It Seduces

(Part 3 of a series)

There are things in this world that call out to us, demanding our attention. Television commercials, until recently, were allowed to use loud volume to catch our attention (though despite legislation that was supposed to eliminate this practice it still seems to be a problem). Huge billboards are placed in conspicuous locations, and ads in magazines use imagery to catch our eyes. Even our phone apps can issue alerts when you aren’t using them as much as they feel you should.

When I watch the trailers that play prior to the start of a movie, it seems that sex appeal is one of the primary ways that producers try to get viewers to pay to see their films. Sex appeal is effective because it relies on the portrayal of something intrinsically beautiful – that is, sex, as an illustration of the love between two people – but in a way that carnally-driven, fallen minds are tempted to pursue. In all of the examples above, sex appeal is used in what might seem “harmless” to the typical person because there is no nudity, but which I still lump into the category of “pornography”. I consider pornography to be anything that attempts to use sex or sex appeal to evoke lustful thoughts in the mind of the viewer. Within this definition, then, the labels on bras (for example) do not count as pornography…but the big 10-foot-long posters of buxom lounging women in the windows of Victoria’s Secret in every major mall do. Some might argue that those posters are intended to help women feel beautiful in VS products by showing them what they “could” look like when wearing the products. While the products themselves can be used to empower or encourage women within their romantic relationships and help them feel beautiful, I would disagree that this is the intended purpose for these posters.

The temptation associated with pornography is strong. I described it earlier as one that plays on many desires and weaknesses within people. It says “I’m worth it” to whatever cost might be associated with succumbing to that temptation. It presents many desirable things to the viewer or listener. It seduces.

Seduction is a deliberate act. This puts it one step above temptation, because temptation in and of itself may not be deliberately established. When I know there are a couple cookies left in the cupboard and it’s almost time to go to bed, I’m tempted to eat them so that I can enjoy their flavor before going to sleep. But the cookies themselves are not designed to tempt me – the baker wasn’t plotting and scheming – nor do the cookies act on their own to tempt me. On the other hand, when pornographic content (including ads or programs using scantily-clad men or women to sell a product or catch a viewer’s eye) is designed it is designed with the purpose of tempting somebody to look and watch. There may be additional goals from there – selling a product, promoting a person, etc. – but the initial intent, the initial goal, is to tempt the viewer to look at it. This is deliberate. This is seduction.

Seduction is about a thrill associated with desire. It’s about enticement. In seduction, something is used to draw you in, to make you want more. It plays on your desires, your cravings, and your pleasures. When done well, it is so perfectly targeted that your ability to resist gives way and you are enveloped by it. Promises are made that if it continues things will get even better. In that moment, every attempt is made to make you forget your concerns, your other desires, and anything else that might make you hold back.

The angler fish is a fish that lives deep in the ocean, where light cannot reach. In this dark environment, angler fish have evolved a luminous extension that rises up over their mouth, which seems to serve as bait for prey. Other fish see this light in the darkness, swim toward it, and are gobbled up by the angler fish.

(Image courtesy of FactZoo: http://www.factzoo.com/fish/anglerfish-worlds-most-hideous-fish.html)

In an environment that is pitch black, the glow of luminous flesh is so appealing that fish are seduced by and drawn to it like moths to a lightbulb. They never know that below this thing of marvelous beauty lies a gaping mouth filled with sharp teeth – until it has devoured them.

Pornography is like this. It presents something that was originally good and beautiful and it says, “Aren’t I wonderful? Don’t you want more?” It twists and distorts it to target the fallen desires of our minds, and promises gratification. It promises satisfaction. It promises pleasure. But underneath this presentation lies a gaping mouth with razor-sharp teeth, prepared to devour all who venture too closely.

 

It Tempts

(Part 2 of a series)

Note: much of this is written from a heterosexual male perspective because this represents the majority of pornography users as well as the perspective of the author. However, women do represent an increasing fraction of those who use pornography so the pronouns used in this post could easily be swapped or rearranged as the reader deems appropriate.

All around us in modern culture we are surrounded by lurid images. While network television pushes the envelope with scenes showing people in underwear or the view from behind of a topless woman, cable television and satellite dish programming use their less-restricted status as license to portray people naked and/or appearing to have sex. Advertisements use sexual allure to sell products on television, in magazines, and even on billboards. Movies and books almost always have some sort of sex scene in them. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is considered too bland anymore if it doesn’t contain images of women wearing nothing but body paint “swimsuits.” And, of course, sexual pop-up and sidebar ads appear everywhere online.

These media influences impact how sex appeal manifests itself in other aspects of culture. Artists toe the line, and even cross it, with graphic renditions of sexual subjects on public display. Fashion lines produce clothing for teenagers that puts on display what is only just beginning to develop physically. Smartphone apps become tools for teens to share sexualized images with romantic partners and means by which sexual predators gain access to children who are not aware of their advances. These are just a few examples.

Intrinsically, sex is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing. Humans have been designed to enjoy sex, more so than most other animals. And like all good things, people desire it. Sweet treats and shopping at the mall are also good things that people desire. So wherein lies the problem?

Humanity has a problem – all things have been corrupted by the Fall. This means that when we seek out good things, we have a predisposition toward using those good things badly. It may not be in ways that are obviously bad – buying a gun is not an intrinsically malicious action unless it is done with the intent to harm someone – but it is usually in ways that are more subtly bad. For example, a person may find himself having a rather unpleasant day and buy some ice cream as a treat to lift his or her spirits. Buoyed by the rush of sugar, he feels much better. The next time he has a bad day, he may buy more ice cream for that sense of comfort again. After this repeats some number of times, the ice cream has become more than simply an innocent treat – it has become the cushion on which he falls when he is in anything but a good mood. Taken too far, the ice cream becomes what puts him in a good mood. Alcohol could be substituted into this example with the same outcome – something amoral becomes immoral when it is abused. The desire for something that is intrinsically innocent becomes a dependency. This is what our fallen human condition does, and other obvious examples exist, such as drugs and video games.

Sex has been so corrupted, distorted into something it was not intended to be. This is evident immediately in the Bible after Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and realized they were naked. The exposure of their nude bodies produced a sense of shame and withdrawal, where they hid from God and covered themselves up. The exposure of their nude bodies became taboo, and has been ever since.

When something that was designed to be good is used in a way that is no longer good, or when something good becomes corrupted into something bad, there exists in association with it a degree of taboo. Nudity, then, has become taboo. We wear clothing to cover ourselves, but some individuals may wear less clothing as a means of drawing attention to themselves. The more revealing the clothing, the more taboo it is, and thus the more attention it draws. We have sex in darkened bedrooms as a means of visually covering our nakedness while still engaging in something pleasurable because nakedness is so taboo that even revealing our body to our spouse is psychologically difficult (though not impossible, as there are assuredly many instances of couples who leave the lights on).

Where taboo exists, temptation to violate that taboo exists as well. Just as it is typically considered taboo (by many) to wear revealing clothing in public, it is also taboo to stare at people who wear revealing clothing. The beach is a prime example, where revealing bathing suits are commonplace and where staring is considered lecherous. The temptation to stare at women in scanty bikinis exists, strongly, and many men surrender to the temptation without even thinking about it. Other men succumb to the temptation by attempting to be more discreet about it – using mirrored sunglasses or lengthy sidelong glances. The temptation is so prevalent that it is often not even considered a temptation in the negative sense, but instead may be thought of as an entitlement: “The beach is where I go to stare at women, and the women there want me to stare or else they wouldn’t dress like that.” (Note that I say nothing here about justifying that thought, though it may very well be true that some number of people do want to be noticed.)

Sex is likewise taboo. It is generally not culturally acceptable to talk about sex in public. When it does occur, such conversation attracts glances from nearby listeners or headshakes from the older generation who would never have spoken of such things beyond closed doors. And although it is frequently depicted in television shows and movies, it is not uncommon for viewers to avert their eyes during such scenes and for parents to skip over the scene or tell their children to look away. Movies with a high amount of sexual conduct (eg. Fifty Shades of Grey) are viewed with suspicion by some and disgust by others, while the media fawns with amazement that something so classically “forbidden” is now available on screen.

Like any type of taboo, it has an associated temptation with it. People perk up their ears when they overhear sex being discussed because they want to hear about it. Movies and television depict sex acts because the viewers want to see it – if they didn’t, there would be no market for it. Although experiencing it is better, seeing or hearing about it is enticing enough that the temptation is there to pay attention. Indeed, the temptation is even there to seek it out. And those that seek it out need not look far.

Pornography calls out to those who seek it. “Come find me.” It may occur in bookstores, where the adult magazines are placed on top racks behind rows of other magazines but where the titles peek out at the customer. The temptation arises to try to peek around those other magazines, to see what the cover holds. Advertisements on television geared at men bring with them a temptation: if you wear our product, you could have sexual experiences with women like these. The online advertisements that pop up or appear at the bottom of web pages offer the temptation: click here to watch something you otherwise might not get to see.

Whether or not one succumbs to temptation is the result of a cost-benefit analysis. Violating taboos carries a social cost – if you click on that link and somebody sees you do it, then they will view you differently from then on. You become “that kind of guy.” This could be a prohibitively high cost, especially if a man is married. On the other hand, the benefit he might perceive in clicking the link could be so high that it is worth the risk. Just a little peek, just a little release of pleasure hormones in the brain, and then back to life as usual. If the benefit outweighs the cost, then he clicks the link. If the cost is too high, he refrains. But the temptation is there.

The temptation that pornography offers is strong because it offers a view of something that seems exciting. The chance to see something that isn’t often seen or isn’t easy to come by during the course of a typical day. The opportunity for a man or woman to lay his or her eyes on the body of a man or woman without the social cost associated with getting caught staring, in a context that gets past the covering of clothing, and in a way that doesn’t require them to be in a relationship first. If it is sexual pornography, then he can even envision himself as the male role and “experience” the excitement of sex with somebody new every night without the risks of sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy, commitments, or broken relationships. With those things as benefits, and no or little perceived cost if done in the privacy of one’s own home, it is no wonder that so many respond to the temptation by clicking on the link.

However, temptation has the connotation of going against what one “ought” to do. We know we shouldn’t have another bowl of ice cream, but if we do just this once what’s the harm? We will feel awful if we have one more alcoholic drink, but the night has been fun up to now, or I’m feeling better than I did before, and one more drink will keep the good feelings going. We know that if we stare at that woman she may feel uncomfortable, but if we do it without her noticing then it’s OK right?

Pornography resides at the apex of social taboos. It carries with it a high cost if a man is perceived as a pornography connoisseur. He may experience broken relationships or be viewed as unsavory or untrustworthy. And yet, because it is the distortion of something good it carries with it a high degree of perceived benefit and can be used by a man to experience physical reward. Its call is strong, and its temptation is powerful: come find me; I’m worth it.

It Calls

(Part 1 of a series)

When I was a boy – fourth grade, perhaps – I knew about the female body. I didn’t know much, nor did I know why I was so interested, but I knew I was interested. Perhaps it represents what some have seen when they describe the female body as “a work of art”, beautiful in its curves and tender in its softness. Or perhaps it’s something else. All I know is that by fourth grade I was casually and discreetly stealing glances in the lingerie section of the JCPenney catalog that came in the mail.

Such imagery has a certain allure to it. When something is consistently hidden from view it becomes tantalizing to the young mind. Why is this always covered? What does it look like? Why am I prevented from seeing it? Such questions foster a desire to see what is being concealed, and as more time passes the desire grows.

A young boy doesn’t typically have the resources to go beyond this point. The underwear section at the store, the underwear store at the mall, and other advertisements are usually the only static images that are accessible – and even these are not readily accessible but only available by opportunity. Television offers glances as well, depending on the programming, but these are even more tantalizing than images because they are there one second and gone the next as the show continues. What remains is an image in the mind’s eye.

The images in the mind’s eye, however, are powerful remnants. A printed image remains “outside”, where the brain need not load it into working memory because it’s already accessible via sensory input. The images in the mind’s eye represent objects in memory – short-term memory at first – where the mind can dwell on its appearance. This dwelling may not last long, maybe only a few seconds or minutes, but during that time the mind can manipulate the image in a way that a printed image cannot be manipulated. It can be shifted, re-positioned, and even modified in appearance. Clothing can be removed and faces can be replaced.

If the mental image is dwelled upon for long enough, it can even be transferred to long-term memory for later retrieval. The more frequently this retrieval occurs, the more lasting the memory becomes. It goes from being “something I once saw” to “something I can now see whenever I want.” It becomes ingrained in the person’s mind as a permanent object. It becomes part of the person.

People are social creatures. While there are small numbers of exceptions, and the degree may vary from person to person, typically people like being around other people. It is fundamental to who we are as humans and may have at its roots an origin in our spiritual nature as well as our evolutionary history, where survival was better ensured by sticking together rather than striking out on one’s own. In every country, and every survivable habitat, people have grouped together. Even beyond that, people frequently group together based on some shared characteristic(s). It may be shared appearances, shared occupations, shared experiences, shared values, shared interests, and any other of a number of common elements or environmental factors that encourage us to seek the company of others. The point is that a force within us compels us to find more of that “something”. The old adage is that “misery loves company”, but it is also true that joy loves company. Struggle loves company. Wit loves company. Addiction loves company.

One could wager that every human emotion and experience loves company. A golfer looks for others with whom they can share a round on the course, and an intellectual looks for others with whom they can trade barbs or discuss issues in great depth. Those who celebrate look for others to celebrate with, and those who mourn look for others to mourn with.

This indicates that the interaction between emotional experience and psychological need is a strong one. We look to others who share what we are experiencing for relationship purposes, but also so we can share their experience. Adrenaline “junkies” find excitement in experiencing high-risk situations with others, but also find excitement in hearing about high-risk situations others have experienced. When a person has an interest, a value, or an experience, they seek others with those same characteristics so they can share in what the other brings to the table. This is to say that all characteristics of our humanity – born and resident in the mind – love company.

The long-term memory represents a storehouse of knowledge attained and developed by a person during the course of his or her life. It is not just a repository of facts but a system of connections, insights, and truths that one’s mind has deemed important enough to retain for later use and which are used frequently enough to have persisted. It is this frequent use that reinforces the permanence of a memory. A student may take three years of a foreign language in high school, but if several years subsequently pass with no use and no need to use it then the memory will fade. It will be deemed unimportant. But if the student simply talks to himself or herself in that language, then frequent retrieval of the memories aids in cementing those memories in a lasting way. In this way, the language transitions from being a lesson learned in the past to being a characteristic of that person.

Emotional experiences have a similar pattern. If a person harbors a grudge against someone else but quickly forgives it and reconciles the relationship, then the memory of the origin of that grudge fades easily with time. This is one reason why being able to forgive is healthy. But if that person dwells on the memory, frequently remembering the instance where they were wronged by their friend, then the grudge has the ability to permanently fracture the relationship and permanently etch itself onto the mind of the bearer. Such memories are very difficult to forget, and that person might also find it very difficult (if not impossible) to forgive the wrong. The grudge has become part of that person.

An image in the mind can likewise persist if it is frequently retrieved. A book with vivid descriptions forms an image in the mind’s eye that, if striking enough, can persist for years afterward. Similarly, the more the mind dwells on an image, playing with it in different ways, the stronger the memory of that image will be.

Persistent long-term memories of images that represent emotional feelings, adrenaline rushes, powerful experiences, or strong desires thus have the power to shape a person. They can impact personality and behavior, in some cases triggering an impulse to seek more. That impulse acts as an internal motivation to satisfy one’s desire for more of what has already sculpted the psyche. The memories love company, and demand more memories of a similar nature. Having planted the seed in the fertile soil of a young, impressionable, developing brain, pornography grows and sends out deep roots.

But even flowers that look beautiful on the outside can harbor foul secrets. The titan arum, a large flower native to Sumatra, has vivid colors and an enormous flower. But once it opens, a rancid odor is emitted that leads many to call it the “corpse flower.” Lurid, sexual imagery of the naked human body – pornography – is such a flower, but where the stench isn’t noticed until some time has passed. And from its putrid blossom arises a call: come find me.