Remembrances 2: Pornography

I’ve just finished reading a book by Julia Shaw (Dr. Julia Shaw) who studied psychology at UBC. Her book is called EVIL: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side. (Doubleday in Canada, 2019). Her basic premise in that book is that evil is entirely subjective and we all have evil tendencies within us and the potential to act on them. For Shaw, murderers and torturers, even Hitler, are human. They may have committed atrocities at times, but not 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. For Shaw, no one is objectively evil, not Ted Bundy, not Jeffrey Dahmer, not Paul Bernardo. Not even Hitler. She asks, provocatively, would you have killed baby Adolf if you had been given the chance? Her answer is, probably not because there would have been no way to predict how Hitler would end up on the basis of what he was as a one year old boy. For Shaw, evil is situational a great deal of the time and one person’s evil is another person’s glory. Ernest Becker declares in his book Escape From Evil that the twin pillars of evil are death and disease. He doesn’t objectify people as inherently evil. In essence, he argues, we have a deep-seated cultural aversion to death and disease and we have created a plethora of institutions dedicated to the denial of death and disease (including hospitals, I might add). Those institutions may be at loggerheads with one another as part of the ideologies of competing groups as they go about vilifying each other. But I digress somewhat.

Shaw deals with many instances of evil in the world, including pornography. Like all other themes in her book, Shaw doesn’t condemn people for watching porn, (and she doesn’t even consider it evil). She insists that people who watch porn are not evil, and are in fact, normal. This is true particularly considering that she argues from a 2007 study by Pamela Paul elaborated in her book Pornified (New York: Times Books) that “66 percent of men and 41 percent of women consume porn on at least a monthly basis.”1 When I taught a course in 2010 and 2011 at North Island College called Love and Sex and I did research on porn for the course, I learned that at that time 37% of the income derived online was from pornography. Of course there’s no way of pinning down a reliable statistic on the valuation of pornography, but it’s big business, there’s no doubt about that. Still, as Shaw argues, there is a gloss of shame and moral terpitude that accompanies pornography. Shaw is entirely correct here. In fact, I challenge you to admit yourself to viewing porn, or to have someone else you know admit to viewing porn. I wrote above that I researched porn for a course I taught at NIC in 2010-11. In doing that research, I viewed a lot of porn.

As people got to know that I was doing research on porn I got a lot of: “See any good porn lately, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.” That kind of comment was absolutely uncalled for with veiled suggestions that what I was doing was somehow immoral, but sex is such a powerful subject in our less-than-open society that even doing research on a taboo subject in any way associated with sex was liable to unleash opprobrium and displeasure. As part of my responsibility around this research, I notified the college that I was doing this kind of research and that they should be aware of that because it may show up on my computer. Shaw notes in her book that:

“When attempts at empathy and understanding are made, there is often a particularly vicious utterance that is used to shut them down; the implication that some people should be empathized with, lest we imply that we too are evil. Want to discuss paedophilia? That must mean you are a paedophile.” (p.8)

What I was especially interested in as I investigated porn was the way that women are portrayed by the purveyors of porn. I’m assuming that porn hasn’t changed much in the last ten or twelve years since I conducted my research, but I do know that there is a movement among some women to transform porn.2 In my research I noted that it was very common for women to be referred to as dirty, sluts, etcetera. Actually, I take it back. Porn has changed a lot in the last ten years. Just a quick scan of one porn site and it’s obvious that there’s a lot more DIY porn out there. It’s now common for young women to set up chats or performances of various sorts for money, and incidentally for the pleasure of men,I suppose. And, somehow, tokens have become part of the porn scene. I wasn’t going to get into how that works. Much on the DIY porn is ‘porn-lite’ but there’s still a lot of violent and nasty stuff out there with much denigration of women. It’s hard for me to relate to misogyny given that I had a mother, I have a spouse, many sisters, two daughters, and granddaughters. However, I know about the origins of misogyny in the Biblical story of creation and in many other cultural institutions and myths, and I see misogyny glorified in politics, education, movies, and popular programs like Game of Thrones, among many others.

Actually, porn is no different than many mainstream views on sex as dirty. Why the association of sex with dirt? Well, dirt, death. I’ll not go into this here to any extent. See this post I wrote from March, 2018 for a discussion: Interesting that I seem to come back over and over again to these themes.


1page 145 in Shaw’s book.

2see especially After Pornified: How Women Are Transforming Pornography & Why It Really Matters by Anne G. Sabo, a book I just ordered. (After I read Sabo’s book I’ll get back to you about how women are transforming porn.)