On December 6, 2019, Representatives Jim Banks, Mark Meadows, Vicky Hartzler, and Brian Babin submitted a letter to Attorney General William Barr, beseeching him to follow through with the Trump campaign’s anti-pornography pledge, which they fear has long since been forgotten by the current administration. You can read the letter here. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
The four Republican congressmen, claiming to act in defense of the dignity of our legal system and the welfare of the American people, urged Barr to enforce already-existing obscenity laws, citing such motives as the ever-expanding sex trafficking and child pornography businesses and America’s pornography epidemic. Though the congressmen’s letter calls only for a fight against the proliferation of hardcore pornography, their actions mark a culmination of an anti-pornography movement that has divided the right-wing over the past decade. This effort, spearheaded by conservative writers such as Ben Shapiro and Matt Walsh, and further stimulated by internet-based trends like NoFap (a movement based on abstaining from masturbation and pornography), has caused a massive surge in support for the banning of all internet pornography in the U.S. However, regardless of its moral, social, and mental implications, the prospect of suppressing pornographic material on its most popular medium presents a strong possibility that the crises instigated by the industry (including, but not limited to violence towards women, sex trafficking, and the impotence of viewers) will only heighten as a result.
In order to fully understand the negative sentiment towards pornography that has engulfed a large branch of the American populace, one must analyze the specific dangers posed by high-speed internet pornography, a relatively recent development. Biology states that in order to maximize reproduction (the core scientific tenet of our existence), the brains of various species (including humans) have adapted to release high amounts of dopamine during sex to encourage procreation. After having sex multiple times with the same mate, the amount of dopamine released during each sexual encounter gradually decreases; however, this figure, along with the motivation to have sex, returns to its original level, or close to it, when an entirely new mate is introduced. This phenomenon, known as the Coolidge effect, helps to explain why pornography addiction is so widespread: with a few quick keystrokes, internet porn can provide an essentially limitless supply of sexual stimulation with different partners, enabling porn viewers to directly stream dopamine boosts from their screens to their brains.
A frequently overlooked fact about dopamine is that it is a motivation compound, not a pleasure molecule: dopamine is initially released when we receive a reward for an action, but after that first reward, it is released when a similar situation arises in which we can complete the same action and obtain another reward. This, in turn, makes us desire to complete actions that the brain believes could lead to rewards, which helps us to identify activity that could be beneficial to our existence. Because the endless stream of sexual novelty provided by internet porn keeps dopamine levels elevated, viewers’ dopamine receptors are forced to adapt to the high concentration of reward chemicals they are constantly exposed to and begin to downscale, hence requiring the same high frequency of dopamine to provide adequate motivation. Because of this dulling of the dopamine receptors, habitual porn watchers are left unmotivated to participate in activities that fail to provide repetitive, concentrated dopamine boosts equal to those provided by pornography, and their brains begin to favor porn over everything else, as it is the only medium that can deliver the quantity and frequency of dopamine that they have grown to expect.
These findings are mirrored by the results of studies on the psychological effects of internet porn (you can read them here), which have found that people who regularly watch porn express symptoms of addiction, including sensitization to porn, desensitization to everything other than porn, and hypofrontality, which is decreased blood flow in the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that is responsible for self-control). Similar studies have found that compulsive porn viewers frequently struggle with erectile dysfunction, low libido, social anxiety, depression, and concentration problems, all of which are often linked to low dopamine and low/altered dopamine receptors.
Aside from leaving viewers unimpressed and unmotivated by anything other than obscene films and images, internet pornography can also reshape the brain’s understanding of sex. When people watch porn, their brains quickly learn that they can get a “reward” (or multiple rewards) very easily by typing a pornography site’s web address into a search bar and then cycling through the seemingly endless supply of erotic videos offered. Because porn addicts become accustomed to being aroused by the amplified visual and audial components of sex, they often grow so used to reducing themselves to that medium that they grow to prefer it over actual sexual contact. This is evidenced by studies (again, here) in which compulsive porn viewers have expressed difficulty in maintaining an erection for a real partner but no problems doing the same when presented with internet pornography.
So, we have established that high-speed internet pornography poses an inherent danger to not only the happiness and success of those who engage with it regularly but also to the reproductive stability of the human race as a whole. However, pornography’s dangers to humanity are not only limited to reproduction. Child pornography is one of the world’s fastest-growing businesses, with commercialized child pornography websites (nearly 50% of which are hosted in the United States) generating an annual revenue of over $3 billion. Furthermore, pornography has often been linked to increased violence towards women, and serial killer Ted Bundy is quoted saying that “without exception, every one of [the men he has met who committed violent crimes] was deeply involved in pornography.” You can watch his chilling confession here.
Internet pornography’s connatural danger to the future of mankind, potential to induce violent thoughts, and undeniable moral ramifications, coupled with the well-established link between the pornography industry and sex trafficking, should certainly be enough to provide stable grounds for the banning of all internet pornography…right? Well, no, not necessarily. While legally prohibiting the publication of pornographic material on the internet certainly seems like a logical solution to the crises that occur as side effects of its popularity, there exists a strong possibility that banning pornography from the internet would not only be ineffectual in preventing addicts from accessing it but would also exacerbate many of the already-existing problems that the industry induces.
To begin, making pornography illegal would not make it disappear. Need evidence? Remember a little thing called Prohibition? The number of visits pornhub.com receives daily is greater than the total population of the United States when Prohibition was enacted. For the sake of furthering the argument, let’s say that the government somehow found a way to guarantee that pornography cannot be streamed from the surface web (which is unlikely, as is evidenced by the existence and prominence of illegal television streaming sites). Pornography addicts would simply be forced to retract to the deep web, the headquarters for illegal activity on the internet, which the government is currently struggling to regulate due to its sheer size and the fact that those who frequent deep web markets often use software that allows them to remain anonymous. Internet pornography is already so incredibly institutionalized and popular and addiction is so widespread that even if it was completely prohibited from the commonly accessible internet, people would still find a way to bypass legal restrictions and acquire it. The banning of internet pornography would spur Prohibition 2.0: those who would wish to obtain it could simply retreat underground, where they would find that it is easily accessible.
The primary problem with making pornography obtainable only through illegal sources is that it would become much more difficult to regulate. Pornography right now is a business – a booming business, actually. The industry as a whole generates an estimated $97 billion annually, according to Kassia Wosick, assistant professor of sociology at New Mexico State University, and pornography accounts for about 25% of all search engine requests, with pornhub.com reporting a shocking 42 billion visits during 2019. The industry is currently dominated by “pornstars” and large-scale pornography distribution companies whose relatively publicized, surface-level proceedings make it very easy to guarantee that performers are treated humanely and within the boundaries of the law. However, if internet pornography is banned, each pornography distribution company and every pornstar’s prospects for (legal) success will dissolve, along with the government’s ability to regulate its production. Because of this, the majority of the pornography available to internet users, especially on the dark web, will be constituted by the work of people who desire to publicize self-made pornographic videos without substantial monetary compensation…or, more realistically, rape videos. Pornography viewers will have no way of knowing whether they are watching intercourse between two consenting parties or the rape of a kidnapped teen. The current success of internet porn is the very reason I am able to advise so confidently against dismantling it: all likelihood suggests that the collapse of the internet pornography industry would give rise to a massive stimulation of the sex-trafficking industry and that many of the problems that the anti-pornography movement seeks to ameliorate would only worsen as a result.
Now, though I do write in defense of pornography’s legal status, I am not so arrogant as to deny or belittle the gravity of its moral, social, physical, and mental implications, and I maintain that strict regulation of the production of pornographic videos is an absolute necessity for the safety of those involved in adult entertainment. However, not just as a participating citizen of the United States, but as a human being, I feel compelled to take a stand against the radical suppression of all internet pornography. To fight the negative psychological effects of porn viewership, we must promote awareness and sexual education. To fight child pornography, we must employ individuals who will work hard to prevent its production and distribution. To fight sex trafficking, we must address the issue head-on and work to disband the business itself. High-speed internet pornography produces a host of problems, no doubt…but banning it is not the answer.