They arrived on campus, one portly, hairy and short, the other slim and sexy in an emo-rockstar sort of way. One a porn star, one a pastor. Ron Jeremy and Craig Gross.

When I first heard I was going to moderate the debate on our campus between porn star Ron Jeremy and Pastor Craig Gross, I ran home and exclaimed, “Ron Jeremy is coming!” (Yeah, I know, so what else is new?) Jeremy has appeared in over 2000 adult films and his penis has its own blog. His opponent, Pastor Craig Gross, is the founder of the popular online anti-porn ministry XXXchurch.com, a website meant to bring awareness and accountability to those who feel they are negatively affected by porn.

As Jeremy and Gross took the stage, I had to make it clear to those unfamiliar with their work that the pudgy, unkempt guy was the porn star, who has had sex with thousands of women. The chiseled dreamboat was the pastor, who has had sex with one.

The debate began. At first there was a lot of laughter and questions about intimate body parts that usually wouldn’t be asked of a university guest speaker. But then the real issues began to fly, fast and furious.

Pastor Gross warned that viewing pornography leads to unrealistic expectations about sex and intimacy. He also suggested that porn not only degrades and objectifies women, but it may even promote violence against women. Finally, he lamented the fact that porn is increasingly accessible to children.

Ron Jeremy countered that pornography is meant to be viewed and performed by consenting adults. It exists for fun and pleasure and anyone who doesn’t enjoy it can simply choose not to watch. He held that couples can watch pornography together to energize their sex lives, or people can view it alone for solitary pleasure. Jeremy pointed out that viewers can learn a range of sexual possibilities that can enhance their erotic experiences.

Pornography may indeed lead to unrealistic expectations. In porn world, penises are large and perpetually erect and sexually insatiable women are vocal and enthusiastic about any and all carnal acts. If a woman in a porno gets caught masturbating by a strange man, she will not scream with embarrassment, but rather peel off his jeans and insist that he climb aboard and finish the job. Women in pornographic films have large, surgically enhanced breasts that don’t move. Under no circumstance—regardless of situation, surface, or position—do these women remove their high heels. Finally, women in porn routinely submit to lascivious activities devoted almost entirely to satisfying the male players—activities that require the flexibility normally reserved for Cirque de Soleil acrobats. A recent study by Löfgren-Mårtenson and Mansson has indeed found that young women who see porn report more insecurity about their bodies and what they should do to please their partners. However, while images in pornographic movies are certainly improbable, are they any less realistic than the mainstream media images we are bombarded with on a daily basis? Don’t all movies and television shows give us fantastical images of beauty, love, and marriage? Why are unrealistic images about sex worse?

As the pastor suggests, porn may indeed degrade women. Women in porn are often depicted in demeaning situations and look as though they are in pain—and seemingly enjoy it. When Ana Bridges and her colleagues analyzed the content of bestselling pornographic videos, they found that nearly 90 percent of scenes contained at least one verbally or physically aggressive act, almost all of which were directed toward women. When aggressed against, 95 percent of female victims responded either neutrally or with expressions of pleasure. But does exposure to these images actually increase violence against women? Many claim that porn actually decreases violence against women by acting as a safety valve. Milton Diamond’s extensive studies on this issue find that the rates of sexual violence often decrease in countries that have legalized porn or increased its availability in last few decades.

Porn has always existed. Teenagers in the 1950s would sneak surreptitious looks at their father’s National Geographic. Nog the Neanderthal probably giggled at the drawings scrawled on the wall of the cave. But today’s youth are only a click away from any and all forms of increasingly explicit sexual images. A survey by Sabina, Wolak and Finkelhor found that most boys and girls in the U.S. had been exposed to online porn before the age of 18. But it is also true that people of all ages are sexual. Although it may horrify their parents, children under the age of 5 frequently masturbate; ultrasound images suggest that even fetuses masturbate. While most people agree they don't want children watching hardcore pornography, how are we as a society to determine the age at which it is “appropriate” to view sexual images? 

What is the connection between sex and emotion? At one point in the debate, Jeremy made the statement that he’d had sex with 2000 women, while Gross had sex 2000 times with one woman. Pornographic films usually ignore the connection between love and sex. Do porn viewers learn to dismiss the deep intimacy that can occur during sexual connection if films focus only on the various permutations of penetration rather than on the merging of souls?

Like it or loathe it, the $14 billion porn industry is here to stay. And since one person’s porn is another’s good clean fun, the best we can do in our democratic society is to keep asking the tough questions; try to discover the objective scientific facts rather than relying on unfounded emotional reactions; and, like Ron Jeremy and Craig Gross, engage in friendly, civil discourse, regardless of our differences.   

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