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.”
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.