Saturday, November 23, 2013

Everything I Needed to Know About Porn I Learned from the Bible

It's a comfort to be reminded that not all the writers at The American Conservative are intelligent.  Daniel Larison isn't the only one who impresses me: look at this great piece on the know-nothing jingoism of the National Football League, for instance, or this one on the anarchism of Noam Chomsky.  You wouldn't often find such opinions published in the "liberal" media, let alone "conservative" outlets.

By contrast Rod Dreher, the convert from Roman Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy who first achieved notoriety for writing as CrunchyCon at Beliefnet before moving into the big time, falls into the willed know-nothing category, and he's not alone.  Same-sex marriage is one of his big concerns, but this past week he went after pornography.  It might be one of the few areas where Dreher agrees with Chomsky.

Dreher cites a report from "a Catholic magazine" (and for those who, inexplicably, "don't want to believe" such a partisan source, he provides another link to similar material: it's a pop-psychology site, which I don't trust any more than I trust the Vatican) that pornography changes our brains!  Neuroimaging proves it!!  And he concludes:
The more you entertain vice, the more hard-wired into your personality vice becomes. That’s not just a teaching from religious sages. In the case of pornography, at least, it’s neuroscience.
Actually, it's not science at all.  (Several of Dreher's commenters tried to educate him.)  Neuroimaging doesn't tell us all that much; it's useful for locating physical damage to the brain from tumors and other lesions, but no one is sure what the pretty pictures mean apart from such gross pathology.  Which doesn't, of course, keep scientists and laypeople alike from extrapolating wildly to advance their fantasies.

Robert A. Burton's A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind (St. Martin's, 2013), which I wrote about in October, has a lot of useful information about this.  True, what we learn affects the brain.  Burton wrote, for example: "Memorizing the street layout of London in order to become a licensed cab driver produces a dramatic increase in gray matter volume in the posterior hippocampus, a region of the brain known to be crucial for spatial navigation" (182), and reported:
In 2007, the Royal Society of England, in its flagship biological research journal, issued an extensive critique of twenty-five years of published results on brain size and behavior. “We all know that correlation does not demonstrate causation but causation is the context in which the results are invariably interpreted.” The society pointed out that neuroscientists disregard the lessons of history, remain ignorant of prior and present studies asking the same questions, generally persist with inadequate data collection, fail to carry out suitable confirming studies despite their availability, limit their correlations to those that confirm their hypotheses, and cite correlation as evidence of causation [188].
So the research Dreher cites should be taken with a grain of salt.  His sources also prattle about "addiction," another tricky area.  The notion of addiction to pornography, shopping, sex, and love was big in the 1980s and hasn't gone away, but it's dubious scientifically.  Even in the paradigm cases of opiates and other drugs, including alcohol, addiction is complex, and its physiological aspects are controversial.  But Dreher's authority, "psychiatrist Norman Doidge," has no doubts.
"The addictiveness of Internet pornography is not a metaphor,” he says. “Not all addictions are to drugs or alcohol. People can be seriously addicted to gambling, even to running,” he says. So why not pornography?
One giveaway about the addiction hustlers was that they borrowed Twelve-Step concepts and language, but broke with Alcoholics Anonymous by asserting the possibility of "normal" indulgence in sex and love.  According to AA, if you're an alcoholic, you can never drink again.  So if you're a love addict you can't love safely, but Robin Norwood, who popularized "love addiction" in her book Women Who Love Too Much -- still in print after 30 years, long after it was debunked -- promised that with therapy and a good man, you could love again in a healthy manner.  Ditto for the proponents of "sex addiction."  But they can't have it both ways.  If sex and love, or porn, are addictions like those people develop to drugs, then total abstinence is the only way to recover. and recovery will never be complete.  There's a good if controversial book on this subject, Stanton Peele's The Diseasing of America (Jossey-Bass, 1999), which is worth reading on general principles; it fits with other critiques of psychiatry and its satellite disciplines, like Mad Science by Stuart A. Kirk, Tomi Gomory, and David Cohen.

There are plenty of criticisms that can be made about pornography, from a vast range of perspectives.  The religious is only one of them, and I don't think it's a strong one, mainly because it's so conflicted.  Many Christian alarmists about porn have adopted cultural-feminist arguments about it, to the point of collaborating with Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon to pass anti-pornography laws in the 1980s.  I sympathize with the claim that pornography degrades women, but it's never clear how it differs in any important way from heterosexuality in general.

Numerous feminist critics pointed out in the 80s, when Dworkin and MacKinnon were getting a lot of corporate, mainstream media attention, that the same criticism should be made of "popular" commercial culture, yet Dworkin and MacKinnon and their Christian (mostly male) allies showed little interest in doing anything about it.  The use of nubile women, revealingly or scantily clad is almost universal to sell products; to add to the complexity, such women are also used to sell products to women.  The view of copulation as an inherently debasing, even violent act, difficult or impossible to distinguish from rape, is also a cultural commonplace.  And despite the laments of people like Rod Dreher, that "pornographic" view permeates Western religious traditions, a fact that many feminist and other writers have addressed before.

The Hebrew Bible -- known to Christians as the Old Testament -- assumes that women are men's property, to be exchanged between them in marriage.  One of the crucial love stories in Genesis, for example, is that of Jacob, who goes looking for his fortune and meets a pretty girl at a well.  Her name is Rachel.  He helps her move a stone and kisses her, and on learning that her father Laban is his mother's brother, decides he wants to marry her.  (First-cousin marriage, yuck!)  He offers to work for Laban, and when Laban asks what wages Jacob should be paid for serving him, Jacob asks for Rachel, and agrees to work for seven years to earn her.  "So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her."  But on the wedding night, Laban slips Rachel's older sister Leah into Jacob's bed.  Jacob deflowers her, and despite his protests is stuck with her.  Laban generously gives both girls to him, but Jacob still has to work seven more years to pay for Rachel.  Remember this story the next time someone tries to tell you that traditional marriage is one man and one woman, but notice also its treatment of women (not men) as commodities to be bought and sold.  It's typical of the Old Testament, and assumed in the New.

But that's only part of what I'm talking about here.  There's also the motif of the Bad Woman, the Harlot, polluted by contact with too many men (or with only one man who hasn't lawfully purchased her), rented out to them rather than purchased.  I've mentioned before the allegories in the book of the prophet Ezekiel which cast the city of Jerusalem as an abandoned baby girl whom Yahweh adopted and raised to be his bride:
“When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil...
It's not clear to me what these lubricious details have to do with spirituality, as opposed to the prophet exciting himself and his male readers.  I suppose the two aims aren't mutually exclusive.  But blood will tell, and Jerusalem became a whore, selling herself to all comers.  (Yahweh, being male, could spread himself around as he liked.)
35 “Therefore, O prostitute, hear the word of the Lord: 36 Thus says the Lord God, Because your lust was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your whorings with your lovers, and with all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children that you gave to them, 37 therefore, behold, I will gather all your lovers with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved and all those you hated. I will gather them against you from every side and will uncover your nakedness to them, that they may see all your nakedness...
And so on.  The image of Yahweh as a cuckolded and violently abusive husband recurs in the Hebrew Bible.  It's the guiding theme of the prophet Hosea, for example, who claims that Yahweh ordered him to marry a loose woman and sire children on her.  Then Yahweh will punish his unfaithful wife Israel, saying:
“Rebuke your mother, rebuke her,
    for she is not my wife,
    and I am not her husband.
Let her remove the adulterous look from her face
    and the unfaithfulness from between her breasts.
Otherwise I will strip her naked
    and make her as bare as on the day she was born;
I will make her like a desert,
    turn her into a parched land,
    and slay her with thirst.
I will not show my love to her children,
    because they are the children of adultery.
And so on.   There's a lot more.  In the New Testament this theme mainly occurs in the Book of Revelation with its symbolic Whore of Babylon, who is "drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus" (17.6).  (In general, the New Testament encourages a rejection of marriage and therefore of sexuality, but this isn't really at odds with the idea of sex as polluting and degrading.)  Whoredom is equated in the Bible with idolatry, which can be confusing sometimes, but it's meant to be: the reader is expected to be blinded with fury at those who are unfaithful to Yahweh, so why bother trying to make sense?  Jennifer Wright Knust has a good discussion of this topic in her Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire (HarperOne, 2011).  The Bible, as Knust's subtitle indicates, isn't consistent about women or sex (or any number of other subjects), but the Polluted Woman is one of its important themes.

The idea of the unfaithful woman as "whore" -- not meaning literally a seller of sexual services so much as a woman off the leash, and presumed eager to service all comers.  (I wonder if the ultra-orthodox males in today's Israel who spit on eight-year-old girls and call them "whores" mean literally that these children are selling sexual services.  As I noted above, it's probably not something they think about.  But they're certainly following tradition.)  That is why male ownership of women is justified, to keep women under control, to regulate "carnal lust, which is in women insatiable" as the late-medieval Malleus Maleficarum or Hammer of Witches put it.  There are good women, but they're only a blink away from jumping over the traces and turning into whores, which is why their fathers, brothers and husbands must keep them tightly restrained and confined.

This is one of the pillars of what people like Rod Dreher like to call the pornographic mind or the pornographic imagination, yet it's a major theme in the Christian tradition.  If a law like Dworkin and MacKinnon's were passed and enforced, it would require action against the Bible and the religious institutions that treat it as authority.

Dreher's secular source warns:
According to Online MBA, 40 million Americans are regular visitors to porn Web sites. And in the U.S. $2.84 billion is spent on pornography yearly. And as with most addictions, the habit has intensified over time. Society’s taste in pornography has skewed further and further towards the extreme as internet porn has become more widely accessible: “Hardcore pornography now explores the world of perversion, while softcore is now what hardcore was a few decades ago, explicit sexual intercourse between adults, now available on cable TV. The comparatively tame softcore pictures of yesteryear—women in various states of undress—now show up on mainstream media all day long, in the pornification of everything, including television, rock videos, soap operas, advertisements, and so on.”
$2.84 billion is a lot of money, but it's a tiny amount compared to what the US spends each year to kill people.  Killing people, on the other hand, is a biblical value, mandated against idolaters by Yahweh himself.  Some Canaanite cities were to be burned to the ground as a burnt offering to Yahweh, including the livestock and all human inhabitants.  In others, everyone but virgin females were to be killed, and the virgins enslaved -- see Numbers 31:18 and Deuteronomy 20:13ff; slaves of course were available for sexual use by their owners, as were female captives taken in war (Deuteronomy 21:10ff).

I'm skeptical of the claims about the "world of perversion" in "hardcore" porn.  The same claims about violent porn were made by the feminist porn movement of the 1980s, but they were debunked: only a small portion of commercial pornography could be called violent, and it was a specialty niche.  Most pornography depicts nonviolent, consensual copulation.  (Consider the analogous argument that a religion -- Christianity, say, to choose one at random -- should not be judged by its most "extreme" versions; pornography, by contrast, should be.)  Perhaps the "perversion" referred to is oral and anal sex, and it does seem to be true that anal sex has become more common in mainstream heterosexual porn.  (It was always mainstream in gay male pornography, naturally.)  But is it "perversion"?  To some people, no doubt, even when they themselves practice it privately.  That's the beauty of words like "perversion" -- they raise the blood pressure and produce righteous excitement, but they don't contain much information.  They're not meant to: their function is emotional incitement.

As for the increasing acceptability of porn-inspired imagery in mainstream commercial entertainment and advertising, that's an issue that people can discuss.  Secular radical feminists have been talking about it for a long time, but because they were a bunch of hairy-legged manhaters with whom right-wing Christians saw no benefit in allying, no one paid attention.  The Christian Right's interest in working with feminist anti-porn crusaders expired years ago, though they also appropriated and assimilated Dworkinite rhetoric.  And the objectification of women remains disputed by males of all persuasions.  (For an introduction to the question, see this and this, then go from there.)  To be brief here, I'd say that the problems with pornography are themselves a result of mainstream misogyny and male supremacy.  Mainstream men need "sluts" and "whores" as an organizing principle for their dealings with women; women who collaborate with such men also need "sluts" and "whores" to try to ward off abuse and declare their allegiance.

Even if all secular pornography magically disappeared tomorrow, though, the treatment of women as sexual objects and commodities would still be omnipresent in Christian society.  It's inextricably entangled (love that word) in the cultural foundations of the Christian West.  (Which doesn't let the various cultures of the East off the hook; they're just not the issue here.)  I'm critical of those people who claim that pornography is an educational resource, to teach people the reality of sex; I think that's obviously batty, since pornography is about fantasy, not reality.  I don't have any broad answers about how people should be educated about sex, but I think honesty -- meaning accuracy -- is a good policy. There are exceptions (which prove the rule), but mostly Christian churches have been more interested in suppressing accurate and honest discourse about sex.  I don't see Dreher as one of the exceptions.