Internet porn and children: body and soul

Your opinion of how pornography can harm children will depend on what you think children are.
Karl D. Stephan | 2 May 2014
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innocenceGigi-dreams / flickr

 

David Cameron, the United Kingdom's Prime Minister, not only thinks porn is bad for children—he's done something about it. After calling in a speech last year for a change in online access to adult sites in the UK from "opt-out" to "opt-in", most internet providers were persuaded by Cameron's government to make porn-blocking filters the default option for their customers. After the change, if an account holder wants to view such sites he or she must actively set the account option to do so. In promoting this initiative, Cameron's goal was, as he put it, "protecting innocence, protecting childhood itself." But what I want to ask is, exactly what is the harm that this initiative protects against?

Your opinion of how pornography can harm children will depend on what you think children are. 

If you believe children are simply economic units that consume for their early years, and then become units of productivity for their adult years, then you will naturally look to scientific surveys of objective measures of harm such as increases in teen pregnancies, evidence of social pathologies such as sex crimes, and so on. This is the view that New York Times business writer David Segal took when he wrote a riff on Cameron's action called "Does Porn Hurt Children?" After interviewing experts who did meta-studies of more than 200 social-science papers examining the question, he concluded that if there is any harm, it's hard to identify. There were slight statistical increases in some measures, but nothing that could be called a smoking gun. The only time he mentioned ethics in the article was when he decried the fact that the ideal scientific study of the effects of porn on children could not be done for ethical reasons. It would be unethical, he said, to find a sample of children who had never seen porn, and then give them a strong dose of it over a period of months and measure its effects as compared with a control group whose innocence was preserved.

But what if you believe children are immortal souls whose eternal destiny may be affected by things they see? And what if you believe the words of Jesus, who, after calling a child to him, and telling his disciples that they must become as little children to enter his kingdom, said ". . . whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea"? In other words, it's better to die a quick and certain death than to run a porn website that children can view. 

We seem to have a difference of opinion here. On the one hand is a materialist view that looks to scientific studies as the ultimate authority on whether porn harms children in objective, measureable ways. On the other hand is a view that there is something special about children, an attitude or state of mind that we generally call "innocence", and that doing anything to damage that innocence is a worse thing than death by drowning.

Sociologists and psychologists don't have much to say about innocence, and even less to say about the soul. William James, brother of the novelist Henry James and one of the founders of modern scientific psychology, famously dispensed with the soul, saying that if there was such a thing, it was incapable of being detected or measured scientifically. For a picture of innocence, one could turn instead to the Christian eighteenth-century poet William Blake, whose Songs of Innocence contrast with his Songs of Experience. Blake is a puzzle for modern readers, because he combines what for his time was a shocking frankness about sexuality (many of his hand-illustrated poems depict nude figures) and a total lack of what might be called pornographic intent, that is hard to comprehend today. 

As one of the leading spokesmen of the Romantic movement, Blake opposed the Industrial Revolution and the new scientific, rational mode of thought that was sweeping the intellectual world around 1800. After two centuries of its dominance, we have a lot of trouble trying to think in any other way. But even Segal encountered hints that there is another way of viewing children besides the scientific one. Many scientists he talked with prefaced their remarks with comments like, "Don't portray me as endorsing pornography" or "I don't want my kids watching this stuff." And he described an interesting event in which a group of teenagers were divided into two panels. One panel was to argue in favor of the idea that pornography affected them, and the other was to argue that it didn't. The pro-impact panel waxed eloquent about how pornography negatively affected their views of what sex should be like, and tempted them to go out and try some of the pornographic acts they'd seen. By contrast, the no-impact group ran out of things to say after two minutes. 

It has been argued that the widespread availability of internet porn has damaged or destroyed what should be one of the strongest bonds between a married couple: the channeling of a man's sexual desire into fulfilment exclusively by his wife, and vice-versa. True, this is an ideal, not always realized for long, if at all, in some marriages. But the fact that an ideal is not always realized does not make it any less of an ideal. And the competition women feel between their own appearance and the fictional airbrushed images online may explain why so many young women obsess about their looks and are generally unhappy with them, no matter how attractive they are.

So I applaud Cameron's move toward restricting internet porn access in the UK, and wish we could do something similar here, though our federal system and fragmented regulatory structure makes such a move much more difficult in the U. S. But for sure, nothing much will happen about protecting children from internet porn if the only authorities we listen to are scientific ones. 

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics.

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