Sexual violence has once again come to the fore as an alarming problem facing Notre Dame. But are we — the members of the Notre Dame community — willing to face the root causes of the problem? The root cause of sexual assault is in part our defective campus culture in regards to human sexuality, and a major aspect of this culture is the rampaging use of pornography, especially but not only among the men of Notre Dame.
Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote in a 1964 case on obscenity that while he could not narrowly define what constituted hardcore pornography, he knew it when he saw it. We have no problem today identifying pornography — it is always around us, always a click or two away, and it is graphic, gross and oppressive. Pornography use is primarily a matter of intention: the intention to produce or use material for the purpose of arousing and/or satisfying illicit sexual desire.
The pervasiveness of pornography thus stems from two directions: those who produce traditional pornographic material (especially as promulgated today by the Internet) and those who seek out and consume pornography even where it does not seemingly exist. In other words, we — the men (and women) of Notre Dame — make the porn culture possible and pervasive.
How does the use of pornography — what seems to be a private individual act — cause problems in our culture at large?
Pornography undermines the good of personal integrity. The human person is not simply a consciousness inhabiting or animating a body but is rather a complex unity of mind and body. Especially in the common case of masturbation accompanying pornography use, we make our bodies tools of our conscious selves — tools for bringing about certain pleasurable feelings. When we use pornography to arouse and perhaps satisfy sexual desire, we seek a certain feeling of gratification and release and use our bodies to affect that end. This dualistic separation affected between one’s conscious self and one’s body violates personal integrity.
Pornography also violates the integrity of those who are manipulated and used to produce it. Consumers view these persons as mere objects of desire. Lured into the fantasy world of pornography, the consumer rejects the personhood of the people in the images or videos and comes to view them simply as a body, or more specifically as particular body parts.
In this way pornography use affects all of our relationships — when we are willing to view some human beings (including ourselves) as mere objects for the arousal and satisfaction of sexual desires, we will be tempted to view more and more human beings in the same way. We may be surprised at the extent to which the use pornography colors the way we view those we interact with on a daily basis.
Pornography also undermines the good of marriage. To enter into and participate in the good of marriage, one must have some idea of what marriage is and must intend to abide by the objective norms that structure it. To the extent that one is willing to share one’s self sexually with someone other than one’s spouse, one is unable to make a commitment to an exclusive, permanent and self-giving relationship: to marriage. Because the very intention of pornography is to arouse and satisfy sexual desire with someone who is not one’s spouse, it always offends the good of marriage, and is thus, unreasonable and wrong. This should be of concern not only to those who are married or who intend to marry in the future, but also to those who never intend to marry. Disrespect for marriage, even by those who never intend to marry, harms our culture in various ways.
In different language, pornography use erodes our ability to love real persons. Not only is pornography a fantasy in which we are presented with unreal images (thereby undermining our ability to be grateful for and to properly appreciate the beauty of the real people around us), it makes public something that should be private. Pornography is by its very nature impersonal — it involves no contact with the other as a person but only as an object. Marital sexual acts — the only licit sexual acts — involve a giving of oneself but also a reception of another’s self. In pornography, the consumer is not required to give anything of him or herself, but only to take in. Only in pornography, the receptivity of the consumer is not the reception of the personhood of the other, but only of the other as an object for use, for the arousal and satisfaction of sexual desire.
How should we respond to the pervasiveness of porn? The law has an important, though secondary, role to play. Effectively regulating pornography under the law is a difficult task. But law functions as an effective teacher, and teaching that the use of pornography is wrong may serve to encourage choices that respect marriage, integrity and dignity of every human being.
More important than law, though, is culture. For too long, pornography has been encouraged or at least condoned in many circles. If we recognize pornography for what it is, we should take steps to stigmatize it and make clear the shameful character of the choices to produce or consume it, while at the same time compassionately providing support for those struggling to overcome pornography addiction.
In a culture, like ours here at Notre Dame, in which pornography use is pervasive, the attitude reflected in pornography — that it is acceptable to treat people as objects for the satisfaction of our desire, and even worse, that they should enjoy, or at least submit to, being so objectified — comes to be reflected in the choices of at least some members of the community.
What we are willing to do to ourselves and others on the privacy of our computers is bound to cross over, even if only rarely, into the way we view or treat the people around us. In a culture in which pornography flourishes, we lose our ability to perceive and appreciate the beauty around us. When we use pornography we isolate ourselves within the fantasies of our own sexual imaginations — fantasies in which we are never denied what we want and can search for increasingly novel content. We lose the ability to make a total gift of self to another. At the same time, we lose the ability to encounter and receive the totality of another person. We lose our ability to love.
By understanding the wrong of pornography and perceiving its many harms, we can contribute to the rebuilding of a culture in which people — especially children, the most vulnerable among us — can witness the beauty and dignity of human sexuality in the lives of those around them. Rebuilding that culture would go a long way toward helping people to understand, respect and participate in the goods of marriage and personal integrity, and would allow our culture to teach us what love is rather than encourage its destruction. Along the way, we may solve the problem of sexual violence as well.
Timothy Bradley and Hailey Vrdolyak are the president and vice president of Students for Child-Oriented Policy, respectively. They are both seniors. They can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.