Battling Our Porn Problem

Among the many reasons that I’m proud to work with the fraternity Beta Theta Pi is the recent issue of their alumni magazine tackled some unusual content: Addictions. I was struck how they took the unusual approach of publishing a piece on the impact of pornography, neurochemically and interpersonally, on the human relationships that fraternities and colleges strive to foster, side-by-side with updates on the achievements of members or the capital campaigns underway.

Before going on, click on over and check out the article at http://issuu.com/betathetapiao/docs/beta_theta_pi_spring_2013/27

Now, I disagree that we need to automatically categorize any viewer of pornography (or other visual aids for arousal) as having a problem. For example, there is actually a growing market for feminist pornography and there are arguments for some things as a healthy component of sexual intimacy–the Kama Sutra has a spiritual purpose in addition to being a how-to guide.

And I couldn’t even venture a comment on the value or critiques in porn for same-sex couples. It’s important to acknowledge that other communities may have a different perspective because they consume pornographic materials in different ways.

However, the author Justin Warren, a Beta alum from SMU, makes some strong points regarding the neurochemical change that occurs with repeated use of porn. The brain can re-wire itself and your expectations regarding sexual intimacy, arousal, and attraction.

Not only that, by engaging more with porn instead of people, it can damage human relationships, which are crucial for young men navigating college or high school especially. At worst, in a fraternity chapter, one member can derail an entire community, if that porn becomes the gateway through which they learn to apply force or coercion to achieve real sex, as mirrored in more hardcore stuff.

What was missing was a critique about the way that porn, especially due to its limitless availability in the information age, has reinforced social norms that demean or objectify women.

It’s all well and good to address the way porn hurts men. That’s one strong way to discourage men from using it, by thinking through their own self-interest in stopping.

But by ignoring the social inequality perpetuated by the pornographic money machine–through sex trafficking in less than equitable production locations outside of southern California, the dehumanization done by showing people as body parts solely for sexual gratification, and as a representative of heterosexual sex as the “norm”–it reads as if there is no greater need beyond addressing it with a fraternity brother who may use porn a little too much.

The unfortunate reality is that the very fabric of our being is strained by the use and abuse of porn. By dehumanizing women, the industry intent on producing profits dehumanizes men by disrupting our ability to have empathy, develop emotional intimacy, or recognize the on-going problems with porn.

Without that deeper connection to social justice awareness, fraternity men will not seek to include themselves in efforts to effect meaningful change in the world. I’m all for philanthropy, but throwing a bar party to raise money to fight cancer is not the same as putting in the time and effort to challenge oppression or make community change a reality.

It’d be amazing to see a chapter of fraternity men take an authentic stand on an issue of gender- or sexuality-based inequality: volunteering with a LGBT youth center, raising funds for a domestic violence shelter, volunteering on a rape crisis line or with interpersonal violence prevention, or developing meaningful self-governance practices that eliminate alcohol and sex for all recruitment, retention, or social activities.

One of the reasons I decided to volunteer with Beta Theta Pi is because as a facilitator for their summer leadership development program, I was introduced to the core values and spirit of the fraternity. It stands for something greater than having a fun chapter or a well-known house–things other fraternities I’ve interacted with have prioritized.

The spirit of mutual assistance and integrity resonate with my personal beliefs. The connection to values, though, is too often not the primary reason I’ve heard men join a fraternity (it’s the guys they meet).

But I continue to give my time to the organization out of the hope that through work with one local chapter, I can begin to make a difference. Growing up I didn’t feel comfortable talking to anyone about porn, for example. I thought using it was okay, or even expected. It was never talked about, but then again it was never discouraged either.

As I became more self-aware as a man, I sought out opportunities to connect with men and open up the exploration of masculinities through a variety of avenues–gender roles and expectations, work roles, group roles, emotional expression, and others. I also realized that it was critical to my personal well-being and the well-being of my relationship with my partner to stop using porn. And these can be hard things to think about or put in to action.

Beta took a bold stand in putting this content out to his thousands of alumni, challenging those men to reconsider what role they thought porn should have in their lives and in the lives of the men who are the future of the fraternity. I worry that there are men out there, some of whom are in the chapter I advise, no doubt, who have not yet considered the harm that pornography can wreak on one’s perceptions of love, intimacy, and sex.

As I spend more time working with this  fraternity chapter, I hope to continue to develop the relationships that will allow those men to feel comfortable seeking out support from me when they are struggling with their own conception of what it means to “be a man.”

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Sexism Illustrated

Last week I received an offer from Sports Illustrated for a cheesy mass-produced NFL team jacket if I subscribed to their magazine. It’s been years since I’ve read an issue of SI, but this whole month of February, I had had the recurring thought about the Swimsuit Issue and its role in men’s development (as experienced through my own adolescence) and its larger place in our society. Receiving that mail in offer was the catalyst that I needed to actually sort through what I thought and how I felt about the Swimsuit Issue. Not only did I come to view it through my own lens of developing a masculine identity, particularly its role in sexuality and idealizing female archetypes, but also as it relates to the larger issue of gender equity in sports and sports culture. The latter topic is so broad it deserves its own post so look for that, bu the personal is stake we should all feel in this is what I think is most critical.

When I was a teenager, I had a subscription to Sports Illustrated for around three or four years. Each year, I looked forward to the annual Swimsuit Issue, because, in case its not obvious, as a heterosexual teenage male, I viewed the female models as objects that existed solely for my self-gratification. But what wasn’t apparent to me was that I was supposed to view them this way. It definitely could be argued that the very public imagery of the models reinforces existing media efforts to restrict women in American society to fit a certain ideal. That feminist critique is valid certainly, but in this space I’m concerned with the impact that the magazine has on our young men and their expectations for women’s appearance.

Each year, we’re given a new issue filled with women in bathing suits (or body paint) and posed in sexually suggestive positions. In the same way that pornography warps men’s expectation of sexual intimacy, the swimsuit issue warps are view of the ideal woman (in line with most mainstream media outlets of course). That the Swimsuit Issue is more readily available to young males, even with access to the pornography-overrun internet, a young teenage male could easily spend the cover price and pick up the magazine at their local 7-11. Thus with access to this lone magazine, young men and boys are starting to do what society wants them to do. View women as objects, lust (not necessarily in the biblical sense, just the animalistic desire sense) after these models, and by extension other women, and begin to habitually imagine sexual acts with these and other women. When researchers suggest men think about sex every seven seconds, if those men are anything like I have been, they’re imagining sexual acts with strangers they pass on the streets—a tough habit to unlearn. The Swimsuit Issue functions as a gateway of sorts. Once one starts objectifying women in the Swimsuit Issue, how easy does it become to go browsing the internet for porn?

In the digital age the Sexism Issue may be an outdated attempt at boosting revenue, especially with access to bonus content for magazine subscribers, but it’s just one piece in a very large web that serves to keep women and men restricted. Women are supposed to fit an ideal and their athletic (or professional) success is irrelevant. Men are supposed to lust after women, after all its only natural, right? That SI’s swimsuit issue is just taken as normal is indicative of how pervasive the problem has become. We are numb to the things that reinforce the Man Box and keep us trapped by this narrow definition of men.

Instead of subscribing, let Sports Illustrated know that you are disappointed in their exploitation of women. Tweet at them at @SInow or contact them. And you can do what I did if they solicit subscriptions. Send back a note asking them to change their sexist ways. As women’s history month begins this weekend, think about the progress that’s been made and how this magazine is just one of the many remnants that still needs to be swept away as we look to build a more equitable society.