By David S. Prescott, LICSW & Kieran McCartan, Ph.D
Some recent social media discussions have returned to the discussion of pornography and its place in the treatment of people who have abused (as well as broader questions of its place in masculinity and society). One case discussion involved an intellectually disabled person while another considered whether it is acceptable for men to look at women’s bodies. Setting aside the complexities of the former and the inevitability of the latter, serious questions remain for practitioners who attempt to balance risk management with client’s rights to engage in behavior deemed legal/not illegal by high courts around the world. Let’s be clear: we are not saying that pornography use is without risks. Author David Ley has written an entire volume dedicated to ethical considerations in pornography usage.
Where to start? A study by Drew Kingston and his colleagues found that pornography use is a risk factor for re-offense primarily among those who are already high risk and use pornography frequently. A new meta-analysis by Joshua Grubbs and his colleagues describes how “pornography-related problems—particularly feelings of addiction to pornography—may be, in many cases, better construed as functions of discrepancies—moral incongruence—between pornography-related beliefs and pornography-related behaviors.” In other words, analysis of the data suggests that so-called pornography addiction may have more to do with morality than with actual addiction. It often seems that the only thing people can agree on is that more research is needed. Sadly, there is no shortage of poorly constructed research seemingly designed to confirm the various authors’ biases and appearing in obscure journals and web sites.
All too often at the front lines of practice, pornography is an inconvenient elephant in the room that invites morality-laden rather than empirically informed responses. In a conversation about the Kingston findings a participant became furious that the subject hadn’t been framed in their preferred light. In another instance involving an adult in group care who requested that he be allowed to possess pornography similar to other clients, an outside consultant took to spreading rumors about those who pointed out there was nothing in the client’s risk profile to prevent his having it. These situations could potentially have had career-altering repercussions. The concern in each instance is that people’s moral beliefs can cloud their judgment about clients in their care, raising questions about who gets to make the decisions about their own life and under what conditions?
Elsewhere, pornography can be more than just the elephant in the room. It can be a source of embarrassment, scorn, rebuke, and debate. Although everyone has an opinion on pornography and very few acknowledge watching it, the viewing figures of “tube” sites like PornHub and YouPorn provide clear evidence to the contrary (Psychology Today piece on pornography viewing). Whatever our moral beliefs, pornography usage is ubiquitous in those parts of the world with Internet access. How this ubiquity will change people over time remains unknown, despite our worst concerns. One wonders about the extent to which professionals in the field of combatting sexual violence are engaged in hypocrisy, and to what extent we cannot study the issues involved more openly or with greater intellectual honesty.
The field of treating sexual abuse has not reached a point, where we can have a detailed, nuanced, and adult conversation about pornography. The debate tends to focus on abuse of power, humiliation, and gender; all of which we agree with. In addition, there is a massive power imbalance in pornography. All pornography is not the same, any more than all other forms of media are the same. Obviously, there are large sections of it that are illegal, highly problematic and have serious cause for concern (child sexual abuse, bestiality, snuff movies to name but a view), but there are other forms of pornography that are normal adult sexual relationships on show (for instance the debate around “ethical” pornography and amateur pornography); however, while important (actually essential) to flag these debates they are not the remit of this discussion (for more information on the reality of Pornography we suggest the work of Maree Crabbe). In many ways, the issues with pornography are the why, where, when and how of its use; its context and need for viewers to engage. The fact that we shy away from talking about sex, sexuality, and healthily relationships in modern society holds us back from further clarity. Professionals and critics can condemn people for watching pornography, but don’t ask why they are viewing it, whether their usage is harmful to themselves or their relationships with others, and if they have considered what is actually happening within it. There is a very real question as to the ethics of condemning the viewer without understanding the context.
These debates come to the fore where we think of certain populations who can’t access sexual expression in the same way as others, either because their primary sexual interest is in children or because their diminished capabilities keep them under the care and/or guardianship of others.
As professionals who work in the field of sexuality and sexual abuse we need to leave our moral issues at the door when engaged in practice with individuals who view pornography, because our role is to help these individuals and not to judge them, especially when we have power and influence over them. We need to help people see what pornography is, what role it serves, and whether its harmful to them (or others) help them stop engaging with it; but this needs to be on a case by case basis and in a neutral way. Again, absent specific empirically based risk considerations whose morality is it?