Porn is everywhere. But that’s not what’s killing marriage.

Cardinal Newman Pornography Effects - July 2013 Revised

Has pornography ruined sex? Pat Fagan thinks so.

"What we really have is a pagan sexuality, which is totally different from a Christian sexuality," Fagan told an audience Wednesday of mostly young people, naming vampire fetishes, bestiality and intercourse between same-sex partners as examples of the porn trends sweeping the nation. "Our teenagers today cannot know what is natural, sexually. That's what we've done."

Fagan, Director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI), was speaking at the Family Research Council on the enticing subject "Porn in the Dorm: The Impact of Pornography on College Campus Life." That might have been a bit of an oversell on the part of the FRC, which has no doubt noticed the enduring interest in college sexual habits - -Fagan's presentation barely mentioned it. Instead, he spent the better part of the hour talking about the effect of pornography on relationships generally.

Drawing on a 2009 paper, Fagan described how pornography desensitizes men to their wives, breeds depression and isolation, and foments infidelity, ultimately leading to divorce. It's part of the general trend away from traditional marriage toward a looser, less obligatory form of romantic involvement. Like what they talk about in the Atlantic magazine, Fagan said. (It's hard to know which of many articles he was referring to).

"These are our elite leaders, women leaders in business," Fagan fretted. "It's this, it's the hookup culture." Also, only ever having sex with one person is the best way to happiness, because there's nothing to compare it to. "Those who are monogamous have the best sex they'll ever know, because they don't know anything else," he reasoned.

Granted, it may not be a particularly valuable exercise to pick apart the scientific claims of a spokesman for an institution that is ideologically committed to Judeo-Christian values. But this isn't some backwater policy shop. It's one of the leading organizations opposing same-sex marriage in the states, has a wide reach in conservative colleges, and provides talking points to the socially conservative political establishment (Fagan himself served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Family and Community Policy in the George H. W. Bush administration).

And Fagan's analysis brings up three important issues.

First, we really don't know as much as we should about the effects of porn on society generally. Janet Rosenbaum, of the SUNY Downstate School of Public Health, says there are hardly any rigorous studies on the subject -- political risks make the government squeamish about funding porn research, making research funds scarce.

"People go through the database of the grants given by the government and pull things out and say 'look, the government's wasting money,'" Rosenbaum says. "The amount of money is small and shrinking."

Second, there are a whole lot more important drivers that do impact relationships, and the long-term decline of marriage, more than porn. A 2010 paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research identified a host of economic factors as the primary drivers, like technology that makes housework less valuable. Education, actually, is strongly correlated with higher rates of happiness in marriage. So academic researchers aren't particularly interested in studying the effect of porn on relationships specifically.

"I think that just testing the idea of porn impacting relationships is an intrinsically conservative idea," Rosenbaum said. "If you went to scholars of marriage and family about the issues that are important, it wouldn't make their top 20 list."

And third, for all we know, porn is good for relationships. Bryant Paul, a professor of telecommunications at Indiana University-Bloomington, says that watching porn doesn't desensitize men to sex; they tend to have fairly insatiable appetites. It's also reasonable to expect, he says, that viewing porn could give couples new ideas to keep sex fresh, as well as serve as an outlet from the monotony of monogamy without resorting to infidelity.

"I'm not saying that porn has no harmful effects," Paul says. "But to accept out of hand that it's absolutely harmful to relationships is ridiculous. They're really manipulating the data to suggest that it's all porn's fault."

At least Fagan knows how to sell his movement, though. When a concerned young man asked how to talk to people afflicted by the porn epidemic, the grandfatherly lecturer advised him to focus on the benefits in the bedroom -- scientifically supported or not.

"You tell them, 'we know how to have sex much better than you guys,'" he said. "'We've got it more orgasmic, more enjoyable, more frequent!'"

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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