In the name of freedom, porn is trashing our lives

(RNS) After last month’s spectacle of armed policemen forcibly undressing a Muslim woman on a beach in Nice, France, I wrote a column titled "When did modesty become a dirty word?,” arguing the positive, Islamic case for modesty of dress and behavior for men and women.

The backlash was vociferous. I was accused of seeking to limit individual -- and specifically sexual -- freedom.

So is Islam against "freedom"? Does Islam regard sex as sinful? Far from it. The Quran declares celibacy to be an unhealthy man-made institution, and the prophet of Islam declared marriage as constituting half of one’s faith. He further described sexual relations between spouses as an act of virtue in God’s eyes.

But it is no secret that Islam disapproves of many practices of today, from premarital sex to pornography. Indeed, the Quran commands Muslims to shun indecency, whether committed openly or in secret. The prophet forbade exposing one’s nakedness to anyone other than one’s spouse or looking at the nakedness of others. The Quran further warns those who "love that immorality should spread" increase suffering in society.

These teachings may seem alien to a society in which 90 percent of boys and 70 percent of girls have viewed pornography, with 1 in 3 boys viewing it “too many times to count,” having begun at less than 10 years of age. Scientific research however, is rapidly catching up with Islamic teachings, confirming its warning that pornography is bad news for society.

Indeed, the effect of pornographic consumption on the perception of rape is just one among its many disturbing consequences. One study split 120 men and women into three groups: heavy (4.5 hours), moderate (2.25 hours) and no exposure to nonviolent pornography, over a six-week period. Thereafter, participants were presented with the case of a rape of a female hitchhiker. Males in the heavy exposure group recommended around half the jail time for the rapist as compared with the no-exposure group (49 months to 90 months, respectively); a similar significant difference was noted among women (77 to 143 months, respectively). The authors described this as the “trivialization of rape” and attributed its effect to the depiction of women in pornography as always sexually interested. The same study found that support for women’s rights declined in men, from 71 percent to 25 percent, between the no-exposure and heavy-exposure groups, respectively. The study further demonstrated that males in the heavy-exposure group displayed significantly greater sexual callousness toward women, as determined through questionnaires. Indeed, objectification of women has known dehumanizing effects.

It should not surprise us that many studies have demonstrated a causal connection between pornography and sexual violence. These studies show that pornography is not simply “boys being boys,” since never before in human history have young men been exposed to such unprecedented pornographic content, at the touch of a button.

The effect that this has on gender relationships is not negligible. Our social arenas are increasingly structured to satisfy male tastes groomed through pornography. Nightclubs often run themed nights in which women are depicted purely as sexual objects -- “pimps ’n’ hoes,” “slag ’n’ drag,” “rappers ’n’ slappers” -- resulting in what is now known as stripper-chic fashion for women. Nightclubs are also often caught out using the language and imagery of rape to attract their clientele. One U.K. club’s promotional video included a male student saying he was going to rape a woman. Another club’s promotional material included a man wearing a T-shirt reading “I was raping a woman last night and she cried.” Other clubs involve getting female students to stand on stage and strip.

Such extreme objectification has a natural link with not only harder pornography, but also with the “softer” forms, in which women are depicted as perpetually sexually interested.

Pornography results in greater pressure on women to conform to pornographic standards of dress, behavior and attitudes. It now dictates what men expect of women, and that expectation filters into advertising, night-outs and even relationships between children. The effect on couples is profound: In 2003, pornography use was found to play a role in more than half of divorce cases in the U.S. And we have not even touched on the extremely damaging effects of pornography on the actors and actresses themselves.

This trend admits of one exception, porn consumption in societies where female sexual attitudes, including dress, are enforced stringently through legislation (think Saudi Arabia or Iran) or social pressure. But while it is un-Islamic to use force as many self-styled "Islamic" countries do, porn does not shape the role of women in such societies as it does in liberal ones. 

All of the above is an example of how what we perceive as our personal freedom (to watch pornography in the privacy of our homes) has profound social effects on the world around us. This subsequent effect goes on to modify and alter the choices we make, despite thinking that we are doing so "freely."

We must understand a simple truth: Freedom isn’t just about preventing coercion, but also about educating society as to the healthiest way to live, even if that be through willing self-restriction of freedoms. We wear seat belts, pay taxes, take exams, go to work, etc., all because we believe that these restrictions open up doors to further freedoms.

It is high time we grow up in the way we talk about freedom and acknowledge that freedom is a means to achieve a happy and peaceful society for all. It is not an end in itself. Our "free" choices are not made in a vacuum, but are made through our understanding about the choices on offer. Islamic teachings are not against "freedom" when legitimately exercised, but against the exercise of one’s freedom in a way that damages both individual and societal health or, as the Quran puts it, when the harm of a thing outweighs its benefit. Fourteen hundred years ago, the Quran warned that the spreading of indecent acts like pornography only results in pain and misery for society. Only now are we beginning to understand.

(Tahir Nasser is a 27-year-old physician and a regular contributor and commentator in British media. Find him on Twitter: @TahirNasser)