By Jonathon Van Maren
Another update from the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation Summit in Houston, Texas
September 29, 2016 (continued)
At dinner, Josh asked me what stood out at the conference so far. I had to think. On one hand, I’d absorbed a lot of extraordinarily depressing information. On the other hand, I’d never been in one place with so many intelligent and passionate people on fire to fight porn and root out sexual exploitation.
“I feel like I’ve been ‘re-depressed’ at the size of the problem as it’s been reiterated, but also re-energized,” I responded. Josh agreed. The good news, he pointed out, is that the size of the problem is just coming into view, but we finally have people and organizations and resources growing by the day to help us confront and deal with it. And we need it—as the first fully pornified generation starts entering into long-term relationships and marriages, the Internet lifestyles they’ve taken for granted are suddenly going to begin destroying the relationships they’re trying to build.
It’s sort of like an incoming tsunami. First, all the water pulls back, and we see the scummy sea bottom and all the trash that’s there. And then, the wave hits. That’s where our culture is right now—the wave is hanging over us, and the crash is coming.
Dinner began with a video of Texas Governor Gregg Abott welcoming the conference attendees to his state. He listed off the different initiatives that Texas was undertaking to combat sexual exploitation, and then noted that his goal was not just to make Texas safe for women, but hostile to predators. It seemed like a very Texan thing to say.
As we ate our meal, Patrick Truemen and Dawn Hawkins presented awards to four anti-porn pioneers: Dr. Laura J. Ledger, renowned legal scholar and “luminary in the fight to abolish human trafficking and exploitation,” Robert Rowling, the CEO of TRT Holdings (which owns Omni Hotels and Resorts), which banned pay-per-view porn from the hotel chain—this award was accepted by the hotel manager—Clay Olsen of Fight the New Drug, and Edwin Meese III, who could not be present. There are roars of applause, as Hawkins, fighting back tears, described the progress the anti-porn movement has made in just the last few years.
The after-dinner keynote address was by Nancy Jo Sales, an award-winning journalist who works for Vanity Fair. Her book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers was published in February and rapidly became a New York Times bestseller. She was thrilled to see so many of us there to strategize the demise of the porn industry, she said, but her research gives her no current reason for optimism.
Sales had not originally been opposed to porn. She thought it was okay. Then, her editor Graydon Carter came into her office. He’d been noticing the horrible stories of revenge porn, girls committing suicide, and sexting run amok. “What’s up with the girls?” he asked. Sales set off to find out.
She traveled to ten states and talked to 200 girls, choosing them at random. The first girls she talked to—hanging out at The Grove in Los Angeles—gave her an answer she would hear over and over again. “I’m writing a story on girls,” she told them. “What’s going on with you?” The response: Social media is destroying our lives. But we can’t get off it, because then we’d have no life at all.
This story is true, says Sales, from the projects in the Bronx to the most prestigious homes in LA. Girls are dealing with sexual harassment, bullying, and the nonstop pressure to act like porn stars. We are living, Sales told us, in an unprecedented historical moment. Our behaviour is changing rapidly based on the introduction of technology and social media, and it’s transforming teen culture.
Girls get hurt the worst. The pressure to be “hot” is crazy—and the pressure to get “likes” on social media is insane. The hotter you are, says Sales, the more likes you get. Likes are social currency. “If I post a picture of me winning the math contest,” one girl told her. “I won’t get any likes. If I post a picture of me in a bikini, I’ll get 300.” For girls to get attention, they have to present a porn aesthetic. What we’re seeing is the complete sexualisation of an entire generation. Everyone has been boiled down to pictures.
Those pictures, Sales noted, had something disturbing about them. She couldn’t put a finger on it at first. And when she did, it repulsed her. “These pictures look like porn. And these are children.”
Nearly every single school, she discovered has what is called a “SlutPage.” These are pages on Facebook and Instagram, and boys will use them to upload nude pictures of the girls they go to school with. The pictures are aggregated, creating an amateur porn site of what often constitutes child pornography.
Sales grows passionate as she describes the fallout. One girl recently killed herself because a sex tape of her was sent out on SnapChat. Her parents hadn’t even heard of the “sexting app.” A beautiful 15-year-old girl killed herself after someone posted a video of her taking a shower on SnapChat. Girls have moved to different towns after pictures and videos have been distributed throughout their entire communities. What we’re seeing, says Sales, is the mass distribution of self-generated child porn.
The social media culture is also giving rise to a toxic “bro-culture,” where boys are using pictures of girls to achieve power over the girls and social prominence in the schools. They use the pictures as currency. When Sales asked boys about sexting, they showed her that they all had naked pictures of girls on their phone. They weren’t ashamed. This was normal. But the boys, she says, are acting like predators and pornographers. They groom girls to send pictures. One thirteen-year-old, she said, simply sent a message to a girl that read “Send noodz.” Sales asked her how that made her feel. “I didn’t know he thought I was attractive,” she replied.
The problem is clear, but the solution is more elusive. The law doesn’t know what to do, Sales told us. What are they supposed to do? Start locking up teenagers? She throws up her hands in frustration. “I don’t know what the solution is. We need to teach them empathy. We just need to teach them how to be good people.”
On that sober note and a standing ovation, the dinner program is over.
After the keynote, I meet up in the hotel bar with Matt Fradd, Noah Church (author of Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn), and Dr. Robert Jensen (author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity). Dr. Jensen, who I’ve interviewed before for my radio show, was attempting to convince us that his radical feminist outlook—patriarchy is the problem—was the perfect framework through which to understand all the speeches we’d heard today. I almost hadn’t recognized him at first when I spotted him earlier in the hallway–he was dressed in stained green cargo shorts and a t-shirt sporting a constellation of tiny holes in it. We were soon joined by Alexander Rhodes, founder of the secular anti-porn site nofap.com. We headed out to the hotel patio for a cigar.
Outside, Gabe Deem waved us over. Conversation wandered over to why people got involved in the anti-porn movement, as everyone chuckled at the strange collection of people gathered in Houston for the conference. “I got involved because I had ED and I was meeting guys with the same thing who were miserable and suicidal,” Deem said. Noah Church agreed with him.
Deem began to tell Fradd about David Ley, one of Dr. Donald Hilton’s so-called “porn profs.” Ley had been on the same show as Deem when they were interviewed on porn by Katie Couric, and apparently the crowd turned against Ley pretty quickly when he insisted that there was no evidence for porn addiction, despite the fact that Deem, who grew up thinking porn was sex-positive, had just told his story. Deem reads out the YouTube comments under the video. The commenters seem to agree that Ley is a moron, at best. Everyone found this to be a very accurate assessment.
At that point, Nancy Jo Sales wandered out onto the patio and asked if she could have a cigar. She sat down with a sigh, and I wondered how many conferences she went to that featured three straight days of depressing porn details. I asked her if she’d read Hanna Rosin’s book The End of Men, and she sat up with a snort. Rosin, she informed me, was one of those ideological and ignorant third-wave-feminists who don’t understand the culture at all. In fact, it was Rosin and others like her that contributed to a culture of oppression by glorifying hook-up culture and all that came with it.
Noah, one of the secular anti-porn warriors in the group, was curious. “Do you know any girls who say they’re happy with no-strings-attached hookup culture?” he asked.
Sales looked thoughtful. “Yes, some say that. But if you scratch the surface just a little bit, they’re not. I’m making a movie right now about this book, so I was in Santa Cruz last week, interviewing this beautiful girl who just decided one day that she was done with her virginity, so she lost it with a guy she didn’t know from Tinder. Now she’s in a relationship with a guy who asked for an open relationship. She says she’s happy because she can have sex with whoever she wants to, but is she? Is she really?” She shook her head sceptically and blew out smoke.
The conversation wandered over to how the fusion of porn and social media eliminates the idea of a long-term relationship, because people always have to look perfect, have to look young. There’s no staying power—when a relationship is only about sex, it can only last as long as the novelty lasts or the looks last.
Everyone has to look young, too. That, too, is creating an industry of labioplasty and plastic surgery, where girls want breast augmentations and vaginal surgeries younger and younger. They want to look like porn stars. The boys expect them to look like porn stars. The fountain of youth blows botox.
We talked about rape myth and the guys who feel entitled to take, who push when they’re refused because they think, as rape myth says, that all girls want sex from all guys, all the time. Some even say that the girl enjoys it later, as if that would justify it even if it were true. I asked Sales if she’d found the same thing I had: That many boys were so socialized by pornography, that they had thoroughly absorbed “rape myth”—the idea that all girls enjoy all sex with all men, anytime. Even when their girlfriends told them “no,” they figured that if they pushed hard enough, she would end up enjoying it. There are teenage boys that are rapists without even realizing that they’re rapists. Sales had come into contact with that, too. One boy actually let his friends sexually assault a girl that had passed out at a party.
The excuse that “she might enjoy it later,” besides being false, is simply stupid. If someone smashed a hamburger in my face, I pointed out, even if I later decided it tasted kind of good, it wouldn’t mean that getting it smashed in my face wasn’t assault.
Sales laughed. “I like that! I’m going to use that!”
Gabe Deem interjected. “I wrote an article for Cosmopolitan after the Jennifer Lawrence nude photo leak, on how it was garbage that she said she had to take these pictures because her boyfriend would either look at porn or pictures of her. That’s the pressure!”
“Yes!” Sales said. “All the girls say that! And the guys are going to watch porn anyways!”
The boys get screwed up—they’re unhappy. But the girls have it the worst, says Sales. The boys don’t have to leave town. The boys aren’t found hanging in the bathroom.
Here Noah interjects. “I’ve talked to guys who are suicidal.”
Conclusion? Everyone is very, very unhappy.
The kids are not alright.