Jay Evensen: Bin Laden's porn stash not harmless

Published: Sunday, June 5 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Among the things Navy SEALS confiscated from the home of Osama bin Laden last month was a stash of pornography. That led columnist Phil Bronstein of the San Francisco Chronicle to muse that this might explain why the world's most notorious terrorist never launched an attack on that city's transportation system.

"…If he's like most adult-content consumers," he wrote, bin Laden would have been wasting too many hours on the computer to do much of anything else.

At least the time-wasting aspects of pornography seem to have found a general consensus. Beyond that, however, you're in for a fight.

A new Gallup poll on values and beliefs in the United States this week found that, overall, only 30 percent of Americans believe pornography is morally acceptable. Break down the results by age, however, and you get a different, frightening picture.

Among those 55 and older, 19 percent said it was acceptable. That jumps to 29 for those 35 to 54, and it leaps to 42 percent among the 18-to-34 age group.

Why the difference? It can't be just that older people are less inclined to such things. The question wasn't whether people themselves looked at the stuff. It was whether they found it morally acceptable.

While that same general trend-line of acceptance was evident in nearly all questions on moral issues except the wearing of animal fur (a solid majority of all ages approves) and extramarital affairs (all ages disapprove equally), in no category was the spread as wide as on the question of pornography.

It may be natural for young minds, untempered by experience and maturity, to be more open to vices; but this trend comes at the dawn of an age in which pornography is both more abundant and more available for private use, than at any other time in history.

Availability is part of the story. The other part has to do with the porn industry's own public-relations machinery.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald last month, Wheelock College professor, feminist and anti-pornography activist Gail Dines said more than 13,000 new porn films are released each year in an industry that was estimated to be worth $96 billion five years ago, and which undoubtedly is much larger today. She cited a report that said 37 percent of all pages online contain some sort of pornographic content.

It is, she wrote, "a business with considerable political clout, with the capacity to lobby politicians, engage in expensive legal battles and use public relations to influence public debate." This machinery has managed to paint itself with the image of harmless fun.

Instead, she said, pornography is "a market transaction in which women's bodies and sexuality are offered to male consumers in the interests of maximizing profit." There is nothing harmless about it either to the consumer, the participants, or to society at-large.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the growing acceptance of pornography is that it is happening at the same time many researchers are finding greater evidence of its harmful effects.

Three years ago, the American Psychological Association issued a report titled, "Sexualization of girls," in which is documented evidence as to how the widespread emphasis on physical appearance and sexuality in advertising and other media is linked to mental health problems, low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders among girls. It even is linked to a lower performance in areas such as math and logical thinking.

And yet the online comments after Dines' column are filled with patronizing scoffs from readers clinging to their sexual entertainment like chain smokers to a pack of Marlboros — except that smokers often recognize they have a problem.

I've been confronted by this crowd virtually every time I've written on the subject. They stand in the way of people seeing clearly that bin Laden's porn stash was not just an amusing bit of hypocrisy for a man who railed against Western culture, it was another aspect of terrorism — one aimed at Americans' self-esteem and relationships.

Jay Evensen is a Deseret News editorial writer. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com.

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