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As technology advances, new innovations are periodically introduced. Sometimes these innovations are so obviously beneficial (think the smallpox vaccine) that there is very little objection to them. On other occasions, the innovation might encounter significant resistance. A group of people may assemble who feel that this new innovation is harmful, or potentially harmful. And, if the influence of this group is large enough, this resistance might get classified as a moral panic.

Past examples of this include birth control pills, television and even heavy metal music. (You may not think that technology had anything to do with panic over music, but I think you’ll find it had more to do with it than most people think.) And of course there are plenty of panics happening right now, as just one example many people are intensely concerned about the potential negative effects of social media.

Reading this introduction one might almost assume that I’m preparing to dismiss the current panics by pointing out that past panics didn’t amount to anything and thus current panics probably won’t either. And certainly there is something to that, but I think if you look deeper at past panics, and current panics, you’ll find that the people who panic aren’t so misguided after all. What do I mean by this? Well, I would argue that many, if not most, of the things people feared did come to pass, it just took a lot longer than they predicted, their very worst fears did turn out to be unfounded, and, most importantly, by the time they did come to pass, very few people cared anymore.  

To use an analogy, you might say that the kick was accurate, but that the goalposts were moved. And true, a miss is a miss, but most people end up, incorrectly, blaming the kicker without mentioning that the goal posts were moved. Which is to say that people assume all of these panics were misguided. That over and over the forces of reactionary intolerance are always being proved wrong. And that anyone who worries about something like, social media increasing teen suicide risk, is just a neo-luddite puritan who blindly opposes all progress. Rather than someone who will turn out to be, on the whole, correct, just not quite as dramatically as they would have hoped and long after anyone cares enough to do something about it

At this point examples would probably be beneficial. Of course the problem is that, as I said, while I believe a lot of the predictions have come to pass, they rarely come to pass in a dramatic, undeniable fashion. Also, as I mentioned, to the extent that they have come to pass, people may no longer view it as a bad thing, and in some cases, people will even think it’s a good thing. For all of these reasons, I confidently predict that people are going to quibble with the examples I provide, which is fine. But I think if you start by setting aside your modern prejudices and really try to get into the head of historical people and their moral panics. You’ll realize that most of them, upon seeing the world of today, would not only feel entirely vindicated, but probably, that they had not panicked enough.

To start with, let’s look at one of the items I mentioned above: birth control pills. At the time of this panic, people confidently predicted that widespread availability of birth control pills would lead to more extra marital sex. Is there any doubt that this is exactly what happened? Now you can argue that it was not as bad as they thought, or that it’s actually a good thing, or that this came to pass, but some of the other things didn’t, but this is exactly the goalpost moving I was talking about.

There have been countless government programs passed on the idea that, whatever the costs associated, they would not end up being excessive. And since at least the days of Ross Perot, people have predicted that the costs would end up being much greater than the politicians said, that the debt would just keep growing, with an associated panic about what happens if it gets too big. Now we can argue (as we have in this space) about how harmful the deficit/debt is, but is there any doubt that it is WAY bigger than any politician could have imagined even a few decades ago? As one example of this process, Social Security was never envisioned to be a pay as you go system. From an article in the Washington Post titled, Would Roosevelt recognize today’s Social Security?

When Roosevelt proposed Social Security in 1935, he envisioned a contributory pension plan. Workers’ payroll taxes (“contributions”) would be saved and used to pay their retirement benefits. Initially, before workers had time to pay into the system, there would be temporary subsidies. But Roosevelt rejected Social Security as a “pay-as-you-go” system that channeled the taxes of today’s workers to pay today’s retirees. That, he believed, would saddle future generations with huge debts — or higher taxes — as the number of retirees expanded.

Discovering that the original draft wasn’t a contributory pension, Roosevelt ordered it rewritten and complained to Frances Perkins, his labor secretary: “This is the same old dole under another name. It is almost dishonest to build up an accumulated deficit for the Congress . . . to meet.”

A great example of a prediction which came to pass, but by the time it did the goal posts had been moved.

We’ve covered examples of morality and bureaucracy. This next example combines them. People have long argued that you “get what you pay for”. Leading many people, stretching all the way back to the New Deal, to predict that welfare might act as an incentive for various behaviors we don’t want to encourage: joblessness, a decline in marriage, etc. and disincentivize things like being resourceful and personal ambition. I understand there’s an argument to be had about how much welfare contributes to the current levels of all of those things, or if welfare and these trends act entirely independently. But imagine showing someone who opposed the War on Poverty the current figures on the number of poor, welfare spending and the increase in single mothers. Can you imagine this person experiencing any emotion other than vindication?  Particularly when you consider our society’s relative affluence.

I could go on, but at this point you’re either nodding your head in agreement, or you’ve already dismissed me as a hopeless reactionary, attempting to disingenuously fight battles which were already long ago decided against me.

For those of you nodding along, (and those who are inexplicably still reading despite dismissing me) all of this is leading to a discussion of a current panic, one which is being dismissed in the same fashion as all the previous panics.  But one where I think, eventually, the predictions of harm being made will once again, turn out to be true.

The battle in question is over pornography, and I was inspired to revisit this issue by a recent article in Slate, Why Are We Still So Worried About Wat­­ching Porn? subtitled: “Decades of fearmongering almost got porn addiction added to the International Classification of Diseases. Thankfully, the World Health Organization got it right.”

To begin with I should point out that they’re not dismissing all worry. But they seem to think that harcore porn videos should engender about as much worry as watching TV.

Even if sex-film viewing has been grossly exaggerated as a national problem, might it still be a problem for some people? Of course, just as there are excellent interventions to help reduce television viewing without invoking mental illness labels, you might want to reduce your sex-film viewing in favor of other activities you value more.

I read that as, sure it might be nice if people didn’t watch five hours of porn every day in the same way that it might be nice if people didn’t watch five hours of TV every day, but there’s nothing which makes pornography worse than binging Stranger Things. I would disagree.

As you can tell from the subtitle the article was prompted by a recent decision by the WHO to not add porn addiction to the list of official diseases. Right off the bat the article talks about, “…the shock when journalists learn that ‘pornography addiction’ is actually not recognized by any national or international diagnostic manual.” My immediate question is why are they shocked? Surely no journalist would be shocked to be told that there’s no entry in the DSM for being addicted to broccoli, and they probably wouldn’t be shocked to find out there’s no entry for TV addiction, and yet according to the authors of the article it would be basically the same thing, and yet one is obviously shocking and the other isn’t.

I would argue that they’re shocked because they know people who consider themselves addicted to pornography, and have heard stories about behavior that certainly seems like addiction. That they are shocked because it does not match what they’re seeing with their own two eyes and hearing with their own two ears. This is why it makes sense that they’re shocked, and in fact within the article they mention that a non-trivial percent of people consider themselves addicted.

Amazingly, the first nationally representative peer-reviewed study on sex-film viewing was only just published in 2017 in Australia. This study found that 84 percent of men and 54 percent of women had ever viewed sexual material. Overall, 3.69 percent of men (144 of 3,923) and 0.65 percent of women (28 of 4,218) in the study believed that they were “addicted” to pornography, and only half of this group reported that using pornography had any negative impact on their lives.

Several things jump out from this quote. First, 3.69% is not 0%, and certainly as a percentage of males it has to be higher than some of the other things which did make it into something like the WHO disease guidelines or the DSM. On top of that I think the numbers from the study are low. You’re saying, in this day and age, that 16% of men and nearly half of all women have never viewed sexual material? That doesn’t pass the smell test. And other numbers disagree with the Australian study. This survey (admitted conducted by a Christian group) claims that 13% of men admit to being addicted to porn, with another 5% are unsure (they did interview both religious and non-religious individuals). Add those numbers together and you’re in the ballpark with the number of men who smoke (16.7%).

Finally and most interestingly, they mention that this is the “first nationally representative peer-reviewed study on sex-film viewing” and that it was only published in 2017. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the replication crisis, and the other problems with social science studies of exactly this kind, but I’m loath to take a single study and carve it into stone, as they appear to be doing. Also the self-reported aspect of this study raises a lot of red flags as well. We have one self-reported study with a male addiction rate of between 13-18% and one with a male addiction rate of 3.69%. Yes, you can certainly point out the bias of the first, but how sure are you that the second is bias free? Also, how likely is someone to self-report that they’re addicted to porn and that it’s having a negative impact? It would make sense for all the bias to be towards under-reporting on those questions.

Why would this be? Because people are ashamed of course. Why are they ashamed? Well according to the article:

Speaking to the heart of the issue, one of the biggest problems for some porn users is shame. Shame about viewing sex films is heaped on the public by the sex-addiction treatment industry (for profit), by the media (for clickbait), and by religious groups (to regulate sexuality). Unfortunately, whether you believe porn viewing is appropriate or not, stigmatizing sex-film viewing may be contributing to the problem. In fact, an increasing number of studies show that many people who identify as “porn addicted” do not actually view sex films more than other people. They simply feel more shame about their behaviors, which is associated with growing up in a religious or sexually restrictive society. Further, labeling behaviors as a mental disorder is often stigmatizing and harmful in itself, so it should only be done when strongly warranted by evidence. If we really wanted to help such people, one of the most direct ways to do it would be to normalize and validate their sexual desires, including their interest in sex films.

They appear to be suggesting that shame would be nearly non-existent without unscrupulous external organizations. Who create shame for their own selfish reasons. From this they go on to say that the elimination of shame is the best way to deal with the issue, or as they say it, we should, “normalize and validate their sexual desires, including their interest in sex films.” But if this is really what we should be doing, why is shame so deeply embedded on this issue? Even if we believe the authors and grant that there are bad actors out there using shame for their own ends (The vast sex-addiction treatment/religious-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about!) why is shame so easy to invoke? Is it all cultural? A left over from the Victorian era, which, somehow, 50 years into the sexual revolution we still haven’t gotten rid of? Or is it more deeply embedded? Perhaps genetic? And if so, could it be that it’s been built in for a reason?

I would argue that it is genetic or common to all humans through some other mechanism. (For example, how many societies can you name where individuals have sex in public without any attached shame?) Maybe it is cultural and not genetic, just particularly tenacious culture. But in any event, from this, it follows, shame is probably there for a reason.

I have talked in the past about pornography being a supernormal stimulus. To refresh your memory, supernormal stimuli are phenomena where a species’ evolutionary preferences are unbounded in a certain direction, allowing technology to create a situation where this preference becomes counterproductive. The classic example is a species of bird which prefers large eggs, and scientists were able to get the bird to incubate artificial eggs almost as big as the bird itself, eggs which couldn’t possibly be natural. And most alarming, to prefer these eggs to the eggs they’d actually laid, eggs which might actually produce chicks.

The big question is, why would the bird do something so counterproductive? Well the bird could never lay an egg as big as she was, so there was no reason for evolution to cap this preference. (Brood parasites are obviously a possible exception to this, but outside the bounds of this post.) Turning this to humans, it obviously increases our evolutionary fitness if we have a strong urge to have sex. One aspect of this appears to take the form of an urge to see people naked or engaged in sex acts. In the millions of years humans and proto-humans wandered the African savanna there was a limit on how much of this someone might have access to. This is no longer the case. We have created giant eggs, and it’s not inconceivable that people will incubate these eggs in preference to incubating eggs with actual offspring.

As I said the big question is why do the birds do this? Obviously if this became common enough you would expect them to eventually adapt. Through language, memes and culture humans have the means to adapt to things more quickly than other species. Is it possible that shame is humanity’s adaptation to this supernormal stimuli? Recall that things like prostitutes and similar erotic “technology” has been around for a very long time.

To be clear about all this, I’m not saying that pornography is definitely a supernormal stimuli. I am saying I think that’s the way to bet.

I’m not saying that porn addiction is definitely a thing, and equivalent to smoking in its harmful effects, and something which should be included in the DSM and the WHO’s lists of diseases. I am saying that I am very doubtful that pornography isn’t a problem for a lot of people, even after you eliminate the supposed effects of externally generated shame.

I’m not saying that the authors of the article aren’t trying to be genuinely helpful. I am saying that they overlook several very large factors, which should make them far more cautious in jumping to the conclusion that “pornography” is essentially harmless.

I’ve already mentioned several factors they’re overlooking. First there’s the issue of the shifting goalposts. People say something will happen, it does, but it takes so long that no one cares anymore. We touched on how important this goalpost shifting is, which is a big topic, but if nothing else, in the here and now, we should give more weight to the predictions of those who are alarmed.

I also mentioned how little data there is. The article admits that one of the first studies done (certainly the first study they find credible, there was the other survey I mentioned) was done in 2017. Viewed in light of things like the replication crisis and the other problems currently affecting social science I don’t think their data is as ironclad as they want you to believe.

This all leads into another issue I think they’re overlooking. Not only was the first study done in 2017, but the entire phenomenon is incredibly recent. They specifically mention “sex films”. Well as I argued in another post, the ubiquity of “sex films” is basically 10 years old. Are they really saying that they can accurately predict the long term consequences of a technology that’s been around for less time than Gray’s Anatomy and NCIS?  And speaking of TV, what would predictions made after it’s first 10 years of existence look like? How closely would those predictions match what TV actually became?  The answer is, “not very close at all.”

I think in the case of pornography our predictive power is going to be even worse, when you consider things like VR pornography and sex robots (which came up during the recent discussion of incels.) And to be clear, I personally have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of sex robots becoming very common, but it is a wildcard, and if the authors get their way and manage to banish all shame, maybe that’s all that stands in the way of their widespread adoption.

When you consider all of these things, it takes an exceptional amount of hubris to dismiss all of the concerns about pornography as groundless. And all of the associated shame around the topic as counterproductive and existing only because of external actors with harmful motivations.

In the final analysis it comes back to a consideration of costs. What does the situation look like on the balance? Does the pornography status quo, with the ubiquity of porn on one side, and the shame on the other side cause more net harm or more net benefit? The article appears to be making the argument that there’s no downside to the ubiquitous porn and only the current and potential harm that comes from the associated shame. First, as I argued, I don’t think we should be so quick to assume that shame is a useless, entirely negative emotion, with no long term benefits. And I’m inclined to believe further that even if there is some short term limited harm, that in the long run there could be big benefits.

Maybe there are some people who react negatively to shame and instead of improving their life they just sink into a deeper funk, but my guess is the number of people who don’t do a bad thing because of something like shame vastly exceeds the number of people who just get worse.

In the end what I urge most is caution. I understand that eliminating pornography from the internet is beyond quixotic, but I think that declaring all activities related to “sex films” to be “normal and healthy” (as the article does) after a scant handful of years is similarly insane.

Just like all those people in the past, eventually I’m going to be right. And yes, by that point people might not care, and also, I may no longer be around. So if you suspect that I’m right, you’re only choice is to donate now.