Some sexual makeups are unhealthy. For some, sexual drive seems to control the individual, rather than vice versa. Some experience difficulty integrating their desire for sex into a loving, committed, intimate relationship.
The expression of sex in a coercive, non-consenting fashion, or with children, too young to give meaningful consent, cannot be accepted. Yet in considering the effects of pornography in such instances, it is important to note that explicit pictures of adult erotic activity would likely not be of much interest to an individual who is sexually attracted to children, whereas the classic RCA Victor logo of the dog pulling down the pajama bottoms of a young boy might be viewed as highly pornographic.
Little is known about why the same depiction can elicit erotic arousal in some, and either no feelings at all, or disgust in others. What is known is that for a variety of reasons, ranging from instinctual to learned, we do differ in such ways.
Individuals arrested for downloading child pornography from the Internet in recent years have included (1) a West Point alumnus, and former armed forces intelligence officer, who had graduated from law school magna cum laude, with a documented IQ of 172; (2) an employee of the United States Senate who had downloaded pornography onto a government computer; and (3) an FBI agent.
In some ways pornography is akin to alcohol. As suggested in "The Joy of Sex," it may sometimes be a source of benign fantasy and pleasure, perhaps enhancing a couple's intimate relationship, or defusing sexual tensions. Besides, an overzealous suppression of the natural curiosity about sex may be unhealthy.
On the other hand, for some, pornography can be a harmful force that can impair judgment and whet a dangerous sexual appetite, while disinhibiting behavioral control. Thus the philosophy that "anything goes" can be unhealthy and counterproductive. As with alcohol, prohibition seems unworkable.
In summary, what then can be said about pornography, and about its publication? Perhaps it is to speak against both secular and sectarian prejudices. Pornography cannot be discussed absent a dialog about values. The very term itself is value-laden.
When either untempered sexual expression, or untempered religious zeal, risks harm to others, society should strive to prevent that from occurring.
Potentially vulnerable individuals, such as children, need to be protected from exploitation in the production of pornography.
There is not one correct response to questions about pornography, and no single book has given a definitive answer. In preparing our children to grow up, we must prepare them for the fact that there is sexual diversity. As knowledge evolves we will learn more about what factors contribute to optimal and healthy sexual development.
In the meantime, it should be acceptable to exclude pornography from one's own life for religious, personal or mental health reasons, while still respecting the rights of others to publish it, and to have access to it. One of society's most vexing challenges may be to overcome unwarranted prejudices about sexual differences, and about their potential expression through pornography, while still maintaining proper standards of decency, free speech, individuality, privacy and sound mental health.
Fred S. Berlin, M.D., Ph.D., is the founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic and the director of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma. He is also an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and an attending physician at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.