David Russell Mosley
21 June 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire
The other day as I was scrolling through various social media I came across a picture of food (shocking, I know). After the caption there was the hashtag #foodporn. This got me thinking of other times I’ve been on social media and a person has shared a poem or song lyrics and appended the hashtag #wordporn. This got me thinking. What precisely are we trying to say? What is the connection between these images/words and pornography? And why, when so many studies discuss the deleterious effect of pornography on our brains (let alone on our minds and bodies), do we associate the word porn with both images and stories that are meant for arousal with pictures of food and poetry? Why do we do this?
I cannot claim to have a full answer, and admit that I am coming from a place of knowing first hand why pornography is bad––I will not now recount how I was first introduced to pornography by a friend’s dad at my friend’s birthday party when we were not more than 9 or 10. Yet I think I have begun to see part of the problem. You see, I think somewhere along the line we have confused beauty and gratuity with pornography. Even when I write or think the word gratuity is my mind immediately taken to Wayne’s World and the caption “Gratuitous Sex Scene” pops up as Wayne begins making out with his girlfriend. The scene is played for laughs, since no sex is shown and yet Wayne is aware of the caption, and yet it colored my understanding of gratuitous (this is also true of films that are said to have gratuitous violence). You see, I think we’ve been trained to think the word gratuitous means simply excessive or unnecessary in a negative sense.
Now this is a proper usage of the word gratuitous, but it is not its only meaning. A quick look at the Oxford English Dictionary will show you that the first definition of gratuitous is, “Freely bestowed or obtained; granted without claim or merit; provided without payment or return; costing nothing to the recipient; free.” Poetry, art, culinary delicacies are gratuitous. They’re even gratuitous in the sense of being unnecessary (we could exist without them, maybe, but that’s a subject for another day). Yet the connotation is not meant to be a negative one. Poetry is gratuitous, gourmet food is gratuitous and in this way can they echo the very gratuity of creation. They are unmerited gifts from their creators to us. Creation is an unmerited gift from the Holy Trinity to us. I would argue that while pornography is gratuitous only in the second definition (“Done, made, adopted, or assumed without any good ground or reason; not required or warranted by the circumstances of the case; uncalled-for; unjustifiable”) and with only the negative connotations, it is not gratuitous by the first definition. It is not free; there is a cost. But what about beauty?
Beauty and gratuity often go together in this day and age (and likely in many of those that came before). A work of art is often both beautiful and gratuitous. It is gratuitous precisely because it is beautiful. It has form and no utilitarian function, or at least it can (art can have many functions and meanings, after all). So these poems, these dishes which we share with the hashtag #word/foodporn, are beautiful. It is their beauty that, through their gratuity, causes us to associate them with pornography. And yet pornography is not beautiful. Whether one is watching or seeing images of professionals with stylists, makeup artists, and surgical enhancements; or whether one is watching amateurs imperfect as the majority of us are, what we are watching is not beautiful. Rather it is the privation and perversion of something beautiful. For friends, sex is beautiful. It is a gift (therefore gratuitous) from God. Whether one agrees with Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, and others who see both sexual differentiation and sex itself merely as God’s expediencies given to us because he knew we would fall or not, it remains a good and beautiful gift. But it is a gift that has boundaries, things that take it from being beautiful to being ugly if ignored and this is precisely what pornography does. One could, and should, argue that art or food or any other human creation that is uncalled for or unjustifiable but is truly beautiful is justified on that account.
So, I call on us to reconsider our use of terms like foodporn or wordporn. If these images and words are not meant for inordinate arousal, they are not pornographic and we should not seek to normalize the word porn by associating with the gratuitous and the beautiful. If we truly want to do something about the pornography problem, the sex work problem we face (and it is very real and often includes human trafficking), then we need to disassociate the gratuitous and the beautiful from the pornographic.