This is a response to today's article by Marnia Robinson on the Good Men Project magazine, entitled, Boys and Porn: It Ain't Your Father's 'Playboy'. Before you read this, you really should click over and read Ms. Robinson's take. But just to sum up, Ms. Robinson’s argument basically is this: Today’s pornography is more extreme than what existed a generation ago, and that’s bad for our adolescent males, because it could lead to decreased sensitivity to erotic stimuli and other forms of sexual dysfunction.
Broadly, my responses to Ms. Robinson’s article fall into three categories.
1. Is Internet porn so bad? Certainly Ms. Robinson is correct that more extreme forms of pornography are more easily available than ever before. But are we so sure that’s a bad thing? In fact, perhaps it’s kind of awesome. All over the wired world, young men and women are entering a culture where easily available imagery depicts every kind of sexual fetish imaginable. Some of it is hilarious, some of it is a little alarming, some of it is just plain strange. And dangerous—certainly, autoerotic asphyxiation qualifies as that. But before we demonize all this variety, can we also acknowledge there are advantages to it as well? Our easier-than-ever ability to access all kinds of crazy pornography also removes much of the loneliness and stigma of strangeness. Teenagers troubled by an erotic response to whatever are now able to hop online, type a few keywords into Google and discover a community out there of like-minded people, which they can then explore in a healthy, stigma-free fashion. So yes, this easy access to pornographic variety can be dangerous in extreme cases—but it can also help kids develop their sexualities in ways that are more healthy than before.
2. Does Internet porn really burn you out? Ms. Robinson attempts to use science to establish that pornography is able to “burn out” our responses to other erotic stimuli. But the scientific evidence she uses is so sketchy even she acknowledges the problems with it: “[S]cience is lagging behind in reliable research,” she writes, then says: “anecdotal evidence of Internet porn’s risks is increasing.” In my experience, yes, an element of novelty is required to trigger an erotic response. But this novelty-reward cycle exists in many other areas of our lives. Design, for example. The novelty in the stark modernism of a Mies van der Rohe-designed building like Toronto’s TD Centre or New York's Seagram Building, can trigger in me a response of sublime admiration. But that doesn’t lead me on an addictive quest for ever more extreme examples of stark modernism. In fact, it may even direct my quest for novelty in the opposite direction—toward the far more ornate Louis XIV-era Palace of Versailles, perhaps. In the same way, the novelty that triggers an erotic response from some really hardcore S-and-M might later lead someone toward the comparatively more vanilla eroticism of, say, strawberry eating.
3. History proves Ms. Robinson wrong—Broadly, Ms. Robinson’s reasoning follows the template of an argument that history has proven erroneous, generation after generation. Basically, the outlines of her argument are this: Yes, we had X, and we turned out fine. But the kind of X that exists now is different, and that difference is really going to mess up our children! Parents for generations have been recalling the stuff they did as kids, and then undergoing some truly gymnastic reasoning, to determine a way their kids’ stuff is really going to fuck them up. (Similar lines of reasoning have been employed when discussing marijuana, or violent videogames.) Often the point of this argument is: LET’S BAN IT! Ms. Robinson manages to be relatively temperate in her response. Kudos to her for that. But come on. Sure, today we have easier access to a wider variety of pornography than ever before. As the headline suggests, today’s Naughty America is not your father’s Playboy. But then again, your father’s Playboy wasn’t his father’s tittilating postcard. When Playboy came along, the ‘60s equivalent of Ms. Robinson were all up in arms about how terrible it was that young men could get erotic magazines at newsstands. And hey, those men turned out all right. And you know what? Our kids today will turn out OK, too.