Pornography: The New Normal

Pornography: The New Normal

I was fascinated by the reactions last week to the British government's intention of making British customers positively "opt in" to allowing pornography to be part of their internet package.  The idea is ostensibly to protect children from seeing images which may prove harmful.

I read three responses: one an article on the BBC website; and two in my weekly fix, The Spectator.   The first was simply one of those 'I watch porn; I don't like the violent stuff; but hey, the things I watch are harmless recreation' pieces.  The two in The Spectator were, as one might expect, somewhat more sophisticated and, indeed, from the pens of two of my favourite journalists, Rod Liddle and James Delingpole.  

Liddle's argument was that the Tories' policy was more to do with appeasing their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats; Delingpole's was really about the government overreaching itself in its policing of private behavior, but he did this via the slightly unexpected means of arguing that porn consumption was not simply a male monopoly but was enjoyed also by a large number of women.

Both of the latter articles made good points: Liddle is no doubt right that this policy has much to do with the pragmatic exigencies of the unofficial election campaign which is now surely underway; and Delingpole raises important questions about the extent of government power and, indeed, the nature and purpose of government itself.    I am very sympathetic to the principle he is trying to establish.  After all, I do not smoke; but I cannot help feeling that British pubs lost something (not least the revenue that keeps them alive) when the government decided that smokers in the snug were a greater danger to human life than a visually impaired amateur darts player with five pints of Old Peculier inside him staggering up to the oche at his local.

What really struck me as interesting was the fact that all three writers, including not one but two in The Spectator, that most conservative of British organs, simply assumed that pornography is harmless and that, so it seemed, on the grounds that everybody is indulging in it these days, even women.

I have never been convinced by the Madonna-Paglia argument that pornography liberates and empowers women; but one does not have to agree with that argument to see that pornography has been normalized in society.  When one reflects on this, it is hardly surprising: the detachment of sexual gratification from committed, monogamous heterosexual relationships happened a long time ago.  We are now at a point where someone who does believe that sex is exclusively reserved for such a context is portrayed as sexually repressed and socially retarded in popular culture and decried as a hate-filled bigot by the political media.  Further, there has been a radical abolition of the distinction between the public and the private, fuelled by everything from twitter to reality television.   If sex is primarily for personal pleasure and there is no boundary between the public and private, then the acceptance of pornography as normal, harmless diversion is hardly an unexpected development.  Indeed, those Christians who feel a compulsive need to tweet their every private thought and to live their lives as a public performance might do well to reflect on the possibility of a connection between that type of behaviour and the growing social acceptance of pornography.

Internet pornography is probably the number one pastoral problem in the world today.  I wonder if it is set to become yet more so: as the social shame dimension passes away, it will be harder to maintain discipline on this issue.  The Christian church is currently mesmerized by developments relative to sexuality, not least because these development are couched in the rhetoric of civil rights and have serious legal implications. I wonder if a more serious and lethal internal issue for the church will actually turn out to be pornography.   Holding the line on this will probably not come with direct legal and financial penalties attached; but when even The Spectator carries not one but two articles in a single week which assume the harmless normality of porn consumption, the pastoral challenge of preaching and maintaining basic sexual purity in the church is set to escalate beyond our wildest nightmares.