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Is pornography immoral? – The Atlantic

Is pornography immoral? – The Atlantic
Is pornography immoral? – The Atlantic


Plus: Malaise among Americans

Millennium Images / Gallery Stock

January 19, 2024, 12:19 PM ET

Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Is pornography immoral?

Last week, I wrote an article arguing that the University of Wisconsin should not have fired Joe Gow, the longtime chancellor of its La Crosse campus, for making pornography with his wife.

I took no position on the morality of pornography.

Rather, I pointed out that Americans are divided about porn––a 2023 Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans believe it is wrong, while 39 percent believe that it is morally acceptable––and argued that diverse societies are better off agreeing that one is judged at work only for what one does at work than constantly arguing about which off-the-clock behaviors are bad enough to justify termination.

Today, I want to solicit your viewpoints on pornography itself, specifically legal porn (given the near consensus that child pornography, which is illegal, is also immoral). Is producing porn a good, bad, or neutral act? How about consuming it? What about porn that features AI-generated images of fake humans?

Send your responses to [email protected] or simply reply to this email.


Conversations of Note

A Dissent

Vicky and Dan, a husband and wife who subscribe to this newsletter, sent me a response arguing that the Wisconsin chancellor should have been fired. In it they share their view of pornography:

Pornography is not just an individual moral decision. Participating in it is being part of an industry that exploits women and children and has done so forever. Participating in it, even without forcing women and children to be victims in one’s particular pornography postings, strengthens this subculture of abusive, ugly, and immoral (yes) treatment of people. In short, it’s not just an individual’s “moral decision.” It is a decision that facilitates disallowing innocent people from being able to live their lives with dignity and forces them into situations where they don’t get to make their own moral decisions.

I agree with Dan and Vicky that some pornography produced in the world is exploitative and thus immoral. Certainly, whenever anyone is forced into making pornography, that is morally indefensible. But I am not persuaded that the existence of some immoral porn renders all porn immoral. By way of analogy, many women and children are forced into laboring in agriculture and textiles. Some are subject to slave-like conditions. It does not therefore follow that anyone who starts bringing vegetables to market or selling their own fashion line is automatically complicit. Rather, we ought to judge a producer on the treatment of people who add labor to their goods.

But perhaps some of you disagree.

An Understudied Subject

In an Aeon essay published in 2015, Maria Konnikova aired the argument that discomfort with studying pornography leads us to knowing less about its effects than we might:

When it comes to porn, going beyond correlational evidence can be difficult. “Science is so scared of pornography and sexuality, and it’s so discriminated against, that there’s a ton of work that hasn’t been done,” Nicole Prause, head of the Sexual Psychophysiology and Affective Neuroscience Lab at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), recently told me. “Most of the information we currently have is not experimental or longitudinal. Lots of data talk about correlates and associations, but the literature is especially bad—it can’t be trusted—because no one is doing experiments, no one is showing cause and effect.”

Malaise Among Americans

In New York magazine, Jonathan Chait argues that Joe Biden’s poor polling numbers say more about the electorate than him:

Whatever his shortcomings, Biden has delivered normalcy. He has visited heavily Republican areas and both promised and delivered aid without extortive demands, supported American allies against attacks by American enemies, and produced the soft landing economists had deemed unlikely a year ago. But now the political passion is all on the side of extremism. Normalcy feels spent, enervating, and this has encouraged former members of the anti-Trump coalition to gravitate toward other concerns that animate them. An important number of Americans who once found Trump intolerable have either forgotten how awful he is or have some strange craving for his return. Biden is often described as lacking energy. But it is not the president who is exhausted; it is us.

A Matter of Control

Salomé Sibonex shares a theory about what ails our culture:

As our culture becomes one where the appearance of being a good person surpasses the importance of actually being good, the way we value others is also mutating. More people are losing their tolerance for anyone who isn’t like them. While we act like our political differences amount to a battle between good and evil, the truth is less extreme: some people value freedom more than care, and others value care more than freedom. This is the normal spectrum of different beliefs and values we encounter daily, whether among friends, colleagues, or the neighbors we now ignore. These are the old, inevitable differences that have shown up since the birth of electoral politics, where we routinely face the reality that about half our country is more liberal or conservative than the other half.

But as talking TV heads, curated newsfeeds, and infinite block lists invade our lives, it’s getting harder to recall the value in tolerating our differences. Trust degrades quickly when the threat of being controlled by strangers looms too closely. We were once incentivized to accept occasional losses to the other side as the cost of democracy, but when it seems like one side is playing for keeps, few will risk giving an inch.

Are L.A.’s Mom-and-Pop Landlords Doomed?

That’s the case Joshua Kamali makes in the Los Angeles Times:

I only own 12 units, which isn’t much compared with large corporations that have thousands … I do not make a living as a landlord. In fact, I make only about $100 a month on a unit whose mortgage is several thousand dollars. Over the last five years, I have felt under attack by elected officials in Los Angeles and wonder just how long I can afford to own rental property … If the attitude of the elected officials toward landlords in the city doesn’t change, small landlords like me will leave, and the city will be left with only corporate landlords—and slumlords—who don’t care about rental laws or the well-being of their tenants.

“I Want to Dance With Somebody”

In the process of learning to salsa with a partner, my colleague Xochitl Gonzalez came to a belief about relationships:

Living the life of an “independent woman” (particularly as a woman of color) necessitates a certain diligent self-centeredness. You are the sole steward of your health, your financial viability, and your joy, to say nothing of the other people you might need to care for. And to protect all these things, you must navigate systems biased against you.

Anyone who manages this should be celebrated. But, I think that in the slogan-ization of feminism—the messaging that we are perfect as we are, that we shouldn’t change anything for anyone else—we may have lost sight of the fact that being happily single and being happily coupled can require different skill sets. And neither should be perceived at odds with the feminist ideal of living life on our own terms. Yes, we should cheer the mettle of the independent woman. But we should also applaud the women who choose to be partnered, because pliability should not be mistaken for weakness. Especially if it brings us joy.


Provocation of the Week

Alan Jacobs rejects the claim that “silence is violence”:

There are more evil things going on in the world than any one person can respond to. You could spend all day every day on social media just declaring that you denounce X or Y or Z and never get to the end of what deserves to be denounced. If my silence about Gaza is complicit in the violence being done there, what about my silence regarding the Chinese government’s persecution of the Uighurs? Or the government of Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya? Or what Boko Haram has done in Nigeria? Or what multinational corporations do to destroy our environment? Or dogfighting rings? Or racism in the workplace? Or sexism in the workplace? …

It’s perfectly fine for people to have their own causes, the causes that for whatever reason touch their hearts. We all have them, we are all moved more by some injustices than by others; not one of us is consistently concerned with all injustices, all acts of violence, nor do we have a clear system of weighting the various sufferings of the world on a scale and portioning out our attention and concern in accordance with a utilitarian calculus.

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