Pride and Prejudice and Porn

Kearneysville, WV. Recently at the University of New Hampshire, Vice President Joe Biden announced new federal guidelines for fighting sexual assault on college campuses. Biden’s speech included such truisms as “no means no” and “rape is rape is rape.” He continued:

Look guys – all you guys in the audience – no matter what a girl does, no matter how she’s dressed, no matter how much she’s had to drink – it’s never, never, never, never, never okay to touch her without her consent….This doesn’t make you a man – it makes you a coward. A flat-out coward.

True enough. However, that the Vice President of the United States believed it necessary to make such emphatic proclamations is suggestive. After all, who would question such things? Apparently plenty of young men, at least if we take Biden’s passionate speech (and new federal guidelines) as indicative of a problem.

In a recent broadcast of NPR’s On Point titled “Are College Campuses a Hostile Environment for Women?” guest Dorothy Edwards stated that one in five women are raped as undergraduates. The number, if true, is staggering. She admitted that, despite this high incidence, a relatively small number of men are perpetrators, for serial rapists account for many of these attacks. Nevertheless, if she is anywhere near correct, it doesn’t appear as if the typical college campus is as safe for women as one would hope.

Of course, the issue of rape on college campuses gets fuzzy when the subject of “date rape” enters the picture. This is made all the more confusing when alcohol is added to the mix. Does regretting a sexual encounter the morning after a drunken binge qualify as rape? Clearly not, but the haze of alcohol or other substances surely impairs judgment, memory, and communication.

Nevertheless, the advent of the so-called hook-up culture has fostered expectations among young men that encounters with co-eds naturally lead to no-strings-attached sex. Sex is not preceded by an altar, commitment, “I love you”, or even a decent conversation. In a hook-up culture anonymous sex is not a scandal but, it would seem, the ideal, for when sex is depersonalized, it cannot lead to the complications associated with affection, vulnerability, and the desire to sacrifice for the good of the other person.

Yet appearances are deceptive, at least according to Gail Dines, author of Porn Land: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality. In the same NPR program, Dines argues that women who participate in the hook-up culture experience higher rates of depression, higher incidence of alcohol abuse, and significant decreases in self-esteem. In short, “the hook-up culture is not working well for women.” It’s hard to imagine how participating in an activity where one is merely an object to be stripped and used would not lead to bad results. That the woman can tell herself that she is using the man in the same way he is using her seems to offer little effective consolation.

According to Dines, the hook-up culture is a natural outgrowth of the culture of pornography, which in recent years has gone mainstream. Dines argues that pornography fundamentally changes the way men think of sexuality, and if this is the case, there is good reason for concern. The average age of a boy’s first exposure to porn is eleven, and according to Dines, pornography is the leading form of sex education in our society today.

Pornography teaches young men to view women as depersonalized sex objects, and because pornography seems to create an insatiable desire for increasingly extreme forms of objectification, the hard-core pornography common today and readily accessible to anyone with access to the internet is shocking for its level of violence and degradation. According to Dines, hard-core porn is a staple on many college campuses and there is little stigma attached to consuming it.

Indeed, my wife and I once visited friends who took us to the campus of the respectable private university where the husband teaches. Our friends thought the kids might enjoy the billiards and foosball in the student union building. Our plans quickly changed when we realized a young man was watching porn on the big screen television in the public area. Where once consumers of porn parked in alleys and scurried through dark doorways in seedy parts of town, today pornography is merely another consumer choice in the litany of available choices. I’m not sure if I was more surprised by the fact that pornography was so publicly visible or that this young man apparently felt no shame.

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