Porn in Perspective

I went on a retreat with the other student ministers on campus over the weekend.  Overall it was a good experience, but one thing that really pissed me off was the fact that they split us up into men and women at night, not to talk about leadership in ministry or anything like that, but so that the girls could talk about shame, “emotional fornication”, and submission in marriage (a phrase which, in certain contexts, is guaranteed to make me nauseous), and so the guys could talk about—you guessed it!—pornography and masturbation.

First reaction: Ugh!  Are we really talking about this?

I mean, I get it: for some reason evangelicals have a huge problem overcoming this particular vice.  Closeted sexual issues in general have brought down many a pastor.  But you’d think after enough churches–probably since the advent of the internet–have been torn apart by this very issue, and after the startling amount of pastors, youth pastors, ministers, lay Christians and so on that have immense guilt complexes about this and yet find themselves unable to quit watching the stuff, we would have figured out that the approach we’re taking on the issue—that a mixture of accountability (read: confession) groups, prayer, and sheer force of willpower will lead us to healing—just isn’t working.

To me, pornography is another example of the breakdown of genuine and intimate human relationships exemplified in Scripture by the Fall.  The path of pornography for many men (and women!) is one toward deeper and deeper perversion and isolation.  But the Christian position against pornography must not be merely moralistic.  We have to understand that this problem is never an isolated one, but rather represents, I think, a breakdown in human community just like any other sin does.  The porn industry is a systematic exploitation of women (and men!), and every time you visit a porn site, guess what?  That site gets one hit.  And every hit increases the popularity of that site, which means that more advertisers will want to advertise there, which equals more revenue dollars for an industry whose very fuel is a mortal mixture of all kinds of sins: greed, lust, and envy, just to name a few.

But even further, I think that the desire for pornography, since it is born originially out of a good, healthy desire for love and intimacy, must be understood as a relational problem, not a personal one.  It means that we are somehow not a part of the community of brotherly and sisterly love and have gone renegade in order to seek that fulfillment elsewhere.  It is natural and appropriate for the masculine to desire community with the feminine.  The question is, how are you fulfilling those desires?  Is it by seeking real, genuine friendships (just friendships!  You don’t even have to date them!) with women, or is it by watching that poor, hollow, shell of a thing on your computer screen every few weeks?

If pornography is a problem about relationships between the sexes, then the answer to that problem is not going to be found in either a moralistic, bootstraps-pulling determination, not merely accountability groups with other men.  The prescription doesn’t match the diagnosis; it’s like putting in a pacemaker to deal with colon cancer.  What you need is real, genuine community with women.

Which is one of those things evangelicals seem to be lacking these days: real relationships between the sexes, romantic and otherwise.  When we separate our church activities into “men’s” and “women’s”, when we segregate small groups by gender, when we have an “elder’s board” and a “women’s board”, is it any wonder that we feel this way?  Is it any wonder that we find ourselves frustrated for the kind of community and intimacy which the Christian church is supposed to model?

Can you imagine if instead of confessing your porn use to your buddies every Thursday night, you met with a woman who was a victim of sexual abuse as a child, and had to tell her all the things you watched the other night?  What if you confessed your porn use to the women’s board at church?  Wouldn’t that change the game a bit?

Hmm.  These are incomplete thoughts.  Still thinking, always thinking.

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5 Responses to Porn in Perspective

  1. fin says:

    i nearly ralphed all over my keyboard when i read about what the women had to talk about.
    submission and marriage are two words that should never appear in the same sentence. ever. i’m sure you agree.
    i’m going to refrain from unloading on the whole idea of a women’s talk that covers any of the topics you mentioned. that’s not the point of this.

    PORNO!
    run for the hills! it’s coming in waves! it kicks puppies! it spits gum on the streets! it drives an SUV!
    common misconceptions about the adult entertainment industry, for those entirely unfamiliar:
    1) it exploits women.
    -it’s not that simple. the vast majority of women in porn are there because they want to be. i know it’s easier for people to think that women are shameful creatures who know not what they do, and are tricked into a life of (gasp) sin, but that’s not the case. some people aren’t bashful about sex, and want to make a fucking assload of money. porn is like any other capitalist venture. in terms of exploiting women? fashion does that much more than porn does. if someone’s concerned about liberating the image of a woman, they need to stop making them talk about their own shame and get them burning calvin klein ads. calvin klein is on billboards. adult entertainment is behind closed doors. which does more in terms of a woman’s image?
    2) adult entertainment is a horrible industry.
    -yeah it can be. but rather than treating women in adult entertainment like victims, helping them organize as a labour movement would help them out a hell of a lot more. strippers don’t need you to tell them what they do is bad. they need acceptance as legitimate labour so they can keep stage fees down and keep cameras out of dressing rooms. at this point, by shunning the industry as immoral, you’re only giving the owners more power to economically exploit their workers.
    3) porn causes sexual abuse and violence.
    -this is the classic andrea dworkin argument, that pornography leads to violence. i’m really sorry to bear the bad news, but studies reveal that this is not the case at all. viewing porn may desensitize people at the very most, but not always, and it certainly doesn’t cause people to become rapists. (the study i’m refering to is alice henry’s “does viewing porn lead men to rape?”)

    so. here we are. porn may not be an intimate relationship, but maybe that’s not the role it’s trying to fill. some people are alright with not substituting it as so. some people aren’t. i agree that this divide between men and women you describe at the retreat is backwards at best. but i think the issue of adult entertainment and the gender separation within the church might be two separate things.

    adult entertainment is capitalist. that’s about all that can really be said about it.

  2. fin says:

    this isn’t exactly a defense of the adult entertainment industry. we all know my feelings about capitalism.
    it definitely has serious issues: the way blacks are portrayed, for example. that needs some attention from within the industry, and some people are voicing their concerns, which is good.
    it’s really important, though, that we stop dealing with misconceptions as the norm, especially when it comes to pornography.
    only when we’re all on the same page can we start layin down the judgments.

    • urbanfall says:

      Hey fin,

      I take your point that porn and gender separation may be unrelated issues, I guess the point of this post was to try and explore the possibility of a connection between the two. The last couple paragraphs, especially, need more fleshing out.

      I think I agree with you on matters of political policy: getting things out in the open tends to help with creating just systems (Guantanamo, anyone?).

      I do insist, however, that watching someone have sex on a computer screen, when what you want is sex (which has, for me, greater than merely biological implications), is rather like watching the Food Network, when what you really need is real nourishment. That’s why I see it as a break in human relationships and thus, well, bad.

      As for misconceptions about the adult entertainment industry (talk about Orwellian circumlocution), well, you might be right, to a point. Most people, I think, would agree that some women are there for the money. Well, every man and woman is probably there for the money. The theological term “sin” isn’t limited to actions: it also comes in the existential and systemic variety. So while it is untenable to say that all porn stars are somehow duped into the industry by cunning recruiters, noting that people get involved for the money and aren’t necessarily victims doesn’t really help matters. Using sex to fuel greed doesn’t exactly exonerate the porn industry. The root of the problem is that pornography turns the human being into an object for someone’s pleasure apart from any kind of meaningful relationship. That’s sinful whether it’s in pornography or in any other context. Knowing that you’re doing it and being OK with it doesn’t make it any better.

      Probably the main point where we differ is that while you are concerned with whether or not the industry is just as a system, I’m more concerned about how it’s affecting the life of the individual. And I would find it very difficult to say that porn stars, directors, and producers are involved in “the industry” with no damage done whatsoever. Even though the industry could be set up to run justly, the fact is that the whole thing is build upon lust and greed. Participation in something like that, whether by producing it or by consuming it, isn’t going to take you to good places.

      Then again, who knows: maybe Ron Jeremy is the most well-adjusted, wise, and loving person ever to walk the earth.

  3. fin says:

    dude, i live in a world where i assume ron jeremy’s penis has the same powers as ET’s finger. wise and well-adjusted may not do him justice.

    unfortunately, in terms of this debate, it’s getting into difficult territory. you’re evaluating the merits of the industry from a theological perspective, and using terms like sin, and i can’t relate to that. at all. i try to but i don’t entirely understand what sin means in this context.
    let me break it down a little further:
    i cannot see how the adult entertainment industry is any more harmful than any other capitalist venture. you’re arguing that it’s a holding place for real human interaction and relationships, and to you that’s sinful, and i think i understand where you’re coming from in that regard. but i don’t think it’s that simple. i don’t see it as replacing human relationships. if you’re watching porn because you want sex, sometimes it’s because sex isn’t readily available. the person you have sex with, for example, isn’t around. let’s say they’re in macedonia trying to find a name for the country that the greeks won’t flip shit over. you have a human relationship, but it’s hard to have sex when you’re here and they’re in macedonia. excluding phone sex. maybe your partner isn’t all that into it. you’re back to square one.

    in terms of porn stars using sex to make money, again. capitalism. it’s not any worse than halliburton erecting shoddy hospitals in iraq to make money. i’m not really a fan of either. i think the recording industry, much like the adult entertainment industry, should probably be entirely eradicated. does this take away porn and records? no, but the rules of the game are a lot different at that point.

    as a last point, it’s true that what you’re saying is possible: people can use porn as a substitute for real human relationships. but that’s not 100% of the case. at all. arguing that it’s bad because that’s a possibility is tough.

    i think it’s bad because it makes a few people a hell of a lot of money.

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