Naming it “corrosive” and a “dark” sign of contemporary American culture, the U.S. Catholic bishops approved a document this week condemning the production and use of pornography as a mortal sin.
Reaction from the bishops’ critics didn’t take long. Some said the bishops themselves have very serious problems with pornography; others pointed out the not-so-distant sex abuse crisis. The upshot was that the bishops ought to have different priorities.
One could be forgiven for confusing this disagreement with one from the 1980s. Didn’t it play out over a generation ago—with the result that our culture basically accepts porn as part of sexual liberation?
Perhaps. But the era of magazine and video porn has been replaced by online porn, and this may lead us to wonder if Catholic teaching on this topic is worth a second look. Indeed, the bishops’ new initiative resisting porn is likely to gain many unexpected allies, including many feminists.
The digital age has produced a situation in which on-demand video of virtually any sexual act is available for free at the click of a mouse. Last year, one site alone had 18.35 billion visits, leading some to call porn “the wallpaper of our lives.” And as virtual reality porn becomes available, it is difficult to see how this trend might reverse itself.
The result has been that porn now dominates the American sexual imagination. What sex is for has been “pornifed.” The rise of “hook-up culture” is instructive here: Such casual and impersonal sex is, unsurprisingly, very similar to a porn scene.
Feminists—from Andrea Dworkin in the '80s to Naomi Wolf today—are among the few allies joining the Catholic bishops in energetically resisting this trend. The porn industry, it turns out, is overwhelmingly patriarchal and works out terribly for women.
Wolf argued in New York Magazine that the pornification of our culture is responsible for “deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as porn-worthy.” Real women are worried that, in light of the porn expectation, “they can scarcely get, let alone hold” the attention of men. Today, she says, “real naked women are just bad porn.”
It is worth noting that 1 in 4 new cases of erectile dysfunction are in men under 40, and porn is increasingly cited as a reason. Viagra can help men with their partners for a time, but this is often only a temporary fix—and is increasingly causing problems for younger men.
Another concern of many feminists is porn’s relationship to violence. In a loose sense, all porn is violent in that participants use another person’s body as a mere means or tool. But a disturbing development of porn is that, for many, explicit violence is required in order to arouse. Degradation, humiliation, and even simulated rape are all now part and parcel of the menu of porn options.
And most disturbingly violent of all is the sexualization of children and the rise of a multibillion dollar child-porn industry.
This week’s sentencing of former Subway spokesperson Jared Fogle—who got 15 years after pleading guilty to charges of child porn and sex with minors—is a stark reminder of this horrific practice. Despite some serious attempts to resist it, child porn remains one of the fastest-growing online businesses.
For far too long, our culture has refused to look honestly at the reality of porn and the sexual culture it has created. Buoyed by a deep impulse to think of sex in the realm of free choice, the structural violence and injustice that has become ensconced in our culture has gone largely unaddressed.
Though Catholic teaching on sex gets a lot of attention for its relationship to procreation, less attention is focused on an aspect that is just as important: unity. Sex, according to Catholic teaching, is missing something essential if it doesn’t involve a unifying relationship with another person. This principle is also intuitive, not only for feminists, but for mainstream culture—a culture that understands, as Wolf notes in her piece, that our sex lives have become profoundly and deeply lonely.
St. John Paul II put to rest any lingering idea that the church thought of sex as inherently bad or impure. Rather, his call was to resist our cultural slouch toward bad sex—sex that is obsessed with the self. Instead, his exhortation was for us to have great sex—that is, sex directed toward love of and unity with another person.
In a sexual culture that almost everyone agrees is anything but great, the argument of the US bishops is worth a long and hard look.
(Writing here for RNS, Charles C. Camosy is associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University.)