Here at PornHelp, we have our worries about the potentially harmful effects of prolonged porn use among young people. We recently heard a statistic from a credible source that only served to heighten that concern: online porn platforms estimate that 25% of their users are underage. Considering the truly massive use and visitor statistics touted by the likes of PornHub, that would suggest the porn platforms know they have millions upon millions of kids accessing their content.
That’s a huge number, but it’s probably not all that surprising. What did surprise us, though, is what our source told us next. Apparently, porn companies are also saying that they do not want young users on their platforms.
Now, you might think porn platforms would say that because, well, it’s the right thing to say. After all, across political, idealogical, and methodological spectra, there is nearly universal agreement that it’s not a good thing for children to have unfettered access to pornography. But, that isn’t what we heard from our source. Instead, porn platforms make a business case for why they don’t want young users.
As readers of this blog know, today’s internet porn sites are principally advertising platforms. The argument from the porn platforms apparently goes that underage users are not good sales leads. Advertisers trying to appeal to an audience with ready access to a credit card to purchase “premium” content will pay less per ad click if they know that roughly a quarter of those clicks are by users too young to have a credit card.
Fair enough. We’ve seen Glengarry Glen Ross. Bad leads are the cancer of any sales operation.
But, we have our doubts about the sincerity of the “kids are bad leads” argument. After all, we used to watch Saturday morning cartoons. Our parents weren’t watching Power Rangers. They weren’t seeing the ads for Go-Gurt. They weren’t digging on the newest My Little Pony accessory.
If advertising to children wasn’t profitable, Saturday cartoons wouldn’t exist.
Now, we acknowledge that the mode of advertising during Sponge Bob was different than what we’d expect from a porn platform. Sponge Bob’s advertisers were hoping we’d badger our parents into buying fruit snacks and G.I. Joes. Obviously, kids aren’t going to be asking their parents to please buy them a subscription to Brazzers. But still, there are plenty of advertising relationships that could be profitable for an online business with a captive audience of millions of under-18s. Video game and app producers. Social media platforms. Energy drinks. Etc.
So, when we hear that porn platforms say they don’t want the 25% of their users who are underage, we’re skeptical. Call us cynics, but we suspect porn platforms are monetizing young users just like any other advertising cohort. If you know a quarter of your audience is between the ages of 8 and 17, you’ll sell access on your site to advertisers who want to target that audience. Not only that, assuming you can reliably identify underage users on your platform, you’ll track their behaviors on your site and collect behavioral data that you can further turn into dollars. If you are vertically integrated, you will produce more of the porn content that your data tells you those users like.
In short, you’ll treat that 25% of your audience as an asset, just like the other 75%.
We recently had an unpleasant Twitter exchange with two prominent porn addiction critics. We don’t need to go into the details (if you’re interested, see here), but it ended with one of them challenging us to “show our commitment to inquiry” by describing any, even just one, “positive effect”of “sex films”. Our critic presented this as something of a litmus test to determine whether or not we were “trolls”, and promised to send us research if we could deliver.
Now, we don’t feel much need to defend ourselves against attacks on our intellectual honesty. Our blog posts speak to our commitment to inquiry quite adequately, thank you very much. Also, since our founding one of our organizing principals has been that we avoid making black or white pronouncements about pornography use. It’s not that we don’t have views on this issue (see below). Rather, we think it’s best not to stake out hard positions lest we be seen mistakenly as judging porn users and thereby deter people struggling with porn from finding help on our website. We’re here for anyone who feels their porn use is problematic, no matter the cause. We suspect some of our users love porn but can’t control how they use it, some hate porn and want to eliminate it from their lives, and most are probably somewhere in between.
And yet, it’s undeniable that our Twitter feed betrays some pretty clear beliefs. Most of the research and commentary we share in one way or another reflects views that put us pretty squarely in the corner of porn skeptics. To wit:
So yes, we are highly porn skeptical here at PornHelp.org. But we also don’t like to back down from a challenge. The “spirit of inquiry” does require us to look at problematic porn use from as many perspectives as possible. That includes, today, the perspective of those who view pornography as a social benefit.
So, for the sake of provoking searching (and respectful) debate, and to respond to anyone who might otherwise consider us “trolls” merely because of our strong porn skepticism, here are some ways in which we’re able to conceive that “sex films” - i.e., modern streaming internet porn - may have a “positive impact” (which, just to be clear, is not to say that we believe these effects result in a positive net impact).
Ready? (Deep breath.) Here goes.
For starters, internet pornography constitutes a comprehensive visual compendium of human sexual practice, from the mundane to the highly niche. This sort of visual library of sexuality sheds light on, and facilitates the study of, the human condition. We value study and debate on all topics, including historically taboo areas like what goes on in people’s bedrooms and what triggers people’s sexual response. So that’s something positive that porn - however unintentionally - can lend to the world of knowledge.
Next, we acknowledge it’s not just researchers who may find value in the internet’s endlessly diverse collection of porn videos. Consenting adults can use “sex films” as a source of mature, responsible sexual stimulation, and as a way to explore - and affirm - their sexuality in relative privacy and safety. To be sure, we don’t think the intense stimulation and mind boggling variety (not to mention the 24/7 accessibility) offered by internet porn are inherently positive attributes (for many who seek help on our site, they decidedly are not), but we recognize they potentially can be for some people.
Finally, we recognize the possibility of certain positive impacts from producing pornography. Porn is a big business, and in cases where its labor force is healthy, safe, consenting, and justly compensated (which is not the norm), and where its consumers acquire their porn through distribution channels that pay producers for their creations (also not the norm), the broader economy can benefit. Also, porn-producing adults may derive sexual pleasure or emotional satisfaction from being filmed in a sex act, or in treating their pornographic creations as a form of artistic expression. That's not our jam, but we're not going to judge.
So there you have it. Not just one, but at least three ways in which our spirit of inquiry compels us to contemplate positive impacts from “sex films.” We’d say that pretty definitively takes us out of the realm of troll-dom, even if it doesn’t make us any less skeptical and concerned about porn’s overall human impacts.
To anyone who would say that we’re betraying our mission by acknowledging potential counterpoints to our beliefs, we invite (respectful) debate in the comments section. We think intellectual candor is the cornerstone of any honest debate, so we feel confident our readers will understand the purpose in our willingness to go through the looking glass today. We’re somewhat less confident that our Twitter antagonists will ever send us that research they promised, but there’s always hope…
One last thought in parting. At the top of this post, we rejected absolutism about pornography use. We did that in service of a mission in which we are absolutists: our guiding principle that people who feel porn is interfering with their lives and want help, deserve to find that help no matter how or why concern about their porn use arises. Period. Maybe some of those people will find their porn use isn’t personally problematic after all. We suspect many more will come to the opposite conclusion. But in either case, we will take pride if they were able to find the help they needed here on PornHelp.
Having struggled with problem porn use, we’ve done a lot of thinking about the nature of our addiction. We’re not researchers, at least not at the moment. What we’re talking about is the time we’ve spent peeling back the layers of the proverbial onion to identify, understand, and manage the thoughts and behaviors that caused us and our loved ones so much pain.
Our personal exploration has taken us through numerous levels of discovery. When we were starting out, we focused narrowly on our compulsive porn viewing, and tried to identify strategies for interrupting that specific behavior. When we managed that, we turned to look at how our addiction might come out through other (non-porn) behaviors. That led us to realize that while obsessive porn use was the flavor of compulsive, reward-seeking behavior we’d latched onto, it wasn’t necessarily the only way our addiction could interfere with our lives. As we developed a sense of all of the ways in which we were at risk of compulsive, reward-seeking behaviors - exercise, overeating, social media, etc. - we also began to focus on root causes. We tried to identify trigger points and moments in time when we felt compelled to “escape” into those behaviors, and then to explore what it was that we were trying to escape from.
If this is starting to sound like a rabbit hole, well, yeah, that’s exactly what it is. We now realize there aren’t necessarily answers to some of the questions we’ve been asking ourselves - at least, not definitive and “correct” ones. Instead, to paraphrase a tired cliche, at some point we concluded that recovery from addiction is principally about the journey and practice of self-awareness, and not about the destination of finding all the answers.
Which is all well and good. Except for this one teensy problem:
We can’t trust our own thinking.
Thinking led us deeper into the morass of addiction in the first place. It wasn’t just that we told ourselves that this would really be the last time, and that if we just tried a little harder we could kick porn on our own. It’s that those thoughts were actually part of how our addiction thrived. Compulsive, reward-seeking became so engrained in our lives, so much a part of who we were, that we would unconsciously sabotage ourselves in order to have a reason to “escape” into our addictive behaviors. Addiction tainted even the changes we tried to make on our own to address our addiction.
Which brings us to the one piece of advice we feel comfortable and qualified giving to anyone - anyone - trying to kick porn out of their lives. If you’re going to go down the rabbit hole of exploring your addiction, make sure you take a fellow rabbit with you. Someone you trust, who gets what you’re going through, who won't judge, and who can provide an independent, neutral perspective on the thoughts and observations that you think are so clever, but might actually just be more self-defeating nonsense.
You can get starting finding a fellow rabbit here. Hop to it.
Here at PornHelp, we run across statistics relating to porn use pretty frequently, and they’re often troubling. But the problem with statistics is that they often get tossed around casually without context, and so, they tend to provoke a certain cynicism. Look hard enough, the saying goes, and you can find a statistic to prove just about anything.
Which is why we thought it might be a good idea to put one popular statistic in context for you. It’s this one, which we’ve seen before, but that this article in The Telegraph called to our attention again recently: the number of porn videos viewed on a single popular “tube” site, PornHub, last year was over 92 billion. Yes, that’s billion with a “B”.
When PornHub released that statistic, many were quick to point out that it represented 12.5 porn videos viewed annually for every person on Earth. That’s eye-popping, but it doesn’t mean much. Why? Because the internet porn use is more concentrated.
To begin with, not all of the world’s approximately 7.3 billion people use the internet. According to statistics from the International Telecommunications Union cited here, there were approximately 3.4 billion internet users globally in 2016. Also, internet porn use is not evenly distributed by gender. According to the public research firm Barna Group, in the U.S., “twice as many male teens and young adults use porn [at least monthly] than female teens and young adults (67% compared to 33%), and four times as many male adults 25+ use porn than female adults (47% compared to 12%)”.
Now, it’s probably the case that the age and gender of internet users, not to mention internet porn users, vary across geography. But since we don’t have the space or resources to get at those subtleties, let’s just assume that half of all internet users in the world are men and half are women. Let’s also assume that, say, 50% of those men and 15% of those women consume pornography at least monthly (which would be conservatively in line with U.S. internet porn use rates). Using those assumptions, we start to get at the real scale of internet porn’s global footprint: in 2016, approximately 850,000,000 men and 255,000,000 women potentially consuming the 92 billion porn videos on PornHub. In other words, the average internet porn user would have viewed about 84 videos per year on just that one porn web site.
Of course, these are imprecise numbers. The average would drop if global internet porn use was found to be higher than the 50%/15% gender split we assume. Not all of those users visited PornHub necessarily. And, and most importantly, we know from research that volume is an imprecise metric by which to measure whether porn use is problematic for any given user.
Which brings us to the statistics for problematic pornography use. These tend to vary. At one extreme, this article reports a study that claims over 25% of male porn users self-report their porn use as problematic, and another study that finds over 25% of male porn users who use porn at least twice per year register as “hypersexual” under a standard testing metric. At the other end of the spectrum, this interview with a prominent porn addiction skeptic asserts that only 0.5% of porn users report problems resulting from their inability to control porn use. None of these numbers is perfect. They probably aren’t apples-to-apples comparisons, and self-reporting is notoriously subjective.
Difficult as the number of problematic porn users is to pin down, however, even the lowest estimate of porn users who report problems stemming from difficulty controlling their porn use yields materially large numbers. Sure, 0.5% looks like a small figure. But then multiply it by 1.1 billion porn users worldwide and you get 5,500,000 people around the world whose lives are being damaged by a difficulty controlling porn use. That’s a lot of people. Like, more people than live in Los Angeles.
Now consider what happens if we assume, instead, that 1.5% of porn users experience negative consequences from out of control porn use. There’s reason to think that’s a reasonable estimate, in that it mirrors the rough average rate of gambling addiction - a behavioral addiction that frequently involves a similar screen-user interface as problematic internet porn use - among gamblers. Now we’re looking at 16,500,000 problem porn users worldwide, or roughly the combined population of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston.
We are admittedly veering into semi-educated guesses here. But our basic point, which we think the broad numbers support, is this: the number of porn users in the world is huge and growing, as is the number of people who have a problematic relationship with their porn use. Simply put, there is no way to look at pornography use in the internet age and not see it as a real, immediate, harmful problem for at least millions of people.
An article recently appeared on Glamour’s web site called “Does Mainstream Porn Have a Race Problem?”. In the main, it’s a thought-provoking piece that takes a multifaceted look at the complicated intersection of racism and erotica. It discusses how porn producers profit from depicting (and perpetuating) retrograde racial attitudes and stereotypes, the race-based pay disparities among porn performers, and the “indie porn” industry’s attempts to move away from racial labeling of content.
But we were surprised at one omission from porn journalist Lynsey G.’s otherwise thorough piece. In all of its discussion of depictions of race in pornography, nowhere does the article mention the gigantic footprint of “reality,” “amateur”, or “gonzo” pornography that intentionally blurs, and often erases, the distinction between performance and coercion. These films don't just reflect racial stereotypes. They establish racial (and its close cousin, socioeconomic) dominance and exploitation as their attracting premise. Want to see a white guy purchase and inflict pain on a Bangkok prostitute? How about a porn producer talking an immigrant who barely speaks English into anal sex? All of this and more is available by the gigabyte.
Porn that explicitly benefits from the grim reality of racial and socioeconomic disparity cannot be classified as choreographed “fantasy” in the way that the Glamour pigeonholes so much mainstream content. Nor can it be credited with lampooning or satirizing racial stereotypes. No, this sort of porn would not exist but for the poverty and discrimination that its “performers” endure on a daily basis. It is “reality” porn, for sure, just not in the way its producers mean it.
Does porn have a race problem? Of course it does. And, it isn’t possible to have a conversation about that problem without acknowledging the massive, and cynically exploitative, influence of "reality" porn.
We recently binge-watched The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tale of a future in which the world’s few remaining fertile women are enslaved by a tyrannical government to bear children for its male leaders. It’s a grim vision, and one that, for the time being, fortunately resides firmly in the realm of dark imagination.
Still, we couldn’t help but be reminded of Atwood’s book when we read this article about the sexual habits of young Japanese men and women. According to a recent study reported in the article, nearly half of Japanese citizens under 30 are virgins, which has led to a severe decline in Japanese birth rates. The study offers two explanations for this state of affairs: less social pressure to marry and financial worries. But at least one survey respondent postulated a different explanation: young Japanese men are content to surf porn instead of risking an interaction with a live, human partner.
Now, that’s just one person’s theory. We suspect there are numerous interconnected factors influencing Japan’s declining rates of partnered sexual relationships and reproduction. In addition to declining social pressure and financial insecurity, perhaps Japanese culture heightens the perceived risk of rejection of sexual advances. Perhaps Japanese public health initiatives have been particularly effective in stoking fears of sexually transmitted diseases. Perhaps the listless Japanese economy creates conditions in which having children feels less desirable, or where it’s difficult to find the time and space for sustained personal intimacy. Who knows. Still, we can’t help but wonder if the woman quoted in the article is on to something when she says “I think a lot of men just cannot be bothered. They can watch porn on the internet and get sexual satisfaction that way.”
In the spirit of Margaret Atwood, consider this dystopian thought experiment. Imagine the invention of a technology that delivered sexual satisfaction and intimacy so perfectly, so in tune with our deepest sexual desires, that it rendered moot the idea of partnered sex for pleasure. Imagine this technology was available in unlimited quantity, on demand. Imagine, in other words, a technology that made it pointless to have sex with another live human being except for the purpose of procreation. What then?
Or consider a converse scenario: a society in which the porn that exists today is sufficient to satisfy all sexual desires. A society so steeped in isolation, fear of physical intimacy, nihilism and despair that today’s porn seems far preferable to the uncertainties of interpersonal connection. What then?
We suspect that in either scenario, people would remain virgins longer. We suspect people’s sexual habits would evolve away from human-to-human physical contact toward pleasure-delivering technology. We suspect birth rates would decline. We suspect, in other words, that either scenario would foster conditions similar to those reported in the Japan study.
Could it be that porn consumption in Japan has reached this sort of tipping point? Could it be that a demographically significant number of young Japanese citizens have, due to some unique cocktail of societal and technological factors, come to prefer sexual stimulation from porn over sexual stimulation from partnered intimacy?
We doubt it. Conditioned as The Handmaid’s Tale has made us in this moment to ominous prognostication, we doubt porn is the driving factor in Japan’s declining rates of sexual activity and reproduction. But, we wouldn’t be at all surprised if porn plays a measurable role in that decline. And we’re downright certain that the porn industry is hard at work at delivering the maximum amount of pleasure possible with each new video and VR experience, and that it would love to develop an all-consuming technology to meet our every desire. So, while the the dystopian future might not be here already, it’s not fantasy to feel it creeping our way.
We here at PornHelp feel some ambivalence toward celebrities who publicly struggle with sexual addiction, porn-related or otherwise. On one hand, we empathize with anyone who has faced the abyss of out of control sexual behavior, and applaud those brave enough to shine a light on that frequently misunderstood condition. On the other hand, public declarations of sexual addiction by celebrities often sensationalize the problem, and seem calculated to sell magazines and to increase reality TV viewership rather than raise genuine awareness.
For better or worse, we’ve developed a shorthand for toggling between these conflicting inclinations. We call it the “US Weekly Rule.” It goes like this: if the first place we hear about a celebrity’s struggle with sexual addiction is in US Weekly (or a similar publication), our instinct is to doubt that it’s legit.
Here’s where we’re coming from. Addictions involving out of control sexual behaviors thrive on isolation, secrecy and shame. They often ruin lives quietly, and become public knowledge only when some cataclysm forces them into the open. Sexual addictions don’t discriminate. They afflict young and old, men and women, famous and ordinary, gay and straight. They involve unwanted, frequently compulsive behaviors that defy repeated attempts to stop. They inflict terrible consequences on psyches, relationships, and careers. In short, sexual addictions are nothing to celebrate, for anyone.
When a celebrity genuinely struggles with sexual addiction, the problem may play out in public as an inexplicable downward spiral. Though the decline itself might be tabloid fodder, the label “sexual addiction” tends not to surface right away, and is rarely offered by the celebrity himself in the moment as an explanation for what’s going on. Think of Tiger Woods, for instance, whose contrite admission of serial infidelity and sexual acting out only followed a year-long slide culminating in a car wreck. In other words, like “ordinary” sex/porn addicts, the “addiction” label usually gets applied to these celebrities only once their desperate misery or efforts at recovery come to light. Their stories make us sad as any tragedy does, but we also can’t help but feel hopeful that their telling may lead to a better public understanding of how powerful and vexing sexual addictions and related disorders can be.
Those tragic stories differ, in our eyes, from the significantly less sympathetic tales of "sex addiction" that too often grace the covers of gossip magazines. In the typical version, a celebrity is found to have cheated on his or her (typically celebrity) spouse/partner, and directly or through a publicist offers “sexual addiction” as an explanation (some may say “excuse”) for the transgression. The story breathlessly features a high-profile check-in at a rehab center. Photographs of mistresses and jilted lovers. Salacious tell-alls. The works. These stories make us roll our eyes, and invite us to indulge in a little schadenfreude.
The US Weekly Rule isn’t foolproof. That particular magazine may break legitimate news now and again, and we get that celebrities differ from the rest of us in how their lives get shared with the public. Ordinary folks don’t have reporters sniffing around our private lives for a scoop. Publicists or no publicists, Tiger’s reported battle with compulsive sexual behavior was bound to come out eventually because his downfall was just so precipitous and notable. But the guy wasn’t - and still isn’t, so far as we can tell - trying to sell that story for clicks or shout-outs.
Which is to say, the US Weekly Rule works as a general guideline because the notion of voluntarily breaking the news of a sex addiction in a gossip magazine seems, at best, highly suspicious. No recovery program we’re aware of requires, or even recommends, that a person publicly announce their struggle (certainly not until well into recovery and after serious reflection on the consequences of speaking out). Virtually no one who has endured the pain of a sexual addiction, celebrity or not, wants to offer up that agony for others’ consumption. The vast, vast majority of us are just trying to put it in the past and rebuild. And as for the few among us courageous enough to talk publicly about their sexual addiction in depth (thank you, Terry Crews), well, we see a big difference between them and tabloid speculation about affairs and betrayals.
So look, we know we’re whistling in the wind when we say this, but we sure do wish that people in the public eye would think twice before coopting the label “sex addict” to describe their every indiscretion. Because, the thing is, every false or opportunistic celebrity claim of sexual addiction cheapens and sensationalizes the struggle of people who really do suffer from out of control, compulsive sexual behaviors. And that’s the last thing those of us who’ll never appear in US Weekly need.
Broadly speaking, we see two conversations about porn happening in the world today. One of them - the one you most often read about in the news - is a large-scale conversation about how pornography production and consumption affect society writ large. This is the controversial conversation. The one that politicians and faith leaders get fired up about. The one that provokes dueling accusations of cultural decline and “moral panic”. The one that that can get a little exhausting.
Then there’s the second conversation. You hear less about this one because for the most part it’s not happening in the open. It’s a conversation individuals are having with themselves about whether and how their own porn use conforms with their self-perception and personal needs. People having this conversation rarely speak it aloud, except perhaps in prayer, or to a therapist, or in a close, trusting relationship. And yet, despite its relative obscurity, it's this second conversation that's becoming increasingly essential to our lives.
We like to think of the distinction between these two conversations as akin to the difference between political campaign talk and personal voting choice. Yes, one influences the other, but it’s only the latter that we treat as sacred and profound. One is about how others think they know us, the other is about how we know ourselves.
Like voting choice, our own internal conversations about our personal porn use habits can involve varying considerations of personal economics, emotion, morality, ethics, and aspiration. There isn’t likely to be a one-size-fits-all factor that decides how a person feels about their personal porn use any more than there’s a one-size-fits-all reason a person chooses one candidate over another. Indeed, research suggests that porn use may affect people in varying ways.
Some people, of course, experience an overwhelming compulsion to consume porn. When these people continue using despite negative consequences and repeated, failed attempts to stop, their behavior is (or closely mimics) an addiction. Depending on their degree of self awareness, these people tend to think on some level that using porn is either really good or really bad for them. Either way, their internal conversation about their personal porn consumption often dominates their thoughts. The key for them is to find help when they realize they need it, and that's why this web site exists.
But the others - the majority for whom porn use isn’t (at least, not yet) an all-consuming obsession - are different. Porn doesn’t occupy their every thought. And yet, porn can still shape their perceptions of personal sexuality, body image, spirituality, and gender roles, to name a few. These people may not have an ever-present shouting match about porn use going on in their heads, but they may yet ask themselves questions that shape their personal porn use habits. Questions like “Does porn affect expectations of what’s supposed to happen with my sexual partner?”, “Does porn influence how I perceive my own sexual attractiveness?”, “Am I ok with consuming porn if I don’t know or can't tell whether the performers have been exploited?”, and “Does my porn use reflect my values?”.
The big, loud, public conversation about porn covers these topics and many more, and yet, like a large-scale political campaign, it often lacks the subtlety and nuance that drive personal views about porn consumption. Yes, it may be true that “porn kills love” in some respects, but there are also couples who insist they have enhanced and strengthened their intimate, loving relationships by visiting PornTube together now and again. Conversely, yes, it may possible to consume only porn that’s produced “ethically,” with well-treated, well-compensated professional performers and safe working conditions, but the overwhelming bulk of pornography is not produced to such ethically observant standards, and at its worst involves abhorrent degradation and exploitation of the most vulnerable among us.
Finding a way through these competing generalities to an informed, nuanced personal perspective about porn use requires some sustained, quiet reflection. We view taking time for that reflection to be essential for every citizen of this digital world awash in porn. It's a duty no less profound than the duty to make an informed choice in a voting booth. Porn has become far too pervasive, far too dug-in to our lives, to leave solely to the talking heads in the public conversation. Each of us must develop an informed view of if, when, and how we consume porn, or risk leaving life-changing decisions about our and our intimate partners' sexual existence to the faceless online mob.
And so, we heartily encourage all of our readers - but particularly those for whom porn use is not presently an all-consuming obsession - to dedicate some time to their own internal conversations about personal porn use. We also encourage you to dip a toe or two into the loud, public debates about porn to help inform yourself, but to do so with the critical eye of a voter during a campaign. Check your sources. Be aware of agendas. Know yourself and what matters to you. And then, take time to focus during a quiet moment - a voting booth moment, if you will - to pinpoint exactly what questions you ask yourself about porn, and how the answers affect if and how you consume it.
Finally, if you want to break the prevailing silence on your own internal "voting booth conversation" about porn, we welcome you to share the questions you ask yourself, and the insights you gain from answering them, in the comments below.
(Author's note: Pornography and avuncular billionaire investors don't usually seem to have much in common. Just the same, in this post we explain why we think Warren Buffet's 1992 dissection of a complicated business topic has much to teach about how to cut through the noise of today's debates over porn addiction. Happy reading!)
Fans of good writing and clear thinking treasure Warren Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders of his holding company, Berkshire Hathaway. Combining folksy wisdom with razor-sharp analysis, Buffett’s letters deliver a master class in distilling sense from an often chaotic and contradictory modern (business) culture. We count ourselves among Buffett’s devotees.
Twenty five years ago, the “Sage of Omaha” dedicated a significant portion of his annual missive to the not-so-exciting-sounding subject of stock option accounting. The issue back then (and possibly still today - we’re not experts), was whether to account for options as an expense to the company that granted them. Buffett lamented that somehow business leaders had convinced their accountants that options shouldn't be treated as an expense item by arguing that options values could be difficult to quantify. It didn’t hurt that by excluding options from expense, companies could compensate those same executives richly without affecting the bottom line by even a penny.
Buffett thought all of this was hogwash. He called the effort to label options as something other than an expense “[t]he most egregious case of let’s-not-face-up-to-reality behavior” in the business world. Just because options didn’t represent “dollars out of a company’s coffers,” they were still items of value the company used to pay for services. No doubt with his trademark impish grin, Buffett offered to sell insurance from Berkshire (then its core business) to any executive who subscribed to this “no cash no cost” theory, and to accept payment in long term stock options in the executive’s company.
Buffett also pressed a trenchant point about the complexities of modern (business) life. “[I]t is both silly and cynical”, he wrote, “to say that an important item of cost should not be recognized simply because it can't be quantified with pinpoint precision.” Buffet's point was that just because imprecision and variability abound in the modern world doesn’t mean reasonable people can’t make reasonable judgments. Their estimates might be off at the margins, conceded Buffett, but no more so than as with other routine estimates of value, such as fixing the cost of a depreciating asset.
Buffett made his closing argument on the topic of option accounting in two remarkable paragraphs. We quote them here in full because, well, they're just great:
"It seems to me that the realities of stock options can be summarized quite simply: If options aren't a form of compensation, what are they? If compensation isn't an expense, what is it? And, if expenses shouldn't go into the calculation of earnings, where in the world should they go?
The accounting profession and the SEC should be shamed by the fact that they have long let themselves be muscled by business executives on the option-accounting issue. Additionally, the lobbying that executives engage in may have an unfortunate by-product: In my opinion, the business elite risks losing its credibility on issues of significance to society - about which it may have much of value to say - when it advocates the incredible on issues of significance to itself."
Ok. Ok. Now that you’ve indulged our rhapsodizing on Warren Buffett’s wisdom, we’ll explain why we think this matters. As observers of the pornography and porn-related treatment landscape, we’re frequently amazed at how often commentators use the complexity of the topic to elide some basic realities about porn. How many times have we read critiques that conclude that we can’t yet categorize porn as a vector for addiction because it's hard to define precisely what constitutes porn, or because porn affects different people in different ways, or because porn occupies an culturally controversial position at the confluence of empiricism and moral suasion? Some pundits argue that we can’t treat porn as potentially addictive because then that would mean that anything pleasurable - like looking at pictures of cute bunny rabbits - could also be addictive. Others insist that since withdrawing from porn can’t kill you, it can’t be addictive.
And yet, isn't that all a version of the hogwash Buffett so ably exposed in 1992? Let's cut through the noise, Buffett-style. Reasonable people can agree, more or less, what constitutes media created and intended to be pornography. The vast majority of people who consume that porn do so to get sexually aroused. Porn producers design their product to serve that purpose. The most successful porn induces the most consistent and intense sexual arousal. Sexual arousal is a powerful, primordial, frequently overwhelming state of excitement and pleasure.
In short, to borrow from Warren Buffett, if modern (internet) porn isn’t a highly potent stimulant, then what is it? If highly potent stimulants aren’t vectors of addiction, then what are? If porn can’t be counted among the highly potent stimulants around which addictions arise, then where can it be categorized?
We revere Buffett’s observations about options accounting because they model clear thinking in an age of “silly and cynical” grandstanding. Obfuscation and opportunism cloud the porn debate today as much as they did the stock options controversy in 1992. Now, as then, we need more people to step up and point out the obvious: that modern (internet) porn is a product offered for consumption, that porn is expressly designed to pack a stimulative wallop that keeps consumers coming back for more, and that, because of these traits, addictive behaviors grow around consuming porn. Commenters who ignore these basic realities “risk losing [their] credibility” by “advocat[ing] the incredible on issues of significance” not just to themselves, but to every man, woman and child on the planet.
Last year, Utah adopted a resolution declaring pornography a “public health crisis.” So did the Republican Party in last year's platform. Recently, similar resolutions have cleared legislative hurdles in four more state legislatures - Virginia, Tennessee, South Dakota, and Arkansas. “Porn as a public health crisis” has all the makings of a political movement.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the effort to label porn a “public health crisis” has fostered controversy. Look around the internet and you’ll find articles in favor of and opposed to treating porn as a public health issue. Beyond the usual (puzzling) disconnect between the “pro” and “con” camps over the growing scientific evidence regarding porn’s ill effects, the debate seems at least in part driven by the fact that “public health crisis” has no uniform definition. But, despite our well-established linguistic inclinations, we’re not going to wade into that morass here.
Instead, today we want to focus on the political side of the ledger. So far as we can tell, all of the state lawmakers who have thus far introduced measures on “porn as a public health crisis” have been Republicans. Republicans also hold the majority the lawmaking bodies in all five states that have taken up these measures. Some Democrats have voted in favor of the resolutions in the states where they’ve come to a vote, and have served as undercard sponsors of the measures. But, we are not aware of a single Democrat (or Independent) who has been the principal champion of a “porn as a public health crisis” measure to date.
That's unfortunate. As we’ve written in the past, pornography ignores political affiliation. Problematic porn use (call it addiction, compulsivity, hypersexuality, etc.) is widespread, and it lays waste to the lives of people across the political spectrum. The widely-reported effects of porn’s production, distribution, and consumption, such as human trafficking, sexual violence, and sexual disfunction, have nothing whatsoever to do with politics. These are deeply human issues that demand the attention and action of every citizen.
So, why are Republicans occupying the field when it comes to introducing measures addressing porn’s effects? One simple reason could be that Republicans dominate a large majority of state legislatures nationwide. The “porn as a public health crisis” measures that have passed so far are not “law” in the sense of dictating executive policy or action. They are statements of factual findings and broad principles, and rarely face significant opposition - the sort of measures that tend to sail through legislatures dominated by one party. Also, the base of the “anti-pornography” movement has historically lived on the political right. So, it might not be surprising if the impetus for the “porn as a public health crisis” initiative comes from conservative quarters.
Still, that doesn’t quite explain why a Democrat hasn’t yet stepped up to champion one of these measures, not even in a legislature where Democrats are in the majority. After all, fears about the effects of porn are no longer predominately the domain of right-leaning conservatives. The internet has transformed the landscape. What was once a relatively inaccessible, taboo product is now available for free, in unlimited quantities, twenty-four hours per day, on any screen, to anyone, anywhere. Porn demand, production and consumption have exploded and are evolving at a furious pace. With that explosion, the reasons for concern over porn’s effects continue to grow. There’s cause for alarm for everyone, no matter their politics, gender, faith, or sexual orientation.
We think the explanation for the political left's relative absence from the "porn as a public health crisis" movement (from which we're excluding the subject of "revenge porn", which is not porn so much as a form of assault and invasion of privacy) instead lies in some unfortunate and longstanding habits of American political culture. Though porn is a universal issue, you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the text of the resolutions that have passed statehouses so far. Somewhere along the line, partisan buzzwords crept into these measures, all but ensuring that they would be perceived by a weary and cynical public as extensions of our polarized - and paralyzed - politics. Democrats, we suspect, have followed suit.
Here’s what we mean. The measures that have passed cover the gamut of concerns posed by modern porn, and employ the reassuringly secular terminology of “public health." That's all good. But, they also employ language distinctive of the conservative side of the “culture wars” that have dominated U.S. politics for generations. For example, the measures focus disproportionately on pornography’s effects on heterosexuals, and warn that porn leads to “deviant sexual arousal,” which many left-leaning readers will interpret as antagonism toward homosexuality and other sexual minorities. The measures place asymmetric emphases on how porn may affect one gender or the other, which, likewise, will be seen as patriarchal and an invasion of the privacy of our bedrooms. And, though they rightly decry that porn has become a de facto form of sex education, the measures risk being seen as hypocritical in failing to acknowledge how inadequate public health education may drive porn demand.
Please don’t get us wrong. We’re not necessarily endorsing these critiques. If Democrats were pushing “porn as a public health crisis” measures in statehouses using their own historical culture war vocabulary (often received as an affront to conservatives’ religious beliefs and commitment to family values), that, too, would be unhelpful. Our commentary here is on the tendency of political partisans of all stripes to shoot themselves in the foot when an issue evolves beyond its historical sphere of focus and requires broader political attention.
We do not doubt not that the authors of “porn as a public health crisis” measures choose their words carefully, nor do we question whether they hold their views genuinely and in good faith. They do. But it’s time for a little realpolitik. We live in a highly toxic political era. Once we occupy a political camp, the language we employ to express our views risks alienating the other half of the country. So it is with Republican-sponsored "porn as a public health crisis” measures. By salting their well-intended legislation with culture war tropes, legislators are playing directly into the inaccurate and demeaning (to all involved) perception that the only people paying attention to the negative effects of porn are religious conservatives in the throes of a full-fledged “moral panic.”
That’s not a good thing. If “porn as a public health crisis” and similar measures continue to be seen as a uniquely Republican venture, the issue will fall victim to political paralysis and we will all be the worse for wear. We encourage Democrats and Republicans and Independents to sponsor measures raising awareness about porn’s effects that use non-polarizing language that emphasizes universal themes everyone’s constituents can agree on.
The stakes are too high to be playing politics over porn any longer.
Longer-form writing from the PornHelp team on current topics relating to problem porn use and recovery.