Hugh Hefner’s Legacy is Not Harmless

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Editorial Note: Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy, died yesterday at the age of 91. Is his legacy of sexual freedom really harmless?

There is a myth that porn is harmless. “It’s just a few consenting adults doing what they want with their own bodies,” the thinking goes.

But this simply isn’t true. In reality, pornography is deeply involved in the exploitation of women and children and is destructive to its consumers. Here are six reasons why porn is much more than an individual decision—it is part of a system that preys on women and children; and its viewers are participating in, contributing to, and being shaped by that destructive, enslaving system.

1. Porn fuels the sex trade.

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery, and it is the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world. Sex trafficking is one of the most profitable forms of trafficking and involves many kinds of sexual exploitation, such as prostitution, pornography, bride trafficking, and the commercial sexual abuse of children. According to the United Nations, sex trafficking brings in an estimated $32 billion a year worldwide. In the U.S., sex trafficking brings in $9.5 billion annually.

The primary way porn fuels the sex trade is by building the demand. The sex trade consists of supply and demand. The supply consists of women and children who are either forced into exploitation at home or lured away from their homes with promises of jobs, travel, and a better life. The average age of girls who enter into street prostitution is between twelve and fourteen years old, and even younger in some developing countries. Traffickers coerce women and children to enter the commercial sex industry through a variety of recruitment techniques in strip clubs, street-based prostitution, and escort services. Thousands of children and women are victimized in this way every year.

The trafficking industry would not exist without demand. According to researcher Andrea Bertone, the demand consists of men who feed a “patriarchal world system” that preys on women and children.

2. Porn shapes sexual desires.

Pornography shapes the appetites of men, women, and children to accept and even enjoy the exploitation of women. As Robert Jensen writes:

There are a few basic themes in pornography: 1) All women at all times want sex from all men; 2) women enjoy all the sexual acts that men perform or demand; and 3) any woman who does not at first realize this can be easily turned with a little force.

It is important to note that porn is not just a “men’s issue,” as 28 percent of people admitting internet sexual addiction are women. Approximately nine out of ten children between the ages of eight and sixteen have viewed pornography on the Internet. The average age of first Internet exposure to pornography is eleven years old, and in most cases it is unintentional. The largest consumers of Internet pornography are twelve- to seventeen-year-old boys.

Porn teaches its consumers that women exist for the pleasure of men and that their purpose is to be degraded and dehumanized for men’s excitement—and that they like it, even if they pretend not to. But this is part of the lie of pornography: many women in porn are there against their will and are being exploited. According to Jensen, “There is evidence that force and coercion are sometimes used to secure women’s participation . . . that psychological and physical damage is common and that heavy alcohol and drug use are routine.”

3. Porn exploits child sexual abuse victims.

Mary Anne Layden, a psychotherapist and director of the Center for Cognitive Therapy at the University of Pennsylvania, reports that most women involved in the sex industry are adult survivors of sexual abuse. Research indicates that the number is between 60 to 80 percent. Porn perpetuates the exploitation of these women. Additionally, 20 percent of all Internet pornography involves children.

4. Porn supports “rape culture.”

The physical, emotional, and psychological damage to the women and children in porn is heartbreaking, but equally insidious is porn’s effect on men and the culture by normalizing the degradation and dehumanization of women. Jensen explains, “As pornography has become more acceptable, both legally and culturally, the level of brutality toward, and degradation of, women has intensified.” The prevalence of porn means that people are becoming desensitized to it, and are seeking out ever harsher, more violent, and degrading images.

Robin Morgan’s phrase “Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice” captures the link between the production and consumption of pornography and violence against women and children. The point is not that porn causes all viewers to sexually abuse others, but that it creates what some researchers call “rape culture” by normalizing, legitimizing, and condoning violence against women and children.

5. Porn hijacks children’s sexuality.

Gail Dines, author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hi-Jacked Our Sexuality, explains the implications of porn: “We are now bringing up a generation of boys on cruel, violent porn. . . . Given what we know about how images affect people, this is going to have a profound influence on their sexuality, behavior and attitudes towards women.”

Mary Anne Layden argues: “There is evidence that the prevalence of pornography in the lives of many children and adolescents is far more significant than most adults realize, that pornography is deforming the healthy sexual development of these young viewers, and that it is used to exploit children and adolescents.”

6. Porn limits men.

While porn is not just a “men’s issue,” it remains pervasively a male problem. William Struthers, a bio-psychologist, explains the effects on men: “Men seem to be wired in such a way that pornography hijacks the proper functioning of their brains and has a long-lasting effect on their thoughts and lives.”

Porn limits male self-expression and has proven to be psychologically detrimental to some viewers. Frequent pornographic stimulus changes a person’s neurological makeup—actually rewiring the viewer’s brain.

Everyone involved in the supply chain, from production to consumption, is participating in the economic juggernaut that is the porn industry, whether they realize it or not. And many of them are unaware of the harm being done to themselves and others. This industry fuels the global sex trade, builds the demand for exploitation, severely distorts sexuality, exploits abuse victims, and normalizes the degradation of women and children.

That’s why porn is much more than a private, individual decision.


Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal minister (serving as the Canon for Vocations in the Diocese of Central Florida) and teaches theology at Gordon-Cowell-Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. You can find Justin on FacebookTwitter, and at justinholcomb.com.

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