Pornography degrades women (those cocksure feminists who claim otherwise have fallen for the biggest male confidence trick of all time). It alters the neural pathways of the brain and literally changes the way its consumers think. It hinders men from developing mature emotional relationships with women. It reinforces and supercharges the notion that sex is a commodity over which the consumer has complete control. Further, if an article by Cosmo Landesman in this week’s Spectator is to be believed, it is impacting the middle-aged as badly as it is affecting the younger generation.

The strangest thing about the article is that the author clearly takes personal advantage of the phenomenon which he claims to find so disturbing. Yet perhaps we should not judge him too harshly on this score. Maybe the honesty, the refusal to gloss selfish sleaze as virtue or freedom, is refreshing even if the attitude itself is disturbing.

One might take the article as more evidence that sex has lost all meaning, becoming divorced not only from procreation but from any relationship. Yet the article also suggests that in a certain sense sex has gained greater meaning than ever.

It is first worth noting that pornography has become important for both men and women. The market among women for porn is said to be increasing, a claim the Fifty Shades phenomenon would seem to confirm. This does not mean its effects are equally distributed. For two years as a graduate student, I cycled almost every day through the docks in Aberdeen on my way to school. I thus had plenty of opportunities to observe at close range the human faces of those allegedly empowered by prostitution. I am no aficionado of postmodern feminist theory, but the women selling themselves on the street for their next heroin fix did not look to me to be particularly powerful. 

Why does porn have such allure? After all, it would seem to bring in its wake some brutal and unattainable demands which guarantee dissatisfaction and ultimate despair. A porn-saturated culture places pressure on women both to cling desperately to the vestiges of youth and, as Landesman suggests, to become more compliant to the selfish sexual demands of men. Ironically, it also places impossible demands on men: the need to spill vast silos of seed with the limitless abandon of an eighteen-year-old becomes a key measure of life itself. Regardless of one’s moral commitments, the physical work rate alone would seem to be off-putting. Yet still the cruel culture of pornography draws us ever onward.

Why has sex come to be seen as the central purpose of human existence? Is it just hedonism? A combination of Augustine, Pascal and Freud might provide the answer: Sex distracts us from death. Again, the Spectator article inadvertently points towards this. To put it as delicately as possible—the apparent growing preference for prepubescent sexual aesthetics among women (and presumably among the men in the sexual marketplace) may well offer worrying witness to, and reinforcement of, a rising predilection for pedophilia. But it would also seem to point just as plausibly to our current obsession with youth and denying the aging process.

Perhaps our obsession with sex is not really an obsession with sex at all. Perhaps it is really an obsession with death, to be avoided by remaining perpetually young or by tricking ourselves by sexual athletics into thinking that we do so. Yet whatever the aesthetics, sexual activity as a means for preserving the myth of eternal youth is always going to involve the law of diminishing returns and thus ironically prove a powerful witness to its own falsehood. It really does not matter how many orgasms you have, or how intense they are, you are still going to die.

Articles by Carl R. Trueman

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