Pornography Prevails

The Society convened in Riggs Library for the fourth time and second Merrick debate of the semester to consider Resolved: Watching Pornography is Morally Permissible. Making his induction, Mr. William Greco (COL ’15) of Connecticut keynoted for the affirmation with Ms. Colleen Wood (SFS ’14) of Minnesota. Also making his induction, Mr. Patrick Eisen (SFS ’17) of California spoke for the negation with Ms. Heather Regen (SFS ’14) of California.

Ms. Wood challenged the Society to approach the subject with maturity and framed the debate. She defined “pornography” as film depicting actual sex designed to sexually satisfy the viewer, and “permissible” as non-obligatory acts that remain in the “moral clear”.  She argued that if our moral code includes the idea that individuals should be independent and autonomous, we ought to be okay with porn because it allows for personal exploration of sexuality. Accusing the negation of condemning self-discovery and expression, Ms. Wood urged the Society to avoid voting on porn’s “yuck factor”.

Mr. Eisen criticized Ms. Wood’s laissez-faire approach by pointing out that no one acts in isolation. When a consumer uses pornography, he bears responsibility for the processes that created the film. Demand creates supply. Mr. Eisen compared pornography to t-shirts from Bangladesh or factory-farmed meat. Because the production process is opaque and could involve exploitation, the consumer’s only ethical option is to abstain.

Mr. Greco countered that the origins of any particular pornographic film are quite clear. The actors and actresses consent with full knowledge that consumers will use their performance to become sexually aroused, which rules out the exploitation argument. Moving to the argument that porn objectifies women, Mr. Greco maintained that objectification is not always wrong. Any film objectifies its actors as characters for the audience’s enjoyment, with pornography only differing in the particular acts depicted. Like horror films, pornography appeals to our baser nature, but that doesn’t make either wrong.

Ms. Regen attacked the idea that objectification can ever be permissible because it fundamentally denies the Kantian notion that humans are ends in and of themselves. While it may be true that pornographic actors exercise free agency, the user still regards them as objects, and since the debate was about watching pornography, the effect of the user’s act was the central concern. Predicting that the negation would be a motley coalition of feminists and moral conservatives, Ms. Regen closed by cautioning the Society against conflating the moral with the moralistic.

Before opening the floor, President Christopher DiMisa read the house rules and reminded the Society that this topic would test its maturity. This Amanuensis believes his words were well-heeded, as the account below ought to show.

Mr. Elijah Jatovsky accused the negation of inconsistency for saying that humans have Kantian value while also maintaining that we should judge actions by their consequences. He urged them to choose between deontology and utilitarianism. Mr. Alejandro Perez-Reyes took the first approach, declaring that “we are rational animals” and must not allow appetite to overrule reason. Mr. Evan Monod thanked Mr. Spock for his defense of reason, but reminded him that as the TV show attests, even Vulcans desire sex. He maintained that the negation only had two types of arguments: non-sex positive ones and arguments relying on the opaque nature of the industry. With the first Dead on Arrival and the second thoroughly debunked, he didn’t see how the negation could win.

With poetry, of course! This Amanuensis’s dear mentee, Mr. Alden Fletcher, quoted Whitman and Eliot to make the point that pornography, like the Waste Land, is a pale image of real love. By its very nature it is corruptive. While Ms. Amanda Wynter agreed that porn is only an image, she reminded the Society that images were not the question at hand. Even if pornography objectifies and exploits, it is a symptom of larger societal problems. But Vice President Anna Hernick insisted that porn is indeed the disease because it warps the viewer’s perspective on relationships, love, and sex.

Ms. Catalina Rodriguez (SFS ’17) noted that our relationships are already commoditized, pointing to hairstylists as people that we treat like objects. Even more so than hairstyling, sex is a necessity that we cannot negate. Mr. Jeremiah Fernandez (SFS ’16) compared pornographic actors to boxers. In each case, an act that may not be wrong in and of itself becomes so through a nefarious industry, so we should consume neither, but Ms. Emily Coccia insisted that mindful consumption is not immoral, especially when we consider that some porn is feminist.

Ms. Abigail Grace criticized the individualistic trajectory of the debate to that point. If pornography changes the way humans view sex, the systemic implications in a society where a supermajority of men use porn ought to disconcert us. Mr. Jacob Arber pushed back forcefully against this analysis, deeming it an attempt to enforce “normalized” sex on people. Since different people express their sexuality in different ways, it makes no sense to conflate sex and romantic love, which do not necessarily go hand in hand. Mr. Dennis Quinn supported Mr. Arber’s focus on individuals, but disagreed with his prescription. Pornography makes a non-salient part of beings into the most salient feature. Porn objectifies.

Mr. Daniel Kendrick countered that sex is indeed a salient feature of rational human beings, because the unity of mind and body makes it so. By holding this position he acknowledged that the wrong ideas about sex can poison the mind, but he stressed that not all porn is poisonous.

Mr. Patrick Spagnuolo brought the debate back to the meat industry, only to condemn any comparisons between economics and human individuals. “We can’t commodify human life and sex.” Mr. Gregory Miller agreed that humans are different from cows, but noted that Mr. Spagnuolo’s argument left the door open for non-economic, non-objectifying pornography. Mr. Miller maintained that porn can be nourishing art.

Chancellor Peter Prindiville struck back, arguing that while sex is art, pornography is not. Approaching the debate from the fundamental belief that every person is created in the image and likeness of God, he held that we must respect and uphold each human’s dignity. Under this metric, the watcher of pornography acts immorally because he denigrates human love.

Mr. Christopher Stromeyer echoed the sentiments of many who had spoken when he described porn’s vapid nature with the evening’s second quote from T.S. Eliot: “To have the experience, but miss the meaning.” Mr. Stomeyer did not know where he stood but posed a personal question to the Society, “Is it morally permissible to compartmentalize lust from love?”

Ms. Regen eventually answered no, but first she addressed the affirmation’s argument that pornography is a necessity, contending that such a view results from our society’s warped conception of sex. While acknowledging that our cultural attitudes towards sex need to liberalize, Ms. Regen denied that pornography is the right medium to exact that change. Instead she suggested that we ought to experience the real thing. Just as Mr. Stromeyer had put Eliot to unorthodox use, she applied Plato: “Go into the sun, don’t watch the shadows. Have affirmative sex”.

Mr. Greco disputed Ms. Regen’s mischaracterization of his position. He denied that anyone on the affirmation wanted to use pornography as a means to liberalize sexual mores. Rather, the affirmation saw porn as a way for free individuals to enjoy themselves. For rational adults, this creates no unrealistic expectations. Calling the negation out on its slippery slope fallacy, he noted that there is no rational basis to believe that objectifying porn actors or actresses will lead someone to objectify everyone they meet. Seeing an actor play a character does not negate their humanity.

In a refreshing change from the Society’s recent trend towards deferential keynoting, Mr. Eisen began by accusing Mr. Greco of being totally wrong about everything. He argued that even for rational adults, pornography will become a paradigm that sets unrealistic and purely physical expectations around sex. Since pornography is used by individuals while sex is an act between two people, a porn user will become selfish in matters of love.

Ms. Wood contested that no one could ever confuse pornography and sex with a person you love and insisted that it was unrealistic to limit sexual expression to loving relationships alone. Living vicariously is an incredibly human thing to do. Just as couch potatoes live vicariously through the Super Bowl, people exploring their sexuality ought to be able to live vicariously through pornography. Ms. Wood stressed that no one on the affirmation was saying that porn is educational or mundane, but rather that it is a channel of self-discovery. She urged the Society to err on the side of expanding the sphere of self-exploration and affirm.

Before dividing the house, President Christopher DiMisa commended the Society for its treatment of a topic that would reduce many college students to crass jokes and fits of giggling.

And with that, the Society voted to award Merrick points to the most eloquent speakers!

  • Ms. Amanda Wynter – 1 point
  • Mr. Jacob Arber – 2 points
  • Ms. Heather Regen – 3 points
  • Mr. Patrick Spagnuolo – 4 points
  • Ms. Colleen Wood – 5 points

This brings the scoreboard to:

  • Ms. Amanda Wynter & Mr. Patrick Spagnuolo – 6 points
  • Ms. Colleen Wood – 5 points
  • Chancellor Peter Prindiville – 4 points
  • Mr. Warren Wilson & Ms. Heather Regen – 3 points
  • Mr. Jacob Arber – 2 points
  • Ms. Emily Coccia – 1 point

With three abstaining, the Society voted 38-26 to affirm.

Finally and Most Importantly, the Society inducted Messrs. Greco and Eisen, each of whom is sure to be a great addition. Huzzah!


Michael Whelan


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