If there’s any good reason to distrust the self-awareness of contemporary progressives, it's the cultural epidemic of pornography.
Of all the Sexual Revolution’s fruits, porn is arguably the one that has rotted fastest. It has defied the categorical wisdom of libertines by growing in users and extremeness, even as cultural mores against casual, commitment-free sex have eroded. Contrary to the predictions of many, porn has proven to be addictive and isolating. What was once promised as an end to slavish prudishness has instead ensnared millions in powerful neurological patterns, patterns that, if unabated, are conducive to the worst kinds of abusive and sadomasochistic behavior.
Despite much emerging data, including research on the psychological costs of addiction, it seems that the American left rarely talks about porn and culture. A celebrity iCloud hack or the firing of a schoolteacher tend to inspire a round of takes on body-shaming and feminism, of course. And occasionally a Game of Thrones episode will trigger a backlash against simulated rape. Otherwise, it seems that pornography is the pink elephant in the room for most mainstream liberals.
One glaring example of this can be found in a recent New York Times piece by Roni Caryn Rabin, an alarming profile on the growing popularity, among teenage girls, of genital cosmetic surgery. “Labiaplasties” are surging in demand among girls under 18, despite the warnings of doctors against the procedures. What could be driving this demand for perfectly engineered nether-regions? Here’s how Rabin’s piece answers:
These girls have come of age at a time when they can go online and look up images of the vulva, doctors say. But the images are often air-brushed and do not portray the range of normal variation in shape, color, size and asymmetry, experts say.
“I think the most important thing to understand is that there’s huge variety in anatomy,” said Dr. Veronica Gomez-Lobo, the director of Pediatric and Adolescent Ob/Gyn at MedStar Washington Hospital Center and the president of the North American Society for Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology. She often recommends young women look at unretouched photographs of vulvas, like those in the book “Petals” by Nick Karras.
This is an Olympic-quality hurdle. The “air-brushed” pictures mentioned in the second sentence are, obviously, not those of anatomy textbooks or health literature. It doesn’t take powerful deduction skills to realize that what’s being discussed here is pornography. So why is there a herculean effort to avoid mentioning it?
Perhaps Rabin or her editors were afraid that the word “pornography” would unnecessarily stigmatize or shame the girls seeking these dangerous procedures. That would be an understandable concern. But it’s also a deceitful one, and it gets to the heart of the divided mind that progressives display about a pornified culture. The motivations for labial surgery are easy to condemn because they violate our culture’s values of wellness and “body-positive” imagery. But the thing that shapes those motivations—pornography—is so morally ambiguous it ought not be mentioned at all. The unstoppable force of self-esteem has met the immovable object of sexual autonomy.
In an attempt to solve this riddle, some cultural elites are acknowledging that porn has negative effects, but describing these effects wholly in terms of neurology and behavioral science. That was the approach of Time magazine’s recent cover story, which gathered the testimonies of several young men who believed that years of watching porn had stunted their social and sexual growth. The Time piece was as close to a full-blooded critique of pornography as anything produced by a major media outlet in a long time, yet it too was characterized by confusion and equivocation—the complete absence, as Denny Burk noted, of a moral framework.
Because modern progressivism lacks categories of moral obligations for the isolated, autonomous individual, it cannot speak meaningfully to the pornography crisis. The best it can do is to correctly identify the anti-social effects of porn addiction. But even then, liberals are handicapped, since porn’s effects on relationships and social capital can only really be felt where those human bonds are still strong—such as monogamous marriages and covenant communities. A culture where meaningful mutuality is fraying and isolated and autonomous individualism is growing is a ripe host for the parasite of pornography.
This is precisely why Christians and churches must address this issue. As Carl Trueman put it, the sexual conscience of modern culture cannot do this, for the same reason that an alcoholic cannot be trusted to guard the expensive stuff. Our communities are suspended in midair, somewhere between the abolition of man and the nihilism of the labiaplasty.We hunger for something better. We were created for chastity and faithfulness, family and friendship. The tangling of flesh only satisfies when the soul has shriveled to its size. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see more than immaculately Photoshopped bodies. They shall see God.
Samuel D. James currently serves as Communications Specialist to the Office of the President at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. His writing has been featured in such places as TIME, World Magazine, The Gospel Coalition, 9 Marks, and more.