Rebecca Self, Religion & Ethics Editor

College communities spark conversation on pornography, its ill effects

Last year, the chief executive officers of several large American hotel chains received a respectful yet strongly worded letter from two academics, Robert George and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. One year later—this September—the two wrote to the same CEOs to urge them to follow the example of a Scandinavian hotel owner, Petter Stordalen, who had stopped offering pornography in his hotel entertainment systems.

A year after Yusuf and George wrote their first letter, Marriott announced that they will be “phasing out” the pornography that is currently available to their guests.  What did these two collegiate men say that changed its mind?

George, one of the most esteemed American Catholic thinkers alive, teaches law at Princeton and Harvard.  Yusuf founded and serves as president of a college for the study of Islam within the context of Western thought.  Despite their religious differences and career obligations, the two men decided to work together to fight what they perceive to be the “degrading, dehumanizing, and corrupting” business of pornography.  Their letter to the CEOs advocates for a shared inter-faith “commitment to human dignity and the common good.”

“Pornography is degrading, dehumanizing, and corrupting,” George and Yusuf wrote.  “It undermines self-respect and respect for others.  It reducespersons—creatures bearing profound, inherent, and equal dignity—to the status of objects.  It robs a central aspect of our humanity—our sexuality—of its dignity and beauty.  It ensnares some in addiction.  It deprives others of their sense of self-worth.  It teaches our young people to settle for the cheap satisfactions of lust, rather than to do the hard, yet ultimately liberating and fulfilling, work of love.”

Beyond the negative effects of pornography on individuals, there are societal factors to consider.  Stordalen is adamant that the element of human trafficking must not be ignored.  George and Yusuf agree; they challenge the leaders of the hospitality industry not to tolerate a system that has “horrific consequences for real live people—addicts, spouses, children, communities, girls and women trafficked into sexual servitude.”  Ethical business practice thus demands the rejection of pornography, according to the Catholic and Muslim scholars.

Although George and Yusuf hope to make an impact by calling on industry leaders to reject an immoral system of human trafficking, it is true that people can access pornography anywhere, any time and free of charge using personal computers and phones.  Previous Rover pieces by writers Michael Bradley, Chris Damian and Erin Stoyell-Mulholland examined the use of pornography through Notre Dame’s network.  In one study of over 400 Notre Dame students, over 86 percent of men and 37 percent of women admitted to viewing pornography on university networks or knowing someone personally who did so.  Given such widespread personal access, what effect can Marriott or Hilton really have?

Other opponents of pornography take different approaches to try and restrict or diminish its popularity.  Some critique the industry from social and relational perspectives, rather than from religious and ethical grounds.

Far from being a Catholic professor or Islamic scholar, popular actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt recently directed and starred in Don Jon, a film about a man’s pornography addiction.  The movie, according to, is all about how Jon and Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson, “struggle against a media culture full of false fantasies to try and find true intimacy.”

Don Jon’s critics awarded an 83 percent approval rating on the rottentomatoes website.  One critic, Ken Hanke, wrote, “I find it a film that’s much easier to admire than actually like.”  Perhaps a story of the far-reaching impact of a sexual addiction on an otherwise healthy young man’s life is probably not meant to be enjoyed, but to provoke introspection and stir up conversation.

The fact that a wildly popular young actor has chosen to portray the negative influence of pornography on all aspects of a person’s life is striking, to say the least.  The fact that two distinguished scholars from different religious backgrounds have united to call upon the hospitality industry to make a change also speaks volumes.  These important conversations are happening in society.  Is Notre Dame taking part?

George and Yusuf’s articles can be found online at Public Discourse. The Rover articles on the use of pornography at Nore Dame can be found in the archives of the Rover’s website.

Rebecca Self is a sophomore political science major with a minor in education.  She doesn’t have enough emails in her inbox, since the pace of life at Notre Dame is so slow.  Send her an email at with any comments or feedback.