Perspective: Porn is not great in any shape

Perspective: Porn is not great in any shape

In the classic story Charlotte's Web, we find at first a newly born litter of piglets in which there is a runt. The eight-year-old daughter of farmer John Arable, named Fern, saves the wee pig from a probable death, takes him under her wing and calls him Wilbur. When Wilbur is sold to her uncle, Homer Zuckerman, Fern tries to see him as often as she can, but her visits become sporadic as she grows older. 

Wilbur grows lonelier until the dulcet tones of Charlotte, the spider, start to soothe him. When the animals on the farm tell Wilbur that he is to be slain and eaten for Christmas, Charlotte helps the fearful pig by extolling his virtues via her web: into it she weaves the words "Some Pig", "Terrific", "Radiant" and "Humble" in the hope that farmer Zuckerman will take notice. Before her death, Wilbur's life is spared and he goes on to win a prize at the country fair.

In some ways, the book represents an allegory for the relationship between us and Christ, in which Charlotte takes on the Jesus-like figure, saving the young pig from an inevitable death, his anxiety and his loneliness, by taking it upon herself to point out to farmer Zuckerman (God) why Wilbur is worthy of being saved; in the process, the little pig grows to believe that he is quite excellent and worthy. After Charlotte's ultimate death, as with the Cross, Wilbur repays her by nurturing her brood of baby spiders: Joy, Areana and Nellie.

I admire anyone whose cause is to build up and encourage those who might otherwise fall victim to the status quo – to keep the proverbial pigs from the slaughter – and who, like Fern and Charlotte, stand up and say, "That's not right – this pig is worthy of a good life!". Like Wilbur, through circumstance, unfortunate childhood events, wrong belief, low self-esteem, ill-formed self perception, or simply because we're human, many of us are easily led down paths that devalue life, and cause a disconnect: from the self, from each other, from humanity.

Shouldn't any decent society protect the most vulnerable and its young and build people up so they become all they can become?

Last Friday evening, I joined Melinda Tankard Reist, ABC Religion and Ethics editor Scott Stephens, academic Caroline Norma, feminist ethicist and psychotherapist Dr Betty McLellan, clinical psychologist Dr Robi Sonderegger and about 100 other people at a café in Brisbane for the launch of Big Porn Inc, co-edited by Tankard Reist and Dr Abigail Bray.

It felt like a clandestine assembly of vigilantes, which was odd to me – like anti-communist dissenters meeting in an underground enclave checking for phone taps (not apps), the atmosphere was one of righteous anger and encouragement, but also anxiety. Why did it feel like this when the cause, at heart, is standing up for what’s good and right – about that which should be spoken about in broad daylight?

I have thought about this often since the event, and can deduce a couple of possible reasons: one is that the book itself, which is black in cover with a bold red title, and its subject matter, is intimidating. Admittedly, my preconception is that it would be an uncomfortable read and I had to steel myself to get through it, not because I'm prudish, but because I have a nice life (and healthy sex life, thank you very much) and don't want my head filled with muck.

(Coincidentally, avoiding what's uncomfortable is one reason apathy about this issue is rife).

As Tankard Reist herself admits, the book is "horrible" (her next book, she jests, will be called Puppies, Kittens, Rainbows, Fairies and Fluffy Bunnies... which, if you have read Big Porn Inc, has some unfortunate connotations: see the chapter 'Pornography and Animals'). It's not an easy read, but worthwhile, important. All (most?) present at the launch were enthusiastic about lending their support, even if it meant going out on a limb because – don't you know? – being anti-porn is not cool.

Together with the apathy about porn's detrimental effects on our psyches and relationships, there is an entrenched culture of intimidation and bullying in some media, academic and Arts circles that wants to keep the anti-porn campaigners in their place. This is further enhanced by the internet and the ubiquity of 'Anonymous' who likes to hate on those who don't agree with his or her worldview, but isn't quite up to putting a name to its disdain, and is most vocal about the most disdainful issues.

Those who seek to obstruct, frustrate or expose our desire to exercise "free will", even if we pursue it at the expense of others, must be silenced! To that end, academic Betty McLellan writes in Big Porn Inc: "fairness is pushed aside and inequality and injustice are allowed to continue in the name of free speech... In the case of pornography, it seems freedom of speech is more important than a woman's right to equality, dignity and respect."

I do appreciate that the anti-porn agenda has a way of inflaming the issue by shaming conspirators in the industrialisation of porn: I don't think guilting people into considering their behaviour does anyone any favours, but shame itself seems to have eroded as what was once deemed sinful becomes commonplace, run-of-the-mill, isn't-everyone-doing-it? If we don't stand up and say, 'This doesn't seem right' or put up a fight, then are we not too inculcated by default?

The anti-porn movement is up against Big Business (the industry made $500 million in Australia last year alone; according to Big Porn Inc, globally it is expected to turn over $100 billion in the near future). But it is also at odds with the all-powerful Zeitgeist, which in turn powers along any industry that serves its agenda: from sex-trafficking to the adult film industry, right down to academia, entertainment, advertising, art, fashion and the media.

Good Weekend magazine's most recent cover featuring porn purveyors Malcolm Day and Bree Maddox was not lost on me. While candid and at times circumspect (Day, who owns AdultShop.com, told journalist Jane Cadzow, "Every now and then, I wonder what the hell I'm doing in this type of industry"), this fascination with porn, and the "mainstreamification" and glamorisation of porn sex, its "icons" and its accoutrements (Brazilian waxes, sex toy shops, articles on performing acts of sexual servitude), is well worth exploring.

The media, as it operates, looks to the fringes of society for what is new, interesting, controversial: it keeps the industry in perpetual motion by giving consumers something fresh to read, watch or listen to. Sex sells, don't you know? And in this sense, nothing is too outrageous, and once the outrageous becomes old and tired, we either gravitate back to conservatism and restraint, or look for ever more outrageous ideas to fuel the fire (and then the cycle starts again).

The same trend emanates through porn: only it's not going back to promoting missionary-style, husband-and-wife sex anytime soon; as Big Porn Inc details, it is growing more perverse and violent (see the chapters called 'The Pornification of Intrafamilial Rape'; 'Exposure to Child Pornography as a Cause of Child Sexual Victimisation'; 'Capital and the Crimes of Pornographers: Free to lynch, exploit, rape and torture', and 'When Rape Becomes a Game'). Nothing, it seems, is off limits to porn.

The repercussions of porn creep into the mainstream can't be underestimated, particularly insofar as the dignity of women are concerned. Gail Dines – who was unfairly and disparagingly hung, drawn and quartered on an episode of Q&A earlier this year – in her chapter, 'The New Lolita: Pornography and the Sexualisation of Childhood' writes of the permeation of porn:

From billboards to 24-hour television, the staple of this image-based culture is the youthful, sexualised female body. Advertisements, movies, TV shows, music videos and pornography are just some of the ways in which this image is delivered to us, and as we become more desensitised to such depictions, the producers need to ramp up the degree to which the female body is sexualised as a way to get our attention. This has led to an increasingly pornographic media landscape where the codes and conventions that inform pornography filter down to such a level that the images we now see in mainstream media are almost on par with those that were found in softcore porn just a decade ago.

Similarly, journalist Kaz Cooke writes in her new book about aspirational sluttiness as girls learn from porn what they're supposed to look like: 

There are new issues about sex: the way the explosion of pornography has led girls and women to settle for the role of sexual servants or try to look and act like strippers or sex workers and confuse it with ‘empowerment’; and the fact that so many couples have mismatched sex lives... because it’s men who control the images of music videos and computer games, that’s what teenaged girls and boys are growing up thinking is cool, attractive and sexy, or at least what’s required. There used to be a line between porn and modelling, porn and music videos. It’s not there anymore, there are just various degrees on a spectrum.

Being anti-porn is tainted with the brush of being prudish. Of being a bit too conservative. And, yet, it’s porn that’s fascist when push comes to shove, as it seeks to control and dictate how we see, think and perform sex, and what we look like (Brazilian wax and boob job anyone?). This is not about being anti-sex – sex is delicious when practised as it should be; without the numbing, destructive influence of porn. Porn unashamedly seeps in and degrades everything in life that should be sacred.

This is also not about shaming porn consumers, but about educating them to make better choices while calling to account those who profit and plunder and perpetuate. Like lifting the lid on cigarette smoking, it’s about standing up to a social norm that has detrimental effects for humanity. How frightful it is to contemplate just how, right now, the industry is indoctrinating children; not just those who are trafficked by the sex trade or are manipulated, cajoled and corrupted by adults, but those who are active and passive consumers (see Nina Funnell's chapter, 'Sexting and Peer-to-Peer Porn').

We humans have a particular knack for corrupting everything that's good in the world – from childhood to parenthood to work to food to our bodies – which in the end keeps us separated from the good living to which we are entitled, and also puts barriers up between us. As we were created to live relationally, in community, this isolation has detrimental effects.

As noted in this week's Short & Sweet, "To me, porn appears to be but one way people escape a gnawing sense of anomie – its power is seen in the ultimately corrosive creation of its own self-validating community." It feeds on loneliness, idleness, curiosity, the search for stimulation and intimacy; but in return it leaves us wanting because it is ultimately unfulfilling.

Unfortunately for some, by the time this realisation sets in, often the habitual nature – the addiction – has settled in, making an escape much more challenging and creating on top of this feelings of guilt and shame that further compact the problem. As Dr Robi Sonderegger notes in his chapter, 'Neurotica: Modern Day Sexual Repression':

According to Dr William Struthers, Associate Professor in Biopsychology, pornography creates significant confusion for the human brain. As pornography consumption increases, autonomy (freedom over what a person thinks and pursues) decreases, leaving one’s sexual drive screaming for an outlet... As the brain’s limbic system becomes dependent on the neurological rewards of viewing pornography, many consumers need to employ cognitive defence strategies to deal with the resulting dissonance and identity confusion.

The subject of sin is not something we deal with easily. None of us like to be told that we are guilty, shameful creatures because of our actions or thoughts. I have been exposed to porn; maybe you have, too? But I also know how it devalues relationships, disfigures the body, gets in between couples, saddens the soul. This is why Big Porn Inc is so important: it's about making us wake up to the damage that porn is doing, to both our psyches, relationships and the world in which we live, and restoring dignity where it has been lost. This is a private and social justice issue.

To my mind, though academics are quick to decry the legitimacy of personal experience (survey data always trumps the empirical, and even the obvious, right?), the most moving chapters in Big Porn Inc are the personal essays penned by 'Caroline', whose husband has/had a porn addiction, Stella, who 'danced for pornography', and Amy, a victim of child pornography.

I wept when I read of Caroline's frustration and heart ache, of the "layer of empathy" ground away in her man, of the feeling of being "cast aside, not good enough, mixed with conflicting emotions, of being degraded and defiled" by an industry that prowls at the edges, looking for someone to devour in the darkness of night. She writes:

I needed to mourn the loss of my relationship as I knew it and thought of it, and of my sexual self. I needed help in knowing how I – we – could rebuild a relationship with someone who could view and talk of women in those terms and still hold respect for him and myself… I have no time whatsoever for those who see pornography as liberating or empowering to women’s sexuality as this is absolutely not my experience at all. The distress caused sleepless nights, lots of crying, a constant feeling of being on edge, an anger that was all consuming.

This is so terribly sad; the spoiling of marriage, of a man's mind, soul and integrity, together with his wife's trust, respect and security. Does that not make you angry, not only about the husband's inability to see the damage he was doing, but also because of the industry that sucked him in and caused his emotional blindness? To that end, Big Porn Inc comes with several hopeful messages, including 'Men Opposing Pornography in the UK' by Matt McCormack Evans of The Anti Porn Men Project, in which he writes:

"Many men experience a conflict between their intellectual values and the nature of the pornography they use, finding it incredibly difficult to reconcile their use their use of sexist, violent and degrading material and their beliefs in equality and respect for women. However, few men openly admit such a conflict and it is difficult to find sources... Challenging the macho posturing and rhetoric so integral to porn usage and culture is essential to engaging men in serious discussion about pornography... For many men, it is already an incredibly uncomfortable task to challenge one's own behaviour when it comes to pornography use and this is only compounded by the normalisation of both the industry and pornographic imagery."

The devaluation and corruption of that which is good – love, childhood, marriage, our bodies, sex; fashion, music and creativity – I'm sure causes God great grief, but he is not at all surprised by our proclivity to sink to such lows. The Bible is testimony to that: Samson, Solomon and even the almighty King David fell into temptation, and Jesus – who was free of sin – was still vigilant about guarding himself against its persuasions.

Here we must make a distinction: to separate the sin itself (i.e. the idolatry of pornography, unfaithfulness, lust) from the sinner (corruptible man whose mind can rationalise anything apart from God's will), and he who causes someone to stumble into sin (Satan and his snares in many guises – like the designer dildo available in a shop in proximity to Victoria's Secret).

Dr Richard P. Bucher of the Lutheran Church Missouri delivers an excellent exposition on the power of temptation: "Temptation by its very nature is deception, a lie. What is evil is deceitfully presented as good, what is harmful as helpful, what is poison as antidote, what is enslaving as liberating, what is foul as fun. Temptation is what a trap is to an animal. It offers something good, but its true intent is to trap and kill. This is the background for Christ's statement about the devil in John 8:44, "When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies."

Temptation is everywhere: turn on the TV and you are lured into thinking that you need something new or to lose a kilo or two; visit the shopping mall and it's stuff for your trolley galore; open your inbox and you'll find bargain deals for a steal, and maybe a link to a porn site or two. Vigilance against its power is a community affair: we can all do our piece to ensure that our little ones, particularly, are protected from pornography (because, let's face it, if we are spoiled, the least we can do is give hope to the next generation), while in our own lives starving its influence by first acknowledging it and then actively seeking to stamp it out. 

My conclusion is that we must venture to rail against the cultural status quo and protect the vulnerable by ensuring them, like Charlotte, that they are wonderful and worthy: too good to settle for the dictates of pornography. Why play in the garbage tip when you have access to the park?

I like to think that, inherently, even Malcolm Day – the surveyor who "didn't plan to become a porn king", has employed "big, fat housewives... uni students with scant sexual experience but a gift for talking dirty" in his money-making endeavours and whose mother disapproved of his (unsuccessful, woohoo!) moves to open "the Westfield of brothels" – knows that. It is said that E.B. White wrote Charlotte's Web as an atonement for his failure to save a real-life pig from slaughter. Jesus came to deliver us all from the chopping block. In comparison to what God offers us in terms of pleasures, gifts and grace, porn is a big fat yawn in any way, shape and form. 

See also:
'A Study on Temptation' by Dr Richard P Bucher
And Biblical passages pertaining to temptation (in all its manifestations) for Christians:
"Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God – what is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect." - Paul, Romans 12:2
"If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck." - Jesus, Mark 9:42
"God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it." - Paul, 1 Corinthians: 10:13
"Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak." - Jesus, Matthew 26:41
"Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body." - Paul, 1 Corinthians 6:18
Matthew 5: 27-30

Girl With a Satchel

3 comments:

Nicole said...

Thank you for writing this extremely heartfelt post. I've always been incredibly anti-porn, for many reasons and you summed them up succinctly. God bless you!

Scarlett Harris @ The Early Bird Catches the Worm said...

I think it is damaging to assume that porn "causes emotional blindness"; those who are drawn to porn an abuse what can be a nice, consensual addition to a sexual relationship (or to placate sexual desire/frustration on your own) usually already have an underlying condition that causes their abhorrent views of women, sex and intimacy. Sure, there are some aspects of the porn industry I don't like, and which are downright disgusting (child pornography, sex with animals etc.) but, after all, it's "just a bit of f*cking", as Caitlin Moran has written.
http://earlybirdcatchestheworm.wordpress.com/2011/10/19/in-defence-of-porn/
But this article has piqued my interest in the book, Erica; before which I wasn't interested at all.

Anonymous said...

Hi Erica,

Thank you for continuing to speak against the degrading world of pornography.

The porn industry is like a virus that enters young people's minds. Even photographers who produce works of "soft" porn are introducing young people to a world of scripted sexuality. Scripted sexuality is toxic to our growing minds and forms a worldview where everyone is a sex object, where no-one is free at all.

So-called academics who continually water down the corrosive effects of pornography on our generation are a part of the problem.

These people have no backbone are afraid of speaking the truth. Pornography is not fluffy and kind as the spokespeople of the industry would us like to believe. It is a toxic brew of violence and oppression. It is a form of slavery that must end, if we believe in the right of our children to better future.

A.