I participated in a seminar on Gender, Media and Society a few summers ago, and it ruined my life. It did so by opening my eyes to the rampant commodification of sexuality, corporate manipulation of gender roles, and mainstream acceptance of the degradation of women that make up “porn culture”. Now I see these things everywhere, which enrages me and brings me down.
After this experience, in which I learned more about pornography than I had ever hoped to, I felt called to adopt the very uncool position of being opposed to porn. It’s not that I have ever not been opposed to it, but now I am really opposed. So when I heard that the US Catholic Bishops voted this week to write a pastoral document on pornography I was heartened.
This optimism was met with some pushback, because apparently believing the bishops could write well about this is the only thing more uncool than being anti-porn. I understand the apprehension: this is a very tricky topic and there’s always the possibility that they won’t get it right. Rather than wait for this document to come out and have an opportunity to be critical, I’ll try the positive approach and offer some hopes ahead of time.
Define the terms
The most common objection I hear when I criticize pornography is that it’s “just sexy pictures”. Sorry, that’s not the case anymore, if it ever was. Pornography is a multi-billion dollar industry with a powerful political lobby. Any critical reading of contemporary pornographic images reveals the theme that men are defined by sexual aggression and women by sexual availability. Most porn links degradation of women to sexual arousal, essentially training the consumer to be aroused by violence against and disrespect toward women.
What we used to think of as pornography has worked its way into the mainstream. “Soft-core” images are in storefronts and on airplane banners. And even if a small fraction of what we consider pornography is “just sexy pictures” that doesn’t change the fact that most of it is horrifying. Making this clear makes it less likely that one’s argument will being dismissed as “just being a prude”.
Think bigger than sex
Truly, I think pornography has little to do with sex. (I admit, this is a fairly dispassionate view of the genre.) Sex is the medium that paints a bigger picture: of power, violence, and market forces. Being opposed to porn doesn’t mean being opposed to sex, it means being opposed to selling boys a lie about relationships. It means being opposed to convincing girls that they have to look a certain way to earn the “privilege” of being “conquered”. It means being opposed to media conglomerates arguing before the Supreme Court that they should have a right to make pornography that looks like kiddie porn, as long as it doesn’t actually have kids in it (I often wonder, what do those lawyers tell their mothers they do for a living? Something about free speech, I guess.)
When we are damaged by porn culture, it is our sexuality and gender understanding that are hurt. But the forces behind it and the wounds left encompass far more than sex.
Reserve shaming for the big businesses
While researching a presentation on promoting healthy relationships in a hyper-sexualized culture, I came across a personal narrative by a prominent male anti-pornography activist. In it, he described having to watch videos as part of his research, and despite being repulsed by it he found himself physically aroused. The people who create this media are pros. They know how to excite people – even against their will – and their goal is to parlay that into selling you more of whatever they’re pushing.
Though I’m hesitant to absolve people of personal responsibility, it is really hard to fight these hyper-sexualized cultural forces. I don’t think it does us much good to overly shame people who consume pornographic images (though I make an exception for images and video involving kids or extreme violence – watching those should make you very, very ashamed). I would hope that any document on pornography would be truly pastoral toward all people involved and come down hardest on the corporations who are manipulating people, and creating more and more vile materials to keep their market hooked.
Find the right amount of emphasis for the worst-case scenarios
Most people who buy into porn culture don’t commit crimes and they don’t ruin their lives. Some do, but they’re not the only ones we should be worried about, nor should they be our major focus. Zooming in on the salacious tragedies distracts us from the humdrum dehumanization that goes on every day. The extreme scenarios are horrifying to be sure, but the mundane middle is just as tragic.
(If we want to talk about what is really the worst, let’s consider that pornography is the primary form of “sex-education” for teenagers today. Don’t delude yourself: They are looking at it. So we might as well be honest what we’re up against.)
Be careful about context
Though I’m occasionally sympathetic to those who use “consistent ethic of life” to smoosh together all social issues that dismay them, I think it would be better in this case not to blame divorce, homosexuality, cohabitation, working moms, women’s lib, “Happy Holidays”, [insert social issue here] for porn.
To refer back to a previous point, if we are to contextualize this at all, I argue it fits more into a narrative of corporate hegemony than one of sexual decadence.
Who knows? It may very well be that the sky is falling, but let’s limit ourselves to one issue (believe me, just this one is enough).
Recognize that humans express sexuality through many states in life
In other words, pornography and porn culture are not problematic solely because of deleterious effects on marriage. A lot of God-talk tends to take any issue involving sexuality, immediately equate it with sexual acts, and limit the conversation to married conjugal love.
But, as other theologians have stated far more eloquently than I will, our sexuality encompasses far more than our genitality. Sexuality in the broadest sense is our way of being in relationship, it’s part of our way of being in the world. When there is an assault on the dignity of human sexuality it affects everyone. If I am fed a load of hogwash about what it means to be a woman (that I am defined by the male gaze, that my worth is defined by my availability, that relationships with men come with power imbalances, etc), it literally changes everything about me, no matter my age nor my state in life.
Remind us what we’re made for
So often we fail to phrase our moral arguments correctly – even looking back over what I’ve written so far, I see I have fallen prey to this temptation. This opposition is not about being against something. It’s about being for something better.
Human sexuality is one of the most personal gifts we are given, and the porn industry shapes it to their own advantages and uses it against us. This is literally a perversion of what we are meant to be. We are meant to be unique, gifted with a capacity for intimacy and called to express love in ways that respect the human form. We’re made for relationship, love, and sanctity. And that’s why pornography is a pastoral problem.
Do you think it’s a good idea for religious leaders to take on this issue? What advice would you give them?
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