This essay was first published at First Things
Over the past several years, the public discussion on pornography has undergone a distinct shift. Criticizing pornography or advocating restrictions was once considered the purview of prudes, but that has changed. Porn-inspired sexual violence is now so normal that nearly a quarter of adult American women have reported feeling fear during intimacy as a result of porn; according to a recent UK report, “nearly half of all girls aged 16 to 21 say they’ve had a partner expect sex to involve physical aggression such as slapping and choking.” Major publications regularly publish grim prognoses of porn’s impact on relationships, childhood, and society at large. Indeed, even celebrities—usually reliable advocates of every aspect of the sexual revolution—have become some of the most vocal voices speaking out against pornography.
This is not because celebs possess any keen moral insights—it is because the impact of pornography has become so obvious it is now impossible to ignore. Comedian Grace Campbell, famous for her “sex-positive” schtick, said as much on her latest stand-up tour. “Men think I like being choked,” she told The Times. “There have been many times during sex that someone’s choked me without asking and I’m like, ‘No, I’m scared, I don’t like that.’ The reality is [my friends and I] have all been in situations where we’re worried they won’t stop.” When asked where this trend originated, she was blunt: “It is definitely porn.”
She’s not the only one. Oliver Anthony—the ginger-bearded country music sensation who rose to fame with his viral hit “Rich Men North of Richmond”—has been doing the interview circuit lately. This included an appearance on “The Joe Rogan Experience,” where Anthony talked about his success, the backlash, and why he quit pornography. It was another indication of the shift in the public conversation about pornography: two famous people casually discussing why porn is toxic on the most popular podcast in the world.
“That stuff’s terrible for people,” Anthony told Rogan.
That is one thing I had to give up, because it does disconnect you from reality in many ways. I think a lot of the weird perversion that we see coming out—you read about the weird stuff people are doing that maybe wouldn’t have been accepted 100 years ago. I think people go down these rabbit holes with porn and they start off with the video of the milkman and by the end of it its like—where did I end up? It’s almost like a drug. People have to keep chasing that thrill and it takes them down very destructive rabbit holes.
Grammy-winning pop singer Billie Eilish, who got addicted to porn at age eleven (a story I hear all the time when I speak on this subject in high schools), concurs. “I think it really destroyed my brain and I feel incredibly devastated that I was exposed to so much porn. I think that I had sleep paralysis and these night terrors/nightmares because of it,” she said. “I think that’s how it started because I would just watch abusive BDSM and that’s what I thought was attractive. It got to a point where I couldn’t watch anything else unless it was violent. I didn’t think it was attractive. And I was a virgin . . . The first few times I had sex, I was not saying no to things that were not good.”
Bill Maher, a close friend of the late Hugh Hefner, hit on a similar theme. “You’re talking to a libertine, but I do not think porn is benign,” he told Joe Rogan.
I do not. It is not benign. Not the way it is now on the computer. I mean, it’s rapey . . . it’s domineering, a lot of things I’m not interested in . . . I don’t want to choke anybody. I find that off-putting and gross . . . But that’s half of what PornHub is. I’m not saying it should be outlawed. But if I was a parent, I would keep it away from kids. What I would tell a boy is: Son, what you’re seeing in porn? Don’t think that women really like that. Because they don’t.
Hip hop star Kanye West, who suffered a public breakdown last year, got hooked even younger. “Playboy was my gateway into full-on porn addiction,” he said in 2019. “My dad had a Playboy left out at age five and it’s affected almost every choice I made for the rest of my life—from age five till now having to kick the habit. And it just presents itself in the open like it’s okay. And I stand up and say, ‘No, it’s not okay.’” At that point, he’d been addicted to porn for thirty-seven years. According to West, “this addiction since I was five years old . . . destroyed my mom and my dad’s family, destroyed my family.” It was pornography, he said, that played a key role in leading to “the destruction of my marriage.”
The reality is that the collective social damage perpetrated by the porn industry has become undeniable. That is why we have many U.S. states passing age-verification laws; the UK is attempting the same thing. A recent report by France’s equality watchdog stated that 90 percent of online porn content “features verbal, physical and sexual violence towards women” and advocated prosecuting those who produce this vile content. Pornography is grooming women and girls to accept sexual violence as normative and men and boys to desire it; it is ravaging marriages and destroying childhoods. I am very encouraged by the fact that so many celebrities who embrace every other aspect of the sexual revolution are willing to be so honest about pornography.
In the years to come, I suspect politicians will become increasingly supportive of banning pornography as a full picture of the devastation wrought by digital porn use becomes clear. In an interview during his senatorial race, J. D. Vance indicated that he would support a ban on porn for those under eighteen. The government of Nepal banned porn back in 2018 to curb sexual violence. A prominent Indian human rights activist wrote—in the Guardian—that porn is driving the national rape crisis and that she is “sick of liberals fighting for freedom to watch violent, sadistic porn.” I agree with them. There is no reason we should tolerate this pervasive poison and the rape culture it creates. We should ban pornography before another generation is groomed by it.