Experience and evidence suggest that viewing pornography is almost a universally accepted practice by men. A majority of men view pornography, and most on a regular basis. Increasingly, as researchers Mary Crabbe and Michael Flood note in a 2017 report entitled, “School-based education to address pornography’s influence on young people: A best practice framework”, adolescent boys are using on-line pornography as a way
to supplement the sexuality education they are receiving at home and in school.
As with any media, the images, words and depictions of pornography convey more than just the “story” of nudity and graphic sex. Imbedded within pornography are a host of values and norms; values and norms that may well conflict with the values and norms of the men who are viewing pornography. Because these values and norms are imbedded and not explicitly expressed, when men consume pornography, they also consume these norms and values. Further, because men most often are masturbating while consuming pornography, the values and norms that they are consuming are being directly connected to the pleasure centers of the brain. The result? These norms and values are much more deeply integrated and internalized than other information that men who view pornography are taking in.
Because men rarely, if ever, pay attention to these imbedded values and norms, (and, if they do don’t look at them critically), they are in affect internalizing values and norms about women, men and masculinity, sex and sexuality, racism, objectification, harm, violence, among others, that if they were paying attention, they would actually find deplorable.
I grew up in a “sex positive” household in the 1970s and ‘80s in south Texas. My parents were sexuality educators and along with the premier editions of Our Bodies Our Selves we had my dad’s Playboy and Penthouse—all on our living room bookshelf. I grew up viewing pornography. When I attended college in the mid-eighties and started to become aware and more educated about rape, domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence, I was also, for the first time, exposed to a feminist critique of pornography. I was forced to reflect on my patterns of viewing pornography and the impact it had, as well as noticing the patterns of pornography viewing among the men in the college dorms I lived in. One of my reflections was the degree to which my own flirting was based on sexualizing and objectifying the women I flirted with. As I started to better understand the harm that women experience as a result of men’s sexualized objectification, I realized that I wanted to change how I flirted. But I had so deeply integrated what I had learned form viewing pornography (likely magnified by the absence of any other information about how to flirt) that I didn’t have any idea how to flirt without sexualizing or objectifying. I realized that for me, I needed to take a hiatus from flirting and dating until I could get my mind right. (It is worth noting that as I started to figure out how to flirt without sexualizing or objectifying, I came to realize that I am attracted to people— sometimes female, sometimes male.)
What I saw from my male peers in college and since—coupled with what I have learned from men as I work to prevent all forms of gender-based violence—suggests that my experience is not unique.
These factors laid the foundation for creating a program for men to critically examine the impact of pornography. What’s Wrong with This Picture™ (WWWTP) is designed to support and encourage men to seriously investigate the impact viewing pornography has on men. There are several aspects to the program, but the main feature is an eight-session curriculum with critical reflection at it core.
Based on media literacy practice, the curriculum is an activity-rich initiative that supports men to identify some of the values and norms that are inherent in pornography and to examine the degree to which the values and norms that are part of the pornography they are consuming align with their own values and norms.
What’s Wrong with this Picture is not value neutral. It is informed by the wealth of data that demonstrates that viewing pornography is harmful to men and is detrimental to efforts to achieve gender equality and women’s human rights. The messages, norms and values inherent in pornography are irreconcilable with the messages, norms and values of gender equality and sexual liberation. Still, using a media literacy framework, the program welcomes groups of men into an environment that does not judge them for their experiences of viewing pornography.
Men’s viewing of pornography, while nearly universal and no real secret, is also something that men tend to feel somewhat ambivalent about. Engaging them in a critical reflection of pornography often generates some initial defensiveness, and many men have experienced some significant shaming about masturbation and pornography viewing. Holding a non-judgmental perspective encourages them to soften their defenses (which allows them to more fully participate) and provides opportunities for them to acknowledge their experiences of shaming.
WWWTP facilitates an examination of the impact of viewing of pornography by addressing among other topics:
- Men’s views of masculinity
- Men’s views of women and femininity
- Men’s experience of sex and sexuality
- Men’s practices of flirting, dating and negotiating sex
One early activity, for example invites men to place different depictions within pornography, and experiences within pornography on a continuum of harm. They are asked to “rate” the degree to which depictions and experiences are harmful such as: viewing depictions of anal sex; watching pornography without their partners knowledge; viewing pornography with their 17-year old son; viewing pornography with their 15-year old daughter, among other examples.
By placing these depictions and experiences on a continuum of harm, participants observe the strong differences of opinion that exist among men. For many men, this is their first experience considering these differences. Most men assume that since pornography use is normal, than their experience of viewing pornography is normal. Though this exercise, they are confronted with other men—their peers—who consider what they are doing to be more harmful. Through this activity, they are hearing directly, from other men, resulting in their beginning to reconsider the level of harm that they are condoning or contributing to by the kinds of pornography they are consuming.
The last two sessions invite men to plan how they might become more active in efforts to prevent gender-based violence and/or promote gender equality.
What’s Wrong with This Picture was designed using an “emergent curriculum” design. That is, the first several iterations of the curriculum were loosely outlined efforts. The men who were involved in the first several versions were invited to not only participate, but also help design the curriculum. The result is that much of the content, including the way the content is presented— and the activities described—were introduced by the men who participated, (or emerged from the process in earlier iterations. This philosophy is built into the curriculum now. Facilitators are encouraged to make the process as emergent as possible, allowing for a richness and depth in the group process that is often lacking in more traditional educational curriculum.
What’s Wrong with This Picture is the only curriculum currently available in the US designed to engage adult men in examining their use of pornography. It is part of a larger more, comprehensive project that continues to grow, with tools, resources and materials designed to help unpack the harms of viewing pornography Some of these resources include, for example, campus resources for encouraging these conversations with college students, materials for parents to talk with their sons, and more.
Not all men who go through this program are going to stop viewing pornography. But the vast majority are likely going to re-think how they use pornography and pay different kinds of attention to how it affects them. I wish that I had the opportunity to engage in something like this, along-side other men, when I was struggling with my own pornography viewing. Rather than being — and feeling — isolated on my college campus, I would have found a community, something men have always needed and especially need today.
As published in VoiceMale Magazine (Spring, 2019). To learn more about Voice Male, order a copy of the Spring issue, or subscribe, visit www.voicemalemagazine.org.