Friday, September 30, 2011

What is Pornography?

In honor of the upcoming General Conference, I offer my own talk on pornography, created from a very rambling essay I posted a while back on a message-board for Mormons.

What is pornography? This question is actually really hard to answer. (I could bring up the Supreme Court justice who summed it up with an aphorism to the effect of, "I cannot define it, but I know it when I see it.") The way we use the word in the LDS church, it often seems to refer to images of people that cause sexual arousal. This causes a lot of confusion, since what causes arousal for one person does not always do much (or anything at all) for another. Some people are excited by the sight of a foot; others are impervious to full nudity. Some Mormons are "offended" by the J. C. Penney catalogue. Others can "endure" (and even be inspired by) much "wilder" stuff. (Here I remember a course in Western Civilization that I had at BYU: the teacher, a woman, announced at the beginning that students would be required to study in detail works of great art, including nude paintings and statues, and that anyone who objected to that should drop out before the semester got underway.)  Generally speaking, official church pronouncements ignore these niceties and refer to pornography as some kind of monolithic thing, with universal (and universally evil) effects.  In other words, we objectify art along with everything else!

In the real world, outside of our religious fantasies, people are sexually stimulated by a variety of mundane and unavoidable things.  Sex is woven deep into our being. Like every human practice, it sometimes comes out "evil" -- not because there is anything inherently wrong with it in the abstract, but because there are things wrong with particular individuals, things which sometimes find expression in the sexual habits of said individuals. While it makes no sense to censor the world to fit some imaginary Platonic standard of what constitutes "beauty" and what constitutes "smut" (since the standard is inevitably arbitrary and incoherent), it makes a whole lot of sense for the individual to avoid images that make his life worse (and do whatever he pleases with images that do not). No one can write the book telling us what images are universally safe to look at, because the same image speaks to each one of us in a different way. We have to be our own censors. Some people have no problem with the Venus de Milo. Other people find her the bane of their existence. That is OK. Let the hedonists enjoy and the ascetics abstain without mutual recrimination. As long as no one is being tortured to make the art (as sometimes happens in some of the seedier parts of the sex industry), it is all good.

My line of thinking is perhaps best illustrated with an analogy from physical culture. Years ago, there was widespread fear of working out with (heavy) weights. People who thought nothing of a day's work on the farm somehow got it into their heads that picking up moulded pieces of iron with no practical aim beyond increasing strength would render them unsupple, impotent, and just generally physically degenerate. Since then, we have learned that this is not the case. That does not mean, however, that every person in the world should immediately drop whatever he is doing, run to the nearest gym, load an Olympic bar with all the plates on the rack, and throw out his back. To get the benefits of strength training (which, like sex, is neither good nor bad in itself), you have to ease into it, listening to your body and responding with more or less load as you feel pleasure or pain in the aftermath of your last workout. There is no one program that will work for all trainees (elite athletes in a variety of sports, hardcore gym rats, and the rest of us at all stages of physical development and degeneration). It is not that really heavy squats or deadlifts are evil, by any means, only that you should not decide to start your training career tomorrow with the poundage that (say) Konstantin Konstantinovs uses (unless you happen to be a reincarnation of the Hulk).

Sex is not evil. It is not even that dangerous, provided you come at it with a modicum of preparation and good sense (i.e., it is no more dangerous than a heavy deadlift). The church's mistake here is to rush into generalities without realizing that the nature of the problem is inherently specific. (Masturbation is not a problem. Porn, with the exception of anything produced under duress, is not a problem. Strength training is not a problem. The problems are human beings, who respond differently to all of the above in unique situations, often unmappable without recourse to intensive individual scrutiny.) Instead of recognizing that exercise must be tailored to the individual, the church qua personal trainer gives us "the one true workout" complete with "true" exercises and "true" poundages that every trainee (beginner to advanced) must put up for the required, "true" number of repetitions. Anything less is sin; more usually earns commendation for going above and beyond the call of duty (even when the trainee all but kills himself). This is ridiculous, and harmful if you happen to be one of the people for whom the one true size is a particularly bad fit.

One more word for those who think I am not being hard enough on evil porn (which I see as existing only for the individual). Let's take another analogy, this one dietary. I am reasonably certain that every murderer has drunk water regularly. But wait, all of us do too! Are we all running a terrible risk of becoming murderers every time we sip that deceptively refreshing beverage? Are we slowly changing inside, gradually morphing into the next Jeffrey Dahmer? Fortunately, the answer is no. Water is one variable of many that go into the making of a serial killer, but correlation is not causation. Sex, like thirst, is a pervasive human need. Some people think about it, make pictures of it, have it, and then use it to commit terrible crimes (or at least make themselves and others miserable), but that is not the fault of images (which may or may not match someone's definition of pornography), or the romantic partners of the criminals, or their victims. It is the fault of the criminals. Until we approach the person, we cannot address the problem.

One more personal story, and then I will shut up. 10 years ago, I was young, extremely scared of my sexuality (which I wanted to tear out by the roots: I used to fantasize about cutting off my genitalia or killing myself), and very, very devout (the reason I hated sex so much was because persistent erections made me feel "unworthy," requiring endless rounds of confessing my sin to the bishop, being chastised, and feeling like crap). I was also extremely sensitive in a sexual way: anything could set me off, even things that have nothing to do with sex (like pull-ups). I could barely talk to girls my age and avoided activities where young women participated. I attended a stake dance one time (only one time) and did not have the nerve to go inside. I never dated. Then, I went on a mission. The women of Spain did not care that I could not bear the sight of nubile females, and they were not going to cater to my weak eyes by going about in burkhas. They let it all hang out, and (what amazed me at the time) I was perfectly fine. My fear receded as I realized that seeing nearly naked women did not automatically turn me into some kind of lustful monster (think of the Hulk again). Gradually, I learned that acceptance was a much better strategy for healthy sexuality than avoidance. Getting married was a huge leap forward for me (and required some deprogramming which I won't bore or titillate you with). Today I accept my sexuality, and that of everyone else, and I make a point of never imposing myself (and my images of beauty, truth, etc.) on another person. Nakedness is no excuse for lack of manners. Intimacy is no excuse. Pretty pictures are no excuse. Ugly pictures are no excuse. There is no excuse.

Pornography is just pictures (or stories, i.e. verbal pictures), some good, some not so good, and some frankly awful, but most of it is nothing to be deathly afraid of (unless you are trapped in a ridiculous worldview that makes objectification, abstractions, and stereotypes the most important things in the universe, idol gods that all mere mortals must worship). If it bothers you, there are many other things to hold your mind and take your time. The less you care about it, the less power it will have over you.


  1. I think the irony is that good Mormon boys and men look at porn, feel shame, but transfer that shame onto the women in the pictures rather than own it. "You are the reason I cannot control these urges," they say in their heads. Hence, the objects of their lust become the objects of their scorn, malevolence, and loathing. Part of the problem is the Church hasn't quite figured out that they just need to treat pornography use like an addiction, as opposed to a sin. The best they have done is say that it really pisses God off and will ruin your life. This, I believe, contributes to the problem of violent, abusive porn--the kind that whips feminists into a frenzy. This is because pornography will always have producers and consumers, and if puritanical, guilt-ridden America wants to take out its pent-up angst on worthless whores that are about to get whats coming to them (I hope you see where I'm going here), then the industry's going to offer that. I think I agree with you; if society can simply see pornography for what it is, we can begin to mitigate its harmful effects. That is, it's about the subject/individual, not the images themselves.

  2. Yes. Ironically, our righteous hatred of sinful images just creates a bunch of unnecessary bad fetishes. If that is what we care about, then that is what we get (as you put it). Hate and love are just two sides of the same coin: desire. The best defense is apathy (absence of desire).

  3. When I was at BYU, I volunteered at a drug addiction center calling LDS bishops to inform them of the center’s pornography addiction program. I think some LDS members are aware of the brain’s plasticity and that images themselves do not have any more power than we give them. Personally I feel that viewing pornographic images is like drinking alcohol in that any potential benefits are grossly outweighed by more probable negatives. While a person who drinks alcohol occasionally (or same with pornography) and manages to hold down a job responsibly should not be shunned as an addict, at the same time I would be very nervous if this person were say a 9-1-1 operator, paramedic, doctor, soldier, or policeperson and happened to be drunk because of an unexpected call-in to an emergency or I guess in the case of pornography, could not relate to women as people. Just a week ago some psychologists published their conclusions on the effect of internet porn on teenage boys who find that they have erectile dysfunction with their live significant others and experience withdrawal symptoms when they are not viewing porn. This article differentiates between the stimulation of an image by itself versus a screen full of live videos of you-name-it; the authors also acknowledge how pornography relates to primal brain function similar to the effect of food. Plenty of people are addicted to food, but people should not just stop eating; however, people do not need 24/7 access to multiple course meals every day in order to satisfy their body’s nutritional requirements. While initially time-consuming, people are better satisfied when they appropriately acknowledge their internal hunger and satiety cues. Similarly people need to procreate their species, but perhaps expecting dopamine thrills at every sexual encounter is too much stress on everyone’s brains and bodies. So ceaseth my “moderation in all things” monologue.

  4. That is a very good comment, Tar Heel. I think there is a lot to be said for fasting as a means of optimizing nutrient uptake (and giving dopamine receptors a rest).

    I still think that the best approach to pornography is passive rather than active, bored rather than scared. The less you care about it (institutionally and individually), the less power it has. The culture of fear with which modern LDS leaders surround it ("it is destroying everything! it will eat you alive!") ironically just makes it more powerfully alluring to those most susceptible to it. It becomes bright forbidden fruit, the kind that always, always gets eaten. If we really want to take the wind out of its sails, we should say something like, "Most pornography is actually really stupid and boring. People lift their shirts and shake their bodies. No big deal. Now can we do something really exciting for a change (like climb a mountain)?" Marking low-class erotica with a scarlet A just makes it more attractive than it needs to be, more attractive than it really is.