A “Socially Conscious” Order

Why does the Christian Brothers Investment Service invest in companies that profit off pornography?

The Christian Brothers Investment Service (CBIS) is the largest or nearly the largest institutional investor of Catholic money in the world. With close to $4 billion under management, the CBIS handles the investment portfolios for 1,000 Catholic institutions, including religious orders, dioceses, and Catholic organizations listed in the official Catholic directory. It may surprise you to know that among CBIS’ investments are investments in companies that distribute hard-core pornography.

But the Christian Brothers insist upon a distinction here. They do not invest in the producers of hard-core pornography. They only invest in distributors of hard-core pornography, and then only if less than 50 percent of the companies’ revenues are from pornography. These include some of America’s biggest companies.

Without internal numbers, it is next to impossible to affix a number to the amount of money made by big corporations on pornography. A forensic accountant hired for a BBC documentary last year looked into this and found exactly nothing. Corporations are not proud of this line of business and do their best to hide it. As an AT&T executive put it in a 2000 New York Times article, “Porn is the crazy aunt in the attic. Everyone knows she’s there, but you can’t say anything about it.”

The New York Times article from 10 years ago caused quite a stir. For the first time big corporations that profited off pornography were named. They included General Motors, which then had a stake in DirecTV; Echostar Communications, which then owned Dish Network, in which Rupert Murdoch had a huge stake; AT&T, through its ownership of the hard-core Hot Network; Marriott Hotels; Time-Warner; Cox Communications; Comcast and many others. These are not the only ones. Most hotel chains and telecommunications companies are profiting off pornography.

A number of things happened as pornography exploded over the past decade. First, the number of users exploded with it. Since you no longer had to go to porn shops on the seedy side of town and could plug in comfortably at home, millions of new users were added to the ranks of pornography consumers. Second, the age of the typical user dropped, with college students, high school students, and even kids in grade school gaining easy and regular access to pornography. Third, pornography itself changed. It became extremely violent, degrading, and dangerous. This is the natural outgrowth of any kind of addiction. What once satisfied no longer does, and the producers of pornography stepped in to satisfy more extreme needs. One of the problems of raising the alarm about pornography is you cannot even use the titles of these products in a family magazine, let alone describe the images now easily available to the least tech-savvy fifth grader.

One group that is raising the alarm about this is the Witherspoon Institute, located in Princeton, New Jersey and founded by Princeton professor Robert George. The papers of the 2008 Witherspoon Institute “consultation” on the social effects of pornography have just been released and they are an eyeopener to anyone who has not paid attention to this issue (available at www.socialcostsofpornography.org; see also my sidebar interview with Mary Eberstadt, a primary drafter of the study [page 36]).

The consultation brought together a few dozen world-class scholars in sociology, law, medicine, philosophy, psychiatry, psychology, and business. Their papers argue that—with the rise of easily accessible pornography, harder-core material, and the general dropping of the age of entry—pornography can now be considered a major public health crisis similar to cigarette smoking.

Time writer Pamela Paul gave a disturbing presentation to the conference. She reported that “Americans rent upwards of 800 million pornographic images and DVDs (about one in five of all rented movies is porn), and the 11,000 porn films shot each year far outpace Hollywood’s yearly slate of 400. Four billion dollars a year are spent on video pornography in the United States, more than on football, baseball, and basketball. One in four Internet users looks at a pornography website in any given month. Men look at pornography online more than they look at any other subject. And 66 percent of 18 to 34-year old men visit a pornographic site every month.”

Jill Manning, a marriage and family therapist, has been treating the victims of pornography for many years. She cites a 2002 meeting of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, where it was reported that “62 percent of the 350 attendees said the Internet had played a role in divorces they had handled during the last year, and 56 percent of the divorce cases involved one party having an obsessive interest in pornographic websites.” She also reports that women whose husbands use pornography “have an increased risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases, increased isolation, and increased risk of sexual and physical abuse.”

Mary Anne Layden, director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program at the University of Pennsylvania, cited many studies that demonstrate the corrupting effect pornography has on the men who use it and those who come in contact with it. She reported, “In a sample of 30 juveniles who had committed sex offenses, exposure to pornographic material at a young age was common. The researchers reported that 29 of the 30 juveniles had been exposed to X-rated magazines or video; the average age at exposure was about 7.5 years.” Another study she cited found “24 percent of women surveyed indicated they were upset by someone trying to get them to do something they had seen in pornography.” She cited an additional study that found “34 percent of adolescents reported being exposed to unwanted sexual content online.”

The Witherspoon findings cite a report from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation Report that found “70 percent of youth ages 15 to 17 reported accidentally coming across pornography online, and 23 percent of those youth said that this happened ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ frequently.”

While hard-core pornography is rampant, it can be blocked. Technologically, it is fairly easy. Amtrak, for example, runs a business-class train along the eastern corridor and last March introduced Wi-Fi service for its customers. Try putting “hard-core porn” into a Google search engine on that train and a menu flashes on your screen saying “blocked: porn.”

Hotels do not have to accept hardcore pornography in their entertainment packages. A regional hotel chain called Drury, located in 19 states and headquartered in St. Louis, has never allowed pornography into their rooms. They are not the only ones. A website called CleanHotels.com keeps track of hotels that are porn-free.

Telecommunications companies do not have to allow pornography into your home either. Irish entrepreneur Declan Ganley, who runs telecommunications companies all over the world, including in the United States, once bought a string of “mom and pop” cable providers in Bulgaria. After stringing them into a single countrywide system, he eliminated all pornography from the service. It wasn’t hard. He just did it. What’s more, Ganley says subscriptions for this service went through the roof. Would an American family pay an extra $10 per month for a pornfree feed into their home?

Earlier this year, Apple founder Steve Jobs caused a minor firestorm when his company announced that no applications for its iPhone or iPad would be allowed to use pornographic images. Jobs suggested that those who wanted pornography on their phones were free to use the Google-marketed Android phone. In an email exchange published on the website Gawker in mid-May, Jobs endorsed “freedom from porn.”

So why do hotel chains and telecommunications giants send hard-core pornography into your home and into your hotel rooms? Quite simply, it is very lucrative. Since companies hide these numbers, it is hard to get an accurate figure. Still, it is estimated they make hundreds of millions of dollars distributing pornography.

And what about the Christian Brothers? What is a Catholic religious order doing investing in the distribution of material that is profoundly harmful to society, families, and souls? The Christian Brothers bill themselves as a socially conscious investor. They do not invest in companies that make tobacco products, or guns, or otherwise contribute to “violence.” Over the years they have initiated literally dozens of shareholder actions on issues like transparency, board governance, environmental issues, and even slavery.

The Christian Brothers Investment Service says it stays with companies that distribute porn because porn doesn’t represent these companies’ main business. (On its website, www.cbisonline.com, under “Principled Purchasing,” it says, “CBIS excludes from investment companies whose primary line of business is products or services aimed exclusively at inducing sexual excitement or a prurient interest in sex.” Notice the word “primary” in that sentence.)

The Christian Brothers insist they have a responsibility to their shareholders to provide the best return on investment. This is true, but there are hundreds and even thousands of companies that are publically traded around the world. Certainly, some of them are both profitable and porn-free.

Finally, the Christian Brothers insist they stay with companies that distribute pornography so they can initiate shareholder actions. But how many shareholder actions on pornography have the Christian Brothers ever initiated? The answer is one. It was against AT&T many years ago and it failed. They have never tried another one, though the Christian Brothers Investment Services Executive Vice President Frank Coleman told me they are talking about doing more. We’ll see.

Is there any chance Big Pornography will go the way of Big Tobacco? In some ways it should be easier. After all, tobacco was and is legal. Much of the pornography pumped into your child’s computer is illegal and therefore criminally liable. One of the problems is that communities are shy about prosecuting these cases since losing one means losing a First Amendment case and being forced to write big checks to the pornography distributor’s lawyers.

Pornography fighters are about to get a break, though, and it’s a break that may force big companies and Catholic investors out of the porn business. The American Psychiatric Association is now in public consultation to include a new category in its Diagnostic Manual. It will be called “hypersexuality” and in great detail will describe addiction to pornography. Imagine a severely damaged 15-year-old who became addicted to pornography provided by Time Warner. All sorts of psychological and health problems ensue. Imagine dozens of such victims. Imagine class action lawsuits. Given enough of these lawsuits, Time-Warner and other big American companies might get out of the porn business altogether, or at least spin off these brands just like large food producers eventually spun off their stigmatized tobacco brands.

As with the fight against tobacco, it will likely come down to a combination of public outrage, lawsuits, government regulation, and shame. While people still smoke, they are outcasts. You see them huddled outside bars, restaurants, and office buildings. It is a point of pride that people do not allow smoking in their homes. There is a stigma attached to smoking that never existed before. Companies still produce and market tobacco products, but while profitable, they are far from the glamorous companies they were as recently as 25 years ago.

To say the least, we are a far cry from that with pornography. You can see teenage girls walking around in public wearing “Future Porn Star” t-shirts. Pornography is now as common as acne on college campuses. Employees from the Security and Exchange Commission were recently found to have spent hundreds of hours looking at porn on their office computers. It is far from stigmatized.

Still, the emerging social science data is a very promising start. The data shows pornography is not the victimfree, vaguely hip pastime that proponents say it is. Social science data shows that pornography is pervasive, brutal, and medically and psychologically harmful.

Keep in mind it took at least 40 years from the surgeon general’s 1964 tobacco report for smoking to be sullied. Sadly, in those 40 years thousands died from cancer. How many lives and families and souls will be lost over a similar length of time from the consumption of pornography?

 


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