“Poor Lily. Xavier just used her body, and not even the right side!” In his film “Damsels in Distress,” Whit Stillman explores “non-procreative sex” in ways that are shocking, simply shocking: it just isn't proper to question sexual relativism in a “Hollywood” movie. Later on in the film, another character named Jimbo asks Lily, “How could he do that to you?”
This is precisely what we need to know about porn – not the “that,” but the “how” and “why.” Why are we men (I can't speak for the unique folly of women) drawn to reducing women to objects of commerce and triviality? How is it possible that otherwise reputable, upstanding citizens wish to have their way with women in the most disagreeable ways?
But let's start with something positive. In another film by Stillman (“Barcelona”), Ted says longingly, “Instead of a fantasy built on the pretty slope of an eyebrow or curl of an upper lip, (I want) to see the real person, maybe even look into her eyes and see her soul.” Yes, a real communion of persons rooted in reality. This is what men want. In our better moments.
In our less-than-Ted moments, we are like Hugh Hefner: delighted by shapeliness and ever hopeful of a woman's perpetual availability for lewdness. With Hugh (and his disciples), it's always a zero-sum game: the higher the woman is raised up as a goddess, the lower her humanity dips until she is scarcely more than a Barbie doll with a pulse. Each of us can judge where we fit between Ted and Hugh, but that's not my purpose here.
The truth about pornography – and it is probably a truism in Catholic circles – is that it does not go far enough. It shows all but reveals almost nothing – nothing of what the heart really yearns for. Pornography can be seen as a back-handed compliment to the truth about human sexuality. It takes the erotic to a fever pitch but annihilates its inner meaning. “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God,” G.K. Chesterton famously observed and it is no less true of men engaged in solitary Onanism. Looking is good, but an attentive search is what is most needful for us. Another word for paying attention is education.
The education of desire
The moralists out there would tell us that the solution to the scourge of porn is “virtue” or self-control or some twelve step program or perhaps intensely frequenting the sacrament of reconciliation; while not discounting the value of confession or the usefulness of AA-type programs in dealing with sexual addictions, I must insist that virtue is a consequence of something else, not something that can be gotten at directly as it were. Looking the history of the people of the Israel, it becomes quite clear that knowledge of right and wrong are neither salvific nor a cure for idolatry. Nor was pagan virtue sufficient to liberate Greeks and Romans from their pederasty and violence. If the divine law liberated or if pagan virtue was enough, Christ need not have bothered to come. No, the solution is not to be found in mortification or penance alone, but in beginning to take our own humanity seriously; seriously enough to go to the depths of the inner meaning of our Baptism, which incorporated us into the Body of Christ, in the flesh.
We take our humanity seriously when we don't “short circuit” the questions that desire raises in us. The Catholic moralist would say, “Impure thoughts, bad! Stop having them;” the Catholic realist asks, “Impure thoughts, what are you really after?” Hence, we can be confronted with the same “raw material,” but end up in radically different places. If you find scrupulosity satisfying, then, I would say, “Keep at it.” However if keeping notes on your temptations and sins doesn't interest you or even begin to solve your problems, I invite you, dear reader, to take a deeper look at desire.
The adventure of freedom: a thought-experiment
Here's what is at once exhilarating and terrifying: When one begins to pursue the question of what one really wants, there is no guarantee of the outcome. I won't claim that if you take your desire seriously and follow it all the way down, you'll see Jesus or become a saint. You should, because as Saint Augustine observed, the deepest parts of ourselves is where we discover God. All I can tell you is that interrogating desire has been useful for me.
If you are already an amateur pornographer, why not consider taking it up “professionally” as it were and see how that makes you happy (or fails to)? This is precisely the kind of advice Walker Percy had for potential suicides in “Lost in the Cosmos”: instead of playing around with the idea as a way of escaping from your present circumstances, take it seriously. This advice echoes the words of Christ: “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold, nor hot. I would thou wert cold, or hot” (Revelation 3:15).
In another insightful work, “The Last Gentleman,” Percy paints the portrait of a “true American,” a pathologist who has concluded that suburban respectability and genteel success create a kind of living Hell and that one's only options are Christ and the Church or lewdness. That's it. Sutter Vaught concludes that all human relationships have been so emptied of substance that the only communion with others possible is a transient, pseudo-communion rooted in sexual acts with forgettable (if not anonymous) partners. This, at least, is real – if only for a moment. That his journey (most likely) ends in suicide from the despair of pornography and unlimited sexual license makes this a cautionary tale: in the end there is lewdness or the Scandalous Thing (the “Jew-Christ-Church business” as Sutter calls it). No middle ground.
The end of freedom
We Americans have tended to conflate freedom with our ability to do whatever we want. Thus freedom's highest act is instinctivity. Yet something inside us tells us that aping the other animals is insufficient. Our notion of freedom is paltry and another part of the problem lies in the fact that we don't know what we want.
There is a marvelous moment in the film “Fight Club” when Tyler Durden catches Jack spying on Marla and him during some sexual hijinks. Tyler's words (“What are you doing?”) are reminiscent of those of the Lord God in the Garden of Eden (“Where art thou?” Genesis 3:9). In a fascinating and unexpected way, the scene captures simultaneously our voyeuristic impulses and our relative disinterest in sex qua sex (Jack declines an invitation to have his way with Marla). Jack, like Adam, when confronted with his deepest desires, runs and hides. If the professional pornographer is a seedy wretch, the recreational pornographer is tepid and half-hearted. Obsessive surely, but not serious. The myth of pornography would tell us it's all about sex; our experience tells another tale.
Like Jack, men who are even marginally self-aware recognize that they want and need something infinitely more than just sex or some soloist imitation. Freedom ought to mean not merely getting something I want but everything I want; in other words, total satisfaction. This is indeed the fulfillment of desire; the intersection of freedom and desire. A fulfillment that leaves out nothing and no one. This is the only freedom that is worthy of humankind. Is such a thing possible? Stay tuned.
“A second look at porn” is a three-part series. This first installment addresses the education of freedom. The second column, the the truth about desire. It concludes on the theme of everlasting communion.
(Author's note. This series grew out of conversations with friends and our common frustration with the way pornography is treated by good, faithful Catholics. We realized that rage and hellfire and damnation against porn simply end up evading the deeper issues and speak only to the already convinced. This is attempt to understand it in a deeper way. It is dedicated to my wife Teresa who has moved me from mere theory to praxis.)