The past couple of decades have seen an unprecedented rise in the use of pornography and an associated decline in the social stigma that accompanies it. Pornography has been downgraded from scandalous to humorous, from aberrant to mundane. Rare today is the young man (or young woman) who has not at least dabbled in it. For an increasing number of people, it has become ubiquitous, habitual, often the first and primary means through which they explore and express their sexuality.
While there are many valid concerns when it comes to the rise of porn, Carl Trueman takes a unique tack in his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. In a chapter committed to exploring the rise of the erotic in Western society, he shows that pornography involves detachment. Part of its deviancy is in the way it detaches sex from four different things.
Pornography detaches sex from a real physical encounter. Where God designed sex to involve the physical union of two bodies, pornography removes the physical aspect altogether. Where sex is a physical event to be participated in, pornography is a disembodied act to be spectated. In that way it makes sexual pleasure a private and personal matter which in turn trivializes it as a form of entertainment. Pornography makes sex about self—about personal pleasure and personal satisfaction that has no reference to the pleasure or satisfaction of another person. “If freedom and happiness are epitomized in sexual satisfaction, then pornography becomes a medium, perhaps the obvious and certainly the easiest and lest personally costly medium, of liberation and fulfillment.” What is most obvious about pornography, that it involves no true physical encounter for those who view it, is profound in its significance.
Porn detaches sex from a personal narrative. Sex is meant to be bound to the relationship of a husband and wife. Sexual union is part of the narrative of any couple, part of the unfolding story of their lives and relationship. Part of what inhibits us in our sexuality is the fact that we have a future with this person and don’t wish to risk that future through aberrant behavior. Says Trueman, “The sexual encounters between a husband and wife find their deeper meaning not in the personal pleasure of the moment but in the way those encounters are intended to strengthen and reinforce the unique relationship that exists between the two partners, one shaped by a shared past and present and open to a shared future.” Pornography, though, focuses only on the moment without reference to past or future. It trains people to understand each sexual encounter as an isolated act in which future relationship is meaningless.
Porn detaches sex from future consequences. The person who views pornography experiences sexuality that is free from any of the positive or negative consequences that may come with actual sexual encounters. He is freed from necessary consequences because there is no actual physical experience. Pornography completely detaches sex from the future and, therefore, involves almost no risk. There is no need to be concerned with attachment or pregnancy, no need to fear being caught for doing something illegal. “Nothing is demanded of him, and he gives nothing in return.” It’s the laziest, emptiest form of sexuality.
Porn detaches sex from any ethical context. “Ethics are a function of narrative, a function of relationships, a function of context and consequences, and because all these are absent in the consumption of pornography, the constant message being projected is that sex itself has no ethical context or intrinsic moral content.” Someone may be able to determine that specific forms of pornography have been created in an unethical way (such as when they involve underage or unwilling participants) but its existence and use is not seen to have any ethical significance. For many people today, the ethics of pornography go no deeper than the ethics involved in its origins. The pornography itself is just a concept, a collection of amoral content, that can be used or not used at the whim of the individual.
In many ways, pornography encapsulates the spirit of the age as it pertains to sexuality. “If porn works for you, if it promotes that sense of inner well-being that is the basic moral imperative of the therapeutic age, then as long as nobody was harmed in its production, … then all is good.” It epitomizes the whole sexual revolution in the way “it presents sex as merely a physical, pleasurable act that is divorced from any greater relational significance.” But through Christian eyes we see that pornography is of the greatest social consequence, that it carries the greatest relational harm, because of all it detaches from an act God created to be of the utmost significance.