Carl Trueman has written several fine pieces lately on both the nature of and antidote to our cultural pornography addiction. His latest concerns the power of porn to reshape subconscious patterns of thought and, by extension, alter deeply held moral attitudes and actions.
Understanding Trueman’s point requires putting together two emerging facts about American sexual morality. First, many Americans are increasingly skeptical of any sexual moral norm except for one: consent. Violation of consent (indeed, even the possibility of its violation) remains the one sexual transgression that entitles the passing of a moral judgment. The second fact is that, as the success of 50 Shades of Grey demonstrates, Americans seem more willing than ever to explore the cruel and humiliating potential of sexual experimentation. It seems like a paradox: There is no sexual sin except abuse, except when someone wants abuse.
Trueman suggests that the answer to this riddle is pornography. The omnipresence and mainstreaming of pornography has done more than titillate us, Trueman writes, it has actually changed how we form our worldview:
[T]he principle of consent assumes at a minimum that individuals have sovereign rights over the range of purposes and uses to which their own bodies can be put. Yet the evidence of the impact of pornography on the brain indicates that the individual is not consciously in control of determining the nature of that range. Pornography alters the sexual desires and transforms the understanding of the body’s purpose not by ethical or even aesthetic persuasion. Rather it does so by altering the physiology of the brain itself, a process beyond the conscious control of the consumer of pornography, and which thus subverts the assumptions of the principle of consent.
One would not allow alcoholics to have the last word on liquor licensing laws or crack addicts on drug policy. Yet when it comes to sexual morality, that is the kind of world in which we now live.
In other words, the inmates are running the asylum. Christian philosophers have taught for years that an individual and a society’s ethical boundaries are formed from theological conclusions. But if what Trueman says is right–and I think it is–the American sexual ethic has not really been “formed” in the dignified sense but has sort of just emerged, the way cooking ingredients might emerge from curded milk.
Is porn affecting our politics? Absolutely it is. Research released a couple years ago showed that support for same-sex marriage among heterosexual men rose in proportion to how much pornography they consumed. Medical research also has revealed that pornography leaves a significant cognitive imprint on those who use it. Secularists may chalk all this up to nothing more than culture’s escape from Puritanism, but that conclusion is merely a cop-out. There’s no worldview synthesis that can make sense of the bedfellowship between same-sex marriage and 50 Shades; it’s just what’s there after sexual nihilism moves in.
Trueman’s post reminded me of one of my favorite lines from C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Talking about sexual morality and consumerism, Lewis remarked that a “man with an addiction is a man with little sales-resistance.” That’s it, isn’t it? Unquenchable thirst is a powerful thing. Sin crouches at the door desiring all of us, but we must master it.