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Billie Eilish and the fight against pornography

The problem is severe, and it goes beyond children’s access to harmful material

Billie Eilish arrives at the Variety 2021 Music Hitmakers Brunch in Los Angeles. Associated Press/ Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision

Billie Eilish and the fight against pornography
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Female pop superstar Billie Eilish recently made headlines by coming out swinging against the evils of pornography on the unlikeliest of platforms—an interview on The Howard Stern Show. Eilish is certainly no champion of family values, having recently offered an obscene denunciation of the Texas abortion law in the name of women’s rights, and Howard Stern—it seems safe to assume—is not about to turn into an anti-pornography crusader anytime soon. But this makes Eilish’s interview that much more striking: the pandemic of pornography, especially among children, has reached such disastrous proportions that nearly everyone can see there’s a problem—although few seem prepared to admit how deep the problem goes.

Eilish confessed that she had first been exposed to pornography at age 11, and, thinking she was supposed to like it and the acts it depicted, became hooked for a time. Now, she says, “As a woman, I think porn is a disgrace. I think it really destroyed my brain and I feel incredibly devastated that I was exposed to so much porn…. I’m so angry that porn is so loved, and I’m so angry at myself for thinking that it was OK.” She went on to lament the ways in which pornography gives viewers a fundamentally distorted perception of human sexuality, depicting as “normal” behaviors that are anything but, and leaving children—who have nothing else to go on—permanently confused about the purpose of sex.

Eilish is surely right in her diagnosis, but it is striking that in her remarks, and much of the reporting about them, the focus has revolved around issues of “consent.” The BBC, for instance, admonishes us that UNICEF warns “that pornography that portrays abusive and misogynistic acts can lead to normalisation.” On this account, then, it seems as if porn might be fine for kids as long as it portrayed “normal” and consensual sex. Of course, to express the thought is to reveal its absurdity. There is, after all, nothing normal about engaging in sexual acts for the paid entertainment of strangers. We recognize this in our criminalization of prostitution, but have somehow convinced ourselves that pornography is different.

Recent handwringing about pornography, as welcome as it is, follows the familiar pattern of American public morality in recent decades: express grave concern about involving children in behaviors that are clearly harmful, while fiercely protecting (and often celebrating) the right to engage in them as soon as you turn 18. Never question the morality as such, only the abuse of the practice. This reflects the fundamental paucity of American moral philosophy: We justify this distinction by pretending that whereas children aren’t able to rationally govern their appetites, we adults have attained the freedom and maturity to choose our pleasures wisely. Such a configuration falls woefully short of how Christianity views the conflict of spirit and flesh. A look in the mirror should tell us otherwise—all of us are prone to self-destructive behaviors and addictive spirals; none of us can play with such fire as pornography and not be burned.

Social change usually proceeds by baby steps, and we should be grateful at the signs of a shift in the conversation around porn.

Still, social change usually proceeds by baby steps, and we should be grateful at the signs of a shift in the conversation around porn. More and more seem apt to frame pornography as a burgeoning public health crisis. Concerted action to protect children from pornography now will, presumably, mean fewer adults addicted to this soul-destroying and society-warping poison in the decades to come. And given the libertine trend of First Amendment law over the past half-century, a direct assault on the legality of pornographic content is likely to be a non-starter in American politics.

By focusing, as Eilish did, on the issue of access to pornography in childhood, a recent report for the Ethics and Public Policy Center by Clare Morell and Adam Candeub charts a promising path forward for Christians concerned about this issue. After warning that “the unprecedented availability of pornography online is transforming our society and human relationships today,” the authors call for Congressional and state action specifically to make such content much harder for children to access. The policies proposed are not particularly difficult to enact, either legally or technologically, and they are so blindingly commonsensical that one wonders why they are not already law.

The biggest obstacle to such legislation is surely our society-wide bad conscience—by taking action to ban porn for children, we are forced to reckon with whether something that’s so destructive for minors can really be good for adults either. Still, even the most seared consciences can be moved to action by the exploitation of children, and we should lend all the support we can to the growing signs of moral awakening on this issue, however hypocritical and half-hearted they remain.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is the founder and president of the Davenant Institute. He also works as a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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