The world is finally waking up to a problem that has been an open secret for too long: sexual assault in the workplace. While there have been many articles, news segments, and coffee shop conversations about this issue, there appears to be part of the discussion that is only being mentioned by a few. The connection between pornography use and sexual aggression is not something that is being discussed on major news outlets or in print media. Instead, we continue to speak about the plague and some viable solutions, but we keep missing one of the vital roots.

More Widely Available and More Accessible

First, let’s be clear that today’s pornography is nothing like the pornography of the past. Indeed, pornography from the mid-20th century is almost prudish compared to the present-day pornography. Thus, such an argument as “pornography has not harmed anyone before” is misleading. Pornography is currently more widely available and more accessible than ever before than it was in the past. At one point you had to either go to a questionable part of town to see an X-rated movie or stumble upon your father’s pornography magazine. Now, all you need is an internet connection and not even a credit card. The themes with pornography have also become much more bizarre if not downright disturbing. For example, in 2017 the website Pornhub published its yearly review for its site. Coming in at fourth place for the most searched for term was: step-mom followed closely by step-sister. Yes, you read that right. Incest is now an acceptable pornography category. I dare not mention some of the other topics.

How though does this affect a man’s inclination to not take “no” for an answer or for him to believe that women enjoy such encounters? (And yes, men are far more impacted by pornography than women.) The answer lies in classic social learning theory. Psychology has long held that we partly learn what is acceptable by (1) seeing, then (2) doing, and then (3) receiving reinforcement for that doing. There are pornography categories, for example, that glorify marital infidelity to the point where the spouse faces no consequences for his actions and everyone involved is rewarded for taking this “liberating,” step. If a young person watches such videos enough times, eventually he will believe that such actions are acceptable. In the same way, there are videos within pornography that depict male domination and brutality towards women. Now, just as with infidelity, if a young man watches this type of pornography enough, then it logically follows based upon the research that he will begin to fantasize about such actions and then wish to act them out. Sound familiar to what we have heard from the number of courageous women who have come forward to tell their stories?

Filling the Void

Does that make those who watch pornography defective human beings (a common question I hear)? The answer is no. Those who suffer from pornography addiction often are using pornography to fill an emotional void. They consume pornography to help regulate their emotional dysphoria. Pornography promises its viewers that it will provide them with intimacy, calm, and a place where there are no limits. What pornography neglects to tell its viewers is that you will always need more since the brain’s reward circuitry will always desire more.

We have to ask ourselves why so many men are turning to this pseudo-intimacy mechanism. While such a question merits an entire book one answer could be that we have built a culture where intimacy avoidance is acceptable, treating others as objects who are simply ‘in the way’ is perfectly fine, and where dignity is tied up with performance (aka utilitarianism). Such a cocktail leads men to seek out pornography. They believe it helps soothe them when they desire intimacy. They want it to comfort them in the face of everyday failures since they do not receive such comfort from others. The solution resides in our family homes which need a lot less screen time and much more face-to-face time. Then we will seek to truly understand each other and enter into each other’s worlds. The more we disconnect, the more our children will seek connection from other means.

Deepening the #MeToo Conversation

The conversation surrounding the #MeToo Movement needs to continue. But it needs to include a serious conversation on pornography as a cause and catalyst for the sexual aggression we are now coming to realize has been around for too long in our culture. There is no one answer to this issue, but increasing emotional intimacy within our families and learning how to connect with each other is a great place to start. For more information on the effect of pornography in our society, I encourage to check out the work that the group Fight the New Drug is doing. Additionally, I recommend reading such texts as Man Interrupted by Dr. Philip Zimbardo to understand the issues that modern men face in our world and how to we can change things for the better.