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Shifting the Focus: Objectification, Porn and the Longing for Belonging; A Guest Post by Leah Perrault

April 1, 2014

Vox Nova is happy to present this post by Leah Perrault.  Leah’s previous guest post at Vox Nova is available here: I’m Right Here. See Me.

Last week, John Rogove, over at Ethika Politika, put out a piece that got me thinking about pornography again. It was a fascinating economic analysis of the “market” for the bodies and intimacy of women in the face of rising costs of living (in this case, of university tuition).

I think the author is right to suggest that in the sexual “marketplace”, patriarchy is engrained, where women generally are placed in a vulnerable position by virtue of generally higher male demand for sex. This places women in a position of both power and vulnerability, and it is equally interesting to me that women get blamed for the problem and exploited by it, generally – also a sign of cultural, rather than merely capitalist, patriarchy.

Early in the post, however, I think the author fundamentally misunderstands the appeal of porn for the consumer when he writes: “That’s precisely the appeal of porn for the consumer: it takes a dignified human being, often one in a position of power or at least of autonomy, however socially limited, and degrades her: having already reduced her personhood to a mere symbolic social role, it then reduces even that to the simple material presence of a passive body, ready for consumption. It is precisely this body-as-meat ready for consumption that the entrepreneurial sex worker effectively exploits and sells as a product. ” I don’t think that porn is appealing to the consumer because it objectifies and depersonalizes the person viewed, though porn and porn use certainly does this. I think porn is appealing and addictive because it satisfies some unmet need in the viewer; porn speaks to a longing for sexual intimacy, for belonging and being desired by the other. When a person cannot find a meaningful relationship, fails to succeed in making it last or is seduced by a culture that promises instant gratification in every arena including human relationships, porn offers us the illusion of what we really want. In some cases, the viewer is threatened by the people or situations represented in pornography, and offers the illusion of control, manipulation or oppression of the other; this too is primarily about the dysfunction in the viewer, a fear of vulnerability, equality and intimacy.

We live in a society that often profoundly misrepresents the reality of real human love (think blockbuster representations of marriage, lifelong fidelity, and parenthood or the bizarre popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey). People long for intimacy, connection, belonging, and mutual love. Urbanization, social media, longer work weeks and a myriad of other factors have us more connected than ever and also increasingly lonely. Objectification and depersonalization are natural consequences of porn, but I don’t think that the average porn user, at least at the beginning, is aiming for those consequences as a primary goal. The appeal of porn, and eventually the compulsion or addiction, isn’t about the (often female) body, person or sexual appeal. It’s about the longing, fear and/or compulsion in the viewer.

When women and academics talk about pornography, they typically discuss it through the lens of what it does to the (often female) subject(s). When I have been privileged to discuss pornography with men and women who have struggled with compulsive or addictive habits with porn, they have never said that they began or continued to use porn in order to objectify others. They talk about their own brokenness first, expressing sorrow over what porn has done to them, and only then about how it affects others (their significant others, the subjects of the porn, etc.) This makes sense to me, even when I want to get on a soap-box about cultural patriarchy.

When you want to assist a recovering alcoholic or addict, you get no where until the individual can see that the problem is not out there somewhere (the presence, legality or availability of alcohol or drugs, or my annoying partner or boss who drives me to use), but rather the problem is in here, inside me, a problem of living that I am trying to mask or satiate with a substance. As long as the problem is abstract, external and focused on others, behaviour doesn’t change. Porn is especially problematic because the object of the addiction is a person, not a thing. Of course the objectification of people (many of which are women) is more serious than the abuse of a substance, because the alcohol or crack does not have inherent dignity or worth that is damaged and manipulated in the process. But if pornography is only a problem when it hurts someone else, rather than because it hurts me, there is very little motivation for the user to stop using.

Our culture has a strange relationship with morality and sin, where right and wrong have been distorted by a relativism that leaves us disconnected from one another because unless something hurts us directly, it might be “right for you”. For nearly a decade now, I have been using a working definition of sin: any action which does damage to me, to my relationships with others and my relationship with God. Patriarchy, like pornography, is a corporate and an individual sin, but no individual experiences the totality of corporate sin. Our sin, our damaging and compulsive coping behaviours, are first deeply personal. It is often only when we acknowledge our own weakness that we are able to have true sorrow over how our actions have hurt others and how we have isolated ourselves from God out of shame.

In Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II has a very rarely cited appendix on the ethics of the subject of the human body in art and culture (reflections 60-63). His conclusions about the ethics of nude art might surprise you. In his affirmation of the beauty, dignity and worth of nude art, he implicates three persons in the ethics: the artist, the model and the viewer, all of whom have a moral responsibility to treat the dignity of the whole person. Each has a responsibility that can be ignored, distorted or abused, turning art into pornography. For John Paul, the prevention of sin does not extend to removing all opportunities for sin by banning nude art; it begins with teaching people about the dignity of the person, the power, purpose and beauty of our sexual longing.

When will we shift our focus and start talking about pornography with reference to the incredible power of human longing for intimacy alongside the sin of objectification? The market for sex work does not emerge primarily out of a patriarchal desire to objectify, but out of our human need to be desired by and in relationship with others. In an individualized capitalism, it is possible for the sin of objectification to be written off by “libertarian” sex “workers”, to use Rogove’s language. In a framework that acknowledges deep relationality inherent in human action and relationships, the damage and sin of replacing real human intimacy with a fake remains regardless of whether the human object of the porn identifies with being victimized or objectified. That is to say that the viewer can sin even if the model doesn’t think she has.

If we fail to address the real reasons that porn users and/or addicts are using in the first place, our words about objectification and depersonalization fall on deaf ears. If we fail, as a culture to turn the light onto the viewers of porn and be honest about their reasons for using it, we will continue to participate in corporate sinfulness that refuses to acknowledge deeply personal realities that are the building blocks of our culture. Market demand is created by individual persons arriving at similar conclusions. We have indeed created a market for objectification and depersonalization, but it is a secondary symptom rather than a primary cause.

If we make porn use primarily about the female subjects (or male, for that matter) in the porn, we further the patriarchial injustice by refusing to ask the viewers of porn to take responsibility for their own actions and motives. Women’s use of and addictions to porn are also on the rise, and that’s not just patriarchy at work – it’s about a fundamental and universal human, rather than exclusively male, longing for connection and intimacy being distorted. Patriarchy destroys right responsibility for power, attempts to divert the focus of the discussion and employs victim blame – regardless of whether those victims are women, men, children, or any other marginalized group. There is comfort being protected by that patriarchy. The cultural and personal patriarchy we participate in covers up our deep longing for intimacy and its power to make us do things that hurt ourselves and each other. And that, in my opinion, is why Belle Knox claims liberation in her “work”, why her viewer gets away from the limelight, and why we all talk about the characters and market forces at play at the risk of excluding the power and purpose of human sexuality.


 

Leah Perrault is the author of Theology of the Body for Every Body and co-author (with Vox Nova’s Brett Salkeld) of How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating.

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7 Comments
  1. trellis smith permalink
    April 1, 2014 3:47 pm

    I’m rather suspect that the purveyors of anti porn are at heart anti sex control addicts making much ado about nothing. Under the guise of attacking patriarchy and some silly notion of objectification and depersonalization ( as if one can be inured from bumping into the reality of human beings and sexuality) what is essentially on display is nothing more than old-fashioned sexual conservatism: that sexuality is male, not female; that men inflict sex on women; and that sex is inherently degrading to women. Ms Perrault has at least acknowledged that women are a growing market for porn and that the patriarchal claims have lost traction, but there is little profound in saying that porn like all fiction,all fantasy,all art is an escape from some reality. It may be more insightful to say that erotica may be a way and an outlet to newer apprehensions of reality.

    • Antiochus permalink
      April 3, 2014 5:44 pm

      I think you’ve missed the whole point. Of life and sex in general. (The right kind of) anti-porn arguments are so because porn is anti-femaie sexuality, anti- sexual freedom, and purvey a male-dominated, rapey view of sexuality, that sees women as blow up dolls and not feeling subjects

  2. April 1, 2014 10:13 pm

    I’m curious whether you also work with people who view porn non-addictively, and whether their reasons may be different from those who use it addictively. I expect this would be likely, given similar distinctions between addictive and non-addictive use of alcohol, for example.

    It would be particularly interesting, and important, to engage with couples who find that viewing porn together enhances their sexual relationship.

  3. Jordan permalink
    April 2, 2014 9:55 am

    Leah Perrault writes,

    In a framework that acknowledges deep relationality inherent in human action and relationships, the damage and sin of replacing real human intimacy with a fake remains regardless of whether the human object of the porn identifies with being victimized or objectified. That is to say that the viewer can sin even if the model doesn’t think she has.

    Leah’s statement, though solidly orthodox from a Catholic natural law perspective, cannot dictate personal ethic in an ostensibly secular state or condition an individual’s participation in capitalism. States whose ethics divorce themselves from religiously-instituted models of morality must confirm Belle Knox’s self-conception as a feminist and sex worker. Natural law, and the institutions which guard this ideology, cannot claim superiority over Knox’s self-identification or ideology. From the perspective of the secular state, feminism, gender theory, the self-identification of porn actors as sex workers, and natural law constructs all exist on an equal footing in the public marketplace.

    Leah’s assessment echoes John Rogove’s metaphor in ET of the wage-slave and his or her equity. I understand Rosgove’s model as an attempt to square the circle of natural law and capitalism. From a natural law standpoint, a person who has exhausted his or her creative equity has only the dignity and volition of the body for moral ends. This would be the legal standard if public discourse admitted natural law, but it does not necessarily do so. Because of this, Knox, given her self-identification, quite possibly does not understand or recognize the existence of a corporeal moral value which can be fully exhausted as a wage-slave. Although it may be frustrating to admit, Knox owes nothing to Rosgrove. Perhaps in Knox’s view, the exhaustion of creative equity and the equity necessary to direct one’s own life necessarily entails the loss of sexual volition.

  4. Hypatia permalink
    April 10, 2014 9:25 am

    Re: Trellis Smith’s comment: I would be interested to hear from Ms Perrault whether she makes a distinction between erotica and porn and how she makes the distinction.

  5. Sherrie permalink
    May 14, 2014 12:54 pm

    Thank you so much..its like a light just went off inside my head..and now..maybe finally..I can help my husband through this…I’ve been so heartbroken..but I think you’re right..its about what’s missing from the person…fear..loneliness..depression. My heart is actually relieved..with understanding..all is possible..blessed be..s

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