What Can Jennifer Lawrence and Russell Brand Teach Us About Pornography?

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Jennifer Lawrence. Photo by Gage Skidmore

It is not a scandal. It is a sex crime. It is a sexual violation. It’s disgusting. The law needs to be changed, and we need to change. That’s why these Web sites are responsible. Just the fact that somebody can be sexually exploited and violated, and the first thought that crosses somebody’s mind is to make a profit from it. It’s so beyond me. I just can’t imagine being that detached from humanity. I can’t imagine being that thoughtless and careless and so empty inside. [….]

I started to write an apology, but I don’t have anything to say I’m sorry for. I was in a loving, healthy, great relationship for four years. It was long distance, and either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he’s going to look at you.

That’s Jennifer Lawrence’s reaction to her nude photos being stolen and published online. Whether she intended to or not, she’s exposed four of the most common lies that we tell ourselves about sex and pornography, beginning with these two:

  • Lie #1: Pornography isn’t cheating.

  • Lie #2: The world of online pornography isn’t part of the real world.

Jennifer is right to describe the theft and publication of her nude photos as “ a sex crime” and “a sexual violation.” But that acknowledges a basic truth about pornography that we don’t want to admit: that it’s inherently sexual. This is glaringly obvious, but we pretend to be ignorant of it, because it’s inconvenient.

If you’re married, but you spend your evenings hiding out in trees, watching through your neighbor’s windows as they have sex, that’s cheating. It doesn’t matter if your neighbors know what you’re doing or not, because what you’re doing is contrary to monogamy and to marital fidelity.

But for some reason, if you’re watching people undress through a computer screen rather than a window, we treat it differently. This is a sort of digital illusion. Even if you spend a majority of your life online, it’s easy to think of the offline world as “the real world.” In a way, we’re talking about a cognitive limitation common to humans, not entirely different from the way that people think about credit cards differently than cash. The money doesn’t feel as “real” when it’s only accessible electronically, so they overspend.

This illusion, this self-deception, causes a lot of damage. We see it in the case of online bullying, and the general nastiness of YouTube comments: people say awful things to one another, things that they would never say in person, because everything seems less real when it’s online. So it is here: pornography users act towards women online in a way that they (hopefully) would never think of acting towards women “in real life.” Jennifer’s response, like the response of the victims of cyber-bullying or the credit card statement at the end of the month, reminds us that the things we say and do online are very real. So stop thinking about pornography any differently than any other context in which you watch people undress or have sex. It’s cheating, it’s contrary to fidelity or monogamy, and it’s morally wrong.

Jean Carolus, Peeping Tom (19th c.)
Jean Carolus, Peeping Tom (19th c.)
  • Lie #3: Pornography empowers women

Jennifer Lawrence was exploited, and her dignity violated, by the hackers who stole her photos, by the websites who made money off of these photos, and by the Internet users who served as consumers for this exploitation. And she was rightly outraged about this, as her response shows.

But she was exploited by someone else, too: her boyfriend. Jennifer’s explanation for why she felt like she needed to pose naked in the first place was that he lived far away, and “either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he’s going to look at you.”  Think about that: Jennifer Lawrence, one of the most powerful, most beautiful young women on the planet, didn’t feel like she could say “no” to producing pornography for her boyfriend, since she was competing against an entire Internet’s worth of naked women.

That’s awful. When we look out at other parts of the world, we talk about how polygamy “usually is anathema to women’s economic, social and emotional well-being.” A society in which men are able to play their various wives against each other isn’t one that’s good for women. But we’re generally blind to the ways that we’re guilty of the exact same thing here at home, only without the pretense of marriage. Jennifer didn’t say that this was something that she wanted to do, or even that she was willing to do something she wasn’t altogether comfortable with because she wanted to please her boyfriend. She said, in essence, that she did it because the alternative was even worse.

So it’s not just that pornography is exploitative of the real-life women being leered at. It’s also disempowering to every woman who has to compete against it, because it makes it that much harder to say “no” to things to which she’s morally opposed, or with which she feels uncomfortable. And worse yet, it has a cascading effect: the more women give in to this pressure, the more pressure there is on every other woman.

  • Lie #4: Pornography is a victimless vice.

Imagine that you’ve got a family business selling widgets. Your widgets are lovingly made, and the price reflects the quality. One day, a Wal-Mart opens up down the block. Overnight, you and all the other small widget businesses become an endangered species. Wal-Mart is virtually giving the widgets away. If you don’t want your customers to leave you for Wal-Mart, you’ve got a couple of options: either (1) lower your prices, or (2) convince people that your widgets are better than Wal-Mart’s.

There are more parallels than we’d like to acknowledge between the marketplace and the world of sex, romance, and marriage. If your boyfriend, Brad, wants you to do something that you’re not morally or emotionally okay with, it’s a lot harder to say “no” if you know that Brooke from the local Applebee’s is more than willing (my apologies to Brookes for this gross stereotype). In the past, women have responded to this situation the way small businesses respond to Wal-Mart: by denouncing their rivals as cheap and trashy.

In economic terms, women operated a bit like a price-fixing cartel. Just as OPEC says, “we’re not going to sell oil for less than x amount per gallon,” women said, “we’re not going to have sex with you without (for example) a wedding ring.” Of course, there are women who broke with the pack, just as there are OPEC nations who undercut the fixed price, seeking personal advantage over the good of the others. But in both cases, the “cartel” responds by condemning the “price cutter.”

These denunciations served as an important counterbalance. The “Brads” of the world pressure women in the direction of promiscuity: they want to drive the value of women’s sexuality down. Other women (the ones condemning the “Brookes” of the world), apply pressure in the opposite direction. These days, however, we’re told that this is “slut shaming” – which, of course, it is. So now, you’re not allowed to be not-okay with Brooke’s behavior. Or at least, you’re not allowed to voice your objections, because we pretend that Brooke’s actions only impact her. And so the sexual pressures on women are increasingly only in the direction of promiscuity. In the name of preserving Brooke’s right to do what she wants without suffering the consequences, those consequences are felt by every woman who has to compete against her.

Virtually everything that I’ve said here is true in reverse, too: men feel enormous pressures to fornicate, in order to “be a man.” But for a variety of reasons, this phenomenon is easier to see in those cases in which the man is pushing for commitment-less sex, and the woman is wanting something more, like a wedding. And this is particularly true when we’re talking about pornography, because women aren’t just up against Brooke, but untold scores of disrobed women. As long as we accept the framework that “either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he’s going to look at you,” your only option is to lower yourself to appease whatever his sexual appetite happens to be.

Jan van Bijlert, At the Procuress (17th c.)
Jan van Bijlert, At the Procuress (17th c.)

So we’ve already seen two ways that pornography is anything but victimless: it’s a form of cheating, and it helps to create the social conditions in which women don’t feel comfortable saying no to sexual demands. But there are other ways, as well.

If someone spent their days looking at child pornography, you wouldn’t doubt for a moment that there were real victims. Not only is the dignity of the children depicted violated anew every time someone looks at the pictures of them, but it damages the user’s relationships with all of the children that he interacts with. You can’t spend your days watching child pornography, and come away with a healthy view of children. And of course, that’s true even if you’re not looking at real pictures, but just fantasizing about children in this way.

So, too, with pornography depicting adults. Consider the number of people you meet in the course of a day, or a month, or your whole life. If you’re a consumer of pornography, consider now the number of women you see in a particular sitting. For some of you, most of the women you’ve seen in your life have been naked, or about to get naked, and presented to you as sexual objects. You can’t live that life without it damaging your view of, and interactions with, women. It’s just not possible to compartmentalize that dramatically.

The person most directly harmed by your pornographic consumption (besides yourself) is your spouse. Recent studies have shown how pornography consumption damages the sexual behavior of men:

the more pornography a man watches, the more likely he was to use it during sex, request particular pornographic sex acts of his partner, deliberately conjure images of pornography during sex to maintain arousal, and have concerns over his own sexual performance and body image. Further, higher pornography use was negatively associated with enjoying sexually intimate behaviors with a partner.

…and women:

Women who consumed pornography had more positive attitudes toward extramarital sex, adult premarital sex, and teenage sex. Women who consumed pornography also had more sexual partners in the prior year, prior 5 years, and were more likely to have engaged in extramarital sex and paid sex.

…and adolescents:

All other things equal, more frequent exposure to sexual media was related to ever having had sex, coercive sex victimization, and attempted/completed rape but not risky sexual behavior.

Of all people, the actor Russell Brand recently spoke out against this, speaking candidly about the effects of pornography generally, and in his own life: the way that pornographic consumption hyper-sexualizes media and culture, desensitizes viewers (including unwitting ones), impedes intimacy; and impacts how users view women. In his words, “Porn is not something I like, it’s not something I’ve been able to make a long-term commitment to not looking at, and it’s affecting my ability to relate to women, to relate to myself, to my own sexuality, to my own spirituality.” Those injuries don’t just hurt the users themselves, but their loved ones, the culture and society more broadly. If anything good is to come out of Jennifer Lawrence’s humiliation, it should be that it forces us to reassess our baseless assumption that pornography is harmless for individuals, couples, or society.

13 Comments

  1. Very good writing and thinking Joe. I think it could be summed up: Sin will never stay in a bedroom… it wants to get into the hotel room, family room, internet…. every heart and mind. Nothing less.
    Your essay needs to be submitted to the NYT!!

  2. It’s time that “Christians” disengage from most things that are considered entertainment these days. Almost everything is pornographic, it is demeaning to women, and it is deadly to the soul. I don’t have cable TV and hardly watch movies (usually they are Bible-based) so when I catch a movie I used to enjoy before I was a Christian, I cannot believe how vile it is.

    Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. We must not defile them with our eyes.

    1. Truly said. I saw an interview on ‘Charlie Rose’ with a longtime and successful ‘producer’ of Popular Radio music going back to the fifties and sixties and extending up until ‘Rap’ and ‘Hip Hop’. And one quote from him got my attention. In a nut shell, he said that all of this music, from the very beginning of bebop and rock up to ‘Justin Beaver’ was, and is, all the same. There’s no difference. It’s all ‘mating ritual’. All of the dance associated with it also: mating ritual.

      So you are right about most ‘entertainment’, including the music that goes with it, these days.

  3. Let’s be clear. Pornography isn’t something that just “happened” in the West. When Playboy came along there were still healthy legal restrictions on the production of this kind of stuff in most Western societies. However, our universities (and seminaries — think of that!) had been “seeded” decades earlier by the Communists to produce jurists, physicians, bureaucrats and “researchers” (scare quotes intended) that would push porn out to the masses. This was an intentional destabilization of the West. When the CIA and the Mossad wanted to destabilize the West Bank, they beamed porn into their households. The Warren Court was infiltrated. Period. We’ve been dancing to the KGB’s tune in the West ever since. So has the Church.

  4. In anyone is interested in how the early “Desert Fathers”, and Fathers of Monasticism from about AD300 dealt with, and consulted on, sexual temptation, many pages of sayings can be found on this public domain website dedicated to these early Christian writings:

    http://www.vitae-patrum.org.uk/page83.html

    You can reflect on this short sample below to get an idea of the many others like it on the site above:

    From: Vitae Patrum, Book 5: Sexual Temptation

    V.v.15. On the subject of sexual temptation an old man said, “You lazy hermits, do you really want to walk on the path of salvation? Get going, work hard, take pains, seek and you will find, wake up, knock and it will be opened unto you. Think of the gladiators of this world, who when seen to have stood up bravely against all manner of attacks, receive the crown. See how much strength can be built up by physical exercise. So do you stand, and be strong, and the Lord will fight against the enemy for you.”
    V.v.16. Another old man spoke thus about these same sexual thoughts, “Be like somebody going along the street or into a shop who can smell cooking or some other such pleasant smell. If he wants to he can stop and eat, but if not, all he gets is the smell before he passes by. So you may leave the smell behind you, rise up and pray, ‘Lord. Son of God, help me’. And do this to counteract all sorts of other thoughts. For we don’t aim at eradicating thoughts but at fighting against them.”
    V.v.17. Another old man said, “We suffer these things because of our negligence. If we really trusted that God dwelt within us we would not allow any other superfluous baggage inside. For the Lord Christ dwelling in us and with us sees every aspect of our lives. Bearing him with us as we do, and gazing upon him, we ought not to be negligent but become holy as he is holy. Let us stand on this rock and let the enemy dash himself against it in vain. Fear not, and he cannot do you harm. Sing with vigour the psalm, ‘They that put their trust in the Lord shall be even as the Mount Sion. He who lives in Jerusalem shall stand fast for ever'” (Psalms.125.1)
    V.v.18. A brother questioned an old man, saying, “If a monk falls into sin he is grieved that in his search for perfection he has fallen dangerously short, and has to work hard at the task of renewal. But someone making a beginning after renouncing the world seems to prosper with ease.”
    And the old man replied, “A monk succumbing to temptation is like someone with a building which has collapsed. If he plans prudently he will rebuild the ruins, gathering together all the useful building materials, possessing already the foundations which have been laid, and stones and sand and other things necessary for building. And so he can quickly begin to get on with the restoration. But someone who has not excavated or laid down footings, and has none of the requisite materials simply launches forth in hope that somehow, some time, all will come to fruition. Similarly, a monk who has succumbed to temptation and turned back to the Lord has a lot of resources to fall back on – meditation on the divine law, psalmody, manual work, prayer, etc. – all these are fundamental. But someone newly converted remains in the lowest rank until he has learnt these things.”

    ********************************

    1. I cannot speak for the Monks, but I think for all practical purposes it begins with taking seriously that lusting in ones heart, even without looking, is adultery. When I resolved within myself to stop entirely, the very next day God made me a Christian (weird timing, I know). So, for average guys out there, that means looking away, not watching certain movies, blocking thoughts. Heck, it is even harder to block dreams, that I admit I never mastered though after being married this mostly went away. For what it is worth, neither did Augustine, so I do not beat myself over it too much (Confessions, Book X, Chapter 30).

      I say this because sin really exists in one’s thought life. Sins that people see are just outward manifestations of the thought life. So, one must violently battle against temptation all the time. Believe it or not, just like smothering a fire makes it lessen, so does smothering lust by not feeding it fuel. However, I maintain this is an act of God’s grace, it is certainly not something that anyone can just do.

      1. This Old Testament quote about Noe and his son Cham should cause anyone to think hard before taking the liberty of looking at the nakedness of others. Note the severe punishment meted out for this transgression:

        “And Noe, a husbandman, began to till the ground, and planted a vineyard.

        [21] And drinking of the wine was made drunk, and was uncovered in his tent. [22] Which when Cham the father of Chanaan had seen, to wit, that his father’ s nakedness was uncovered, he told it to his two brethren without. [23] But Sem and Japheth put a cloak upon their shoulders, and going backward, covered the nakedness of their father: and their faces were turned away, and they saw not their father’ s nakedness. [24] And Noe awaking from the wine, when he had learned what his younger son had done to him, [25] He said: Cursed be Chanaan, a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” (Gen. 9:20)

        For men, it’s good to marry a Catholic woman who everyday prays the Rosary, or Liturgy of the Hours, with him. By being filled with such holy activities and a strong prayer life, temptations and sins are greatly reduced. It’s good also to always be reading good holy literature (and blogs 🙂 .

        1. After careful reflection upon that passage, I believe that Cham is guilty of literal sexual perversion, not merely seeing nakedness with his eyes. If we read Leviticus, the term “father’s nakedness” is in reference to his wife. It is possible that Cham slept with his father’s wife, perhaps a step-mother God forbid his literal mother.

          It would make sense as Israel’s enemies always seem to be the products of incest in Genesis (Lot’s daughters were the parents of Moab and Ammon for example). Cham is the father of the Canaanites, so I believe there is a connection.

          1. Maybe so. However, that his brothers “put a cloak upon their shoulders, and going backward, covered the nakedness of their father: and their faces were turned away, and they saw not their father’ s nakedness” also teaches both great respect for a parent (i.e.. honor thy father and thy mother), as well as a great respect for sexual moral principles and privacy. These are all things that modern culture should reconsider.

            One other point. We notice in this story that Noe was also ‘drunk’. This is also a major vice and problem in our modern world. The early Greeks and Romans considered those that did not water down their wine, even to half water and half wine, to be ‘barbarians’. Most modern drinkers would call this insanity. Who in our modern world has even the least sensitivity towards alcoholic inebriation? Does anybody but little children water their wine down half and half, as our biblical ancestors did? Are we really, for the most part, just modern ‘barbarians’? Considering pornography, abortion, drugs and alcoholism we might be closer to the barbaric mentality than most people think.

          2. “The early Greeks and Romans considered those that did not water down their wine, even to half water and half wine, to be ‘barbarians’. Most modern drinkers would call this insanity.”

            Perhaps wine tasted a lot worse back then, so it really was not enjoyed for taste quite so much. I think the main reason no one waters down wine because it would water down it’s flavor. 🙂

          3. A little extra trivia on drunkeness in early Roman times:

            In his c. 375 BC play Semele or Dionysus, Eubulus has Dionysus say:

            “Three bowls do I mix for the temperate: one to health, which they empty first; the second to love and pleasure; the third to sleep. When this bowl is drunk up, wise guests go home.

            The fourth bowl is ours no longer, but belongs to violence; the fifth to uproar; the sixth to drunken revel; the seventh to black eyes; the eighth is the policeman’s;
            the ninth belongs to biliousness; and the tenth to madness and the hurling of furniture.”

            ********************
            🙂

  5. This is a sin that pretty much every guy struggles with. And those that say they don’t are throwing the sin of lying on top the pile.

    Jennifer Lawrence was really stupid. Assume everything of yours that is digital will exist until Jesus comes back, and then act accordingly.

  6. And of what kind, on the other hand, are your other images? Diminutive Pans, and naked girls, and drunken Satyrs, and phallic tokens, painted naked in pictures disgraceful for filthiness. And more than this: you are not ashamed in the eyes of all to look at representations of all forms of licentiousness which are portrayed in public places, but set them up and guard them with scrupulous care, consecrating these pillars of shamelessness at home, as if, forsooth, they were the images of your gods, depicting on them equally the postures of Philænis and the labours of Heracles. Not only the use of these, but the sight of them, and the very hearing of them, we denounce as deserving the doom of oblivion. Your ears are debauched, your eyes commit fornication, your looks commit adultery before you embrace. O you that have done violence to man, and have devoted to shame what is divine in this handiwork of God, you disbelieve everything that you may indulge your passions, and that you may believe in idols, because you have a craving after their licentiousness, but disbelieve God, because you cannot bear a life of self-restraint. You have hated what was better, and valued what was worse, having been spectators indeed of virtue, but actors of vice.–St Clement of Alexandria circa 195 AD, Exhortation to the Heathen, Chapter 4

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