Earlier this year, a prestigious Manhattan prep school fired its longtime director of health and wellness, Justine Fonte for teaching at another institution. It wasn’t that she taught somewhere else. It’s what she taught: “porn literacy” — to high schoolers.
Even more revealing than the course itself has been the ensuing debate about how best to help teenagers navigate the adult content found everywhere in online life. In a sympathetic writeup, the New York Times defended Fonte’s class for “teach(ing) students how to critically assess what they see on the screen…how to recognize what is realistic and what is not, how to deconstruct implicit gender roles, and how to identify what types of behavior could be a health or safety risk.”
In other words, Fonte’s class could help students consume online pornography ethically. As strange as that may sound, it’s an approach more common than you might think. Three years ago, Nadia Bolz-Weber, a popular progressive writer, endorsed the idea.
Still, as Samuel James put it in his article at First Things, “It is rather surprising that anyone who knows the name Harvey Weinstein could believe that progressive gender politics can infuse pornography with virtue.” This is especially true for the New York Times. After all, their own Nicholas Kristof, just last year, broke the story that one of the Internet’s largest porn sites featured videos depicting the exploitation of minors, sex trafficking, and even rape.
On that particular streaming platform, which received 115 million views per day in 2019, a significant portion of visitors consumed footage of actual violence and sexual abuse against children. The videos remained despite being openly advertised as such by the users who uploaded the videos. Since Kristof’s article, dozens of women have sued the website’s parent company for profiting from their exploitation. Millions of hours of content have now been deleted in an effort to purge illegal material.
Anyone with a smartphone can easily access this content, including students. Educating them about how to avoid the content, why to avoid the content, and the direct connection between pornography and exploitation would makes sense. Thinking that students can be trained to wade through this hellscape of exploitation to find “ethical” and politically correct content does not.
Writing at The Atlantic, Elizabeth Bruenig argues that “porn literacy” teachers have no idea how dark and exploitive modern pornography has become. The kids in Fonte’s class who spoke to the New York Times recalled being “annoyed and bored” by her presentation, not shocked. They’d already seen it all, exposed to this material that is not just “dirty” but in Bruenig’s words “brutal, cruel, vicious, and even genuinely criminal.”
In writing her article, Bruenig spoke with teenage girls who candidly told her that the boys they date expect them to participate in the violent, sadistic, and degrading acts they’ve seen online. “If anything,” she concludes, porn literacy classes “aren’t given nearly enough funding, time, or other resources to fully demonstrate just how onerous ethical porn use really is.”
But all the time and all the funding in the world couldn’t achieve that. Bruenig, like most progressives, may hold out hope that pornography can be sanitized and subjected to politically correct sensibilities. But her own reporting shows the latest chapter of what’s long been true. There is a deep relationship between pornography and crime that has only deepened and worsened as it has moved online.
There is no such thing as “ethical porn use.” Porn is premised on the notion that human beings can be abstracted from their personhood and consumed as collections of body parts. Porn assumes and trains consumers to believe that people are products to be bought and sold, and then discarded with the click of a mouse or the flick of a finger. To objectify fellow image-bearers in this way inevitably bears the fruit of objectifying them in other ways, often more extreme and degrading ways. The “progress” toward ever darker genres isn’t a bug of pornography: it’s a feature. Believing we can tame it is like believing we can invite a crocodile to dinner if only we teach it table manners.
The answer to this ever-growing monster of internet pornography isn’t to housebreak it, but to rid our houses of it — culturally, personally, and legally. Education can’t fix this problem. Smarter dehumanizers more tragically dehumanize. Until we’re ready as a society to do what’s necessary, the children on the screen and in our schools will continue to pay the price.
Is Porn Harmless?
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