How Pornography Makes Us Less Human and Less Humane
“My father often told me that if not for pornography, he’d have become a serial killer,” Chris Offutt once wrote in The New York Times.
On Offutt’s telling, his father was both an avid consumer and creator of the dark medium, who made his living as one of America’s most prolific pornographic novelists in the 1970s. But he also secretly drew a series of pornographic comics, which Offutt rather dispassionately reports “eventually ran 120 separate books, totaling 4,000 pages, depicting the torture of women.” Offutt rejects the story his father tried to sell him: “The idea that porn prevented him from killing women,” he muses, “was a self-serving delusion that justified his impulse to write and draw portrayals of torture.” Instead, Offutt thinks his father told himself he needed porn to save him because he couldn’t come to grips with the simple fact that he liked it.
Theorists and sociologists have tussled for the past 30 years over whether pornography’s easy availability makes violence more or less likely. The more pressing question, however, is why anyone became interested in the link in the first place. There is no need to take a stand on whether Offutt’s father was right about the powers of pornography to save him from a murderous path. That he felt some deep connection between pornography and murder—between the depiction of women in graphic sexual poses and the violent destruction of their bodies—should be enough to disturb us. Illicit sex and actual violence may be more closely connected than we might like to think.
Pornography deceives. Its sexualized depiction of human persons promises the viewer what it cannot deliver. But how pornography lies is difficult to see, if only because our eyes have gone blind from our frequent exposure to the medium. Pervasive consumption of pornography dulls the mind: if we delightedly give ourselves over to falsehoods, we lose our ability to sort truth from fiction. Sin has a compounding effect. The twin wraiths of confusion and ignorance preserve the charm of its false pleasures. It is easier for those drowning in a whirlpool of deceits to embrace their situation as “normal” than it is to escape.
The inescapable availability of pornography, and the corrosive “pornification” of all other forms of media, means that the most pressing challenge for Christians is rediscovering what purity feels like. C. S. Lewis famously proposed that spiritual mediocrity is the equivalent of playing with mud pies instead of taking the seaside holiday God offers us. Our situation is more dire, though: we are in danger of forgetting what the sea even offers. The warmth of sunshine that lifts our eyes and our hearts to heaven has been hidden by the stale pollution of our passions. Pornography is the only atmosphere we know: it has clotted our lungs, and we cannot get enough of it.
Pervasive consumption of pornography dulls the mind: if we delightedly give ourselves over to falsehoods, we lose our ability to sort truth from fiction.
We have been told by our society to accept porn as the “new normal”—which is an extremely pernicious and effective lie. Offutt suggests that his father’s secrecy was “born of shame and guilt.” He avoids moralizing his story, but he subtly implies that his father is attracted to violent images in part because of the stigma attached to his “mainstream” pornographic work. Had he simply accepted that we liked pornography—that pornography is normal—all might have been well. The thought is common enough in our culture, at least, even if Offutt does not agree with it.
In fact, we have pressed the bounds of sexuality so far that “sex negativity” is our only sin left: Any attempt to find a moral basis for sexuality beyond pleasure and consent is simply too prudish, too retrograde to be taken seriously in our enlightened age. Pornography is inescapable; therefore, it must be permissible. There is no other way for us, much less a “more excellent” one.
Imagining a world that has not so cheapened human sexuality, then, is the first act of resistance to the many lies pornography tells. A porn-saturated world or life is not inevitable: there is nothing in the cosmos that says it must be a permanent feature of our experience. To confess this, and to acknowledge our own responsibility in making the world we have, is to take the first steps toward freedom. By the grace of God, we can live in a world other than that which we now know. That such a thought is so foreign to most of our society betrays how weak the pornography regime is: the moment we begin contemplating the prospect of living otherwise, the whole shoddy artifice that makes it seem attractive collapses into rubble. Finding a “more excellent way” begins with remembering that another way is possible—a thought that the pornography industry does not want anyone to truly believe.
A porn-saturated world or life is not inevitable: there is nothing in the cosmos that says it must be a permanent feature of our experience.
Pornography may represent a less vicious deviance than that which murder depends on, but it trades on the same destructive, dehumanizing impulses. And comparing the two disturbs our complacent, lazy acceptance of pornography as a benign and harmless form of amusement. It shocks us because the widespread use of pornography seems so natural, so inevitable. It horrifies us because the world of pornography is our world. The parallel cannot be, must not be true. But it is.
The Death of Wonder and the Trivialization of What Matters
“Let wonder seem familiar,” Shakespeare has written, “and to the chapel let us presently.” The line is from his play Much Ado about Nothing, which is nothing if not a wondrous tale. A young man mistakenly accuses his fiancée of infidelity, and she faints upon the unjust slander. He believes her dead, and sorrowfully repents on learning his error. All is made well at a wedding, where he is stunned by the vision of his fiancée alive and is chastened by her offer of forgiveness. The friar is the one who instructs us all to become friends with wonder, provided that we make our way off to the chapel for its formalization in due order. The advice is worth following.
The path toward seeing how pornography dehumanizes begins here, in thinking about the death of wonder in our hearts and our lives. But I do not speak of wonder about sex—not yet, anyway. The death of mystery in that realm is only one manifestation of a more general disease, a pornification of our eyes and our minds that extends well beyond the realm of sexual stimulation. Whether pornography is to blame for this more general problem, or vice versa, may remain subject to debate; my only interest is in arguing that what happens in pornography is not limited to sex.
What happens in pornography is not limited to sex.
Consider, for a moment, our practices of reading or watching other entertaining or informational “content.” Our minds are often hurried and frantic, which keeps our attention strictly on the surface of things. Any pleasures that come from reading must be had quickly (especially when reading online), or we give up on the task. We skim articles and book chapters, hastily moving on to consume the next bit of information. Our eyes jump from photo to photo while scrolling our phones in line at the store. We flit about from channel to channel, awaiting the next spectacle that can seize our attention. Ours is a life in the shallows, to use Nicholar Carr’s fine phrase. We rarely expend the effort required to contemplate any farther than what appears in our direct line of sight, gorging ourselves on surfaces and images until we finally grow weary and eventually fall asleep.
This ravenous lust of vision is classically known as curiositas, curiosity. Curiositas is a restlessness of the spirit and mind, an unsettled anxiety that pursues new spectacles to consume. Such pleasurable novelties provide cheap mental stimulation with little to no work. The momentary Facebook check “just to see” gives us a brief respite from the responsibilities before us. We may not care about what we find; what matters is that we have found something new, and that we are entertained. Curiosity fixes our attention on the “things below,” the things that are seen, the things that we can dispense with the moment we are done. But because such visions lack depth they will never satisfy. And because they are ubiquitous they must become more outlandish. The only way to arrest the attention of the curious is by making a scene, and then attempting to outdo yourself the next time around.
The Christian objection to porn is not motivated by a fear of sexuality or by ‘sex negativity,’ but by a sanctified sense of wonder at the beauty of the human being, fully alive and fully revealed.
A society animated by this kind of curiosity will have two compatible, paradoxical sentiments.
First, it will attempt to peel back the curtain and lay bare sordid and dirty secrets. Curiosity aims to expose what ought not be known. Our society’s rampant fascination with the inner workings of the lives of celebrities—lives we will never have—may seem benign. But the voyeurism that moves someone to gaze lustfully through a window operates according to the same logic, only in a sexual key. We will have our spectacles wherever we can find them—and the more secret, the better.
Second, curiosity undercuts our stomach for more serious ventures. “Cat videos don’t really matter,” we say—and that is why our interest in them is damning. Curiosity is attentive only to the surface. It cannot abide the matter, the substance, or the depths before us. Curiosity is content with the image; but loving attention needs bodies. The curious has not the patience required for sustained consideration, much less the openness to the consuming immersiveness of wondrous rapture.
It is easy to see the spirit of curiositas at work in pornography. Porn offers the most alluring sort of spectacle. Depictions of individuals engaged in secret acts of grave importance can be viewed, enjoyed, and discarded with no investment or pain on the viewer’s part. The rapid-fire, disposable quality of pornography suits and fosters the restlessness of those who view it. It leads them to continue scrolling and hunting for the look or scene that might momentarily awaken their imaginations. All that matters are the surfaces, and the more and more provocative, the better.
It is easier for those drowning in a whirlpool of deceits to embrace their situation as ‘normal’ than it is to escape.
There is no room within curiositas for reverential awe, for a sense that there are some mysteries that are not ours to unveil. The Christian objection to porn is not motivated by a fear of sexuality or by “sex negativity,” but by a sanctified sense of wonder at the beauty of the human being, fully alive and fully revealed. And such wondrous treasures desire secrecy: hiddenness is the native habitat of glory. But our curious society has long shed its reluctance to profane the most holy places: the body in its sexual presentation is now merely one more trivial amusement meant for the satisfaction of momentary and passing interests, leaving no permanent mark on the soul or the society. Sex no longer matters—which is why it will no longer be fun. For the comedy, the ordinariness, and the mundane weirdness of sex draw energy and life from the enchanted awe that tempts us to kneel in chaste humility before the glory of another human being. No longer sacred, sex has become nothing at all.
Obscenities and the Modesty of Desire
Reflect for a moment on an obscenity. We know the options well enough. Such words have power because they violently expose what is normally hidden. Ephesians 5:12 suggests that it is “shameful even to speak of the things that [the pagans] do in secret.” The obscenity takes such matters and makes a scene of them, forcing our mind’s eye into the darkness of holy places. When reverence dies, such words lose their force. Our culture’s widespread acceptance of certain words can be explained this way.
The restriction of Ephesians 5:12, though, poses a problem for writing about pornography, a problem that also helps explain how pornography lies. As Christians, we are tasked with critiquing pornography without awakening illicit desires ourselves. If we are too explicit, we engage in the kind of obscenities we are denouncing—a problem shock-jock pastors have sometimes fallen into.
Strategic ambiguity about matters of sexuality is essential for protecting love. Those in love are sometimes so swept up in their games that they do not realize the passions forming beneath them. But once love arises, it delights in preserving a hidden core known by the couple alone. The first time couples tell their engagement stories is a paradigmatic example. There is often a gap in the tale somewhere after she says “yes” that is filled by the highly suggestive “and then we said some stuff.” They mean, of course, that they kissed madly and furiously. And appropriately so. But lovers delight in speaking elusively about their most intimate expressions. Naming them directly spoils a good deal of the fun. Song of Solomon is an erotically charged book precisely because it is not a sex manual; it hides the physical intimacy where it belongs, behind the veil of metaphors, allusions, and analogies.
Pornography betrays love’s natural inclination toward privacy. But in doing so, it can only depict distortions of the real thing. Pornography is an exemplary instance of the “observer’s paradox,” which says that the subject under observation is unwittingly influenced by the presence of a third party. The observer’s paradox means that publicity changes the event: performing before an audience is a different kind of act than practicing in private. Love’s true character can be known only by those experiencing it firsthand. Viewing an act of love from the outside does not allow us to see what we think we are viewing: if love is really present, it can only be felt and known within the faces and bodies of those engaging in it. Even pornographers understand this, which is why virtual-reality porn and sex-bots are in our society’s (near) future: they promise to simulate the face-to-face character of sexual desire better than a computer screen can.
Romance and marriage are too much work when sex and pornography are a swipe or click away.
And we can go farther down this path: what happens within an unobserved room is necessarily different for the couple itself when a camera is present. The face-to-face character of desire is not meant to be displayed, but enjoyed. Lovers who film their own sexual activity for their own private enjoyment later allow the structure and logic of pornography to determine their own union—even if they are married. And they do not record their own love, but a subtly distorted imitation of it, as they introduce a willingness on their part to be viewed from the outside—even if they are the only ones watching. Such mimicry may appear, on the surface, to be the pure display of marital intimacy. But when we go beneath the surface it becomes clear that marital unions can surrender to the pornographic, even if they do not produce or watch commercial pornography.
Pornography lies, then, by imitating the pleasures and the sacrifices of love, and destroys them in the process. But death can mimic life persuasively for only so long. We are hurtling fast toward pornography’s triumphal destruction of the romance that once guarded and preserved our relationships. By turning the central mystery of human sexuality into a public display, pornography undermines the rules and conventions that both honored sex and made sin possible. When sexual pleasure assumed the throne of our hearts, romance was the inevitable victim. Romance and marriage are too much work when sex and pornography are a swipe or click away. Hollywood’s happy endings may have made us believe too easily that marriage is effortless and simple—but they were also one of our last bulwarks against the banal degradation of sex. The pornified mind cannot be bothered with the adornment of foreplay, much less the patient and constant pursuit of one’s spouse. Though such burdens give the act more meaning and significance, they take time and energy to happily sustain. Why bother as long as the easy pleasures of porn are at hand?
Objectification and Porn
Industrialized sex profits from orgasms, which means that they need to be had on the cheap. And so the industry manufactures pleasures with as few costs to the producer or consumer as possible. Time is money: Offutt’s dad “wrote” his “novels” in as few as three days. And labor is plentiful. Women in porn are shockingly dispensable; they have “shelf-lives” of only a few short years, if they survive past first exposure at all. And real women will soon be irrelevant to the process, anyway. Digitally created, CGI porn will be cheap and easy to produce, making “victimless” porn a real possibility.
But it is the orgasms of the audience—not the performers—that make pornographers money. The man who watches pornography is himself the product: it is his pleasure that the industry aims at, his satisfaction that matters most of all. The women and men who perform before an audience become objects of their audience’s gratification; but the bitter, brutal irony of the pornography industry is that by aiming at such pleasure the audience objectifies itself by becoming a product in a commercial transaction. Porn degrades everyone involved in it, but its customers most of all—for they are the unwitting dupes who do not realize the game that is being played against them.
Porn degrades everyone involved, but its customers most of all—for they are the unwitting dupes who do not realize the game that is being played against them.
Where is the viewer of pornography when they watch a scene, and why does it arouse them? In its central case, sexual desire aims at reciprocity: arousal happens when we are drawn not simply to a beautiful person, but when we notice that person welcoming and returning our interest. We want to be wanted, and sexual desire is our bodily recognition that we are desired in a similar, bodily way. Pornography trades on the hope that we will be desired: we believe that the woman looking back at us wants us, that she is “ours” in the way a spouse might one day become (many of these claims are developed in full in Roger Scruton’s Sexual Desire).
Viewers of pornography, then, place themselves imaginatively within the scene. There is a kind of “empathy” at work in such viewership, a self-identification that happens between ourselves and the subjects being depicted. The audience at King Lear feels all of his sorrow by seeing themselves manifested in Lear’s mistakes, and his own decline as illuminating their own challenges. But this empathetic identification means that viewing is never neutral: watching entangles our wills by presenting us with a point of view and requiring that we accept or reject it. If we delight when characters in novels do wrong, we really are doing something wrong. The self-identification between the viewer and the subject is what makes pornography attractive, and what makes it bad: imagining ourselves in such scenarios is a morally potent act, in that our wills affirm the acts as they are happening. Pornography, if it is anything, cannot be morally trivial.
But this identification of the self with what we are viewing betrays the expansive and unrestrained narcissistic greed at the heart of the pornographic world. The women who look out from the screen do not merely want us, but our most fantastic and delusional portraits of our selves. In order for the fiction that they desire us to have any sense, we must (momentarily, at least) think ourselves desirable. Such an irrational, unfounded wishfulness only survives by feeding itself on more lies—so the depiction of one woman goes up to two, and so the harem is born.
Beneath pornography is the supposition that the mere fact of our desire for a woman makes us worthy of her. And so, not being bound by any kind of norm, desire must proceed endlessly. It is no surprise that the industrialized, cheap-and-easy sex of pornography has answered and evoked an almost unrestrained sexual greed, which allows us to be gods and goddesses within the safety of our own fantasies. It is for deep and important reasons that the Ten Commandments use the economic language of “coveting” to describe the badness of errant sexual desires.
Marriage is a union of only two, and no others: pornography replaces one member, reducing them from equal partner to instrument for personal gratification.
The empathetic imagining of themselves in a pornography scene, though, does turn the other participants into objects and instruments for our own satisfaction. What are all the other characters in the scene for? Nothing save our self-indulgence. Pornography reduces conversation and relationship from an intimate disclosure of our personhood to an irritating waystation on the quick path to sexual pleasure. Elaborate and sophisticated stories function as little more than extended foreplay for the pornographic. And all the participants disappear when our payoff arrives. We click to a new page, we turn off the sex-bot so we can go get lunch, we furtively flee the the prostitute and return to our “real” lives. The scenarios are different; the logic is the same. In each case, the woman is nothing more than an instrument to our fantastical pleasures: she is a tool that we discard the moment we find a more satisfactory widget. The people of pornography are no more irreplaceable than salad forks: If one gets tired or boring, swap it for another and no harm is (ostensibly) done.
Pornography is not bad because it causes adultery. Instead, it is bad because the user acts as if committing adultery. Pornography is stimulating because we imagine ourselves in sexual acts not involving our spouses. Pornography use means that one’s spouse is fungible or replaceable with respect to sexual activity, an activity central to the shape and meaning of marriage. And this is so even if we do not realize that is what we are doing. It is possible to do great wrongs without knowing, or even intending them. Marriage is a union of only two, and no others: pornography replaces one member, reducing them from equal partner to instrument for personal gratification.
Peopling of the World
Pornography is a murder from the heart. Is this too strong? Or must we use such language to wake us from the slumbering injustice in which we live? Perhaps, if our eyes were able to break through the smoggy haze of our pornified society, we would see the slow, steady hand of Death at work all around us. Perhaps we would awake into the terror of those who once knew how holiness felt. Perhaps if we would recognize the desecration of the temple of the living God that we are all every day complicit in, we would pray to the same Lord for mercy.
Reducing the human person to an instrument for our pleasure is to wish in our hearts that they simply did not exist as persons. If we believe human beings can be replaced by sex-bots or virtual-reality pornography, what good are they, precisely? Persons are independent centers of agency, with their own wills and minds and reason. They cannot be traded, like baseball cards, on the basis that one brings us more sexual pleasure than another. To do so violates the nature of their humanity. Pornography, I say again, is a form of murder within the heart.
The world must be peopled—we must be people within the world, serving one another. Porn stands in the way of this.
Which is why, eventually, pornography obscures or violates the faces of the women who are drawn into it. From the eyes and the mouth flow forth speech and song and poetry and all the marks that make humans mysteries. But as pornography progresses, the person is effaced. The locus of their personal presence is reduced to a receptacle of our own projective fantasies. “In pornography the face has no role to play,” Scruton has written, “other than to be subjected to the empire of the body.”
Against such violence we can only respond as Shakespeare did: “The world must be peopled!” Pornography de-peoples the world. I have mentioned that it hangs on the pretense that the human beings around us are instruments for our pleasure. But making people tools allows us to pretend that we have no obligations toward them, that they cannot make a claim on us. There is no sharper contrast with such a life than babies, who show a delightfully flagrant disregard for the pleasures of their parents. Parents love their little humans in part because they are tiny, adorable bundles of obligations. A sexuality ordered appropriately will bear fruit—in children, yes, but also in being empowered by the Spirit to joyfully welcome the other human bundles of needs into our lives, even if we are not ourselves married. The world must be peopled—we must be people within the world, serving one another. Pornography stands in the way.
“Let wonder seem familiar, and to the chapel let us presently.” For confession and repentance, for renewal and forgiveness, for the manner of our treatment of one another—a manner we are all participants in—and for, above all, the hope of the gospel. We are restored as people in the word of grace, set free from the bondage of “inevitability” for our sins. At the cross of Christ, every human life finds a worth that is inestimable. Christ has died for all (2 Cor. 5:14–15)! How then shall we not meet each other with a chaste and holy reverence, with a sanctified fear and trembling that is a mark of our salvation? The lives of those who make and consume pornography bear the stamp, the image of Jesus Christ. When we finally see them as they are, with the clear eyes of purity, we will know either awe for their majesty or sorrow for its marring. Let such wonder be familiar: within it lies the wellspring of hope.