Revisiting The Witherspoon Institute Social Costs of Pornography Conference
In 1995 the Internet began its debut into the average American home. Looking back, it was revolutionary, but most of us didn’t understand the impact it would have on our lives – both terrific and terrible. Time passed. By 2008 the Internet had been widely accepted in homes for more than a decade and the disturbing impact of Internet pornography had become recognizable.
In response to growing reports of harm, Robert P. George, Professor at Princeton University and “one of the nation’s most respected legal theorists”, hosted an important consultation at Princeton in December 2008. The Witherspoon Institute sponsored the event and gathered 22 leading scholars to examine the hidden but real social impact of Internet pornography. The group included representatives from psychiatry, psychology, neurophysiology, philosophy, sociology, law, and political theory. They presented a dozen papers, identified concerns to society, and recommended specific actions to address these problems.
Joseph Price, PhD was an invited scholar. Looking back now, he says “One of the really impressive things about the conference was the wide range of disciplines that the participants came from. For those of us working in one particular area, being able to observe perspectives from other fields on the same issue was really valuable.”
Dr. Jill C. Manning was a speaker and contributed a chapter to the book. Considering the value of the conference now, she feels it created “a rich and well-rounded study of a subject that is too often seen exclusively through the lens of individual freedom. In my opinion, the Witherspoon conference, as well as the publications which were released shortly afterward, created a new and highly credible benchmark for debate on this subject.”
8 Findings that Warn About the Harmful Impact of Pornography on Society
These experts had seen in their study and practice the real, widespread effects of Internet pornography in people’s lives. What did this group conclude? The eight major findings were:
- Unlike at any other time in history, pornography is now available and consumed widely in our society, due in large part to the internet. No one remains untouched by it.
- There is abundant empirical evidence that this pornography is qualitatively different from any that has gone before, in several ways: its ubiquity, the use of increasingly realistic streaming images, and the increasingly “hard-core” character of what is consumed.
- Today’s consumption of internet pornography can harm women in particular.
- Today’s consumption of internet pornography can harm children in particular.
- Today’s consumption of internet pornography can harm people not immediately connected to consumers of pornography.
- Today’s consumption of internet pornography can harm its consumers.
- Pornography consumption is philosophically and morally problematic.
- The fact that not everyone is harmed by pornography does not entail that pornography should not be regulated.
These statements are in direct contrast to what many people in our society have been led to believe. The sex industry and its supporters work hard to keep these areas of concern masked in a fog of misinformed and self-centered rhetoric about first amendment rights and the harmlessness of “adult” entertainment.
Read commentary supporting these findings in The Social Costs of Pornography: A Statement of Findings and Recommendations.
Are These Concerns About the Impact of Pornography Still Valid Today?
More evidence supporting each of these concerns has accumulated in recent years. They continue to be key points for evaluating the consequences of consuming pornography. There are even more signs today about harm such as
- effects on the sexual functioning of men
- links with sex trafficking and other social problems
- evidence of brain changes
- the devastating results of sexting, revenge porn, and public display of stolen personal photos
- the disturbing increase of child-on-child sexual abuse as more children are exposed to pornography.
A growing body of research and personal reports is confirming these concerns. We would be wise to carefully consider the trajectory of these benchmarks.
What We Can Do About the Harm Caused by Pornography
I appreciate that the group did not just identify the problems but also made specific recommendations for action. The consultation called on specific sectors in society to make a difference in their circle of influence. The forum recommended particular actions for therapists; educators; corporations; celebrities; government; and journalists, editors, and bloggers. Anyone in these specialties will find some good direction in A Statement of Findings and Recommendations (p. 47-51).
Everyone can learn the truth about the destructive impact of pornography and spread the word through their own platform to help change public opinion. On a personal level, understanding the issue also allows us to provide real help to friends and family who caught in the destructive grip of pornography. There are many sources for information and solutions.
Are We Taking Action on the Warnings from The Social Costs of Pornography Conference?
As we look over the past few years, it’s wise to ask if we have been solving the problems identified in 2008. Is there is more we can do now?
On the amazing side, resources to oppose, prevent, and heal regarding pornography have exploded since 2008. More therapists are qualified to offer pornography and sexual addiction counseling. There has been an exciting and dramatic rise of new groups such as Fight the New Drug, The Togetherness Project, and S.A. Lifeline. Documentaries such as The Heart of the Matter tell the stories behind the statistics. A great book to help parents teach young children was published. PornHarms has had significant success holding corporations accountable and held an ground-breaking national conference for leaders in the movement.
At the same time, it is clear from media and personal stories that pornography and sexualized media are having a broad and profound impact on people’s lives and our culture. The message that pornography is harmful and a public health issue is just beginning to get traction.
There is still so much to do to accomplish the recommendations in these areas:
- Gathering and sharing evidence at the highest levels of public opinion and governance
- Teaching young people about the harm of pornography
- Conducting investigative journalism on the effects of pornography consumption and production
- Establishing zero tolerance workplace policies, and offering counseling for employees with pornography problems
- Celebrities speaking up in public service campaigns
- Creating clean Internet service provider options
- Enforcing existing obscenity laws
Have we have paid sufficient attention to these concerns? The destructive impact is hitting our society like a tsunami. At some future day we may look back on these warnings and wonder why we did not gather all our resources and energy to solve these problems while we could.
Interested in reading the results from the Witherspoon consultation? Read this review of The Social Costs of Pornography.