“The University prides itself on being an environment of teaching and learning that fosters the development in its students of those disciplined habits of mind, body, and spirit that characterize educated, skilled, and free human beings.”—Notre Dame Mission statement.
The personal and societal impact of pornography usage has drawn increasingly intense scrutiny from social scientists, legal scholars, neuroscientists and family therapists. Yet, pornography is nearly never mentioned in Notre Dame’s discussions of gender relations, sexual assault and related moral issues.
In exploring the effects of pornography usage on individuals and campus communities alike, the Rover interviewed Dr. Jill C. Manning, a marital and family therapist who specializes in the effects of pornography use on individuals and their relationships.
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Irish Rover: What are the cornerstones of your belief that pornography is harmful?
Manning: They stem from research and my clinical observation as a therapist. Before grad school, I wanted to specialize in women’s mental health…but later I began to see how critical this issue is. When I was a therapist at a high-need school, a kindergartner brought a graphic, highly sexual magazine for show-and-tell, and I had to deal with that. The more questions I asked of my clients, the more prevalent pornography became….I slipped into the cultural stream of this issue which really tutored me—I didn’t go in with a preconceived notion that pornography affects a lot of people. And in all my years of research, I’ve just never seen any evidence that this is a good thing.
Your husband is a doctor; are there medical facts that back up your conviction?
It’s not really my area of expertise, but I don’t think it’s an accident that we’re seeing this correlation between the internet pornography explosion and the rise in use of erectile dysfunction drugs. That’s just one example. I’ve read enough of the medical research to say I believe it supports what the social science literature is saying.
Approximately what percentage of your therapy clients have mentioned pornography as a part of their struggle?
That’s a tricky question. I would say approximately one third of my clients, from 5 to 80 years of age, were dealing with pornography, prior to specializing in this. Now it’s close to 100 percent, but that isn’t representative of the general population.
Do you think people assume too frequently that pornography is just an issue for young men?
Yes, I do. I wish we would think of it more systemically because it’s all connected. What one gender is struggling with, the other is as well. What degrades one person degrades everyone else. We do know that this is a growing issue and problem for young women…There’s a great study by Jason Carroll, “Generation XXX,” that looked at pornography use in college students. He found that 31 percent of women are using pornography, and 49 percent say it is acceptable. Young women today are more accepting of pornography than their fathers were just one generation ago. Carroll’s study also found that 87 percent of young men are using pornography, and 67 percent of them say it is acceptable.
What do you think of the idea that emotional literature or movies can function as a sort of pornography for women?
That’s a complex question. I do not restrict my definition of pornography to any one format or type of material, or even the severity of that material. Legally, that’s what we do in this country. But what’s legally classified as soft-core can still have negative impacts on people. To me, if there are negative impacts on people, it doesn’t matter whether it’s hard-core or soft-core.
That being said, we know from the research that some types of pornography are more harmful than others—highly graphic pornography, scenes involving children, violent material. What has happened to us, as women, that the Fifty Shades trilogy has become the fastest-selling paperback of all time? I think it speaks to the increased acceptance that women have toward pornography, and how pornography has changed to be more tailored toward women. There are more women executives in the industry now, so there is more pornography by women, for women.
What do you think are the three most significant effects of pornography use on a college student’s future?
This is really hard to answer. There’s just so much that I would want college students to know. For a sound-bite answer: Based on research and clinical observation, pornography undermines sexual, social and spiritual development, regardless of gender, age and background. I know there are people who say, “Not for me, I’m the exception,” but when we look at general social science research, those are the findings, and I think people should know that.
Here at Notre Dame, there are many initiatives against sexual violence and the objectification of women. Do you think there is any link between pornography and these issues?
There are many, many studies that show that pornography use is correlated with sexual violence, and the age of perpetration is decreasing. It’s alarming. Our numbers on teen rape in this country are shameful; we’re among the worst in the Western world. I like flipping the question—where are the studies that show the benefits of pornography? We have five decades of solid research behind us, but we’re still trapped in this outdated debate about freedom of speech. It’s very frustrating. Pornography has far-reaching mental effects; it’s not a habit like biting your nails. We have done a nice job in this country of converting people to the idea of environmentalism. I’ve seen people hyperventilate when someone throws a plastic bottle or piece of paper into the trash. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for it, but what I don’t understand is our obsession at the university level with our external environment—how much attention are we paying to our internal environment?
I looked up a list of student groups at [Notre Dame] and didn’t see any about this issue, but I saw many about protecting the environment. People see each piece of paper, each bottle, as important and connected. Commercials make us see that we are all interrelated, that our driving habits affect polar bears, for example. And I think that’s how we should act about pornography. People are connected like that. Each click, each look, it matters.
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If pornography is as harmful as Manning says, what are the ramifications for the Notre Dame community?
Gerard V. Bradley, law professor and a member of the Rover’s council of advisors, says that the administration is not doing all it should to monitor pornography use at Notre Dame.
“Undoubtedly Notre Dame has the legal and moral authority to forbid any accessing of porn [since] many government agencies, businesses, and other public facilities (like libraries) have such zero tolerance policies,” he wrote in an email correspondence with the Rover. “The university should investigate these possibilities and implement any which are both feasible and prudent.”
The administration’s history of enforcing restrictions on pornography is dubious. Erin Stoyell-Mulholland ‘15, current president of ND Right to Life, wrote a spring 2013 Rover article entitled, “Informal Study: Thousands Access Pornography over ND Network.” In that piece, she quoted a statement by University Spokesperson Dennis Brown’s on pornography viewing at Notre Dame:
“When brought to our attention, we reserve the right to investigate any claim of inappropriate use of technology resources by a student or employee, and when we find a violation we can and will assess an appropriate sanction…The university relies on the integrity of our students, faculty and staff to abide by this and other policies.”
No interpretational guidelines were offered for determination of what “inappropriate use” or “appropriate sanction” means.
Stoyell-Mulholland’s article cited a survey conducted by Chris Damian (‘13) on pornography use at Notre Dame, the results of which called into question the strength of Brown’s assertion that the administration can rely on network users’ integrity.
According to Damian’s survey of over 400 people, 63 percent of men and 11 percent of women responded “yes” to the question, “Have you ever viewed pornography over the Internet while on campus at Notre Dame?” When presented with these statistics, Brown said, “We stand by our previous statement and have nothing to add.”
Michael Bradley ‘14, current Editor-in-Chief of the Rover, encountered silence from the administration in 2011 when he wrote an article entitled “Does Pornography Contribute to the Hook-up Culture?” The communications director of the Office of Information Technology (OIT), which is responsible for monitoring internet use at ND, and the vice president of the Office of Student Affairs both ignored Rover inquiries. Other OIT and Human Resources officials referred Bradley to Brown.
Bradley did receive a response from Doctor David Moss, then the interim director of the Gender Relations Center (GRC), who said, “Our best weapon against this societal ill is to educate our student body about the havoc objectification of the other has on genuine relationships, and the GRC hopes to be a participant in these conversations.”
The GRC has a number of initiatives to fight sexual harassment and violence at Notre Dame, but has offered little to no formal programming on pornography or its destructive effects.
Multiple requests for comment sent to Alex Coccia, student body president and an active member of the GRC, were not returned.
Stephen Charnley, co-president of the GRC’s Men Against Violence group, shared his thoughts with the Rover: “In the GRC, we are concerned about preventing sexual violence from occurring in the first place, and to do that, it starts with the mind.”
According to Charnley, sexual violence may follow from pornography addiction because it “creates a standard in [the viewer’s] mind that is different from reality” and “can lead to bad relationship habits.”
He said that the university has turned a blind eye to the issue.
“With the increase in sexual assaults and forcible fondling, it might be time that Notre Dame should do something about it,” he said.
The argument that pornography use is linked to sexual violence is supported by the work of scholars like Donna Hughes of the University of Rhode Island, who, with Manning, Bradley and other scholars, contributed to the 2012 collection of essays titled The Social Costs of Pornography.
In correspondence with the Rover, Hughes said that pornography “contributes to the misogyny women and girls experience today,” even in places like Notre Dame. Thus the GRC and the university as a whole, as Charnley wrote, have strong incentives to “do something about it.”
The administration has been reticent in the past to discuss this issue, but pornography use is rampant at Notre Dame, and many informed people assert that it is neither harmless nor private. How will Notre Dame respond to these scholars and to her own faculty and students?
For more information see Robert George’s essay, “Making Children Moral: Pornography, Parents and the Public Interest.”
Rebecca Self is a sophomore political science major with a minor in education, schooling and society. She bemoans the fact that the Fifty Shades trilogy has surpassed Harry Potter as the fasting-selling paperbacks in history. Commiserate at firstname.lastname@example.org.