Culture

Anti-Anti-Porn

Neon signs in God’s Own Junkyard gallery and cafe in London, England (Russell Boyce/Reuters)
For some social scientists, the addiction is less problematic than religious believers who strive to avoid it.

The late German theologian Rudolf Bultmann’s most famous contribution to New Testament criticism was Entmythologisierung, or “demythologization,” of the gospels.

For Bultmann, “demythologizing” Christianity meant recasting the miracles of the gospels as allegories and metaphors developed by the evangelists. Jesus didn’t really multiply the loaves and the fishes, the Bultmannian critic says — the gospel writers were recounting a “miracle” of sharing, a crowd of otherwise selfish peasants who shared their food with one another after the example of Christ. “It is impossible to use electrical light and the wireless,” Bultmann famously said, “and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.”

Entmythologisierung allowed Bultmann to triangulate between liberal textual critics, who read the miracles and exorcisms out of Christianity altogether, and the literalists, who appraised the gospel writers as faithful scribes of the historical record. Only credentialed scholars, with their tools of historical criticism, could reconstruct what the gospel writers really meant. In this way, Bultmannism assumes a sort of academic clerisy, a body of scholars who parse the authentic meaning of the gospel text for the hapless masses.

(At least the liberal critics extended to the evangelists the common courtesy of calling them “liars.”)

Sociologist Kelsy Burke’s profile of anti-porn Christians in Slate was something like an exercise in Entmythologisierung: She interviews a number of self-described Christian “porn addicts,” but refuses to take them at their word, reinterpreting their remarks under a Bultmannian “hermeneutic of suspicion.” Like a zoologist peering through a cage, Burke assumes that her subjects are helpless pawns in some grand experiment, incapable of saying what they really mean without the translational efforts of their academic conduits.

To Burke, Christian efforts to combat “pornography addiction” are really covert attempts to uphold “toxic masculinity,” entrench patriarchal interests, and “reinforce damaging gender stereotypes.” Since the groups she studied cite “so-called objective evidence” about the differences between the male and female brains to explain relative disparities in porn consumption, these “recovery” groups effectively reproduce “many of the most damaging lessons of pornography itself.”

Thinking that men and women are different is sort of like commodifying videos of human bondage, if you really think about it.

Burke’s profile begins with a long preamble — they always begin with a long preamble — before highlighting a series of apparent contradictions in her conservative Christian subjects. First, she says, “conservative Protestant men are the most likely group to perceive themselves to be addicted to porn, even if they watch less of it than their secular counterparts,” implying that these “conservative Protestant men” are being effectively brainwashed and that their self-assessed addiction is belied by their actual behavior. But, as any good sociologist knows, there is a component of judgement built in to these self-diagnoses: Just as a Puritan might perceive himself “addicted” to alcohol even if he only drinks once a week, so too might a “conservative Protestant man” find himself “addicted” to a behavior he considers to be always and everywhere unacceptable, even if he engages in it less frequently than his peers. In other words, the fact that some effete Brooklyn yuppies feel no qualms about regularly consuming and pleasuring themselves to pornography is of precisely no relevance to “conservative Protestant men” and the validity of their self-perceptions.

Throughout the piece, Burke interviews a few of the “conservative Protestant men” who perceive themselves addicted to pornography. One subject discusses the pain of being “stuck in this sin.” Another speaks of his “sickness,” and longs to change his behavior. “Nearly all of my interview respondents made a point to mention the fact that ‘some’ women struggle with pornography,” Burke said, while acknowledging that men, all told, are more likely to abuse it. (This, as it happens, is true.) In using the word “some,” these men implied that a statistical disparity exists between the two sexes in the frequency of their porn use, and that, Burke asserts, is used to “normalize men’s pornography addictions and isolate and pathologize women.” For support, she cites fellow sociologist Sam Perry, who translates the remarks of Burke’s subjects into veiled and subversive attempts to buttress the patriarchy. Christian men, Perry claims, view female porn addicts as “sinning against their gender.”

Whatever that means.

The entire piece assumes that porn addiction itself is more or less a social construction. Maybe so — Burke insists that even if there are real social consequences for those who consider themselves to be “addicted” to pornography, “porn addiction” as such is “not included in any reputable diagnostics manual.” Few “mainstream scientists . . . liken it to drug and alcohol addiction” or even to “a behavioral addiction, like gambling.”

While a compelling argument can be made that the very notion of “addiction” effectively medicalizes a moral failure, one very much doubts that Burke would be eager to make that argument. The question then remains: If Burke and the “mainstream scientists” she cites are willing to deem compulsive gambling a species of clinical addiction, why not compulsive use of pornography? One suspects that she and the clerisy of “mainstream scientists” who compile the “reputable diagnostics manuals” are more suspicious of religious believers than of the hardcore pornography that so exercises them. As presumptive “mainstream scientist” David J. Ley wrote in Psychology Today, “many of the moral values we were raised with, about sex, race or gender, are no longer fully applicable to the modern world. Because of religious opposition to sexual education, many people struggling with masturbation don’t understand what is normal, or that their sexual interests are healthy.”

Classifying intemperate porn use as an addiction like compulsive gambling would concede that there is something “problematic” about pornography. Instead, the unwashed masses are enjoined to update their “moral values” to better reflect the priorities of “mainstream scientists” like David J. Ley and the other shamans of the so-called modern world.

Don’t like it? Start your own “reputable diagnostics manual.”

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