Rollheiser: Pornography and Chastity

07 February 2022

Appears in: Columnists

Pornography is the biggest addiction in the world today, and by a wide margin. Mostly it afflicts men, but is also a growing addiction among women. Much of this of course is driven by its easy and free availability on the internet. Everyone now (not least our own young children) have immediate access to it from the privacy of their phones or laptops, and in anonymity. No more having to sneak off to some seedy section of the city to watch the forbidden. Today pornography is gaining more mainstream acceptance. What’s the harm or shame in it?

Indeed, what’s the harm or shame in it? For a growing number of people today there is no harm or shame in it. Their view is that, whatever its downside, pornography is a liberation from former religious sexual repression. Indeed, many people see it as a healthy expression of sexuality (surprisingly this includes even some feminist writers).  Characters on mainstream television joke about their pornography collection, as if it were as innocent as a collection of favorite old albums, and I have colleagues who argue that our resistance to it simply betrays sexual repression. Sex is beautiful, they argue, so why are we afraid to look at it?

What’s wrong with pornography? Most everything, and not just from a moral perspective.

Let’s begin with the argument: sex is beautiful, so why are we afraid to look at it? That logic is right about one thing, sex is beautiful, so beautiful in fact that it needs to be protected from its own power. To say that it can be looked at as one might gaze at a beautiful sunset is naïve, religiously and psychologically.

Religiously, we are told no one can look at God and live. That’s also true for sex. Its very luminosity needs shrouding. Moreover, it’s psychologically naïve to argue that this kind of deep intimacy can be put on public display. It can’t and it shouldn’t. Public display of that kind of intimacy violates all laws of propriety and respect for those engaged in this intimacy and those looking on. Like all things deeply intimate, it needs proper shrouding.

Next, when talking about the beauty of sex and the human body, we need to make a distinction between nudity and nakedness. When a good artist paints a nude body, the nudity serves to highlight the beauty of the whole person, body and soul, including his or her sexuality. In a nude painting, sexuality is connected to wholeness, to soul; how much to the contrary with nakedness. It exposes the human body in a way that obliterates its integrity, detaches its soul, and splits off sex from one’s whole person. When this happens, and that is precisely what happens in pornography, sex becomes something soulless, split off, mechanical, devoid of deep meaning, bipolar, something from which you need to return to your real self. And, when that happens, all profundity disappears and then, as W.H. Auden writes, we all know the few things that we, as mammals, can do.

Sadly, today for many of our young people, especially for boys, pornography is their initial sex education, and it is one that can leave a permanent imprint in them. That imprint can have long-term effects in the way they understand the meaning of sex, how they respect or disrespect women, and how they grasp or don’t grasp the vital soulful link between sex and love.

Pornography, and not just in the young, can leave scars that are hard to overcome. The argument against this is that pornography might well initially deform the vision of an adolescent but that this will be cured once he matures and truly falls in love. My hope is that this is true, but my worry is that the initial imprint can, long term, taint the way a person falls in love and especially how he understands the radical mutuality asked for of sex within love. Such is the potential power of pornography.

Beyond all this, a strong argument might be made that pornography (in its production and its viewing) is violence against women and that pornography subtly and not-so-subtly promotes violence against women.

Finally, in a culture that prides itself above all else on its sophistication and liberation, not least on its liberation from many of our former religious taboos, one hesitates to even mention the word “chastity” in this context.

Dare one even say that pornography is bad because it is the very antithesis of chastity? Dare one use chastity as an argument when for the most part our culture disdains chastity, pities it, and reserves a particular cynicism for religious groups who still advocate the old adage, “save it for your partner in marriage”?

Worse still, is today’s cynicism vis-a-vis the idea of remaining chaste for Jesus. But, the ideal of chastity embeds sex within romance, sacredness, commitment, community, and soul, whereas pornography portrays it as soulless and embeds it in a sick privacy. So I leave you with the question: which one makes sex something dirty?

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