Friends’ Obsession with Negative Freedom and Porn

Perhaps against my better judgment, I’ve been making my way through the 90s-early 2000s cult show, Friends.

Like any TV programme or film that is over a couple years old (and sometimes even younger—see the 2019 Aladdin film!), Friends has been coming in for cancellation over its outdated views on sexuality, gender and body image. Much of the critique seems fair, though I would much prefer discussion of the issues rather than introducing either a blanket ban or some other kind of warning.

Yet from briefly scouring the internet, what very few seem to have been talking about are the copious references to pornography in the show. As a very rough guesstimate, I’d wager that every other episode contains some mention of porn (it usually takes the form of one or more the guys referencing that they have viewed porn). The references to porn are always positive and the consumption of pornographic content is accepted without the blink of an eye. I’d venture that Friends essentially normalised pornography for a generation of men and women growing up at this time.

Raising this issue might seem prudish to readers, but the effects of the scourge of pornography—what is essentially an endemic war on all of our minds, and particularly the minds of the young —are now clear for all to see. A recent British Board of Film Classification survey of 16-17 olds reported that almost half of young people of these ages had recently viewed pornographic content (almost certainly a conservative estimate). Violent pornographic content has probably never been more easy to access or produced in such a high volume, resulting in the normalisation of violent sexual acts and rape among young people.

There is rising opposition to porn, and not just from social or cultural conservatives. Historically, Western feminists have been somewhat divided on pornography. More recent waves of feminism have contained strands of doctrine that might suggest an indifference to pornography, and sex-work, on the grounds that if no-one is getting hurt, then there is no great problem. But there is and has always remained a strong feminist contingent diametrically and implacably opposed to it, often, if implicitly, on the basis of Christian teaching. Another positive and recent development is the growing conviction that porn negatively affects men and boys—the largest consumers of pornography—by rewiring their brains in profoundly damaging ways.

While some readers might have the impression that porn is over-discussed (and in some quarters, that might be the case), I broadly think that the opposite is true. Given its obviously damaging effects, porn isn’t being talked about enough. And it certainly isn’t talked about when older programmes are “reviewed” (a practice which itself is dubious, but that’s for another blog post).

Perhaps part of the reason for this neglect is that outdated views on issues like sexuality and gender have to do with a certain view of freedom which we might call negative freedom. This is the type of freedom that is “freedom from” (in this case discrimination or verbal slurs and the like, though it more broadly covers freedom from any kind of external constraints). Porn is also thought to operate in the realm of negative freedom only in its case, the damaging effects are somehow completely overlooked.

The reason for this is that negative freedom is linked quite strongly to considerations of care versus harm. If we are to think about this in terms of moral foundations (how we decide what is right or wrong), the logic that is at work when it comes to judging the morality of porn is dominated by whether or not it directly hurts someone . “Porn doesn’t harm anyone so what’s the big deal?” “I have the freedom to do what I want as long as no one gets hurt”. I imagine the virtuality of porn has something to do with this, to be fair. It’s harm appears less real, but we have to remember that someone somewhere is doing the act depicted (and, as we noted above, its effects on viewers are there for all to see). What’s more, sexist slurs are also taking place in the virtual space, so I don’t think an appeal to virtuality completely explains why porn gets a pass.

Returning to moral foundations, Jonathan Haidt has shown in his book The Righteous Mind, that non-westerners and, frequently conservatives, have a wider range of moral “taste receptors” that tap in to other values than care/harm. These values include, among other things, the morality of sanctity.

The logic of sanctity offers a different way of viewing things like porn in comparison to the standard Western “care/harm” moral foundation. The sanctity/degradation receptor has various evolutionary explanations underpinning it, but it also derives from a sense of the sacredness of every human individual. In the Hebrew and Christian tradition, the doctrine of the human being made in God’s image undergirds a practical ethic that sees dignity in each human life. In Haidt’s words, the sanctity/degradation foundation “underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions)”. Such an ethic underlies the words of the apostle Paul who responds to libertines claiming that “all things are lawful, with the retort, “well, not all things are profitable”. When seen from the perspective of the sanctity receptor, the production and consumption of porn is more easily viewed as something that is extremely damaging to the sacredness of the human person, consumer and producer alike.

Returning to Friends…if “reviews” of shows are to happen—again, a premise which I think is extremely dubious—then let’s at least widen the discussion to include other objectionable issues like pornography. In fact, we don’t really need the review of shows for this to happen, though it offers a good moment for us to do so. In the end, porn is too damaging a societal scourge for us to ignore.

Image Credit: Getty Images.

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