Not the most arousing photo ever admittedly, but if you were Googling ‘Trump Porn’ you deserve everything you get. Photograph: Chris Pizzello/AP
Donald Trump is the president of the United States. No matter how many times it’s said, to many it still sounds surreal, given our understanding of how the world is meant to work.
Countless theories have been put forward to explain this shocking turn of events that took all seasoned pundits by surprise. It was because the Democrats embraced neoliberalism, because of misogyny, both outright and internalised, because of low democrat turnout, because of media bias, because of deeply-embedded racism, and many more factors.
But what if Donald Trump’s win is thanks to a far more unlikely but omnipresent factor, something that’s inescapable in today’s society but often deliberately overlooked in political debates due to its very nature. Internet porn. Is it that far-fetched?Despite what pornography may imply, this is not a scene from a typical library. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
Humans learn by observing others. Our brains rely on the actions of other humans to supply much of the information on how the world works, rather than have us have to do everything first-hand. And one thing porn definitely involves, is other humans (unless you have more dubious/illegal inclinations).
However, few would argue that most porn presents a realistic portrayal of human behaviour. People seldom offer to pay for their pizza delivery or plumbing service with intimate physical acts. Previously-heterosexual women won’t suddenly opt to have sex with each other purely because they can. But pornography often suggests otherwise. We’d typically not be fooled by such contrived set-ups, but sex affects our brains on multiple levels, often clouding our rational thinking and forming weird associations.
Essentially, constant exposure to internet porn could distort our understanding of how the world works, and how we should behave. Given that most pornography is aimed at men and much of it has “questionable” ethical practices, this would have unpleasant results. It could give enthusiastic viewers the idea that women are subservient, and deserve to be, even enjoy being, degraded, verbally and physically. Contrastingly, men who inflict this behaviour on women are rewarded with sex and deference.“This app is great, it allows me to order a pizza, remortgage my house, and make America Great again, all for 79p!” Photograph: Lauren Hurley/PA
Internet porn is easy to get. It’s often free, and available at the touch of a button. Something so “fundamental” (sexual stimulation) being so easy to obtain would set a bad precedent. Whereas most things we need or want require some or considerable effort to obtain, internet porn shows that this doesn’t have to be the case.
The human brain takes the easy option where possible; it only has so many resources to dedicate to everything, so simple answers are often preferred to complex ones. And internet porn supplies constant examples that powerful drives and needs can be satisfied with ease and simple solutions. Ergo, Donald Trump’s questionable claims about ending trade deals and evicting ALL illegal immigrants etc. don’t seem so far-fetched and unworkable to many voters who care about such things, so why not vote for him?Facts are great, as long as you can spot them. And as long as they’re not the wrong type of facts, of course. Photograph: Lopez/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock
Linked to how it creates a skewed view of the world, internet porn could also make us more susceptible to “fake news”. Ridiculous set-ups, contrived scenarios, baffling claims, these are all common in internet porn, but are also associated with very real rewards of arousal and gratification. You expose yourself to anything for long enough, our brains will become desensitised, habituated to it, so it doesn’t really “register” with us anymore.
Constantly seeing people behave in very intimate ways while a camera is trained on them, that they never acknowledge, it’s easy to see how that may make us more susceptible to staged “events”, cynically created to get attention and online traffic. If porn has worn away our ability to spot and dismiss unlikely claims and scenarios, then it has been of great help to Donald Trump and his methods.“You know everything you just said? Isn’t it, I don’t know... absolute guff?” Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian
Of course it is. No part of this argument stands up to scrutiny. It’s just a smattering of basic neuroscience combined with a very simplistic (and somewhat harsh maybe) portrayal of pornography. People’s sexual leanings and behaviour varies tremendously, as does porn, given how much of it there is. Internet porn was no less common during the Obama years, and is just as accessible in places like Canada and Germany, which seem to be avoiding the embracing-ridiculous-despots trend thus far. Invoking a few fundamental neurological processes does not confirm that watching porn causes you to be a gullible sexist, any more than playing Grand Theft Auto automatically makes you a sociopathic serial killer (despite what some media may seem to think). People doing things without acknowledging the camera isn’t exactly exclusive to porn, it describes practically all TV shows.
This article just is an example of how easy it is to create a valid-sounding theory by forming a conclusion and reverse engineering it, cherry-picking things that back it up from the vast amount of data available. I cynically picked porn and Trump because those are two extremely popular search terms right now, so people are more likely to read it, but it could have been anything: how renewable energy lead to Labour’s Copeland by-election defeat. How feminism caused the Oscars announcement chaos. How Netflix lead to Brexit. They even sound similar!
There are many articles, blogs, opinion pieces, Twitter threads etc. flying around lately, which confidently explain major and complicated events in straightforward and compelling ways, and they’re often shared readily by those who agree with their conclusion. But over a decade in neuroscience makes one extremely wary of such an approach. It’s just too like the countless claims about how a certain specific bit of the brain is responsible for some incredibly abstract and complex phenomenon (e.g. religious experiences and Apple fandom) when the truth is it’s actually many different regions working together in baffling and convoluted ways.
As with the brain, so it is with society. Millions of people spread over thousands of square miles, existing in countless different environments and situations, the idea that one specific and graspable factor explains their behaviour en-masse is something of a stretch. It’s understandable why people want there to be one; the human brain really doesn’t like uncertainty, especially regarding things that may affect the individual concerned. So we seek out and gravitate towards explanations for complex, worrying events, and the simpler the better.
But this doesn’t mean they’re right, no matter how much sense they make in isolation. No doubt there’s some merit to them, some validity, as there is with the porn/Trump theory, but it’s just one element among countless others. It’s not “fake news”, it’s more “selective news”, focussing on the things that back up your existing thoughts and views. But there’s some overlap between the two.
It’s good to want a simple explanation for unpleasant events, but it’s important to be aware that there may be no simple, comprehensive one to be had, so trying to find it can be counterproductive. It’s fine to argue about exactly why the ship hit the iceberg, as long as you start bailing at some point.
Dean Burnett’s book The Idiot Brain includes many more cop-outs from attempts to explain complicated issues. It is available in paperback in the UK from March 2nd. It can be purchased from The Guardian Bookshop for £6.50.