Time sounds alarm on young men and porn, while leaving religion out of the picture

Long, long ago, I had a conversation with some religion-beat professionals about media bias, which is a tricky subject, to say the least.

The world is, alas, full of religious conservatives who automatically want to assume that all journalists basically hate believers in all traditional forms of religion. That's way too simplistic, of course, as I have tried to explain for decades when speaking in a wide range of settings -- including religious colleges, think tanks and gatherings of mainstream journalists. This piece from The Quill -- "Religion and the News Media: Have our biases fatally wounded our coverage?" -- covers the basics.

However, this circle of Godbeat pros was talking about the worst cases that we were seeing of slanted journalism. We are talking about cases in which it was clear that editors had crossed the line between advocacy journalism and old-school reporting that stressed accuracy, balance and respect for the beliefs of people on both sides of hot-button subjects.

Was there a kind of journalistic Grand Unified Theory of Everything, when it came to explaining these really ugly cases? What was the thread that ran through them? A colleague from the West Coast eventually ended the silence with this blunt statement: "The Religious Right must lose."

Let me stress that we were talking about the very small number of media-bias cases in which it appeared that outright prejudice was at work. On the religion beat, in recent decades, these almost always have something to do with clashes between the Sexual Revolution and traditional forms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Believe it or not, this brings me -- taking a rather roundabout route -- to that recent Time magazine cover story on pornography (which is locked behind a paywall). Now, one would think think that a newsweekly taking the destructive powers of porn seriously would be a victory for groups preaching a conservative view of sex (and, of course, for consistent feminists who take a similar stance for different reasons).

The team at Time deals with that angle, in one sentence.

See if you can spot it in this key summary material, which begins with a reference to groups of young men who are beginning to fight back against porn (which is the hook for the cover story).

These young men feel like unwitting guinea pigs in a largely unmonitored decade-long experiment in sexual conditioning. The results of the experiment, they claim, are literally a downer.
So they’re beginning to push back, creating online community groups, smartphone apps and educational videos to help men quit porn. They have started blogs and podcasts and take all the public-speaking gigs they can get. Porn has always faced criticism among the faithful and the feminist. But now, for the first time, some of the most strident alarms are coming from the same demographic as its most enthusiastic customers.
Of course there are much broader concerns about porn’s effect on society that go beyond the potential for sexual dysfunction, including the fact that it often celebrates the degradation of women and normalizes sexual aggression.

That objection went by rather fast, didn't it?

Several GetReligion readers sent me notes about this, wondering why the Time team did next to nothing in terms of dealing with moral and religious arguments against pornography.

One reader asked bluntly: Were the Time editors afraid to state that millions of ordinary believers still think there are moral standards that are relevant to topics such as porn, masturbation, sexual abuse, the degradation of women, etc.? Was it hard to state that science might support the traditional religious view that some sins literally warp the soul?

In other words, were Time editors extra careful to make sure that this cover story didn't give religious people a win?

This is a really important subject and it's important that a news organization or two offered blunt looks at it. Rather than focusing on the Time material behind that paywall, let me point readers toward a Washington Post essay -- by sociologist Gail Dines -- that makes some similar arguments and takes a similar science-alone stance on the topic.

In this case, the author offers a small bridge between the moral arguments and the science.

Last month, the Republican-led Utah House of Representatives became the first legislative body in the United States to pass a resolution declaring pornography “a public health hazard leading to a broad spectrum of individual and public health impacts and societal harms.” The liberal backlash criticized the measure as an antiquated bit of conservative moralizing, with the Daily Beast calling it “hypocritical” and “short-sighted.” “The science just isn’t there,” wrote Rewire, an online journal dedicated to dispelling “falsehoods and misinformation.”
The thing is, no matter what you think of pornography (whether it’s harmful or harmless fantasy), the science is there. After 40 years of peer-reviewed research, scholars can say with confidence that porn is an industrial product that shapes how we think about gender, sexuality, relationships, intimacy, sexual violence and gender equality -- for the worse. By taking a health-focused view of porn and recognizing its radiating impact not only on consumers but also on society at large, Utah’s resolution simply reflects the latest research.

The key is that online porn -- average age of first exposure is now 11 -- is helping shape how millions of men view real women. I was serious about that "warp the soul" image, earlier.

There are lots of arguments here that would upset conservative readers, as well as the cultural left. As I read this, I kept thinking -- Why not do an actual NEWS series on this topic, as opposed to an op-ed essay?

And what are these children looking at? If you have in your mind’s eye a Playboy centerfold with a naked woman smiling in a cornfield, then think again. While “classy” lad mags like Playboy are dispensing with the soft-core nudes of yesteryear, free and widely available pornography is often violent, degrading and extreme.
In a content analysis of best-selling and most-rented porn films, researchers found that 88 percent of analyzed scenes contained physical aggression: generally spanking, gagging, choking or slapping. Verbal aggression occurred in 49 percent of the scenes, most often in the form of calling a woman “bitch” and “slut.” Men perpetrated 70 percent of the aggressive acts, while women were the targets 94 percent of the time.

So is this a "conservative," moral-agenda news topic or a "liberal" subject linked to women's rights? Would it be possible to do basic news coverage that argued "both"?

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