I was asked to moderate a three-way debate at the University of South Florida between noted stripclub mogul Joe Redner; adult superstore general manager Shayne Arnone; and author-pastor David R. Smith. The subject was whether or not pornography was moral, and to what degree it was either beneficial or harmful to society on the whole. Between Joe Redner and Shayne Arnone the debate organizers had attracted the braintrust of Tampa's adult industry to the pro-porn side of the debate, and David Smith certainly faced no small task in being outnumbered by Redner and Arnone in the anti-porn corner of this heavyweight bout. And I wanted to blog about it to both recap the overall event, and get more conversation going about the subject. I hope you'll find it interesting.
Going into the debate as moderator I knew there were some witty people on all sides of the stage, so I would need to be on my game to keep the debate on track. I also wondered if it might get challenging for anyone to keep a straight thought if Redner and Arnone brought their entourage of glitter-studded porn stars to support them in the audience (yes, you can visualize that for a moment :-). However, it turned out that the only flesh on display was that being clawed at between the debaters.
In reality the debate was not at all raucous, with both sides, as well as the standing-room-only audience, remaining extremely respectful throughout; even though all three were experienced debaters and had the ability to play rough if they wanted to (...play rough in the debate sense of the word, that is!) Redner is the owner of the world renowned Mons Venus Strip Club and he is known as "the father of the nude lap dance." He has run for office in Tampa and has repeatedly had to fend off legal prosecutions by Tampa's political and religious community. Arnone runs the The Todd Adult Superstore, and his grandfather was a pioneer in the early years of the adult film industry. He and his grandfather have faced hundreds of legal battles on the subject of pornography over the years. Smith on the other hand is an experienced speaker and the author of Ministry By Teenagers. He brought his extensive experience with youth to the debate, including having worked with folks who've struggled with pornography, some of whom have testified to the destructive effects of porn on their time, money, and relationships.
My feeling before the debate even started was that pornography was not generally moral. All I had to do was consider whether I would want my own daughter dancing nude on a pole in front of a bunch of gawkers, or whether I would want my mother or sister starring in some porno video at an adult bookstore. No I wouldn't. Would anyone want that??? Which also means that we shouldn't want it for someone else's daughter. Yeah, those in support of porn might brand me as a killjoy, but that's just how I saw it. But would this debate change my view? I suppressed my views during the debate moderation in order to help guide a fair and entertaining conversation, and I may have even learned a thing or two.
As stated earlier, Redner and Arnone are experts at making their case, and they certainly brought their A-game to the debate, as did Smith. Redner cited a handful of studies which claimed that pornography can have positive effects on societies. He claimed that porn helps relieve sexual tensions which can be a source of trouble in societies that don't allow an outlet for them; and that porn does not lead to more troublesome endeavors such as child porn, infidelity, aggression, or rape. Arnone also recounted his share of personal testimonies from customers who've said that porn helped keep them sexually engaged in their relationships instead of needing to go elsewhere to find their thrills - or lose their sexual spark all together. As I peeked into the audience during some of their points I could see some bewildered faces struggling to consider that they might just have a legitimate point or two.
But just when the crowd seemed to think that Joe and Shayne may have some momentum, David would carry his side of the debate, highlighting the many studies and personal stories of ladies (and men) who had experienced the porn lifestyle, and how one after the other talked of hurt, shame, and regret. He pointed out that many porn stars and strippers had personal stories of being molested, abandoned, or abused as children, which led them to that lifestyle to begin with; while others were there as very unfortunate victims of the booming sex traffic trade. He also noted how so many of them end up in destructive drug and alcohol addictions just to ease the pain and dull their conscience. David pointed out that the means did not justify the end, and the many downsides to the industry do not justify that it may help spark a relationship, or provide employment here and there. Talk about a killjoy! :-)
The debate also had it's share of source debunking, and even a laugh here and there. Smith would note that Redner's scientific study from Amsterdam in 1982 was invalid and unfounded. And Redner and Arnone would claim that Smith's Bible from the year 82 was outdated and unfounded. Both ultimately had to agree to disagree when it came to many of their sources. But it didn't stop there, when David pointed at the difficult and often tragic life of a porn star, Joe simply said "I think they're just happy to have a job in this economy," which got its share of laughs from the crowd and proved to be an effective debate tactic. Joe then went on to argue that such employment helps these porn stars and strippers financially support themselves, their children, and their often beleaguered med school ambitions. To which Smith confidently countered that there are both positive and negative ways to earn a buck, and porn was neither a moral or victimless enterprise, especially when one cannot know if the women involved are victims of sex trafficking.
Questions then arose as to whether pornography can be considered a "gateway drug" for aggression and disrespect toward women, sexual abuse, or other sex crimes; to which both Redner and Arnone were resolute that porn does not encourage, or in any way lead to those other sexual behaviours. Not surprisingly, Smith strongly disagreed with that absolute statement, as even in Ted Bundy's final interview, Bundy singled out pornography as a "major contributing factor" in his own demented lusts (as well as those of many other killers he's met in prison). Bundy has also pointed out that "there are many, many people still addicted to pornography," and because addictions can often be progressive in nature, a percentage are likely to progress toward violence. It seemed as though there could be a whole follow-on discussion about the benefits of a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition versus the extreme brand of porn that has become the modern day norm, but perhaps that's the next debate.
Things then became more philosophical, and this to me is where it got even more interesting, because there were areas that all three debaters actually agreed on (even though, as Joe pointed out, were no longer simply referring to pornography.) The questions turned toward casual sex and it's effects on society, to which even Arnone and Redner had no problem agreeing with Smith on. David pointed to the many pitfalls that come along with a sexually driven society, such as diseases, abortions, unwanted children, and inadequate parents for those unwanted children. Joe and Shayne did not refute any of this. In fact, they argued that pornography keeps men from going out and doing the real thing. All three seemed to agree that very little good comes from uncommitted sexual relationships; but again, Redner and Arnone refused to correlate pornography and strip clubs to aggression toward women or other general lechery. And there was full agreement from the pro-porn side of the argument that child porn, rape, and other illegal sexual acts are clearly wrong.
At the end of the debate there were no big knock-out's. Neither Redner or Arnone agreed to close their establishments and give their porn begotten wealth to charity. And Smith did not agree to trade in his Bible for a stack of bootie-bucks at Redner's places of business. It was clear that Redner and Arnone were going to stick to their guns that pornography was a magnificent gift to society, with very little downside. And Smith throughout was firm in his convictions, and was not going to bend on the argument.
My take after having a front row seat to the exchange, was that even though both Redner and Arnone were polite and likable guys who respectfully made their points (some of them fairly compelling) I was not ultimately swayed in the end. I still did not see how a pretty young girl had to resort to having sex on camera if all she needed was a "job," as Redner claimed. And I still don't think that the cure for a relationship is found at the adult superstore, although I wont refute that some smart people obviously disagree on these points. I think the sexualization of society, and ubiquitous access to illicit material, mostly leads to bad results.
I think at the end of the day we are not simply animals who have to cater to our every natural urge. We humans thrive in committed relationships and close supportive families, which most porn by its very nature conflicts with. I also believe that the wide array of STD's is clear evidence that nature itself is not in favor of casual and risky sex, which is most porn at it's very essence (even if Redner and Arnone argue that it doesn't promote it on a grander scale). I also think that too many good people waste too much precious time and money seeking an artificial high via pornography, which is a fact clearly proven by the staggering percentage of the Internet that is dedicated to porn, which funnels away huge amounts of time and money that men (and women) could be using on their families, charitable giving, or other beneficial endeavors. So to the ultimate question of is pornography moral? I sided with David Smith and still say no. What do you think? I would love to know what you think if you have thoughts.
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