; everyone is using pornography. I talked to people who were Ivy League-educated, people who were engaged, people who were married, people who were divorced, people who were parents of young children. It went across all socio-economic, all racial, all ethnic, and all religious lines. I spoke with men who consider themselves to be devout church-goers and one man who taught at a Jewish seminary. I talked to a monk. I talked to people of all kinds of backgrounds and beliefs, and they all used pornography.

Let's look at religious people who use pornography. Your statistic about the number of evangelical men who use pornography is surprisingly large. What is going on there?

I think they're a lot more honest about it. There was a 2000 survey that Focus on the Family did that found that 18% of people who call themselves born-again Christians admit to looking at porn sites. A chaplain named Henry Rogers who studies pornography estimates that 40 to 70% of evangelical men say they struggle with pornography. That might not mean that they look at it, but it might mean that they struggle to avoid looking at it.

By and large, religious people, particularly Christian people, are aware that this is an issue. They've addressed it much more than secular culture has. That's something that should change. The truth is it doesn't matter if you're religious or if you're secular--the chances that you'll look at porn are probably equal.

What can secular culture learn from the way the religious culture deals with pornography?

The secular world can learn from religious groups that it needs to be discussed. Everyone talks about how there's so much porn out there, but do we talk about it being a problem? Do we talk about how it affects people? That's something that in many ways, religious communities have been more proactive about.
I was surprised by how many of the women in your book seem to just accept pornography as part of their relationships.

I think a lot of women feel cowed by the attitude of a lot of men who use pornography--that it's a "guy thing" that they wouldn't understand. There's also the idea that being open and cool about porn is seen as sexy and hip. Those messages are powerful and pervasive.

What does it take for someone to realize that they're addicted to pornography?

I spoke with probably two-dozen people who were addicted to pornography. They talk about the denial going on for years. I spoke to men who said they weren't addicted but who spent hours online, staying up till one or two o'clock in the morning looking at porn. It's like alcoholism in a lot of ways--sometimes it takes a disaster to realize it, other times something triggers a reaction akin to shame or guilt.

With addicts, often, pornography crosses over to their real lives. They may start going to prostitutes, hanging out in strip clubs, meeting women from sex chat rooms. There were quite a few who found that their interest in adult pornography trickled down to an interest in looking at teens, and soon they found they were looking at child pornography. For several of the men I talked to, that was a trigger for recovery.

What are some of the recovery methods that people go through? Is there anything like Pornography Anonymous?

Yes. There are a number of 12-step groups, like Sexual Addicts Anonymous. They're not for pornography specifically, but they all essentially deal with pornography, or what comes afterward, since pornography will often trickle into real life. And there are a number of religious organizations. There's Pure Life Ministries, and other churches that have created facilities for treatment for pornography addiction.

You point out that porn has become a free-speech issue, and liberals don't focus on the issues involving degradation of women.

If pornography involved blacks or Jews or any other minority or group, I think that liberals would respond with outrage. But it's women and there's been no response. This may be because the anti-pornography argument has been adopted by groups that come across as reactionary or unrealistic. Traditionally, there were two groups that were anti-pornography. One was the religious right, who also said they were anti-sex education and anti-homosexuality, so liberals didn't want to associate with them. On the other hand, feminists who were anti-pornography took a legal approach, and an approach that many other women thought was anti-men. When those two groups aligned to fight pornography in the 1980s, a lot of liberals were turned off.

At the same time, the pro-pornography movement had a very strong argument that appealed to liberals. It was about the First Amendment, civil rights, human rights. It's ironic, because they may be championing the rights of people to look at pornography, but they're not championing the rights of women who are in pornography or the rights of people who don't want pornography shoved in their face everywhere they turn.

Something like the movie "The People vs. Larry Flynt" would encourage any liberal to side with Larry Flynt. It hugely distorts the issue. We have spent so much time protecting the rights of people to look at pornography. But we have spent no time protecting the right of people to speak out against pornography.

This is big business. They have lawyers, they have advertising, they have lobbyists. Pornography is a product, and there are billions of dollars at stake, and they have done an effective job at creating a message that says, "If you are open-minded, if you're a patriot, if you believe in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, then you've got to defend pornography whether you like it or not."

You write about how pornography doesn't have the same restrictions that much of other media have, such as FCC regulations. Why haven't more restrictions been put into place?

First of all, it's very important to remember that pornography is a kind of media and it's also a product--and both of those things are regulated. Media are regulated all the time--the FCC regulates media, there are certain things that can't be shown to children, certain movies that can only be shown at certain times. The only media that's not regulated is pornography. Pornography is also a product, like cigarettes are a product, alcohol is a product, aspirin is a product. All of these things have zoning regulations, laws about how you can sell it, who you can sell it to. But when it comes to pornography, we say, "No, no, no, you've got to have unregulated pornography, otherwise you're interfering." The idea that pornography shouldn't be regulated is ludicrous.

There have been a lot of convoluted decisions on pornography by the Supreme Court. Some of the [1972 case] Miller vs. California definitions of porn still stand--they define pornography as something that has no cultural or aesthetic or social value, and say that kind of material should be regulated by a local community. But what is a local community in the age of the internet? It becomes very difficult to enforce. But to be honest, I don't think we've made a big effort.

Do you hope your book will bring pornography more into public discussion?

People need to know that pornography is not harmless entertainment. They need to hear that from the people who know it best--the people who use pornography. Cigarettes were once extolled by doctors and glamorized in the movies. Cigarette smoking was something to aspire to. We've gotten to that point with pornography. But once people know that cigarette smoking isn't very good for you, the consumption started to decline. My hope would be that that would happen with pornography.

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