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Why look at porn?

| Monday, October 26, 2015

Notre Dame students look at porn. It’s just a fact. In 2013, I conducted a very informal survey of more than 400 Notre Dame students on pornography use. Sixty-three percent of men and 11 percent of women admitted to viewing porn while on campus.

I don’t know entirely what to do with this fact. I don’t like pornography. I agree with Timothy Bradley and Hailey Vrdolyak’s recent claim that “pornography use erodes our ability to love real persons.” And yet, the lack of “real persons” is precisely what makes pornography so attractive.

Pornography may be the epitome of interpersonal connection in contemporary society. It facilitates a manufactured, yet frequently personalized, relationship in which one can experience many of the excitements of sexual intimacy, while also offering protection from the vulnerability, risks and work that come with actually getting another person to have sex with, or to even look at, you. Given the real dangers of actually encountering another personpornography is an alluring escape from the self that helps to pass what might otherwise be meaningless time.

I suspect that pornography isn’t just about arousal and satisfaction, although it certainly includes them. It’s also about the loneliness, the disconnectedness and the fears that we have with the human beings around us. I’ve talked with many men who looked at pornography and wished they didn’t. For some, the pornography that they couldn’t resist was eventually overcome in the process of falling in love. There was something about loving another that fundamentally changed how they related to the world and to themselves. It was about more than simply trying harder not to look at porn.

Some people believe that pornography comes from a decline in morals. But in “Diagnosing the Modern Malaise,” Walker Percy writes, “the real pathology is not so much a moral decline, which is a symptom … but rather an ontological impoverishment; that is, a severe limitation or crippling of the very life of 20th-century man. If this is the case and if this crippling and impoverishment manifests itself often in sexual behavior, the latter becomes the proper domain of the serious novelist.” And it affects the videographer as well.

Sometimes you do just need to buckle down and force yourself not to do it. Aristotelian virtue comes from habit, which comes from repeated activity. If you want to become the kind of person who doesn’t do something, part of what you’ll need to do is to choose not to do that thing, over and over again. And once that choice becomes a habit, you won’t simply be the same person who doesn’t do something. According to Aristotle, you’ll become a different kind of person.

Perhaps the person who habitually looks at pornography is a kind of person. But to say that the root of that person’s pornography use is pornography is kind of like saying that the root cause of alcoholism is alcohol. The slide into porn addiction, just as with the slide in to alcoholism, involves much more than porn itself. It involves a way of life, a view of the world, one’s relationship with oneself and with others. I have friends who went more than 20 years without looking at porn and without much struggle, until some major life event changed them in some way, and then porn was a response to this change. Maybe, for some, porn is about coping.

Percy suggests an “ontological impoverishment,” rather than simply a moral or even sexual impoverishment, as the source of contemporary sexual practices. But what is the impoverishment? It’s not only about having certain beliefs or being a part of certain communities. From what I’ve seen, contemporary American Christians and Catholics with a relatively clean public image look at pornography almost as much as everyone else. What is it that makes them impoverished?

Wendell Berry writes, “sex is not a story in itself. It has interest, meaning, even power, only when it is understood as part of a story.” What makes the interest, meaning and power in pornography? What story or stories does it suggest? Porn isn’t just something to do. It’s part of a story about society, culture and ourselves.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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