WHAT IS WRONG WITH WATCHING PORNOGRAPHY?

Has pornography really become morally and socially acceptable? If a fluff piece reposted on the Herald website is any indication, the answer is: Yes, it has, and for your information, it is now opposition to pornography that is morally and socially abnormal.

The article in question informs us that an American woman by the name of Claire Dolton was recently pilloried online after jilting her fiancé for the stupidest of reasons. “And the reason?” asks lifestyle reporter Vanessa Brown and then answers her own question: “Well, the guy liked to watch porn—gasp!”

Consider that sarcastic, editorialising gasp. It leaves the reader in no doubt of Venessa’s opinion. Claire Dolton is a pearl-clutching prude and her decision to break up with her fiancé over pornography is absurd. If pornography is to be approached with any moral reservation at all (and it is not clear from Vanessa’s article that it should) then, presumably, it is on a level with double-parking and the late return of library books: A naughty foible unworthy of serious concern.

If it is absurd to be solemnly opposed to masturbation and pornography then the Christian Church has been absurd for twenty centuries. The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares that, “pornography does grave injury to the dignity of participants,” and lists masturbation as a mortal sin—where “mortal” means serious enough to destroy one’s relationship with God. Luther and Calvin believed likewise as is clear from their voluminous writings. And there is no possible reading of Matthew 5:27-28 (in which men are forbidden to, “gaze at a woman to lust after her,”) that does not proscribe pornography for any man who wishes to obey the teachings of Jesus. [1]

In the digital age, meanwhile, pornography has never been more abundant, more accessible and more accepted. [2] Clearly, then, there is a chasm between what the Church teaches and what society practices. In what follows it will be my concern to show that Christian teaching on this issue is morally coherent. My argument will be that the Church upholds and promotes an ideal of human sexuality that is most conducive to the production of virtue and happiness while forms of human sexuality that deviate from this ideal, and in this instance pornography and masturbation, are productive of vice and therefore morally wrong.

It Is Disordered

Let me begin with a modest claim about masturbation and pornography: It is highly doubtful that a good counterargument can be mounted against the view that it is disordered—where “disordered” is understood to mean, “contrary to the normal and healthy functioning or purpose of something”—in this case, human sexuality.

Clearly enough, a boy who discovers that he enjoys rubbing his genitals has not discovered the unitive and procreative ends towards which the motivating urge is directed. Who can deny that he still has an important further fact to learn about sex? Or, if the masturbator is an adult man, who can deny that what is missing from the room when he masturbates is as critical to the completion and fulfilment of human sexuality as is an opponent to a solitary man on a tennis court who wishes to play a game of tennis?

The theologian Peter Damian has even suggested that masturbation is a form of low-grade homosexuality—a point which entails masturbation is disordered ipso facto for heterosexual men whose sexual desires are directed at the female sex. [3] I will admit that I initially laughed at Damian’s suggestion—but it is nevertheless reasonable on reflection. For consider what is happening when a man masturbates: In a room in which a woman is nowhere to be found, a male hand is bringing a penis to orgasm—so be it that the hand and penis belong to the same man. In The Porn Trap, Wendy and Larry Maltz make the further point that, for this very reason, heterosexual boys have always tried to use pornography to “heterosexualize” masturbation,

Rather than focus on the fact that they are stimulating male genitals, they can focus on the reassuring presence of a female.

The obvious qualification that no female is actually present gives the lie to the attempted deception: For in the final analysis masturbating to heterosexual pornography is no more a form of “heterosexual sex” than a shoe is “food” if while eating it I look at pictures of bread.

Here an objector may simply allow that pornography and masturbation are disordered and ask: Is what is disordered necessarily wrong? Thomists think the answer to this question is Yes and their position, called Natural Law Morality, is not as easy to refute as you might think. But showing that masturbating to pornography is wrong does not depend on a defence of Natural Law Morality. There are far less scholastic and more obvious objections at hand.

It Is Paradigmatically Selfish

That the act of sexually pleasuring yourself is paradigmatically selfish is, I hope, fairly obvious. John Paul II, in his Theology of the Body, argues that, “pornography and masturbation represent the destruction of the symbolic and nuptial meaning of the human body.” For, as he says, “God gives all men and women erotic energy,” that, “forms part of that attraction between men and women.” That, of itself, is a profound good. But it follows that,

Sexual energy needs to find its outlet in love, not lust: In masturbation that erotic energy is turned in on oneself. Masturbation, therefore, is a symbol not of love but of loneliness.

Here an atheist reader will object that I have smuggled God into my argument. But the point is scarcely affected by the substitution of “Nature” for God as the origin human erotic energy. It is an obvious general truth that when the pleasure of sex is shared it opens one up to erotic and romantic affection and, ultimately, family love. Thomas Nagel, himself an atheist, sees this reciprocity as being what is essential to human sexuality.

Nagel proposes that sexual interactions in which each person responds with sexual arousal to noticing the sexual arousal of the other person exhibit the psychology that is natural to human sexuality. In such an encounter, each person becomes aware of himself or herself and the other person as both the subject and the object of their joint sexual experiences. Perverted sexual encounters or events would be those in which this mutual recognition of arousal is absent. [4]

On Nagel’s criterion viewing and masturbating to pornography would qualify as, “perverted sexual events” since there is not and cannot be a mutual recognition of arousal between two conscious selves.

It Therefore Impedes Virtue

Consider, by contrast, a man in a loving and monogamous marriage who refrains from pornography and masturbation. Such a man constrains his sexual activity to one woman with whom he is in love. He thereby enjoys the imposition of what is probably one of the few constraints upon the male libido that is stronger than the male libido—love itself. In other words, a loving husband who enjoys sexual release with the woman he loves and in no other way quickly discovers that in the interests of cherishing and respecting her he will frequently need to overcome and set aside his carnal urges—to give up on the idea of fulfilling some erotic fantasy that his wife finds embarrassing, for example; or to give up on the idea of having sex altogether in order to nurse his wife because she feels unwell. In this way, over time, and by force of habit, his love and respect for the other must operate against and surpass his strongest instinct for pleasure. And as Plato said, “A man becomes brave by acting bravely.” He means that we shape our moral character over time by our moral choices. The implications of this should be obvious

You might object here that a loving husband who does not so constrain himself does all these things too only he also masturbates to pornography in private from time to time—perhaps the better to control his carnal urges. But this objection entirely misses the point. For the man who has an orgasm whenever he wants and with whatever fantasy or pornographic aid he wants does not enjoy any inter-personal constraint upon his sexual release. C. S. Lewis understood this well when he wrote,

The real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete and correct his own personality in that of another and turns it back; sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides … For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover; no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity.

And It Promotes Vice

Much of what I have said so far could be applied to masturbation alone. But masturbation is almost always coupled with pornography abuse—and this is much graver. Lewis himself wrote well before the spread of online pornography. But his warning has only become more relevant and more urgent.

It is logical: You cannot love, respect and will the good of another human being and simultaneously find pleasure in watching them do something harmful or have something harmful done to them. The question arises: Is choosing to become a pornographic actress a good thing for a woman to do?

The question can be brought home by imagining that your mother, sister, daughter or wife is the woman in question. Sexual intercourse has the potential to be the most wonderful experience of human life—from its romantic and unitive force in a loving relationship to its production of children and so of family love. Contrast this with the life of a pornographic actress for whom sex and love are alienated so that her body can be objectified for profit.

If you cannot with perfect equanimity entertain the prospect of one of your female loved ones becoming a pornographic actress then you are morally compromising yourself every time you watch and masturbate to pornography. For to enjoy pornography and masturbation one has to follow the opposite moral path of the man who constrains his sexual activity to one woman with whom he is in love; namely, he has to allow his sexual desires to eclipse his love and respect for the other; he has to view woman and girls with limited financial and emotional agency as objects worthy to be used and misused for the sake of his own sexual enjoyment. And to do so—and to make a habit of doing so—is, Plato reminds us, simply to become a perverse, selfish, callous and unloving person.

This argument holds with respect to any form of pornography whatever; but it holds a fortiori with respect to the sort of pornography that has become almost normative online in recent times. There are various studies that can now be found on the prevalence and frequency of verbal and physical aggression towards woman in pornographic videos today. A fairly typical example reviews 304 popular videos and reports that,

88% of scenes contained physical aggressive behavior, such as choking or hitting, and 49% contained verbal aggression, mostly name calling. Almost all (94%) of aggressive behavior was directed towards women and elicited a positive or neutral response.

The Herald itself should know better. A month before it posted the above article, it ran a story on an online discussion among pornographic actresses in which it was revealed that, “rape, abuse and exploitation are shockingly common.” And when it is remembered that viewing pornography online produces ad revenue for those that promulgate it, it is not an exaggeration to say that men who view pornography are helping to fund the rape, abuse and exploitation of vulnerable women and girls. In this light, Claire’s mortification at her fiancé’s enjoyment of pornography does not seem quite so absurd.

The coherence of Christian teaching on this subject is, I believe, a small item of further evidence for the truth of the Christian Faith.

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[1] In this article I address myself to the problem of heterosexual men viewing heterosexual porn with a focus on the exploitation of women. This is because it is primarily men that view porn and it is primarily woman who are exploited. However, the same arguments could with very little need of emendation account for viewers and actors of any gender and orientation.

[2] The Broadcasting Standards Authority would likely agree with Venessa Brown—having decided that a show in which headless human beings are selected worthy or unworthy of romance by an examination of their genitals was fit for prime time New Zealand television. You can read about their decision here.

[3] For the coherence of Christian teaching on homosexuality see Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy by Richard Swinburne, p.303-306.

[4] Quoted from this article on the Philosophy of Sexuality.