Anyone who has been involved in pastoral ministry during the last decade will be acutely aware that internet pornography is one of the great scourges of contemporary society. And one does not need to be religious to believe that. In her recent book, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, Louise Perry includes a chapter summarizing pornography's effects on relationships, sexuality, and physical health. She also points out the obvious connections to sex trafficking and exploitation. And yet voices that claim to be conservative still make crass and ill-informed comments on the topic.
The most recent one of note is Dennis Prager. In conversation with Jordan Peterson, he claimed that pornography is “not awful” when used by husbands in tandem with, rather than in place of, a normal sexual relationship with their wives. Thankfully, Denny Burk has provided a clear refutation of Prager’s take in a column at World Opinions.
Many aspects of Prager’s comment are disturbing, not least his failure to address the dark nature of the pornography industry itself. But it is also instructive, because it exposes the superficiality of some of what passes for conservative thought today. Prager’s statement reveals that he lacks a real grasp of what is causing the social and political problems that he claims to abhor: We live in a time of anthropological chaos, where the very notion of what it means to be human is no longer a matter of broad social and political consensus.
Pornography is a great example of this. Behind the problems that should have been obvious to Prager—the objectification of other people, the human trafficking, the transformation of sex into something that is self- rather than other-directed, the reduction of the participants to instruments of pleasure for the spectators—lies a basic philosophy of life that sees me, my desires, and my fulfillment at the core of what it means to be human. Pornography is thus part of an anthropological shift that manifests itself most obviously in sexual mores but is far more comprehensive in its significance.
Everyday language hints at this. There has been an interesting shift in English idiom over recent years from the language of “making love” to that of “having sex.” The former—which today may even sound a little quaint—speaks of an act that can only take place between two people who know and love each other and which has at its core the act of giving. It is deeply relational and the parties involved are selves, not merely bodies. That this phrase has been supplanted by the latter, which requires no necessary relationship between the parties and connotes not giving but taking, reflects a foundational change in social attitudes to sex that rest upon radical therapeutic individualism. Others have become instruments, means to one’s own selfish end. One can only make love to a lover. But one can have sex with anybody. Or indeed any body.
Now, sex and pornography are the most dramatic examples of where this plays out, but they do not exist in isolation from broader considerations of what it means to be a human person. Therefore those, like Prager, who see pornography as having a legitimate function are complicit in this shift. And this change underlies no-fault divorce, gay marriage, and (in its subordination of the body and its functions to the individual’s sense of well-being) even transgenderism. It is foundational to the progressive cause. To concede here is to concede everywhere.
Roger Scruton saw modern art as focused upon a desecration of the human form. I hesitate to call the fare purveyed by PornHub “art,” but such videos are cultural artifacts that project a vision of what it means to be human. And they surely present it as a desecration of the human form whereby selves are reduced to bodies and bodies are reduced to raw material, to be used and abused in any way that satisfies. If you see pornography as morally neutral and consider its moral value to be found in the way it is used rather than in the acts it involves, the manner in which it is produced, and the philosophy of being human that it projects, then you are no conservative. You are complicit in the desecration of the human form and in the erasure of what it means to be human. Failure to see that simply reveals how philosophically superficial your brand of “conservatism” is.
The conservatism that markets itself through soundbites and “hot takes” might work well as light entertainment on Twitter or YouTube, but it will really offer no deep diagnosis of our contemporary cultural problems. Nor will it do anything more constructive than “triggering the libs” whilst reassuring the faithful. To truly move forward, conservatism needs people who think beyond the immediate symptoms of our current malaise and who can present a compelling vision of what it means to be truly human. Our problems lie at the level of the cultural imagination and the anthropology embedded therein. It is a shame that Prager seems to have missed the obvious: that a society that mainstreams pornography is a society in anthropological crisis.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized Dennis Prager as speaking about normative Judaism. In the video segment, he prefaces his remarks about pornography with the caveat that he is not giving a “religious answer.” Religious or not, this is not germane to my argument. I stand by my judgment that it is very disturbing that Prager fails to recognize the grave evil of pornography, whatever the circumstances of its use.
Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
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Images by Gage Skidmore licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.