Despite—or perhaps because of—its prevalence, pornography is an uncomfortable topic to talk about. So it is notable that 82 male students (as well as a separate group of female students) at the University of Notre Dame signed their names to a letter in October asking the school to bar access to pornographic material on campus internet networks.
Not every viewer of pornography is an addict, but neither is every decision to view porn a perfectly rational one. Many students end up doing so because of loneliness, romantic frustration or even plain boredom. Putting the onus on students to purchase their own internet filter, or to rely on sheer willpower to avoid temptation when it strikes, seems like setting the default in the wrong position.
Not every viewer of pornography is an addict, but neither is every decision to view porn a perfectly rational one.
Colleges should limit access to pornography on their campus infrastructure and thus make it easier for students to live up to the best version of themselves. Even raising a few mild hurdles to accessing porn could reduce the tension between what students say they want for themselves and what they actually do—what behavioral economists call “dynamic inconsistencies.”
Some of the thoughtful opposition to the idea of barring access does not defend pornography as such but instead raises questions about the practicality of a ban and its potential spillover effects. How would an anti-porn policy be enforced? What about threats to legitimate academic research?
These concerns are overstated. Students who might trip the filter while researching sex trafficking, National Geographic archives or Renaissance art could be asked to fill out a simple form and receive a research waiver from filtering. (Plus, anyone who has ever tried to stream a World Cup game at work knows that no filter is foolproof.)
Colleges should limit access to pornography and thus make it easier for students to live up to the best version of themselves.
The idea is not to create a vice squad to kick down dorm room doors and check browser histories but to nudge students toward living up to their own expectations through a healthier view of human sexuality than is found in the exploitative underbelly of the web.
New research finds that young men spend nearly an hour a week viewing porn, on average, and a 2007 survey found that about half of college students viewed it at least every other day. Even secular colleges should think about what this widespread consumption is doing to gender relationships. But church-affiliated colleges, in particular, have a duty to care for their students’ souls, and their unwillingness to infringe on dubious components of personal freedom for fear of being called puritanical borders on negligence.
Some may ask: Why not let students train themselves to avoid pornography? After all, we trust college students to make their own decisions in all sorts of realms, and the days of in loco parentis are long gone. And isn’t some sort of internet filter removing the ability for students to build up the moral fiber to say no on their own?
This argument might have held more weight before we knew how easy it was for a mistyped URL to bring you to a bazaar of sex and nudity that even the most straightlaced altar server might have a hard time clicking away from. Particularly in the #MeToo era, the assumptions and decisions made without thinking about how we are teaching students to view each other deserve more scrutiny.
Pornography teaches a person to view the other as an object for one’s own sexual gratification, and its value to any community, particularly a university one, is zero at most. Making it even marginally harder to access would be a concrete way colleges could demonstrate their commitment to a fuller account of true human dignity. It would also make the statement that the crass utilitarianism of pornography’s view of the human person is not something they want to promote through their IT infrastructure.
If a group of students asked for a public health initiative to increase their ability to say no to the temptation to abuse drugs or alcohol, we would applaud them. Catholic universities owe their students no less than to take their requests seriously when it comes to a less noticeable form of harm and potential addiction.