Keep Your Hands Where I Can See Them


The Great Porn Experiment–TEDTalk (Click to view the 15 minute video)

In my English 1302 course, my students have to write a research paper and I allow them to choose any topic that interests them. Except abortion, Elvis sightings, the death penalty, and UFOs: “No one, especially a first year college student,” I tell them, “can separate belief from opinion, fact from fiction, or faith from rationality with regard to any of those topics.” More important, these are such highly charged and emotional issues that students too often assume the grade is relative to whether I agree or disagree with them. Any potential learning goes out the window when they assume they failed because I am either 1) a liberal pinko communist sympathizer or 2) a conservative right wing nut job.

In other words, my life is much easier if we just avoid certain topics. Plus, half the students in my class did an awful job in their high school debate class defending the right to life or the right to choose. Budding young Clarence Darrow’s they are not.

So, shortly after I started teaching when a student told me he wanted to write about porn addiction, my only recourse was to tell him no visual aids. (I had to say the same thing to the student who wanted to write about the lingerie retail business, arguing for the positive psychological impact of matching bras and panties. It was a strange semester.)

My porn addiction student (and, yes, when you’ve taught enough students that’s the only way we can remember them sometimes) did a pretty good job. His argument, simply put, was that the internet was transforming the distribution of pornography and the easy availability would create addictions. These addictions would destroy families, he argued, and lead to the downfall of civilization. (Remember–he was 18. Hyperbole is second nature to many first year college writers. Notably, he and lingerie woman should have joined forces–she argued that Victoria’s Secret might save marriages by making women feel sexy and confident.)

Despite his over zealous claims at the end of his essay, his paper hinged not on pornography itself (although he argued any porn was bad porn). Instead, he argued that the internet would increase the amount of porn people saw and that increase would create a corresponding increase in divorce.

For an 18 year old student, the argument was relatively sophisticated and he did a pretty good job of gathering scholarly sources. Even at the time, I had my doubts about some of his conclusions, but the nature of a first year research paper isn’t to be perfect. His job was to gather scholarly papers, write well, and use that information to think critically about a topic.

My student was probably wrong about increased porn availability and divorce, but it does appear that he was correct in foreseeing the inherent dangers of wide-spread pornography.

I’m sure, at this point in the blog, I should make the requisite announcement that I’m no internet porn expert, but I should also note that I have two teen-age boys at home. My wife and I, as you might imagine, are cognizant of the delicate balancing act between teaching our kids how to respect the human body, working hard to protect them from inappropriate images, and recognizing that their bodies are taking that evolutionary ride toward manhood.

But, in our ever connected world, their opportunities often exceed our ability to monitor them.

They are, in short, becoming increasingly aware of their manhood. (Although as a dad, I think I’m supposed to hitch up my pants, shrug my shoulders, and declare proudly “There ain’t nothing short about their manhood. If you know what I mean.”) We know they’ve both accessed porn on our computer. (I can assure you that we don’t make it easy but passwords and a central location are no match for a determined teenager.)

Either way, as we are able to increase our understanding of the brain via neuroscience and as we watch the first generation truly raised on the easy availability of high speed internet, we can begin measuring the impact of long-term exposure to, well, exposure.

And it’s not pretty. Scientists are finding that long term exposure to internet porn, coupled with, well, auto-coupling creates both physical and psychological problems. In essence, virtual stimulation might stop real penetration. As important, viewing internet port and masturbating creates a chemical reaction that mirrors other addictions. As viewers get addicted, they, literally, can’t get an erection and perform in real life. (It’s like being addicted to whiskey without the hangover or bad breath!)

In other words, the irony of internet porn is that you know 100 different positions, but you can’t actually perform any of them.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not interested in making light of the situation. (Although I’m an American male and talking about sex and masturbation brings out the junior high kid in me.)

Any addiction is problematic and I suspect we will see more and more studies looking at the brain’s reaction to visual stimuli and the internet. We already are witnessing the different ways these students interact with material and the influence visual stimuli have on the evolution of the brain. We know, simply put, that the internet is re-wiring that mass of tissue between our ears. As our Net Generation goes to college, such studies will be increasingly important and, perhaps, helpful.

Especially, if we can find a way to get kids hooked on reading novels. I guess putting pictures of naked bodies in the books isn’t a good idea, though.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

3 Responses to Keep Your Hands Where I Can See Them

  1. Reblogged this on Christopher V. Alexander – Husband, Father, Teacher, Coach, Author and commented:
    Only after collecting my sophomores’ proposals for their persuasive research papers today – in other words, only after it was too late – did I remember this post. I swore a year ago that I would adopt (read: plagiarize) John’s rules. And then I forgot all about it.

    Fortunately, I’ve never had to deal with papers about porn addiction or the lingerie industry (the sophomore who asked if she could read FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY for a literary analysis research paper notwithstanding). But I have had to deal with far too many essays about abortion, gay marriage, legalization of marijuana, the death penalty, etc written by sheltered teenagers with tunnel vision.

    That said, if just one of my students can give me cause to reflect in the manner Wegner does here, it might all be worthwhile.

  2. A powerful piece, John. I enjoy your blog immensely. A challenge for you and perhaps for all of us with teenage or younger children…is it ever possible to really connect with the world in which they currently or indeed will soon being living? Our experiences as children were so radically different (every parents’ mantra I suppose) and their future state seeming so unknowable…I remember as a child being told to stop reading so much because I would miss what was going on outside as we drove for hours and hours through Europe…and my parents were reasonably well educated!

    • John Wegner says:

      Thanks for the comment. I know it does sound cliched, but the rate of change between my childhood and my children’s childhood seems exponential. And fast. Just when we figure out how to manage one device, the next year we are faced with another. Crazy world.

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