Life

Billie Eilish’s Brain on Porn

The anti-porn industry is thrilled by the singer’s comments to Howard Stern. What do they actually tell us?

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 04: Billie Eilish attends Variety's Hitmakers Brunch presented by Peacock | Girls5eva on December 04, 2021 in Downtown Los Angeles. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Variety)
Billie Eilish in Los Angeles this month. Kevin Winter/Getty Images

“Billie Eilish agrees with us” was the subject line in an email sent by anti-pornography organization, Exodus Cry, to its followers days after Eilish’s widely publicized interview with Howard Stern. The message went on to explain how her remarks on porn online vindicated what they have long been touting: that internet pornography is a danger to children (Eilish started watching at age 11); that it is physically addictive (“it really destroyed my brain,” Eilish said), and that it is violent and degrading toward women (she asserted that it ruined her self-esteem and future romantic relationships).

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Groups like Exodus Cry seek to weaponize a belief shared by most Americans: that kids shouldn’t be watching porn. But this isn’t the only thing that Exodus Cry is pushing. The group made headlines last year as it led the #TraffickingHub campaign, a petition to shut down the world’s largest porn website, Pornhub. And it doesn’t only oppose sex trafficking or kids’ access to internet porn—it opposes all forms of sex work. It feeds on social anxiety around victimization and children, and Eilish has played directly into its hands.

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As a sociologist, I’ve spent years studying anti-porn groups like Exodus Cry and other organizations and activists who form a stark divide: those who believe pornography is a legitimate entertainment industry for sex workers to make a living, and those, often with religious agendas, who believe it is cause of a public crisis. Both sides grapple with the reality that teenagers are all but guaranteed to be exposed to internet porn, but they offer tellingly different strategies for how to navigate Eilish’s comments.

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Anti-pornography groups see porn as inherently and uniformly dangerous to children, as they believe Eilish’s story confirms. Defend Young Minds, for example, is an organization that publishes picture books that parents can read to their children, starting at age 6, to warn them of internet porn. For these very young children, the group believes, the best approach is to teach a simple memory exercise. If a child sees what they learn to call a “bad picture,” they should “turn, run, and tell!, not unlike ”“stop, drop, and roll.” Defend Young Minds teaches parents that they can practice this exercise with their young children so that they know it by heart. First, turn away from the image to avoid even a moment of additional exposure. Next, run away from the situation or people who presented the “bad picture.” Finally, and most importantly, tell a trusted adult. Concerns over early exposure to porn mimic a broader pornography addiction recovery movement, which I’ve written about before for this magazine, that often exaggerates scientific findings to make claims about pornography’s serious harms to consumers.

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Feminist anti-porn activist Gail Dines has created another type of curriculum for parents of tweens and teens through her nonprofit organization “Culture Reframed.” Though Defend Young Minds was created by those who hold conservative Christian beliefs, Dines insists her curriculum is progressive and sex-positive. The message is that porn culture is everywhere (in TV, movies, and music, not just porn sites) and must be challenged at every turn. “If you have a boy, you have to assume that he’s looked at porn by the age of 13 or 14,” Dines says. Girls are not off the hook, either. Though they tend to look at porn at a later age, they too are at risk of porn addictions or of “absorbing the messages of hypersexualization and objectification” and coming to accept sexual exploitation and predatory behavior as normal.

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But is the lesson that pornography is dangerous to children the only or best lesson to teach them? Public health scholar Emily Rothman doesn’t think so. She helped create a model of sex education called “pornography literacy,” one of the first and only of its kind, that encourages students to use critical thinking if and when they encounter pornography.

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Rothman acknowledges, based on her review of empirical research, “all signs point to the idea that mainstream online pornography appears to negatively influence youth in several ways.” Studies find evidence that porn may influence teens to develop anti-woman attitudes, may lead to depression and anxiety, and may prompt risky sexual behaviors. She sees pornography and sexual and dating violence as linked since both teenage boys and girls report pressure to perform sex acts seen in pornography.

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And yet Rothman and her collaborators, Jess Alder and Nicole Daily, do not place pornography as the single nexus of these problems.  For one, teens are exposed to a wide range of sexually explicit media—from music to TV—and all of these sources may contribute unhealthy messages about sex and dating. The researchers’ social science background makes them skeptical of blaming pornography as the isolated cause of violence and other negative outcomes. Porn is but one factor correlated with unhealthy dating behaviors.

In her work, Rothman recalled how she felt “tremendous pressure to pick a side” as she began researching the relationship between pornography and teenage dating and sex. For her resistance to call herself anti-porn, she has been accused of being “pro-porn,” or part of what the founder of the website Your Brain on Porn, Gary Wilson, dubbed the “Porn Science Deniers Alliance.” (Full disclosure, I too have been accused of being a part of this group.)

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Anti-porn groups do not leave room for an empathetic view toward those who choose to engage in sex work or to produce sexually explicit material, or the idea that pornography can be consumed by adults responsibly. Rothman and educators who share her view insist on more nuance. For porn literacy educators who work alongside or within the adult industry, many resist placing labels of “good” versus “bad” porn and instead talk about the intentionality of the viewer: Does this viewer understand that a scene is being performed by paid professionals? Can a viewer watch and enjoy that scene while still understanding that real-life partners will not be the same as those on the screen?

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All of the educators, therapists, religious leaders, and activists I have interviewed—regardless of their position on porn—agreed that it makes for bad sex education. Yet school-based sex education programs rarely tackle the topic of pornography directly. While nearly all public school students will receive some kind of sex education, there is wide variation in what kind of education they will receive. Thirty-five states have passed laws requiring that sex education includes “abstinence” and the health and emotional benefits of choosing not to have sex. In comparison, only 15 states have passed laws requiring that sex education be medically accurate, and just 16 require teaching about contraception as part of a comprehensive model. Unlike other subjects in school where teachers obtain degree specializations, sex education is far less systematized than teaching math or social studies. Local school districts largely determine their own curriculum and standards for teachers.

Rather than let Eilish’s remarks become easy fodder for the anti-pornography movement, we should instead consider how her story reveals a deeper dilemma of sex education, or lack thereof, for American children. No matter your opinion on porn, this is a real problem, and the answer that will truly help kids likely won’t be found at any extreme.

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