Once in Waco, Texas, the Baptist Vatican, I was conversing with a hotel manager, and somehow the topic of conversation turned to when the hotel hosted large groups of Baptists.
"Oh, we love those," he said wistfully, but when I asked why, instead of the answers I hoped for-the kindness of the guests, a spiritual change in the atmosphere-my acquaintance blushed and went mum. At last, I pulled an answer out of him.
Turns out the hotel loved it when religious groups booked in because the purchase of adult movies went through the roof.
Christians have a problem with pornography-and not just evangelicals who are suddenly concerned about porn addiction. Take Jon Martello, the titular hero of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's new film Don Jon (a 21st-century take on the ubiquitous legend of the womanizing character who also appears in Byron's Don Juan and Mozart's Don Giovanni). Every week he goes to Mass, and every week he confesses to two sins-sex outside of wedlock and masturbation to pornographic videos.
Every week, his priest listens, gives him penance, and absolves him.
But we can tell as the movie goes on, as Jon confesses every week to the same damn thing, that the priest would like to reach through that confessional lattice and slap some sense into him.
Don Jon is not a deep film. It's a comedy about a sort-of likeable young man with a big problem, but that problem is not, at its root, Internet porn. It is his attitude toward women and his understanding of what love is, things that, thankfully shift in the course of his journey.
As The New York Times review notes, at the outset, Jon's view of the world is reductive: "All Jon cares about, as he repeatedly claims in a voice-over that sounds like a loop, are 'my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn.' That's a whole lot of me and mine." And so it is. Don Jon, like many of us, is all about me and mine, and porn is emblematic of that selfishness.
What makes porn sinful is not related to whether or not it is a victimless crime-although you are deluding yourself if you imagine that it's victimless. HIV is rampant in the porn community (Jon loves the fact that in his porn no one has to wear a condom), and even those who willingly choose the life are subjected to degradation and brutality. If you don't want to read investigative journalism about the perils of the billion-dollar porn industry, check out Warren Ellis's graphic novel Desolation Jones, which dives into the porn subculture and calls it out for its cruelty to women.
But even if porn were not harmful to the men and women acting it out for its consumers, it is harmful to those consumers-emotionally and spiritually harmful-because as Don Jon affirms, it promotes a perverted idea of what sex, love, intimacy, and personhood are all about. Through much of the movie, Jon objectifies women-an approach he clearly learns from his father (Tony Danza)-but it is in his preference for porn over relationship (or even simply to sex with the beautiful women he picks up) that the personal damage of those attitudes about women and relationships becomes evident. Jon is a closed system, as that repeating loop about his priorities suggests. His choice of self-gratification over love and connection with another is sad and pathetic and way too typical these days.
Augustine told us-long before Internet porn-that we have a tendency to elevate lesser goods to the status of higher goods, a sin in any era. The physical pleasure and momentary transcendence we associate with sex was problematic for Augustine because I believe it distracted him from God. Even sex with his wife became an obsession. So Augustine's solution was: Let's forget about sex.
Like many wise people who have found an answer that works for them, Augustine prescribes his solution for all of us. The Apostle Paul, likewise, encourages everyone to be as he is-a celibate bachelor-but this clearly is not a solution for all or most of us. As Benedict says in Much Ado about Nothing, "The world must be peopled!"
The truth is, I think a more Augustinian solution actually comes in reorienting ourselves as Jon finally does in the movie, away from solipsism and into relationship. Human beings are meant for so much more than self-gratification; they are meant to seek connection to others and to God. Robert Jensen's piece on the porn industry brings up this important point: "The pornographer faces one serious obstacle in all this: Men are human beings. No matter how emotionally deformed by the toxic conception of masculinity that is dominant in a patriarchal culture such as the United States, we are human beings with hearts, minds and souls."
That "soul" element is where religion stakes its claim on the porn question. Now, sexuality is a loaded issue. Many Christian traditions say sex must only be experienced within heterosexual marriage. Progressive Christians tend to be more lenient, and to argue that sexuality within the bounds of a loving and respectful relationship is no sin. But we can go further than simply absolving consensual sex of sinfulness: Rowan Williams, prior to his becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, actually gave a ground-breaking lecture, "The Body's Grace," on why sexuality is a spiritual-even a Christian-good, and how that bodily grace is not simply limited to those in a male-female marriage. "Grace," Williams writes, "for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted." And it is human sexuality-as a part of a relationship between two people, not one person and pornographic images-that offers us this foretaste of divine love.
The incessant use of pornography removes another person from the equation. Instead of 1+1 equaling so much more than one, with porn we end up with 1+0, which somehow equals zero. This is the math dramatically suggested in the film by the character of Esther (Julianne Moore), a woman who doesn't fit Jon's superficial standards of beauty-a woman who is vulnerable, ghostly, and truly beautiful as she calls him to a higher and better way of being human-and of being a Child of God.
Set aside for the moment-if you somehow can-the emotional damage to individuals, to their relationships, to their attitudes that comes from constantly consuming unrealistic and objectifying images of human beings having sex. Jon's choice of pornography as his highest good is worthy of weekly confession because instead of offering the body's grace-that taste of loving connection which in turn directs us back toward the Author of all grace, joy, and beauty-pornography leads back only into ourselves. Because of that spiritually-closed circle, that narcissism, pornography should be condemned by all Christians, not simply the moralists. (And all pornography ought to be called out for censure; maybe sex is not your particular weakness, but what about food porn, travel porn, celebrity porn?)
"To love another person / Is to see the face of God," is the final conclusion of Les Misérables. I think it is also the final conclusion of Don Jon. Go see the film and see what you think.