In Defense of Pornography, In Revulsion of Jesus’ Redefinition of Adultery, In Minor Defense of Douthat

Here’s how it starts:

A Fox News sexpert declares that many spouses view “using porn, at least beyond a magazine like Playboy, [as] the equivalent of having an actual affair.”

Reason journalist Julian Sanchez can’t quite wrap his head around this comment:

This is tossed off as though it ought to be obvious to the ordinary reader. It strikes me as obviously insane. I can think of any number of valid concerns one might have about what sort of porn one’s partner is consuming, or the extent of it. But the proposition that one of them is any similarity between porn viewing and “having an actual affair” would not have occurred to me. Is this view held by any significant number of sane people?

But over at Atlantic Monthly, the often laudably contrarian conservative blogger Ross Douthat points out that, well, yes, plenty of spouses do see things that way:

Then consider: Is there any similarity between having sex with a prostitute while you’re married and paying to watch a prostitute perform sexual acts for your voyeuristic gratification? Again, I think a lot of people would say yes: There’s a distinction, obviously, but I don’t think all that many spouses would be inclined to forgive their husbands (or wives) if they explained that they only liked to watch the prostitute they’d hired. And hard-core porn, in turn, is nothing more than an indirect way of paying someone to fulfill the same sort of voyeuristic fantasies: It’s prostitution in all but name, filtered through middlemen, magazine editors, and high-speed internet connections. Is it as grave a betrayal as cheating on your spouse with a co-worker? Not at all. But is it on a moral continuum with adultery? I don’t think it’s insane to say yes.

(Heck, even Dan Dan Savage, sex-adviser extraordinaire, agrees with Ross that “porn as cheating” is quite a common idea.)

Next, quite a lot of Douthat’s commenters seem to lose track of the discussion entirely: they think that Douthat is trying to make an argument that pornography really is perfectly equivalent to having an extra-marital affair, when in fact he’s only trying to illustrate that there are reasonable similarities that might lead some quite sane spouses to consider porn a form of cheating. Much confusion ensues.

Finally, the discussion turns to the issue of the morality of pornography in general. Some people raise the issue of Jesus’ famous pronouncement that to look upon a woman with lust is to commit adultery in your heart. And then, Douthat regular Hector, who seems to believe that pornography is immoral by its “essential nature,” pops in to say that he’s “not sure what any of you would maintain are the good things that porn brings into this world.”

Well, allow me to re-introduce myself.

What’s good about porn? It’s hard to even know where to start: it’s the question an alien visitor the the earth might ask, like “what good is baseball?” It’s a question that must seem obvious to some, utterly bizarre to others.

First of all, there certainly can be bad things about porn, no mistake. There’s no defense of the production of pornography (or the implicit market endorsement of this pornography by consumers) that exploits or endangers its actors, and of course a great deal of the pornographic industry has done exactly that: chewed people up, exploited them, hurt them, and spit them out. But then, how much of that is really the fault of the particular social underworld that modern pornography was born into in our culture, and how much is truly intrinsic to sticking human bodies, or human sexuality, behind a camera lens?

Well, what good is porn? What good can porn bring into the world? I think I can rattle off a few answers.

Porn is an aid to masturbation, which is both pleasurable in its own right and meets a human urge that can otherwise become overwhelming and distracting if not regularly met (particularly for young men, who should have other important life concerns at that age than women).

Porn can save relationships and marriages. It can allow sexually unfulfilled partners (men and women alike) to “get off” without placing that burden on their spouse who may be temporarily or even permanently unwilling or unable. It means there is an avenue of sexual fulfillment (granted one that’s generally regarded inferior to real sex) that can stave off break ups or the temptations to cheat. Sometimes people want to stay together for the sake of the family and friendship, even if sex isn’t an option. Porn can help make that plausible.

Then again, porn can also be mutually appreciated and enjoyed by couples in any case as an enhancement or even a form of education. That’s a good thing.

I also think you can make a serious case that porn, contrary to the beliefs of some sex-negative feminists like Catharine Macinnon, can help reduce, rather than inspire, sexually aggressive behavior in real life. Healthy sane people learn how to separate fantasy from reality: better appreciating the boundaries and important concerns of real life by contrasting it against the lack of boundaries in thought.

All of these defenses for porn are still compatible with the idea that porn can be misused, overused, taken to excess, have negative effects on people with a poor understanding between the difference between fantasy and reality, and so on. As can anything. Porn, as Douthat is quite correct to point out, really can be problem in relationships. Couples are cheating themselves if they don’t honestly communicate their boundaries to each other, come to appreciate each others’ desires and needs, and understand what the “price of admission” is for each partner that they are committing to: a commitment that for some may legitimately include a no porn pledge.

But the reality still remains that the vast majority of men, and quite a lot of women, enjoy porn, and live full and complete that do not especially hurt anyone. What good is porn? It’s a healthy part of those lives, and perhaps an inseparable one.

And here’s the thing that gets me.

Why do people fear porn so intrinsically? Why do so many feel that sexual fantasy is ultimately a vice, something to be condemned? Something that is, by its “essential nature,” evil?

The reality is that a lot of it traces back to the basic idea most famously expressed by Jesus: adultery in the mind. An obsessive and grossly excessive criminalizing of thought and fantasy. Seeing sexuality as a voracious beast to be constantly wrestled with, rather than something natural that needs merely to be moderated by other important concerns and values. An endorsement of self-scathing guilt as a legitimate response to feeling any sort of sexual desire.

There’s no two ways about it. That idea is a far more vile a stain on humanity than any woman masturbating is on her own reputation or anyone else’s.

As with the denigration of gay people and all the endless persecution and self-loathing it engendered, those handful of words by Jesus, their popularization, the attempt to live by them and to force others to take them seriously: those things have led more suffering, more evil, more twisted screwed-up-edness from sexual self-repression and hatred, than I can even begin to catalog. And really, it’s more suffering and needless, utterly pointless evil than I can even bare to contemplate for long. It’s just too upsetting.

And so, to sit around and condemn pornography is one thing: there are many things to criticize about the porn industry, the culture in which it takes place, its implicit messages about gender or women, and so on. As with virtually any human endeavor, when humans get together to do something, especially when it is forced to be illicit, especially when lots of money is at stake, people can and often do hurt each other.

But to condemn pornography in the abstract, on the basis of that particular religious impulse: the idea that sexual thought, desire, and fantasy are inherently our enemies…

…that, in light of its vast and seemingly never-ending harm on the human psyche, is far more morally obscene than anything that two naked human bodies have ever shown to a camera.

11 Responses to In Defense of Pornography, In Revulsion of Jesus’ Redefinition of Adultery, In Minor Defense of Douthat

  1. leftcoastlibrul says:

    I’m not sure exactly why anyone would consider it “cheating,” but I do know that plenty of women do feel that men looking at porn constitutes a betrayal. In reality, it’s no more “real” than a magazine. I think the feeling is that the SO *wants* to have sex with someone else, and this is a good way to go about doing that, instead of what it actually is…an escapist fantasy. People fantasize. There is no way to stop people from thinking about sex and force them to think only of their partner when it comes to sexual acts. And while emotions are difficult to control, and our feelings are not always rational, refusing to acknowledge certain things keeps us mired in these self destructive circlees.

  2. Bad says:

    I agree that someone asking their partner not to ever look at pornography is a pretty strong request. But the point is that people have the right to make such requests, and define their understanding of emotional fidelity to include them. And their partners, of course, have the right to say that that’s just too high of a “price of admission” in the relationship, and not agree to it. Though, of course, they might have equally hard requests in return.

    The reason someone might consider it cheating is for all the same reasons they would be hurt by real cheating: they fear that it threatens the relationship because the focus is now off of them, they worry that they aren’t good enough or sexually attractive enough, the outright deception and lying, and so on.

    The point is that people who want good relationships should be honest about these sorts of things, or at least as honest as is reasonable.

  3. leftcoastlibrul says:

    Oh, I agree. The problem, I think, is that so very few people are honest even with themselves. Pornography viewing may very well be something that one partner agrees to with the idea that even though it upsets or hurts, they can live with it because they care so much about their partner, and they’ll work through their own feelings. Which is a disingenuous position, but one I’ve heard more than once. “I love him, I’ll deal with it.” It ends up causing resentment in the long run, which is no good for anyone. People are so afraid of losing something important (a relationship with someone they love), they’re willing to make that sacrifice. We’re a bunch of neurotic bald monkeys.

    As you said, honesty is key. But it has to start with honesty to one’s self. Okay. Enough pompous preaching.

  4. […] a form of cheating.  In fact, I’m quite confident that there are many such examples, and this fine fellow points out that even the greatest of all sexologists, Dan Savage, agrees that many people view […]

  5. Dave says:


    Thanks for posting this. It’s far-and-away the most coherently-phrased and reasonable set of opinions stated on this entire matter today.

    I’ve offered my own meager thoughts on the subject, including a link to your post, over at my place. Hope you like it, and thanks again for this. You gained a new reader today.


  6. PhillyChief says:

    This is a very intelligent and rational post. It’s far too easy to get emotional in the defense of porn since the objections are so irrationally based.

  7. “Mounties have laid child pornography charges against a man after suspicious photos were found on the Eden Valley reserve. On June 13, a teacher at Chief Jacob Bearspaw school on the reserve discovered several dozen “questionable” photos near a printer and alerted the principal, who called police, said Turner Valley RCMP Sgt. Jim Ross. After a subsequent, and assistance from the Southern Alberta Integrated Child Exploitation Team, police discovered evidence of alleged child exploitation and arrested a 42-year-old man on Friday. Leon Rider of Eden Valley, who works at the school, was charged with sexual interference, possession of child pornography, accessing child pornography, and voyeurism, Ross said. ”

    1 Peter 5:8 “Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walks about, seeking whom he. may devour: whom resist steadfast in the faith” and do note this our personal active, continual steadfast resistance is always still required to the devil, at all times. Don’t open any doors at all for the devil. The devil is seeking for any crack he can crawl through in your life.

    All alleged sexual Child exploitation, or any alleged even sexual abuses are next as my father terms them as “unacceptable fantasies” tend to start in the mind, the person has temptations that he or she next falsely believe they have to act them out.. sadly it is undeniable that magazines and the internet do make such temptations by movies, pictures too readily available for anyone, adults included too but firstly all abuses, including sexual, or verbal, physical. bullying, slandering, are firstly unacceptable, even of all children, adults, all male and female, and even all animals now too. I have noted that any persons who can readily abuse a cat or dog will next too readily abuse a child, any person as well. Sadly these abuses and many other such as drugs, alcoholism, gambling, now have clearly all been increasing not decreasing

    For we do not wrestle (not only) against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

    Every person in life, of any age has an real, big, continual enemy for a start. Regardless of whether you realize it, Satan has targeted you as a victim. Although unseen by the natural eye, this adversary still is not imaginary nor a mythological character. Satan, the Devil, is a real person… a spirit being, with intelligence, tangible characteristics, and whose incessant goal and ambition is to “steal, kill, and destroy” for the devil aggressively searches for weakness in our life, hoping to devour us with deception, temptation, or oppression. Somewhere in the shadows, he and his forces lurk, waiting, planning for the moment they will strike when you’re likely the weakest too. His method of operation is almost initially always “undercover.” but he will next use a real person to do his dirty work if he cannot succeed. Anyone denying his existence, or remaining ignorant of his reality, and his method of operations now, is rather also helping him, the devil in his goals towards us, goals of also closing all of our relationships, communications with God himself. Subtly, he even does manipulates hindering circumstances and inspires evil thoughts, false dreams, or all temptations, even disguising his activities behind the shroud of people or things around us.

    The thief comes only in order to steal and kill and destroy. I (Jesus) came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance (to the full, till it [a]overflows). (John 10:10)

    When Jesus gave his life on the cross as the sacrifice for the personal sins of the whole world, He also provided the redemption for us from Satan’s power and dominion over us. “Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:15). “…For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). We can Praise God! Satan now really is already a defeated enemy! His legal authority over any of us was neutralized by the finished work of Christ on the cross.

    While we all are human, weak, sinful, in the flesh, the good news is why the Devil is described “like” a “roaring lion,” in reality he has no actual authority over you if you do not let him. You can use your authority in Jesus Christ to continually, daily tell him the devil to cease, to dissolve, to depart, go away, disappear and he next has to do that and will. Do not give into his temptations because he next will only give you more of them too.

    (Col 3:5) Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: 6 For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: 7 In the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them. 8 But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. 9 Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds;10 And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: 11 Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.

    Personal active resistance to the devil and his ways, works is still best personal thing still too.

    But it would be futile to order Satan’s departure if we leave the door wide open for him to flourish. The Bible tells us to not “give place” for the Devil (Eph. 4:27). That is, provide no area of your life where Satan can be comfortable or establish strongholds.

    The enemy can always be found working in those who entertain sin, disobedience, rebellion or a self-willed nature. Unforgiveness toward others is another area which Satan flourishes (2 Cor. 2:11). Furthermore, any area of your life which is not submitted to God is considered open territory to the Devil, and he has the right to bring his expanding influence to those areas.

    This is why the scripture says, “…submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). The only way to actually resist Satan is to submit yourself fully to God. This was what Jesus was referring to when He said, “…the ruler of this world is coming, and he has nothing in Me” (John 14:30). Jesus had submitted himself to God, and although the Devil would try Him, there was nothing for the Devil to use to gain an advantage.

    Rejoice Christian! God is in you, and YOU have been given power over the Devil! By submitting to God, and exercising your authority in the name of Jesus, you are more powerful than the enemy. “…He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

    (Gal 5:19 KJV) Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, 20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, 21 Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, 23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. 24 And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. 25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. 26 Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another. 6:1 Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.

  8. Bad says:

    Perhaps for someone so deeply ensconced in dogma, thenonconformer, you could choose a more fitting name. But you do provide a perfect example of the sort of harmful paranoia I’m talking about.

    Those people who cannot discern fantasy from reality? Who do not have normal concepts of appropriate boundaries, consent and moderation when it comes to sexuality? It’s no accident that the vast majority of them come from backgrounds that heavily repress or damage their sexualities: they are often taught exactly the extremely stringent paranoid beliefs about their own minds that you are trying to defend here.

    And you know what that does to people? It turns them in self-conflicted wrecks. It is your belief in Satan that does the very harm to these people that you ascribe to Satan in the first place.

    The rest of us, on the other hand, the vast majority of us, seem to get by just fine.

  9. this is a good blog. will come back regularly to read more write up

  10. Foundation for Defense of Democracies

    In Defense of Pornography, In Revulsion of Jesus’ Redefinition of Adultery, In Minor Defense of Douthat | The Bad Idea Blog

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