Towards a New Argument Against Pornography

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Call me morally optimistic, but I think that most people have a basic intuition that pornography is bad. Sure, there are ideologues here and there who really believe that it’s healthy, doesn’t hurt anyone, improves your sex life, empowers women, and all the rest — but these voices have a faint, overly-defensive whine in the face of the growing complaint over the sex-lives of porn-watchers, the ill-health of porn-actors, and the immense wealth of pornographers.

Of the people who do not believe that pornography makes a person into a healthy, balanced, well-adjusted citizen, a few actively oppose it. Their arguments fall into two basic categories — the moral and the therapeutic.

Moral arguments are never hip. They call pornography evil, pointing out that it objectifies the human person, distorts sexuality, and encourages abuse. Therapeutic arguments have gained some traction. They call pornography an addiction, a disease, and a dopamine-fueled habit that could lead to erectile dysfunction. 

The therapeutic argument is palatable to a secular age, but I think people are less motivated by health than we might hope. An unhealthy habit is usually resolved, not by eradication, but by moderation. I’ve had friends defend their pornography use do it on precisely this basis —  as long their pornography use doesn’t “get out of hand,” all is well. It can be tough to recognize addiction in oneself when the thing one is addicted to is so readily available and comes without the grotesque social costs associated with drug or alcohol addiction. Locating the problem with pornography in “addiction” can be just as much a relief for those who want to continue watching pornography as a motivation for those who don’t.

These methods have merit, but still, 77% of Christian men watch pornography. Given that this subgroup is (surely) one of the most likely to hear arguments against pornography, I wonder whether we aren’t missing something. Both these methods are saying something true about pornography — that it is unhealthy and immoral — but the truth is that most people are easily resigned to being somewhat unhealthy and somewhat immoral. Our moral knowledge and our self-description as addicts hasn’t been enough to shake the numbers. For myself, the turnaround certainly didn’t come when I realized pornography was wrong. I always knew it was wrong. I simply added “watching pornography” to “ignoring the poor” and all the other acts that I knew to be wrong — but still did.

In Defense of the Moral Elitist

Why do we leave things behind? What motivates us to shuffle off a habit and say “never again?” When we realize something is bad for us, sure — but also when we realize that we are too good for something. Children stop sucking their thumbs and holding their blankets, not because these things are given negative values, but because they give themselves a positive value: “I am a big boy/girl now.” We give up listening to pop-punk, not just because we think it’s bad, but because we begin to recognize within ourselves a sense of taste that deserves more.

Elitism is an engine of moral growth. The Christianity that advocates humility does not annihilate it, but turns it inwards. We are no longer free to posture as better than our neighbors. Instead, we are to become better than ourselves. Christianity calls us to despise the aristocratic pose by which we place ourselves above the common stock of humanity by encouraging us to place ourselves over our own stock of habits, prejudices, and hatreds. This is the moral aristocratism that rings out in the words of Pope St. Leo the Great:

Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member.

In the end, the only thing that is going to supply a human being with the wherewithal to deny his own desire is the moral recognition that his desire is perverse. The starkness of the moral argument, the “thou shalt not,” is irreplaceable. It’s getting to that cliff-edge that has become difficult; arriving at the moment where one can call pornography darkness and unequivocally choose the light.   

For me, the turnaround came, not when I recognized pornography as evil or unhealthy, but when I could laugh at it as stupid. Once I felt the aristocrat within me scorn my own actions, the moral leap seemed genuinely possible. It was less akin to the moment of moral decision and more akin to the moment you first realized that your emo haircut was stupid. I realized that I was not on the side of pornography — I was too good for it. It was, in short, a conversion of taste, one that allowed me to take a critical distance towards pornography, and thus begin the fundamentally moral work of rejecting it.

The Conversion of Taste

How did this conversion of taste come about? The short answer is philosophy. The long answer is that a critical reflection on what pornography is, as fraught with temptations and difficulties as the task may be, makes the thing appear silly, lame, and desperate. Perhaps you’ve had this moment in another area of life. You really liked a pop song and showed it to your musical friend. Unfortunately, your friend was a hipster, and he pointed out: “That’s the exact same chord progression as every major pop song to hit the charts in the last 16 years. Coldplay wrote the vocal melody in 2002. It’s lyrics are trite. It was produced in Norway as a country song, repackaged in Sweden as a dance tune, and sold to an American record label who required their Pop Star to sing it, or be sued.”

“Shut up,” you said, “I just like it, and I don’t care about the details.” But then you went home and realized, with horror — your hipster friend was right. And though you tried to “unhear” the songs generic progressions and banal lyrics — you couldn’t. He ruined it for you. A critical look at what the song really was ruined the song for you.

I am advocating clear-headed look at what pornography is, in all its inner workings — an aesthetics of pornography from the side of the resistance. I will not deny my prejudice: I want to ruin porn for everyone; to inspire a conversion of perception that allows for a conversion of action. Conversions of this kind require frankness. They work best when someone you trust leans in and says “Look, man, don’t you think it’s sort of stupid when-” and you can’t help but agree; can’t “unsee”, “unhear”, or masturbate away the particular lameness he points out.

With statistics as damning as they are, one would think that a frank discussion would be simple enough. But somehow, one always ends up speaking to the 33% of Christian men who haven’t watched pornography in the last month. A conversion of taste requires seeing pornography as foolish and otherwise beneath you — but no one wants to admit to seeing pornography in any sort of detail. We criticize it in general terms. We say that it’s “unrealistic,” “obscene,” and that it “objectifies women.” But abstract criticisms, while they might be enough for a strong-willed type to make a moral decision, hardly allow us to disdain pornography. After all, we might be theoretically against all of those things — but still like unrealistic, obscene, objectifying pornographic images.

If you wanted to protect good people from seeing an evil and demeaning play, you might make the moral argument: “Don’t watch that play, it’s evil, it’s unhealthy.” But when all of your friends are watching the play once a week you need a different tact. You need someone who’s seen the play to say, “You know this moment? Isn’t it really infantile?” and “You remember this plot point? Wasn’t it totally a desperate attempt at relating to a younger audience?”

The one who has learned to laugh can let others in on the joke. We are taking pornography as a serious addiction and a serious evil, but salvation from a seriousness does not come from a deeper seriousness, but a deeper mirth — a peal of laughter which suddenly and remarkably finds oneself too good for something stupid. This seems like the “missing link” in the moral-therapeutic argument — the argument from taste.

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