In our cultural lexicon, the phrase “the birds and the bees” has been, for generations, a quaint shorthand for the natural mysteries of fecundation and generation which manifest themselves in the regular rhythms of nature. As winter thaws, we see bodies join with bodies to bring forth new bodies in due time. The symbolism attached to these animals and insects works for good reason – for what if the young birds of spring, instead of frolicking with each other, merely placed themselves before images of their own fruitful actions? What if drones contented themselves only with pictures of their queen?
Pornography is not new. Depictions of bodies and acts intended to gratify the eye and satisfy its endless desires can be found among the remains of many ancient cultures. Since then, almost every aesthetic form has been used to convey titillating material. But only with the advent of modern forms of mass media has pornography become an unbridled and ubiquitous phenomenon. The bubonic plague became a catastrophe only when it rode on the backs of Europe’s rats; so too, lurid images travelling on private, pervasive, and instantaneous means of modern communication pose a problem of a different order. A new kind of the plague, in other words, has found its rat: the internet has turned pornography into something that the world has never seen before, the effects of which are only just beginning to be felt.
The sheer volume of pornography – its spread and its consumption –makes it difficult to think about it clearly. And yet, our zeal to defend the innocent and heal the victims who have been burned by this cultural conflagration should not prevent us from pausing and reflecting on the reasons why this form of spiritual arson is inherently wrong. We need to remind ourselves why pornography is immoral, what goods it harms, and why the damage that it inflicts flows directly from its evil nature.
Human sexuality is a gift from God through which He shares with us the ecstasy that accompanies the divine act of creation. To ensure that the profound pleasure that ensues from the human echo of this act is in line with both its natural and supernatural purposes, God decreed that its context should be a fruitful, permanent, and loving covenant between spouses who, through their unity and fecundity, make the divine image contained within marriage more clear. But, while the sacrament of marriage has the power to become a kind of incarnate icon of God, the content of this same, sacred image can also become the object of idolatry; the materiality of this icon can be adored instead of the meaning it reflects. This is precisely what pornography does: in lieu of authentic human intimacy, it substitutes seemingly perfect facsimiles that are as valid (and as valuable) as photocopied money. The act of mutual, total, and spousal self-giving is something that no camera can ever capture, and the counterfeit closeness of bodies on screens only measures the distance between the real and the false.
No wonder, then, that the value of these forgeries should be so ephemeral. The pornography industry is active precisely because its products are so disposable, a fact that spurs the creation of ever more perverse and violent material. One such recent novelty is pornographic material that includes the figure of a humiliated husband helplessly witnessing the very act of his spouse’s infidelity. The spiking interest in this so-called “cuckold fetish” speaks not only to the incessant escalation which pornography’s desensitizing effects make necessary; it also reveals the very essence of pornography. This fetish is, in fact, a kind of meta image of pornography itself, since the very structure of every pornographic image places a powerless viewer just beyond its frame.
Thus does the very act through which the peak of human intimacy is achieved become, when it is merely observed, the means of a profound and damaging alienation. Pornography convinces its users, at a psychological level, that sex is something which is only seen from the sidelines, an illusion which has precipitated a creeping crisis of mental health which is slowly coming into view as its victims seek help.
The French mystic, Simone Weil, once wrote that, in heaven, looking and eating will be the same operation. And, tellingly, the total separation of these two operations provided the ancient world with one of its most haunting images of hell: that of Tantalus grasping for fruit always only just beyond his grasp. The victims of pornography who have been trapped in infernal trances of tantalization would surely recognize themselves in this apt image. Far too many young men and women have been led to neglect real nourishment for the mere imitations of intimacy which are peddled by pornography.
The sad and pervasive effects of pornography demonstrate that it is incompatible with our anthropology; we were not created to starve in the face of images at which we can only stare. Indeed, the mysteries which pornography seems to make proximate only slip further from the seeking fingers of those entrapped by the pernicious illusions of this addictive modern epidemic. As a culture, we need to reach the same kind of consensus about this dangerous, destructive, dependence-creating material that we did a generation ago with cigarettes and decry the digital industrialists who are profiteering on the psychological damage that they inflict upon unsuspecting victims. But we also need, more than anything else, to encourage a generation made sick with shadows to seek the healthy, holy sustenance of authentic human intimacy.