Elizabeth Smart, ex-porn stars, and feminist professors

By Jonathon Van Maren

September 30, 2016 (Update #3 from the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation Summit in Houston, Texas.)

Ran Gavreili was a combat soldier in the Israeli military, and his presentation: “In Our Homes: Preventing Sexual Violence and Educating for Healthy Relationships” makes adolescence and the now extended adolescence of the twenties sound like a sexual minefield. He has to tell men that if a woman is passed out, then touching her is sexual assault. I’d think such things were exaggeration, but on the patio last night Nancy Jo Sales had related many such stories. We need to teach boys to speak out when they see such things, he says, and quotes Dante: “The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who choose neutrality at a time of moral trauma.”

Moral trauma. If there’s anything that sums up what’s been covered so far at this conference, that does it.

Gavreili echoes what speakers throughout the summit have been saying, almost pleadingly: “Compassion, empathy, and caring are good.” Such things used to be obvious.

I think the irony of this culture is that we’ve overvalued sex until we successfully undervalued sex. It’s a commodity now to be purchased, extorted, and begged for rather than a beautiful intimate experience to be shared with a loved one. Christians are the stupid ones, apparently, but we now have to have people make statements as simple as: “Compassion, empathy, and caring are good.”

***

The next presentation was by Clay Olsen of Fight the New Drug, titled “Vilify or Empathize: How We Should Address Boys and Why It Matters.” Olsen, with his line of “Porn Kills Love” shirts and other swag, has single-handedly made being anti-porn cool. And he’s gone on from there to put together a porn recovery program that’s already been used by 50,000 people in 150 countries.

Olsen is the type of person who looks earnest without even trying to, but the round of depressing stats that launched his speech made him seem even more serious still. 91% of sex offenders are male, and 98% of rape arrests are male. “Aren’t men the worst?” Olsen asks.

I know what he’s getting at. Sometimes I feel like I get angrier at men than crazy radical feminists do. Much of anti-porn work involves watching heartbroken girlfriends and wives deal with betrayal trauma, or hearing about guys masturbating to what amounts to sexual assault onscreen.

Olsen cuts to the point. “There are real villains, and real monsters. But I don’t want to talk about them today. I want to talk about the millions of men who are struggling. Everyone is a victim of porn culture. Boys, too.”

That reminded me of something Sales mentioned last night over her cigar—that she had talked to boys who were shocked and disturbed to have teenage girls ask to be hit or choked during sex, because they’d been convinced and conditioned by porn to believe that was expected of them. Some of the boys have the right instinctual response: No. I can’t hit a girl. Others, like the girls, feel “pressured to look like a porn star.”

Young boys, especially, are being targeted by the porn industry and the culture. Eight-year-olds, says Olsen, are emailing Fight the New Drug with the porn addictions without their parents knowing. They feel as if they have nowhere to turn, and no one to trust. Today’s culture no longer promotes being a gentleman—your masculinity is measured by your sexual success, and your sexual success is measured by the porn standard.

The sexual messaging in the culture is nonstop and hard for them to resist. To reject imagery, you have to make a conscious effort. I actually remember my cousin and I talking about this when we were in Beijing last year—our brains felt relaxed after several days in China, and I remarked on it. After another hour of walking, he pointed out why—no sexual imagery, anywhere. With no imagery to consciously reject, the brain relaxes.

Olsen related one story of a sixteen-year-old boy’s profound confusion when his mother walked into his room, dropped a box of porno mags on his floor, and told him “It’s time to become a man.”

That is a perfect metaphor for what the entire culture is doing to young boys every single day.

So many boys hate themselves for what they’ve become, Clay tells us. One young man burst into tears when he stumbled across a picture of himself as a little kid—because that boy had been unpoisoned and innocent. That boy didn’t have a mind clogged with trash.

They’re drowning. Drowning in sex. Waterboarded by a tidal wave of porn.

Clay relates testimony after testimony of the destruction of boyhood and the warping of manhood. Porn is driving them to shame and driving them to secrecy, and the demons are clawing them to shreds in the shadows where no one can hear them.

There are three things we have to do better, Clay tells us:

  1. Recognize and understand the challenging world young boys and men are living in.
  2. We need to respond with love, support, and help.
  3. Together, we need to help change the conversation.

***

After lunch, which featured a lineup of speakers regaling the crowd with encouraging stories of legislative and business victories against the porn industry, I headed off to a speech by Dr. Gail Dines, the radical feminist anti-porn warrior, the woman that the porn industry considers Public Enemy #1. Her book Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, which I used while researching my own book, is one of the single most nauseating books I’ve ever read.

Dines is a very short, fiery woman with a British accent that thickens slightly when she’s irritated, which happens when she’s asked a stupid question. (She’s been known to overtly roll her eyes on panel discussions when she feels someone is being particularly thick.) She’s dressed in all black, and her presentation came out in rapid-fire.

“This is the first presentation I’ve given in 30 years that doesn’t have any porn in it,” she chuckled. “So this is a new me.” Dines has been known for showing brutal, hardcore porn to legislators (which has purportedly made some of the prestigious fellows vomit) in order to show them why they should begin restricting access to it. The National Center for Sexual Exploitation, of course, told her prior to arriving that there could be no sexually explicit material shown anywhere. Her porn-free presentation today is called “Reframing the Conversation with Science, Anecdotes, and Common Sense.”

What anti-porn warriors need to do, Dines says, is take back the conversation. We need to take this from being a stealth public health crisis and make it a public health crisis. We need to target academics, governmental bodies, leaders, and the public. Science, she says, is key to shifting the conversation—although most academics are “worse than useless on this issue. In fact, they’re dangerous because they often go pro-porn.” That being said, she says, “My PhD gets me places.”

Those who keep demanding “more research” on porn, Dines says, are just trying to stall. “We do not need more research. We have forty years of peer-reviewed research. The jury was in on this even pre-Internet—now it is undeniable.”

Dines first began a group called Stop Porn Culture (which actually published one of my articles on porn and rape culture before they realized I also did pro-life activism and pulled it down), and has now changed her branding to Culture Reframed. Through this organization, Dines speaks on campuses. Upon arriving there, one of the first things she likes to do is talk to all the different campus health groups and inform them that pornography is ground zero.

“The pro-porn people,” she says, “have colonized the Women’s Department.” They’ve caved to Queer Theory, which says reality is fluid and thus you can be anything you’d like. “That’s all very nice for them, the elites,” says Dines. “But it’s just not real life for anyone else. It’s not true for the women being sexually abused in the porn industry, or as the result of it. I ask them if ‘sex work’ is so great, why don’t they do it? Why don’t you push your daughter to do it? No, their daughters are heading off to Harvard, not servicing twenty to fifty men a night.”

She relates stories of university students who are putting on two pairs of underwear before going to the bar because it is apparently normal for men to put their hands up their skirts, and this serves as something of a protection. There are gasps around the room.

Her approach is working, too. She’s speaking at the American Academy of Pediatrics in two weeks, which she says is good news and bad news. The good news is that they’re finally recognizing porn as a problem. The bad news is that the only reason she’s been invited is that the fallout from porn is so bad that “they can’t bury their heads in the sand anymore.”

The media is a powerful weapon, and Dines is starting to get invited more and more often. When she wrote an op-ed earlier this year for the Washington Post, they told her to “stick to the science.” This annoyed Dines at first— “I’m used to writing feminist polemics”—but the resulting article got her over thirty-five media interviews in just a few days.

To oppose her, the media often hunts for pro-porn people, one of them being David Ley. I hadn’t heard of him prior to this weekend, but I’ve figured out by now (she’s the fourth presenter to mention him) that he’s the academic the anti-porn movement feels the most contempt for.

Porn, says Dines, “is the great democratizer. It wipes out culture.” If people say that porn doesn’t have an impact, they’re saying that everything we know about the social sciences is wrong. This is nothing more than a war of ideology between us and the pornographers, with our children as collateral damage if we lose. It’s our job to reframe the conversation, reshape the narrative, and “refuse to let the well-oiled PR porn machine normalize violence, misogyny, degradation, and dehumanization as ‘sex.’”

Dines ends by pointing at us. “Your children might well ask you one day: Where were you when this culture was collapsing? And you have to be able to say: I was out there. I was fighting.”

***

Dinner was hosted by Covenant Eyes, and the keynote speaker just following the meal was Ed Smart. Ed Smart is the father of Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted at knifepoint from her bedroom in Salt Lake City in 2002. She was only fourteen-years-old. She was rescued nine months later by the police, and the story made headlines around the world. I remember seeing her face on the front page of TIME Magazine and being fascinated by the strange details of her story.

Her story, it seems, was even darker than people knew. Smart shows a video released recently by Fight the New Drug, where Elizabeth shares details of the porn-infested hell she was forced to live in for nearly a year. “Porn,” she says, “made my living hell worse.”

The hells Ed Smart describes knocked the wind out of everyone in the room. He began to describe how his daughter’s abduction and sexual abuse had let him to discover the horrors of the child porn industry. He described what has happened to a number of children he knows. There were gasps. A woman one table over was praying under her breath but out loud. In all the darkness of the porn plague, this is the blackest.

Ed Smart spoke at times with tears, and at time with anger. “I still don’t really understand this,” he said. “When Elizabeth was gone and people would list the reasons children are kidnapped, and one of them was for rape, I didn’t understand. She was barely fourteen, and very physically immature. Why would anyone want that?”

For once, someone asked me a question I had no desire to know the answer to.

Ed Smart ended by sweeping his arm to encompass the entire room. “I’m just so thankful for each and every one of you and for your work to combat this awful, awful industry,” he said tearfully. He got a standing ovation.

***

Out on the patio, Gail Dines was smoking. She waved me over, and we began to discuss the connections between porn and rape culture. “When did you become a feminist?” she asked me curiously. I laughed out loud. “I’ve been called a lot of things, but never that,” I told her.

She reframed the question. “When did you start seeing the connections and seeing the problems?”

“From hearing stories from girls about the sorts of things they were going through and the sorts of things that their boyfriends were asking from them.”

She nodded emphatically and blew out smoke. “Yes. But if you listen to the stories, and take them seriously—that is very feminist.” She checked her watch. “It’s time for Shabbat services. Come with me.”

In a weekend full of strange experiences, sitting in a Shabbat service while candles were lit by a radical feminist professor while she explained Judaism probably ranks pretty high. It turns out that Dines actually lived in Israel with her husband for years, and when she was in her early twenties she worked with Dr. Judith Reisman, who exposed the work of Dr. Alfred Kinsey.

The candles were lit, the bread was broken, the wine was poured, and the blessing was spoken.

***

Back on the patio, Josh and I began to chat with a yacht inspector from Florida who had come to the conference to see what sort of help was being offered for boys who were victimized by the sexual exploitation industries. He’d been encouraged at how many organizations were beginning to focus on restoring the victims.

We were joined by Jessica Neely, who only three years ago was known across the porn industry as hardcore porn star Angela Aspen. She starred in over 40 major porn movies, she ran brothels, and she ended up trafficking girls. She’s been out of the industry for just a few years, but she laughs like someone who still can’t quite believe she’s free.

“When I was in recovery, a homeless woman put her hand on my shoulder,” she says. “It was the most freeing thing that had happened to me in ten years. I cried because I had nothing to give her, but she knew that already.”

It was at this point that I chuckled to myself. For some reason, the fact that I was on a patio at a hotel in Houston, Texas, with one of my friends, a Floridian yacht inspector, and the most-Googled porn star of 2008 struck me as bizarre and hilarious all at the same time.

But it’s that kind of conference.

 

 

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