Great America

Why Hasn’t Porn Been Canceled?

Recognizing that the woke will never cancel porn (and understanding why they won’t) is vital, if only because it indicates that they are fundamentally unserious in their demands for a “just” society.

Like virtually every American male who has lived in the 21st century, I’ve viewed my share of pornography. My first encounter with it was when my friend and I discovered his older brother’s Playboy collection when we were 7 years old. I’ll always treasure those memories of Vanna White.

As a professor who teaches argumentation, the topic of porn occasionally comes up in my classes, and I am surprised at how eager my undergraduates are to discuss it. When I was in college in the late 1990s, porn was still stigmatized, and very few people who regularly consumed it were willing to admit that in front of a mixed audience of their peers. Many students todayboth men and womenseem to view it as a humorous, innocuous fixture in their daily lives.

In class, when we debate the morality of pornography, or whether it should retain its protections as a form of free speech, or what measures we could reasonably take to restrict access to it, I often have to explain that the current attitudes regarding porn are a historical anomaly. I tell them that as a teenager in the early ’90s, pornography was very hard to procure: it was only available in the form of magazines and video cassettes, which were sold only in sex shops that people under 21 were not allowed to enter. I emphasize that when you did manage to obtain some porn, you tried to keep that a secret because many young men still felt guilty about viewing it.

I fell into that category. On the rare occasion that I encountered pornography, I was eager to look at it, but I always felt that I had committed some wrong in the aftermath. I graduated college in 2000, and by then, the genie was halfway out of the cultural bottle: endless varieties of pornography were readily and freely available to anyone who was willing to click “I am 18 or older” on a computer. But the general norms regarding the consumption of pornography hadn’t yet fully shifted: some stigma remained in the viewing of it. 

I remember around that time encountering extreme pornography that almost no one would have seen in the days before the internet. I remember the psychic shock that I felt from seeing ita visceral reaction that approximates the mental recoil that one experiences upon seeing an act of extreme violence.

Since that time, the genie has fully escaped. Most of the stigma related to viewing porn is considered decidedly antiquated. For older adults, the general attitude seems to be dictated in part by one’s political identity. Many conservatives lament its omnipresence in American life, but they are mostly resigned to it, and it is likely that many enjoy viewing it in private to greater or lesser extents. Whereas the Left used to have a rich conversation on the question of the moral value of pornography, most people on the Left today see porn as morally neutral, and perhaps a good way to heighten the passion of sex when consumed by consenting partners. 

There is much less ambivalence in the positions of most people under 30: they tend to see it simply as a fact of lifemost of them have been viewing it regularly since early adolescence (or before), and some even perceive porn as a moral good for its capacities to provide personal gratification, which is viewed as a kind of sacrament in the modern cult of the self.

Offense at Everything—Except for Porn

Although I should not be surprised by younger people’s enthusiasm for porn, I have to say that I am. This isn’t because I would expect them to have deeper moral commitments. Our culture is decidedly secular, and feeling guilt for the fulfillment of bodily urges is considered something like a sin in the unchurched milieu of 2020. Rather, I am surprised that a group of people who feel deeply offended, triggered, harmed, or oppressed by virtually all components of everyday life, nevertheless maintain a mostly sunny outlook on something that often seems designed to offend.

A few years ago, a gay student submitted a Title IX complaint against me merely for suggesting that the LGBT community does not face discrimination in every corner of the professional world. The complaint suggested that my comment unfairly “validate[d] a heterosexual lifestyle in class.” This nicely summarizes the ever-descending threshold for giving offense among today’s students. 

Despite my suspicions that many of the students’ claims of offense and harm are fundamentally dishonest, I try to take them at their word. Acknowledging that they do feel offended isn’t the same as agreeing that they are right to feel offended. But given the absurd minutiae that they frame as attacks on their very existence, I can’t imagine the paroxysms they experience when viewing pornographypornography that many of them inexplicably admit to viewing on a regular basis.

For starters, modern porn regularly plays into racist stereotypes: there are entire websites dedicated to depicting interracial sex where one race or another is explicitly denigrated on the basis of race. Quite often, such pornography makes use of racial slurs. Yet I’ve never heard of anyone in porn being canceled for running afoul of the strident, uncompromising norms dictated by the “antiracist” commentariat.

Further, consider the fact that so much pornography depicts scenarios that revolve around the absence of consent, or simply men who don’t immediately take “no” for an answer. If we are to take seriously the newly-dictated criteria for what constitutes a “sexual assault” (taking advantage of a power differential, continued attempts to win reluctant acquiescence from a partner, pursuing sex with someone who may be underage or intoxicated, etc.), then a huge proportion of pornographic scenarios can be said to depict sexual assaults.

Stereotypes Everywhere

Of course, this is to say nothing of the fact that so many of the extreme sexual acts in porn are enacted precisely because they depict gender hierarchies and power dynamics that we are told are obsolete and unjust. And don’t forget about the “body positivity movement,” which seeks to combat the ways that mainstream culture endorses supposedly unattainable norms for attractiveness. Strangely, the “campaign for real beauty” never takes aim at the omnipresence of blonde, white, 36-24-36 bodies in pornography.

There’s also the aggressive heteronormativity of so much pornography: the vast majority of porn depicts “guy-on-girl” action, which (obviously) normalizes heterosexuality and marginalizes the LGBT community. When the LGBT community is referenced in heterosexual porn, it is often rife with stereotypes and slurs, in much the same way as race-based pornography.

Viewed as a whole, the porn industry can only be understood as predatory: although anyone (who is moderately attractive) can participate, the industry’s bread-and-butter is people who (from the perspective of the woke) are marginalized, underprivileged, and endangered. Many of those pulled into pornography are poor, or addicted to drugs, or people with criminal convictions who have difficulty finding work. 

Many of those who don’t reflect these demographics are very young, between 18 and 23the same age as those that college offices of diversity and inclusion insist are so vulnerable that they need a separate quasi-judicial system to protect them. If that weren’t enough, porn is the capitalist machine par excellence: the entire enterprise revolves around the buying and selling of bodies and sexual gratification. One would think that this flesh market would be a favorite target of anti-capitalist youth.

But where are the Democratic Socialists of America? Calling for the decriminalization of sex work. Where is Black Lives Matter? The NAACP? The ADL? GLAAD? The #MeToo horde? Dove soap? Antifa? The opponents of “toxic masculinity”? One can only assume that all of the adolescents viewing porn are absorbing some very offensive, harmful, and retrograde attitudes about sex, gender, and inclusivity. What happened to teaching young people to adopt a more enlightened model of consent, acceptance, and sexual equity?

Why Porn Endures

So why hasn’t porn been canceled? Three reasons. The first reason I alluded to above: that the use of pornography is personal gratification. In the modern cult of the self, virtually any self-gratification is viewed as a good because the ability to satisfy one’s own desires demonstrates the radical autonomy that our society worships. But self-gratification of sexual urges is especially sacred, if only because creative sexual activity is the most-valued mode of personal expression in secular life. Therefore, porn affirms our culture of narcissism.

The second reason porn hasn’t been canceled is that the progressive secular Left has much of its self-image wrapped up in opposing any and all of the values of traditional American culture, and elevating any and all things that culture views as base or taboo. Pornography, historically, has been a favorite target of conservatives, religious believers, traditionalists, and moralistsall groups that the Left defines itself against. Given that the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend, it makes perfect sense that pornography has escaped the wrath of the woke.

The final reason porn hasn’t been cancelled can be discovered in the dark calculus of victimology. Radical Islam holds many beliefs and values that are anathema to American progressives, but the Left will never seek its cancelation: they understand Muslims only as a group that is oppressed by Western culture and values. This victimhood makes them unassailable. Nations practicing socialism impose great limitations upon personal expressions of the radical autonomy that leftists in Western democracies hold dear. And yet, socialist nations are celebrated by the Left. This is because they are viewed as victims of the West’s cultural imperialism and international aggression.

Similarly, porn won’t be canceled because “sex workers” are the newest aggrieved class in the eyes of the woke. Porn is full of “sex workers”and there is ample evidence that they are, in fact, victims. Conservatives understand them as victims of an industry that systematically undermines human dignity, and as victims of the people in that industry who deliberately target those in vulnerable positions. 

But the woke view sex workers as virtuous, in part because they face a purportedly “unfair” stigma from traditional culture, but also because they make use of their bodily autonomy to please others (a gesture that is celebrated as a form of “civil disobedience” when it violates unjust laws that restrict such commercial endeavors).

Undoubtedly, there are still people on the Left who oppose porn. But they are an increasingly tiny minority, drowned out by ravings of their fellow travelers who demand a total and complete “liberation” from history and traditional morality. There is little hope of convincing the loudest agitators for social justice that pornography is a major perpetuator of values and attitudes that enable the very forms of oppression that they claim to oppose. But recognizing that the woke will never cancel porn (and understanding why they won’t) is important, if only because it indicates that they are fundamentally unserious in their demands for a “just” society. 

In confronting the aggression of the Left, we can’t be fooled by their performance of a righteous indignation. That indignation is very selective, and there is nothing righteous about ita fact on plain display when one comes to realize that they don’t really believe what they claim to believe: about porn, justice, and a great many other things.