This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, I continued with temperance – or the capacity to contain appetites and moderate sensual pleasures.
In the third week of my engagement with temperance, I turned my attention from food to sex – and started abstaining from porn. Whenever I have spoken to people about the list of things I proposed cutting during Lent, pornography stood out: I articulated the word somewhat faster, with a mild sense of embarrassment. What makes porn so prevalent, yet so shameful? What makes it so fascinating? This is what I tried articulating over the week.
Pornography was pervasive in my childhood. From about the age of ten, I was very aware that on the first Saturday of the month at midnight, one of the TV channels played a porn movie, and that my step-father duly recorded it. I was aware that he stored videos in the library – later, I would sneakily watch them in the afternoon when he was away. Once, at the age of twelve, while walking around with a friend, I remember stopping at a suburban supermarket to buy a treat: there, we glanced for a long while at the jacket of ‘cum for lips’ that sat at eye level in one of the aisle, giggling and aroused.
Porn offers to satisfy a certain form of cruel curiosity. Photographs of sexual organs in extreme close-up appear in two distinct domains – pornographic movies, and medical books. Pornography rips open people, like anatomy does. Porn is an act of radical unveiling. It promises a form of perfect knowledge: it captures the moment when a person is completely revealed in its most naked form. To that extent, porn is a perversion of knowledge: rather than a slow, gradual, dialectic process of encounter, it proposes a shortcut to ‘knowing, in the biblical sense’. But that moment of complete revelation always eludes us – and so we watch more, and more, and more again, in a vain attempt to seize it.
When a new technology emerges, we overestimate its impact in the short term, and underestimate its impact in the long term. To what extent does that apply to the sexual revolution – of which endemic pornography may be no more than a symptom? The way that Aquinas articulates chastity is no longer relevant: not only because he draws explicit parallels between the beautiful dishes that whet our appetite and the beautiful women that arouse our lust; but also because his framing of ‘sexual acts against nature’ no longer aligns unproblematically with our understanding of how ‘nature’ operates in the realm of sexuality. From books on the bonobos to wildlife TV series, from ethnographic reports to the Kinsey survey, we’ve developed a more sophisticated understanding of the many roles played by sex in creating and nurturing diverse types of social relationships.
In our globalised world soon due to hit 8 billion people, if sexuality is to support the survival of our species, chastity should be reframed in the following terms: what sexual behaviour is most conducive to social harmony. Part of our fascination with pornography may stem from this question. Progress in modern medicine, birth control and paternity tests, challenges previous assumptions about what is and what isn’t acceptable behaviour. So, what should we do? Should we rejoice and indulge without limits, just because we can? Or should we keep things ‘within measure’, and if so, what is this measure? While we’re figuring out these questions, porn offers a temporary satisfaction: it invites us to join a fantasy world where sexual acts occur outside of any context, and have no consequences.
A pragmatic logic underpins most support for pornography: since people want it, let’s normalise it, rather than afflict users with guilt, and push the whole industry to some dark underbelly. Yet, on the Internet, porn exists in shady condition: who’s the owner of the many videos that circulate, soft and hard-core, professional and amateur? Were actors willing participants? Is all of it, or most of it, within the clear realms of legality? Yet somehow, either by the very nature of the thing itself, or the conditions that surround our engagement with it, these are not questions we raise: we search, we click, we watch. And that’s where much of the problem may be: not that there is something inherently bad about pornography, but that it freezes thought, and distracts us from more valuable pursuits.
The silence that covers our engagement with porn certainly contributes to these shadows. ‘The Internet is for porn’, joke the characters of Avenue Q. To what extent is this true? There is a lot of porn online, there must be physical and economic counterparts: server farms, web designers, production companies – yet I have no critical understanding of it. Don’t ask, don’t tell. The same applies at a personal level. I have read dozens of articles describing in details what food I should eat and when in order to reach various forms of personal optimum. I am quite aware of what my friends eat, and even what they drink. I know nothing of their pornographic habits, nor have I ever come across an article listing ’10 ways that pornography can help you find inner calm and increase your creative output’. We collectively Febfast and Meat-free-Mondays, but porn remains an entirely private experience.
This may be why it grates against even a very liberal understanding of chastity. To what extent will our private engagement with naked bodies on a screen contribute to social harmony? Will it bring peace through generalised sexual relief? Will it increase frustration and feed aggressive desire? Or will it isolate us, lost on a solitary quest for impossible knowledge? Without some collective discussion, we cannot answer these questions. As long as shame hampers conversation, pornography will remain problematic.