Listen up, everybody. Here at PornHelp, we are not inclined to label news as “fake” or “real.” Not for any political reason. We just find those tags uselessly reductive. They too-easily surrender our right and obligation as citizens to think critically about every piece of information we absorb over the airwaves and internets. As responsible consumers of news and opinion, we believe in always questioning a speaker’s sources, methods, and motivations, and then relying on our own analysis – not someone else’s facile label – to determine what we accept as true or untrue.
So, when we write here about how frustrating we find some journalists’ one-sided takes on porn addiction, we hasten to add we’re not calling their work “fake news.” Far from it. Any time a journalist puts fingers to keyboard to discuss porn addiction, they contribute to an important and vital civic discussion. That they’re doing so, to us, constitutes news worthy of our attention, in-and-of-itself.
Unfortunately, it also seems to us that when it comes to porn use and abuse, many writers fail to do a thorough and careful job in sourcing information and deciding what facts to publish and highlight. To illustrate what we mean, today we’re going to deconstruct an article that appeared this morning in the Daily Beast about the recent college student-led movement to filter porn from campus networks across the country. But, to be clear, in conducting this exercise we’re not picking on the author, Emily Shugerman, or the Daily Beast, in particular. We could do this with any number of pieces we’ve read over the past twelve months. Shugerman’s Daily Beast article is just the most recent example we’ve seen of a lack of journalistic rigor on the topic of porn, which is why it gets the full treatment today.
So, without further ado, there’s the anatomy of a questionably-sourced, needlessly reductive, downright lazy news item about porn, in four parts. Enjoy.
Part One: An Enticing Opening Belies The Facts
The article starts off strong with an eye-catching title and an intriguing lede about “college men” picking up the torch of resisting porn from “Republicans and radical feminists.” Sounds tasty! It goes on to report (accurately) that earlier this semester male students at Notre Dame published an open letter asking the university to block porn, that more than 1,000 men and women at the university joined in their call, and that men and women on campuses across the country have taken up the banner at their schools, too. So far so good.
And yet, hold on a second. If men and women at these schools have called on administrations to filter porn on campus wifi, why is the article titled “These College Guys Are Trying to Ban Porn on Campus”, and why did the lede make it sound like we were only going to be reading about “college men”? Also, not to nit-pick, but isn’t calling what these students want to accomplish a “ban [on] porn on campus” a bit too strong, considering their aim is to filter campus wifi and they acknowledge students can still access porn in myriad other ways? Finally (as you’ll see below), that lede is, shall we say, a tad misleading in saying “college men” are taking the mantle from “Republicans” when it later describes those men as, you know, Republicans.
Hmm. Seems like a bait-and-switch. Let’s read on.
Part Two: Manufacturing Narrative Tension By Cherry-Picking Science
Something strange happens next in Shugerman’s piece. She suggests maybe the students advocating for campus wifi filtering are misguided in their concerns about porn addiction. Citing two unattributed studies from 2013 and 2014, Shugerman argues porn isn’t such a big deal because college kids don’t actually use online porn all that much.
Hold on. lolwut?
If there’s one thing unassailably true about internet porn use today, it’s that college-age kids comprise an enormous portion of the user population. Didn’t Shugerman read Kate Julian’s recent article in The Atlantic about why young people are having less sex than ever? It describes in vivid detail how porn has seeped into every aspect of young adults’ intimate lives. Whatever the two studies are that Shugerman is relying on, their conclusions (at least as Shugerman describes them…we’re relying on her say-so here since she hasn’t actually provided links) is contradicted by widely-available research showing frequent porn use is common among college age people and young adults.
The article then alludes to two more studies to buttress the argument that the campus porn filtering activists have little to fear from porn. One study from 2007 (again, not linked) purportedly claims porn does not predict negative attitudes toward women. The other study, from 2014, argues “perceived” porn addiction correlates with religiosity. (Shugerman fails to mention, however, that this study has been forcefully debunked and debated, particularly regarding the relevance of “perceived addiction” to, you know, actual addiction.)
And that’s the extent of the “science” Shugerman cites. It’s odd, to say the least, that despite the students she interviewed mentioning “porn addiction” as a concern, none of the studies she chose to highlight actually discuss widespread evidence of problematic pornography consumption and compulsive screen use generally in younger populations. It’s not as if she lacked for dozens-upon-dozens of studies to choose from. For whatever reason, the article simply confines itself to some research only tangentially related to what students cited as a major concern for their movement.
Why might that be? Wait, don’t tell us. We’re gonna guess it has something to do with reducing everything to political and cultural stereotypes…
Part Three: Invoking That Same Old, Tired Chestnut
…Aaaaaand, we were right.
Shugerman next casts the campus wifi filtering debate in terms of left vs. right political labels. There are some convenient facts on her side. For instance, she notes that a major conservative publication picked up the story, and that it attracted the attention of a “conservative firebrand” (and female) student at Georgetown. Yet, the article could just as easily have mentioned concerns about problematic porn use on the other side of the political and cultural spectrum. (See, for example, Kate Julian’s Atlantic article above, or this one from London’s Gay Star News about a college-age playwright’s award-winning one man show about his search for sexual identity while struggling with porn addiction.)
Shugerman then doubles down on the political angle by arguing that the whole campus wifi filtering movement is just a reboot of the religious right’s war on porn that cleverly coopts arguments from old-school feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. In constrast, she argues “today’s feminists” aren’t too fussed about porn. As to which, uh, are you sure about that? We’re pretty sure Melissa Farley and Gail Dines would beg to differ, as would Sara Ditum, a former critic of Dines’ who writes for the Guardian and other major publications.
The problem we have with Shugerman casting the campus porn filtering debate in political terms is twofold. First, it’s just so lazy to pigeonhole porn skepticism into left/right, liberal/conservative tropes. As we mentioned, Shugerman wouldn’t need to search hard to find left-leaning speakers expressing alarm about porn use and abuse. Second, Shugerman herself reports that “[e]very student who spoke with The Daily Beast mentioned the levels of violence against women displayed in modern pornography” as a motivating concern. That doesn’t seem like an issue confined to one side of the political spectrum to us. At the very least, it would be nice to see the Daily Beast acknowledge the ambivalence men and women across the political landscape feel about how pervasive and influential porn has become in shaping modern sexuality.
Part Four: Burying (What Should Have Been) The Lede
But alas, that kind of complicated analysis doesn’t catch eyeballs.
Instead, the Daily Beast article that opens by touting a movement by “college guys” to “ban porn on campus” concludes, ignominiously if you ask us, by giving short shrift to the most interesting issues buried in the campus wifi filtering debate. Would filtering be technologically feasible without restricting academic research? Would it have unintended negative consequences like deterring people who struggle with porn addiction from seeking help? Would it unduly restrict rights of free expression? It’s unfortunate Shugerman left these topics for the end of her piece, because they raise crucial questions inherent in any discussion of pornography today.
So, there you have it, the basic anatomy of a lazy news article about porn: (1) grab attention with a false/reductive title and lede; (2) cherry-pick research to manufacture controversy; (3) POLITICS!; and (4) treat nuance like it’s for chumps. We haven’t tried it out on other articles yet, but we suspect it’ll hold.
Which is too bad, because we all deserve better from our news sources when it comes to the public discussion of porn.
It’s an odd but distinctly American impulse to acknowledge the unhealthy effects of recreational screen use but to embrace constant interaction with screens as a fixture of the modern workplace. After all, one of our most ingrained cultural principles as Americans is that work can, and ideally should, be pleasurable and satisfying. For many of us, that equates to an expectation of feeling rewarded and fulfilled by a long day of typing out messages and staring at pixels.
Which leads us to wonder: is training ourselves to feel satisfaction from workplace screen interaction just as potentially unhealthy as seeking reward and stimulation through on-screen porn, games, or social media? At the very least, is it possible one activity reinforces the other, and vice-versa?
Of course, few people achieve true fulfillment at work. Many of us find the hours we spend earning a living in front of a screen exhausting and mind-numbing. And yet, we go back to work, day-in, day-out, because we know we have to for our own economic survival, at the very least. We all have bills to pay. Working with screens is what most of us must do, and if we can find even a modicum of satisfaction in it, too, then we’ll count ourselves lucky.
And so, at work we unconsciously train ourselves to find, if not necessarily happiness or stimulation, at least a sense of achievement and relief, from pressing “send” on an email, filling out an order screen, or scrolling through columns of numbers. Hitting a button or checking a box means we’ve completed a task. We’ve done what we needed to do to earn, maintain, and survive. Click click click, job done, mission accomplished, pressure from the boss temporarily relieved.
Is it any wonder, then, that even in our off hours, we scroll, click, and text as if our lives depended on it? It’s not just that designers engineer porn, games, and social media to attract and hold our attention. Those features are effective, to be sure. But we suspect we also make ourselves susceptible to problematic use of porn, games, and social media by cultivating a relationship with screens at work in which we associate specific screen interactions like scrolling and clicking with accomplishing tasks and relieving stress.
From personal experience, we can remember feeling like there was a feedback loop between at-work productivity and at-home porn use. The job functions we performed during the day, and the cycle of feeling and relieving tension by engaging in tasks on-screen, felt similar to (albeit somewhat less intense than) searching for and clicking on page after page of porn content. It was as if the previous night’s porn use was the proverbial shot, and the next days’s at-work screen time was the chaser.
Screens aren’t going to disappear from the workplace. But, it may be possible to develop boundaries with our use of tech during the day that could translate into safer use at home. For some of us, that may entail adjusting our perspective of why we use a screen to begin with, and being mindful of only engaging with a screen for a well-defined purpose. Instead of falling in love with swinging a hammer, in other words, some of us may need to re-learn how to take satisfaction in having driven the nail.
Longer-form writing from the PornHelp team on current topics relating to problem porn use and recovery.