The good boys of Notre Dame have a lot of feelings about pornograpy.
The good boys of Notre Dame have a lot of feelings about pornography. Getty Images

A strange headline from CNN caught my eye over the weekend: "College Men Try to Ban Porn from Campus Wifi," it read, "Saying Pornography is Prostitution."

I clicked, expecting this to be a story about overzealous male feminists at, say, Bard. But no, the story was about Notre Dame, a private Catholic school where 80 college men signed a letter to the school paper advocating for a ban on online pornography back in October.

"As the men of Notre Dame, we request that the University implement a filter to make pornography inaccessible on the Notre Dame Wi-Fi networks," the letter read. "This filter would send the unequivocal message that pornography is an affront to human rights and catastrophic to individuals and relationships. We are calling for this action in order to stand up for the dignity of all people, especially women."

The dignity of women may be a motivation for this movement, but Jim Martinson, the lead signatory, told CNN that this own motivation was actually religion. "It’s really important to frame things from a secular perspective because you just appeal to more people," Martinson said. In other words, concern for women is just marketing.

It's a smart move during the #MeToo era, and the movement is apparently spreading beyond just Catholic schools: Students at secular universities like Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania have, according to the Daily Beast, also expressed interest in banning porn from their campuses. And this movement isn't just finding support among people who think that Jesus weeps when you touch yourself; plenty of feminists object to pornography as well, one of the rare issues in which conservative Christians and Andrea Dworkin acolytes intersect.

In their letter, the boys cite several articles and studies about the ill effects of porn on society. In addition to claiming that "Porn is not acting” and “the overwhelming majority of contemporary pornography is literally filmed violence against women," they also say that the "the highly addictive nature" of pornography make it inherently problematic.

However, according to sex researcher David Ley, the vast majority of people who watch porn have no issues with it. What's more, for those who do have problems with porn, it's not the porn itself that's the problem. Rather, it's the way we think about it.

"Over the past few years, numerous research studies have revealed that it is a religious and moral conflict within the person, which leads to people identifying as a porn addict, or feeling that they have difficulty controlling their porn use," Ley told me in an email. "Interestingly, these self-identified porn addicts don't actually appear to use more porn than most other people, they just feel worse about it."

That doesn't mean that there aren't real problems associated with porn. It's not, for instance, the best way for teens to learn how to have sex. And if you'd rather watch porn than hang out with your wife, that's probably going to cause issues in your relationship. But still, the porn is the symptom, not the cause of the problem. The root problems are that A) teens don't have comprehensive sex education either at home or at school, and B) you don't like spending time with your wife.

Despite the pleas of Notre Dame's anti-porn crusaders to think of the women, when it comes to violence against women, studies have consistently shown that the increase in access to online pornography is actually correlated with a decrease in sexual violence, including rape, child abuse, and exhibitionism. A 2006 study, for instance, found that the states with the greatest access to the internet (which is basically a porn-delivery mechanism) between 1980 and 2000 showed a 27 percent decrease in the number of reported rapes, while the states with the least access to the the internet showed a 53 percent increase in rapes reported. Overall, according to the study, "The incidence of rape in the United States declined 85 percent in the past 25 years while access to pornography has become freely available to teenagers and adults."

Correlation, of course, is not causation, but even before the internet came along, people were debating the impact of porn. In 1969, for instance, President Lyndon B. Johnson tasked a Congressional commission with determining whether or not pornography was harmful to society. They found no evidence that it was, but by the time their findings were released, Johnson was out of office, Nixon was in the White House, and he and most of Congress rejected the report.

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More recently, studies have shown that the amount of porn one consumes doesn't predict negative attitudes towards women. You know what does predict negative attitudes towards women? Being old, living in a rural area, lower levels of education, and being a member of a right-wing party. It’s not the porn that makes people have negative attitudes towards women; it’s the communities and culture they exist in.

There are, however, other ways to combat violence against women. "If these young men really are concerned about issues such as sexual violence," Ley said, "I truly invite them to consider addressing the sexual violence present in mainstream media and in our politics ('Grab em by the pussy!'), which are far more likely to have an impact than porn."

Besides, if they really want to support women, the boys of Notre Dame could start by paying for ethically sourced, women-made porn instead of trying to ban it for the men—and the women—who enjoy it.