In a turn of events both unexpected and welcome, Russell Brand joined the ranks of those speaking out against pornography in a video posted to his YouTube channel. In it, he gives a powerful and unapologetic assessment of soft-core pornography, not only listing its known negative effects on young men but corroborating them from personal experience. Voyeurism, objectification of women, the need to validate one’s masculinity through beautiful women, fear of true intimacy, the tendency to view women as trophies rather than individuals; all of these he admits to and attributes to his exposure to pornography.
More than simply acknowledging the devastating effects that porn has had on him, Brand also admits that he has, as of yet, fallen short of quitting it—despite his distaste for the stuff. “If I had total dominion over myself, I would never look at porn again,” he says.
These words, I think, strike an all too familiar chord in the pornography debate. Total dominion over one’s actions, self-control: Are these attainable goals for young men? That a man who fully understands the harmful effects of pornography remains unable to avoid it raises doubts. Regardless of whether or not pornography is healthy or moral, the question remains: Are men capable of abstaining from it?
The majority opinion—it seems—is a resounding “no.”
“All men look at porn… The handful of men who claim they don’t look at porn are liars or castrates,” Dan Savage famously remarked. And his statement only repeats a notion almost universally accepted.
We see it manifested in countless male TV characters from Barney Stinson to Frank Underwood. We heard it reiterated in Jennifer Lawrence’s response to the celebrity nude photo leak: “Either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he’s going to look at you.”
I have personally confronted the notion many times in everyday conversation. I once told a very close friend of mine that my fiancé does not look at pornography. In response, she raised her eyebrows, tilted her head, looked me in the eye, and exclaimed, “I think he might be lying to you about that.”
In a world filled with doubt and confusion, it seems that we, as a society, have come to believe in one immutable truth that men can’t help but look at porn. The only option for girlfriends, fiancées, and wives, it seems, is to accept it.
And yet, I cannot.
To be clear, I am not denying the widespread use of pornography among men. I am not trying to argue with statistics. But there is something disturbing about the way we discuss men and pornography. Indeed, there is something more at stake here, and the statement that porn-use is inevitable for all men is problematic for a number of reasons.
First, to insist “all men look at porn” is, like most broad generalizations, simply false. Statistics on porn consumption range from claiming 64 percent to 80 percent of men are habitual users, but regardless of the precise numbers there is an active and growing movement against pornography of which men are a vital part. What’s more, there are whole societies of people who fall in line with Russell Brand, who have found porn use damaging and addictive, and have found healing in self-restraint.
The Reddit community No Fap, in which members challenge themselves to give up porn and masturbating, has garnered more than 140,000 members. The group provides support, camaraderie, advice, and—notably—success stories for those looking to “recover from porn-induced sexual dysfunction, stop objectifying and establish meaningful connections, improve your interpersonal relationships, live a more fulfilling life.” One needs only to peruse the wealth of success stories posted there to find that men, even those recovering from serious addictive behavior, are not powerless to resist it.
And yet, though this evidence of men avoiding porn is comforting and inspiring, it is ultimately beside the point. The insistence that men cannot help but look at porn is problematic for a much more serious reason than the mere fact that it is not true. Regardless of the number of men who look at porn—be it none, some, or all—to suggest they don’t have a choice in the matter is demeaning. To say that men, by their very natures, are slaves to their sexual appetites, is to deny them free will—and their very humanity.
There is a significant difference between acknowledging that porn use is common and insisting that it has to be. One does not necessarily follow from the other. Demonstrating that all men partake in a particular activity is not sufficient to prove that they have to. If it were, one might easily conclude that because all men have eaten fast food at some point, they are incapable of surviving without it.
This illogical reasoning is particularly problematic in a society striving for gender equality and against sexism. Indeed, excusing male behavior on account of some constrained view of “human nature” is reminiscent of that archaic brand of sexism that claims women can’t take on leadership roles because our decisions are invariably dictated by emotion. Or that women can’t properly manage our finances because our “natures” render us defenseless against the shiny gleam of a new pair of shoes. In these cases, “nature” is just another word for “prejudiced stereotype.” By insisting that financial irresponsibility or emotional recklessness are the necessary results of the female “nature,” we are at once absolved of these behaviors and shackled to them. Likewise, denying men’s ability to resist porn may excuse their conduct, but it also confines them to it. Porn addiction (which neuroscientists have compared to cocaine addiction) is a serious matter, but it can be overcome. To deny men the opportunity to do so isn’t kind to men; it does them a disservice.
It is possible for men to reject pornography. I know this because I am engaged to a man who has done so for years. But even if he struggled and failed in his efforts to avoid pornography, I would never denigrate him by assuming he can’t control himself enough to refrain from it. So let’s change the way we discuss pornography. Let’s promote a dialogue that does not demean men by claiming that their natures render them powerless in the face of porn. Let’s elevate the conversation by refusing to deny men their free will. Because men—and we all—deserve that.