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Is Pornography Really Harmful?

In response to Robert Jensen's controversial book, <i>Getting Off</i>, two clinical psychologists debate the intersection of violence and sexual fantasy.
 
 
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Pornography is a mirror that shows us how men see women, writes Robert Jensen in his latest book, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity . And with mainstream porn becoming increasingly degrading and violent toward women, looking into that mirror can be unsettling.

That's the theme running through Jensen's book, which AlterNet excerpted in late September. The excerpt, viewable here, stirred a fiery debate among readers, with dozens of commenters defending pornography as a healthy form of sexual expression and dozens more condemning it as dangerous. For all the discussion, a lot of questions remain: Can men who view violent pornography separate fantasy from reality? Do men who are aroused by this type of porn want to hurt women? What influence does porn have on the people who view it? Under what conditions can it be healthy? Harmful?

In a quest to better understand these issues, AlterNet decided to ask some experts. Below, clinical psychologists Michael Bader and Vivian Dent go head-to-head on pornography and why people watch it.

But first, a refresher from Jensen's book:

Although few admit it, lots of people are afraid of pornography. The liberal/libertarian supporters who celebrate pornography are afraid to look honestly at what it says about our culture. The conservative opponents are afraid that pornography undermines their attempts to keep sex boxed into narrow categories.

Feminist critics are afraid, too -- but for different reasons. Feminists are afraid because of what they see in the mirror, because of what pornography tells us about the world in which we live. That fear is justified. It's a sensible fear that leads many to want to change the culture.

Pornography has become normalized, mainstreamed. ... As a New York Times story put it, "Pornography isn't just for dirty old men anymore." Well, it never really was just for dirty men, or old men, or dirty old men. But now that fact is out in the open. That same story quotes a magazine writer who also has written a pornography script: "People just take porn in stride these days. There's nothing dangerous about sex anymore." The editorial director of Playboy, who says that his company has "an emphasis on party," tells potential advertisers: "We're in the mainstream."

There never was anything dangerous about sex, of course. The danger isn't in sex, but in a particular conception of sex in patriarchy. And the way sex is done in pornography is becoming more and more cruel and degrading, at the same time that pornography is becoming more normalized than ever. That's the paradox.

The paradox of pornography

First, imagine what we could call the cruelty line -- the measure of the level of overt cruelty toward, and degradation of, women in contemporary mass-marketed pornography. That line is heading up, sharply.

Second, imagine the normalization line -- the measure of the acceptance of pornography in the mainstream of contemporary culture. That line also is on the way up, equally sharply.

If pornography is increasingly cruel and degrading, why is it increasingly commonplace instead of more marginalized? In a society that purports to be civilized, wouldn't we expect most people to reject sexual material that becomes evermore dismissive of the humanity of women? How do we explain the simultaneous appearance of more, and increasingly more intense, ways to humiliate women sexually and the rising popularity of the films that present those activities?

As is often the case, this paradox can be resolved by recognizing that one of the assumptions is wrong. Here, it's the assumption that U.S. society routinely rejects cruelty and degradation. In fact, the United States is a nation that has no serious objection to cruelty and degradation. Think of the way we accept the use of brutal weapons in war that kill civilians, or the way we accept the death penalty, or the way we accept crushing economic inequality. There is no paradox in the steady mainstreaming of an intensely cruel pornography. This is a culture with a well-developed legal regime that generally protects individuals' rights and freedoms, and yet it also is a strikingly cruel culture in the way it accepts brutality and inequality.

The pornographers are not a deviation from the norm. Their presence in the mainstream shouldn't be surprising, because they represent mainstream values: The logic of domination and subordination that is central to patriarchy, hyperpatriotic nationalism, white supremacy and a predatory corporate capitalism.

Standing Up for Sexual Fantasy
By Michael Bader, DMH

Porn is not harmless. But neither is it an important cause of sexual violence or misogyny. Partisans on both sides of this debate have littered their arguments with distortions, hyperbole and cheap rhetorical tricks. We have to wade through a lot of bullshit to get to the truth.

When representatives of the media conglomerates that produce $10 billion of porn each year come out and talk about the "free choice" of the women starring in their videos and the harmless "entertainment value" provided to male consumers, they're making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. The actors in these films are degraded, underpaid and used up by an industry with the morals of a slaughterhouse, despite what Jenna Jameson and Nina Hartley say. The women come into the industry with the self-esteem of earthworms, histories of physical and sexual abuse, and are often plunged into alcohol and drug abuse as a way of coping with their jobs. When the apologists from the porn industry point to the "voluntary" nature of this work, they are using a legal technicality as a fig leaf to cover up the normative pathology and exploitation in this industry.

Furthermore, with the near-universal availability of porn, there are now thousands -- perhaps tens of thousands -- of men who have become addicted to it. Spending between 10 and 50 hours/week glued to their computer or TV screens looking at porn, talking dirty in chat rooms, seeking out greater and greater taboos to violate, these particular men are being victimized, their relationships betrayed, and their families and friends cheated of their presence. Such men were likely never really connected to others in healthy ways before the advent of porn, of course, nor can it be convincingly argued that the absence of this outlet would make them so, but like any addict, their compulsion makes any other options impossible, including that of getting psychotherapeutic help. The presence of a casino doesn't cause the tragedies that sometime result, but neither are casino operators morally innocent.

So much for harmless porn.

On the other hand, it is amazing to me how literal and concrete is the thinking of anti-porn advocates like Jensen who watch a porno, note its sordid and dehumanizing story line, and then assume that the man masturbating to it must really hate women and secretly want to dominate and devalue them. The shock value of the story line (to the extent there is one) is intended to carry the weight of an argument that is basically superficial. After all, if some guy gets off on watching 10 men ejaculate on a woman's face -- while she begs for more -- he must be either a misogynist watching his wishes come true or one in the making.

Except that he's not. I've treated dozens of guys who might get aroused by such scenarios who don't hate women at all. They have decent and loving relationships with women. And most important, they are able to distinguish between a fantasy and reality, something that Jensen seems both unwilling and unable to do.

What turns them on in porn scenarios depends crucially on the fact that the woman is depicted as excited. If she were depicted as primarily hurt and humiliated, these men would instantly lose their interest and erections. If there is one nearly universal common denominator in heterosexual porn it is that the women in it are generally portrayed as easily, constantly and powerfully sexually aroused, driven wild by whatever men want to do with and to them. For most men, this fact is crucial to their arousal, not because they're looking for a rationalization for their violent impulses but because they are guilty about feeling strong, selfish and masculine; feel overly responsible for and worried about women; and secretly believe that women are unhappy and relentlessly dissatisfied with men and their own lives. In the service of masturbation, these portrayals of "women in heat" momentarily reassure men against their fears, relieve their burdens and offer them a freedom they find lacking in relationships with real women. The sexual fantasies expressed in pornography, as well as those of their own private invention, are arousing to men not because women are being hurt but because they're not.

Pornography is the visual enactment of a sexual fantasy. That's fantasy -- to be distinguished from reality. That's fantasy -- to be distinguished from an intention, wish or even attitude. A fantasy occurs in the imagination. The imagination is creative, capable of all sorts of tricks and distortions. Recently, for example, I had a daydream -- a fantasy -- that my brother had suddenly died. In the daydream, lots of people came to console me in my grief. Now, in reality I love my brother and don't have a shred of resentment toward him. What I did have at the time was a need for a certain kind of love and attention. The meaning of my daydream was not "you wish your brother was dead." The real meaning of my daydream was, "You're so guilty about wanting attention that you think the only way you can get it is if you suffer a terrible tragedy." The meaning of a fantasy is often the opposite of its plot; whatever the meaning, it's subjective and can't easily be inferred from its story line.

Over the last 10 years I've studied sexual fantasies. I've discovered that they have a fascinating but secret logic. Imagine this scenario: A guy grows up in a family in which he feels responsible for and guilty toward his mother, who he sees as unhappy and weak. He develops an implicit or default view of women as unhappy and weak like his mother. Unfortunately, it's difficult for him -- for anyone in this situation, for that matter -- to get really excited by a woman if he experiences her as unhappy and weak. That's just the way our minds work. We can't get maximally aroused if we're worried, guilty and responsible. Fortunately, our imaginations come to our rescue, and we construct some type of fantasy or preference in which this barrier is momentarily overcome. For example, this guy in question might be attracted to strong, dominant or tough women because their energy reassures him that he can't hurt them and doesn't have to feel responsible for them. Or he might like to be on the bottom during sex or even lightly restrained for the same reason. It's easy to see in these cases that if the scenario -- really, just another type of fantasy -- involves a strong and excited woman, his unconscious worries about women are temporarily negated and he can get aroused.

Lots of porn features strong women -- picture the dominatrix -- and the male viewer gets aroused for precisely this reason. But many other types of porn address these same issues but in a different way. For example, often the woman is portrayed as dominated, hurt or even degraded, but in the porno she's excited and eager. Men are doing these bad-looking things, but the women are enjoying them. Our psyches are amazing things, really. They interpret the depiction of a woman's arousal as signifying her health and happiness! And thus you find in almost all porn that women appear aroused. Their arousal subliminally says to the male viewer, "I'm not hurt ... I'm even happy!" In fact, were these male viewers confronted with a woman's real pain and fear, they would immediately extinguish their excitement. In other words, they know the difference between fantasy and reality. They don't primarily want to hurt woman. What they really want is to be strong, selfish or masculine in ways that excite women, not degrade them. Porn provides them with imaginary scenarios in which this wish is safely gratified.

This fact accounts for the absence of any reliable, repeatable studies that prove that exposure to pornography increases the likelihood that the men consuming it will act badly toward women. Among the reasons for this robust finding (or lack thereof) is that the men who were studied intuitively knew the difference between fantasy and reality, between the women on the screen and their girlfriends or wives. Add to this the fact that men, themselves, often don't understand what they're feeling or why, and you have a good understanding of why porn researchers who interview men to explore the effects of porn on male attitudes cannot come up with any convincing evidence that it poses a danger.

Now, Jensen is correct when he points out that there is a growing species of porn that is explicitly violent and that appears more extreme in its treatment of the women appearing in it. Know as gonzo or extreme porn, it features such things as gagging, double anal penetration, gangbangs, bukkake (in which a group of men masturbate on a woman), and face slapping. Again, despite their irrationality, the scripts almost always call for the woman to get aroused by and seek out such abuse behavior. One might fairly say that it's a sad commentary on the state of our culture and that of the male psyche that such depictions sell so well. But the reason that the commentary is so sad isn't because it reflects what men want to do to women. It's sad because men in our culture are so disconnected from themselves and women, and often feel so helpless in their efforts to make women happy, that they require these kinds of fantasies to get aroused, to masturbate, fantasies that temporarily reassure them that they're connected to women in the most selfish and aggressive way possible and that, in the end, the women are turned on and not hurt.

Now, there is a subtype of these pornos that feature -- that make explicit and central -- the woman's suffering, her fear, humiliation, helplessness or some combination thereof. Some men require the actual suffering of a woman to get turned on. Such men have almost always been victims themselves of frightening and traumatic abuse as children and develop such fear and hatred of women that the only safe way they can experience pleasure is through turning the tables on their "persecutors" and doing to women what they feel was once done to them. Out of this cauldron come rapists and other men who get sexually excited by the infliction of fear and pain on women. Were snuff films to actually exist, these would be their customers.

Jensen would have us believe that this category of men is huge and that its numbers are maintained and replenished by porn. I see no evidence of either of these assumptions. My research, clinical and otherwise, suggests that this type of man is rare -- dangerous, but rare. Second, there is no basis for claims that porn causes this type of sexual violence. All kinds of porn, including the gonzo variety, are found in various European countries, which have extremely low rates of sexual violence. Sexual violence has been seen in recent years in countries like Bosnia and Rwanda, where there is almost no porn. The fact that men can become sexually violent under extreme conditions is a fascinating and troubling fact, but I see no evidence that porn has ever been causally linked to such transformations. Instead, I think that other factors are much more important, including various types of deprivation, the creation of paranoid identity myths, messianic leaders and propaganda, economic competition, cultural scapegoating and ignorance. In the absence of evidence, to argue that such sexual violence, much less male violence in general (as Jensen suggests), is caused or even exacerbated by porn is simply to substitute our own fantasies for reality. Since men who watch porn don't make such a mistake, we shouldn't either.

Context, Please: Internet Porn and Sexual Degradation
By Vivian Dent

When I hear claims that "Porn's this" or "No, it's that," I often feel a similar incredulity as when Bush begins a sentence with, "The American people demand ..." Says who? When? Why?

What does it mean -- what can it possibly mean -- to discuss "pornography" or "men" or "women" or "sexuality" outside the environments where they exist? Porn today usually involves a solitary, online interaction between a man and sexual images. In this encapsulated world, porn's intensity builds steadily. More and more is available; it's accessible at any time for any length of time; and it portrays a wider and wider range of subjects, activities, and fantasies. I believe all of these changes have transformed what porn "is" and how it affects both men and women. And I'm concerned that we know far too little about the implications of these changes.

To introduce my ideas, I'll begin by listing some things about people, porn, sexuality, and the web that we might be able to agree on.

    People
  • Men are very different one from another. So are women.
  • People behave differently in different physical and emotional settings. When we feel secure, effective, loving, and lovable we have a different range than we do when we feel worthless, terrified, miserable, enraged, or hopeless.
  • Men and Porn

  • A lot of men use porn just to get off. It has a minimal, perhaps even beneficial, impact on the whole of their lives and relationships, including their sexual relationships.
  • Some men get seriously addicted to porn, with all the damage and pain that severe addictions bring.
  • Some men use porn as an inspiration for, or a weapon in, efforts to hurt or degrade real women, often enough their wives and girlfriends. [By the way, I know all this can apply to men with men, or to women with women for that matter, but I'll stick to heterosexual relationships for now and let others fill in the gaps.]
  • Women and Porn

  • Some women like porn. Some are indifferent to it. Some are disgusted, horrified, frightened, or humiliated by it.
  • Some women really enjoy getting into the sexually edgy scenarios that porn can inspire.
  • But some play along, wanting the relationship, or wanting to prove themselves strong enough, sexy enough, tough enough. A lot of these women end up feeling used, damaged, and degraded by their experiences.
  • Relationships and Sexuality

  • Under certain circumstances, which we think of as normal, men have sex with a willing partner.
  • Sometimes both people come out of the encounter very, very satisfied.
  • Sometimes one or both feel bad, even awful, before, during, or after -- even though the sex was consensual.
  • Sometimes a man knows perfectly well that he's degrading or hurting his partner; and he gets off on that.
  • Sometimes the damage is accidental, and he'd be horrified to know it happened.
  • Sexuality without Relationship

  • Under certain conditions, men have violent sex with unwilling partners.
  • In wartime, men who would never have imagined themselves hurting a woman have become rapists.
  • Sexuality

  • Sex lives at the intersection of love and aggression. Aggression infused into love and desire makes sex exciting. But violence and sadism can take over. Then sex becomes an expression of power, and part of its excitement is its capacity to dominate, humiliate, even destroy the other.
  • The cultural switch that tips sexuality into violence can get thrown suddenly. Witness Rwanda, where lunatic broadcasts and a history of injustice turned citizens into mass murderers and rapists. Witness Abu Ghraib, where war, contempt, and an inexcusable lack of structure and training allowed young soldiers to become gleefully perverse torturers.
  • The Internet

  • The Web does not breed civility. People write things in emails they would never consider saying directly. Worse, under cover of anonymity, people insult, threaten, and genuinely menace other people's reputations and lives. Consider the posting of addresses of doctors who perform abortions, or the viciousness shown toward the parents of a teenage girl who snuck out with the family's Porsche, crashed, and died. Not everyone loses social sensitivity in the anonymity of the web. But it's a lot easier to let fly with ugly emotions online than in voice-to-voice or face-to-face encounters.
  • The Internet and Porn

  • Porn is available every instant of every day.
  • It's inexhaustible; people are constantly posting new samples.
  • It's lost its public context -- the long-outdated context of a movie theater, the more recent context of a store where you have to go in, show your face, and rent your videos. No one knows; no one sees. The only interaction is you, your mind, your body, a screen, and whatever you watch there.
  • And, as it becomes more private, more and more porn is apparently becoming more degrading to the women involved.

So: increased degradation, decreased social influence, and increased amounts of time spent with only one's fantasies for company. I'm protesting any account of porn that refuses to take this context, very carefully, into account. In the accompanying article, Michael Bader talks about men in therapy who discover that their ostensible desire to see a woman in a gangbang has to do with their need to know that women can really enjoy men, masculinity, and sexuality. OK; I'll trust his clinical experience. But I think he's missing the point that these men aren't just watching pornography alone -- they're talking about it with their therapist, a man who sees them as good and loving and who's encouraging of their sexuality. That's a social context, and a strongly supportive one at that.

But I don't see that what Bader is saying necessarily applies to the legions of men who believe that the women they desire could never love or desire them, who feel demeaned, disrespected, alienated, and lost. A lot of men get angry when they feel like that; no surprise there. Does porn ever encourage any of these men to take their anger out on women? When, why, under what conditions? Again, I don't want to imply that I think those men are on their way to producing snuff flicks, or something equally absurd. I do want to say that the questions deserve real attention.

In the early 1970s, Zimbardo's famous prison experiment took a group of male undergraduates, screened them carefully for psychological stability, and then randomly assigned them the roles of prisoners or guards. The experiment was designed to last two weeks, but within six days, according to the Stanford Prison Experiment Web site, "The simulation became so real, and the guards became so abusive, that the experiment had to be shut down. ... Half the prisoners were released early due to severe emotional or cognitive reactions." None of the guards quit, however. And nothing in the extensive pre-experiment personality testing predicted which guards would become abusive. Zimbardo concluded, "Abusive guard behavior appears to have been triggered by features of the situation rather than by the personality of guards."

Bader claims that men watching pornography can reliably and consistently understand the difference between fantasy and reality. I have some doubts: People are not at their most grounded and realistic when it comes to sex. And, again, I believe context matters a lot, especially when cruel or degrading scenarios provoke intense excitement, both sexual and violent. On a concrete level, a lot of kids and some isolated guys do use porn as a kind of "how-to" manual for sexuality. Porn's getting more extreme could lead them into some very unfortunate blunders. Plus, there's a long and sorry history of men rationalizing the sexual abuse of women with the words, "She really wanted it;" "She was asking for it." Is there a risk, even if just for some men, even if just at some times, in reinforcing a fantasy that women really want to receive the cruelties some men imagine inflicting on them?

I also suspect there are psychological consequences to seeing repeated enactments of violent sexuality, of fantasies that until recently existed pretty much exclusively in our imaginations. Sex and violence share a slippery boundary. At Abu Ghraib, young soldiers' anger and fear became sexualized violence in very short order. How much do we really know about the tipping point where emotional pain turns to satisfy itself in sexual cruelty? Bader's right that "We can't get maximally aroused if we're worried, guilty and responsible," and that feeling confident of the other's pleasure offers one source of relief from these fears. But he neglects the fact that denying the humanity of the other can stifle guilt just as effectively -- at least for some people, at least in some circumstances, at least some of the time.

We've created a brave new world where porn is constantly available in steadily more intense forms, with few or no social controls limiting access. Whatever the truth about pornography 20 years ago -- and we don't seem to know much for sure -- "the situation," as Zimbardo puts it, has changed. And I think we need to pay attention.

Michael's Rebuttal to Vivian

Vivian speculates that there are conditions under which porn might trigger an increase in male sexual violence. These conditions include the privacy of the Internet, the increased availability of extremely degrading porn, and social conditions like Abu Ghraib and Zimbardo's prison experiment. Porn is getting worse and more ubiquitous and this is apparently provoking or reinforcing harmful male sexual behavior.

Unfortunately, there's simply no evidence for this claim. At the same time the availability and alleged misogyny of porn is increasing, the incidence of sexual violence is decreasing. Societies with more porn and Internet usage than ours have much lower rates of sexual violence. And, again, despite how extensively it has been studied, there is no research that shows that exposure to porn increases the aggressiveness or sexism of a man's interaction with women in his everyday life.

Now, I would agree with Vivian that a fair number of men -- and women, for that matter -- feel hostility toward each other. And some of them -- both sexes -- act this out in the bedroom. They might criticize each other's performance or attractiveness. A man might unconsciously but intentionally refuse to "read" his partner's cues about what she wants or enjoys, or he might detach the moment after he is satisfied. A woman might be consistently critical of a man's ability to satisfy her, or make him feel bad for wanting sex too often. In these cases, the hostility of one partner hurts the other one.

But the fact that people can hurt each other in their myriad transactions around sex, while tragic, doesn't bear on this debate at all. My primary point was not that men don't ever feel hostility toward women but that the fact that they get aroused by porn isn't evidence of it. Men don't have a primary wish to see or participate in a gangbang at all -- in fact, doing so would horrify them. They desire pleasure and connection, like all of us do, but the conditions under which they can safely experience this involve somehow counteracting their worry and guilt about women, a condition that is satisfied in these imaginary porn scenarios. My point was that you cannot infer, as Jensen does, that a porn script reflects what the male viewer actually wants to do to women. The unconscious mind makes use of the porn script in ways that an outside social observer can't possible divine.

In a sense, this brings me to another point of agreement with Vivian. It isn't clear at all what the causes or effects are of the growing incidence of rougher and more extreme scenarios in porn today. Is the essential psychology of porn the same but merely taking more dramatic forms or is this trend something qualitatively new? There does seem to be a tendency in our sexual imaginations to seek out deeper and deeper taboos to challenge or violate, provided it's safe to do so. I see no evidence that such potential for escalation in a world of fantasy poses a threat to women in the real world, but I'd be foolish to deny that it could do so in the future in ways unknown to us now. And I have been impressed with the ways that the anonymity and ubiquity of Internet sex invites certain men to retreat from social and family life. The content of porn is less important here than the private ways that it is constantly available. Perhaps, in the end, the problem lies with a society in which men are disconnected and unable to find comfort in ways other than masturbation.

Vivian's Rebuttal to Michael

When Michael Bader describes sexual cruelties in his response to my article, he moves directly from criminal assaults to the petty cruelties of everyday life. He skips over the area where porn concerns me most deeply -- its potential to encourage the dehumanizing of women in consensual, or quasi-consensual, sexual encounters. We know that boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, and men that women had thought or wished were boyfriends are posting explicit content without the woman's consent. What else is going on in or because of our new online world that hurts women, diminishes their agency, transforms their sexual pleasure into fodder for their humiliation?

Porn doesn't just provide relief from inhibiting fantasy; it serves up inspiration for sexual games. A lot of people, men and women, enact scenarios derived from porn. A lot of people also push the limits of their sexual experiences. Depictions of violence or degradation -- particularly when the woman seems to be loving it -- encourage the fantasy, in men and women so inclined, that the games can get meaner without damage being done. A "real" woman would feel excited, not humiliated, frightened or hurt. And having porn so constantly and immediately available makes the gap between wish and action that much narrower. I'm not talking mutually enjoyable kinkiness here; I'm talking about situations where porn can nudge a man toward taking his pleasure at a woman's expense, whether in ignorance or with full intent.

Michael's argument rests heavily on a lack of conclusive evidence linking pornography with mistreatment of women. Yet in studies of groups, individual differences easily cancel each other out. According to a recent New York article, we can't even prove that exercise promotes weight loss. It seems that a fair number of people work out, get hungrier, and eat more, gaining weight in the process. This finding doesn't negate the experience of all those folks who got more active and dropped a few pounds, however. They're built differently -- or they're living in contexts that successfully encourage their efforts.

Perversity -- by which I mean getting aroused by degrading or dehumanizing another person -- exists. Sadism -- sexual sadism -- exists. People make tragic and terrible sexual mistakes. (Read On Chesil Beach if you have any doubts.) Michael's experience, as a clinician and I assume as a man, has led him to appreciate how greatly a man's love and desire for a woman can be underappreciated. Mine, as a fellow clinician and as a woman, has led me to recognize how very badly things can go wrong, and how devastating it can be when they do.

I'm sure that Michael and I agree that none of us is born taking pleasure in another's pain and degradation. Yet in certain contexts, people -- even people who under different circumstances are loving and concerned -- get very excited in just this way. I believe that the current solitary, nonstop, and increasingly vicious realm of pornography can foster just this kind of excitement. And so I believe we owe it to ourselves, as men, women and a society, to take it seriously.

Michael Bader is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco. He is the author of Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies, and a forthcoming book, Male Sexuality: Why Women Don't Understand It -- And Men Don't Either. He has also written extensively on psychology and politics for Tikkun Magazine and AlterNet. Dr. Vivian Dent is a psychologist in private practice in San Francisco.