This post is part of the series I’ve been doing about the spectrum of pornographies, you can read the others (along with a few of my previous posts that cover the subject) here.
I asked a Christian man I’d been chatting with about the issues around pornographies to write about his experiences. He said a question and answer approach would work well, so here is Part 1…
How long have you been in Church?
Church has been a constant part of my life since birth. My parents are Christians and there’s never been a time I’ve not been heavily involved in Church – attending, helping lead worship, children’s work…
What is your current church involvement?
I’m currently a full-time paid minister of a church as part of a small team. I’m still relatively new to full-time leadership having spent time training full time at a theological college and on placements.
My work is very varied: from work with older people to all-age worship, preaching, community engagement and work with schools.
I’ve previously had a fair bit of experience of working with teenagers.
My work with teenagers in a number of settings gave me a greater awareness of the rapid and constant changes in that wide range of media we call ‘porn’ and how and what young people access.
What are your thoughts on the spectrum of media that makes up what is commonly described as pornography?
In a previous blog post you made the very helpful point that pornography is not one monolithic entity but a vast spectrum or diversity of material and media.
Not only is this true; I also feel it is important to note that porn users are diverse, have very different patterns of usage, and access porn for different reasons and with a variety of felt needs or drives.
My first experience of pornographic material was at around 11 seeing magazine of what would today be regarded by many as very ‘tame’ – essentially naked or scantily clad women in ‘alluring’ poses (it’s worth noting they had pubic hair in contrast to the seemingly ubiquitous contemporary requirement for women in most forms of porn to be hairless, as you’ve noted previously).
My ‘descent’ into what I would call a porn addiction followed a path from ‘softcore’ still images online (dialup internet and 1990s tech precluded my viewing moving images for several years) to hardcore short movies online by about 2010.
I shocked myself at how rapidly my choices of material accessed changed over a few years, in terms of the shift from softcore “lad mag”/playboy stills to short movies of male-female and female-female explicit penetrative sex.
What I note now looking back is how a click on a free site offering playboy images of nudity always offered up immediate free access to still images and videos of ardcore penetrative sex acts, mainly m-f or f-f. ‘Escalation’ of usage happened very easily.
My main motivation for using porn was initially curiosity – not having had sex until my 20s and married, I was curious about the naked female form and the mechanics of sex.
The motivation shifted in time such that it became about relieving boredom or low mood by seeking sexual stimulation.
I have accessed hardcore porn over a period of maybe 10 years on and off.
One of the motivators in recent years to get help and kick my habit has been the realisation of what is out there, how easily I was being sucked in, and the risk of my beginning to access more extreme and degrading material.However, in what must have been just 3 or 4 years, as my access escalated from nudity to watching two people having penetrative vaginal intercourse, so I became rapidly aware of what I found and find a far more disturbing, degrading and violent world of pornographies.
For example, while I may have clicked on a page to view still full frontal nudity and/or a ‘model’ masturbating, sidebar ads and pop ups offered an array of other content: anal sex, ‘facials’ (a man or men ejaculating on a woman’s face), gangbangs (multiple men penetrating one woman, sometimes simultaneously), bondage/S&M, and a variety of content specifically offered up as being what I’d call ‘deviant’. By this I mean content which involves physically abusive, overtly exploitative sexual activity.
I didn’t explore much beyond what would be called “vanilla” male-female/female-female porn, and I quite frankly didn’t understand why anyone would be interested in some of what seemed bizarre or disturbing types of porn. I’ve never been drawn to some of the forms you listed in your previous blog: porn involving other bodily functions, ‘facials’, orgies, gangbangs, what would be called ‘fetish’. But the realisation of what was out there disturbed me deeply.
Now, to be clear: I would say from my experience as a user and from my research that the vast majority of pornographies involve some form of exploitation of women; most porn in whatever form almost always places men in a position of dominance and power over women. This is often explicit in the behaviour of ‘performers’ and the scenarios offered up; it is almost always the case in what goes on behind the camera and when the cameras aren’t rolling, in how the industries operate.
This being said, there are forms of porn which are actively marketed using the language of exploitation, of men forcefully “doing to” women with no attempt to suggest that there will be mutual pleasure.
It became clear that porn as one woman and one man depicted as engaging in mutually pleasurable sex (yes with the man being more dominant, but seemingly mutually consensual and ‘vanilla’) had become just one thing on a vast menu.
The descriptors attached to videos and screenshots I began to see on the two or three sites I visited became ever more violent, degrading, explicitly objectifying and insulting of women. They were all about what one or more men would do to this or that orifice. Women were “sluts”, “bitches” and “whores” whom the viewer could see degraded. There was/is no veneer of respect in these forms of porn. The language was/is debasing women in every way possible without actually coming out and saying they are being raped. Some descriptions on ads for sites or videos treated the woman-as-person as incidental or irrelavant – they described only what would be done to one of her body parts by a man or men.
I personally felt not even much curiosity never mind desire to access these more violent and abusive forms BUT they were just a click away, as easy to access as a ‘Nuts’ image.
The near ubiquity of ejaculation onto a woman’s face (something I’ve witnessed and have no desire to see again – it left me feeling not only ashamed but disturbed) seems to me to highlight the fact that porn usage or addiction is far more complex and bigger than being just about (mainly) men looking lustfully at a woman or watching a couple copulating in order to gain a sexual thrill.
There are aspects of the array we call ‘porn’ which are not just about the lust to enjoy sexual pleasure with another person: how do we Christians address the fact that some of our brothers are choosing regularly to access still and moving images of women being physically abused, subjected to obvious discomfort, used as no more than a collection of orifices, and humiliated?
In some porn there is still the effort made to depict scenarios of mutual pleasure and relative respect for each other’s comfort and wellbeing.
In other forms, the pretence isn’t so much abandoned as actively opposed.
The material I saw offered was seemingly designed to appeal to male fantasies of subjecting a woman to anything he chooses for his own pleasure with no interest in woman’s bodily safety never mind pleasure. Women are written about as having no say nor right to derive pleasure or comfort from sexual acts; they are there to be used and to be either silent or only open their mouths to acquiesce to a man’s demands.
Do you think the current focus of the church on addiction and purity around this issue is helpful?
An emphasis on purity and resisting lust does have its place in the church’s addressing of porn ‘addiction’ but is insufficient on at least four counts:
1) These approaches can make men feel misleadingly that they are the primary victims in the porn addiction narrative. They are victims yes of their own lusts, but these lusts as provoked and exploited by the loose women onscreen: that’s sometimes what the purity/lust narrative implies and leads men to believe. Careless citation of stories about Solomon or King David, or quotes from Proverbs often do more harm than good: they overlook the exploitation and dehumanising of women in those texts for a start; they also place the emphasis on men resisting “the temptress”. If men addicted to porn are victims, they are victims of a mainly male capitalist and misogynistic machine which treats them simply as interchangeable consumers.
2) This emphasis on purity/lust seems inadequate for dealing with the many men among us either for pleasure or out of compulsion watch women being degraded in material marketed as such. I’m not sure what the answer is to this but it must be more complex and far reaching than treating and supporting the individual addict.
3) In and of themselves, approaches which focus solely or mainly on purity and abstinence only address the problem of breaking an addictive pattern (no bad thing) and not the problem of thousands of women’s lives being ruined and bodies exploited. There is a pressing need for the church and men ourselves especially to address the foundational misogyny, systemic sexism which means that there is a market for the full array of pornographies.
4) This approach does little or nothing to address the phenomenon of people accessing porn depicting sexual or quasi-sexual behaviours which radically depart from what the church would generally advocate as healthy, desirable, and safe within a marriage; behaviours which many of us would see as suggestive of problems with a person’s psychological/emotional/sexual health and development. I realise that makes a value judgement but that seems inevitable even desirable if we wish as the church to tackle porn in all its forms and with all its problems.
I will publish Part 2 of this piece over the next few days…