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Pornography: Formula for Despair
There is a body of water in Eastern Canada that has the improbable name of "Lake Despair". This sinister appellation is an accident of language. The French originally called it Lac d'espoir (Lake of Hope). English-speaking settlers in the region, accustomed to hearing only their own language, misperceived its name. And so it became known, culturally and cartographically, as Lake Despair. This type of metamorphosis occurs just as easily on a moral plane.
Pornography takes human sexuality, with its hope of love, fidelity, family, and fulfillment, and turns it into an empty and lifeless husk. It does this as a predator destroys its prey, by eviscerating sexuality of all its inherent grace. This transmogrification, which some mistake as emancipation, takes place through processes that are neither liberating or enriching, but Depersonalizing, Enslaving, Self-destructive, Preposterous, Alienating, Isolating, Reductionistic. The process can be subtle enough that, for some, it goes unnoticed. But ultimately, the difference between the reality of human sexuality and its residue in pornography is all the difference in the world. It is the difference between what "gift" means in English and what "Gift" (poison) means in German. Indeed, it is the difference between hope and despair, heaven and hell.
Pornography displaces love with lust. The fundamental reason that lust is listed as one of the Seven Deadly Sins is precisely that it gives pleasure primacy over the person. Lust prefers the experience of pleasure to the good of the person. Rather than loving the other, lust prefers to appropriate the other for the self. Such an inversion of proper values is at once unjust to the other who is regarded primarily as an instrument of pleasure, and destructive of the self inasmuch as it undermines his own nature as a loving being.
In his "Theology of the Body," John Paul II states that lust "'depersonalizes' man making him an object 'for the other'. Instead of being 'together with the other' - a subject in unity, in fact, in the sacramental unity 'of the body' - man becomes an object for man: the female for the male and vice versa." With lust, the subjectivity of the person gives way to the objectivity of the body.
In his book, The Case Against Pornography, David Holbrook argues that pornography is connected with the same processes of objectivization that is essential to the Galilean-Newtonian-Cartesian tradition that lowers nature and man "to the status of dead objects". Psychiatrist Leslie Farber and others have described the depersonalizing effects of pornography most vividly by stating that it transfers the fig leaf to the face. Pornography is not interested in the face, through which personality shines, but the objectivized and devitalized body. Pornography represses personality and exalts the depersonalized, despiritualized body.
The process by which one objectivizes the other, results in an objectivization of the self. This is the basis of slavery. "The enslaving of the other," writes Christian existentialist Nikolai Berdyaev, "is also the enslaving of the self." Viewing the other as a depersonalized, despiritualized object is incompatible with communion.
But only through inter-personal communion is one liberated form the world that is enclosed in the material. "By objectivization," Berdyaev goes on to say, "the subject enslaves itself and creates the realm of determinism."
Pornography enslaves by imprisoning people in the material. It also enslaves because it erodes personal freedom. "There are people who want to keep our sex instinct inflamed in order to make money out of us," wrote C. S. Lewis. "Because, of course, a man with an obsession is a man who has very little sales-resistance."
A third way in which pornography enslaves is through chemical addiction. When the pornography addict indulges in his habit, the adrenal gland secretes the chemical epinephrine into the blood stream. According to David Caton, author of Pornogrpahy: The Addiction, epinephrine goes to the brain and assists in locking in the pornographic images. These locked-in images can result in severely changed behavior, including an obsession with pornography that has much in common with chemical addiction.
The depersonalizing and enslaving effects of pornography are inevitably self-destructive. The high rate of suicides among pornography actresses is a graphic indication of this.
The notion of "stripping," especially when applied to the pornographic film, goes far beyond the act of disrobing. It represents the stripping away of inner qualities as well: character, moral values, shame, fundamental decency, restraint. The logical end-point of such pornographic stripping is the complete dissolution of the self. In this regard, pornography leads to sado-masochism and death, as illustrated in the infamous "snuff" films.
Canadian Business magazine reports that "Hard-core Capitalists" stand to make so much money in peddling illegal porn that they are undeterred by the criminal sanctions against it. One producer, that fittingly calls itself Dead Parrot Productions, caters to the appetite for sado-masochism and self-destruction.
Preposterous, as its etymology indicates (prae + posterius) means putting before, that which should come after. Trying to remove your socks before you have taken your shoes off, rather than after, is clearly preposterous. Pornography is preposterous because it puts sex before personhood, lust before love, pleasure before conscience.
When Adam awakened from a deep sleep and looked upon a woman for the first time, he joyously exclaimed: "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (Gn. 2:23). "He rightly understood that his partner was first and foremost a human being, like himself, and secondarily sexual. He did not exclaim: "This at last is the opposite sex, a convenient instrument for my sexual gratification." The human relationship comes first; the sexual relationship must be grounded in personal love.
As a result of the Fall, Adam and Eve began to get things backwards. They experienced shame because they suddenly regarded each other first as sex objects and secondarily as persons. They then made aprons of fig leaves to cover themselves. Pornography and pornovision, by placing the part before the whole, sexuality before personality, is preposterous and therefore, in a sense, ludicrous.
The porn world is not without rules. One cardinal rule is that its performers remain safely alienated from their clients. Because pornography is primarily centered on the despiritualized, depersonalized body, alienation is essential to it.
In the telephone sex industry, operators are instructed to advise customers who want to arrange a tryst that "company policy" forbids it. Also, because pornography in its various forms, relies heavily on illusion, it cannot abide the light of realism. The voyeur is obliged to remain an alienated spectator. The tenuous relationship between the voyeur and the exhibitionist evaporates once personality enters the picture. As C. S. Lewis pointed out in his Allegory of Love, lust seeks "for some purely sexual, hence purely imaginary conjunction of an impossible maleness with an impossible femaleness."
Alienation between people leads to the isolation of the self. This isolation of the self from a significant other and from community must not be confused with the right to privacy. Privacy means two things. In the first sense, it is contrasted with what is public. Sexual intimacy between husband and wife is private in this sense. John Paul II has rightly criticized pornography and pornovision for violating this legitimate right to privacy of the body.
On the other hand, privacy can refer to self-isolation, of withdrawing from social encounters. Pornography violates legitimateprivacy and encourages the illegitimate privacy of isolation. It exposes a personal privacy that should be protected, while it promotes an isolated privacy that should be avoided. Consequently, it is highly injurious to marriage and the family, often leaving spouses, particularly husbands, isolated from the rest of their kin.
Pornography reduces the person to a thing. Perhaps a more revealing way of putting it is to say that pornography exchanges a name for a number. Hence its preoccupation with numbers: the size of the organs, the duration of intercourse, the number of partners, the frequency and intensity of orgasm. The so-called "vital statistics" do not denote life as such as much as a person reduced to a thing.
Mechanization, which invariably stamps things with sameness, has a strong affinity with pornography. They are both highly impersonal processes whose language is not of names, but of numbers. Pornography forces the impression upon the imagination that a human being is not an individualized person, but an amalgam of parts. One of the more pernicious consequences of the Freudean reduction of the person to conflicting parts is the willingness to ascribe rights to its most basic part, namely, the id. O. Hobart Mowrer has inveighed against Freudeanism for "championing the rights of the body in opposition to a society and moral order which were presumed to be unduly harsh and arbitrary."
Nonetheless, a human being is not a conflict of parts but a dynamic whole that has a communal nature and a personal destiny.
The porn industry, with its words, images, voices, and videos, is, indeed, a formula for despair. From its very essence springs the need to create the illusion that the body is in fundamental conflict with the unified person. Its unremitting aim is to bring about a condition of utter shamelessness through the gradual annihilation of authentic personality.
Pope John Paul's response, in his "Theology of the Body," to the wave of pornography that is sweeping over the world, is to remind us of Christ's words in the Sermon on the Mount and to elaborate their meaning: "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God." (Mt. 5:8).
1 John Paul II, The Theology of the Body
(Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media. 1997), p. 127.
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DeMarco, Donald. "Pornography: Formula for Despair."
Reprinted with permission of Donald DeMarco.
Donald DeMarco is Professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. He has written hundreds of articles for various scholarly and popular journals, and is the author of twenty books, including The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, Virtue's Alphabet: From Amiability to Zeal and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.