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In recent a Wall Street Journal article, Alain de Botton made a surprisingly theological argument against pornography.  He argued that pornography often functions like an addiction.  It inflames a particular species of pleasure and, over time, can order all of life to the pursuit of this pleasure.

A brain originally designed to cope with nothing more tempting than an occasional glimpse of a tribesperson across the savannah is lost with what’s now on offer on the net at the click of a button: when confronted with offers to participate continuously in scenarios outstripping any that could be dreamt up by the diseased mind of the Marquis de Sade. There is nothing robust enough in our psychological make-up to compensate for developments in our technological capacities.  We are vulnerable to what we read and see. Things don’t just wash over us. We are passionate and for the most part unreasonable creatures buffeted by destructive hormones and desires, which means that we are never far from losing sight of our real long-term ambitions.

Drawing on the thought of St. Augustine, de Botton argues that true freedom is the freedom to pursue what is necessary for the good life, a freedom that pornography and similar addictions can practically destroy.  De Botton concludes by saying that we should heed religion’s (and here I think he has Christianity mostly in mind) call to limit our sexual drive, not because sex is bad but to keep sex ordered to our overall well-being.

De Botton essay is an important commentary on the reality of contemporary life.  As Pamela Paul research indicates in her book Pornified:

  • Overuse, pornography, infidelity, and risky behaviors are among the most frequently treated Internet-related problems by mental health professionals
  • Over half of all spending on the Internet is estimated to be related to sex
  • The best estimates indicate that 77% of Americans view pornography at least once a month
  • 75-77% of males have downloaded porn in their lives
  • 20% of males consciously abstain from viewing pornography
  • 70% of 18-24 year-old males visit porn site monthly
  • 47% of women believe pornography harms relationships while 33% of men said the same
  • 33% of all Americans believe that pornography will not harm a relationship
  • During a six-week experiment the statement, “marriage is an important institution,” was affirmed by 60% of men who viewed no pornography during that period, but only 39% of those exposed to heavy viewing of pornography during the same period affirmed the same statement
  • 58% of women believe that pornography is demeaning to women while only 37% of men agree
  • Both men and women who were exposed to pornography were significantly less likely to want to raise a daughter than those who had not viewed pornography

A good friend of mine I think summarized the situation best, “You use to have to exert an effort to view pornography.  Now you have to exert an effort to NOT view it.”

Pornography is not just addictive and ubiquitous though.  It is also a story about how we should relate to people. In her article “Love your Enemy: Sex, Power, and Christian Ethics,” Karen Lebacqz describes pornography’s relationship script as follows:

Pornography would suggest that men are socialized to find both male power and female powerlessness sexually arousing. In pornography, domination of women by men is portrayed as sexy. It is the power of the man or men to make the woman do what she does not want to do—to make her do something humiliating, degrading, or antithetical to her character—that creates the sexual tension and excitement . . . . In pornography, women are raped tied up, beaten, humiliated—and are portrayed as initially resisting and ultimately enjoying their degradation. (Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics 10 (1990) 8)

The only addition I would add to this “relationship” narrative is the one Ariel Levy notes in her Female Chauvinist Pigs, women and men can switch roles, either one playing the submissive role or taking the assertive role.  Either way, the pornography script makes rape not just acceptable but the norm.  (I think Jana’s recent post makes a very similar point.)

Finally, it seems important to remember that pornography is also a business, with the lowest estimates making it a billion dollar a year business.  It is not only taking advantage of an innate human drive, as de Botton argues, but also forming people in this perspective to generate a steady revenue stream.

Screwtape’s quip about the best way to corrupt a person seems to capture the cumulative result of the pornography industry, “An ever increasing craving for an ever dimensioning pleasure is the formula.  It is certain; and it’s better style.  To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return.”

I would probably despair of this situation except for two things.  First, practically, the beginning of a solution to this problem is simple:  stop (or do not start) viewing pornography.  If help is needed with this, there are countless effective and free filters available for routers.  This one was recommended to me by two of my tech savvy friends.

Secondly, theological, God made us such that in our hearts we desire much more than what pornography offers, we desire to love and to be loved.  This is the heart of the Church’s sexual teaching:  that sex should always be life giving, not destructive, dominating, violent, or commercialized.  This is why the metaphor Jesus frequently uses for heaven is the wedding banquet, friends and family singing, dancing, and eating in the celebration of love.  Pornography cannot ultimately compete with this joy for which God made us.

I added a Postscript

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One Comment

  1. The term “structures of sin” often gets confined to economic matters, but I think Jason is pointing out that the term is useful here as well. Rampant and flagrant availability of something in a society is quite different from “having to make an effort.” What has happened with pornography seems to me to have also happened with gambling – once, an activity that was allowed very marginal space has now become omnipresent entertainment. Similarly, I am somewhat persuaded by the “food environment” arguments relating to the obesity epidemic – that is, by constantly “tempting” people to “indulge,” we… well, to be honest, I think of Paul’s argument in Corinthians about idol meat being OK, but needing to abstain for the sake of one’s “weaker brother.” .

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