I was recently asked to sit before college undergraduates on a panel of philosophers, theologians and counselors tasked with discussing the impact of pornography on our culture. Specifically, I was asked to reflect on the widely confirmed fact that regular porn use deadens the male libido, that men who use pornography find themselves unable to be aroused by real women.
While I pity these men, I said, we should keep in mind that this situation is bad for women too. It is bad in two ways. On the one hand, it means that there’s less sex happening in a pornographic culture than otherwise. That not only makes people cranky, but it also entails that there are fewer families out there. Pornography is indirectly contraceptive in a purely mathematical sense, because less sex equals fewer babies.
The second reason the failed male libido is bad for women is because the kind of sexual activity that’s happening—and by sexual activity I include everything up to, including and after sex, even welcoming God’s sons and daughters into the world—the kind of sexual activity that is happening is less and less erotic.
Indeed, I think these two consequences of pornography are related: pornography leads to fewer babies and this makes sex less erotic and thus in turn we forget what really is erotic and what makes us want to have sex in the first place.
So that’s my thesis: that pornographic sex is fundamentally anti-erotic, and it makes us unerotic. Thus the anti-erotic nature of pornographic sex explains the failed male libido. Now if you’ll bear with me, I want to develop an analogy that will help explain why pornographic sex is unerotic. I want to compare sex with food, and the morality of sex with the morality of eating.
Thomistic philosophers like myself think there are two kinds of mistakes we human beings are prone to: sometimes we desire bad things, while sometimes we want good things in bad ways. We all agree, I hope, that dirt doused in paint thinner doesn’t make a good meal. It’s not very nourishing, it tastes funny, and it will kill you.
But I think we can also agree that there are bad ways to eat good food. In fact, the Catholic tradition identifies five forms of gluttony (bad eating). Think F.R.E.S.H.: fastidiously, ravenously, excessively, sumptuously, and hastily. (I borrowed this acronym from Rebecca DeYoung’s excellent book Glittering Vices.) Gluttony isn’t bad because it makes you fat. Indeed, you can be a skinny glutton, just as you can be a greedy rich man, like Ebeneezer Scrooge. No, gluttony is bad because it makes you less human. It makes you insensitive to or incapable of enjoying the real pleasures of table. The fastidious eater, for instance, is a picky eater, someone who insists that her meal be made just the way she likes it or else she sends it back. What happens when she refuses to eat even one slice of the birthday cake her grandmother spent all afternoon baking for her because she doesn’t like strawberry icing? She misses out on the meaning, the value or worth of the cake as a gift, as a sign of her grandmother’s love for her, and she wounds her grandmother by failing to be grateful. She deprives herself and her grandmother of the real pleasure of sharing love in the form of food.
Likewise, the ravenous eater is a greedy eater, the man who grabs a second piece of pie when the child next to him hasn’t had his first one yet. He misses out not only on justice, but on the unique pleasure of sharing, of giving some of what you have to another person because you know it will make them happy. The greedy eater cannot see Christ in the eyes of the poor (see Mt. 25), and thus deprives himself of the Eucharistic pleasure of offering God’s creation back to Him.
I could multiply examples like this, but we must return to principles. Gluttony is not primarily harmful by way of injury, that is, by damaging your health, but by depriving you of everything that makes human beings eating at table categorically different than pigs eating at trough, namely, the moral, aesthetic, interpersonal, and theological goods to be had in food, things like gratitude, justice, beauty, and leisurely conversation. It’s harmful by reduction, by treating you as something less than you are.
So imagine someone arguing that so long as no one is harmed by gluttony, that is, so long as some people choose to be gluttons and others choose to let them, there is no reason to oppose or condemn gluttony. Notice now why this is a bad argument: by assuming that all harm is injury, this argument treats you as less than fully human—not as a rational adult, but more like an animal—because human beings are ensouled bodies made for communion with each other and a triune God and even our eating reflects this. We are made to be what we are—all that we are, not less—and to be that well, as St. Francis DeSales was so fond of saying.
What I want you to see is that the same is true of sex. The No Harm Defense of sexual deviance, that so long as no one is harmed by porn (or whatever), and so long as its production and consumption are consensual, there’s no reason to oppose it—that argument fails for sex for the same reason it failed for food. The reason it fails is because human beings are ensouled bodies made for communion with each other and a triune God and even our sexuality reflects this. The human sexual act is categorically different than animal rutting because of the moral, aesthetic, interpersonal, and theological goods to be had in sex.
Let me explain. First, we should note that sexual desire aims at fundamentally reproductive kinds of acts. If my friend Rodney and I are aliens and I give him a High-Five and he gets pregnant, you’d call that “sex,” because sex means a reproductive type of activity. That’s why there’s something deficient about sexual desire that doesn’t aim at a reproductive kind of act, say, the burning desire to make love to water coolers. You can’t reproduce with a water cooler. Second, we should note that human reproduction doesn’t just make more stuff, but co-creates new relationships: husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. Sex makes families, and those relationships are the rock and foundation of a happy life (as the old know and the young soon discover).
Why is this important? Because it means that when men and women look at each other with a spark in their eye, if their vision is true, they should see what Blessed John Paul II called the genealogical person (Gratissimam Sane, 9). They should see each other as husbands and wives and mothers and fathers and their sons and daughters, and they should see that this spark in their eye is in fact the flame of eternity because every one of those relationships is real and forever and destined for blessedness therefore a moving image of the divine love of the Godhead who lights the world on fire. That’s what is really arousing about sex: that in this most physical and intimate act we receive more than we could possibly desire because the person we’re sharing ourselves with is more than we can possibly imagine.
What’s really and truly erotic isn’t a desire that’s never satisfied. It’s a love so overflowing in its abundance that it becomes creative. Just like God.
Viewing pornography, then, is like going to an art museum with a blindfold on. It’s like trying to listen to a symphony underwater, or dance with rocks in your shoes. Pornography extinguishes the erotic gaze by training your fiery eye on something other than persons. Do not be mistaken about this: the pornographic gaze desires the machine, not sex. It wants quick, convenient, and easy pleasure in the way the morphine addict wants a fix instead of friendship.
Of course porn deadens the male libido to real women. It trains us to prefer machines to people, because machines are easy. Mark my words: the second sexual revolution—the one coming right around the corner—will try to justify sex and love with machines, and people will want this because machines will never ask you to change, to sacrifice, or to be better than you are.
Porn deadens the male libido by destroying your sexual imagination because imagination is founded in what’s real. That’s why porn is ultimately unerotic. Porn use trains men to expect women to respond like euphoric machines to any sexual stimulation. This is not only false, as any married man can tell you, but there’s no challenge to porn, no demand of the other that you man up and learn how to turn on a real woman through humor, romance, courtship, marriage, and fatherhood. Real women (I’m told) are turned on by men who play with their kids; in other words, by gentlemen. Try learning that from porn.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “The Kiss” was painted by Francesco Hayez in 1859.