Last week, my attention was brought to three things, sure and certain signs of this present age. The first was the baby suit above, which bears the legend “Future Porn Star.” I assume this is an attempt at humor; but it is interesting what passes for a fashionably marketable joke these days, is it not? The second was the news that Scarlett Johansson has added to the ever swelling carbuncle of pious cultural platitudes emanating from Hollywood (perhaps we might categorize such as examples of ‘uncritical theory’) by declaring that pornography can be a good thing for men and women . The third was the report that grade inflation (or should it be deflation?) applies to movie ratings , given that today’s PG-13 offerings would probably have received an R-rating thirty years ago.
Of course, pornography and the sex industry to which it connects have been constant presences throughout history, but until recently they typically existed on the social margins of society, both morally and often geographically. Their current chic proximity to mainstream culture is remarkable and unprecedented. Indeed, the personalities and the aesthetics of pornography now feature on everything from prime-time celebrity gossip shows to (apparently) baby clothing.
This entry of pornography into mainstream culture is well-documented and due to the internet which makes access to obscene material easy, inexpensive, and private. It is also increasingly understood that exposure to pornographic images has measurable neurological effects. Extreme images alter the neural pathways of the brain in such a manner that consumers of such quite literally have their brains rewired. Whether the images are of sex, of violence or, as is increasingly the case, of both, the tendency of market demand is towards those which are more and more extreme, a demand which the market is happy to meet. Inevitably, this merry dance also shapes individual human relationships and eventually therefore social mores. What was taboo yesterday is tolerated today and could be normal, or even normative, tomorrow. That the sex industry is now promoted as a good thing by the panjandrums of the mainstream entertainment industry—-and in this case a woman—-is indicative of precisely such shifts in the moral attitudes of the culture.
Augustine obviously had no knowledge of neuroplasticity, but he did observe the transformational effect of exposure to extreme images. His friend Alypius, dragged reluctantly to the gladiatorial games, covered his eyes but not his ears. When one combatant struck the other a death blow, the crowd roared, and Alypius opened his eyes to see what had happened. That moment changed him, as Augustine observed, and he was after that time the most passionate and bloodthirsty enthusiast of the games. When he left the games that day, Augustine says “he was not that man who had come” ( Confessions 6:8). He was changed, changed utterly; but it was not a terrible beauty that was then born, merely something terrible.
For Augustine, the human obsession with entertainment in general was problematic. He saw the need of people to be constantly entertained as a deceptive act of self-love, an attempt to flee the reality of our own mortality. That is why he lambasts the Roman exiles in Hippo who have fled Rome in the wake of Alaric’s attack and yet who persist in the desperate pursuit of theatrical entertainment ( City of God 1:32). The theater was a means of distracting them from the real world with its real challenges and claims upon them. No doubt he would regard the modern affluent West, with its penchant for paying sports stars far more than nurses or doctors or carers, as a prime example of the way our need for distraction shapes the moral priorities of our economies.
But what happens to a society when the primary means of such distraction are pornography and violence, or, as is increasingly the case, a macabre combination of the two? Society is not simply diverted or distracted from the harsher realities of existence or mortality by such things; its values are not simply skewed a little; it is fundamentally transformed because such things change those who themselves constitute society. Notions of what is acceptable—-and indeed criteria for what is good, healthy and helpful—-are altered as society does not simply acclimatize to more extreme images but as large numbers of individuals come to need to transgress established boundaries in order to achieve desired levels of satisfaction and distraction. To quote Dr. Al Cooper in a study from 1999, “The influence of the internet on sexuality is likely to be so significant that it will ultimately be recognized as the cause of the next ‘sexual revolution.’” That was fourteen years ago, long before hi-speed connections. The new sexual revolution is well under way. The most private and intimate acts between human beings are both the most popular form of public entertainment on the internet and also central to the most pressing public policy issues of our day.
When reading the drivel of some vacuous Hollywood celebrity opining on the benefits of pornography or when seeing that there is now apparently a market for porn-chic baby clothes, it is hard not to believe that our Alypian moment has already passed—-that moment when pornographic images and entertainment come together and change society’s moral being forever, with all of the inevitable and undesirable social consequences that must then surely follow.
In ancient Greece, those whom the gods wished to destroy, they first drove mad. The gods of this present age merely have to tinker with the brain’s neural pathways.