Recently I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Marty Klein, a published author and therapist. From his blog:
Dr. Marty Klein is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, Certified Sex Therapist, and sociologist with a special interest in public policy and sexuality. He has written 6 books and over 100 articles about sexuality. Each year he trains thousands of professionals in North America and abroad in clinical skills, human sexuality, and policy issues.
You can read more from Dr. Klein at Sexual Intelligence, where he discusses America’s actions and attitudes toward sex.
Dr. Klein has spent thirty years helping men and women with relationships. He’s a proponent of adult entertainment, and an even greater proponent of good sex. His insight into the minds of those seeking help adds a dimension of practicality to his views which a theorist or lab-researcher might lack.
As we spoke, I gradually became aware of a trend in his opinions: that the more people focus on pornography, the more they fail to recognize their inter-personal problems. I began to wonder, Can we go so far to say that porn is a replacement issue for our sexual insecurities? Dr. Klein (wisely) refused to make such a claim. However, we did manage to address some of the myths behind porn, the various problems that drive it’s controversy, and the definite danger of painting blanket opinions as empirical fact.The Grand Experiment: the Porn/Rape Myth
Let’s start with the big issue: does pornography lead to an increased likelihood of rape? Hard to say. Understanding motivation in human behaviour is complicated, at best. When examining the effects of pornography, we can’t isolate from pre-existing conditions, such as a predilection toward violence or a history of emotional trauma. It’s the classic causality/correlation dilemma: how far does suggestion actually equate to action?
One of the most common methodologies is to place college students in a room, profile them, show them pornography, and then reprofile them. Dr. Klein remarked on the artificial nature of the experiment, and I am inclined to agree: any extreme imagery is likely to produce extreme attitudes. Yes, a college-kid is going to express more sexually aggression after exposure to porn. That’s just called being horny. The greater question, which requires far deeper analysis, is whether extreme imagery produces shifts in psychology. Does repeated exposure to pornography lead to sexual violence? How can we know without a long-term study?
Actually, we have just that. A decade ago, the doors to pornography were unhinged by the web, making it free, accessible, and multifarious. If we want evidence of the effects of porn, to where else should we turn but to ourselves? And it turns out, Dr. Klein informed me, that rates of suicide, divorce, and rape have declined since Internet porn became available. My personal research confirmed his assertion: suicide has steadily decreased, divorce has declined (per capita) by 21% from 1994 to 2004, and rape has dropped (per capita) by more than 85% since the 1970s.
What does this tell us? That porn is the reason for these trends? Not necessarily. But if the concern is that porn leads to rape, then it would appear that the data doesn’t match.Healthy Sexuality: the “Good” Porn Myth
There’s two ways we can look at this: either rape is decreasing, or it’s report is. It is possible that women have accepted force as a natural part of sex because of a wide-spread “rape-myth.” Depictions of sexual violence as commonplace, or even enjoyable for the victims, may have turned force into an accepted practice. In this case, we have to condemn certain sexual practices as psychologically debilitating to society, lest women are trained into submission.
But the question then becomes whether women are actually being abused? How are we able to condemn one act as debasing, and then point to another act as uplifting? Dr. Klein wonders, what exactly is a healthy depiction of a woman enjoying sex? Or, for that matter, when exactly doesn’t sex involve sexual objectification? Should we be making that distinction for other people? What happens when we start labeling certain sex-acts as ‘too extreme’?
Dr. Klein breaks down a healthy sexual relationship to three factors: honesty, consent, and responsibility. Notice that these values address the relationships between people, not the actions they participate in. More importantly, note that these values can never be consistent between one act and another. It’s entirely possible for the same act to mean different things to different people. So when judging pornography, how are we going to judge sex-crime? By the feelings of the pornographers, who have been paid after signing contracts? Or perhaps by the sentiments of the consumers, in case their choice of material isn’t enough of a system of regulation?
For pornography to have reached a consumer’s hands (through legal channels) consent must have occurred at multiple stages. If we consider the pornographers to be economically exploited, then let’s make sure they’re aware of their alternatives, such as working grave-yard shifts at Seven Eleven. If we find them emotionally exploited, then perhaps we should watch-dog everybody’s sexual encounters. And if the consumer is emotionally exploited (as the industry might prey on loneliness) then perhaps we should regulate how often he or she gets out into the dating world. If you remove the capacity for consent from the participants, then you condescend to remove their ability to choose. Pornography is popular, for providers and consumers alike, because it’s what they want. You aren’t going to police that, are you?
But perhaps people aren’t being honest with themselves. Perhaps people are submitting to acts that they dislike because they think it is what they should do, or what they have to do. Frankly, who is to blame here? If sexual participants are dishonest about their desires, then they will be unable to set boundaries for themselves and their partners. People have to assert their will far enough to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Even if they are incapable of protecting themselves in the moment, the decision will exist which can then hold repercussions. Honesty won’t fix the problem; it will merely illuminate the fact that there is one. If we can’t be certain of a problem, then how do we go about fixing it?
And therein follows responsibility. When we notice violations of trust, it is our duty to bring justice to the situation. This is not as simple as banning a channel for potential abuse, such as pornography, or certain sex acts, or sex in its entirety. It requires a case-by-case analysis of neglect. We will only foster healthy sex-lives when we stop actual abuse, not what we perceive as potential abuse.Inherent Errants: the Real Problems of Porn
If we can establish that porn doesn’t lead to rape, or perhaps even leads to healthier attitudes to sex, then might we go so far to say that porn is a good thing? After all, if we enjoy it, what more can we ask?
But Dr. Klein points out that our goal is a healthy sex-life, not a healthy alternative to it. Given the option to play a game of touch-football or to watch a college-game from the comfort of your couch, which do you think is the healthier choice? Porn may not be damaging to us (maybe) but it isn’t doing wonders for us either. If we begin to accept stadium seats, then we risk spending our lives paying other people to have our fun for us. Is that the way we want to live?
Again, we can’t put a broad-tipped brush to the issue. If porn is used as a substitute to relationships, or, furthermore, as a tool of neglect or unkindness toward others, then a deep problem exists — but not with the porn. This is where a great deal of domestic controversy can originate. Porn is not responsible for our actions; we are. An example Dr. Klein gave was particularly illuminative. “If a woman comes to me and says that her husband spends time with porn instead of her, my response is, ‘would it be okay if he spent the time playing golf?’ Her answer is, of course, no. The problem isn’t that her husband is watching porn. The problem is that he’s being a jerk.”Covers Over the Head
If we lay the responsibility of porn’s misuses on the back of the porn industry, then we take the responsibility of the consumers away from them. Sexual inequality and violence are tangible, persistent problems that we must work to correct. The solution, however, can not be found in policing each others’ sexualities. This is the domain where opinion invades practice. Our desires are far too complex and personal to be treated in absolute definitions. Doing so only results in guilt, and suppression, and other psychological sicknesses that are far more likely to breed abuses we currently fight. Do we really want to risk poisoning our own sex lives out of fear, especially when it does not actually secure our safety?
I’m not suggesting that we throw our hands in the air and accept the damages for what they are. I merely believe that we must hold responsibility to people, not to sex, and certainly not to pornography. If we continue archaic and ill-informed judgements about various sex-acts based on our own presumptions, then we will continue to shame healthy desires, and if people are told that their natural proclivities are wrong, then how can we expect them to know what’s right?
My deepest gratitude to Dr. Klein for spending time out of his busy schedule to discuss the topic with me. I’ve done my best to exemplify his views as I best understood them, but please note that this blog reflects my opinions of his words, and is not direct quotation. You can read more of Dr. Klein’s actual words at Sexual Intelligence.