Dr. Norman Doidge, a neurologist at Columbia, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, describes how pornography causes re-wiring of the neural circuits. He notes that in a study of men viewing internet pornography, the men looked “uncannily” like rats pushing the lever to receive cocaine in the experimental Skinner boxes. Like the addicted rats, the men were desperately seeking the next fix, clicking the mouse just as the rats pushed the lever.
Pornography addiction is frantic learning, and perhaps this is why many who have struggled with multiple addictions report that it was the hardest for them to overcome. Drug addictions, while powerful, are more passive in a “thinking” kind of way, whereas pornography viewing, especially on the internet, is a much more active process neurologically. The constant searching for and evaluating of each image or video clip for its potency and effect is an exercise in neuronal learning, limited only by the progressively rewired brain. Curiosities are thus fused into compulsions, and the need for a larger dopamine fix can drive the person from soft-core to hard-core to child pornography—and worse. A paper published in the Journal of Family Violence in 2009 revealed that 85 percent of men arrested for child pornography had also physically abused children.
The “rival picture of human sexual desire” Scruton presents here is nothing less than the image that emerges from the Churches’ understanding of the human person, particularly in what we find in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. I’m beginning a new category for these writings on pornography but, in truth, this is really TOB in a different context.
Now, I am one of those who think of pornography as something we should avoid ourselves and do everything we can to forbid to our children. But nothing in the modern myths justifies that attitude, and therefore I must search for the error these myths involve, and replace them with a rival picture of human sexual desire.
This is what I wish to sketch in the remainder of this paper. But first, let me make some disclaimers.
- First, these myths involve an “instrumentalized” view of sexual conduct — the view that the sexual act, in whatever form it takes, is a means to something else, be it sensory pleasure, orgasm, or relief from internal pressure. It does not follow from this that the act does not have some other value. Just as eating is a means to gustatory pleasure and also to nourishment, so does it have another value — especially eating in company, a form of companionship that brings with it both intimacy and comfort.
- Second, someone could adhere to the instrumentalized view of sexual desire and still argue that when we take this pleasure in company there is a social payoff, in the form of an intimacy and mutual enjoyment, and go on to build a picture of “good sex” which reconstructs some of the moral values we associate with loving relations in general and marriage in particular. However these moral values will not be intrinsic to the sexual act. They will be by-products of the act, and will have no intrinsic bearing on the morality of the act itself, any more than the social value of dinner à deux has any bearing on the rightness or wrongness of eating the particular thing that is eaten (and which may in fact be forbidden by some dietary code).
- Finally, in opposing these myths, I am not insisting that the only alternative to them is the old morality that regards heterosexual relations within marriage as the only legitimate form of sexual expression, and which, for example, dismisses homosexuality as a perversion. Exactly what moral code is the right one, or whether there is any single right one, is not a matter that concerns me directly in this paper. I am concerned only with the more fundamental question, which is a question of philosophical psychology rather than morality — the question of what to put in place of the instrumentalized view of sex. If I go on to draw moral conclusions, they will be tentative, and based in a sense of what is at risk in our sexual encounters.
Persons And Animals
The first point to make is that sexual desire belongs to that aspect of the human being which we summarize in the concept of the person. Many of the things that we experience we experience as animals, and what we feel does not normally depend upon thought, intention, or personality. We feel the same pain from a wound that a dog might feel if wounded in the same way. But there are other states of mind •that only persons can experience. While a dog can experience aggression, he cannot experience remorse or shame, cannot wonder about the laws of nature, cannot judge another dog morally, and so on.
There are some states of mind that are rooted in our animal nature, but are transformed by our involvement as persons. Soldiers in the front line respond to an attack on their comrades by joining with them in the fight, and this response belongs to those collective reactions exhibited by pack animals. However, the soldier who rushes to share the danger of his comrades is not just obeying an instinct. He has risen above that instinct and judged acting on it to be right and honorable. He has not just an urge to join the battle but a motive, and that motive is honor and duty toward his fellows, and shame at letting them down.
The soldier is acting for others, and from a conception of himself, and of how he looks in others’ eyes. Such a motive can prevail over the animal instincts of fear and dread only because the soldier also has the virtue that enables him to act on it — the virtue that we know as fortitude or courage. In short, he acts from a full, free, personal involvement in his predicament, conscious that he is judged for what he does, and aiming at a good that he understands in personal terms.
Exactly similar things should be said of sexual desire. Sexual desire is rooted in instincts we share with the other animals, and the pursuit of one person by another may not look so very different from the encounter of horse and mare in a field. However, just as in the case of the soldier, the person who responds to these instincts also stands in judgment upon them. Is it right or wrong to respond? When he responds, he responds from a judgment that this is the right person, that in doing this thing he is in her eyes not demeaning himself but gaining her acceptance, just as she is in his. They share a reciprocity of glances, a gradual accommodation in which their consent is woven into their desire, so that the desire becomes an expression of something other than instinct. Of what?
To answer that question we must look a little more closely at the concept of the person. Most animals are not persons, and some persons are not animals. We, however, are both. Hence there are features of our mental life that non-personal animals do not share. We have rights and duties; we make judgments, reflect on past and future, on the possible and the impossible; we are self-conscious, distinguishing self and other, and attributing our mental states to ourselves on no basis; we relate to each other not as animals but as persons, through dialogue, judgment, and moral expectations.
Indeed, there are arguments for saying that the concept of the person is essentially tied to interpersonal relations: To explain what a person is, we must explain how persons relate to each other. One vital feature of interpersonal relations is their emotional content. My stance toward self and other is reflected in my emotional life. Emotions such as shame, guilt, anger, remorse, gratitude, forgiveness, and rejoicing are essentially directed toward persons — whether self or other — and learning to feel these things is part of what it means to grow up, i.e., to pass from the animal to the personal condition.
Fundamental to all these emotions, and to the life of persons generally, are our beliefs about freedom and responsibility. No two philosophers agree as to what freedom and responsibility presuppose, but for our present purposes we can leave the philosophical controversies to one side; my sole concern is to examine how we actually envisage ourselves in our lives as persons. In all our conduct toward each other we treat both self and other as free. My responsibility is revealed in my shame, and my freedom in my forgiveness. The belief in freedom and responsibility is pre-supposed in anger and resentment, in gratitude and love. Take that belief away and little would remain of our emotional life and its rewards.
The heart of freedom is the self. Kant suggested, in his lectures on anthropology, that the distinctiveness of the human condition is contained in the fact that human beings can say”I.” Self-consciousness brings with it the condition of freedom, and the knowledge of both self and other as responsible. But there is a yet more remarkable fact about the use of “I.”
By my use of this word I create a new center of being: I set my body aside, as it were, and replace the organism with the self, and present to others another target of their interest and response. To know my mind, and also to change it, they do not examine my body: They look to my words, my opinions, my thoughts. They enter into dialogue with this thing called “I;’ and see it as standing in the arena of freedom, both part of the physical world and situated on its very edge.
Something like this is assumed in our ordinary human relations. Just think of your response, when your friend betrays your secrets. You don’t think of him as you would of a computer, in which you stored information that somehow got out. You don’t ask yourself about who hacked into his brain. You go to him and you address him in the second person, I to I: “You promised:’ you say, and your words are addressed to that very center of being where his “I” resides. In accusing him you are not trying to provoke some physical reaction. You are expecting a response from that I — a response from the center of freedom where he resides, one self-conscious subject among others.
You expect him, in other words, to take responsibility for what he did, to say “I am sorry,” and maybe to show how he is going to atone for his fault, to make amends, and in this way re-establish your relations in such a way that you will forgive him. There is a process here, in which one “I” faces another, both of them exercising their freedom, taking responsibility for their choices, and acting as the sovereign of the human animal.
This does not mean that there are two things here — person and animal. There is one thing — an organism, organized as a person. That is how we treat each other in all our free relations.
Now for sexual desire. It is rooted in animal instincts, but in a person desire is re-centered, self-attributed to the I, so as to become part of the interpersonal dialogue. It is an interpersonal emotion, in which subject and object confront each other I to I. Hence sexual desire, as we know it, is peculiar to human beings.
In describing sexual desire, we are describing John’s desire for Mary, or Jane’s desire for Bill. And the people themselves will not merely describe their desires, but also experience them, as my desire for you. “I want you” is not a figure of speech but the true expression of what I feel. And here the pronouns identify that very center of free and responsible choice that constitutes the interpersonal reality of each of us. I want you as the free being who you are, and your freedom is wrapped up in the thing that I want.
You can easily verify this, as I show in my book Sexual Desire, by studying sexual arousal. This is not a state of the body, even though it involves certain bodily changes. It is a process in the soul, a steady awakening of one person to another, through touches, glances, and caresses. The exchange of glances is particularly important, and illustrates a general feature of personal relations.
People look at each other, as animals do. But they also look into each other, and do this in particular when mutually aroused. The look of desire is like a summons, a call to the other self to show itself in the eyes, to weave its own freedom and selfhood into the beam that calls to it. There is a famous description of this phenomenon by John Donne, who writes in “The Ecstasy”:
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string.
So to engraft our hands, as yet
Was all the means to make us one;
And pictures in our eyes to get
Was all our propagation.
The experience described by Donne is known to every sighted person who has ever been aroused. Likewise the caress and the touch of desire have an epistemic character: they are an exploration, not of a body, but of a free being in his or her embodiment. They too call to the other in his freedom, and are asking him to show himself.
All the phenomena of desire can be understood in that way, as parts of a mutual negotiation between free and responsible beings, who want each other as persons. And this has an important metaphysical consequence, which in turn has important moral consequences. Persons are individuals in the strong sense of being identified, both by themselves and by others, as unique, irreplaceable, not admitting of substitutes. This is something Kant tried to capture in his theory of persons as “ends in themselves.”
Somehow the free being is, in his own eyes and in the eyes of all those in a personal relation with him, the being who he is. He is never merely an instance of some useful attribute. To treat him merely instrumentally is always in a measure to abuse him; and while I can employ you for a job and in doing so recognize that someone else might have served my purpose just as well, I must, in employing you, respect your individuality, and not treat you as a tool or a slave. You are for me, even in this functional relation, the free being who meets me I to I.
It follows from this that, in those relations between persons in which self and other relate as subject and object, each views the other as unique, without a substitute, This has an immediate impact on sexual desire. John, frustrated in his desire for Mary, cannot be offered Jane as a substitute. Someone who says “Take Jane, she will do just as well” does not understand what John wants, in wanting Mary.
It follows also that desire requires complex, compromising, and potentially embarrassing negotiations, and that without these negotiations sexual intimacy is liable to induce self-disgust. When girls complain of date-rape, it is this kind of thing they have in mind. It is not necessarily that they didn’t consent to what happened. Outwardly maybe they did. But inwardly they did not, and didn’t realize, until too late, that this was so. Consent has to be prepared by elaborate games and intimacies, in which freedom and responsibility are alertly deployed by both parties to the transaction.
What I have said points at every juncture to difficult philosophical issues concerning the nature of persons, of freedom, of responsibility and self-awareness. I am consciously refusing to address those issues, because my task is simply to remind you of what you all know and what you all have experienced in moments of desire.
Arousal and desire are not bodily states or even states of individual persons: they form one pole of an I to I encounter, and involve a going out to the other, in which his or her freedom and responsibility are intimately involved in what is wanted. It is only in this way that we can explain some of our most immovable intuitions about sex.
Consider rape. On the instrumentalized view of sex surveyed earlier, rape is a crime of the same order as leaning on a woman without asking her permission and at the worst like spitting on her, doing something that disgusts her without caring what she feels. It involves using someone for a purpose that could have been achieved with any other instrument, but without troubling to seek her consent and even by ignoring her resistance.
As we know, however, rape is next in line to murder, by way of an assault. It is a violation of the other person in the very depths of her being. The view that I have offered immediately explains this. The rapist is not merely prepared to use his victim as a means: He steals her most precious possession, the thing that she wishes to offer only as a gift and in a condition of mutual surrender. He does not merely disregard her freedom: He poisons it, removes from it the most important thing for which it was made, which is the mutual self-giving of desire. And that is why rape is experienced as an annihilation and not just an abuse.
This account of desire explains why we feel disgust at pedophilia, impose a taboo on incest, and regard bestiality and necrophilia as perversions. It explains the role of modesty as an invitation to correct behavior, and shame as a protection against abuse — a point vividly made by Max Scheler in his long paper on shame. I do not think I need to spell these things out, since anyone who recognizes the core of truth in what I have said will be able to spell them out for himself.
Disowning The Myths
My purpose now is to sweep away the myths I began by enunciating. All of them, it seems to me, arise from a fundamental mistake about the intentionality of sexual arousal and sexual desire. These states of mind are not directed toward pleasure, orgasm, or any similar thing. They are directed toward one free being by another.
That last point is worth lingering over. You might think that the rapist is indifferent to the freedom of his victim. On the contrary, however. It is precisely her freedom that he wishes to seize, to overcome, to force to bow before him. For this reason you cannot rape an animal, even if you can sexually abuse it. The victim of rape is a free being, compelled to accept what she does not consent to.
The myths depend upon removing from the picture of sexual activity both the self-conception of the subject and the other-conception of the object. The subject regards the other as a tool with which to induce excitement and pleasure, and conceives himself as a sensory organism. The myths remove from the picture of desire both the person who feels it and the person toward whom it is felt. The myths, in other words, do not describe desire at all, but something else — something that we might observe in animals or children, or, as Socrates put it (according to Xenophon) in pigs rubbing against a post.
One thing that tempts people to endorse the myths is the very obvious fact that sexual activity involves bodily changes and bodily sensations, leading (though not always) to orgasm. This has made the caricature of desire believable, in the minds of those who take an accountant’s view of human satisfactions. It looks as though you could enumerate the benefits of sexual activity in terms of pleasure, and the costs in terms of the time and energy needed to find the person willing to stimulate you, and on that basis proceed to give a utilitarian morality of sexual behavior. If that sounds ridiculous, do not be deceived, It is ridiculous, so ridiculous that Judge Richard Posner has written a whole book, called Sex and Reason, devoted to treating the phenomena in this way.
There is a downside to such books, and to the myths they reinforce. Myths can work on reality in such a way that they cease to be myths and become true descriptions instead. Thinking of sex in the instrumentalized way that Judge Posner exemplifies you actually prepare yourself to experience it in this way.
Henry James had an inkling of this when he wrote, in the Preface to The Bostonians, of “the decline in the sentiment of sex;’ meaning the loss of that full-hearted, self-committing form of sexual desire which animates the heroines of Jane Austen, and its replacement by short-lived, titillating forms of seduction. And the more people think of sex as a means to the production of pleasure or a means for obtaining orgasm (as was famously believed by the madman Wilhelm Reich, who even invented a machine to help the orgasm-seeker to reach his goal), the more the other drops out of consideration as irrelevant, and the more sex ceases to be a form of interpersonal relation and retreats into narcissistic solitude.
Pornography And Self-Abuse
In conclusion I want to touch on the relation of pornography to a highly unfashionable idea, that of self-abuse, a term originally applied to all forms of masturbation, in ways that led to much ridicule and scorn of our ancestors and their puritan hang-ups. It is surely obvious from my account that sex, in what I would wish to describe as its normal form, involves a moving out from the self toward the other — an attempt to know and unite with the other in her body. It involves treating the other as a free subject, and enjoying the mutual arousal which is possible only through the reciprocal interest in each other as conscious and free.
The self is at risk in this: The other may refuse to cooperate, may turn away in disgust, may act in ways that elicit shame and humiliation. That is why you have to be ready for it, and one reason why it is such an injustice to inflict sexual relations on children. In the face of this risk people are tempted to retreat from the direct forms of sexual desire, and take refuge in fantasy objects — objects that cannot damage or threaten you, that cannot withhold consent since they cannot give it, that are without the capacity to embarrass or shame the one who watches them.
Such objects are provided by pornography. The people displayed in the pornographic film have no relation to the viewer, nor are they displayed as being in any other relation to each other than that of each using the other’s body as a machine à frotter. It is impossible to know what they are feeling, and in any case their feelings are in no way directed to the person who is using them and at the same time abusing himself.
The viewer’s pleasure is not the pleasure of desire, since there is no one he is desiring. Nor is he really aroused except in the purely physiological sense, since there is no mutual arousal of which he is a party. Everything is cold, bleak, objective, and also free of cost and personal risk.
Pornography exactly conforms to the myths about desire that I have rejected: it is a realization of those myths, a form of sexual pleasure from which the interpersonal intentionality has been surgically excised. Pornography takes hold of sexual desire and cuts away the desire. There is no real object, but only a fantasy, and no real subject, since there is nothing ventured of the self. To say that this is an abuse of the self is to express a literal truth — so it seems to me.
Like all cost-free forms of pleasure, pornography is habit-forming. It short-circuits that roundabout route to sexual satisfaction which passes through the streams and valleys of arousal, in which the self is always at risk from the other, and always motivated to give itself freely in desire. The short-circuiting mechanism here is in all probability not different from that researched by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Robert Kubey in their studies of gambling and TV addiction.
It exhibits in addition, however, a depersonalizing habit — a habit of viewing sex as something external to the human personality, to relationship, and to the arena of free encounters. Sex is reduced to the sexual organs, which are stuck on, in the imagination, like cutouts in a child’s picture. To think that this can be done, and the habit of doing it fully established, without damage to a person’s capacity to be a person, and to relate to other persons as one sexual being to others, is to make a large and naive assumption about the ability of the mind to compartmentalize.
Indeed, psychologists and psychotherapists are increasingly encountering the damage done by pornography, not to marriages and relationships only, but to the very capacity to engage in them. Sex, portrayed in the porno-image, is an affair of attractive people with every technical accomplishment. Most people are not attractive, and have only second-class equipment. Once they are led by their porn addiction to see sex in the instrumentalized way that pornography encourages, they begin to lose confidence in their capacity to enjoy sex in any other way than through fantasy. People who lose confidence in their ability to attract soon become unattractive.
And then the fear of desire arises, and from that fear the fear of love, This, it seems to me, is the real risk attached to pornography. Those who become addicted to this risk-free form of sex run a risk of another and greater kind. They risk the loss of love, in a world where only love brings happiness.