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Monday, May 21, 2007

What is pornography?

A little provocative question at the end of the day: What is pornography?

In 1964, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart answered that question this way: "I can't define pornography but I know it when I see it."

My question is: Why do I have to see it in the first place?

Now, I can hardly be defined as a prude, but I just did an image search on the word "pornography" and 95% of what popped up was deeply offensive. I decided to go with the above picture because the looks on the faces of these kids pretty much summed up my exact response.

A few more questions: Is pornography okay in the "privacy of one's own home"? Or, is it only a problem when it upsets someone - like your spouse or partner?

So, it's okay on your personal computer, but not at work? Is that right? The privacy of one's home and all that.

Okay. Let's push that one step further: Is it okay on the rectory computer but not in the parish office?

So, is it okay, then, for clergy to view pornography? Is it okay with you to think that your priest is watching porn? Or, that your (male) clergy colleague can have a relationship of equality with you as a woman or other women and still read . . . view . . . (what IS the appropriate word) porn?

Okay, you want to know what I'm thinking. For what it's worth, here it is:

I don't think pornography in any form - Male/Female, Adult/Child - is appropriate for anyone at any time, but especially for those in Christian leadership.

Why? Well, what we're talking about here is a multi-billion dollar global pornography industry which objectifies the human condition - especially women, children and young adults - and demeans and cheapens it.

I don't think any of it is "harmless."

Rather, I think its effects are pernicious and deeply damaging to the soul - not to mention potentially addictive to the psyche. As such, I don't think it has any place in the Christian life - on church computers or personal lap tops, whether or not someone else "finds" it and is/is not upset by it.

I'm told there is "soft porn" - which, to me, looks like any video done by Beyonce, Jessica Simpson, Fergie, or Mariah Carey.

Of course, "sex sells" but here's my question: Is this 'sex' or is it 'soft' (I'm assuming, as opposed to 'hard core') porn?

What's the difference, really? That's a serious question. I'm just now realizing how very naive and uninformed I am about all of this.

It's not "just" a woman's concern, but as women are most often objectified and demeaned by the pornography industry, I think it's a feminist issue.

More importantly, I think it's is a Christian issue. Certainly, it is one that the Christian Right has defined, and not in particularly helpful ways. I have a classmate in the doctoral program at Drew who is a practicing Christian therapist in NYC, He is very deeply concerned about the growing number of men he sees in his practice who are addicted to porn.

He wants to do his doctoral work on male addiction to porn, but the only Christian research he can find is that done by the Dobeson/Focus on the Family Group which espouses a theology and treatment plan that will sound very familiar - and just as odious - to those of us in the LGBT Community.

So, what IS the appropriate response/theoloy? I think this topic is one that we who consider ourselves progressive Christians would be edified to discuss more fully.

What do YOU think about pornography? How do YOU define it? What do you think about clergy using it? What do you think the appropriate Christian response to pornography ought to be? What mechanisms of accountability are appropriate?

I expect a 150 word essay on my desk in the morning.


MadPriest said...

Does this mean I'm going to have to cancel my subscriptions to "Hot Lesbians In Sensible Shoes Monthly" and "Clergy Wives"?

Oh well. Back to "Sports Illustrated," I suppose.

stumpjumper said...

Well, what a post to start my day! I almost spewed coffee from my nose. My first thought was "here she goes poking her stick in the hornet's nest again" - but you are absolutely right. It needs to be discussed and dealt with and I know of one person who is addicted, terribly addicted and more dangerously, acts out the kinky demeaning fantasies he views with others. Including unsafe sex.
It was one of the issues that destroyed our relationship and eventually our friendship.
I didn't do a word count. I hope others brighter than I will add to the conversation.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Actually, Maddy, these are excellent questions.

I think the cultural line has been blurred - what is vulgar to someone is art to another. We've got women and men in their 80's posing naked for a calendar designed to make money for a local fire department. How do we set a standard for "conduct unbecoming" a clergy person or a Christian?

Wormwood's Doxy said...

As a feminist, I find "pornography" degrading and demeaning to women.

As a woman, I certainly don't want to be compared to the perfect, airbrushed, 19-year-olds that appear in most porn.

And I've seen what pornography can do when it gets hold of people. The results can be lifelong and tragic.

But what about "erotica"? What about bodice-ripper novels and other forms of "light" entertainment that have (in the past, at least) given spark to my erotic imagination?

Hustler is not Sports Illustrated--but where are you going to draw the line?

I am a reader. I can be turned on by words on a page. How is that any different from a man who is turned on by a photo of the very same words that aroused me being acted out in a magazine photo or on a computer screen?

I do not know the answers to these questions. As a feminist academic who taught politics and women's studies, I struggled with the issue of pornography--I have never made my peace with it.

But from a Christian perspective, I have a different set of difficulties with your questions. For instance, why should clergy be held to a higher standard in this regard? I understand that people view clergy as role models, Elizabeth--but I think that by demanding that clergy hold to a higher standard of behavior you actually undermine the end you seek. You set clergy up to fail.

The problem, from this layperson's POV, is that laypeople are given a pass for their "transgressions" -- but clergy are supposed to be "holier" than we are? This flies in the face of EVERYTHING I know about human nature and believe about grace and forgiveness.

Clergy need to be held to the same standard as everyone else.

Not higher. Not lower. The same.

They are Christians, just like the rest of us. To hold them to a different standard is to put even more stress on a group of people who already are expected to be available 24/7/365 and never to have the same weaknesses as the rest of us.

Why would you advocate for that? With all due respect to you, that's crazy!

I believe that God calls us to exercise mutuality, care, and fidelity in our expressions of sexuality. And I believe God expects that of each and every one of us---not just those in dog collars.

PseudoPiskie said...

Anything that is verboten is deliciously inviting. Are the puritanical attitudes toward talking about, viewing, doing anything that has to do with naked human bodies and/or sex simply seductive?

IMO pornography is anything which denigrates another human.

Do I need to pad this with things I consider porn to add up to 150 words?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

We hold clergy to a higher standard for the same reasons we hold police and teachers and firefighters to a higher standard.

Because we are in positions which require TRUST in order for us to be maximally effective.

Not "holier" than thou by any means. And, not set up to fail, but to be exceedingly mindful of that with which we have been entrusted.

Jim said...

Clergy should, I think, be held to the same standard we impose on teachers, lawyers, counselors, and the like. We grant you'll especial trust and authority, there is a price.

That said,there really is no such thing as 'soft porn.' The technical difference has to do with ever so slightly less exposure and slightly less obscene activity, but it is all false. Porn is porn is porn, period. In every case it makes the persons involved appear as objects and that is exactly all that matters.


Wormwood's Doxy said...

I guess my problem with the way you have framed this is that you are talking about a very private behavior. Not one that is "victim-less," mind you--but one that can only be monitored by very intrusive means.

Do you want your Vestry monitoring your Internet usage or your buying habits at Amazon? What if Mrs. Pillarofthechurch decides that your reading habits are too racy to suit her?

Heck, you Googled "pornography" --could the search itself get you in trouble with whatever watchdog entity you envision? (Have you ever seen what the Parental Control feature locks access to? Information on breast cancer and homosexuality, for starters...)

I'm not a free speech/press absolutist, Elizabeth---but I think you open up a HUGE can of worms here.

And I still contend that you let the laity off WAY too lightly.

Of course clergy members and teachers are in positions of trust. But I'm not sure pornography--in and of itself--is a violation of that trust. (Leaving aside the issue of child pornography, the possession of which I would absolutely agree is both gravely immoral and worthy of sanction.)

Unlike a member of the clergy sexually harassing a parishioner, or taking money from the church till, however, the use of adult pornography is not a violation of a PUBLIC trust. Such things are usually done in private and solo. How far are you willing to go to hold clergy more accountable than others?

I agree that pornography is corrosive to the soul. I agree that the church should speak out against ANY expression of sexuality that is exploitative or coercive.

But I reiterate---the Church should promote healthy expressions of sexuality (i.e., mutual, caring, faithful ones) to all people. Promote sane and healthy attitudes about sex, rather than shaming and blaming. (Can you tell I'm a former fundamentalist who has a LOAD of issues about sex?! ;-)

If you try to make the clergy a special category on this one, you will need the Spanish Inquisition to enforce it, and you will drive people who are deeply troubled by their weakness in this area even farther into the closet.

Ironic, that... ;-)

The Ranter said...

I am thinking about the church in Battle Creek where a bunch of old altar guild ladies posed naked in the sanctuary for a calendar for a breast cancer charity...
I had a female student write an argumentative essay against female genital mutilation that the committee decided was pornographic.
Porn is a plague on society--coming up with a precise definition of it is hard... could it be what is done with the images that makes them pornographic? I don't know another way to call it, I'll leave that one to the clergy to figure out.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I am really grateful for your questions, even though I don't think they are framed exactly right, either. I don't have the answers, but I think this discussion - albeit a "can of worms" is critically important.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


One clergy person said to me, offline, that anything you'd be embarrassed to have anyone else see on your computer should probably be considered pornographic. An interesting way to define the problem, eh?

Lauren Gough said...

Elizabeth, I am with Doxy on this. If the same standards of accountablity for Christians were applied, then I can agree. The real problem is with enforcement. And at present Title IV is a crock of misplaced insurance-based fear. Clergy have a system in which we must be professionally accountable. And unless lay folks are a part of professions that demand a certain accountability with regards to pornography, there does not seem to be any way to hold them accountable unless they are employed by the Church. I do believe that we as Church can say that porn doesn't belong on the church's computer and those who do not comply can be fired, but it must be a part of the contract that is signed by the employee.

That said, I find pornography disgusting not because it is titilating but, like you, because I believe it degrades both the one performing it and the one who views it. And it is this degredaton that I believe must be attended to by professional organizations that provide conduct standards for their members. Just because a priest might view some porn on his or her lap top, does not make them sinners. It is what they fall into by looking at such stuff is what we need to legislate. And that I think we do. What barriers are brought down? What interpersonal barriers are transgressed?

I am not ready to paint clergy or lay folk with a brush of sexual misconduct simply because someone is curious (read: yellow) [is any one THAT old besides me to remember that flick?]

As I get older, I find myself falling into the same things that I chastised my parents for--not understanding the place of dance, music, dress, mores, etc among the young. Yes, by my standards the young are being harrassed by things that I find disgusting. And there are things that need to be addressed about the availablility of pornography to the young. But no, I am not ready to define porn. I am not ready to legislate what porn is either. Porn is something every society has to deal with. We can raise the issue with kids that remind them that it is addicting just as drugs, tobacco, gambleing, etc. are. We must be willing to teach them that sexual arrousal is natural but also controlable. We must constantly reiterate for them and for adults that human sexual behavior is a blessing and is to be found in healthy equal relationship of a mature nature. We must be willing to listen to them struggle with issues. But this is difficult when we are being told that discussing sex in the Church setting can get us sued or brought up on misconduct charges.

In the 70's when I was a school chaplain, many kids talked to me about their feelings about sex. I would not be able to do that today without overstepping boundaries. And I would suggest that is why many teens consider us clergy types irrelevant to their lives--we either say no-no or we don't involve ourselves in their difficut issues.

We all want to protect our children from that which is unhealthy. But we cannot protect them all of the time. We cannot protect our profession from that which will do us harm, either. What we do need to do is to provide good peer groups within our profession in which we have enough trust to address such issues. We also need to provide arenas where the laity can discuss these issues openly also. The more light that can be brought to the seemier side of life, the better it can be dealt with. But we are still uncomfortable about talking about sex--it is why Akinola can get so much support. It is better to fight than it is to own that human sexuality in all its complexity is a too sensitive to address.

I think I have gone over 150, mea culpa.

Lauren Gough said...


I think that "conduct unbecoming" should be removed from the canons. It is used too often to harrass people with whom someone has a beef and some boards of review haven't the foggiest what that means.

stumpjumper said...

Wormwood's doxy brings up another question; and that is do men and women view porn differently? Are women more aroused by reading? Men more by watching? Gay men? Lesbians? For the record I don't know any lesbian (and I know many) who like porn films, while straight men seem to get off on two women making out. And of course, straight men are always checking out other guy's equipment.

Some fascinating comments. Thanks Elizabeth

just another piskie said...

I wonder if your perspective would be different if you were a gay man or if you didn't have a partner. Are you going to be telling us next that masturbation is unChristian? Seriously, I think you need to seek out and listen to people whose lives are different from yours before you start generalizing condemnation.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I was being very intentionally provacotive.

Glad it's working.

klady said...

I saw this entry last night and wrote the stuff below. I didn't post it before because a) it's way over 150 words, b) Maddy would probably slap me for sounding dull and pedantic, even if Elizabeth decided to be gracious, and c) I was hoping for something better to say. Well, I'm afraid I can't cure all the dullness right now, and it looks like Doxy and Lauren, among others, said it all better, but, what the heck, here's what I first thought:

Well, one definition of “pornography” is “the explicit representation of the human body or sexual activity with the goal of sexual arousal.” wiki .

In contrast, what Justice Stewart was addressing was so-called “hard-core pornography” that is so “obscene” as to lose constitutional protection from criminal prosecution. What he actually said was:

“I have reached the conclusion, which I think is confirmed at least by negative implication in the Court's decisions since Roth and Alberts, that, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, criminal laws in this area are constitutionally limited to hard-core pornography. I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964)

Whatever "it" is, Stewart may have provided the best definition anyone can muster. Perhaps that’s because what is objectionable is not the sexual content itself but rather the intent or attitude with which it is displayed and marketed. What perhaps is key is another word – “obscene” – which can be defined as follows:

1 : disgusting to the senses : REPULSIVE
2 a : abhorrent to morality or virtue; specifically : designed to incite to lust or depravity b : containing or being language regarded as taboo in polite usage … c : repulsive by reason of crass disregard of moral or ethical principles… Merriam-Webster

The kind of pornography that you’ve seen, Elizabeth (and, as far as I know, the only kind that currently circulates), really is obscene because it mocks and degrades the human body, human sexual intimacy, and, most often, women in general. It’s not simply lacking artistic merit in terms of plot, dialogue, and theme, it makes all too-unsubtle connections between degradation and sexual arousal and sometimes violence, as well.

But, how does one stop it? And again, what is "it" -- graphic sexual content in words and images that arouse lust or just the really "bad" stuff? I don't think suppressing the former is realistic or wise. Historically, anti-obscenity laws have been used against artistic expression and political speech. They also can be used to ban non-pornographic expressions of homosexual behavior. “Obscenity” by definition is what offends people deeply and goes against their deeply entrenched feelings and beliefs about what is morally right or wrong. It's difficult to capture that with the blunt instrument of law (civil, criminal, canon or otherwise) in a way that is likely to root out the evil and not be used as a pretext for domination and assertion of moral or political authority against those who are unpopular, unconventional, artistic, or anti-authoritarian.

I don’t think that means that one should just throw up one’s hands and forget trying to do something about the kind of images that are circulating around the internet and elsewhere causing all sorts of kinds of harm. As the mother of a teenage boy and girl this is personal for me because I worry about the messages they get about sex, gender roles, and the dangers they may encounter because others get those messages as well. Nevertheless, I still think that it is necessary to exercise considerable caution in any efforts to suppress pornography, no matter how strong our fears and feelings of revulsion at what we know, whenever we see it, is very, deeply wrong. The better course, on the whole, I believe is to teach and model healthy, loving behaviors and attitudes toward sexuality and to seek ways to reduce the economic profits available to those who traffic in porn.

As for clergy in possession of pornography, as much as it would grieve me to know that any clergy “uses” it, if it were made some sort of canonical crime, unrelated to some other kind of sexual misconduct or psychological dysfunction, then who knows what kind of trumped evidence or charges might emerge. As much as I’m against pornography and would like to see it eradicated, I don’t see why it should be treated any differently than anything else. When the porn police come to check on the rectory’s computer for porn, are they going to check around for evidence of addiction to alcohol, drugs, or gambling? What about addiction to excessive consumption, extravagant lifestyles?

I think it makes far more sense to try deal with pornography and the crass sexualization of pop culture on a broader level. While I don’t condone its use by anyone, I don’t think clergy should have to worry about someone checking out their computer just to see which websites they've frequented.

O.K. I flunk. I'm way over my 150 word limit!

Lauren Gough said...

"I was being very intentionally provacotive." EMK

And halleluia that you are!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

A++ Klady. Move to the front of the class. And, thank you. You've given me - and many people, something to really think about.

I hope my accolades for KLady do not deter you from making a comment. This piece and your comments are being read over at the very conservative websites.

Are you surprised that they are surprised by our thinking on pornography/

I'm so very proud to print your comments here for them to read.

Keep 'em coming.

toujoursdan said...

It's even worse in the gay male community. Nearly any dating site and many gay news sites are full of links and advertisements to porn sites, and some of the bars treat porn stars like heroes and stage celebrations around them.

The Ranter said...

So if I have taken some, uh, artistic pictures of my wife that her nosy-ass brother then finds in a folder in My Documents, is that porn?

Curious George said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill said...

The answer to the first question, “What do I think about porn”, is that I try not to. When something has already caused you great pain and personal loss, you try to stay away from it. Porn is in many situations an alternative to something missing in your life. Maybe the spark has gone out of a relationship or maybe there is no relationship at all. In either case, porn is a poor substitute for the real thing. The danger of course is the addiction. It’s so easy to acquire and in such variety that you keep indulging. It never really satisfies and when it doesn’t satisfy you keep going back for that one more fix. Then you’re spending more time with the computer than you are with your wife, or significant other, or your kids, or even your job. It’s never enough. Before long, you’re accessing it wherever you are. It doesn’t matter. It could be at home, at the job, or even the library. You start making mistakes and eventually you get caught. And oh yes, you will get caught.

There is nothing you do on the computer that doesn’t leave tracks. You may think that you have erased something but not so. All you’ve done is removed the address pointers that indicate where something is stored. The data is still there and will remain until something overwrites that section of storage. You download something, there is a record. You buy something, there is a record. You upload something, guess what, yes, there is a record. Some people intentionally get sloppy because porn is even more enticing if there is a danger of getting caught. People have sex in public for the same reason. It heightens the experience if there is real danger. This of course is destructive behavior. Some people actually want to get caught. This is a way to bring a situation to a head. They don’t have the personality to confront someone head on, so they use this to force a situation. Then when all hell breaks loose, they can blame the vagaries of chance.

As far as the clergy using it, I’m going to be selfish here. I’d have a hard time looking my pastor in the eye, if I knew that to be the case. On the other hand I’m not going to tell a lay person what he or she can or can’t do in the privacy of their own home. This should be the decision of each and every adult. I would hope that they would see the inherent danger in it and choose not to indulge. But then again, I used to believe in “Santa Clause”. My own choice is to never look at it again. Did I ever look at it? Yes. Did it cause me great pain? Yes. Did it cause me great personal loss? Yes.

Am I going to dictate what others can do? No, Never. That gets too close to “Big Brother”. That gets too close to the state controlling every aspect of your life. Rule of thumb: If you surrender a right, you’ll never get it back.

So what do we do about accountability? Well, there is very little you can do, without giving up your personal freedoms and I personally choose to NOT go down that road.

Weiwen Ng said...

I doubt anyone here is really into cycling. However, just so you know, there's a large doping investigation that implicated most of the top finishers in the Tour de France of two years ago. Last year's Tour champion is involved in a separate hearing. Very recently, a number of prominent cyclists, including the '96 Tour winner, have confessed to doping while they were competing. Bjarne Riis' confession was perhaps the most significant, because he confessed to doping while winning the 96 Tour, and for several years before that. Much earlier, one American racer who used to ride for US Postal Service, Lance Armstrong's team, confessed, but nothing much came of it at the time.

Why do I say this? Well, as Madpriest once said, "Guys wank." (Wank = Brit for masturbate). Of course, so do women. In guys' case, we are especially turned on by images. I have no idea if that's socialized, or that's an intrinsic difference between the sexes.

Elizabeth asks a very good question: can a man consume pornographic images that are degrading of women, and respect them as equals in other areas? And, let's open that question up a little. Can Whites consume images of people of color that emphasize their sexuality, and still respect people of color as equals? one could, for example, look at the way Asian men are portrayed in gay pornography.

the answer is, I do not know.

can we get tastefully-done erotica that does not degrade people? would that be an adequate solution? I don't know, either.

should we draw the line at Sports Illustrated? Unlike the few cyclists who have come out, I'm not ready for a full confession, but I will say that I hope that SI's swimsuit edition is found to be kosher.

in a Bible study group when I was younger, the discussion seriously clammed up when we talked about masturbation. our Bible study leader then proclaimed that the Holy Spirit was revealing to him that there was a lot of resistance (actually, anyone with a pulse would have been able to notice). interestingly enough, this is a much more liberal circle, and there's still quite a bit of resistance here.

janinsanfran said...

I spent about a decade as an editor of a feminist magazine in the 1980s in which women battled out their views on pornography. The conversation was not edifying. Nor, in the end particularly helpful.

A wise woman academic who lived through those battles, Carole Vance, said something like (paraphrase from memory): For any image or sexual narrative, one third of hearers will get turned on, one third will be disgusted, and one third will think it is funny.

My experience in these conversations is that she was right.

It is hard for me to get worked up over the idea of clergy with pornography addictions, though I am sure those who get stuck in that bag present something of a problem to many who might want to confide in them. I get worked up over clergy who can't engage honestly with folks who look to them for help/companionship on the way. If a porn addiction prevents that relationship, it's a bad thing.

But mostly, my experience suggests the problem isn't whatever is defined as "pornography" but our failure to be courageously present to each other, wherever we are.