Friday, March 21, 2014

Films, Scenes and Belle Knox: Some Thoughts on Empowerment and Our Pornified Culture

The other morning I was watching the morning news as I got ready to head in to work for the day when a segment caught my attention.  In the event that you haven't been paying attention to the national news, a Duke University student has gone public with the fact that she has been performing in pornographic "films" in order to pay her tuition.  Belle Knox (I am assuming this is not her real name but her ‘porn’ or ‘stage’ name – which we will need to come back to at some point) has been making the television talk-show circuit and creating a blogosphere buzz.  While I can appreciate the fact that college tuition is far more expensive than it should be, after hearing the rationalization and justification for her decision, and her use of the language of ‘empowerment’, something different than you might expect jumped out at me. 

She said she had been in 26 Films.

26 Films?


This got me wondering - what exactly constitutes a ‘film’? Specifically, what constitutes a ‘pornographic film’? 

If we can sidestep the matter of whether or not Belle Knox’s use of the word ‘film’ was cavalier or careless), it got me thinking. As I dwelt on this, my first instinct was that she merely misspoke. In truth, what this young lady was most likely referring to should be properly understood as ‘scenes’.  The interchangeable use of term ‘film’ with ‘scene’ reveals, though, something significant – an insight - about how our culture has adopted a nascent view of sexuality.

We are wholly focused on the friction of bodies and erotic pleasure. A fully mature view of sexuality, empowerment, and dignity is less concerned with the financial or sensual consequences of two bodies coming together.  It extends outside the individual's experience into the broader culture. When recording a sexual scene constitutes an entire film, what does it say about how we view sexuality?
If we go back to the early days of the mainstreaming of pornographic movies, wasn't there some kind of story-line? Was there more than one scene of different couples having sex?  While I confess that my knowledge of pornographic movies is fairly thin, Luke Ford's book, A History of X, details how even the early pornographers made some, albeit adolescent, attempt at telling a story. It is a great piece of history, although it is unabashedly graphic and not recommended reading for the faint of heart. Porn ‘films’ were more than just a single recording of two people copulating,

But this highlights how pornography has changed over the last 20-30 years and how it has impacted the generations that have come of age in the world of digital porn.  The widespread availability of pornographic material online, anonymous access and the fact that so much of it is free has cultivated a fractured view of sexuality inasmuch as isolated scenes do not make up a film. These pornographic clips have provided fractured snapshots of sexual encounters and not sexual relationships. So much of the pornography that is available online is not available as full-length movies.  The vast majority of it is freely available as short video clips which can be viewed indiscriminately.  While there may be tags and categorizations of genres, the mindset of the consumer which is revealed in Belle Knox’s throwaway comment is that somewhere along the way an edited version of a sexual encounter is now viewed as a ‘film’. 

Sex is embraced a form of emotional distancing rather than emotional bonding. Our culture has crafted an understanding of sex that limits it to short, concrete, simple and separate acts divorced from our emotional and relational nature. Because of the development of gateway pornography hubs and video sharing sites, the mass recording and distribution of isolated single sexual encounters has lost all pretense of context, plot or narrative.  The only things that are important are the mechanics of orgasm.  Because of this narrow view of sexuality, we have lost its connection to intimacy, relationship, and procreation. While I appreciate how one person may feel empowered or freed by engaging in sexual intimacy (this form of intimacy is so powerful that it can create a new life), the consequences of these actions affect the community as well.  Porn misses the mark in that sexual power is not always used for selfish desires.  How does participating in an industry that grinds up and spits out women, that preys on financial injustices, and takes advantage of the emotionally vulnerable affect others? What happens to these actors/performers after they leave the set? I find it hard to believe that their relationship as human beings off camera has not been affected (either positively or negatively). A 2011 study has shown that women in the adult film industry are disproportionately affected by mental health issues.

With pornography there is no follow-up.  There is no larger context that we have access to. It inherently is form of voyeurism that lies at the root of our notions of sexual intimacy as "performance". Unfortunately much of the pornography available online for the education of young minds and the feeding of adult minds is not really sexual intimacy, but a strip-mined digital recording designed to appeal exclusively to carnal, erotic arousal – a performance.

Unfortunately many children today have seen pornography - sexually mature adults engaged in adolescent staging of what should be a romantic, erotic, sacred and intimate moment - before they have even entered puberty.  It is important to recognize that one can become sexually mature (that is to say able to conceive a child) before one is emotionally mature. Pornography trains its viewers to see sexual encounters as somehow being completely independent – islands of ecstasy without consequence.  ‘Hooking Up’, “Friends with Benefits’, and ‘Booty runs’ has become the language for sex on campuses across the country, and has found its way into high schools and middle schools where viewing porn online and sexting are rites of passage.  
Sex has become a one-act play, digital media is the stage, and we are merely actors.

But what happens when we leave the stage? What happens when the cameras are off? The consequences of sexual acts is far-reaching.  Pretending while you are being filmed having sex doesn’t make it less ‘real’ for those involved. Files aren’t so easily scoured from the computer networks, and the neurobiology of memory is a powerful force.

What we are missing is a broader story of human sexuality, one where sexually intimate moments are best understood when they cultivate and deepen the relationship between a man and a woman within a marriage relationship. But in a world where sex is a commodity, marriage a contractual arrangement, and consent the sole sexual ethical principle, is it surprising that Belle Knox did what she did?

No, it isn’t.

Honestly, I am surprised there aren’t more young women like her and will not be surprised if we see an increase in stories like hers. She is a product of her times, but she is at the vanguard of young women who will be pushing the empowerment narrative. We are broken people exploiting and breaking one another. So many can come off as self-righteous and judgmental (seen by the Comments online), or Prudish and this prevents a healthy engagement on matters of sexual ethics. In turn this triggers those with differing opinions to retreat to their own psychological defenses such as rationalized “empowerment”, out-group labelling those who differ as ‘bigots’, or their own form of righteous indignation. We become embroiled in a never-ending sanctimonious loop.

None of us should look upon Belle Know with contempt, scorn or disdain. She is young woman muddling through this broken world like the rest of us are, trying to find her way through life. She is being exploited even as she exploits others.

Who is exploited by her? The millions of men who sit at home alone in front of their computers trying to find their way.

Who benefits? The pornographers who exploit both Belle and the faceless men (or women) in front of their monitors looking for a sexual jolt are the ones who receive the financial harvest.

So what should we make about Belle’s claims of ‘empowerment’?

We must be sure not to make the mistake of confusing sexual activity as sexual empowerment, let alone the recording and public distribution of sexual activity. Nor should we conflate notoriety and celebrity as empowerment. Chasing after these will feed a narcissism that will never be satisfied. Nor should financial security be equated with sexual empowerment. It is clear, though, that financial need can lead to sacrificing our sexuality if it seems to be the only option. It is the appeal to financial vulnerability that was offered first, predating Belle’s empowerment defense of her choice to do porn.

But the language of empowerment is seductive, and especially alluring to those who have been oppressed, disenfranchised, disempowered, or in a place of need.  It is also the language oppressors prefer to use when deceiving the oppressed; it gets the oppressed to embrace the oppression and celebrate it. True empowerment is found when we claim what is already ours and confidently use it to the benefit and flourishing of others. Empowerment is when we make choices that transform ourselves and others into emotionally mature human beings. It is not self-centered, and it doesn’t exploit others – this use of our power would make it dominance and oppression which is to be condemned. Empowerment should be about removing barriers so that we can have access and opportunities that lead to flourishing – eudaimonia – where we do not treat our sexuality as a means to some other end, but as an end in and of itself. It has healthy boundaries that benefit the self and the community.

We cannot champion or celebrate that which should be condemned. Sexual exploitation in all of its forms (prostitution, sex-trafficking, pornography, child sexual abuse – and any other form of sexual violence) should be condemned. But when it is wrapped in the beguiling cloth of empowerment, our rational faculties seem to stall. In our culture today, there is no better pill that the oppressor can get the oppressed to take than self-deception. A poisonous center of misogyny is surrounded by a candy coating of empowerment language.

Our culture loves to prey on women and keep them subservient, and nowhere is this better evidence of this than in the sex industry. What is best understood as a feast of sexual intimacy between loving spouses has been packaged by our hypersexual culture in a convenient, ready to consume collections of categorized clips (sorted by length and preference) on a porn website devoid of relational or familial context. Just as a pornographic scene becomes a ‘film’, a candy bar becomes a ‘meal’ that never really satisfies our true needs. Somehow being spit upon, cursed at, slapped in a moment of extreme nakedness and vulnerability while being used as prop for a stranger’s pleasure becomes ‘empowerment’. But appeals to empowerment and the cost of an education should never be used to justify or rationalize sexual exploitation. Nor does consent by someone who is vulnerable (financially, emotionally, or because of their age) reduce the consequences of exploitation.

We human beings are so very good at deceiving ourselves, and we are so willing to be deceived if it comforts us.

If you think that being involved in the production or consumption of pornography doesn't impact a person psychologically, you are in denial.  You cannot consume thousands of calories of junk food on a daily basis and have it not affect your health.  In the same way you cannot consume thousands of sexualized images and have it not affect the way you see others.  You cannot consume pornography and have your understanding and expectations of sexuality not be affected. And all of these reasons can serve as a perfect storm to give us the Belle Knoxes of the world. Women who have been groomed by a pornified, misogynistic culture that continues to prey on them. It deceives them into thinking that by participating in a misogynistic system they are ‘empowered’. Empowerment is not to be equated with stereotypical bad male behavior. Empowerment language has so addled our minds that we confuse ‘scenes’ with ‘films’, sex with performance, and degradation with power.

My guess is that a year from now the majority of people will have forgotten Belle Knox’s name (which is likely not the name given to her by her parents). Yes, she will be only a Google search away and her fans may remember, but like so many others who have been discarded by the sex industry she will have made her money and then she will be disposed of.  

But at what cost?

After being used as a sexual partner takes its toll, she may invest in her ‘career’ by making surgical alterations to mask perceived imperfections or improve her attractiveness. Criticism leveled at her attractiveness has already begun to appear on the news websites Comments sections. She may dive into alcohol or substance abuse, or she may do 100 ‘films’ to pay for her college education and we may never hear from her again.

The question is not just at what cost to her, but what does this say about our culture? There are so many other dimensions of this question to be explored:
  • If Belle Knox were an African American woman attending a less affluent school, would there be as much outrage? What does this say about our culture?
  • If she were less attractive, would we care? What does this say about our culture?
  • If we were talking about a man, would there be as much outrage, or would we be more permissive for male sexual immorality?  What does this say about our culture?
  • If we lived in a culture where human sexuality (especially women's sexuality) was not viewed as a recreational or advertising commodity, would these kinds of opportunities even be available? How many young women will entertain the possibility of this as an option? Wouldn’t a rapid influx of ‘talent’ reduce the financial benefit each person might gain?

The solution to the problem is for women and men to think clearly about sexuality. Clear thinking on sexuality, however, is not found in abundance in our culture. It is time for us to take a close look at how we think about sexuality as a culture. We are heading down a road that is leading us into a sexual apocalypse. It will be our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who suffer the most as we attempt to fornicate, rationalize and cavalierly exercise sexual license in an attempt to find happiness, justice, and peace - True Empowerment.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The CCT and Crowd-Sourcing a Network to Care for the Sexually Exploited

Well, it has been a long time since I've had a chance to actually sit down and blog anything on this site, so 'Hello Again', if you are still following. What I have discovered over the past several years is that while it seems like it should be relatively easy, sitting down and making a blog entry takes a good amount of time.  Life is filled with a number of things that have priority over blogging and I won't bore you with the details of them (suffice it to say that family and work obligations are the first two on the list).

This January through May I will have more time to blog, though. The kind folks in La Mirada have extended me a Visiting Research Fellow position at Biola University's Center for Christian Thought. My research this term will be focusing on the impact of sexual exploitation on spiritual formation.  There'll be two parts to this project - one on how it impacts those who consume sexually explicit material, and another on how it impacts those who are used in production of sexual services (such as prostitutes, adult film actresses, and others who are sexually exploited). I will do my best this semester to have weekly posts to keep you updated on these projects and to let you know what else is going on at the CCT. More than likely I will also be giving you some previews of the manuscripts that I am working on, too.

Before things really get going here, I wanted to see if I can ask for a bit of help.  It's come to my attention that there are numerous ministries involved in caring for those who are sexually exploited, ranging from outreach to prostitutes to fighting against human trafficking.  Given this - and in an attempt to not reinvent the wheel - one of my projects will be to put together somr resources for these organizations. We are not quite sure yet, and we're still in the development stage to see what we can offer these organizations. The resources will most likely vary from mental health care or best practices for outreach to preventative/educational materials and faith-based spiritual resources. We are also looking to find ways to do more research on those who are sexually exploited as well so that we can better advocate for public policy to be better informed about those affected.

So, if you are involved in or are aware of an organization that is doing work in this area - either a local or national/global group, or a religious or non-religious - could you send me an e-mail at with the Subject: WFI CROWDSOURCE so that we can begin building a database and corresponding with these ministries?  If you are aware of the website, e-mail, or any contact information please include it in the text of the e-mail. As things get going I'll be posting updates. For now, stay warm!!


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Porn, EEGs and the End of Sex Addiction?

A considerable amount of interest has been generated by recent media coverage of an article by Steele, Staley, Fong and Prause (2013) from the most recent issue of Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology. After a thorough reading of the article, I can say that it is a well referenced and a good-faith attempt to understand what is colloquially known as sex addiction. But sex addiction isn’t a diagnosable disorder, is it? Hypersexuality (where sex addiction might have found itself residing) was considered and subsequent dismissed from the DSM-V (although open for reconsideration for the next revision - whenever that may be...), and many who thought of the disorder as sex addiction saw this as a crushing blow. Unfortunately, the experiences of many in the mental health profession continue to attest to the persistence of high sexual drive and its link to sexual impropriety and psychological distress. This being the case, the self-identification of sexual addiction/porn addiction/hypersexuality/HSD still has an enormous impact on our culture and in the lives of many which is why the Steele, Staley, Fong and Prause article grabs our attention when in the headlines.

High Sexual Desire (HSD) served as the object of the researchers in this study. Their primary emphasis was on cortical regulation of sexual desire, and relied on studies examining Electroencephalography (EEG) activity in those self-identifying as experiencing problems with viewing porn online. While high sexual desire is not the exclusive reason for viewing pornography (the Pornography Consumption Inventory, suggests that many who view porn online do so for additional reasons other than sexual desire), the researhcers compared responses of sexaul images to non-sexual images (neutral, unpleasant, and pleasant-but-not sexual in nature). In an an innovative approach the problem, they used Event-Related Potentials (ERPs) from a variety of pictures (sexual and non-sexual) and monitored cortical activity using EEG to see if those self-identifying with HSD had a heightened cortical ‘radar’ for sexual cues. One component of the image induced ERP wave, called the P300, was used as the marker for this radar. Sexual cue P300s were compared to neutral, pleasant (non-sexual) and unpleasant visual stimuli and if this was related to any of the standard ‘paper-and-pencil’ measures of HSD, sexual compulsivity, sexual risk taking, pornography consumption effects. They were interested in seeing if the P300 wave looked like those from other literature who suffer from drug abuse/addiction (higher amplitudes) or those who are impulsive (lower amplitudes).

A straightforward methodology was employed: subjects were recruited, signed informed consent, answered the questionnaires, then ERPs were recorded through use of EEG. Responses to 245 images (38 sexual, 37 pleasant non-sexual, 75 neutral, 75 unpleasant), each presented for one second were then analyzed. It should be noted that all of the pictures contained people, and I highly recommend reading the original study’s methods if you want additional detail about how this was done. Here are a handful of observations about the study:   

1) The recruitment problems the researchers faced illustrate the difficulty all researchers have when doing studies in this area - a lack of diagnostic criteria. Without an accepted way of classifying/diagnosing problems related to sexual compulsivity/impulsivity/addiction/HSD, researchers are left to fend for themselves. The end result is a myriad of nomenclature and a lack of clear standards for study inclusion. In addition, even though not classified as a DSM-V diagnosis, the authors reported a reluctance of one institution’s Institutional Review Board for ethical review of human research to approve the study.

2) There is no non-clinical control group for either the EEG data or the questionnaire measures. This is unfortunate, but could easily be addressed in a later study and the authors acknowledge this limitation. Not a major issue, in my opinion, but one nonetheless.

3) The amplitudes for the sexual stimuli were higher (suggesting addiction), but this was not correlated with the other measures of sexual desire, compulsivity, risk taking or pornography consumption. It is very possible that the lack of P300 amplitude for the sexual stimuli in this study was due to habituation to viewing sexually explicit material; this is, after all, why they were in the study. Individuals self-reporting problematic viewing pornography can consume hundreds of images in one sitting. The impact of regular viewing of pornography (and the cumulative effect this may have on P300 sensitivity), along with reports that P300 more quickly habituate in risk-seekers, might suggest that their result is what they should have seen. Also, the laboratory context needs to be remembered; most problematic porn viewers don’t view single second shots of porn interspersed with landscapes, portraits, and mutilated bodies with electrodes attached to their heads. It is only a snapshop of a sliver of a larger sexual experience/dysfunction.  

4) The P300 measures suggest that the issue for those with this problem may be more akin to impulsivity (which more quickly habituates when compared to addicts), and later components of the ERP (i.e. the Late Positive Potentials measures in the 500-750msec window) indicate that the stimuli is more sensitive to motivational processes.

5) What is not to missed is that this study did not look at subcortical activation. Sexual desire is typically considered to be a subcortical process, and regulation is cortical. While there is a significant interplay between the two, a fully integrated understanding of how sexual dysregulation occurs is the direction in which we should be headed. The presence of the P500-750 actually does indicated a deeper motivational issue, however the P300 suggests that it may rapidly habituate (i.e. the pictures begin to blur together).

What was of greater interest to me, however, is that in the very same volume that this study was reported, an article by Dr. Donald Hilton Jr. from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio provides an excellent argument for the movement away from the language of addiction towards a more nuanced understanding of mental illness that is informed by research in neural plasticity. This is part of the ongoing conversation that is part of the larger question of how we understand and view mental illness. It is nice to see that progress is being made towards understanding the many dimensions of sexuality and how it can become a source of psychological, relational and social distress for so many. While well intentioned, media reports often miss the subtleties of theory, data and interpretation related to research of this kind. And while it is especially true when it comes to neuroscience research, when it comes to titular matters of sexuality reporting can often stray towards appeals to our own biases and sensationalism.The study by Steele, Staley, Fong and Prause is an important first step in filling in the picture of what many refer to as sex addiction, and the authors are incredibly generous, cautious and thoughtful in their writing and interpretation of the results. Underneath it all, the process of science continues and informs the language that we use to engage the mental health issues that need to be addressed.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Porn Actresses and Mental Health

In a study published last June, researchers in California examined the mental health of women in the porn industry and compared them to measures taken of women in a statewide survey. In short, the researchers recruited women who had been in at least one porn film in the previous six months. They contacted the women by e-mail after their information had been gleaned from the adult film database website. Also, they invited women on an adult film jobs website to participate in the study. The women were given a $50 gift card as incentive and a modified version of the statewide survey was given to these women online.
There were some rather interesting findings. They are:

  • Women in the adult film industry reported a higher number of poor mental health days in the previous month when compared to controls.
  • Approximately 33% of the adult film women met the criteria for depression when compared to 13% of the control group.
  • Female adult film performers were more likely to have been victims of forced sex, lived in poverty, and placed in foster care as children.
  • Nearly half of the performers reported living in poverty as adults.
  • Over a third had experienced domestic violence - five times the rate of that in the control group.
  • There was a rate of 27% who had experienced forced sex when compared to 9% of the control group.

The conclusions of the researchers are pretty straightforward. Being a woman in the porn industry is correlated with having a significantly worse mental health status and much higher rates of depression when compared to women across the state. Whether it is the chicken or the egg, this is the reality. So the next time anyone tells you that being a woman in the porn industry is glamorous or that these are women who grew up like everyone else, just direct them to the study and you might find that they may change their tune. If they still don't get it, my guess is that they just don't want to.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Update: Research on women in the Adult Film Industry and other stuff

It has been far too long since I have sent off a blog post, and I'm excited to send this one out because there are couple of very interesting projects and happenings as we are moving into the month of March.

First off, there has been an increase in interest on the psychological impact of being involved in the sex industry. There are two studies which of come out recently that I will be reviewing which examine how involvement in pornography and prostitution are more than just matters of morality or law, but they are also matters of mental health. Next week I will be reviewing the first of these entitled, Comparison of the mental health of female adult film performers and other young women in California.

On the research side, as of last week, our research lab has launched a study which will be looking at the reasons and circumstances around why women go into the adult film industry. Because of a generous donation from a local organization we will be offering a financial incentive for their participation and are planning to use this information to better advocate and care for women in the pornography industry. Be on the look-out for more information as well as preliminary findings in the next couple of months.

On other fronts, here are couple of things that are on the horizon:

1. I have been invited to speak at a conference for youth workers in the United Kingdom. This May I will be speaking at the Youthwork Summit in one of my favorite cities on the planet, London. This is a TEDS-style event for youth workers in the church who are grappling with issues that young people face today. In true British form, I've got a few curve balls and a bit of cheekiness to share with our brothers and sisters across the pond.
2. In the following month of June, I will be traveling to Thailand to work with a ministry directed at women who are in the sex industry in Bangkok. Servantworks sponsors The Well, a ministry that provides counseling, training and job development services to bar girls and sex workers and their families.
3. In July I will be flying to New York to take part in the filming of a documentary on pornography addiction by an Australian documentary crew, Jaypaq Productions. A link to the promo for it can be found here (the password is: guiltypromo).
4. After I get back from filming, it's off to Honey Rock Camp where I will be working with wilderness counselors who will be guiding and caring for campers and young adults. Specifically I will be involved in training them to deal with issues related to sexual brokenness. It should be an enriching time, and I'm looking forward to being with those who are dedicated to caring for the next generation.

Well, that does it for now. I'll be back soon with a review of that article.

-Dr. S

Monday, April 4, 2011

Interesting piece in The Point

In the most recent issue of the magazine The Point, John Lingan has put together a piece entitled Salvation for Civilians: Porn as a Way of Life. In it he profiles his take on WFI and contrasts it with porn star and author Zak Smith. It contains quite a bit of personal material about me, but captures the essence of what I believe in and what I am working for as a person of faith, husband, father, and psychologist.

Give it a look over if you get a chance. In dealing with journalists I rarely feel as if they have presented our conversations accurately. Mr. Lingan, however, has somehow managed to make me seem more interesting than I am and makes my points better than I am able to.

Monday, January 10, 2011

New Study Reveals 'Wiring' Differences Between Men and Women

A study recently published in the journal NeuroImage has reported widespread differences between men and women in the way neural circuits are put together. The article (click here) which utilizes a brain imaging technique known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) was conducted to characterize the differences between the white matter (made predominantly of myelin which serves to insulate the neurons). DTI is commonly used to examine the examine the microstructure of large tracts of connections between brain regions.

If you are planning on getting this article and reading it, be is incredibly technical. That being said, let me give you a quick summary. The researchers observed that there were significant differences in three critical regions of the brain:
  • The thalamus (the region for sensory inputs)
  • The corpus callosum (which connects the two cortical hemispheres) 
  • The cingulum which connects the cingulate cortex with another cortical region (the entorhinal cortex) that is is involved in the processing of memories.
  • The major issue is that higher anisotropy was seen in these areas in men when compared to women. In layman's terms, the brain circuit's insulation in these regions are thicker which might indicated being more 'hardwired' or that these circuits are carrying a heavier neurological load. This is where interpretations can go in any number of directions.
One way to think of this, is to compare how the brain utilizes electical signals and compare it to how we use electricity in our homes. In the brain, each neuron receives a chemical signal called a neurotransmitter which causes that neuron to become electrically charged. If that neuron is sufficiently charged it will fire - this is called an action potential. The action potential is an electrical signal that is sent down the output part of the neuron (called an axon), so that it can release its neurotransmitters onto other neurons. In our homes, the electrical current that passes through the wires needs to be insulated so that it doesn't cause a fire or jump to a ground source. Needless to say, that is why the wires in our walls are insulated and covered in a continuous sheath of rubber. In the brain, however, the insulation is called myelin. It is this myelin that DTI is measuring - in essence it is looking at the thickness of the wiring in these brain regions.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes the media to get hold of this and how the research community responds to it.