An Open Letter After My Last ‘Talk Heathen’ Appearance

Aug 21, 2023 | Porn, Atheism

A few weeks ago, when I hosted an episode of Talk Heathen for The Atheist Community of Austin’s Atheist Experience Network, I agreed to solicit calls about pornography from our viewers. I try not to do this too often as the responses are predictably uninspired. There are genuine issues to discuss and real nuance within the world of commodified relationships and cinematic sexuality but I’m rarely given the opportunity to get past “But porn is Bad because God says so” and since I’ve yet to see much in the way of god existing, I have a hard time taking an interest in what angry crackpots think he says.

After a few rounds of “okay but so what?” I was really pleased to receive this follow up letter from a viewer in Ireland, Susie, who wrote-

Hi there, just wanted to get in touch with the Talk Heathen team, for Ben and Christy Powell. Love your show, I’m an atheist and have never had religion in my culture or family, I’m open-minded and, love sex and have no problem in talking about it!

I did notice though in your August 6th discussion of porn, there was naturally an emphasis on the religious objection but I didn’t hear much about the real-life impacts of the people who are being filmed. Abuse and trafficking of women and children is globally a huge problem socially and this is closely tied to the porn industry.

Daughter of a professor I totally agree with the need for facts and statistics so attach two links regarding this.

https://fightthenewdrug.org/by-the-numbers-porn-sex-trafficking-connected/

https://theexodusroad.com/porn-and-human-trafficking-the-facts-you-need-to-know/

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/81406118 (Money Shot) Pornhub documentary with a huge amount of statistics.

While I am all for people enjoying their sexuality and I know the difference between consent and abuse, pornography for viewers does not make it clear what is consensual or the background and circumstances for the people involved. A viewer may not have any intention to hurt anyone but by creating the demand are a crucial part of the exploitation of vulnerable adults and children.

There is a detachment and invisibility inherent in the industry which makes it a goldmine for those who abuse and exploit. I am all for free love but do see pornography as a force in normalizing child sex abuse, violence against women and was disappointed these issues were not better addressed in your discussion.

Your focus was on whether pleasure is wrong morally, with very little regard to the lives of the people who are being ‘sold’ even if the service is free. What appears to be consensual sex is so often misleading, there is no knowledge of the person’s life circumstances, whether they have been groomed, coerced or forced under threat. Perhaps this is more of a problem with the industry and regulation would improve the reality of the harm done. But just blank ignoring/playing down the destructive and often devastating effects behind the scenes seems unhelpful and ignorant which I found a bit disappointing – I love your show!

When a theist caller has concerns about whether or not they will go to heaven is maybe not the point! It’s not about them, there are a lot of vulnerable people out there. The vast majority of children and adults who have been trafficked were involved in the pornography industry at some point.

I hope this adds something to your discussion and you would consider my perspective!

All the best and sending Irish hugs to the team x

Hey Susie,

Thanks so much for reaching out! There definitely is nuance to the appropriate role and non-harmful use of pornography, unfortunately the callers and conversation we had on the 6th wasn’t able to address a great number of things I wish we could have spoken about. I really appreciate you taking the time to raise some of those concerns. Unfortunately it is nearly impossible to have a nuanced conversation about the porn industry without religious dogmatism making an appearance- that happened on the show but I’d like to take a moment to point out it’s already happened in this conversation considering BOTH of the links you provided me come from allegedly secular institutions well known by industry insiders to be religious propaganda. Please don’t take my word for it-

* Inside the Movement to Declare Pornography a ‘Health Crisis’

* Inside Exodus Cry: The Shady Evangelical Group With Trump Ties Waging War on Pornhub

these articles do a pretty good job of covering the topic but if you google either organization you’ll find immediate (sponsored) results clearly dismissing the connection but if you add in phrases like ‘mormon’ or ‘christian’ and search for news articles you’ll quickly see that neither one is operating from a secular standpoint. Of course that doesn’t necessarily dismiss their findings (which I don’t have the time or resources to fully debunk) but it does help to highlight the strategies these organizations use in generating and reporting their numbers. To be clear, even one person forced into any sort of labor against their will is too many but the definition of ‘sex trafficking’ is so absurdly vague and politicized as to have nearly no meaning. If I were to move across state lines to work as an erotic dancer only to find that the cost of living in my new town was poorly calculated and different then what I had been promised, I would meet the definition used by these organizations. While it is true that the Nordic Model has been dismissed each time it’s been considered by an American state or municipality because of mixed data, that’s not to suggest that there isn’t meaningful value in allowing sex workers of all types, especially pornography, to self-regulate under the same labor protections standard across other industries.

Organizations like these tend to rely on two primarmy talking points in denouncing porn to a wide audience- 1) porn/sex work of all types is directly related to human trafficking and 2) pornography is inherently harmful/addictive on account of the way it ‘rewires your brain.’

 Both of these ideas are patently false. 1) It is true that there are labor concerns within the pornography industry and the relevant data is incredibly lacking, making everything related hard to track. Most industry types will tell you that this is in large part because of the legal discrimination and lack of law enforcement transparency that would be eliminated if we treated porn as any other type of job but it’s impossible to know if that’s true or not. What we do know is that recent anti-porn legislation like FOSTA/SESTA has absolutely made the problem worse. In any case if we conceive of mainstream pornography as tv/movies little brother, almost all of which is currently shuttered due to a labor contract dispute, there’s little reason to believe that porn labor practices are any more concerning then related industries. 2) Pornography doesn’t ‘rewire your brain’ or make it ‘light up’ any more than watching TV, riding a bike or playing a board game. These claims usually rely on the fact that all memory is coded in the brain and point towards ‘brain changes’ without recognizing that this is a natural and standard process across human activity. 

We worked really hard to cover these issues on Secular Sexuality and hope to be back at it soon. I’m in talks with a few interested stakeholders and hope to be able to better address these points through that avenue. In the meantime if you have disagreements or concerns I’d encourage you to check out-

* On Location With Sinn Sage Productions

* My Body/Rights/Income

* The Non-Prophets Sextacular

And for further reading please consider The Myth of Sex Addiction by Dr. David J. Ley. 

 

I know that doesn’t fully address each of the numbers you pointed me towards but I hope it empowers you to reconsider your perspective. Thanks for taking the time and for watching!

 

Hi Christy,

Thank you for your informative response, I do often get some batshit Christian ads trying to listen to podcasts and wonder.. and try to ignore! Having said that I also grew up in Singapore where prostitution is legal. I have some first hand experience of how women get involved in these industries and so I guess have my own personal bias.

Perhaps it is impossible to have an adult conversation with religion in the room. I have no need for an imaginary friend to tell me what is right or wrong, I find sex beautiful and erotic, artistic and completely natural. But then we have such a huge amount of violence against my sex which I can’t ignore, I guess I find that lacking in the conversation when so much of that is apparently given the aok. Idk as don’t watch porn, never needed to so am going off what I hear. So perhaps I am as ignorant if don’t have peer reviewed facts. I have been assaulted though like many of the women and girls I know. It’s rife, as they say here!

That needs to be a part of the conversation. I have heard you guys discuss the obvious ‘men in religious institutions with power’ issue but there is now a massive challenge with technological advance to revenge porn, ai and most girls at high school being asked for naked pics daily. This may not be backed up with stats globally but I am speaking from personal family/friend experience across the board.. and across the pond.

Apologies for my rambles I have just been diagnosed with combined adhd so on a side note am so grateful for your words on compassion. More than anything this has so much value, is perhaps a key to understanding each other as individuals and society. 

One wee point, it is easy for people to phone in about how their hamster was healed by Jesus. Maybe those who were victims of trafficking/abuse will never breathe a word because of shame. They are invisible and silent on the phone. It is rampant globally, I know because have seen it and been there. Whether stats are funded by this or that I believe it is worth representing those people, even subtly in a caring voice, an attitude of care. I think lassies of all ages would quietly rejoice in some acknowledgment of how violence against them is WRONG.

Top of the morning to ya, keep up the amazing work xx 

As Susie pointed out, it is true that there are abuses in the porn industry. There are valid arguments to be made about raising the age of performers to 21, real criticisms of the oft vaunted Nordic Model and genuine concerns about the health and safety of performers, to say nothing of other forms of sex work. Should sexual health testing be government mandated or part of a studio’s internal safety policy? Would universal basic income reduce worries about sex work as an employer of last resort? Can mutual aid models adequatly account for freeloading? As a mental health clinician I’m not a true expert in government policy or sexual health and actual experts not only stretch across the political spectrum but disagree on the particulars all the time. I don’t know if ‘child-like’ latex sex dolls can lead to reductions in child sexual assualt or increases- I’m not entirely sure that the answer changes how a society should feel about innanimate sex toys or articifical representations of assault. What I do know is that we live in a culture where we barely bother to wag a finger anymore at remarkable depictions of violence while condeming to hell cinematic presentations of love and expression.

So while I don’t pretend to have all of the answers and know without doubt that the collection below is riddled with self-contradictions and complex hand wringing, these are the types of conversations I want to be having. Conversations where we care about sexual expression and bodily autonomy, where we think past ancient gods and arbitrary dictums and above all else show that we actually care about young people, about women, about minorities and about people living in poverty. We can rely on sexual health research, on DEI data sets and economic models. We can consult with public policy experts, mental health clinicains and professional sex-work advocates. Above all else however, I believe we need to be hearing from performers and sex workers of all stripes about their experiences, their ambitions and their challenges. Hopefully the balance of my body of work reflects that goal and helps move us from a conversation like “PORN BAD” towards one with a little more insight.

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