Back in college, before he was a successful lawyer and practicing Catholic, a friend of mine was at his fraternity house one night, partying with his friends while they waited for a stripper to arrive. And arrive she did, beginning her performance only to catch my friend’s eye. She froze. So did he. They had been in high school together. She gathered up her things and fled.
There’s something almost quaint about this story. It could have taken place in the 1990s or the 1890s. It involved a live sex performance with real flesh-and-blood human beings. And when their gazes met, she and he suddenly knew the same thing: This was a woman with parents, and siblings, and maybe children, and certainly friends, and a history, which presumably once included dreams that had gone horribly wrong. She even had enough shame—more shame than he did, at the time—that she would not dance for someone who knew her real name.
Something different, I think, lives in our more recent Internet-based pornography. Apologists for pornography say it has always been with us. There is, for them, a direct descent from Roman graffiti to Renaissance literature to live webcams.
Maybe. But these always involved a community of some sort: You had to sit in the theater for the stag show or XXX movie; you had to show your face to the clerk or older peer and ask for the magazine; you had to go to the frat house that night. But not now. The providers of pornography have so mastered the art of marketing their wares according to the three A ‘s—accessibility, affordability, and anonymity—that no one ever has to know. The Internet is an essentially gnostic, disembodied medium: You can dispense ideas through it, but not sacraments, community embodiment.
We are so awash in pornography these days that most of us don’t recognize it anymore. Of Internet users in the United States, 40 percent visit porn sites at least once a month. The number rises to more than 70 percent when the audience is men aged eighteen to thirty-four. The Internet has long been a driving force for the porn industry, pushing the bounds of access speed, streaming downloads, and file sharing. Now the cell-phone industry hopes porn will do for it what it’s done for the Web—make it very, very rich. The pornography industry brings in between $10 billion and $20 billion in the United States alone, and around $60 billion worldwide. (Hard numbers are hard to find, since cable giants and hotels chains are loathe to publicize their take from the skin industry.) That’s more than all professional sports. It’s three times more than Google, Yahoo, and MSN make in a year, combined.
But if you don’t go for numbers, try this experiment: Unplug. Don’t look at the Internet, television, or even print ads for a few days. As soon as you plug back in, you will see it again: skin everywhere. Porn is now mainstream.
When I tried the experiment, one of the first things I saw when I turned the TV back on was a commercial for a prime-time sitcom on one of the big-three networks in which a woman deflects a man’s proposition by saying that sleeping with her would mean also sleeping with her fiancé. “Is your fiancé, by any chance, a chick?” Play the laugh track.
A ménage a trois is commonplace in porn but not in your life, I bet. A recent stay at a hotel had me mindlessly flipping channels, bumping into a long commercial for Girls Gone Wild, the show in which drunk college co-eds strip for the camera in exchange for a hat or a T-shirt and a bit of fleshy fame (its founder, a thirty-year-old making $30 million a year, is now in jail for filming underage women). The ad had the key parts (barely) scrambled, but it didn’t matter—the pornographic effect was the same. And that’s tame compared to what was available on the hotel’s “On Demand” station. Even if you don’t like stats, you’ll be impressed with this one: Half of hotel-room patrons purchase pornography there. Porn isn’t sleazy anymore. It’s ABC, Time Warner, and the Holiday Inn.
The omnipresence of pornography eclipses any sort of recognizable freedom. To board my afternoon commuter train, I walk past an advertisement for Apple Vacations in which a bikini-clad woman is playfully photographing the viewer. The position of her arms is such that her breasts are at my eye level and life-size. Only the blind could avoid it. As I see it, I wonder how my children will learn about sex. From their parents? From church? From Apple Vacations ads?
Probably they’ll get their education from the Internet. One survey suggests that 90 percent of eight- to sixteen-year-olds have viewed pornography online. Ninety percent. The average age of one’s first exposure to Web porn is eleven. What kind of freedom is it in which your preteen’s first exposure to physical love, which religious people generally take to be a holy mystery close to the heart of who we are as God’s creatures, comes at the hands of the sleaziest spewers of lies making the handsomest profit off smut in history?
Some would laugh and say that my Apple Vacations ad is not pornography. Indeed, Pamela Paul’s extraordinary 2005 book, Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families, reports that many college-age kids don’t even think of Playboy as porn—it’s far too mild. What porn requires these days is actual penetration. Now eleven-year-olds learn about sex on the Internet by receiving an unsolicited emailed link about bukkake, a Japanese cultural treasure exported here in a computer’s nanosecond, in which groups of men all ejaculate on or in a single woman simultaneously.
There’s something tired about religious figures decrying pornography. Christian magazines and ministers are supposed to broadcast jeremiads about visual fornication. In fact, our condemnation is part of pornography’s appeal for its users. And, as it happens, they are often us: In a landmark 2000 Christianity Today survey, 40 percent of clergy acknowledged visiting pornographic websites; another survey in 2002 reported 21 percent do so regularly. A 2002 survey at Pastors.com reported that 50 percent of pastors had viewed pornography in the previous year.
Skeptics of religious and political conservatives often smell hypocrisy in this, and they’re not far wrong. Eric Schlosser’s recent book Reefer Madness, which includes a long section on the economics of porn, is full of examples of public opponents who privately indulged in the skin trade, not least Anthony Comstock, instigator and enforcer of some of America’s first antiobscenity laws in the 1870s. The fundamentalist, peering into others’ mail, is, according to Schlosser, merely playing out his own “compulsion to masturbate” while thundering against the “Infidels, the Liberals, and the Free-Lovers” who support smut.
Of course, advocacy for social justice and pietistic practices of holiness are not intrinsically opposed. A labor-organizer friend of mine, describing her organizing in Florida with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, mentioned almost offhandedly that the most difficult part was getting the workers off Web porn and into the union.
Still, even the fact that some opponents of pornography have been hypocrites offers a theological insight. Many of the porn-consuming pastors grew up, no doubt, in zealously evangelical homes in which fornication was regularly condemned. What was so interesting that pastor and mom and dad were so desperately keen to keep from them? The drama of the Fall is played out as they indulge in a bit of cyber-fantasy, whether as naughty teens or as burnt-out, codependent, self-indulgent pastors. “I deserve this—all those years of school, my tiny salary, all the petty badgering I get at home and at church. At least these women ask nothing of me.”
The answer, say some, is to lift the restrictions. Cut out the obscenity laws and demand will wither. So argues Schlosser, for instance, with Hustler’s Larry Flynt as his witness. In Denmark, slashing of antiobscenity laws in the 1970s led to a quick spike of interest and then a continuous decline, which would be more precipitous still if not for foreign tourists in Copenhagen. Schlosser cites a study of the effects of Denmark’s change: “The most common immediate reaction to a one-hour pornography stimulation was boredom.”
Perhaps he’s right, and European countries that feature nudity in prime time and on newsstands and explicit porn on noncable television have less of an interest-building stigma to entice pious children. But the problem is this: Porn works . One has to be trained to see it as banal, either through desensitization or through the reordering of desire so that the eye catches what is genuinely beautiful and ignores the rest. In the meantime, thousands will model, hundreds will profit handsomely off it, and billions will have their desires malformed, including our children and pastors.
Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, Virginia, has made the most theologically substantial response to pornography of any recent ecclesiastical figure I know. He reflects most helpfully on the “gift of sight.” Thinking of the Sermon on the Mount, Loverde lands on the promise of eschatological vision: “Our natural vision in this world is the model for supernatural vision in the next. Once we have distorted or damaged that template, how will we understand that reality?”
This takes on greater poignancy when we remember that beatific vision has traditionally been a way of speaking of salvation itself. So it is not just the posture of the scold from which Loverde intones, “Those who engage in such activity . . . deprive themselves of sanctifying grace, destroy the life of Christ in their souls, and prevent them from receiving Holy Communion until they have received absolution through the Sacrament of Penance.” His words are a diagnostician’s words: This activity yields that result. “The human person progressively builds or destroys his or her character by each and every moral choice.” When one’s gaze is directed askance, “one becomes the kind of person who is willing to use others as mere objects of pleasure.”
Would that others could speak with as much confidence as Rome’s bishops. We mainline Protestants rarely mention pornography at all, and our near silence is striking. My sense is that it stems from fear of sounding “conservative”—Catholics and evangelicals harrumph about the lad mags: We don’t like them either, but let’s not be prudes.
Pamela Paul’s Pornified shows just how dated this laissez-faire attitude is. Today’s porn is not the naughty deck of playing cards your great uncle owned. Paul’s extensive conversations with habitual porn users focus especially on Web addicts, commonly defined as those who view Web pornography for more than eleven hours a week (a quarter-time job). Online you can get gorgeous models to do whatever you want; in real life, you’re a loser with no friends. One middle-age man laments to Paul that he has wasted, all told, three years of his life on Web porn. Dante could have thought of no worse hell. Christians of all types, mainline included, should care.
Some do. The Evangelical Covenant (formerly the Swedish Covenant, a pietistic offshoot of the Lutherans) has issued an impressive pastoral letter about pornography, complete with the appropriate adjectival wail in the wilderness—“epidemic.” It turns then to Scripture’s use of the relationship between clothing and sin: Adam and Eve’s effort to cover themselves reveals their sin. St. Paul speaks of stripping as what we do with our old nature in baptism. The suggestion is that we have resources to combat this plague if we attend to the richness of our own scriptural and liturgical language.
The Covenant has noticed overlap between how pornographers talk and act and how the Church does. So, for example, the Darwinian claim is often made that men are biologically wired to desire sex with more than one partner. What then could be more natural than porn? Notice: A theological claim is being made here, which clearly competes with Christian anthropology. Or, for another example, the claim is often made that our sex life needs spicing up lest we become bored. Early Christian catechists, like Augustine, worried about the same problem in church: how to vary teaching enough to keep listeners interested when they’ve heard it all before.
Early Christians were baptized nude. It is one of the most striking images from the early Church, all the more so given our forebears’ supposed repression and our age’s proud liberation. When Paul says we are those who “have stripped off the old self with its practices” and been clothed “with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness,” ancient Christians took the language literally enough to remove their outer garments and emerge from the water as naked as the day they were born and then be covered with a white garment, symbolizing the purity of the eighth day of creation.
Perhaps it should not surprise that ancient Christians were comfortable with earthy talk of nakedness. Many of today’s churches have bought the culture’s lie that religion is not about sex or anything else of much importance. But, as theologian Sarah Coakley has so brilliantly said, ancient Christian reflection on desire shows that Freud is exactly wrong: Talk about God is not repressed talk about sexuality; talk about sex is, in fact, repressed talk about God. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, porn users are not to be rebuked for desiring too much but for desiring too little.
I remember a friend who was frankly unapologetic about wanting to continue to sleep with women though he was unmarried. I responded that God wishes a love affair with him more rapturous than that with any woman. I had in mind St. Augustine’s key vision of Lady Continence in the Confessions : “serene and cheerful without coquetry, enticing me in an honorable manner to come and not to hesitate.” Augustine, now convinced intellectually that Christianity is true, desirous to join the Church but unready to give up sex (“make me chaste but not yet”), realizes that continence is more lovely than any woman, more fruitful, with the greatest promise of satisfaction of his desire without regret. I told my friend as much, and his end of the phone went quiet for a long moment. “Uh, right,” he said. “Exactly how does that work?”
Second-generation feminists opposed to porn often argued that it leads to rape. Not so, as porn defenders in places like Slate.com have shown: Porn users may be staying home to masturbate rather than attacking women in the street. In fact, porn may be behind the general dampening of libido in our culture. Did everyone need Viagra and its competitors before it was invented and pushed on us? Maybe not, because they weren’t satisfying themselves online so much. A magnificent article in New York magazine in 2004 says enough by its title: “Not Tonight, Honey. I’m Logging On.” An accompanying article by Naomi Wolf describes a friend who converted to Orthodox Judaism and moved to Israel. Her long, gorgeous hair was covered; her bedroom was off-limits even to her children. “And I thought: Our husbands see naked women all day, in Times Square if not on the Net. Her husband never even sees another woman’s hair. She must feel, I thought, so hot.”
Wolf has written elsewhere of the effects of our culture’s warped ideas of female beauty on ordinary women and girls. The naked and basically naked women on our airwaves have certain advantages over normal women: airbrushing and silicone and anorexia chief among them.
In fact, the models in porn suggest a kind of morbid preference for youth, another symptom of our culture’s sheer terror of age and death. Ever younger models (websites often have names like “barely legal”), shaved private parts, unnatural skinniness, all suggest a truly macabre longing for youth. No wonder more ordinary wives and girlfriends and daughters come to loathe and abuse their actual bodies. It has been suggested that many college men, having been habitual porn watchers for all their short lives, treat their girlfriends like so many bad imitators of porn. Naomi Wolf writes, “When I came of age in the seventies, it was still pretty cool to be able to offer a young man the actual presence of a naked, willing young woman.” Not now. “Today, real naked women are just bad porn.”
Christians have resources with which to aid this recovery of genuine eros, though they’re a bit dusty at present. I think here that Orthodox iconography, when done right, is beautiful beyond words. It had better be: Worship bears the Church up to heaven into the presence of God. Liturgy is a drawing out of our true selves, our best selves, in union with God in reflection of God’s union with us in Christ through the Theotokos. It’s erotic in a chaste sort of way.
Protestants are not without resources here as well. Our great gift to the Church universal, the hymn, is surprisingly sexually charged, when done right. In summer revivals in small Southern churches, the piano belting a tune and all crooning like David before the Lord, people get saved not just because of manipulation but because the experience is physically glorious—no wonder the stories are legion of kids spooning in the woods or of entertainers making their starts in little backwoods hymn sings. Surely there are resources there. But how does it work? Surely it’s more complicated than giving a horny kid an icon and teaching him how to pray before it or setting him down in an uncomfortable pew for a revival. Or is it?
When I’ve taken retreats to Catholic monasteries, I’ve been aware of how surprisingly, and even frighteningly, erotic they seem. The Trappists of Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, worship in an exquisitely beautiful place: high white walls, cold stone floors, a slit in the side of the main sanctuary like a split in the universe through which the reserved sacrament is always visible. The great stone altar is big enough to sacrifice Isaac on. Candles flicker on the bronze face of Our Lady during Compline, and dozens of men chant the Salve Regina before the abbot dismisses with a flick of his wrist and a sprinkling of holy water. Pure desire for God could be wrung from the place like a wet towel. And one can begin to see how sex with another person could be given up for desire for God or made better by mutual longing for God.
There are treasures here with which we can become reacquainted to combat pornography, if we dare. And we may not: Moderns flinch when St. Bernard of Clairveaux seeks to progress up Jesus’ body, kissing his way up to his lips; when Bernini sculpts St. Theresa in the posture of orgasm; when ancient Christians stripped and spit and had their faces hissed at in exorcism before submerging, nude, to be born again.
A friend of mine likes to say that the Christian answer to pornography is soup kitchens. All our senses are engaged there in community with others for the sake of serving Christ in the poor. What could be more erotic? That is, what more could draw us out of ourselves toward another? We have these parts, these desires, for a reason: to love and be loved by God.
Jason Byassee is assistant editor of Christian Century.