An open letter to my pro-porn friend: ethic impossible?

An open letter to my pro porn friend: ethic impossible?

Dear Amy,

Very near the end of our conversation you asked me what I think of porn.

You asked me this, knowing that I don’t masturbate. You asked me, knowing that I’m a Christian and committed to my husband in a lifelong, monogamous relationship. And you asked, knowing that a lot of my good friends are strongly anti-porn.

For a moment, I hesitated. I wondered what I could say, or how I could say it, that would be congruent with what I believe, but wouldn’t be an affront to you.

You, after all, are very different to me.

You masturbate frequently. You earn money reviewing vibrators and dildos on your blog! You’ve gone from agnostic to atheist, you have little love of the institution of marriage and you’re polyamorous. Meanwhile, you’ve got plenty of friends who really quite like porn.

So, um… actually it meant a lot to me that you felt able to ask.

At the time I said that sex is something you participate in just by looking at it. And that’s why I don’t look at it – I’m monogamous. I don’t want to participate in sex with anyone other than my husband. So I don’t want look at an image where someone is inviting, inciting me to have sex with them.

I mean if they were just presenting themselves in a body-positive way, just to say, “Hey world, this is me and I’m not ashamed,” that could be different. It wouldn’t be pulling me into a game I didn’t agree to play. It would invite admiration, but not necessarily adulation. I could appreciate the person and their embodiment without wanting to be with them, or to be them.

Most of the time though, that kind of image doesn’t get called ‘porn’.

The problem of porn

For the record, the word ‘pornography’ comes from the Greek porne, which meant a prostitute or sexually immoral woman, and the verb grapho which meant to draw.

Of course, the big porn problem these days is not so much that an immoral woman is in it, but that there’s an immoral man behind the camera. Porn and trafficking go hand in hand, exploiting many (but not only) vulnerable women, who would not take part in it if they had other prospects.

Even amongst the minority of those people who say they enjoy being performative with their sexuality, you’ll find stories of how the industry is rotten.

But I know that you have a problem with all this just as much I as do. You’re not pro porn, you’re pro well-made porn. 

Ethical porn?

A fair number of people I know would say there is no such thing. To be sure, there are some massive hurdles that would need to be overcome:

  • The people in the images would need to be able to freely consent to act or withhold consent; to do this they’d need to be established and confident within their own body and self-image and they’d need to economically independent, so that any payment for the image or film is something they can choose or refuse;
  • The people associated with making the images would need to be protected from image-based abuse/blackmail, free from social stigma and able to change career afterwards, if they chose;
  • There would need to be controls over where the images went, so that they weren’t inappropriately shared to non-consenting audiences;
  • The messaging of the imagery would need to be one that affirms and builds up people in their identities and, in turn, serves edifying relationships in society.

Evidently, the mainstream porn market is not currently achieving the above. I’ve heard enough people say that porn undermines viewers’ sense of self and destroys marriages – to say nothing of the ruinous effects on the people who are corralled into porn.

But as for whether ‘ethical porn’ is impossible to achieve?

What frustrates me right now is that very few people I know are willing to even contemplate this question. Never mind the fact that in the middle of the Bible there’s an unashamed erotic poem Song of Songs. Never mind how sensual the Arabian Dance from the The Nutcracker ballet is. I encountered both of these during my pre-pubescent childhood; I didn’t appreciate the sexual aspect of either of them at the time, but also, neither of them upset me.

What makes them different to porn? Is the difference one of degree or one of kind? If all pornography is age-inappropriate for children (and it is definitely age inappropriate!) are we saying that all adult content is necessarily pornographic?

Does it become porn only when it’s explicit? How explicit? Do strong sex scenes in films count as porn? Are animated sex scenes porn? What about erotica? Is the intention to titillate what matters – but if so, what do we make of the Arabian Dance? (Which isn’t Arabian, by the way.)

We need a truly honest and genuinely inquisitive discussion on these questions.

One of the things I love about you is your willingness to ask questions. And you don’t ask them in a leading or judgemental way, you really are asking.

So for what it’s worth, here’s what I would have said if we had had more time when we recently met.

Porn as degradation

My working definition of porn for a long time was this: a pornographic image is one that degrades the person who looks at it.

I… please bear with me in this. I know you’re open to the idea of degradation in sex, when done safely in a consensual, performative context. You actively avoid kink-shaming people and, for what it’s worth, I agree we need to be extremely slow in passing judgement on people’s sexual fantasies.

But I’m not talking about the performance or the pretence of degradation. I’m talking about actual degradation.

And if I’m honest… no, I don’t think that’s good for us.

I remember vividly how one time I picked up a piece of trash lying in my friend’s front garden, but as soon as I could make out the image on it I had this sickening feeling. It went beyond having my consent violated.

I’m not going to celebrate that.

I’m not going to defend something that produces that effect.

So yes, for a while I held this as my benchmark for what distinguishes the pornographic from the rightfully erotic.

But now I don’t want to stop there. Degradation is only an effect – it’s not an attribute.

Porn as false prophecy

For a few years now, I’ve believed that sex is a form of prophecy. I don’t mean that it’s about predicting the future, I mean that it’s a powerful form of dramatic speech. As a Christian, I believe the Old Testament prophets proclaimed God’s perspective to people – to comfort them, prepare them or to challenge them. (Remember me telling you about Nathan?) But whatever kind of message they brought, they spoke to serve the wider community.

True prophecy lifts up and transforms the world.

In a similar way, I believe sex speaks.

This means that if we’re to understand sexual imagery, we have to think about what an image is saying through what it shows. We can only answer that by asking how the image was made, who it was made for, who it is used by and what significance gets attributed to it. The question is about how the viewer interacts with the image – how they relate to (a) the identity of the person in it and (b) the photographer’s presentation of that person.

If sex is prophecy, it doesn’t surprise me if a misogynistic society makes misogynistic sexual imagery. And it doesn’t surprise me if the false prophecy of such imagery fosters a misogynistic society. But that’s not the point I want to make.

The point I want to make is this: if there is such a thing as adult sexual imagery (or writing) that doesn’t degrade its viewers, then it has to be something that lifts up its viewers.

The performer has to be serving the audience, not boasting over them. The image has to be a gateway for imagination, not a substitute for it. The performance has to send the viewers out, not suck them in.

As you know, in the early days of my marriage, I wasn’t able to enjoy sex. My husband and I bought a number of books, including one that had images demonstrating various forms of sex-related games. It was the first time I had ever seen a picture of people looking genuinely relaxed and happy in a sexual context. It wasn’t degrading to look at, instead it helped me hope that actually this whole sex business was something I could enjoy too.

Now I grant you, that book was designed to educate, not arouse. But still, it leaves me wondering how we can celebrate sexuality and inspire people, without losing perspective.

And I guess that loss of perspective is what many of my friends fear. They’re concerned that if sexualised imagery is promoted then people will think toys can replace people, or that people are toys, or that sex is what makes someone great.

The risk is that people will cling to outward expressions of sex, neglecting who they are inwardly.

Remember who you are

Ultimately, sex is a vulnerable and transient expression of who we are as vulnerable and transient beings. I have issue with porn that tries to trick us into believing we are anything other than this. And that’s what I see as the core problem of mainstream porn with its idealised bodies and orgasms.

I could get on board with images that help us laugh at ourselves and better understand the nature of play, but I have problems with images that are inherently deceitful.

You and I are very different, but I think you’ve got some good things in your priorities. You care not so much about sex, but about people growing and becoming fuller, more enriched versions of themselves – sexuality included. Plus, you make space for people who are much, much more reserved in their sexual expression than you are – and that means a lot to me.

From what I know of you and the conversations we’ve shared, I don’t think you’re someone who’s chasing after a lie. Sure, I’ll bet there are people who come to your blog looking for something to slake their own selfish desires, and maybe they’ll find some of your material useful for achieving those ends. But you know, enough people have used the props of Christianity to perpetrate false prophecies, so I’m not about to judge you.

This, meanwhile, is my current take on porn. It will probably change; I’m growing as a person and always reforming in how I think about life, hope and God. And I’m always encouraged when we meet up to chat and share thoughts, because each time I see you growing as well. Keep it up – and thank you.

Until next time.

Christine

 


Amy Norton is a friend of mine who is also sex blogger. She writes reviews of sex toys, books and BDSM-related things. Just because this letter is addressed to her, that doesn’t mean I’m endorsing everything on her site. Also, fair warning if you go to her site, Coffee & Kink, she regularly uses strong language and posts erotica. When I wrote this letter I was partly thinking about a post of hers titled No, You Cannot Get “Addicted” to a Vibrator, in which she talks about why toys don’t replace people.

Amy also kindly read and made notes on a chapter of Tim and Kathy Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage for me. I asked her because I wanted to know how much she thought the dynamic Tim and Kathy described was like a domination/submission dynamic. I haven’t blogged specifically about her thoughts as yet, but I did write about how the Kellers would have got nowhere with Amy if they’d tried to present their version of the gospel. The post is here: When we don’t explain the Trinity, the gospel gets ugly (especially for wives).

Meanwhile, if you want to know what I think of masturbation, an essay from a few years ago (though still broadly consistent with what I believe now) is here: Masturbation: Can you separate lust from pleasure?  

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