Playing the Gender Card: Bad Arguments in Defense of Pornography

Jun 18, 2012
Sex Talk
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In a recent blog entry, “Pornography Splits Men’s Consciousness”, I pointed out that pornography gives pleasure only because arousal can be triggered by imagination. Images on a screen or words on a page trigger similar physiological responses to skin and caress. Sex is “in the head” as well as in the genitals. Because what we repeatedly imagine shapes how we perceive ourselves and others, habitual use of pornography not only arouses, it tutors our imagination. I summarized the evidence given by philosopher Harry Brod and psychologist Ian Cook that pornography tutors men toward performance anxiety.

I found it interesting that several of the commenters on “Pornography Splits Men’s Consciousness” called into question my credentials for writing on this topic because I am not male. The female partners or wives of those who consume pornography are irrationally jealous or overly possessive. Women just don’t “get” what it is like to be male. For men, consuming pornography is normal. Marty Klein expressed similar sentiments in “Porn Addict or selfish Bastard? Life is more complicated than that”.

This type of argument amounts to “playing the gender card.” To play the gender card is to dismiss someone’s views as being suspect because they have those views only because they are of a particular gender. “Sorry, Caroline, you can’t talk about the effect of pornography on men, because you aren’t male.” I found this a very odd rebuttal to an essay summarizing what a male philosopher and a male psychologist had said about the effects of pornography. But even if the authors I cited had been females, this rebuttal would have been a species of ad hominem fallacy. This fallacy is common; for an explanation of why it is defective argumentation, see any introductory logic book.

Are there interesting gender differences that make men more likely to want to consume pornography? Catherine Salmon (“The Pop Culture of Sex”) thinks that there are. She points out that both romance novels and pornography are multibillion dollar industries. It is no accident, she thinks, that their audiences are gendered. Women are the main consumers of romance fiction, while the majority of pornography-consumers being male.

Why? Because of different selection pressures males and females faced in seeking mates over human evolutionary history. Salmon observes that sex in what she calls “pornotopia” is “about lust and physical gratification, without courtship, commitment, mating effort or long-term relationships.” In contrast, in the majority of romance novels the plot has a heroine who overcomes obstacles to achieve what promises to be a long term relationship with a man who is right for her. These contrasting erotic fantasies stem from promiscuity having been evolutionarily advantageous for men, while pickiness and stability have been advantageous for women.

Whether Salmon’s evolutionary explanation of the gendering of sexual pop culture are credible, it should be noted that they do not settle the question of whether either the habitual consumption of pornography or romance novels are healthy. There are, after all, evolutionary explanations of our obesity epidemic. Sometimes what we want—whether that’s another chocolate éclair or skin flick—is not what’s best for us.

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