In a recent interview, the singer Billie Eilish recounts her earlier self-described addiction to pornography, noting that early age heavy pornography consumption “destroyed” her brain and left her suffering from nightmares given the extreme and graphic content that she was exposed to.[1] Eilish’s comments raise familiar questions: How detrimental is pornography consumption? Is pornography consumption bad for ‘the soul’?

Anti-pornography feminism has long advanced the claim that pornography production and consumption harm women as a group. The idea is that pornography contributes causally to a culture of systematic sexual violence against women by eroticising inequality and dominance. In the 1980s, the feminist writer and activist Robin Morgan put this in provocative terms: pornography is the theory and rape is the practice. The causal effects of pornography consumption do not just reach some ‘bad apples’, who are adversely influenced by its message. Rather, pornography consumption changes attitudes more broadly and can negatively influence even ordinary ‘good guys’.

In his 1985 book, Offense to Others: The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law, the legal philosopher Joel Feinberg suggests that pornography isn’t the main culprit of sexualised violence though. ‘Cruel’ dispositions stem from men being socialized into a macho culture, where masculinity is tied to being a tough, reckless, unsentimental, hard-boiled, disrespectful, sexual athlete. Violent pornography then appeals to men who are in the grips of macho ideology; but it doesn’t affect “normal decent chaps” who – in lacking cruel dispositions – have no taste for violent pornography.

It seems fair to hold that pornography consumption does not negatively influence behaviour or change attitudes on a one-off or sporadic basis. But we also know that continued exposure and promotion of certain messages does change attitudes and it does create desires – this is what the entire field of advertising is premised on. After all, advertisements glamourising smoking have largely been banned precisely because they seem to amount to pro-smoking propaganda, which leads to addiction and erodes individuals’ rational decision-making abilities. Eilish’s description of her experience, then, could be seen as being exposed to something like pornographic propaganda that certainly had detrimental effects on her well-being and functioning.

Still, one might wonder whether similar detrimental effects might have been engendered by other apparently addictive online activities. Is there something exceptional about online pornography consumption? The UK children’s charity Barnardo’s warned in a 2019-report of the damage to children and young people’s mental health from online activities more broadly. The report did not specifically focus on pornographic content, but considered also more generally well-known social media platforms and streaming services.[2] If heavy consumption of non-pornographic online materials at an early age has similarly harmful consequences on mental health, is pornography somehow particularly bad for the soul? It would seem that the answer is more complicated than a simple ‘yes’.

Perhaps pornography consumption isn’t alone in creating a mental health epidemic among younger people; but it looks to be at the centre of hampering contemporary sexual lives – at least for some. A BBC investigation from 2019 suggested that “of those who had experienced slapping, choking, gagging or spitting during consensual sex, 42% felt pressured, coerced or forced into it.”[3] Conforming to a pornographic idea of what sex should be like, is often cited as a reason for going along with sex acts one does not feel comfortable with. Sex turning violent without consent or prior agreement is said to have become normalised. At least according to some accounts, Gen Z’ers are in fact being put off sex due to its content: hooking up isn’t a fun carefree pastime, but a form of abuse that mirrors sex in pornography.[4]

Nevertheless, it isn’t yet clear whether the problem lies with the consumption of pornography per se, or with the consumption of particular kind of pornography. Those involved in the making of putatively feminist and ethical pornography also argue that sexual education should not be left to industrial, misogynistic, and gratuitously violent pornographic materials. In the 2013 collection of essays, The Feminist Porn Book, feminist pornography is characterised as a genre that (among other things) provides alternative representations and depictions of sexuality, thereby undercutting those found in pornography produced from a masculinist perspective that ignores and devalues desires and experiences of women. A common anti-pornography critique holds that what makes pornography problematic is that it endorses and celebrates women’s subordination and degradation. Endorsing women’s degradation involves communicating an approval and recommendation of sexual behaviours that devalue women. Those involved in alternative pornographies typically hold that mainstream pornographic depictions of sexual activities and gender roles are sexist in precisely such a manner. But, the thought goes, we should not therefore oppose pornography per se; rather, societally we should oppose exploitative and sexist pornography, and aim to undermine its force by depicting sex and sexual agency differently, and in a way that is empowering.

Prof. Mari Mikolla (source UVA)

Sexual practices and desires, then, are not immune to critique, and neither is pornography production or consumption. In fact, plenty of people within the industry are critical of industry practices and would agree with some sentiments made in anti-pornography feminism. Central to ethically good and pleasurable sex lives is consent – and materials that teach younger (and older!) viewers that consent does not matter are to be challenged. To blame the victim from not having more forcibly said no to sex they felt uncomfortable with is never the answer. Not only should we encourage teaching individuals what counts as genuine consent and how it is best expressed, but we should also teach younger people to recognise and respect consent. What is needed is education, proper awareness of what consent amounts to, and – importantly – why caring about the sexual experiences of one’s sexual partners matters. But in order to advance these, it looks woefully naïve to just oppose the availability of pornography and its consumption, as if our sexual lives will suddenly become non-exploitative and ethically ideal were pornography simply to disappear. A well-known anti-pornography campaigner Gail Dines writes in her 2011 book, Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked our Sexuality, that in the “pornland” that we now inhabit authentic sexuality that develops organically out of life experiences, peer group interactions, one’s personality, family and community is replaced by sexuality generic to/in pornography that lacks a sense of love, respect, and connection. But given what we know about coercive mechanisms that families, communities, and even the law can exercise to make people conform to traditional heteronormative sexual expectations, there is little reason to believe that an authentic sexuality would organically develop in the course of sexual maturation without pornography. Moreover, our sexual lives and attitudes have not been corrupted by pornography alone – cruel dispositions and traumatic experiences took place well before pornography became mass produced and consumed on an industrial scale. However much one might personally find pornography appalling and base, realistically it is unlikely to go away. One option to pursue then is how pornography can be a part of responsible sexual education and how it may be used to improve our understanding of ethically good sex. To this end, those involved in ethical pornography production can offer valuable insights.

Whether pornography is bad for the soul is not unequivocal. Imagine that young children and adults were given unrestricted access to motor vehicles, no driving lessons, and there were no implemented traffic rules to follow. Furthermore, our young drivers were offered little to no understanding of why such rules – were they implemented – would matter and be important individually and for fellow road users. How could one possibly imagine that this would yield responsible drivers and driving? The solution to such a situation looks clear though: let’s not ban cars, but teach responsible use. Pornography, then, may not be bad for the soul if used responsibly. But young people should not be left to fend for themselves.


* Analysis by

Mari Mikkola, Professor & Chair of Metaphysics, Faculty of Humanities, University of Amsterdam (UvA)

[ENA Centre for Political Theory | Co-ordinator: Yiannis Kouris]


[1] See

[2] See

[3] See

[4] See