I have some random thoughts on some problems related to pornography. Porn constitutes a huge problem, but I have had an increasing and nagging suspicion that it is not the kind of problem that we tend to think.
But before I begin, I want to anticipate and head off several slanders. The first is that to diagnose a different disease than the other doctors is not the same thing as getting out the pom-poms and cheering on whatever disease it might happen to be. I once wrote an editorial for Credenda that argued that if crimes were committed in the making of pornography (the clearest example being that of child porn), we ought not to make the filming of it against the law, but rather use the film as evidence in the prosecution of the real-time offense. This is what we do when drunk teenagers video-tape themselves burglarizing a store, for example. But this was taken by some astute thinkers on the Internet as an approval of the pornography.
In the second place, I acknowledge that there is a prima facie difficulty with pastors writing essays that could be entitled, “What I Think of the Pornography I Have Seen.” If he has seen some, so the thinking goes, then he is a thundering hypocrite. And if he has not, he is a wowser and a bore. In neither case do we need to listen to him. Some of this is related to a point I will make in a moment, but let it suffice to say that there are other ways than these two to be informed enough to address the subject. When I was in the Navy, I lived in places where porn was the wallpaper of choice. In the eighties (during my activist political days) I filed some complaints against some porn merchants, which required looking at it to have something to put on the complaint. As a pastor, I have occasionally had to track down some gunk, and I have needed to do a good bit of reading on the subject from thoughtful cultural observers. And of course, like lots of other people in America, I have had spammers send missives to my computer that provoke a response along the lines of “Crikey!” In fact, just to show how things are these days, I have even had a bump-and-grind video clip sent to me by the traditionalists at the American Family Association, so that I would be outraged along with them.
All this said, there is something really strange and odd about the cultural phenomenon of pornography. Here is where I present my random thoughts, some of which make me think that things might be better than we think, and others that make me think it could be far worse.
The first thing is that we tend to argue that porn represents a massive degradation of sexual morals, when it might be better to say it represents a degradation of our cultural sexual manners (which of course, have a moral component). But my point is this. In 19th century London, the “red-light” district there was enormous. Huge. The sexual practices of many Victorian males would not bear close scrutiny, and the immorality was of the three-dimensional-break-the-seventh-commandment variety. And yet, when these same men were not busy whoring, they traveled in a cultured society where nothing in the conversation or manners would bring a blush to a refined maiden’s cheeks.
My question is this: is it possible that the ubiquitous pornography we see everywhere is functioning something like a nicotine patch? In other words, I am wondering who is less likely to actually cheat on his wife — a tightly-laced Victorian or a modern suburban husband who keeps the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition on the living room coffee table? A special note here for my Internet adversaries who like to read my blog in order to memorize (and be outraged by) every third word: I am aware that lust is a sin condemned by Jesus, and I am not in favor of this popular degradation of our manners. But I am interested in understanding what is actually going on. I was walking through Sears one time, and noticed some big advertisements up on the wall near the ceiling — some ladies in their, um, skivvies. And I wondered to myself what Jonathan Edwards would have thought if confronted with this same phenomenon. Now he would have thought he was in a brothel, and I would have told him that he was only in Sears. But he was a pastor also, and was not naive about what some people do in their spare time, and we both would disapprove of that the same way. So this difference between us would be in the realm of mores and manners. It never even occurred to me to boycott Sears.
My second random thought. A popular way of whipping the populace up (in order to get them to “take action”) is to report national problems in simple quantitative terms. In other words, we say things like “pornography is a $___ billions a year industry.” And from what I have read, I do not dispute the numbers. But we need to know far more than this to draw conclusions. We can all be bowled over when told things like “Americans consume three tons of butter a second” (to make up an example) but questions still arise. Since I do not observe butter orgies everywhere I go, such a statistic should just give me a better idea of how many Americans there actually are, and not how disproportionately we love our butter. Then, if you take a behavior that creates addicts, and say that we consume so much cocaine hourly, I know that this consumption is not occuring across the board, the same way that butter consumption is. Who are the repeat customers? Is pornography the multi-billion dollar a year industry it is because every American uses it in moderation (like the butter), or is it this way because a (compartively) small sector of the populace has no sexual self-control to speak of? A few years ago, The Atlantic Monthly published an impish set of statistics that showed the corollation between between porn rentals and sections of the country carried by Al Gore. The blue states were blue in more than one sense of the word.
Last observation, which requires further development later, but which I just want to mention in closing. This is what I suspect is one of the central problems of pornography. Not only is porn immoral, but it is immoral in two-dimensions, on a flickering screen. In other words, it is the red-light district of Euclidville. I suspect the real enemy here is gnosticism.