So, Hugh Hefner is dead. I don’t expect to see the breathless eulogizing that often accompanies the deaths of other famous people—I suppose we still retain just enough prudery (or at least good taste) to feel at least slightly awkward about praising the man who brought the world Playboy magazine. At least some of us might. I don’t know. More likely is a kind of chuckle, chuckle, wink, nudge frat boy mentality that thinks, “Not bad, the guy entered his tenth decade still surrounded by his young airbrushed bunnies, still living the dream of unrestrained lust and easy sex, still selling human bodies for greedy profit, still building and maintaining his palatial empire of desire right to the end. Atta boy, Hugh!” Or something like that.
It is, of course, something of a truism to say that the sexual revolution that began in the latter half of the twentieth century has well and truly taken root. Pornography is ubiquitous, thoroughly mainstream, and eminently acceptable. To suggest otherwise is to out oneself as a knuckle-dragging troglodyte from a primitive and manacled bygone age. And yet. It is perhaps worth occasionally gently applying the brakes on the liberation train and asking ourselves just what, in fact, we are doing. Especially when it comes to porn.
In a recent Guardian piece by Andrew Brown, the author quotes Rod Dreher in asking what I think are some very important questions:
We are conducting a radical experiment that has never before in history been tried, because it has never been possible. What happens to individuals and societies when images – moving images – of the most bizarre and violent sex acts imaginable can be instantly accessed by anyone, anywhere, at any time? What does that do to our brains, our minds, and our hearts? What does it to do us as a people?”
These are, indeed, frightening questions to contemplate. Or, check that, to observe. We are well past the contemplation stage. The experiment is already being conducted. And the results are not pretty. Young men incapable of being aroused by an “ordinary” woman because their appetites have been conditioned by online (often violent and degrading) porn. Young girls growing up trying to meet impossible standards created and inflamed by Hefner and his ilk. Women being bought and sold like cattle to satisfy male desire. A general view of sex that treats it as little more than an appetite to be sated between consenting adults. Swipe right if you’re interested, left if you’re not. Look at a map to find out where another urge is waiting for you. And, of course, a bunch of people becoming fabulously wealthy in the process. It is of course more than a little ironic that this view of human beings lowers us to the level of little more than animals satisfying appetites. We dress it up as liberation and pronounce ourselves enlightened. And we destroy ourselves in the process. Our liberation turns out, as always, to just be another form of slavery.
The author of the Guardian article declares that he doesn’t believe that there are certain actions that are, in and of themselves, wrong. He’s no unenlightened fool, after all, nor is he beset by the scourge of religious shame. For him, it is “the belief that all desire can and should be gratified is itself what is radically wrong.” Which kinda sounds like something that is inherently wrong (does a belief count as an action?), but why be picky. Leaving such particulars aside, he is of course right. The commodification of sex and desire and human bodies and the belief that we should be able to access this whenever and however we want is toxic in virtually innumerable ways. Sex becomes just like everything else in our individualistic culture of unrestrained consumerism: another product to be voraciously devoured and demanded. The customer is always right. And the market must always respond.
I am just old-fashioned enough to believe that certain actions really are inherently wrong. And the production and consumption of pornography would fall squarely into that category. It destroys relationships. It is corrosive to human souls. It reduces us to our most primal instincts rather than calling us to the full dignity of being human, to disciplining and training our impulses and locating them in appropriate contexts. It severs sex from human love and intimacy and trust and fidelity, a catastrophic detachment if ever there was one. It plunges human beings into shame.
And I am also just old-fashioned to believe that sometimes shame is entirely appropriate. Our souls have radar for harm, I think. We know this isn’t good for us. We know we were made for more than this. We know that human beings are not just animals sniffing around to satisfy urges. Until we ignore the warning signs for long enough. Until the shame that might save us recedes into a fog of consumeristic desire and our only remaining option is to reframe the story and pronounce ourselves liberated.
But at the end of it all, my strongest objections to porn are not about arguments (good as they may be) or evidence (as overwhelming as it might be). I have a sixteen-year-old daughter. And when I think about greedy, lust-fuelled men trawling around the internet consuming the bodies of girls her age (and, of course, far younger), I am filled with a rage that is difficult to express. I am not a violent man, but when I think about things like this, I think I could be. It grieves me that my daughter and so many other daughters are growing up in such sexually confused and confusing times.
We can frame porn however we want. We can say that we’re enlightened because we can enjoy it responsibly. We can say we’re liberated because we’re not so stuffy about human bodies and nudity any more. We can chuckle and wink and nudge and envy Hugh Hefner his sexual playground. We can congratulate ourselves for being freed from the shackles of our benighted religious upbringings. But at the end of the day, there is no escaping the basic fact that pornography is the buying and selling of human bodies. Girls and young women with moms and dads who held them as babies and longed for good futures for them. Girls and young women with determined minds and hopes and fears and world-changing ambitions. Girls and young women that were created for so much more that stoking the ugly flames of lust and consumerism, for making rich men richer.
So, thanks for nothing, Hugh. Thanks for seizing a cultural moment to sell us the lie we have always wanted to hear. Thanks for giving giving us another outlet (as if we needed one) to commodify women and gratify ourselves. Thanks for giving us permission to tell ourselves that this represents progress. Enjoy your millions. You earned them.