Why Porn Works

There. Even now, I can feel the seething suspicion and offense this title may trigger.

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Please read the post before you decide what you think. It may contain surprises. Moving on…

Pornography has been a lightning rod topic for people for longer than I’ve been conscious of it. People love it. People hate it. They love-to-hate it. They hate-to-love it.

Among feminists, there are strong opinions about pornography. Some say we need more porn, porn that emphasizes the relational aspects of sex, porn that centers around female arousal and climax time-frames, rather than the male standard of 4-5 minutes, to balance out the plethora of resources that objectify their subjects and viewers alike (presumably in a non-objectifying way?). Others say it should be illegal. Some complain it perpetuates the objectification of women or centers around male-centric sexual ideals. Others claim that it celebrates our ability to enjoy our partners and our bodies, and counters the shaming of sexuality and sexual pleasure that has haunted American culture and the Church for who knows how long.

In Christian communities, porn is more evenly maligned, possibly related to the Church’s neglectful and at times abusive relationship to our bodies — our physical, sensual selves. In their zealous advocacy for purity, many conservatives (Christian or otherwise) have blurred the lines between art and porn. Some communities have so thoroughly expanded the definition of vulgarity that artists in their midst are effectively silenced, shunned, or shamed. In some churches, artists are “encouraged” to “stop making art that depicts bodies in [x, y, or z] way. Instead depict God’s beauty in nature.” Aren’t our bodies natural? Is there no beauty there? For their part liberals (Christian or otherwise) have also blurred the lines between art and porn in the other direction, testing the boundaries of vulgarity and cultural acceptance as a form of method art. Either way, at least in the blurring of the lines, we’ve found some common ground: The line between art and vulgarity is blurry… very blurry. That line is so blurry, in fact, it probably doesn’t exist.

In graduate school, instructor Dan Allender argued that the heart of evil is to blur the lines between what is vulgar and what is beautiful. What if. Just WHAT IF we, on either side of this debate are actually fueling evil by continuing to push or pull that boundary of vulgarity one way or the other? What if that entire debate is the entirely wrong subject for our attention and energy? WHAT IF we have lost our ability to love and be loved in and around the conflict? What if the conflict itself, with all the strong feelings it raises is some broken-down side show that effectively distracts us from the main event?

What is the main event? People. Relationships. Jesus/God/”the Universe.” So let us consider some of the players:

Porn has been a tragic addiction for many people. I acknowledge this. It is tragic. I have dear friends who have battled this addiction and fight it well. I have known people who tether their internet access to a filter, or monitor that informs a designated accountability partner upon relapse. If you are one of those, please keep reading, and I am sorry if this post triggers any negative repercussions.

Many porn consumers have partners. Partners are the often overlooked, sometimes silent sufferers when it comes to our relationships with porn. The partner gets drawn into a battle not of her or his choosing, often leading the partner to struggle with comparison, body image issues, eating disorders and a sense of powerlessness that eats at her/his own willingness to engage in relationship with genuine vulnerability. For partners of porn consumers. Please try not to compare yourself or your willingness to those on the screen. They are made-up, costumed, touched up, retouched, etc. Your sense of powerlessness in this is important to be aware of.

There are others, who choose to participate and profit from the porn and sex industries. They do so for many, and widely varied reasons. Some, like Kitty Stryker claim autonomy and power and choice in their profession. However, I am so aware of the burning reality of her mention later in the piece about having concerns about her finances.  Some others are essentially coerced into this work, for fear it is their only or best chance at making a living, of being “loved,” or whatever else.  My heart sinks at this thought. Time flies, our bodies age, wrinkles appear, and opportunities for being the beautiful person fade. Beauty fades oh so quickly. And for the porn star or sex worker, there is at times a sense of desperation-driven urgency to get it while s/he can, for there’s not a huge market for old and wrinkled sex workers. The data is limited, but this study demonstrates that the working life-span of many prostitutes is three or less years. and several articles I read cite 34-36 as the life expectancy of a sex-worker. That’s about 1/2 the life expectancy most Americans have come to take for granted. While I acknowledge the huge differences between porn stars working experiences and those of working prostitutes, many pornography workers have increased exposure to the “felonious activity, illicit drugs, and violence” that the study’s authors cite as being the primary risk factors that drastically reduced life-expectancy for the sample studied. This is a lifestyle and a career that looms over the worker as “temporary.” But if s/he feels it is her/his only occupational option, then what might s/he imagine doing after that three years? Does s/he struggle to imagine growing old? What are his or her fears? And how might authentic love impact those fears?

Others still participate, having lost, been deprived of, or forgotten their will regarding their participation. These may be the boys who are drawn in by an older, “cooler” friend or family member, or the victims of non-consensual photographs/videos. These are the trafficked, name-stripped, souls who do not have a rightful say in their involvement. And their senses of wholeness may never be restored.

These are only some of the players. Some truly voluntarily participate. Some use porn nominally, and in non-addictive manner. I find myself stopping short of calling it a “healthy” manner, though. And I am uber-aware of this. I just can’t get there, because of how I have come to understand why porn works. 

Pornography works because:

It works because we like sex. Sex feels good. It should. The physicality of intercourse is the closest two humans can get to being unified, together in experience and enjoyment, working, moving as one body for mutual and glorious pleasure. But, sex is at times awkward, clumsy, risky.

Pornography works because it titillates our playful and creative thoughts/emotions. The consumer can choose how to respond, whether it is internalizing images for later reference in an entirely mental fantasy, or whether to act out the motions externally or with another. The thing about this is, while it feels really good to pleasure ourselves, seeking our own pleasure is often detrimental to our own relationships and happiness, whereas seeking the pleasure of another has recently been identified as one of the best ways to increase feelings of happiness. Psychologist Martin Seligman writes, “…we scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested” in his book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being.

And for me, that seems the crux of it. People use porn to get their needs and wants met. When I turn on a screen to meet those “needs,” I essentially circumvent the process of mutual pleasure through relationship. And that is the most genuine, surprising, unpredictable and sometimes complicated part of the whole shebang. (No pun intended, until I typed the word out. Then I opted to keep it.) When I turn to porn, I can make demands. I can turn it on or off at will with no (direct) relational contact or consideration of the “other” who provides that (oft less than 5 minute) thrill ride. I can find porn for just about any particular preference. And I can change my mind on a whim without causing my partner in this any confusion, or having to explain my changing tastes or attitudes. Because they are not real to me.  They do not make demands of me that I do the dishes or communicate or (gasp!) be vulnerable. And that is where what works about porn begins to fall apart.

When I use porn, the relationship goes one-way. I receive, the other gives or provides. Yes, porn actors/actresses sometimes get paid. They sometimes get recognition/fame, or some other benefit. But the give and take ends there. That is the end of mutuality. Then that person and his/her work becomes a commodity… a possession with which I can do whatever I choose. They are no longer in control. AT ALL. I (or the copyright holder) hold all the power. And there is no mutuality. And there is no ongoing relationship. And all my efforts at relationship with those individuals become make-believe, fantasy, cardboard. And there is little fruit of love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, or self-control that grow out of that relationship. The relationship does not shape me for the better. It likely opens me up to feelings of shame and insecurity, which make genuine vulnerability and mutuality in relationship with another feel even that much more threatening, leading to heavier or more frequent use of the shadow-lover: porn. I become shallow, invulnerable, controlling… and potentially addicted.

It is only in truly give-and-take relationship that those fruits are grown and developed. It is only when I am vulnerable that I allow another to shape who I am in a positive or meaningful way. I am shaped for love and kindness when I am refined through love, encouragement, and yes, sometimes conflict that is the result of real relationship. Porn cannot do this. It falls flat. Hollow. Empty.



This is your brain on… Anxiety?!?

One of my favorite “getting-to-know-you” questions to ask is, “How would you describe the way you imagine your brain works?” For years, I have described mine as follows:

Imagine CNN…

…Constantly running dialogue, layered over background music, and under the visuals of a talking head or news-reel related to some major event (or non-event). Also present is a possibly related still image, identifying information for the talking head, possibly a crew of people working at other computer screens and mixers visible in the background, a scrolling line of text relating other unrelated headlines and concerns, another scroll revealing stocks and market conditions, and one additional scroll for good measure that has live weather updates, school closures, or some such other important information. There, you have my brain as I see it… but with less news, and more memories, to-do-lists, grocery lists, and relational concerns. Some days, it’s like the news hub channel that shows mini-shots of four major news networks all simultaneously on one large screen. I have rarely critiqued this experience of my brain, often thinking others must experience similar, or the same things.

I’ve never thought I had ADD or ADHD, except for that time shortly after I became a big sister and got concerned that there was a deficit of attention being paid to me. But that was years ago. I’m over it. And I don’t struggle to attend to all of these things at any given time. Unless I’m sleep deprived. Then all bets are off.

This week my therapist asked me, “Is this level of anxiety pretty constant for you?” shortly after I provided a similar description of my mental process. The suggestion that my every-day experience was one full of anxiety took me aback. I am not an anxious person. Or am I? No, I’m not. I am not prone to worry. I do not feel overwhelmed or alarmed that there are lots of aspects of life that I am just not in control of. In fact, anxious people often annoy me. As a therapist myself, I know I am not supposed to think that, or be annoyed by a common malady that my clients may face… but it’s true. But wait. Perhaps my clients’ anxiety is triggering for me a countertransference response precisely because I am prone to anxiety. That kind of thing often happens for therapists. Perhaps holding openly my own possible experience of anxiety could help me become a better therapist for my anxious clients. Perhaps I will learn that while many others may have similar internal experiences, some may find it disturbing or bothersome. Especially if they are from a family culture that moves somewhat more slowly or casually through life. Then they’re the odd-(wo)man-out.

Hmm… I am still unsure whether I would call my daily experience an anxious one. If I am anxious, I fall decidedly into the “minor concern” end of the anxiety continuum.

I recently had a conversation with another women, who identified a belief that men and women are different in that women just multitask more both internally and externally. I found this conversation to be engaging and enlightening… even helpful for the purpose of talking with my decidedly-less-multitasking-partner about said differences. But internally, I struggle with the generalizations and assumptions the claim makes. Is this really a gender-issue? I don’t know.

Why do I share this? I am not sure. I felt compelled to… so I did it. But as I write, I am aware of an e-mail I sent some time ago to a friend who struggles courageously and exhaustingly with her own anxiety. At the time, I had concerns about the role anxiety played in her and her family’s life. It’s funny(?) how our judgments so often come back to us. Today, S, if you are reading this. Please forgive my criticism and my judgement. You are a courageous, lovely, and strong woman. You love well, and deserve to be loved and held better than I could offer you at the time.

I’d be happy to engage any of you, my readers, on any of the questions covered here.

With love,

– me –