(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.