An Untreated Pandemic: Patrick Trueman

Interview by Chris Johnson1

Patrick Trueman was chief of the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, Criminal Division, US Department of Justice in DC from 1988 to 1993. Today, as CEO of Morality In Media, Trueman directs the War on Illegal Pornography, a national coalition effort involving dozens of national, state, and local groups that are educating the American public on the great harms of pornography and calling for vigorous enforcement of federal laws against illegal pornography.

Tell us a little about the work that led to your being involved with Morality in Media.

Patrick Trueman: Prior to getting involved in this issue I was director of the national anti-abortion organization Americans United for Life. Then I began working at the US Department of Justice, and while I was there I made friends with a fellow who was named by the attorney general to head the first strike force office to prosecute illegal pornography. He asked me if I would come be his deputy. They needed to get the public behind their fight against pornography, and since I’d been doing that with respect to the issue of abortion for many years, they thought I could help. Soon after that this fellow left, and I became the head of the office prosecuting illegal pornography, or what we call obscenity. That’s a legal term. So I headed the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section. We prosecuted adult pornography, child pornography, and child sex abuse. I found that my previous experience was helpful, but I think the most important thing in this kind of work is a dedication to stopping the harm that comes from the widespread use of pornography.

When the internet came into public use, a lot of the organizations, including Morality in Media, just couldn’t keep up with the battle, and pornography supply and demand really mushroomed. Three years ago the chairman of the board of Morality in Media reached out to me—I was in my own law practice at the time—and said that because the anti-pornography efforts in America were going nowhere he wanted to hire me to help turn things around. We then contacted group after group around the country to form a coalition to fight the porn industry, because we know that Morality in Media can’t fight it alone. We need a whole host of groups and people, of diverse religions and races and locations. We have to work together against the sexual exploitation of human beings.

What did you hope to accomplish while at the Department of Justice, and what if anything hindered you from achieving it?

Trueman: When I took over the prosecution section at the Department of Justice in 1987, mainstream pornographers were expanding. They were building porn shops in cities across America. They were buying up mailing lists and sending sexually explicit advertisements through the mail. The pornographers really had the upper hand in this country. What I felt a great deal of passion for, and ultimately satisfaction about, was the fact that our prosecutors had the opportunity to put these people out of business. We had a great staff of prosecutors, and over five years we put almost every one of those porn companies out of business and most of the owners went to jail. It really is a terrible violation of someone’s rights when a pornographer sends sexually explicit material to them and their children with a view to induce them to buy pornography.

We were able to put out of business many of the companies that produce pornographic material—terrible films about incest and sexual violence, for example. When those films go before a jury, juries want to convict. So that was an accomplishment. But there was a lot left undone; when Bill Clinton got elected he downplayed the whole issue of pornography and really gave the pornographers the upper hand again.

The literature from Morality in Media speaks of America suffering from the “untreated pandemic of harm from pornography.” Can you speak to this?

Trueman: Well, the first thing we have to understand about pornography is that it is very addictive and in many ways no different from cocaine. It actually changes brain function. Many people who use pornography say, “Sure, I look at porn for a few hours a day, but I’m not addicted.” And I always respond by saying, “Okay, why don’t you try going without pornography for a week and see how it goes?” But when they try to go without it a hunger wells up inside them because their brains have grown accustomed to—and dependent on—the high levels of dopamine that pornography produces. It actually rewires the brain by creating new pathways. That can keep a person looking at pornography for a long time, because even when you leave it behind you have these images in your brain. Your brain wants to keep the new pathways active, and it is demanding, so it will drag you back to look at more pornography.

But in order to maintain the same level of excitement, the porn user has to have harder and harder material to look at, so that’s how you get driven to more deviant pornography. In an effort to find riskier and more illicit material, some consumers will eventually move on to child pornography. The former president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has pointed out that child pornography was virtually wiped out 20 years ago. That is an important observation, because child pornography has become a multi billion dollar a year industry since that time. The profile of the child pornographer today has changed remarkably from when I was head of prosecutions for child pornography at the Department of Justice. It used to be that pedophiles were virtually the only ones caught and prosecuted. Today it’s people like you and me, people who get on the internet to look at pornography and then get into harder and more deviant material and end up finding child pornography—that’s when they get caught, because that’s what law enforcement is looking for. We have many millions of Americans who are consuming child pornography on a regular basis—some are children, some are adults, some are grandparents.

What can be done about the addiction to pornography?

Trueman: You can get help. There are numerous organizations that offer help. And then there are also many very good psychiatrists, psychologists, and addiction counselors. It may take a long time to overcome the addiction, and you’ll have to guard yourself to get rid of the pornography accessibility by getting monitoring and blocking software, but you have to treat that addiction. You can’t have cocaine sitting on your dining room table and expect to get over an addiction to cocaine. It’s the same with pornography—you have to get rid of it. And you’ll have to change your lifestyle in several other ways. But there are cures. The tragedy, however, is that most people who are addicted to pornography will always be addicted because they won’t attempt to find a cure or, if they do, they won’t stick with it.

The Morality in Media literature also says that “pornography injures the soul.” Talk about that.

Trueman: Not everybody who uses pornography is addicted to it, but I think a good percentage of people will become addicted if they stay with it. Once you begin consuming pornography you are driven to it, and it begins to drive other things away. Now, this is a matter of brain chemistry that we can measure; when you’re looking at pornography, it drives most everything else away from your brain. This is why men can come home at night after a day at the office working (where they may also have been looking at pornography), and even though their kids have homework they might need help with and they’ve got a meal to share with the family, they’ll go into their home office or bedroom and block everything out so they can look at pornography. It’s the same with a single college student who gets involved with pornography; once he’s addicted it drives him away from studies, friendships, other good things in his life. And it also drives him away from God.

I’ve always said that it’s impossible to have a spiritual life and be involved with pornography. Remember, Jesus said “that if a man so much as looks upon a woman with lust, he’s committed adultery with her in his heart.” So Jesus himself equates pornography with adultery. We have to think of it in those terms. It really kills the soul, and I’ve had many, many people tell me how when they are trapped in pornography they really move away from God.

Do you see any generational differences in how people and various groups address porn?

Trueman: For most of the 50 years that Morality in Media has been in existence, the issue of pornography was fought on moral and spiritual grounds. But over the last 10 to 15 years, science has been catching up and scientists are discovering how the brain is affected by pornography. We can see that there are actually scientific reasons for opposing pornography. So what we’re finding today, in this culture where far fewer people have spiritual background than earlier generations, is that many people are fighting against pornography because of what it’s doing to society and to their own personal relationships rather than just for moral reasons.

When a woman knows her husband is looking at pornography, she feels offended because it is the equivalent of a betrayal or an affair. She understands that her man has turned away from her and given his attention to someone else—pornographic images on a screen. We need to look at this not just from a spiritual perspective but also from a scientific perspective. We need to understand that there is a scientific explaination for the man’s behavior—he may be addicted—and we can see how consumption leads to marriage or relationship breakups. Women often ask, “How could he leave me for pornography?” Without an understanding of the profound effects of pornography on the brain, this question is unanswerable.

Pornography doesn’t just change the brain physiologically, but it also changes our way of thinking. Regular consumers of pornography end up believing things that aren’t true, for example that women like sex mixed with violence. Of course, that’s a total falsehood, but men come to believe that by watching pornography, which contains so much violence. That’s just one example. I urge you to go to PornHarmsResearch.com, where we’ve assembled all of our scientific articles.

Can you speak to the links between pornography and human trafficking?

Trueman: There are websites where, once you plug in your credit card information, you can pick out a woman who will in real time act out sexually for you according to your requests. And it’s recorded, so you can own that video when the time runs out. The Justice Department investigated a case like this a few years ago, and it learned that many of those women were trafficked. This takes place in our country as well as other countries. And traffickers post young girls for sale on various classifed advertising websites, and a lot of that trafficking involves pornography, because they will film the victim and use the pornographic images as a way to advertise. So we see how trafficking often involves pornography.

Pornography also serves to increase demand for prostitution. Studies show that the more you consume pornography, the more likely you are to visit a prostituted woman. I suggest reading “The Slave and the Porn Star,” an article written for John Hopkins University by Morality in Media’s former president, Robert Peters, and Dr. Laura Lederer, the leading anti-trafficking figure in the United States. It details the link between pornography and trafficking. (See also “Pornography, Prostitution, and International Sex Trafficking: Mapping the Terrain” by David E. Guinn.)

Given the damage that pornography does—to the brain, to relationships, to our thinking—and how it exacerbates trafficking, can you envision the government putting a surgeon general’s warning of sorts on pornographic products, the way it does with cigarettes?

Trueman: I think it would be very good to have a warning by the surgeon general. This is what happened with smoking. I tell young people today that there was a time when people smoked on an airplane. They smoked in stores—I remember kids were smoking in class when I was in college. Today, we have bought into the science that shows us the harm from smoking. And that all came about because science rose above fiction, and that’s what is needed with respect to pornography. And the surgeon general could play a very big role in that.

In fact, when C. Everett Koop was surgeon general under Reagan, he did speak out against pornography, saying that it constituted “a clear and present danger to American public health.” President Reagan convened the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography. Now, that’s almost 30 years ago, and they found evidence that if pornography goes unchecked it will affect great numbers of the American people. Well, that’s exactly what we’re seeing today. The surgeon general’s support on the harm of pornography would be a wonderful thing. As people get informed about the harm that pornography is causing, they will want to do something about it. Even people who at one time defended pornography—once they discover how it affects their entire life or how it has destroyed their marriage, they change their mind. We’re living in a time where pornography is harming virtually every American family, so maybe it’s time now to explore a surgeon general’s warning on—or at least a new surgeon general study of—the harms of pornography.

Learn more at PornHarms.com and WarOnIllegalPornography.com.

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