On our first post we stated that there was a definite problem with the way the Church and Christians treated pornography. Our second post was aimed at differentiating porn from other cultural artifacts of Western Civilization, and we have shown that there is a double standard where some cultural artifacts are treated in one way, and porn is treated in other way, despite having the same traits.
I would like now to turn our attention to some arguments employed against porn. I shall try to debunk some, but there is at least one that is, in my opinion, valid. On the other hand, some of the “debunkable” arguments are worrisome in the sense that they may easily become a tool for destruction and misuse of power: they are like empty shells, full of nothing, but able to carry anything that the argument-wearer wishes to load in it.
The arguments against porn that I intend to analyze are six:
- Porn presents women as mere objects.
- Porn is demeaning/degrading to women.
- Porn presents you a totally unreal image of women.
- By using porn, you are a pervert; and it may turn you into a even worse pervert.
- Porn may dry up your sex life.
- Porn is ugly.
- Consumption of porn is a sin.
As usual, the usual placeholder for any pornographic material shall be the generic name “Playboy.” I might use other names drawn from my experience or previous knowledge in case that more precision should be required.
Before we begin, I advise you to read the material with the customary discretion one affords to controversial and sensitive material. And please remember: these writings are strongly based on my experience and my points of view on the matter. Other people worthy of every respect may feel different, and I may add a lot of emphasis to some aspects that might shock you. Please bear with me.
Porn treats women as mere objects
This is the mother of all arguments against porn, and it is parroted everywhere by people who should really know better. Frankly, to see it mouthed in ignorant people is one thing, but seeing it put in books and magazines, and being used by preachers even at the Lord’s pulpit is repulsive.
The argument is more or less stated as follows:
Pornographic material presents women as mere objects, mere things serving the selfish purpose of arousing the viewer through the depictions presented. However, women are not objects. They are persons, bearers of God’s image, and they are to be treated as such and not as objects. Therefore, anything that presents women as objects should be illicit for a Christian, or anyone for that matter. Porn, presenting women as mere objects, should be forbidden.
We could also present this as a nice syllogism:
- All cultural artifacts presenting women as objects are illicit.
- Porn presents women as objects.
- Therefore, porn is illicit.
This is nice and comfy; but both premises are not true and therefore the argument should be discarded.
For starters, this argument assumes that pornography is just the production of pictorial material, when it is not: pornography may also take a wholly written form. Second, this argument assumes that pornography exists for heterosexual men only, when it is not: there is porn for both homosexual men and women, and there is porn for heterosexual women, too. So, does this mean that homosexual men are justified in consuming porn? Are women allowed to “read” Playgirl? Because it is safe to assume that there are no women being “objectified” in the artifacts of those porn categories… Consequently, porn as a cultural artifact does not necessarily present women for consumption and thus, it does not necessarily objectify women.
Furthermore, let us ask: is it safe to say that people depicted or described in pornographic material are being objectified? Maybe yes, or maybe not. They may be present there just for the sole pleasure of the consumer, and nothing more; but there is also a certain kind of opposite relationship. That is, the “Playboy centerfold” exerts a certain power and attraction that holds captive the consumer; and that may pass as an objectification, but of the consumer, not of the women depicted. Therefore, porn as a cultural artifact does not necessarily present women as objects. It may do so; but not necessarily. Therefore, premise 2 is false.
But let’s go a little deeper, and let’s ask the following question: is presenting something as “mere object” that bad? To everyone who thinks that the answer is yes, let me say this: I hate to break the news to you, buddy, but if anything is predicated, is an object. Our language and intellect apprehend beings as objects and thus, if we are to know someone he or she must be presented to our mind as an object. The only being totally incapable of objectification because it totally surpasses our knowing ability is God, the Pure Act of Being. But behind Him, most beings are game: the paper clip lying on my table, the Palestrina Mass sounding on my speakers, the book on my bedtable, my wife with her long brunette hair and beautiful eyes… those are all objects on my mind. Am I a sinner for that? Am I doing something illicit?
One could object, saying: “But in porn you have a woman posing there for the consumer’s pleasure. There’s nothing there for her sake; everything is made for the consumer’s profit. That’s what I mean when I say that porn makes mere objects of women.” What a nice thought; but this also fails. What about the woman showing her breasts in a breast cancer self-examination manual? Isn’t she an object, too? What would the difference be, as far as as objects are concerned? The centerfold is there for consumption by someone seeking arousal; the woman of the manual is there for consumption by concerned people. And in both cases, the outcome is a good: pleasure on one side, health prevention on the other. (Of course, the hierarchy of goods is something arguable; but that’s an wholly different question.)
Therefore, one may ask ad infinitum: How is a centerfold more of an object than, say:
- …a model in a Victoria’s Secret catalog?
- … a fashion runway model?
- … a movie actress?
- … a flight attendant or a waitress?
… and we could go on, and on, and on, listing endless occupations that are regarded as more or less honorable for women. If women in porn are being objectified, so are these women, and the only difference would be one of mere clothing (or even not). Consequently, objectification of human beings is not only licit; it is necessary for the process of human knowledge. It necessarily follows, then, that premise 1 is false.
To finish this, I could add a cynical argument that should be forbidden for a Christian; but it would be a valid objection coming from an unbeliever, and it also has some pastoral value: “I consume porn. Women are supposedly objectified there. Assuming that this is true, why should I care?” This objection shows that this argument lacks any utilitarian value. Although this is not allowed to Christians, it nevertheless may be an objection present in the minds of Christians targeted because they were found consuming porn. “Hey… you say that I am receiving all this misery because some stupid lady I don’t know is being made an object? Gimme a break!”
The “objects” argument, being invalid at both premises, is just an empty shell. Rhetorically speaking, this could be a device for masking other intentions into the discourse. “It’s not that you should not be consuming porn because it turns women into mere objects; you should not be consuming porn because you are a man and you should be punished by the Church for that fact. The only people naturally holy are women. Please consume porn, because this gives us a chance to go down on you real good, with no holds barred, and make an example of you for all the congregation.”
Scary stuff, isn’t it? But it is true. Just check what happened to that pastor of your acquaintance found with some spicy websites in his Internet browser history.
Porn is demeaning or degrading to women
This is related to the previous argument, and it could be considered as a broader, more general version of it. As a syllogism, it may be stated as follows:
- All cultural artifacts demeaning of women should be illicit, because women are worthy of respect as human beings.
- Porn is a cultural artifact that demeans women.
- Therefore porn should be illicit.
For the sake of discussion, let’s concede premise 1. This leaves us with premise 2, i.e., porn is something that demeans or degrades women. Is that so?
We must acknowledge the hard fact that this is right in many instances of pornographic material. If you, my dear reader, never laid your eyes on this kind of porn, you must thank God for His mercy in saving your eyes from such pile of despicable smut. Because I have seen it, and it is not a pretty sight. Sadly, this is the case of much of heterosexual explicit porn material. In it, women are used and treated just a little better than animals; and it horrifies me to think that someone could mistakenly take his cues on how to treat a woman from such pieces of crap.
However, and as much as the premise is true of some kinds of porn, it fails in many other instances. Let’s consider the low-hanging fruit: First, it naturally fails in the case of male homosexual pornography. How could you be demeaning women when there is not a female in sight? Second, it also fails in the case of female homosexual pornography, because if premise 2 is true, for each demeaned woman there is at least one being empowered. Third, it fails in the case of heterosexual pornography aimed at women, because if you concede that someone is being demeaned here, the demeaned one is a male, not a female.
Another instance where this premise fails is in the cases of: a) adult comics and b) written stories. How could you demean women when there are no actual women being demeaned? Of course, one may counter saying that the demeaning is done to the female species and not to the individual, because female forms are still being demeaned. And this brings us to the real question. Setting aside the crass example of most heterosexual explicit porn, does porn really demeans women? It doesn’t seem so to me.
1. If you look at Playboy, our porn icon, you shall see beautiful ladies posing as if they were in a Victoria’s Secret catalog, only with slightly less clothing (or even not). Production is equally expensive, glossy, and of a high standard. In my view, the difference is merely one of degree, and an extremely slight one at that. How could Playboy be demeaning to women while the Victoria’s Secret catalog is not?
2. These ladies are receiving compensation for posing. It is not as if they were forced to do so, and the pay they receive certainly beats working night shifts at $5.00 an hour at McDonald’s or Burger King. They must leave their modesty behind, of course; but they receive compensation for that. Working without any hope of a breakthrough at McDonald’s is in my opinion, more demeaning.
3. Finally, there is porn, even of the explicit, hardcore kind, where women are presented and treated with respect. I don’t see women being demeaned there.
In conclusion: Even though some porn is definitely demeaning to women, we cannot generalize. The counter-examples are far more than mere “isolated exceptions”. Since not all of porn is demeaning to women, premise 2 fails bringing the whole argument down.
Now, if this argument is flawed, then why it is being used? The operative word here is “women”. It seems to me that it is just another indictment of male expressions of sexuality. You are a male, therefore you deserve to be punished for that fact; you must be restrained, lest you become a sex offender.
Porn may give you a totally unreal concept of women
This is a pragmatic argument. It does not classify porn as good or evil, but it attacks porn because it is harmful to the image one could form of women. The argument goes this way:
- It is convenient to avoid all artifacts that may present a distorted image of women.
- Porn presents a distorted image of women.
- Therefore, it is convenient to avoid porn.
In all truth, we must recognize this is an essentially sound argument. In its natural form it, may be debunked because it talks about women and therefore assumes that porn is something where women are victims and men are consumers; but if you put ‘human beings’ in place of ‘women’ the argument could defeat this objection. Nevertheless, I will keep speaking of women because I am a heterosexual male, and the porn I’m acquainted with is porn with women in it.
The gist of this argument is something like: “Yeah, you could be a consumer of porn, but beware: Do not expect that your current or future significant other is going to be like that Pamela Anderson centerfold!” And there is a lot of truth in this. In most porn, you see women that are far more perfect than real women, most times thanks to the surgeons, or Photoshop. Their proportions seem to be unnatural because of an excessive size of certain body parts. But the most troublesome aspect is the image they project: they appear as eternally willing sexual partners, apparently dying to have you as their lover. And this is all fake.
However, one might point on behalf of the “distortion” present by porn that we are just dealing with archetypes or forms. Porn models are fake because they get “way closer” to the formal idea of what the physical shape of a woman should be than most women in the “real world” do, and simplistic idealization is a longstanding practice of all aesthetic manifestations of the human spirit. Thus, in one sense, porn is just another branch of artistic idealized expression.
But anyway, if you are going to form your image of women from porn, you are doomed. Women are mysterious and wonderful beings, and total intimacy with them is not an one-time stand. It is a full-time, lifetime, endless job that demands all your being; and that’s why our Lord is very clear when He says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). If you form a sexual union with a woman, you become one flesh, one body with her (see e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:16). This is something you learn on the road, slowly, and painfully. In most cases, porn is a dead end when it comes to learn about women.
Nevertheless, we could still attack this argument in three ways:
1. First, there is the sex bias, which as we saw before, could be easily corrected.
2. If porn supposedly presents a totally distorted image of women, then what about porn written, directed, and produced by women? If the ladies are in charge, one could suppose that whatever is presented is a truthful representation of women, right? This is especially true of erotica written by women authors. These materials are quite different from those inspired by men, but they can become quite effective as pornography as well.
3. If porn should be banned because it presents a distorted image of women, then what about other instances where a distorted image of women is also presented, such as women’s magazines? What about instances where a distorted image of men is put forth, such as in soap operas and romance novels? Why apply this standard to porn and not to these cases?
In my opinion, these objections are good. The objection of erotica produced by women is especially weighty, because it completely defeats this argument. However, this kind of erotic material is still an exception; and because of that I still hold this argument as valid, even though is not as weighty as some people would make us believe. We must keep in mind, nevertheless, that this argument also calls us to examine closely the role of formal ideals in aesthetics, and this is a question worth pursuing.
Porn makes you a worse pervert
This “argument” is in fact another version of the famous slippery-slope:
If you use porn, even if what you do is just looking at Playboy magazines, you are a sick pervert. And you are not going to stop at that. Playboy will soon appear tame, and then you will go deeper and deeper in your debauchery until you end up consuming something totally sick and repulsive. In no time, you will become a rapist, a child molester, or a serial killer. Repent of thy wicked ways, O sinner!
And yet, despite the fact that this is a blatant slippery-slope, we keep listening this crap being parroted by people who should know better. This is bollocks! Consumption of porn does not make you a killer, a rapist, or a child molester. Consumption of porn does not make you a degenerate. What consumption of porn makes of you is a sinner; but then, calling “You fool!” to someone (Matthew 5:22) does it, too. I was a consumer of porn, and yet, it never even came to my mind to harm or force any woman, child, or anyone for that matter (and Heaven forbid!). If this were true, we would end up with 100% of high school and college age girls being raped, because consumption of porn is really widespread at these two age groups of males worldwide.
The inspiration for this fallacy comes from the fact that many sex offenders and child molesters are heavy consumers of all kinds of porn. But this does not convert consumption of porn into a causal factor of such criminal behavior. Rape and child molesting were sad facts of life even at ancient times and with people lacking real access to anything that could be considered as porn.
But what if the slippery slope is real? Say, you are first exposed to porn, and you get something very similar to a drug-induced high. You seek to reproduce that experience, but now the porn is getting tame. Consequently, you begin to seek “heavier” material. You get the high again, but the next time it appears tame again. You must continue the downward spiral until you hit the bottom: rape, molesting, killing. At least, that’s what the proponents of this arguments say.
In defense of this argument, one could say that even though is a fallacy, it may work for a very few people. However, does this constitute enough reason for declaring all kinds of porn as illicit? Other criminal offenders might start not by consuming porn, but simply by watching TV or reading the news, or simply because they saw someone in an ad. Shall we ban all advertising, TV and newspapers, perhaps? The fact is that we cannot legislate or dictate moral norms based on exceptional, extreme sociopathic behavior. The sociopaths are the ones who should adapt to us, and not us to them.
Nevertheless, we must recognize the fact is that the slope is based on distorted observation, but observation anyway. I can attest from my personal experience that my first porn was way tamer than my latter. It is true that you get a sensation similar to a high, and sometimes the “high” just dries up, and you start looking for “new kicks.” But this activity works more as specialization, than as escalation. Let me explain metaphorically: You first get aroused by watching enticing naked girls. Then, you find that you prefer leather-clad girls. Then, that you prefer red leather-clad ones. Then, that you prefer blond red leather-clad girls. You get my drift? It is not like you get more and more risqué; it is that you get more and more specific about what you like.
My final thought is that even though this “argument” turns out to be a fallacy, it points out to a truth: You will never be entirely satisfied with porn. I can attest that.
Porn may dry up your sex life
This is another argument of convenience, and it’s often enunciated as follows:
When you consume porn, you are altering your sex life. You begin to nurse unrealistic expectations in sex, and those expectations would never be matched by your real-life partner. Consequently, your sex life dries up.
I must admit that in many occasions this is true for a lot of couples. One of the partners begins to consume porn, and the immediate result is the total extinction of any sex life the couple had before. The guilty party simply loses all interest in his partner, because the partner never had the slightest chance to match the guilty party’s new expectations. Consequently, this should be regarded as a serious objection.
However, the opposite could also be true. Porn could be employed for bringing some spice to a intimate life already damaged by routine, stress, and the daily grind of life. In fact, some Christian couples of my personal acquaintance use porn for that exact purpose here in Asunción. They watch porn movies as couples, and they claim that porn improved their sex lives. Nevertheless, if porn is sinful —and I think it definitely is— then what they do is illicit.
My own experience is highly peculiar. Reading pornographic material written by women helped me a great deal to understand women sexually. I will not be specific, but let’s say that porn definitely was very useful to me. This is even more relevant because I began to meaningfully relate to ladies late in my life. But that should be regarded as an exception, and also, I wish I would rather had something less sinful than porn to help me.
My final estimate is that this is a valid objection to pornography. But it does not carry much weight; for if we could tell un-reality from reality when reading a Superman comic, and this is not a sin, we would surely be able to tell reality from un-reality in pornographic materials too.
Porn is ugly
This is an argument drawn from aesthetic preference, and states that porn offends the most elementary sense of what is beautiful and sublime. Supporters of this argument cite the fact that most pornographic material have an appearance that could be classified as extremely seedy; and this is true. Movies such as Teenage Seductions 18 (imaginary title) are not exactly works of art. Yet, there is something deeply flawed in this argument. I could mention two counterarguments on grounds of facts, and essence.
1. The factual counterclaim is the easiest to conceive: Porn might be ugly, but it doesn’t have to. Porn with the quality and beauty of a work of art does exist, and it isn’t even hard to find. Some porn has excellent production values, and there is nothing that separates that kind of porn from its mainstream counterpart. If you want an example, just compare a Playboy or Penthouse pictorial with one from a fashion magazine like Vogue or Elle. Which one has the prettiest models? Which one has the most expensive and beautiful clothing? Which one has the best locations? Which one has the best make-up? Which one has the best photography? and I could go on and on and on… and for most questions, the answer would be “the porn magazine.”
Even more: How is that works such as Ingres’ The Turkish Bath or Courbet’s The Origin of the World could not be regarded as pornography? Both of them are usually regarded as ‘works of art’, but how in the world can one think up an argument defending them from the charge of pornography? Please notice that I do not provide a link to those works for a reason. Search for them at your own peril.
2. The essential counterclaim is not as evident, but in my opinion is devastating. Pornography is intended to bring sexual arousal to the subject, and it usually does so by alluding to sexual acts. Then, when it is claimed that pornography is ugly, we are also claiming that the act of sexual intercourse is ugly. Are we willing to claim that sexual intercourse, something created by God, is ugly? One could say that the objection of ugliness is against the actual being under consideration and not the archetypal form of sexual intercourse. But then, we could destroy this argument with just a different actualization: if that particular sex act is “ugly”, then all that needs to be done is to replace it with a non-ugly one. We have shown on point 1 above that this is already being done. Consequently, this argument is not valid.
Speaking from my own experience, I can attest that one of the hardest aspects of my inner fight against porn was the fact that what I was forsaking was something very beautiful. In my (highly misguided) view, some porn depictions were so inexpressibly beautiful that they could very well be tiny glimpses of heaven. Does this surprise you? If you know the Bible (see especially 2 Corinthians 11:14; Galatians 1:8; and even Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14) you shouldn’t. There are some things that possess an incredible beauty, and yet they are totally wicked. It follows, then, that even though this argument fails, is totally unnecessary. Beauty is irrelevant for deciding whether porn is good or evil.
Porn is a sin
I will state prima facie that this is true, and it should be reason enough to forsake porn in its entirety. I plan to discuss the sinfulness of porn later. But for now, let me just add that in my opinion Matthew 5:28 is not valid as a justification for it; the reason for the sinfulness of porn goes much, much deeper than the presence of mere misguided lust.
Setting the sinfulness of porn aside, we studied six arguments against porn. From all these, we found one argument valid, and other was somewhat valid. The others were all invalid and besides, one was deemed irrelevant for deciding the question at hand. For something that brings a lot of noise, scandal, and related hoopla to a Christian community, the arguments for condemning porn fall remarkably short of the mark.
If most arguments against porn smell worse than horse manure, then why is that most people bother with them? My impression is that porn is something that was decreed a Bad Thing ™ not by the Church, but by conventional morals; especially, though not necessarily, from the Victorian era onwards. The indictments against porn, with their phony arguments, serve especially well as a mask to hide an unjustifiable, vindictive and wrong indictment against male expressions of sexuality and a vicious reinforcement of an awfully wrong view of human sexuality in general.
The Church surely can do better than this sorry state of things. But if she is to improve on the matter, we need to prayerfully consider serious questions on areas such as metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics, and theology, and make the appropriate decisions. Broadly speaking, we as Church must look to conform more to God’s Word and less to the conventions of this world.
Having stated the problem and defined porn, and after looking at the most common arguments against it, I plan to look in upcoming posts at responses to porn in three levels: spousal, congregational, and pastoral. We shall describe and critique some of them, pointing how inadequate they are as a meaningful, biblical response against porn. As usual, I will appreciate any insight or discussion on the matter.