The Role of Pornography in the Election of Donald Trump

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When Trump’s Access Hollywood scandal broke last October, my wife and I gathered around my cell phone, reading tweets. We said, “He won’t be able to survive this – this has to be the end of his campaign.” We felt sure that this was a level of sexual predation and misogyny that no one could bounce back from.

Oh, how unpleasantly wrong we were.

It got me thinking – could any candidate, in any previous generation, have recovered from such a thing? Even as recently as Obama or Bush or Clinton? It just seems so unlikely. We’ve had a “celebrity president” before (who can forget old Ronni) but our first reality TV president – an unapologetic sexual predator – is taking the stage in the era of “Big Porn”[1].

“Anyone who doesn’t want to ‘Make America Great Again’ is a CUCK” 

I found the above quote in an “Ask Trump Supporters” thread on reddit.

In case you missed it, amidst the various insults being flung between democrats and republicans (snowflake, deplorable, nasty etc.), the word “cuck” has spent quite a lot of time in the spotlight in the last year. Far-right conservatives (the white nationalists who have re-branded themselves the “alt-right”) are calling non-Trump supporters “cucks”, meaning that we are cowards who would stand idly by, while the country is “f@%&ed by trade deals, immigrants, terrorism” etc.

This very old word, which is short for “cuckold”, comes directly from the vast and reaching influence of pornography, where this popular fetish category shows men being humiliated by being forced to watch “more manly men” having sex with their wives. In a recent episode of the FX comedy “You’re the Worst” (Season 3, Episode 8), a character with a cuckolding fetish humiliates her husband and it’s presented as a part of human sexuality that viewers are expected to be familiar, and to some degree comfortable with.

Isn’t it suspicious that the favorite insult of Trump supporters comes directly from porn?

Trump the Playboy, Judging Miss Universe

It is not widely known that Trump himself appeared in three Playboy “soft core” porn videos in 1994, 1999 and 2001, though he does not appear nude. (Incidentally, in August 2016 he signed a pledge promising to crack down on pornography if elected.) Again, doesn’t it seem like this would have been an issue that a candidate would have had to at least make a statement about in any past election? Not Trump and not in 2016.

In 1996 Trump purchased the “Miss Universe” beauty pageant, an event which is not generally associated with the sex industry, though I would argue they are inextricably related. What followed in the 19 years that he owned it was a list of outrageously sexist behavior on the part of Trump so long that Rolling Stone made a timeline of it all. This includes his personal behavior towards those women (i.e. walking into their dressing rooms unannounced) and his transformation of the already sexist event into a more dehumanizing and divisive endeavor. During Trump’s campaign, the story of Alicia Machado broke – the 1997 Miss Universe winner who gained 42 pounds the following year and was publicly humiliated by Trump, who described her to the press as “Miss Piggy” and “Miss housekeeping” (a racist reference to her Latinx heritage.) His 2016 response to this criticism was to increase his attacks on Machado, including this tweet:

“Did Crooked Hillary help disgusting (check out sex tape and past) Alicia M become a U.S. citizen so she could use her in the debate?”

You can see Trump for yourself in those playboy videos (these are clips with no nudity or sex), but there appears to be no evidence that Machado was in any sex tape, not that it would be even remotely relevant to anything if she had been.

President Trump in the Pornified U.S.A. 

My point is not that Trump’s a sexist – this is blatantly obvious. This is a man who sexually objectifies his own daughter to the media[2] and has been accused of rape by his ex-wife in court[3]. I’m also not trying to point out that he’s tied to the sex industry in ways that are both concerning and hypocritical, though that is clearly true.

My point is that pornography has (relatively recently) become normalized in our society, we have had no national dialogue about it and it played an explicit role in desensitizing voters to Trump’s outrageous sexism this election cycle. It is possible that, without this shift in our society, Trump might not have been elected.

Though the numbers are not certain, a huge number of men in the U.S. (and certainly many women) watch pornography[4]. The statistics on children’s exposure to violent, hard core internet porn are staggering[5]. Largely because of the ease of access offered by the internet, for the first time in history a very large percentage of the population is immersed in the messages of pornography on a very regular basis. These messages are very clear in the vast majority of internet porn:

  • Women exist for the sole purpose of pleasuring men
  • A woman’s purpose is to be a sexual object in every arena of life (at work, at school, in public, in the family) and her consent in the matter is irrelevant
  • Men’s violence against women is not only acceptable, women find it sexually arousing
  • The degradation of women (insults, humiliation, physical pain) is a man’s sexual right – and it’s the expected standard of sexual interaction such that anything less is ‘unmanly’

Now, many argue that porn is just entertainment – “harmless fun”. Defenders of porn frequently insist that the messages in porn have no effect on the way men treat women in their lives. Evidence abounds that this is not so.

Studies show that college-aged young people are increasingly embarrassed by real intimacy[6] and feel pressured into porn-scenario sexual relationships[7]. Women, especially young women, increasingly report that their male partners request – and often insist – on more and more ‘extreme’ sexual acts that they were introduced to through porn[8]. Accounts from men abound, explaining how their porn consumption caused them to become desensitized to (and subsequently “enjoy”) more and more violent or degrading sexual acts[9].

Porn explicitly helped Trump get elected, from the many accusations of sexual assault levied against him, to openly bragging about sexual assault, to the calling women “pigs”, to making menstrual jokes about his opponent (a former first lady, secretary of state and state senator)…you could fill a book with this list. By the end of his term, I’m sure someone will.

Without our pornified culture, which excuses and glamourizes sexism, the voters who “were appalled by Trump’s actions but voted for him anyway” might have realized that it is inexcusable to vote for a man like that, no matter what. And the voters who just didn’t care about his treatment of women – they might have cared more.

In the meantime, what do we do as a society about the impact that pornography is having on our lives – even in the election of our most powerful leaders? Will we act? Or leave our children to deal with this problem, which is on pace to be totally out of control in another ten, twenty, thirty years.

Update: PornHub, Scholarships and Snow Ploughs

In 2015, the multi-billion dollar website PornHub offered a well publicized $25,000 scholarship to students through their “philanthropic arm”, PornHub Cares[10]. The porn industry is working hard to convince us that it is just like any other industry, and that it cares about us.

Just yesterday a snowstorm hit the east coast and PornHub announced that it would send more than two dozen snow ploughs into the streets of Boston and New Jersey, saying “we thought we’d lend a hand in getting our fans plowed[11]”. These ploughs, with PornHub’s logo on the ploughs and doors of the trucks, drove through the streets of Boston, advertising freely to a city full of children playing outside on a snow day – and to many appreciative Boston residents. I saw several friends on Facebook post “thank you’s” to PornHub that day.

What’s next? PornHub lunchboxes? Will they play PornHub adds before movies at the cinema? Will my son’s middle school sex ed class cover “healthy pornography consumption”? Will PornHub launch community trash clean-ups? All this seems distinctly possible to me.

[1] Reist, Melinda Tankard, and Abigail Bray. Big porn inc.: exposing the harms of the global pornography industry. North Melbourne, Vic.: Spinifex Press, 2015.

[2] Independent, UK

[3] The New Yorker

[4] See my article, “How Many Men in the U.S. Watch Porn?

[5] See the same article.

[6] Wade, L. (2017). American hookup: the new culture of sex on campus. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

[7] Dines, G. (2014). Pornland: how porn has hijacked our sexuality. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

[8] Again, see “Pornland”.

[9] See this Ted Talk.

[10] Time Magazine

[11] Boston Magazine

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