By Joshua Herring
On April 26, the Wall Street Journal Business section offered a new prophecy: Robot Sex! Sex Therapist Laura Berman predicts that technology will enable cheap but fulfilling robotic sex, conception of children without physical touching, and chemical drugs to allow for the experience of more pleasure.
While on the one hand I am surprised the Wall Street Journal would print onanistic meanderings fit only for the trashiest of sci-fi novels, I think this article illustrates the dangerous deception of pornography and its ability to sever us from our own humanity. Pornography could be condemned on many grounds, but I want to consider the possibility that porn poses a subtle danger, causing us to value pleasure over love, solitude over community, and the present over a lifetime.
St. Augustine argued in his City of God that the quest for human happiness has everything to do with rightly ordered love. When we situate the love of God in its proper place, followed by love of neighbor and other subordinate categories, we find the best opportunity for human flourishing. When we displace our loves, perhaps elevating lust over relationships, Augustine argues that we will find our lives filled with dissatisfaction.
This understanding of life as a constant evaluation, or searching the heart for what it should value to the proper extent, goes against our 21st century eroticized culture. Media—including film, television, and music stars—upholds a certain vision of the good life consisting of ever-more exotic sexual experiences producing happiness. Pornography—by which I mean the print, internet, and video aspects displaying sexuality through a mediated form intended to stimulate lust—falls under a certain teleology of sexuality with devastating consequences.
With the advent of the birth control pill, it became possible to sever sexuality from children. Certain strands of Christianity, primarily Catholic, immediately objected to this severing, claiming that the purpose of sexual intercourse was the production of children. Most low-church denominations, such as Baptist and Methodist, either dodged the moral questions raised by birth control or formulated a different argument: the purpose of sex is pleasure between spouses. Married couples can then make the decision about whether or not to have children. American culture at large accepted the pill with excitement, rushing onward to the Sexual Revolution. For many people, concerns about the purpose of sex paled in comparison to the pleasure of consequence-free intercourse.
If the purpose of sex is pleasure alone, then pornography is an acceptable route to that goal, as it provides pleasurable mental and physical stimulation. Berman’s sex-bots are merely the next logical extension of this pursuit. If, however, the purpose of sex is something different, then it merits further consideration. Sexual intercourse brings together two human beings—male and female—and permits them to mingle, creating the opportunity for new life. This is a profoundly human moment, where two separate consciousnesses, two souls, mix physically and, in their unity, could produce another human soul. If this is the purpose of sexuality, then pornography becomes far more dangerous.
The ancient Greeks had a concept of sin drawn from an archery metaphor. Hamartia, translated as sin, originally described an archer who missed the target. He aimed at a bird, and hit the tree. If the goal of sexual intercourse is the mingling of two persons, then pornography causes one individual to miss the mark. In gazing at the sex act through a mediated lens, whether paper, ink, or a screen, the impulse that should move an isolated individual to form a micro-community causes him to dwell in solitude. The dangerous part, however, is that the deeper into a pornographic habit one goes, the further he is from the target of human community.
Pornography exacts a price; it changes the way a viewer sees the other sex, and it ingrains a habit of self-gratification within the heart. Where sexual intercourse calls for serving the partner in love, pornography produces the illusion that selfish viewing gives greater joy than actual intercourse. To maintain the illusion, the viewer continues in search of ever deeper, more depraved depictions of sexuality. Perhaps the saddest result comes when one who has spent years viewing pornography comes to the bed with a lover and expects sex to be what he has seen and imagined. Sex can be fantastic, but a real sexual relationship takes time, effort, love, commitment, and service. These capacities have been stripped from the pornography viewer’s expectations of sexuality.
Here then is the subtle lie of pornography. It promises satisfaction, but strips one’s ability to appreciate the real thing. It upholds a cheap pleasure as the highest good, removing one’s ability to recognize that children and a loving marriage are infinitely more valuable than orgasm alone.
It reminds me of the Prodigal Son. In Luke 15, Jesus tells a parable of a son who has it all, but takes his inheritance and parties it away in the city. After experiencing his epiphany in a pigsty, the most morally reprehensible place for a good Jewish boy, he poignantly recognizes his need for repentance. The danger of pornography is that it trains the one in the pigsty to mistake it for a grand mansion with capacious and ever expanding rooms. Uncovering the deception involves retraining the heart and the eyes to appreciate real love, and place that love in the proper order.
Stories of men and women who have reached the other side of a pornography addiction abound. One of the most well-written of these accounts comes from Erica Garza who tells her story in “Tales of a Female Sex Addict.” By the end of her article, Garza finds hope. Her story reveals the depths of pornographic depravity, but also the existence of the human soul.
As humans, we exist as body and soul. Sexuality is a point where our dual-nature combines in a mixture of desire and expression. The desire for intimacy and relationship reveals humans as more than just physical creatures. If we were only bodily creatures, then physical satisfaction of our physical longings would be sufficient. Pornography feeds this desire. Without the spiritual component of human relationship, however, we create a raging monster of lust within ourselves. Rooting sexuality within marriage, aimed at the teleology of children, satisfies our creational design as body-soul, mortal-eternal beings.
Sexual expression has always been an area of problematization, worthy of contemplation; this is an important question to get right. At stake is our ability to love other human beings, to see in them an image of the Creator worthy of love, sacrifice, respect, and honor.
The hope of joy in this life rides on recognizing pornography not as a harmless habit, something all guys will do, but as a deadly deception which retrains the heart to be nothing but an engine of lust. We are more than bodies with pleasure centers. We are embodied creatures with eternal souls, “designed to live in community,” to quote Aristotle. We live in a deceptive age, in which pornography is held out with the promise of joy but leaves us holding the ashes of our hope.
Image: “Unmasked” by JD Hancock. CC License.