Sunday, March 25, 2012

Morality and pornography

I've been thinking lately about morality. I've been thinking about the harmful effects of not questioning the basis for your moral standards and judging behavior. Let me explain; I happened across a faithful blog post that was talking about the serious problem of pornography and how people can be healed from addiction to it. It outlined what the author thought were the harmful effects that happening across pornographic images in the media would cause that supposedly should bring despair and shame and guilt on the offender. The author of this piece tells about a shocking encounter with internet pornography that left him with offensive images burned in his mind that popped back up at the most inopportune times. Like when he was trying to read his scriptures, go to the temple or conduct church meetings. This is a very common teaching in the LDS church. Pornography, it is taught, should be avoided because, it is commonly believed, viewing such things taints the soul and makes the offender unworthy to be considered pure and worthy of participating in God's work on earth. But this only causes me to wonder; what if that is not really the case?

Are there regular consumers of pornography who go about their daily lives, contribute to society in meaningful and productive ways, that don't feel shameful, impure or unworthy for engaging in such behavior? Do these people give of themselves to help others or have what most would consider to be healthy and committed marriages or other personal relationships where engaging in this behavior does not create a problem? Could it be that these people were taught that feelings of arousal and wanting to view, or actually viewing, porn is just a normal part of being human and that, as long as no one is harmed or engaging in something against their will that there is really nothing wrong with it?

Subject of Controversy
The real problem is this is an extremely controversial subject. The reason it is so controversial is because it is something that is considered extremely private for one, but it is generally lauded against by most religious people. And the laudibles are extremely charged and passionate in their delivery. Expressions of the consequences of porn viewing are so somber that they literally bring fear into someone for even daring to broach the subject in any outside forum. This behavior is something that is regarded as very serious and extremely consequential to your eternal salvation. I think that's also why we have such a hard time actually talking about it in ways that could actually be helpful or productive. Many people are so busy trying to figure out how to scare this behavior out of people that they don't stop to think what effect this may be having on the ability to be open about and discuss such things in ways that don't immediately cause fear and consternation in the mind of the human who wonders about such things.

However, the entire anti-pornography movement is based on the assumption that porn, like cigarettes and alcohol it is believed, are gateways to progressively worse and more socially deviant and completely self destructive behaviors. These behaviors lead to a loss of self control and complete abandonment to the "chains" of addictive behaviors. I always liked the analogy of addiction being like a chain that would drag you down to some untold darkness and keep you there. This served me well in helping me to avoid any of these vices throughout my life. I think I'll keep the analogy. I do know that people all over the place choose to engage in behaviors that either bring physical pleasure, emotional comfort, stimulus, danger or a dulling of the senses. And many times these behaviors can become addictive.

Addiction is a very real problem for many people. I fully acknowledge this. However, I am also prepared to acknowledge that for every person who finds their self hopelessly addicted to some behavior or substance, I know that there are people who can engage at various times in the exact same behavior and are not addicted to it. They do it for recreation, entertainment or a little escape from the ordinary. So what is the difference between these two groups? I'm not really sure. One could say that it may just be a matter of self control. Those that can engage in the behaviors and maintain balance and avoid addiction are just better at controlling themselves. I believe it may also have something to do with how you are taught to think about the behavior growing up.

I think if you are taught to avoid something at all costs, because you are told that you are weak and will not be able to control yourself while engaging in that behavior or you will not be able to help it becoming an addiction for you, then that will likely be the case. However if children are taught that feelings of arousal, curiosity, physical pleasure and an ability to control oneself while engaging in adult behaviors is not only possible, but a normal part of enjoying life, I think that will be the result as well.

I really think we do children (and especially adults) a disservice by labeling certain behaviors or substances as harmful and by attempting to jolt them into submission by scaring their pants off (or on in this case) to get them to avoid the behavior through any means necessary. If it means telling them they will feel bad or they will be considered impure, unworthy or in any other way inferior to everyone else or that they are making God sad (or more sad, I guess) or are a disappointment to loved ones, I think these teachings are unfortunate and unnecessary.

What should we teach children?
We should not be teaching what we think are the consequences of actions without making absolutely sure those are, in fact, the real consequences for everyone. Don't get me wrong, I think it is absolutely imperative that we teach children the importance of understanding the consequences of their actions. This, in my opinion, is the ultimate judging mechanism. If we always think about the potential consequences of our actions, or at least try to understand what they are as best we can, and work to try to produce the best consequences for ourselves, this is a very good standard to use in teaching and modeling behavior. Asking ourselves if we would like something done to us that we are considering doing to someone else, is a wonderful way to evaluate behavior. The golden rule is a very good one to follow. Unfortunately, opinion tends to creep in where evidence is scant and labeling behaviors as evil, or socially unacceptable, becomes a tool used to manipulate and control others. Shame and guilt are extremely effective tools in teaching behavior, but they are also most widely used to control behavior also.

I can't help but think of the movie "Footloose". Honestly, I haven't seen the latest remake (let alone really watched the original all the way through) but I completely understand the premise. A town is working to follow a set of moral standards that were imposed over time (prohibition of dancing), which become challenged when young people want to have dances. The idea being that dancing, either in itself or the result of what it causes, results in widespread immorality or eventual acceptance of immorality which leads to social decay, destabilization or destruction. Now, I guess I can't really address whether or not this is truly the final result of dancing and that it just might be the first step in a decline of social stability over the long term...I mean, who knows, maybe all this free thinking and following a consequence model of behavior really does lead to a complete lack of control in society and therefore long term annihilation. Obviously, I don't think so, however, to be fair. I don't think we (meaning I) will be around long enough to really find out. I do know that dancing probably has less of an effect on creating a state of anarchy in society than something like, say for example, technology. If anything, I think dancing likely results in a more stable and happy society because it encourages a familiarity with the opposite sex, which can only result in greater respect and concern for each other as one learns how people of a different gender are different from us but also more alike than we may have originally thought.

My experience with alcohol
As I have been on my journey of questioning all of my previously unquestioned beliefs, I have realized that I can make decisions based on my likes and dislikes as well as the commitments I have made in my life. Believe me, this is not an easy process. In some cases, I think it has been prudent to try things that I have always been taught were to be avoided at all costs. Once I was flying on a plane on an airline that offered, in addition to free juice and soft drinks, free beer or champagne. Since I am too cheap to ever pay for alcohol on a plane, I figured I would try it out. I tried beer for the first time that day. Honestly, I didn't like it at all. It tasted nasty. I couldn't help but look across the aisle at a man who had also ordered a beer and had already finished it, and looked like he really wanted some more, and resist the urge to offer him what was left of mine. I decided that it must be an acquired taste. I also tried champagne and didn't really like it either.

My point in saying all of this is that just because something, for some people, leads to addiction and uncontrollable urges, that also happen to be self destructive, doesn't mean it will do that for everyone. Granted, some people may always struggle with certain kinds of things. But I think the struggle is actually different than many want to label it. It is not a struggle of whether or not we should sin and bring the displeasure of our church leaders, families, friends and God, but it is a struggle of maintaining control and understanding the consequences of our behavior. If we recognize, understand and establish the consequences of behavior for ourselves personally before engaging in it, then we will be better equipped to safely and satisfactorily engage in the behavior, following all of the pre-determined precautions to stay safe and out of harms way - as well as prevent any harm from coming to others. As long as we are not harming others, of course, I don't see anything wrong with looking at pornographic images. Just so long as we make sure that we do not cause any harm (or exposure) to come to others, like children for example.

Other reasons porn is bad
I have also heard that viewing porn leads to the objectification and abuse of women. This is always assumed to be a bad thing. My response to this is that I think there are women that enjoy participating in those kinds of things. Sure, someone might be able to find examples of abuse or someone that was not completely willing in their participation. I do not feel that this would ever be acceptable. If abuse is encountered or brought to light, appropriate safeguards should be instituted for that situation. We should not tolerate any activity or behavior that takes away someones ability to choose to participate. But barring a violation of that, I honestly don't see the harm.

Feeling dirty
If we automatically label such behavior, such as viewing pornographic images, as dirty and unacceptable, then those that engage in such behavior (even though it causes absolutely no harm to others), will be thought to be dirty and unacceptable by those who know what is going on. How sad is that? I would hope that people would begin to ask themselves what, specifically, they object to concerning this practice and then engage in discussion that outlines the pro's and con's of it...overall and specifically for the individual.

The spiral of shame
If we choose to automatically label viewing porn as dirty or sinful, this is the start of what we now know to be a "shame spiral". This is especially detrimental to those that believe what they are taught regarding the behavior. The system that teaches that such things are completely unacceptable, without considering a purely consequence based approach, causes people to feel fear towards such things. This fear later turns to curiosity about the behavior. Curiosity turns to experimentation. Experimentation leads to guilt and shame. This guilt and shame leads to a feeling of hopelessness, inferiority and self deprecation. The remedy often presented to those caught in this pattern, among believing LDS members, is to look to their heavenly historical figure (Jesus, in the case of LDS) for deliverance and forgiveness. While I suppose this imaginary figure might be able to offer some relief from the pains of guilt and shame that are self inflicted through an imagined feeling of wrong-doing and eventual forgiveness of some sort, this reliance comes at a price. It further reinforces the authority of the religious leaders that claim to be able to interpret the whims of their imaginary "savior". Unfortunately, you can't express this without being labeled as a detractor of the faith. Well, I'm past that stigma, so I go on.

Obviously, the idea of the effect of belief in God and the impact it can have on behavior is one that definitely deserves further consideration. I can see that it can potentially lead to a somewhat healthy place of reconciliation and peace, but I can also see that it could lead to a very conflicted and dangerous place of self abuse and mental instability. Even though I would love to continue to explore this, there is something that I think deserves more discussion first, the question of infidelity.

Marriage and porn
When in a marriage, there are some spouses that think viewing porn is an act of infidelity. Indeed, some would see it as equal to actually cheating on their spouse and some would further see it as grounds for separation or divorce. This is unfortunate in my opinion. I suppose that there are lots of different ideas about this, including an infinite number of possible scenarios, behaviors and levels of  "addiction", or abuse of porn, but I am not going to go into all of the possible scenarios and relationship dynamics out there. I want to narrow my focus here and outline my understanding of the differences between the sexes.

While porn viewing can be found among both men and women, men tend to be thought of as the common culprits. The reason for this is simple. Men enjoy visual stimulation. You ask men what arouses them sexually, and most will answer with some body part of (or the body of) an attractive woman. When you ask women what arouses them sexually, the answer has more to do with how they feel or being able to look into the eyes of a man who cares for them. With women the bond is centered more around the person their mate is, and how they have been treated, and not as much about the physical characteristics they possess. Men are very centered around the physical characteristics of their partners and, while personality is certainly a factor that can lead to attraction and physical intimacy, it is much easier for men to remain emotionally detached from a sexual partner.

Emotion is just not as big a factor for men in intimacy and sexual arousal. While women feel that their husband viewing another naked woman is akin to an emotional affair, that is not the case at all for a man. For men, emotional attachment to the picture of the naked woman simply does not exist. I guess some men may be somewhat attached to women they see in porn, but it is very limited in my opinion because most men realize they are not going to be able to have intimate relations with that particular woman. It seems to me that women equate their feelings of emotional intimacy and project that onto their partner and assume that it is the same for them. When viewed in this context, it is no wonder a women can feel that a man looking at pictures of other naked women is akin to having an affair.

I feel like what I have written here has only begun to scratch the surface of my feelings surrounding morality, beliefs, pornography, addiction and differences between the sexes. I could say a lot more about each of these things but this post has gotten pretty long. I think I have provided many launching points for further discussion and exploration. However, the point I really wanted to make is that there are a differing ways that morality is constructed and when I consider the different ways to construct beliefs about right and wrong, I can see that there are various pathways to arrive at similar conclusions. While these conclusions may appear equal on the surface, the ways in which they are arrived at are very different and can actually have a large impact in the eventual outcome, mental stability or emotional health of the constructors of the morality. Unfortunately, some people are content to adopt a morality they are taught without questioning the efficacy of it or the big picture about what it will do for them in the long run. When morality is not questioned, or scrutinized for validity, I think it causes harm because it may serve to ostracize or alienate those we are close to. I hope that discussions of what frames our beliefs about right and wrong can be had among thinking people everywhere. I know I enjoy talking and thinking about it...much to the dismay of my wife and children. I hope they can forgive me. It is just me and what I enjoy. May you find people to talk to about these things if you are so inclined. Good luck and good talks!


  1. btw- there is such a thing as feminist porn. It treats the performers well, gives them power over what is produced, and tries to show respect to everyone. Also, it usually has better plot lines and treats normal people like normal people instead of fetishes.
    I grew up being told porn and alcohol were bad. Now I occasionally indulge in both, am finding what I like, and I think porn has been a bonus in my marriage.

  2. Also, I enjoy visual stimulation more than my husband. My husband is more turned on by hearing than seeing. Studies 'proving' male visual stimulation are problematic and incomplete.
    I like to watch something just because it is arousing; my husband prefers to see a relationship as part of it. Do we defy stereotypes or are the stereotypes just too small and based on a history of promoting scopophilia and objectifying women instead of allowing them to be fully human?

  3. Excellent! My stereotypes are strictly based on my own experience (which I'll have to admit is pretty non-existent since I was always taught to repress such things). Therefore, I'm sure variation from them can be found all over the place. I also think that in our male dominated culture we have been given the stereotypes of what women want to a large degree. It is good to hear what women want and shatter stereotypes, in my opinion.