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How pornography removes empathy – and fosters harassment and abuse

Will Harvey Weinstein’s fall finally reform men?

That was the question posed by a recent New York Times editorial, in the wake of allegations and debate about endemic harassment, objectification, and abuse of women.

The article highlights a procession of high profile cases from Bill Cosby to Donald Trump, and now Weinstein, the disgraced Hollywood producer.

But beyond the well known accusations, there are alarming statistics about sexual harassment. Data suggests that over half of UK women have been sexually harassed at work, that 65% of US women have been harassed on the streets, and that the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 28,000 charges alleging sexual harassment in 2015 alone.

The New York Times editorial discusses various strategies on how best to “change culture” and these levels of harassment and abuse. These focus on developing working environments where men are afraid to harass because of harsher and more prompt punishments; where reporting harassment is encouraged, easier and carries less stigma; where money and power cannot silence victims’ voices; and where legal barriers to prosecution are removed.

I agree categorically with all of the above.

I also believe that challenging sexual harassment, objectification, and abuse must involve recognising that there are certain features of popular culture which encourage and foster the psychological characteristics responsible. One major threat is the exponential growth of pornography and its effect on psychological, relational, and social development.

There is a connection between sexual objectification and empathy – the emotional response that respects, prioritises, and cares about the perceived welfare of another person.

In short, empathy and sexual objectification are incompatible. There is evidence that when observers hone in on a woman’s physical appearance, she becomes “less human” and “more object” in the eyes of the observer. Under a sexually objectifying gaze, women’s bodies momentarily become the “property” of the observer – whether they have consented or not.

Psychologists have also argued that pornographic scripts emphasise culturally accepted standards of beauty. They also propagate the myth that women (and men) have insatiable sexual appetites, and glamorise sexual novelty and sex outside of a romantic relationship. Such narratives tend not to involve affection, intimacy, or expressions of love in any “real” sense.

Recent analyses of the 50 bestselling adult films also suggest that objectification and lack of empathetic concern for women’s feelings and welfare are the norm. Of 304 scenes analysed, almost half contained verbal aggression, and over 88% contained physical aggression. Most of these aggressive acts were perpetrated by men, and the most common responses by female actors were either of pleasure or neutrality.

In essence, pornographic “reality” (an increasingly normal reality for millions of men) is a reality devoid of empathetic concern for women. It is a reality where women are routinely treated as sexual objects, and where women respond positively or neutrally to such treatment. With pornography so popular and so accessible, it is perhaps unsurprising that such relational attitudes are embedded in the male psyche. Shutterstock

The author David Foster Wallace made an important point about pornography in the film The End of the Tour. He described the act of watching it as “a fantasy relationship with somebody who is not real … strictly to stimulate a neurological response” of “pure, unalloyed pleasure”.

He continued:

The technology is just gonna get better and better. And it’s gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable to sit alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. And that’s fine in low doses but if it’s the basic main, staple of your diet, you’re gonna die … in a meaningful way, you’re gonna die.

Death and porn

I think that what Foster Wallace meant is that we, as a society, are “gonna die”. Our ravenous appetite for things like the virtual relational reality created through pornography could significantly erode our empathetic concern for each other, including how men “see” women.

Challenging this element of (predominantly) male culture is a hugely important – and vital – task. Journalism professor Robert Jensen has written that “porn is what the end will look like if we don’t reverse the pathological course we are on in patriarchal, corporate-capitalist societies”.

He also suggests giving men (and women) the critical and educational tools necessary to reject what he calls “toxic masculinity”.

This would indeed be a major step in the right direction. It will take courage from individuals, and could lead to conflict – both with established sources of power and those closest to us. But it will also mean acting as true revolutionaries – ready to fight for solidarity and equality in our everyday lives.

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