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Is Porn Harmful?

I recently got into a discussion with a Catholic friend of mine about the morality of porn.  He thinks that masturbating to porn is immoral because it goes against God’s natural law, while I don’t think there is anything immoral about it.  He thinks it is very harmful to society, while I don’t think there is anything necessarily harmful about porn.

After our discussion, my friend sent me a bunch of articles which attempt to show how evil pornography is.  These articles made a lot of bad arguments, far too many to explore in this post, but I’d like to lay out some of the problems I see with two of them.  In Pornography’s Effects on Interpersonal Relationships, Ana J. Bridges argues that pornography has a very harmful effect on marriages and romantic relationships.  In Industry Size, Measurement, and Social Costs, K. Doran argues that there is no good statistical evidence that consuming porn has positive or negative effects, but says that there are still good reasons to limit its distribution.

On page 3, Bridges comments that porn typically provides a flawed script for real life relationships.  I agree.  Porn emphasizes “culturally accepted beauty standards”, typically focuses on male rather than female pleasure, and often focuses too much on penetration.  But I would argue that mainstream movies are also a terrible guide to real life relationships.  They also emphasize “culturally accepted beauty standards”, make it seem like couples always end up living happily ever after, treat women as if they need validation from men, and make it seem like all men and women are supposed to conform to certain behaviors within relationships rather than being themselves.  I think that both should be improved, but I support banning neither porn nor mainstream movies.

I also think the author draws a ridiculously unsubstantiated conclusion in the section titled “Pornography increases negative attitudes to women”.  She bases this conclusion on a study that showed a very slight correlation between viewing degrading porn and a less positive view of women.  But correlation is not causation.  If porn use had no affect whatsoever on views of women, I would still expect that those who had a negative view of women and wanted to dominate them would prefer porn that showed women being dominated.  Without the seemingly unjustifiable assumption that attitudes towards women have no effect on taste in porn, we can draw absolutely nothing from the slight correlation shown here.

Yet the very next section “Pornography decreases empathy for victims of sexual violence” is even worse.  In an attempt to support the claim that porn decreases empathy for victims of sexual violence, the author cites a study showing that people who were shown R-rated slasher films were significantly less empathetic to rape victims then those shown X-rated porn or R-rated teen sex films.  They found no difference between those who viewed the porn and those who viewed the R-rated teen sex films.  The author misleadingly refers to the slasher films as “graphically violent sexual films”.  In reality, the authors of this study said that at most, the slasher films contained “mildly erotic scenes”.  This study did not show that viewing porn was worse than viewing any other film, and showed that mainstream slasher movies were far worse.

Bridges also talks about the negative effects of porn within romantic relationships, but the examples she gives are primarily problems with how porn is perceived rather than problems with porn itself.  She says that while porn can be used together by couples to enhance their sex life, it is often used in secret without the knowledge of one’s partner.  Since openness and honesty are important to a successful relationship, this is not good.  But this doesn’t mean that porn is bad, just that if a person does use it, he/she should not hide that from his/her spouse.  Another piece of evidence given is that porn can be addictive and can cause people to spend more time alone rather than with their spouse.  However, this is true of many entertaining diversions, such as video games.  Some people spend several hours a day playing video games instead of spending that time with their spouses, but this doesn’t mean we should get rid of video games, just that we should encourage people to use them in healthy amounts.  We should do the same with porn.  Finally, Bridges mentions that women are reluctant to enter into a relationship with porn users.  But this is a problem caused not by porn itself, or by its users, but by people like her who encourage people to have a negative view of it.

Bridges further argues that porn is bad because it leads to decreased sexual satisfaction.  To support this, she cites a study which found that happily married people viewed less porn.  But instead of porn making people less happy, it seems far more likely that the causal arrow points in the other direction.  People who are feeling sexually unsatisfied in their relationship almost certainly have less sex and therefore will need to get a greater percentage of their orgasms from looking at porn.  Bridges also provides evidence that looking at porn leads to people viewing their partner as less attractive.  This seems plausible.  Just as watching Hollywood movies where even ugly women are played by beautiful actresses could lead one to have unrealistic standards of beauty, so could watching porn movies where everyone is beautiful and has unnaturally large breasts.

Finally, Bridges brings up a New York study that she says showed that porn use “nearly doubled the odds that a woman reported being sexually assaulted by her partner.”  I have some concerns over their choice of control group, but setting that aside, this study still does nothing to establish that pornography caused the abuse.  Violent sexual criminals may be more obsessed with sexual content more than the average person, but this doesn’t mean that viewing pornographic content causes someone to become a violent sexual criminal.  Killers generally tend to like guns, but guns don’t make people killers.

Given her frequent abuse of statistics to further her case, it seems far more likely that she started with her conclusion and then tried to find evidence to support it, rather than following the evidence where it led.

I thought Doran’s piece was much better.  Unlike Bridges, Doran does not recklessly leap from correlation to causation.  Doran instead critiques the methodology of other studies and concludes that “there is no convincing statistical evidence that consumption of pornography does or does not affect behavior.”  And while it may initially seem contrary to my position, I even agree with Doran’s statement that “some people do appear to have a strong incentive to prevent themselves from consuming pornography, and to pay more for this prevention than for the pornography itself. This suggests that there may be large personal costs of consumption associated with pornography, and opens up the possibility that it may be optimal for the state to use regulation to limit the distribution and consumption of pornography.”

The government should impose some regulations.  I do not think that hardcore pornography should be plastered on buildings so that young children can’t even go outside without seeing anal penetration.  I think the government’s role in regulating porn should be a lot like the government’s role in regulating food.  The government makes sure the people producing the food have safe working conditions.  The government restricts what foods are available to children (for example, banning soda in school vending machines).  But the government does not restrict what foods people are able to enjoy in the privacy of their own homes.  Like with porn, there are some people who eat a lot, but who want to eat less.  Some of them spend more on weight loss plans than they do on the food itself.  But this does not mean we should ban food, or even ban people from eating fattening foods.

Just because someone wants to view less porn does not mean that he/she should.  In many cases, people are taught by their religion that all porn use is sin and so see their perfectly normal level of porn use as a problem.  Similarly, many people who are perfectly healthy and have an about average weight are taught by societal norms that the only good body is supermodel skinny.  These people may desperately want to reduce their weight, turning to weight loss fads or even bulimia, but this doesn’t mean that they should become skinnier.  If society had healthier attitudes towards porn and weight, then maybe there would be less money spent trying to fix what was never broken.

Neither of these articles provides good evidence that porn is necessarily harmful.  Unless such harm can be demonstrated, I don’t think there is any justification for the government limiting what people can view in the privacy of their own homes.

Why Most Catholics are Heretics

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Based on the Catholics I’ve talked to, it seems like most Catholics are heretics and don’t even realize it. Many Catholics are firm believers in God, but do not think that God’s existence can be proven with certainty. They merely have ‘faith’ that God exists. However, based on some of the statements which the Catholic Church identifies as infallible, such people are heretics.

According to the Catholic Catechism, “Our holy mother, the Church, holds and teaches that God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason.” This was declared infallibly by both the first and second Vatican Councils. While the Catholic Church does not claim that one single argument proves all of God’s attributes, it does claim that proofs for the existence of God allow people to use reason to attain certainty that God exists (Catholic Catechism).

According to the First Vatican Council, anyone who says that God cannot be known with certainty from the natural world is considered anathema. The word ‘anathema’ is often misunderstood, so I turn to a quote from Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin’s article which clears up a lot of Protestant misconceptions about anathema and explains what it really is:

Catholic scholars have long recognized that when an ecumenical council applies this phrase to a doctrinal matter, then the matter is settled infallibly. (If a council applied the phrase to a disciplinary matter, then the matter would not be settled infallibly, since only matters of doctrine, not discipline, are subject to doctrinal definition.)

Thus, when Trent and other ecumenical councils employed anathema sit in regard to doctrinal matters, not only was a judicial penalty prescribed but a doctrinal definition was also made. Today, the judicial penalty may be gone, but the doctrinal definition remains. Everything that was infallibly decided by these councils is still infallibly settled.

This has consequences under current canon law. Those things that are both divinely revealed by God and proposed as such by the Church cannot be obdurately denied or doubted without the offense of heresy (CIC [1983] 751). Heresy does carry a penalty of automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication (can. 1041, 2ยบ), though this does not apply to those who have never been members of the Catholic Church (can. 11), and even then there is a significant list of exceptions (can. 1323).

So someone who denies that the existence of God can be known with certainty is considered a heretic and is automatically excommunicated (excommunication applies only to mentally capable adults who knowingly and without coercion deny that God’s existence can be known with certainty). Someone cannot deny the teaching that God’s existence can be proved with certainty from the natural world without being automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

This poses a problem for many Catholics who merely have faith in God but do not think that the natural world definitively proves that God exists. This also poses a problem for Catholics who have seriously studied the arguments for and against God’s existence and who conclude that while the evidence leans towards God’s existence, it is not enough to establish his existence with certainty.

According to the Catechism, some people may not believe that the existence of God can be known with certainty due to not being willing to surrender oneself or due to “disordered appetites” that lead men to believe what they want to believe rather than what is true. However, this is not a good answer for those people who really want Catholicism to be true and are willing to humbly submit themselves.

If someone has studied all the arguments people have given for the existence of God and thinks they provide evidence for God’s existence but fall short of establishing it with certainty, is there any way to avoid being seen as a heretic who is automatically excommunicated? One escape route I can find is to say that it only says that God ‘can’ be known with certainty, not that he ‘is’ known. Perhaps it is true that God can be proved with certainty, it’s just that no one has figured out how to do it yet after thousands of years. Perhaps it is also true that pigs can fly, it’s just that no pig has yet decided to fly in the presence of humans. There is also the problem that this interpretation appears inconsistent with the Bible, which says that “since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

I guess another response would be to say that even if something is declared infallible, that declaration might not itself be infallible, and even if the declaration was declared infallible, the declaration that the declaration was infallible might not itself be infallible. I think this is true, but if someone rejects even the most firmly established Catholic doctrines, then the label ‘Catholic’ loses all meaning. Someone could believe absolutely anything (the pope is the anti-Christ, Jesus never existed, Oprah Winfrey is God) and consider themselves a Catholic. So this Catholic doctrine seems to be a serious problem for those who do not think that the existence of God can be proved with certainty.

It is also a problem for convincing an atheist that Catholicism is true. You would not only have to convince him or her that God probably exists, but that God’s existence can be established with certainty based on the evidence from the natural world. This would require a great deal more evidence than merely establishing that the likelihood of God existing is more than 50%.

I believe that this is a doctrine that more Catholics should be aware of (and if you agree, pass the word along to your Catholic friends). I know that if I was a Catholic who didn’t think that God could be proven with certainty and I heard about this doctrine, I would really want to investigate and find out how God can be proven. If my religion taught that the creator of all space and time had profoundly demonstrated his existence through the natural world, I wouldn’t just say “Whatever, I don’t really care”, I’d be taking advantage of the opportunity to witness God’s power and goodness through his creation, to connect the everyday world with the divine creator. If I found the proof I sought (proof that could withstand even the best atheist arguments), I would come away with greater admiration and respect for God’s majesty and would feel a deep sense of peace. And if I searched and searched and did not find any proof that God exists, I may realize that the religion I thought was true may not be true after all.