3 reasons to ignore the porn scandal, 1 good reason to care a lot

     (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-105533567/stock-photo-sex-on-laptop-computer-pornography.html'>Internet porn</a> image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    (Internet porn image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    Thousands of words have now been used to discuss the pornography scandal that has spilled over from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office to the Supreme Court. But there has been surprisingly little discussion of what the men accused of circulating emails with pornographic pictures and videos have done wrong.

    Perhaps the wrongfulness of what they have done is entirely evident. But the stray comments I’ve seen from public officials, editorialists, and commentators on the web suggests that many people are focusing on trivial questions rather than the one, extremely important issue raised by the whole episode.

    So, before saying what is truly wrong with the behavior of these public officials, let me point to three questions that shouldn’t trouble us at all.

    Three reasons for false outrage

    For many people the problem is that men who hold powerful positions were looking at porn. This strikes me as something that is of no public importance.

    It’s difficult to know what to make of the bizarre sexual culture of contemporary America in which our puritan inheritance leads us to be ashamed of sexually explicit material while at the same time—and perhaps for the same reason—fascinated by it. But neither our prurient interest in the sexual lives of public officials or our shame at their (or our) behavior justifies condemning them.

    Pornography plays some role in the sexual lives of the majority of men and an increasing number of women, both when they are alone and with partners. The visual depiction of sexual activity has been found in most human communities. There is nothing depraved about people who enjoy it. There is no evidence that they are more likely to commit a crime or harm others, including their sexual partners. Whether a public official for enjoys pornography or not is a private matter not worthy of public concern.

    Nor is the problem that these men were circulating porn during the work day and thus cheating the public of their time. No one works every second of an eight hour day. Most people in high positions in government work more than eight hours and take work home with them. These officials surely spent far more time during the work day making personal calls or checking news or taking coffee breaks than they did sending or reading pornographic emails. No one would complain about these other distractions from work.

    Nor is the problem that these public officials used their government provided computers or email accounts for sending these emails. Some of the porn-filled emails were sent with personal computers or email accounts. And there is no marginal cost to the taxpayers if officials use their state provided equipment for personal purposes. No one would or should complain if a public official uses his government provided phone or email account to communicate with his spouse or send a message of sympathy or catch up with a friend.

    One very good reason to be concerned

    All these false reasons for outrage keep us from addressing the real issue: Passing around pornography sustains a sexist culture in which domination of and disrespect for women is central to male sexual pleasure and in which women are taken as second class citizens who exist for the purpose of serving men. This culture encourage men to dismiss the concerns, ideas, and interests of women in every aspect of their lives. It is a culture that historically, and still today, has been unwelcoming, unpleasant, and unfair to women, including both those who work with men in government and those who seek justice from the government.

    It is the sexist culture of disrespect and inequality that is the issue here. And that’s why the public issue is not what individual men did in the privacy of their office but that they sent sexist pornography around to other men in email chains. It’s what men do together that reinforces a sexist view of women. It’s what they do together influences the cultural norms that most deeply shape us. And it’s what they do together that encourages even those men who do not share these sexist norms to act in accord with them.

    One might wonder why, if I think the culture that pornography helps sustain has these bad consequences for women, I don’t think men should be condemned for looking at it on their own. I would agree that it would be far better for us if the vast majority of pornography were not sexist and did not objectify women. And some does not. But regardless of the character of the pornography, there is an important difference between viewing it in private and sharing it publicly.

    Our sexual lives are ripe for fantasy and fiction. And people often have what might seem to be odd tastes in porn. Some people I have interviewed for a book I’m writing have surprised me when we came to talk about it, for example, a bi-sexual feminist friend of mine who told me she liked extreme heterosexual porn.

    So, while the world might be better off if we sexist and misogynistic porn no longer enticed people, I wouldn’t condemn men (or women) for watching porn I personally find disturbing, any more than I would condemn them for reading genres of literature that I find aesthetically or morally distasteful. There is a difference between fantasy and reality and people can find sexual and aesthetic pleasure in works that depict ideas and actions which they also find morally objectionable.

    But when men share porn (or works of art more generally) with others that denigrate and diminish women, they are in in some part endorsing the message it contains. And regardless of their own attitude towards it, they are sustaining a sexist culture that diminishes and disrespects women, including their co-workers and the members of the public they serve. Public officials especially those who are responsible for administering justice deserve to be condemned for that.

    Marc Stier is a writer and political activist from Mt. Airy. He’s finishing a book titled “Civilization and Its Contents: Reflections on Sexuality and the Culture Wars.”

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