Word on Fire
How often have we heard some version of this argument: as long as you're not hurting anyone else, you should be allowed to do whatever pleases you in the sexual arena.
The most recent issue of Time Magazine features a fascinating and deeply troubling article on the prevalence of pornography in our culture. The focus of the piece is on the generation of young men now coming of age, the first generation who grew up with unlimited access to hardcore pornography on the Internet. The statistics on this score are absolutely startling. Most young men commence their pornography use at the age of eleven; there are approximately 107 million monthly visitors to adult websites in this country; twelve million hours a day are spent watching porn globally on the adult-video site Pornhub; 40% of boys in Great Britain say that they regularly consume pornography -- and on and on.
All of this wanton viewing of live-action pornography has produced, many are arguing, an army of young men who are incapable of normal and satisfying sexual activity with real human beings. Many twenty-somethings are testifying that when they have the opportunity for sexual relations with their wives or girlfriends, they cannot perform. And in the overwhelming majority of cases, this is not a physiological issue, which is proved by the fact that they can still become aroused easily by images on a computer screen. The sad truth is that for these young men, sexual stimulation is associated not with flesh and blood human beings, but with flickering pictures of physically perfect people in virtual reality. Moreover, since they start so young, they have been compelled, as they get older, to turn to ever more bizarre and violent pornography in order to get the thrill that they desire. And this in turn makes them incapable of finding conventional, non-exotic sex even vaguely interesting.
This state of affairs has led a number of men from the affected generation to lead the charge to disenthrall their contemporaries from the curse of pornography. Following the example of various anti-addiction programs, they are setting up support groups, speaking out about the dangers of porn, advocating for restrictions on adult websites, getting addicts into contact with sponsors who will challenge them, etc. And all of this, it seems to me, is to the good. But what really struck me in the Time article is that neither the author nor anyone that he interviewed or referenced ever spoke of pornography use as something morally objectionable. It has apparently come to the culture's attention only because it has resulted in erectile dysfunction! The Catholic Church -- and indeed all of decent society until about forty years ago -- sees pornography as, first and foremost, an ethical violation, a deep distortion of human sexuality, an unconscionable objectification of persons who should never be treated as anything less than subjects. That this ethical distortion results in myriad problems, both physical and psychological, goes without saying, but the Catholic conviction is that those secondary consequences will not be adequately addressed unless the underlying issue be dealt with.
It is precisely on this point that we come up against a cultural block. Though Freud's psychological theorizing has been largely discredited, a fundamental assumption of Freudianism remains an absolute bedrock of our culture. I'm referring to the conviction that most of our psychological suffering follows as a consequence from the suppression of our sexual desires. Once we have been liberated from old taboos regarding sex, this line of argument runs, we will overcome the neuroses and psychoses that so bedevil us. What was once the peculiar philosophy of a Viennese psychiatrist came to flower in the 1960's, at least in the West, and then made its way into practically every nook and cranny of the culture. How often have we heard some version of this argument: as long as you're not hurting anyone else, you should be allowed to do whatever pleases you in the sexual arena. What the Time article articulates in regard to the specific issue of pornography has been, in point of fact, glaringly obvious for quite some time: Freud was wrong. Complete sexual freedom has not made us psychologically healthier, just the contrary. It has deeply sickened our society. The valorization of unrestricted freedom in regard to sex -- precisely because it is morally corrupt -- proves psychologically debilitating as well.
Whereas Freud, in the manner of most modern thinkers, principally valorized freedom, the Church valorizes love, which is to say, willing the good of the other. Just as moderns tend to reduce everything to freedom, the Church reduces everything to love, by which I mean, it puts all things in relation to love. Sex is, on the Biblical reading, good indeed, but its goodness is a function of its subordination to the demand of love. When it loses that mooring -- as it necessarily does when freedom is reverenced as the supreme value -- it turns into something other than what it is meant to be. The laws governing sexual behavior, which the Freudian can read only as "taboos" and invitations to repression, are in fact the manner in which the relation between sex and love is maintained. And upon the maintenance of that relation depends our psychological and even physical health as well. That to me is the deepest lesson of the Time article.
Bishop Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is an Auxiliary Bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.