Autonomy and self-determination

Györ­gy: I think that this is an addic­tion, just like cig­a­rettes. Or like any oth­er addictions…

Ákos: Yes… sex-addiction

Isi: Actu­al­ly I’ve already tried to give it up

Ákos: Me too, me too

Györ­gy: Me too

Ákos: To give up this every­day thing

Isi: I can’t

Györ­gy: I also said [to myself] what’s good in it?… that I sure­ly wouldn’t do it for a week

Ákos: I swear I tried… [sounds incred­u­lous] I tried… and I swear

Isi: I endured for two weeks, then relapsed

Ákos: I’m like… I must [watch porn] because that’s how I get relaxed, how I dis­charge dai­ly stress I swear!

Györ­gy: Yes but yeah really

Young men inter­viewed by Fer­enc Mar­cza­li120

At its heart, auton­o­my is both the feel­ing and the real­i­ty of dri­ving one­self and one’s life, rather than being in the pas­sen­ger seat look­ing on, a pas­sive recip­i­ent of thoughts, feel­ings, and life expe­ri­ences. It is the right and con­di­tion of self gov­ern­ment. Men­tal auton­o­my com­pris­es both free­dom of thought, as well as the sense of own­er­ship and endorse­ment of one’s thoughts and feel­ings. Auton­o­my extends from there into our deci­sions, our actions and our oppor­tu­ni­ties. We enjoy fuller auton­o­my when we are val­ued and respect­ed by oth­ers and our­selves; when we are sup­port­ed in devel­op­ing core capa­bil­i­ties such as self-aware­ness, crit­i­cal reflec­tion and imag­i­na­tion; and when we have a range of free­doms and oppor­tu­ni­ties through which to grow, pur­sue life goals and achieve well­be­ing121.

In every­day use, auton­o­my is often under­stood as indi­vid­u­al­is­tic inde­pen­dence, but exten­sive philo­soph­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal lit­er­a­tures have unpacked its rich con­nec­tions with our rela­tion­ships, social nature and com­pas­sion­ate val­ues122. The con­cept of rela­tion­al auton­o­my’123 draws atten­tion to the ways in which peo­ple devel­op their auton­o­my and act with agency with­in their web of social influ­ences and con­nec­tions – in par­tic­u­lar high­light­ing how we own, val­ue and choose our care and com­mit­ment towards others.

Auton­o­my is rel­e­vant to all of the oth­er parts of being human that we’ve explored so far. Peo­ple who place more weight on intrin­sic val­ues (such as car­ing for oth­ers and nature) tend to feel more autonomous124 – they have the expe­ri­ence of think­ing, feel­ing and act­ing on what are felt to be the deep­est parts of them­selves. And rela­tion­ships are at their best when both peo­ple sup­port the other’s auton­o­my – indeed love itself can­not exist with­out it, giv­en love’s essen­tial qual­i­ty of being ful­ly self-endorsed’125. In con­trast, both objec­ti­fi­ca­tion and manip­u­la­tion pro­found­ly threat­en this core of our per­son­hood, as we will fur­ther explore. 

Why is autonomy important?

But first, why the empha­sis on auton­o­my? Why is it impor­tant? Autonomy’s cen­tral role in human flour­ish­ing, across cul­tures, is the main con­clu­sion of hun­dreds of stud­ies con­duct­ed with­in the frame­work of Self-Deter­mi­na­tion The­o­ry126. When we enjoy greater auton­o­my, we expe­ri­ence greater vital­i­ty and life sat­is­fac­tion. At the same time, it’s val­ue can­not be reduced to its impact on well­be­ing127: legal statutes, schools of phi­los­o­phy and core tenets of our pol­i­tics all recog­nise that it is an irre­ducible good’. Democ­ra­cies are built on the notion that the people’s will is inher­ent­ly wor­thy of respect. And we have an inher­ent will to will’, to be an author in our own lives, beyond any fur­ther ben­e­fits this might bring us. Most of us will like­ly con­cur with Thomas Scan­lon when he writes:

I want to choose the fur­ni­ture for my own apart­ment, pick out the pic­tures for the walls, and even write my own lec­tures despite the fact that these things might be done bet­ter by a dec­o­ra­tor, art expert, or tal­ent­ed grad­u­ate stu­dent. For bet­ter or worse, I want these things to be pro­duced by and reflect my own taste, imag­i­na­tion, and pow­ers of dis­crim­i­na­tion and analy­sis. I feel the same way, even more strong­ly, about impor­tant deci­sions affect­ing my life in larg­er terms: what career to fol­low, where to work, how to live.128

What it is to be a per­son is impos­si­ble to con­ceive of with­out auton­o­my. With­out this well­spring with­in us fun­da­men­tals to our exis­tence such as self, mean­ing, cre­ativ­i­ty, rela­tion­ships, respon­si­bil­i­ty, apol­o­gy and com­mit­ment, start to break­down and lose their substance.

Vir­ginia Woolf not­ed that a lock on the door means the pow­er to think for one­self’129. We have greater free­dom of thought when we have the per­mis­sion, space, pro­tec­tion and sup­port to con­tem­plate, lis­ten to all parts of our­selves, and find our deep­est val­ues. Shoshana Zuboff makes the case for this being a basic right: our right to sanc­tu­ary130. This space inside our­selves is our own, it is to be respect­ed and pro­tect­ed and is inte­gral to anoth­er right she asserts, the right to the future tense. This is the right to find out who we are, what we want. The right to act on this in the future. The right to be the author of our own life.

Porn users' experience of loss of control

Cer­tain con­sumers are very heavy users…[their] behav­iours are not healthy…. these con­sumers are par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant because of the sig­nif­i­cant finan­cial resources that they pour into the online erot­i­ca industry

Jack Mor­ri­son, Adult Video News Media Net­work 131

Pornography’s cor­ro­sion of auton­o­my is most obvi­ous in the expe­ri­ence of indi­vid­u­als who feel addict­ed to it, and many of its users do. In a large rep­re­sen­ta­tive sam­ple of Aus­tralian adults, 4.4% of men and 1.2% of women report­ed feel­ing addict­ed to pornog­ra­phy132. Younger age is asso­ci­at­ed with increased risk of porn addic­tion133; a recent study of Pol­ish Uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents found that of the 80% of stu­dents who said they had seen pornog­ra­phy, 15.5% felt addict­ed to it134. In the UK it seems that increas­ing num­bers of young peo­ple are seek­ing help for this prob­lem135.

At the same time, the real­i­ty’ of porn addic­tion remains con­test­ed. Some voice con­cern that this nar­ra­tive frames porn use as a bio­log­i­cal dan­ger’ and it does so to main­tain tra­di­tion­al moral­ist fears’ about porn136. Rais­ing dif­fer­ent issues, on the basis of their analy­sis of var­i­ous media arti­cles and the online response to them, Kris Tay­lor and Nico­la Gavey note how the nar­ra­tive of addic­tion works to cre­ate cat­e­gories of appro­pri­ate’ and inap­pro­pri­ate’ porn use and, by focussing on dis­or­dered indi­vid­u­als’, it diverts atten­tion from the press­ing eth­i­cal ques­tions about porn itself and its cul­tur­al con­trib­u­tors137. Sim­i­lar con­cerns have been raised about oth­er addic­tion nar­ra­tives (for exam­ple relat­ed to gam­bling), and a fur­ther wor­ry is that the addic­tion label can be used to obscure agency and respon­si­bil­i­ty. It is also not at all clear how exact­ly to define porn addic­tion138.

At the heart of addic­tion is the feel­ing of hav­ing lost con­trol139 When we talk about porn addic­tion, it’s impor­tant that we do so with nuance – side­step­ping and chal­leng­ing unhelp­ful assump­tions like those just not­ed – whilst not los­ing sight of these feel­ings of pow­er­less­ness which seem to be what so many are try­ing to express when they reach for the word addic­tion’. Inter­est­ing­ly, one of the main find­ings com­ing out of the neu­ro­sci­en­tif­ic research on pornog­ra­phy is that porn addic­tion’ on a neu­ro­log­i­cal lev­el resem­bles oth­er addic­tions140, as it also does psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly141. The par­tic­u­lar pat­tern of neur­al activ­i­ty in self-described porn addicts com­pared to con­trols sup­ports the Incen­tive Salience The­o­ry (IST) of addic­tion142, which argues that in addic­tion want­i­ng’ (antic­i­pat­ed reward) becomes unteth­ered from lik­ing’ (the expe­ri­enced val­ue of the reward). In oth­er words, peo­ple find them­selves want­i­ng some­thing that in real­i­ty they find unsat­is­fy­ing, being dri­ven by desires that do not lead to the ful­fil­ment of their goals.

Impor­tant­ly peo­ple strug­gling with an addic­tion do not lose all auton­o­my. In a con­vinc­ing philo­soph­i­cal explo­ration, Neil Levy finds that the type of auton­o­my lost in addic­tion is the abil­i­ty to extend one’s agency and one­self across time – Zuboff’s right to a future tense. An addict can ably ini­ti­ate and exe­cute plans to get hold of the thing she craves but she lacks the capac­i­ty effec­tive­ly to guide her own future behav­iour by her will… her pref­er­ence is tem­po­rary and does not reflect her will’143.

With­in all of us there are dif­fer­ent parts that, con­scious­ly or sub­con­scious­ly, jos­tle and nego­ti­ate with one anoth­er. Part of human devel­op­ment is becom­ing more aware of these dif­fer­ent parts of our­selves and clear­er on how they best work togeth­er and inte­grate. When we find our­selves depen­dent on or addict­ed to some­thing, it is as if one part has jumped into the dri­ving seat, against the will of the oth­ers who are in fact bet­ter at dri­ving us towards our deep­est aspi­ra­tions. But maybe this is not quite true in the case of porn addic­tion – instead of an addict­ed part jump­ing into a per­son­’s dri­ving seat, it seems more that they have been groomed, lured and pulled into it by the main­stream online porn industry’s tac­tics and sur­veil­lance-dri­ven algo­rithms. In oth­er words peo­ple are manip­u­lat­ed into dependency.

Manipulation and the porn industry

Manip­u­la­tion, like coer­cion or force, is gen­er­al­ly recog­nised as a threat to auton­o­my. It’s heart and con­tours (what is must com­prise, whether it is always wrong, the crit­i­cal way it under­mines auton­o­my) are the sub­ject of rich debate. Some schol­ars argue that it always has a covert ele­ment144. Oth­ers say that secre­cy is not always nec­es­sary, but instead insist on anoth­er fea­ture such as its dis­re­gard of a person’s ratio­nal­i­ty145. The gen­er­al con­clu­sion that we can draw is that each of these fea­tures’ increas­es the risk of manip­u­la­tion and the threat to auton­o­my (whether or not they are nec­es­sary or suf­fi­cient): they have each been a focus of atten­tion because there is recog­ni­tion that when they are present, the sit­u­a­tion usu­al­ly wors­ens. Inter­weav­ing with these dis­cus­sions is increas­ing analy­sis of the extent and impact of the cor­po­rate manip­u­la­tion made pos­si­ble by tech­no­log­i­cal sur­veil­lance, that reaps and then trades in people’s data146.

When we com­bine all of this schol­ar­ship with an analy­sis of main­stream online porn and the busi­ness mod­el behind it (as explored here), we find an indus­try engaged in exten­sive manip­u­la­tion – both of people’s sex­u­al­i­ty and oth­er parts of them­selves – and this pro­found­ly cor­rodes peo­ple’s abil­i­ty to be the authors of their own lives and enjoy the free­doms and delights of being ful­ly human’.

To recap and sum­marise, data is gath­ered from porn view­ers with­out their informed con­sent to feed algo­rithms that shape their porn expe­ri­ence, in turn to shape them towards cor­po­rate prof­it. Draw­ing on vast amounts of people’s data, these algo­rithms find’ the human vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties that can be exploit­ed to hold their atten­tion and in oth­er ways pull them towards spend­ing. Whilst there has been inad­e­quate analy­sis of the intri­ca­cies of porn’s machine process­es, the found­ing pres­i­dent of Face­book, Sean Park­er, has indi­cat­ed that tech­niques such as inter­mit­tent rein­force­ment were deployed on Face­book, a pow­er­ful manip­u­la­tion which keeps users’ engaged through incon­sis­tent­ly giv­ing them the rewards’ they seek.

When some­one vis­its a porn site and they see con­tent algo­rith­mi­cal­ly cho­sen for them, there is no expla­na­tion of why they are being shown that par­tic­u­lar con­tent: what knowl­edge about them has informed that deci­sion and how, and what that deci­sion is fun­da­men­tal­ly try­ing to achieve. And the bar­rage of videos and images con­fronting view­ers, cre­at­ing a frag­men­tary and dis­ori­en­tat­ing expe­ri­ence, is like­ly to make it far hard­er for peo­ple to apply clear think­ing to their deci­sions in this zone. An obvi­ous point that bears repeat­ing is that these and the oth­er fea­tures of online porn reviewed here work in the inter­ests of the cor­po­ra­tion, not the user. Going fur­ther, and draw­ing on every­thing that we have explored so far, they work against the person’s inter­ests. As we’ve explored, we flour­ish, both indi­vid­u­al­ly and col­lec­tive­ly, when we respect our own and oth­ers’ full per­son­hood, when we love both our­selves and one anoth­er, and when we have the free­dom and sup­port to author our­selves, our lives and our rela­tion­ships in align­ment with our deep­est values.

In short, the main­stream online porn indus­try — through both covert and overt means — seeks to shape people’s sex­u­al­i­ty towards its own inter­ests, which are in oppo­si­tion to the inter­ests of its users (and in oppo­si­tion to the inter­ests of oth­ers upon whom it impacts). It would seem to exploit psy­cho­log­i­cal vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, is e xten­sive in its scope, and is dis­in­ter­est­ed in view­ers’ ratio­nal­i­ty, val­ues, or well­be­ing. As such it is both an arche­typ­al and thor­ough­ly mod­ern manip­u­la­tor. We sug­gest that fun­da­men­tal­ly this manip­u­la­tion under­mines view­ers’ auton­o­my by mak­ing it hard­er for them to think and act with self-aware­ness and crit­i­cal reflec­tion, by stim­u­lat­ing sex­u­al scripts that con­flict with oth­er parts of them­selves, and by increas­ing the pow­er of super­fi­cial, tem­po­ral pref­er­ences rel­a­tive to their deep­er aspi­ra­tions, val­ues and beliefs.

In all of this people’s Right to Free­dom of Thought is vio­lat­ed, as this of course includes the right not to have one’s thoughts manip­u­lat­ed147. The bound­aries of their inner men­tal sanc­tu­ary are bro­ken. View­ers are treat­ed as organ­isms to be herd­ed, prod­ded and shaped towards cor­po­rate prof­it. Like those they view on screen, users are them­selves objec­ti­fied, their sex­u­al­i­ty – this core and inti­mate part of our­selves – seen as fair game’ in a game that they’re not play­ing, a game that they are at best only vague­ly aware of.

It’s no won­der then that so many find them­selves feel­ing addict­ed to porn, in con­flict between using it and not want­i­ng to, find­ing their abil­i­ty to extend their agency over time, to be the per­son they want to be, deeply com­pro­mised. But of course not every­one feels this way. A set of stud­ies find that porn users are more like­ly to see them­selves as addict­ed when they expe­ri­ence moral incon­gru­ence: when they are aware of a con­flict between their porn use and their moral val­ues148. At the oppo­site end of the spec­trum are those with entrenched beliefs that com­ple­ment their porn use (for exam­ple, atti­tudes that are sex­ist, or sup­port inequal­i­ty or aggres­sion). Between both poles are like­ly many who hold a con­flict­ing mix of val­ues and views, and who are unused to crit­i­cal eth­i­cal reflec­tion on the con­tent of porn and their use of it149. Dur­ing their porn use, con­flict­ing parts of them­selves are sup­pressed or ignored. Unlike the first group, these indi­vid­u­als feel as if they have more con­trol over their porn use, because they are less like­ly to have tried to stop and their deci­sion to use it feels more their own’.

But these users are still sub­ject to the same strate­gies and manip­u­la­tions. Their auton­o­my is still com­pro­mised even with­out this being a felt expe­ri­ence. Pornog­ra­phy has cur­tailed their free­doms, for exam­ple, to author a sex­u­al­i­ty root­ed in respect, inti­ma­cy and con­nec­tion150. In an analy­sis of how AI sys­tems can sup­port (or detract from) human auton­o­my, Rafael Cal­vo and col­leagues draw atten­tion to six spheres of tech­nol­o­gy expe­ri­ence (adop­tion, inter­face, tasks, behav­iour, life and soci­ety) and show how a par­tic­u­lar plat­form, app or device may be auton­o­my-sup­port­ive in one sphere but detract from it in oth­ers. The domains of soci­ety and life are the most impor­tant, the lat­ter being the extent to which a tech­nol­o­gy influ­ences the ful­fil­ment of psy­cho­log­i­cal needs, such as auton­o­my, with­in life over­all, this poten­tial­ly affect­ing the extent to which one is thriv­ing’151. Draw­ing on recent research on the impact of fit­ness wear­ables on moti­va­tion152 they demon­strate the con­tra­dic­to­ry ways a par­tic­u­lar tech­nol­o­gy can influ­ence our auton­o­my: whilst a track­er can feel auton­o­my-sup­port­ive at the adop­tion, inter­face, task and behav­iour lev­els (for exam­ple a per­son choos­es to use one with­out being manip­u­lat­ed to and find it moti­vates them to exer­cise), over time these devices increase guilt and pres­sure, and reduce over­all psy­cho­log­i­cal need sat­is­fac­tion’. So too we assert with pornog­ra­phy: users can feel com­plete­ly in con­trol when view­ing it, whilst all the while it is cut­ting away their more pro­found life free­doms and controls.

In an insight­ful analy­sis of social media’s manip­u­la­tive pow­er, Sylvie Delacroix argues that its hid­den influ­ence com­bined with its pre­cise and com­pre­hen­sive scope com­bine to cre­ate a par­tic­u­lar­ly potent manip­u­la­tive influ­ence and threat to our auton­o­my. When peo­ple are grad­u­al­ly drawn along a path by a mul­ti­tude of hid­den influ­ences, they may lose a capac­i­ty essen­tial to auton­o­my: the abil­i­ty to imag­ine one­self as a dif­fer­ent per­son. For exam­ple, when some­one has gone on an online jour­ney into extrem­ism, pushed and pulled a thou­sand times, they may arrive at a place where this view­point feels authen­ti­cal­ly their own and of their choos­ing, but what is miss­ing here is their abil­i­ty to see and relate to their shad­ow self’ – who they were or could have been. In these cir­cum­stances there is not enough left of us that is free of manip­u­la­to­ry influ­ence to anchor some after-the-fact endorse­ment or alien­ation test’153.

We sug­gest that this is exact­ly what is hap­pen­ing to many porn users. Return­ing to Fig­ure 1, once peo­ple have entered the blue and pur­ple zones of manip­u­lat­ed sex­u­al­i­ty, they may for­get what their green’ sex­u­al­i­ty looked and felt like, and they feel like they could nev­er return to it, it is no longer them’. And when porn has been viewed from a young age, a person’s sex­u­al­i­ty with­out porn may feel incon­ceiv­able. What a yel­low’ sex­u­al­i­ty could look and feel like, i.e. where one’s sex­u­al­i­ty would have end­ed up with­out manip­u­la­tive influ­ence, is like­ly even hard­er to fath­om. The invis­i­ble tragedy here is that peo­ple are los­ing what they nev­er knew they could have, hav­ing some­thing tak­en away from them before it was even giv­en, owned, and enjoyed.

Figure 1 - the spiral
Figure 1 - the spiral

Porn and the autonomy of women and girls

So far our dis­cus­sion has focussed on how porn under­mines the auton­o­my of its users. How­ev­er, they are not the only group whose auton­o­my it affects. Our analy­sis as a whole points to var­ied ways in which the auton­o­my of women and girls is par­tic­u­lar­ly harmed by porn, giv­en how it rou­tine­ly nar­rates them as objects (often of humil­i­a­tion and den­i­gra­tion), as well as pas­sive, and with­out desire beyond plea­sur­ing men. So, for exam­ple, when women and girls expe­ri­ence porn-inspired objec­ti­fi­ca­tion (whether from them­selves or oth­ers), their self-devel­op­ment and self-accep­tance is endan­gered. When they are sub­ject­ed to porn-inspired sex­u­al harass­ment and abuse, not only are their rights vio­lat­ed, their free­doms to learn, socialise and play are cut back. When they expe­ri­ence porn-inspired sex, they often miss out on sex­u­al flow, immer­sion and ful­fil­ment. And when their rela­tion­ships sour or end as a result of porn, they lose love and con­nec­tion. All of this returns us to the sense of qui­et tragedy unfold­ing around us.

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  • For example, see the criteria for addictive disorders in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) or ICD-11 (International Classification of Diseases).

    Also see:

    Orford, J. (2013). Power, powerlessness and addiction. Cambridge University Press

    Levy, N. (2006). Autonomy and addiction. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 36(3), 427-447.

    de Alarcón, R., de la Iglesia, J. I., Casado, N. M., & Montejo, A. L. (2019). Online porn addiction: What we know and what we don’t—A systematic review. Journal of clinical medicine, 8(1), 91.

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    Kowalewska, E., Grubbs, J. B., Potenza, M. N., Gola, M., Draps, M., & Kraus, S. W. (2018). Neurocognitive mechanisms in compulsive sexual behavior disorder. Current Sexual Health Reports, 10(4), 255-264.

  • de Alarcón, R., de la Iglesia, J. I., Casado, N. M., & Montejo, A. L. (2019). Online porn addiction: What we know and what we don’t—A systematic review. Journal of clinical medicine, 8(1), 91.

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    Klenk, M. (2020). Digital well-being and manipulation online. In Ethics of Digital Well-Being (pp. 81-100). Springer, Cham.

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    Büchi, M., Fosch-Villaronga, E., Lutz, C., Tamò-Larrieux, A., Velidi, S., & Viljoen, S. (2020). The chilling effects of algorithmic profiling: Mapping the issues. Computer Law & Security Review, 36, 105367.

    McCarthy-Jones, S. (2019). The autonomous mind: The right to freedom of thought in the twenty-first century. Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence, 2, 19, 1-17

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    Grubbs, J. B., & Perry, S. L. (2019). Moral incongruence and pornography use: A critical review and integration. The Journal of Sex Research, 56(1), 29-37.

  • Dines, G. (2017). Growing up with porn: The developmental and societal impact of pornography on children. Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and Violence, 2(3), Article 3 (9 pages).

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  • Kerner, C., & Goodyear, V. A. (2017). The motivational impact of wearable healthy lifestyle technologies: a self-determination perspective on Fitbits with adolescents. American Journal of Health Education. 48,5, 287-297

  • Delacroix, S. (2020). Social Media Manipulation, Autonomy and Capabilities. Autonomy and Capabilities (October 13, 2020).