Book Review: Porn Nation

Porn Nation: Conquering America’s #1 Addiction
Written by Michael Leahy
Published by Northfield Publishers
ISBN10: 0802481256
ISBN13: 9780802481252

Review by Chad Denton

As with my review of a left-wing anti-pornography book, Getting Off, I am somewhat conflicted about what I should write in this review. However, it’s not because of the difficulties of critiquing a heartfelt screed, but the fact that this book, “Porn Nation”, which offers an approach to pornography from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum from “Getting Off”, carries the sincere testimony of a recovering porn addict, its author Michael Leahy. It’s not quite as in-depth or devestating as the film Auto Focus (or as it was known to me for a while, “that film about that ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ guy”), which could very well be the most disturbing and realistic exploration of sex addiction out there in American cinema, if not the entire Englsh-speaking world. While Auto Focus was, true to its title, unflinching and unapologetic, “Porn Nation” is very much written in a distinctly conservative fashion, attempting to achieve a friendly intimacy with the reader but avoiding any truly salacious details, which, maybe appropriately enough, sets a tone for the entire book.

In fact, the bulk of the book is Michael Leahy describing his childhood and trying to explain the origins of his addiction; how his marriage was ruined; the details of his decline and recovery; his near-suicide; and the rediscovery of his Christianity. Leahy’s writing is, to put it politely, “unstylized” – but for a book like this that’s not necessarily a detriment, since the tone of easy conversation, or perhaps in the context of the twenty-first century I should say the tone of a Livejournal post, does bring “Porn Nation” into the genre of the casual confessional. This really is for the best; as Leahy himself points out (pg 145-46), sex addiction is not exactly taken seriously or well understood even in our hyper-theraputic society of Oprah viewers, so the best approach is to avoid the clinical and detached language that still often burdens down books about sex and sexuality.

Despite the title and how the book has been advertised, even on the back cover, the book is mostly personal. There are sixteen chapters; the first seven are a mini-autobiography and a discussion of the development of his addiction while the last six round back to a discussion of sex addiction, rooted again in Leahy’s personal experiences, with a fairly standard Christian evangelical message stapled on. The “porn nation” of the title and of the back cover promotion is only really discussed for three chapters. Unless you crack open the book already nodding along, before you even really read about it, to Leahy’s vision of a completely sexually desensitized nation, a “Generation Sex” (pg 117-23), it is difficult not to get the impression of someone conflating his own struggles and experiences, traumatic and dangerous to himself and the people around them as they undoubtedly were (an impression that still comes across despite Leahy’s restraint), into a national crisis, a trait so common it may be almost universal to prophecies of moral apocalypses like these.

Without those three chapters and with a different title, this would have been a better book on at least several levels. However, Michael Leahy’s knowledge of sex really doesn’t extend far – well, really, not an inch – outside his own negative experiences. Admittedly he is upfront about his biases at a number of points in the book, but that hardly excuses the poor research that goes into the portion of “Porn Nation” that attempted to tie Leahy’s sex addiction to the social and cultural issues of contemporary American society. To be fair, Leahy does cite from respectable and neutral authorities like the Journal of Research in Personality, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and American Psychologist, but he also cites statistics and other information uncritically from organizations that have a tremendous ax to grind, like the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families and The Washington Times. As for the articles from USA Today and People he uses, well…I shouldn’t need to go into why those particular journals are problematic when they are used as sources for exploring any issue more complex than how many people in Indiana eat fast food. Neither should I have to go into why I have an issue with Leahy using Tom Wolfe’s “I Am Charlotte Simmons” as a jumping-off point for one of the chapters, even though some of you might be wondering why on earth anyone would not trust a novel purporting to be a young, naive heterosexual woman’s first-hand glimpse of college life but written by a 78-year old man.

Of the twelve statistical citations on the sex lives of teenagers and their views of sex and the exposure of pre-teens to sexual content, seven come from the heavily biased NCPCF, one comes from a People Magazine poll, and only one is taken from a a source subject to neither an overt political agenda or the need to raise ratings or readership through journalistic sensationalism, the academic journal Pediatrics. Also when discussing these results and his experiences talking with high schoolers and college students, it never occurs to Leahy, like so many would-be sexual reformers before and after him, to think why would adolescents and teenagers ever exaggerate their sexual experiences, especially to a middle-aged authority figure. You might think I’m being too harsh on Leahy, since, as I admitted myself, the socio-political isn’t the real focus of the book, but all bets were off after I caught him indulging in one of my own most hated historical myths: “As unrealistic as that may sound, we wouldn’t be the first great society to go down that path. The latter days of the Roman Empire are infamous for sexual depravity on a massive scale” (pg 131). Yes, the latter days of the Western Roman Empire, when male prostitutes were condemned to be burned alive by imperial edict, when women were sometimes executed for adultery, and when Christian sexual ethics were beginning to be enforced by society and law were “infamous”, but for fairly different reasons.

Now I should point out that “Porn Nation” is not as reactionary as you might think at a glance. Leahy does not discount the role psychology played in his recovery (although he does add the caveat that therapy is incomplete without religion – specifically Jesus) and even describes the findings of the Meese Commission, which were published in 1986 and described pornography as inherently additive, as a “bit alarmist” (pg 113). He also includes a strangely effective description of his experiences with Ron Jeremy, with whom he has had debates in colleges across the country (pg 187-191), although it does quickly turn into a conversion pitch directed right at the reader. Still, none of this mitigates the most frustrating aspect of the book, that Leahy comes so close to detailing the effects growing up in a sex-negative culture and with a traditional American Catholic upbringing had on shaping his porn addiction and his attitudes toward women (although Leahy is sympathetic to his wife and even quotes her diary entries detailing his downward spiral, he never gives voice to the woman he had an affair with, and instead holds her largely accountable for what were his own choices). Instead the culprit is pornography and himself, for turning his back on God and, by implication, the “values” he grew up with. For all his good intentions to helping sex addicts like himself, Leahy, by blaming if only in part exposure to pornography for his lifelong battle, perpetuates the very sort of atmosphere of shame, repression, and guilt conducive for a new generation of sex addicts.