Sunday, September 14, 2008

Re: Is Porn Adultery?

I was on memeorandum, checking out the new political news, and stumbled on a link to this latest attempt to get John McCain elected president. The Atlantic hired some Democrat to take pics of McCain for their cover, and she apparently pulled one over on the old man and tricked him into posing for some “sinister” pictures. Fine. The Atlantic chose a rather unflattering photo of J McC for its cover- but look at what’s in the upper left hand corner: “Is Porn Adultery?”

There is an article in this magazine with that question as the title. My first thought was a one-word answer: No. My second thought was a slightly longer answer: No, of course not, and what kind of stupid ass question is that? But then I thought, maybe the question applies not to the viewers of porn, but the makers of porn. Maybe this would be an in-depth study of the spouses of people who make pornographic films. That’s actually not an asinine question at all. Assuming there are any spouses of porn stars who aren’t porn stars themselves, do they consider the performance of their jobs- having sex on film- to be cheating? So I found and read the article online.

Turns out, it was premised on the asinine question.

The author, Ross Douthat, seems to believe that looking at pornography is actually a form of adultery, but the essay’s equivocal language sometimes makes it difficult to tell. Why is it that anyone would think that watching two people have sex was the same as engaging in an act of sex yourself? Turns out, what really worries Douthat, as worries so many moral scolds, is new technology and innovation:

”Over the past three decades, the VCR, on-demand cable service, and the Internet have completely overhauled the ways in which people interact with porn. Innovation has piled on innovation, making modern pornography a more immediate, visceral, and personalized experience. Nothing in the long history of erotica compares with the way millions of Americans experience porn today, and our moral intuitions are struggling to catch up.”


Later in the essay, we find that Douthat has a problem with the convenience as well:

“The suburbanite with the hard-core porn hookup is masturbating to real sex, albeit at a DSL-enabled remove. He’s experiencing it in an intimate setting, rather than in a grind house alongside other huddled masturbators in raincoats, and in a form that’s customized to his tastes in a way that mass-market porn like Deep Throat and Debbie Does Dallas never was.”


"Hard-core porn hookup"? Really? Seriously, though, isn’t it reasonable to draw a distinction between the fantasy- thinking about having sex with someone else while watching a video of them having sex- and the reality of actually performing that act with the person or people that you’re watching? I wonder if Douthat thinks that’s a reasonable distinction to draw?

“This seems like a potentially reasonable distinction to draw. But the fantasy-versus-reality, pixels-versus-flesh binary feels more appropriate to the pre-Internet landscape than to one where people spend hours every day in entirely virtual worlds, whether they’re accumulating friends on Facebook, acting out Tolkienesque fantasies in World of Warcraft, or flirting with a sexy avatar in Second Life. And it feels much more appropriate to the tamer sorts of pornography, from the increasingly archaic (dirty playing cards and pinups, smutty books and the Penthouse letters section) to the of-the-moment (the topless photos and sex-scene stills in the more restrained precincts of the online pornosphere), than it does to the harder-core material at the heart of the porn economy.”


You see, each human has “moral intuition,” and that is being threatened, by the internet. The new technology gives viewers a more pleasurable experience, tailored to the tastes of the individual consumer. If you want to see bukkake, you can skip ahead, and you don’t have to sit through fisting to get to it. And these kids today, with their Facebooks and Second Life, have a new way of looking at things that’s so much scarier than what we had when we were kids. (This is just as stupid as those myths about the marijuana these kids smoke today being more potent. Or the video games being worse. Or the violence on TV.) In the meantime, your moral intuition becomes fat and lazy because you’re no longer taking it out for a brisk walk to the grindhouse.

That’s all stupid enough. But what do you call someone who can’t distinguish between reality and fantasy? Who thinks that thinking about something and actually doing it are the same thing? Psychotic? No, you call that person Jesus Christ. As Douthat himself points out:

“The most stringent take on this matter comes, of course, from Jesus of Nazareth: I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”


This is the most telling passage, and it should have ended the essay. I’d have a lot more respect for Douthat if he’d stopped here and said something like, “For myself, I do believe that Jesus was right. He’s the lord and savior, after all, and knew what he was talking about.” But Douthat doesn’t stop, he keeps right on going:

“But even among Christians, this teaching tends to be grouped with the Gospel injunctions about turning the other cheek and giving would-be robbers your possessions as a guideline for saintliness, useful to Francis of Assisi and the Desert Fathers but less helpful to ordinary sinners trying to figure out what counts as a breach of marital trust.”


Douthat is saying that Christians are a bunch of hypocrites who only pay attention to those of Jesus’ teachings that they like, or are convenient for them. But in his sermon on the mount (from which the JC quote is pulled) JC doesn’t say, “By the way, all this stuff I’m telling you only applies to you if you’re like really, really good. I’m talking saintly. The rest of you, the average sheep, can just do whatever the hell you want.”

JC’s line about looking on a woman with lust meaning that you’ve committed adultery in your heart is the key line in the Bible. Because it’s not enough to control peoples’ behavior. It’s about controlling their minds. What JC was referring back to was the 10 Commandments. Those things are booby trapped, as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, and you need only look at them to see what he means: The first three are dictatorial, as god declares that he’s all powerful, you can’t worship anything else, and you can’t take his name “in vain.” Then he tells you that you can’t work on Sundays. Then to honor your parents. Then thou shalt not kill (or murder, depending on the translation- do you see the problem with this?) Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t bear false witness. Don’t covet thy neighbor’s house or wife or etc. The problems with these commandments have been covered pretty thoroughly elsewhere, and the hypocrisy of a god who does the very things that he tells people not to do has also been covered. But I would like to point out that in the Old Testament, the commandment is Thou shalt not commit adultery. It’s not Thou shalt not THINK about committing adultery.

Why?

Because everyone in the world, male or female, has adulterous thoughts. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in a committed relationship and how long you’ve been monogamous, you are still a HUMAN BEING, and still subject to the stray thoughts that were put in your head by nature (or, if you prefer, “god” [i.e., “Be fruitful and multiply”]), and you’re therefore going to have occasional stray thoughts about boning whenever you see a particularly beguiling checkout girl at the supermarket, or television sports announcer, or as Douthat suggests, “the photo of Gisele Bündchen, bare-assed and beguiling on the cover of GQ.” Everyone has those thoughts, but not everyone acts on them. JC saw this, and said, “Well, I have a way to make those people who don’t commit adultery still feel bad about themselves, and still see themselves as a moral failure. I’m going to tell them that just thinking about sinning is a sin itself.”

And we’re still dealing with the fallout from that. It’s why Douthat even thinks to ask the question. Too many of us have had our “moral intuition” corrupted by religion, and the guilt it tries to instill, in order to control its followers. That is the real problem here.

But Douthat thinks he’s come up with a compelling way to pull this argument out of the religious realm. He’s got this… continuum:

“if you approach infidelity as a continuum of betrayal rather than an either/or proposition, then the Internet era has ratcheted the experience of pornography much closer to adultery than I suspect most porn users would like to admit.”


How can an “era” “ratchet” an “experience”? He’s still on this anti-technology kick, I suppose, but the language is so bizarre that at times it’s hard to tell exactly what he’s arguing. He’s trying to tiptoe around the religion/guilt angle by creating a technology/guilt angle. But the technology has no bearing here, not in any moral sense. It’s not closer to adultery than I suspect most porn users would like to admit. It’s nowhere near adultery, and it doesn’t matter how convenient the technology is. He uses the Eliot Spitzer case for his example:

“Start with the near-universal assumption that what Spitzer did in his hotel room constituted adultery, and then ponder whether Silda Spitzer would have had cause to feel betrayed if the FBI probe had revealed that her husband had paid merely to watch a prostitute perform sexual acts while he folded himself into a hotel armchair to masturbate. My suspicion is that an awful lot of people would say yes not because there isn’t some distinction between the two acts, but because the distinction isn’t morally significant enough to prevent both from belonging to the zone, broadly defined, of cheating on your wife."


One of the sweetest aspects of the Spitzer case was that it exposed a moral scold who used his position as Attorney General of New York to go after prostitutes and johns as someone who was a john himself. He was a giant, raging hypocrite. My suspicion is that people probably wouldn’t have cared nearly as much otherwise- he probably could even have stayed on as governor.

But I haven’t answered Douthat’s stupid thought experiment. That’s because, “broadly defined,” betraying your wife means being dishonest and unfaithful to her. By that I mean that if a man and woman are together, and the man sleeps with another woman without telling his wife, then he’s betraying, or cheating on her. If however the man tells his wife, and she doesn’t mind, then it’s not a betrayal. We don’t know exactly what kind of relationship Spitzer and his wife had, or have. Is it polyamorous? (There’s some evidence that his wife knew that he went to prostitutes and didn’t care or looked the other way.) I don’t mean to be crass, but maybe Spitzer enjoyed a certain sexual position that his wife wasn’t limber enough to perform? Anyway, it’s none of my damned business what they do, and neither is it any of Douthat’s business. The fact that Douthat seems to think that it is his business says a lot about him. Their relationship is their own, and they make their own rules. Every couple does, and Douthat himself comes close to agreeing with me on that point when he says,

“it’s about what sort of people we aspire to be: how we define our ideals, how we draw the lines in our relationships, and how we feel about ourselves if we cross them.”


Personally, I aspire to be the type of person who doesn’t judge other people because they make choices in their lives that I would not have made myself. I aspire to not judge people who are engaged in consensual acts that don’t affect anyone else. I aspire to not be afraid of new technology. And I aspire to not feel guilty about- or try to make others feel guilty about- engaging in any activity that they enjoy.

Bonus video: George Carlin kicks the crap out of the Ten Commandments:

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