Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

An Ill Considered Call to Settle for Porn

Prof Mark Regnerus had a piece in First Things last week arguing... Well, I guess that part of the problem is that it's not exactly clear what Regnerus is arguing. He starts out with some basic survey data on porn usage:

Forty-three percent of American men (and 9 percent of women) now report using pornography within the past week. It’s not an adolescent thing, either, as data from the new Relationships in America survey reveals. For men, porn use peaks in their twenties and thirties before beginning to diminish slowly. Indeed, sixty-year-old men are only slightly less likely to have viewed pornography within the past week than men in their twenties and thirties.

Among women, there is a more linear downward trend in pornography use with age. While 19 percent of women under age thirty report porn use in the week prior to the survey, only 3 percent of women in their fifties say the same. The challenge invades congregations as well: 26 percent of weekly church-attending men reported porn use within the past week.
...
Contrary to what is sometimes asserted, women have the right to be annoyed or upset by porn. It’s not a good thing. It’s spiritually draining. But we often overlook another casualty of pornography (and the human reaction to it): relationships that fail to launch. Breaking off a relationship because of pornography use can be a rational, justifiable, and moral reaction to a problem—the predilection for peering at nudity online—but such actions contribute in ways not often noted to our broad retreat from marriage.
He then follows up with several anecdotes about women saying that they consider porn use a deal-breaker when it comes to picking a man to have a relationship with. Regnerus worries that this will mean that lots of people will avoid getting married at all:
While I’m sympathetic to their concern, I can also promise you that widespread departures—given the dour numbers on porn use—will only accelerate the flight from marriage in the Church and is likely to backfire on women (as many things tend to do in the domain of relationships) who would leave for pastures that may well not be greener.

I would never dream of telling anyone—devoid as I am of information about particular situations—what they ought to do about their boyfriend’s roving eye. However, I have no trouble or qualms in declaring that collectively a categorical call to leave spells doom. Young adults are waiting longer and longer to marry, and fewer are doing so.

To counsel further flight is like asserting that our Christian ancestors should have headed to the hills, as wealthy Romans did, to avoid the plague. You can’t flee far enough, and the Church grew by gutting it out, staying put, and caring for the sick. On the matter of men and pornography, the data suggest you cannot flee far enough. Lots of “prudent” decisions to leave will still lead us to the same place—a widespread marriage avoidance. There’s nothing wrong with being unmarried, but we fool ourselves if we think this is the obvious solution.
And there the post sort of hangs. There's some vague talk about how "the Church will have to learn how to navigate this, and press forward with grace and truth" but he doesn't quite seem to have a conclusion. What it sounds very like is that this is a "you need to settle" genre of article. One reads these from time to time, and whether religious or secular in tone they're almost always intensely annoying because the subtext is invariably that people who are single are so because they are just too dang picky. If only single people would behave as the author advises, they would all find suitable spouses.

Regnerus does not quite go there. While the post is mostly pretty vague on what porn is and how its use might affect a relationship, treating it instead as thing thing which 23 percent of men who go to church weekly also do at least weekly, it does acknowledge briefly that using pornography is wrong and that women are entitled to object to it in a spouse or potential spouse. However, from there on the post simply treats porn usage as a given, and seeks to advise women and the church that they need to adjust their expectations, or else prepare for a life alone.

This is what really bugged me about the post. I can see writing a post along the lines of, "Look, we need to understand that an awful lot of men are going to have been exposed to porn, to one extent or another, during their lives, and so rather than pursuing a draconian purity ethic whereby we permanently write off any man who has ever looked at pornography, we need to actively evangelize on what leading a chaste life (whether in the single or married vocation) means in a porn-saturated world." But the post doesn't deal at all with what is expected of men seeking to lead a virtuous life. It's entirely about how women, and the Church, need to adjust their expectations. That makes it sound an awful lot like the author is ready to wink at the behavior.

In that regard, it's surprising that he cites the early Church as an example. If there's one thing you can say about the early Church, it's that it was not terribly accommodating to the prevailing morals of the late Roman Empire. No, it certainly didn't retreat into the wilderness, but it didn't just accept people as they were either. The early Church issued a radical call to change one's life, and that's what's missing from far too much discussion of evangelization today. Whether it's this article's apparent "this is how it is" fatalism, or the loud calls in certain sectors of the Church today to find a way to ignore Christ's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, too often people are thinking of "evangelization" as if it means "welcoming people into the tent by ignoring moral standards" rather than "calling people to change their lives and follow Christ."

19 comments:

Brandon said...

That was definitely an annoying article, since it effectively equates women having standards with women fleeing from reality.

Jenny said...

So in order to save marriage in our society, women just need to accept that their husbands are going to use porn? Is this the argument? What else are potential spouses supposed to accept in order to "save marriage?"

Darwin said...

Yes, it struck me that this sort of "reasoning" could be adapted to any common vice: Most men get drunk and beat their wives, so women should just accept that and stop trying not to marry a drunkard.

Jenny said...

Most women are spendthrifts so men just need to accept that their wives will drive them into bankruptcy and quit trying to maintain a budget.

Jenny said...

Most men have more needs than one woman can meet so women just need to accept her husband is going to have a series of mistresses.

Jenny said...

I'll quit. If his idea was that women need to accept that this vice is probably going to be a part of her husband's past so they need to be aware and not be so quick to write a man off since virtue can be cultivated, I can agree with that. But this piece seems to imply that the real problem is that the women are objecting.

John Farrell said...

You'd think, Regnerus being a sociologist, he'd touch on the irreducible amount of violence involved in online porn; and yet the impression he gives is that it's basically just a step beyond looking at pictures of naked or scantily clad women in Playboy.

Kate said...

There's a possible argument that habitual use of porn could present a serious impediment to a man's ability to form a valid Catholic marriage. And then there's mounting evidence that regular porn use can affect sexual performance and inhibit relationships. I'm not sure that encouraging women to ignore red flags like that will really help "save marriage"--you save marriage by promoting more healthy marriages, not by encouraging the formation of more dysfunctional ones.

BurgoFitzgerald said...

I don't think high profile people such as the actress Jennifer Lawrence help when she gave an interview after her self posed nude photographs were hacked from her cellphone and said something along the lines that if you don't take pictures of yourself naked, your boyfriend will end up looking at porn. I just thought that was a really sad point of view to have for a young woman that so many seem to praise for being intelligent and gutsy. I certainly didn't let that statement go with the young women in my life who look up to her as a role model.

Crude said...

You'd think, Regnerus being a sociologist, he'd touch on the irreducible amount of violence involved in online porn;

And that, apparently, is just the way many women prefer their fantasies anyway.

From 1973 through 2008, nine surveys of women's rape fantasies have been published. They show that about four in 10 women admit having them (31 to 57 percent) with a median frequency of about once a month. Actual prevalence of rape fantasies is probably higher because women may not feel comfortable admitting them.

Should men regard women with these fantasies - or who sate them with romance novels or, yes, even pornography - as mentally ill, and to be avoided?

I don't say this in defense of porn consumption whatsoever, guilty as I am of it. But I do suggest you're not going to be able to discuss this problem in isolation.

And just to light another fire with this post, since it's related: does a woman have a study to be sexually available to her husband, even if she's not really in the mood? How about vice versa?

Darwin said...

I don't know that either one is a mental illness (indeed, I'd say rather a moral failing), but a habit of fantasizing about sexual violence (or reading trash like 50 Shades of Grey) does indeed strike me as something that might give a potential spouse pause. (Just as a habit of masturbating while watching videos of people having sex probably ought to give a potential spouse pause.)

And just to light another fire with this post, since it's related: does a woman have a study to be sexually available to her husband, even if she's not really in the mood? How about vice versa?

I'm assuming that you mean "duty" here.

I don't know that I'd hold the two are fully related, in that I don't think that the fact that one spouse cuts another off from affection justifies the other spouse in behaving badly, though it can certainly explain it and make it more emotionally understandable if nor morally excusable.

However, in general, I would say that both spouses have a duty to consider the desires of the other, rather than just their own mood. Balancing that, I think both spouses have a duty to consider the moods of the other, not merely their desires. Hopefully there's enough give and take between these two duties that both take care of the other to the degree the other needs -- though often in human relationships one or both are more selfish than would be best.

MrsDarwin said...

Crude, we've already written about women's fetish fantasies and the problems of fantasizing here.

Crude said...

Darwin,

I don't know that either one is a mental illness (indeed, I'd say rather a moral failing), but a habit of fantasizing about sexual violence (or reading trash like 50 Shades of Grey) does indeed strike me as something that might give a potential spouse pause.

I agree that it should. But are we going to go beyond 'giving pause' to 'it is wrong to fantasize about such things or consume such fiction'? Already answered, in one case.

Credit where it's due: Mrsdarwin seems to be saying (at least in her linked post - thank you for that) that it's wrong to consume such literature, it's wrong to encourage and feed such fantasies. She is very possibly the first person I've encountered who has said as much, so I'm properly surprised here.

And yes, I meant duty.

However, in general, I would say that both spouses have a duty to consider the desires of the other, rather than just their own mood. Balancing that, I think both spouses have a duty to consider the moods of the other, not merely their desires.

Sounds reasonable, and I'd endorse the line of thinking. But I also think that sort of give and take, and the D-word, are a bit danced around - even with that sort of 'both parties have a responsibility here' attitude had. Some people frankly weaponize sex in a relationship, or see it as something to be doled out for good behavior, and restricted for failure to do as one is told.

MrsDarwin,

Crude, we've already written about women's fetish fantasies and the problems of fantasizing here.

As I said above, that's a pleasant surprise. Thoughtful piece too, very well written. That said, I think you underestimate what some people enjoy, but you speak about it more frankly than I've seen some full-blown S&M fetishists speak of it, which is a nice change of pace.

Actually, that I think is pretty pivotal in any discussions about sex and relationships and porn and fantasy.

Getting back to Regnerus, I think one problem with any talk of expectations in a relationship is that focusing - even for a single article - on only one half of the equation doesn't do the topic justice. I actually wonder if anything less than superficial has been written about discouraging porn use from a singles' perspective. (I think Joe K once wrote about this on his blog, and in relation to this. I wonder if there's a female equivalent?)

Darwin said...

I agree that it should. But are we going to go beyond 'giving pause' to 'it is wrong to fantasize about such things or consume such fiction'?

I know I tend towards understatement, but I would hope that it's clear that when I say that something is a moral failing I mean "it's wrong" and "it's a sin". But just for clarity: I think that it is a sin for either a man or a woman to seek erotic satisfaction through consuming porn, whether that means still pictures, videos of real of simulated sex, or trashy fantasies such as 50 Shades. I think it's the same kind of sin whether it's a man or a woman.

When I said it should give one pause about relationship prospects, I meant that as something of a whatismore, since there are sins that are unquestionably sins (say, taking the Lord's name in vain) which I think one would be overreacting to consider as reasons not to date someone.

She is very possibly the first person I've encountered who has said as much, so I'm properly surprised here.

I don't keep count, but I guess I'm kind of surprised at that, since I seem to recall that when 50 Shades first hit it big there was a wash of think pieces from Catholic writers (male and female) talking about how this was the same as porn and women were wrong to consume it. But in this case, I'm glad that MrsDarwin's piece filled the void!

Darwin said...

Sounds reasonable, and I'd endorse the line of thinking. But I also think that sort of give and take, and the D-word, are a bit danced around - even with that sort of 'both parties have a responsibility here' attitude had. Some people frankly weaponize sex in a relationship, or see it as something to be doled out for good behavior, and restricted for failure to do as one is told.

Yeah, I readily admit to dancing around it a bit, but it's mostly because from experience it seems like whenever I get pulled into these conversations people with opposite grievances pop up to push their point, so I end up qualifying a lot. I don't really recall the post which it came up on, but it seems like last time I was talking about how women (and men too, though that direction is a less common issue) have a duty to meet their husbands' reasonable sexual desires even if they're not totally in the mood at the moment, I got a response saying, "What, you mean when some man forces himself on his wife while she's still in the hospital after giving birth, in all sorts of pain and sill bleeding, she has a duty to give him what he demands?"

Well, let's be clear: That's a pretty effed up situation just as a woman weaponizing sex in order to tease and torture her husband is also a pretty effed up situation.

Like a lot of human issues, and the ways that we find to sin against each other, I think a lot of it comes down to selfishness. A husband has a duty not to demand sex from his wife when it's going to hurt/damage her, or when she's really sick, or when she's in some emotional or mental state where she's really in no position to give out. Yeah, even if he really wants it. Making unreasonable demands is selfish and wrong. At the same time, a wife has a duty to be an affectionate partner to her husband and make a good faith effort to satisfy his sexual desires -- not use sex as a weapon or a reward for good behavior or a power play. It is just as selfish for a wife to think that she only has to consider her husband's sexual desires if she's absolutely hot for it already herself as it is for a husband to think that his wife is a tool for sexual gratification and not a person who has moods and desires of her own.

I realize that this is lots more one the one hand, but on the other hand kind of talk, not some sort of firm rule of thumb, but on things that are inherently relational I think it's hard to give any kind of hard rule of thumb. There's not a mathematical equation for when a wife has a duty to give in to her husband's desires and when she doesn't.

Crude said...

Darwin,

I don't keep count, but I guess I'm kind of surprised at that, since I seem to recall that when 50 Shades first hit it big there was a wash of think pieces from Catholic writers (male and female) talking about how this was the same as porn and women were wrong to consume it. But in this case, I'm glad that MrsDarwin's piece filled the void!

Oh, I saw plenty of condemnation about how it was porn. I saw less focus on it being wrong for women to consume it, and nothing that specifically talked about the issues I saw MrsDarwin bring up.

Anyway, pardon my bluntness - I am not coming down on you for nuance, and I actually find you to engage in such justifiably. No criticism against you on that front, and my complaints were far more general and 'beyond this blog' anyway. Keep in mind a good share of my experience isn't just with 'Catholic bloggers' but other bloggers (including *sneer* video games and popular entertainment).

I think some of that is seen with Regnerus, who at least to me seems to treat pornography and the associated fantasizing as 'this male phenomenon'. Granted, he was specifically focusing on stats related to men - but then, I think trying to isolate one sex in a discussion about sexual/relationship failings and duties is usually a bad idea to begin with.

Darwin said...

Far be it from me to suggest MrsD doesn't have a uniquely insightful take on things. ;-)

Caroline said...

It seems that the women are the ones always called upon to settle. I wonder if the author would tell young men to not worry if the young women around them are fat, or ugly, or stupid? I doubt it, even though none of those are moral failings.

Crude said...

Caroline,

Stupid or ugly, no. But I'm pretty sure being fat's related to gluttony.