Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

16 thoughts

  1. Bill Gardner – Halifax, Nova Scotia – A health care researcher and a child and quantitative psychologist by training. I am an American living in Canada and am Professor of Paediatrics, Obstetrics & Gynaecology, and Community Health & Epidemiology at Dalhousie University; and Professor of Pediatrics, Psychology, and Psychiatry at The Ohio State University. I also blog at The Incidental Economist ( and you can follow me @Bill_Gardner on Twitter.
    Bill Gardner says:

    His literary persona is a Catholic version of Dana Carvey’s Church Lady, the innovation being keeping a straight face. I’m not christian, but maybe a serious attempt to be one would require the neuroticism that Kerry describes.

  2. Look, you can disagree with the moral position, fine. But fail to understand it? No intellectual should be unaware of the basic moral problems here for those whose ethical system is deontological rather than teleological.
    If you’re secular, read Kant. If you’re Christian, read the sermon on the mount.
    Anyone with a high school diploma ought to understand Ross’s position, even if (s)he disagrees with it.

    1. I don’t think Will meant he didn’t understand it. He said it “mystifies” him.
      I take it to mean that he’s surprised and unclear about the reasons why a smart person would hold such a stupid position.

  3. I don’t get Wilkinson’s reaction myself. I read the piece closely, awaiting the moment when Douthat declared pornography to be the equivalent of adultery. The closest I found was that in a survey, a third of the women said characterized it as a “form of betrayal or infidelity”. Most of what follows, as I read it, is an attempt to understand how porn then fits into the framework of marriage (or monogamous relationships more generally), often told through the lens of others who are comfortable with the notion that porn does have a role.
    My sense is that while Douthat is not cheer-leading for porn, he is trying to understand the arguments of those who are more accepting of it than he, tacitly, seems to be (I think those who have read Douthat previously are projecting their own ideas of who he is and what he stands for – i.e., the Church Lady – rather than reading the article as it is written).
    After considering a variety of things that have made porn less objectionable, he returns to porn as a component of a monogamous relationship, in the sense that it is becoming perceived as a “normal outlet from the rigors of monogamy”. He even qualifies it by calling it “a *form* of adultery”, which I interpret to mean that it’s not really adultery, but a simulacrum of it that he is uncomfortable endorsing, even having laid out some arguments as to why it’s superior to *real* adultery.
    As Kristo said, it’s fine to disagree with his moral position, but to claim to be mystified, it seems to me, is a kind of shorthand that says “I don’t agree with this guy, who is so clueless I don’t even have to waste my breath engaging his argument”. I for one thought that it was an interesting article, and I am not sure where exactly I come down on its central thesis. Like Douthat, I have a hard time accepting, without qualification, the notion that it is a “normal” outlet for frustrated monogamists such as myself. But having read it, and by virtue of his having given a fair hearing to those with fewer reservations about porn in general and in the context of a monogamous relationship, it has caused me to think about the issue.
    PS: When I read Wilkinson’s entry, I was reminded of a witticism that I think belongs to PJ O’Rourke: If meat is murder, are eggs rape? Asking if porn is adultery (or cigarettes suicide, etc), it seems to me, fits the same framework.

  4. There shouldn’t be any such thing as a “marital sex deficit.” If there is, let’s be blunt: you’re married to the wrong person.
    And if you can’t fix it after a certain set period of good faith effort, it’s really better to go your separate ways. Because sex is about so much more than just the sex – if you’re not having it, you have other problems too, ones you’re probably ignoring.
    Really, it’s possible to be happy in this life. It’s possible that two reasonable adults – even with children – can just admit it’s over, bid each other a fond farewell, and move on to a better life for everyone.
    This is one of the rare times I am happy about my ethnicity, which has accepted “no fault divorce” for thousands of years, understanding it as an unfortunate but often positive event.

  5. The Douthat article is actually a brave, sensitive and subtle exploration of a volatile topic. It does get a little sanctimonious in places. And one can quibble with the way he frames the discussion as “whether porn is adultery” as opposed to “whether porn is a net good or bad”.
    But it seems curt and facile (and even disingenuous) to dismiss Ross’s argument as irrelevant. If Will and/or Kerry have never experienced porn as a morally questionable or degrading or relationship-hostile phenomenon, that’s great. But many people have. It is far from crazy to ask how the porn phenomenon is affecting the way we look at relationships.
    Suppose we reject that porn is adultery (and reading Ross’ article, it is clear he is not making idiotic claims of complete equivalence). Isn’t it clear that there is nevertheless a salient similarity between the two? They both involve the idea of being with someone not your significant other. In both, you celebrate the idea with an orgasm, which releases a bunch of oxytocin. Unlike an adulterous affair, that fantasy and release is available to you whenever you have a parcel of time to go back to it.
    I think this parceling of sexual experience and fantasy and oxytocin and orgasm into porn nuggets is something like turning sex into a drug.
    And hey, maybe we shouldn’t be against drugs.
    But a rat with a lever hooked up to its pleasure zone will push the lever and feel happily buzzed right up until it dies of starvation. Drugs can deflect us from the rest of our lives, and cause us to lose focus.
    Sometimes a world without certain positive feedback loops can be better than a world with them. Not to say “let’s ban porn,” but rather “let’s have conversations about the moral and hedonic complexities involved, and whether we should aim to exercise restraint w/r/t porn or just do whatever feels good.”

  6. My take is that Ross’ perspective is akin to the passage in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus states that whoever has looked at a woman with lust has committed adultery. Jesus is speaking specifically of true holiness here, as opposed to the practical appliacation of adultery laws (which had very real and serious consequences then), pointing out that mankind’s pretenses to righteousness and holiness were meaningless in God’s eyes, and that grace was the need of all.
    That idea combined with the practical sense that pornography diminishes or complicates the martial sexual relationship is hardly simplistic. There are serious moral implications to the latter idea and dismissing it simply because it doesn’t fit into ones own moral worldview is simply a way of not engaging the idea on its own terms. Are there marriage relationships that have been damaged by pornography? Yes, and it is as fruitless an exercise to pretend that the participants in those relationships are somehow unenlightened or morally backwards as it is to assume that all men look at porn on a regular basis unless they are dead below the waist.
    I think it’s safe to say that all men struggle with the temptation of pornography, but many do struggle, recognizing the explotative nature of the industry and the specific practice, not to mention the moral implications upon relationships. There’s nothing neurotic or (as one unreflective commenter suggested) stupid about recognizing this.
    An open view of divorce isn’t the answer either. Divorce, except where aboslutely necessary (abuse, unfaithfulness) only cheapens relationships. The notion that “it’s not working out” might just as easily be the notion that “we’re not trying hard enough” or “we’re being too selfish.” Where families are concerned, ease of disengagement denies the ties that the relationship creates, especially where kids are concerned.
    In addition, the Sermon on the Mount reference demonstrates that Will’s analogies of Ross’ position are particularly unhelpful. When someone views porn with lustful thoughts or simply has lustful thoughts about a person not their partner, they are actively engaging in a psychological form of adultery in that they are imagining what would in real life be adultery. However, people don’t generally smoke with the thought of suicide, or pay the minimum wage with the perpective that they seek to enslave their employees. Intent is important (although admittedly not everything) when viewing actions from a moral perspective. Where porn is concerned, mental adultery is a large part of the bargain.
    That’s one reason why I don’t get the mystification bit. It feels like Will is reacting rather than reflecting.

    1. “When someone views porn with lustful thoughts or simply has lustful thoughts about a person not their partner, they are actively engaging in a psychological form of adultery in that they are imagining what would in real life be adultery. However, people don’t generally smoke with the thought of suicide, or pay the minimum wage with the perpective that they seek to enslave their employees.”
      This makes no sense. True, most people don’t smoke with the thought of suicide or pay the minimum wage with the intention to enslave their employees, but for most people who watch porn, they don’t get their thrill from the abstract idea that this is adulterous. If actually acting out the fantasies envisioned while masturbating (whether porn is involved or not) in the real world would be adultery, the fact is that taking up smoking cigarettes actually WILL shorten your life.
      “I think it’s safe to say that all men struggle with the temptation of pornography”
      I don’t think that’s safe to say. Many just don’t see it as a struggle or a particular temptation to be avoided, but simply as one of their entertainment options.
      “Where porn is concerned, mental adultery is a large part of the bargain.”
      Unless the viewer is thinking “Oh, man, this is just like cheating on my wife! The idea of sneaking around and having an affair behind her back gets me so horny!” then the intent simply isn’t mental adultery, and to pretend otherwise IS mystifying…and stupid.

  7. An interesting thought experiment.
    Porn and Alienation
    Porn is a fantasy that seeks to be acted out. It is also a fantasy that is unattainable. By definition, it must lead to despair.
    But assume for a moment that it is possible to attain the fantasy, and that we would want it if we attained it. Assume that women became hyper-sexualized automatons, who spoke only as a bridge between liaisons. Assume that twenty minute coitus was normative, and not tedious. Assume that you could actually be attracted to a woman who would copulate with any sentient being in the room. Assume that you wouldn’t leave a porn encounter with a vendetta against reason, and take every possible drug to avoid living with yourself. Assume that the scene would abruptly change after climax, and you wouldn’t have to be faced with that horrid “what now”? Assume that onanism was everything you always wanted. Assume that Women would not hate or resent you for subjecting them to every manner of contortionist novelty. Assume that you would never conceive a child.
    Are you living fantasy yet? No. Something remains. Even in this state, what are you? A performer You are doing what you have seen: you are acting This is your show. You are not in love, but on stage. The self who copulates is someone you observe and ogle, rating his performance, admiring his power, fearing his failure. The woman is not your lover, but your audience, and your porn persona is alone on stage. Your true self watches from the balcony; a petty critic, alienated and alone.

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