There is a fairly common argument for pornography that I haven’t addressed before, simply because it didn’t cross my mind. But it is something that I used to agree with, politically. The catharsis theory is basically the belief that when people are exposed to a representation of violence or sex, they will have a lower desire to perform violent or sexual actions.
There is scientific evidence behind this theory (here is an example of discussion of that evidence). I don’t have any qualms against these studies (except about the founding study of catharsis theory, based on post-WW2 Denmark, which was proven wrong). However, the problem is that pornography advocates draw ridiculously overinflated conclusions from those studies. For instance, the article I linked to is entitled “How the Web Prevents Rape.” And yes, they are talking about Internet pornography here.
And we know factually that this grandiose conclusion is nor true. We know that pornography usage is linked to objectification of women, support for rape, and a greater likelihood of rape and pedophilia. The difference is that the studies that pornography advocates use to make their point are about the immediate consequences of pornography-watching, while the other studies are mostly about the medium and long-term.
I find that their arguments rely on a certain, bizarre model of indoctrination. For lack of a better term, I will call this the no-subconscious model, because its primary feature is the complete absence of the subconscious. According to this model, every message we receive is immediately analyzed by our rational, conscious mind. First, it goes through a filter, which only lets in messages which appeal to the identities that the recipient identifies with. So for example, a man would not internalize the misogyny in a beer ad if he does not identify as a beer drinker. Then, those messages which have not been filtered out are analyzed rationally by the recipient, who decides to accept or reject the message. Finally, action is taken immediately on the basis of that message: either rational acceptance (accepting a message and immediately acting on it), or reject the message altogether.
This model explains the two major areas where liberal feminists reject indoctrination: pornography and transgenderism. They argue that pornography cannot possibly create more rape if studies show that men who watch pornography do not immediately go out and rape. They argue that men do not internalize the messages of pornography because those messages are not rational. They argue that toddlers and young children do not internalize messages addressed to a gender they don’t identify with. These views are completely nonsensical from any even remotely realistic point of view, but they hold a powerful attraction to the people who believe them: I think this is because of their bizarre folk model of indoctrination. But that model was probably adopted in order to fit their beliefs, and not the reverse. By pointing out how ridiculous the model is, we’re really only showing how ridiculous the beliefs in pornography and transgenderism are, because they depend on this model in order to make any sense.
The reality is that internalization of media messages is not mediated by rationality or filtered by identification. Everyone is affected by those messages, no matter who they are or how they identify. One thing that does have some impact on their effect is the recipient’s level of media literacy: a person who has high media literacy is less likely to change their behavior, as long as they maintain an active questioning of the messages they’re being given. But we all internalize the messages we’re given. The transgender activist’s belief in immunity to messages due to identity, or the pornography advocate’s belief that the pornography user can rationally refuse to integrate a desire for violent sex, are fictions, especially since both categories of people have zero interest in advocating for actual media literacy. Neither of them want you to think very deeply about their messages, just to accept them passively.
Internalization is also not an instantaneous event, but a medium and long-term event. The false corollary given to us (as a result of the no-unconscious model) is that if a man watches pornography videos and does not immediately go out there and rape a woman, that means he did not integrate the message. But internalization comes from repetition and reinforcement from the wider society, and that takes some time. It takes time to integrate a belief within our mental framework, as long as it takes to chip a belief out of it.
Pornsick men are pornsick because they have become addicted to pornography for their arousal. And this is the result of watching pornography again and again and again, escalating the violence and objectification of the videos until they have no more connection to actual sex. This process changes a person’s framework about women, about sex, about relationships, and about rape. And yes, it does mean that they are more likely to rape and get off on rape, whether it’s the rape of prostituted women, pornographic rape, or the rape of “good women.”
Transgender children become transgender, not because of some pseudo-scientific “innate gender,” but because of two repetitions. The first is the repetition of gender dogma, which constantly hammers home the fact that their behavior is “wrong” and “unnatural”; the second is the repetition of talking to other children on social media who have assimilated trans dogma, which gives them a simplistic and comforting explanation for their struggles with gender. These are two mutually reinforcing systems of thought which partake of the same logic: the enforcement of gender roles leads gender non-conforming children to feel alienated, which leads them to the company of like-minded children, who tell them that gender must be enforced through surgery and social approval, which leads them to look to gender roles as the blueprint of how they should be. They are both based on the notion that gender is ingrained and must be followed at all costs, including at the cost of your own life. This gives a particular urgency to the victims of the transgender cause.
Finally, internalization mostly takes place at the level of the subconscious. The subconscious makes people uncomfortable because it’s harder to measure (although psychologists use techniques like priming to try to get to it). Liberal feminists are unlikely to take the subconscious seriously because it goes against their fundamental premise of “agency”; other belief systems, like Objectivism, which are based around Reason Triumphant, also reject the subconscious’ importance because of its irrationality. Either way, if the very basis of your worldview is that your life is entirely in your hands and that you can be blamed for every single bad decision you make, then the last thing you’d want to do is believe there is a part of your mind that is outside of your conscious control (although cults like Scientology can use that excuse to punish you whenever they want). The concept of “empowerment” is completely at odds with the reality of internalization.