Doctor My Eyes

November 29, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

You could have seen it coming. A little over a year ago, the University of Wisconsin board of regents passed a Free Speech resolution. The intent, supposedly,  was to guarantee “all members of the university community the broadest possible latitude to explore ideas and to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn.”

A fine principle, free speech. Everybody likes free speech, so that’s what the regents had to go with. After all, they couldn’t very well pass a resolution that protected only conservative speech. But that seems to have been their intent. That part about “the broadest possible latitude” — just kidding.

So when a communications professor at UW LaCrosse had author and former porn star Nina Hartley give a talk during “free speech week,” the university system president and the board sent him a letter of reprimand. His “poor judgment,” as judged by the board, will affect his salary adjustment, though the board doesn’t say exactly how much he will have to pay for free speech. 

What struck me was not the obvious hypocrisy. As I say, that was predictable (the Inside Higher Ed story (here) has some of the more mealy-mouthed quotes). It was this gem in an op-ed written by one of the regents, Bob Atwell:

Most of us don’t need science to know how devastating pornography is to the mental, physical and social health of those enslaved by it. We can see it in the sad and empty eyes of millions of boys and young men whose zest for life is being sucked into their smart phones.

I was having double déjà vu. First, “we don’t need science.” Back in February. Ross Douthat said pretty much the same thing, though not quite so blatantly. In fact, when prodded, he acknowledged that rape, pregnancy, and abortion had all decreased as porn became more and more widespread. He thought porn made people unhappy, though he allowed that the evidence linking porn with unhappiness was flawed. Nevertheless, he persisted. Porn was just plain bad.

Years before, Irving Kristol, a founding father of neo-conservatism, writing in the Wall Street Journal had argued in language very similar to regent Atwell’s: “we don’t really need social science to confirm what common sense and common observations tell us to be the case. Can anyone really believe that soft porn in our Hollywood movies, hard porn in our cable movies, and violent porn in our ‘rap’ music is without effect?” (For more detail, see my earlier blog post ).

Then there were those “sad and empty eyes” and the lost “zest for life.” Where had I heard that before? I searched my files and found it.

This is a very degrading and destructive habit. There is probably no vice which is more injurious to both mind and body, and produces more fearful consequences than this. . . When the evil has been pursued for several years, there will be an irritable condition of the system; sudden flushes) of heat over the face; the countenance becomes pale and clammy; the eyes have a dull, sheepish look.

Back when I taught deviance, I would sometimes read a longer version of this passage to students and ask them to guess. Weed and cigarettes were the usual suspects, but even after I identified the source and date — Our Family Physician published in 1885 — nobody got it. Nor did it help when I would tell them the title of the chapter — “Onanism.”

I’m not all that familiar with the actual research on how porn (or masturbation) affects young men (or women). Its enduring effects on older conservatives seems clearer — a tendency to reject science and replace it with “common sense” and a deep look into the eyes of the afflicted.

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