The Problem with Porn Part 2: Relational Bodies & Unchecked Assumptions

In this three part series, I will consider the issue of pornography in America in order to assist the Christian Church in developing a theologically informed ethic of sexuality in general and porn consumption in particular. Throughout these posts, experience, reason, tradition, and scripture will be utilized in order to demonstrate the thesis that a covenantal view of sexuality, in conjunction with necessary Christian practices, may help the Church empower Christians whose character and virtue it is to meet the harms of porn with the justice and redemption of the Triune God.

TINTORETTO The Meeting of Tamar and Judah 1555

Judah and Tamar by Tintoretto, 1555

In part 1, we observed a common problem in Church culture before offering what may be a more helpful ethical framework based on beliefs central to Christianity.

In this part (part 2), we’ll look at some of the unchecked assumptions folks have about porn and how these scripts might corrode one’s relationship with self, other, and God.

In part 3, we’ll look at a few Christian practices which may help the Church empower Christians whose character and virtue it is to meet the harms of porn with the justice and redemption of the triune God.


The Harm in Porn: Pornography and Relational Bodies

Much of American culture attempts to moralize pornography consumption in a multitude of ways. A commonly recognizable assumption in popular culture is that porn is a harmless enterprise which can be accessed in absolute privacy, without relational impact. In her article, Is Pornography the New Tobacco? Mary Eberstadt pushes back on this idea of ‘harmless porn’ by offering a juxtaposition of the social roles and public moralization strategies of the tobacco industry of the 1960s and of the pornography industry today.[1] By asking if the social disdain Americans now attach to tobacco might foreshadow future societal acceptance of porn, Eberstadt suggests that the large-scale embrace of ‘harmless porn’ becomes naively premature. Likewise, in their detailed study titled, Premarital Sex in America, Regnerus and Uecker find the belief that “porn won’t affect your relationships” to be in the top ten myths currently shaping the sexual practices of today’s emerging Americans adults, despite evidence of its harm.[2]

download In order to understand and critique the assumption of ‘harmless porn’ through a covenantal view of sexuality (i.e. relationships of committed, monogamous fidelity between persons just as between God and God’s people ), it is necessary to look at some of the ways in which Americans think of sex and sexuality in general. Ethicist Caroline J. Simon argues that many individuals understand sex and sexuality through common “lenses” which often can be contrasted with a “covenantal lens” of sexuality.[3] Of most interest here are Simon’s observed categories of: 1) the plain sex view 2) sex as expression, and 3) sex as power. Indeed, the idea of “harmless porn” can be deconstructed by viewing the subject of pornography through such “lenses” which ultimately reveal that sexuality is indeed relational and therefore yields relational consequences. As these views often become presuppositional for churchgoers, it becomes necessary to expose them and offer any needed critique.

The “plain sex” view, according to Simon, understands sexual desire as a positive appetite-like bodily function which should be fulfilled through “intensely pleasurable physical activity” so long as that activity strives for “mutual consent and mutual consideration leading to mutual sexual satisfaction.[4] Pornography in this framework might appear to become natural and even beneficial, as porn-and-masturbation might safely satisfy one’s need for physical pleasure.

Yet, important here is the “plain sex” emphasis on mutuality, a virtue that seems to be incompatible with pornography. If sexuality truly is relational, and the vast majority of porn consumers are male, then mostly men are achieving their ideal of ‘sexual fulfillment’ which is constantly being shaped and reshaped by the fantasy of porn. Partners of these men who wish to offer their lover maximum “sexual satisfaction” must therefore adapt their own sexual practices, norms, and fantasies, to the expectations of porn. In this sense, sexuality is compartmentalized and detached from love and even mutuality as the sexual fulfillment of one partner is ultimately sacrificed given the porn-shaped desires and expectations of the other. In male/female relationships, this pattern might very well reinforce a harmful normalization of sexual patriarchy. Given a woman’s own desire for intercourse, Regnerous and Uecker observe: as “porn becomes easier so must women (on average).”[5]

First Playboy cover 1953 with M. Monroe

1953,  M. Monroe

Sexuality as “expression,” according to Simon posits that sex and sexuality are channel for a person’s own creativity, which therefore connects sexuality and personal empowerment.[6] According to this view, because “sex always expresses something” restraint of sexual practices such as participating in porn might become a diminishment of the good.[7] Yet, as mostly men view porn habitually, many women are obligated to express sexually the eagerness and availability exemplified in porn in order to meet expectations. This leads Simon to conclude that while indeed sex always expresses something, pornography commonly expresses the subordination of women.[8] Instead of expressing themselves, women may be pressured into mimicking the sort of sexuality imaged by porn which often articulates masculinity as “dominance eroticized” whereas “submission eroticized defines femininity.”[9] As examples of feminine submission, pornographic actors are even objectified as they become replaceable objects to be acted upon rather than subjects with which men are to be mutually and self-sacrificially (i.e. cruciformly) engaged. Certainly this sort of expression is antithetical to the sort of mutuality found in Christian Scripture (cf. Eph. 5:22-33) and should therefore be rejected as a model for sexual expression.

The “power view” of sex understands sexuality as “an energy” involving “interpersonal power dynamics” which become so deeply ingrained into one’s sexual activity that one begins to use sex as a means of controlling others.[10] With the assumption power and the need of control, the porn-consumer becomes exceptionally narcissistic through routine experiences of having power over their erotic experiences. Porn then conditions the view to desires sexually only what they can control and manipulate. Certainly, narcissism can alter one’s self-identification and self-understanding in negative ways. Yet, even more troubling is the potential link between an understanding of sex as extension of power and sexual violence.

Thus far, this essay has followed most ethical literature in focusing on male experiences with pornography and its possible effects on their (fe/male) partners. Yet, pornography certainly impacts women directly in ways often unmentioned. While many women have/do consume porn, most do so for differing reasons then men. Erin Dufault-Hunter has found that, unlike most men, porn often challenges a woman’s own identity by negatively affecting her body image.[11] It seems women also tend to experience sexual fantasy differently than men, therefore creating a need to expand definitions of porn to items like “romance novels” and “sexual banter” which provide more emotional-sexual stimulation.[12] Dufault-Hunter aptly concludes that “porn in this broader sense draws people away from the actual relationships and into an unreal world devoid of the demands and rewards of committed sexual affection.”[13]

In part three of “The Problem with Porn”, we will look at what the Church can do in helping to form people who meet the potential harm of porn with virtue and redemption.

-Michael Wiltshire


 

[1] Mary Eberstadt, “Is Pornography the New Tobacco?” Hoover Institution Stanford University. Apirl 1, 2009. http://www.hoover.org/publications/policy-review/article/5518 (accessed 6 6, 2014). [2] Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, Premarital Sex in America: How Yong Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 246. [3] Caroline J. Simon, Bringing Sex Into Focus: The Quest For Sexual Integrity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012). [4] Simon, Bringing Sex Into Focus, 35. [5] Regnerus and Uecker, Premarital Sex in America, 246. [6] Simon, Bringing Sex Into Focus, 38 [7] Ibid. [8] Ibid., 148-149. [9] Ibid., 149. [10] Ibid., 35-36, Simon’s emphasis. [11] Erin Dufault-Hunter, Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, ed. Joel B., Jacqueline E. Lapsley, Rebekah Miles, and Allen Verhey Green (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 606-607. [12] Ibid. 607. [13] Ibid.