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Is Pornography Use a Fantasy of Transcendence?

The case for why pornography use is better understood as a lived solipsism and hedonism—in partial concurrence and reflective response to Hess and Barborka.

Transcendence is defined as existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level. Solipsism is defined as the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist; I include it also to mean living as though nothing exists beyond the self.

Recently in Public Square Magazine, Hess and Barborka write to “draw attention to something else we believe is often taking place for any porn user at the deeper level of heart and mind,” namely, a mistaken bid for metaphysical transcendent experience and for something to save us from life’s pain (“salvation”). They note our modern society where people “literally worship at the altar of sex.” Yet is pornography use a misguided attempt at transcendence or a simple hedonism upheld by a destructive solipsism?

In the end, I have no quibble with their representation that people seek false, ultimately empty, sensation-focused release from pain in a multitude of ways that only further excavate the void in their lives. Nor do I disagree that the only real solution to all this is in a spiritual orientation to life, anchored in faith in Christ, turning to God, and relying on our relationship with Them. As they wonderfully write: 

Moment by moment, then, this becomes our choice: Do we run after some kind of stimulation—anything to not feel this?  Or do we take whatever we are feeling to Him—the One who has the authority and power (and empathy, see Alma 7:12) to show us the unique lessons this moment offers and to lead us to a moment where He will “wipe away our tears” (Revelation 21:4) in an ultimate redemption unmatched by anything else? 

This is a deliverance from the dark abyss that can’t be found, and will never be found, in the pursuit of another human body. Of this, you can be certain: there has never been, nor ever will be, a longitudinal study suggesting truly long-term and transcendent benefits derived from ongoing pornography use.

My only real point of disagreement is in what seems to me an overwrought conceptualization of pornography use (or other psychoactive experiences) as a legitimate or even sincere bid for “transcendence” rather than a simple psychoactive escape and hedonistic indulgence, fueling toxic solipsism. I disagree with the false equivalency of these two paths—porn use versus Christ—as being similarly oriented to “salvation” and “self-transcendence” in the body of another. While I concur and applaud their ultimate endpoint—censure of pornography use—I think their modeling of it as some form of transcendence gives pornography use unbelievably more credit than it deserves. I also think that that misconceptualization obscures a simple and vital cautionary truth. Namely, that pornography is and fundamentally scripts a sexual solipsism—attitude and action as though nothing beyond the self existed—leading inexorably to self-obsessed and other-exploitive hedonism. Further, while suggesting an attention beyond the behavioral dynamics of the maladaptive coping model, the model they propose still fits within that framework of understanding addiction. I attempt to explain my reasoning below.  

An Innovative Model?

Is what Hess and Barborka offer an innovative model or a confirmation of the tried and true? Especially in the face of problems that do not yield easily, there is a tendency to be dismissive of tried and true workhorse understanding—namely, the maladaptive-to-healthy-coping model that entails such hard work and “doesn’t work if we don’t work.” Wishing for a panacea, we are vulnerable to each bold new idea that comes around, hoping that embedded in it somewhere is the miracle insight or innovation that will be a shortcut to freedom and recovery.

Pornography is and fundamentally scripts a sexual solipsism—attitude and action as though nothing beyond the self existed.

Yet over and over, persons in recovery find themselves circling back to the plain and simple comprehensible understanding and daily work that works their recovery. Hess and Barborka speak of pornography use as an attempt at relieving pain and seeking to rise above life’s mundaneness: “human beings seek salvation [from pain] and transcendence from the mundane struggles of life” through stimulation; and they observe that “individuals can be reduced to nursing their pain—or pursuing yet more escape—through the daily injection of some kind of numbing/stimulating agent.” Ergo, a coping strategy. In this, they are surely spot-on. They also assess that pornography and concupiscence (lust) fail to deliver as a remedy for what ails the person or as a spiritual substitute: “deliverance from the dark abyss … can’t be found, and will never be found, in the pursuit of another human body.” Ergo, it’s maladaptive. Thus: maladaptive coping strategy.

Hess and Barborka offer true spirituality as life’s real resolution. I conceive true spirituality as consisting in achieving (a) communion with the divine, (b) fulfilling purpose and meaning in daily life and loving relationships (e.g. marriage, family, kin, community), and (c) congruence/alignment of desire, intent, and action with divinely appointed moral values. Real recovery is this long haul of learning, practicing, and perfecting living life spiritually, rather than carnally and sensually, after the manner of the body: “If you’re currently in the habit of turning somewhere else, recognize this as an opportunity to move the habits of your heart and mind in another direction.” “His covenant path is better than porn. The offering of His spirit is a sweeter companion. … And the many other real-life, life-long relationships you will find in His service are far richer and more rewarding.” There is no such thing as pixelated belonging or connection in association with pornography use, only autoerotic isolation and alienation. Ergo, spirituality, with adherence to gospel principles and truths, is the healthy alternative; indeed, it is the only alternative. I believe they are right again on this point.

Thus, as I see it, in acknowledging these three realities, Hess and Barborka circle back to the tried and true model of addiction and recovery. Namely: A defining element of the nature of addiction is that it is an organization of a pattern of behavior in response to life’s experiences and hungers that is a temporary palliative (escape)—through narcosis, euphoria, or alter ego fantasy—that does nothing to resolve the fundamental angst while worsening the situations and life in the long run (including relationships). Further, a defining element of the nature of recovery is a complex and complete conversion to a true, soul-satisfying, sustainable lifestyle. 

Traditional and archetypal models of both addiction and recovery are what Hess and Barborka describe; and the millennia-old spiritual remedy is tried and true, whether practiced in a faith community, Twelve-step, or therapy. Thus, while they aim to “[go] deeper than the common language of maladaptive ‘coping mechanisms,’” once you tease apart and abstract the core elements of their model, it is a well-fit variation and iteration of the same. Ultimately, what they describe is perfectly aligned with and precisely fits the framework of the archetypal maladaptive coping model. The uniqueness is in seeking to elevate the maladaptive coping to a mistaken spiritual aspiration and reaching.

This is where I believe their reasoning runs awry—where at an intuitive, gut level, it just doesn’t feel right—conceptually conflating the malady and the remedy, the sickness with the cure, sensual lust for the sexual body with the truly transcendent worship and appeal to the redeeming body of Christ. For me, as a seemingly suggested equivalency, it feels a bit profane, especially as you consider that these things—the carnal and the spiritual, the sensual and the sublime—inhabit entirely separate, non-comparable, non-integratable, quite antagonistic spheres.

A Philosophical Contretemps

If we use spiritually significant terminology, as the authors are inclined to do, is the pornographic body a misguided aspiration to transcendent worship, or is it mere concupiscent (lustful, sensual) pagan idolatry? I think the latter. It seems overwrought to suggest that pornography use is about seeking “transcendence” or “salvation” in the body of another person. A more straightforward, plain-spoken notion is that in life, we simply learn a multitude of means for psychoactive escape through sensations, through cattle-prodding and manipulating the brain’s dopaminergic reward system by one means or another, avoiding the hard work of spiritual coping. 

Pornography use is not even about a longing for belonging or intimate connection or transcendence. What it achieves is a manipulation of the brain’s dopaminergic reward system by means of an autoerotic lie that in turn twists, distorts, abuses, and perverts real-life relationships. In short, pornography use isn’t an alternate route, it’s an opposite route running in the wrong direction entirely.

The authors reason that “for many in our secularizing society, sexual pleasure may be the most powerful, exciting, transcendent thing they may have experienced.” Here again, their use of the word transcendent seems to us to be misplaced. Something transcendent is “beyond or above the range of normal or merely physical human experience,” yet pornography use directly serves sensual physical experience and so is precisely not transcendence, or self-transcendence, but preoccupation with physical experience and self-absorption in that experience. As with other psychoactive manipulations of the brain, then, pornography is, in fact, not transcendence but rather submersion in intense, engrossing, consuming physical experience weakly masquerading as something more. Pornography use, drug use, and other similar experiences are merely psychoactive and, at best, a deceptive counterfeit of transcendence. 

Given this, I reiterate that pornography use is not some misaligned or misguided reach for transcendence. Far from some transcendence (of self), pornography is the elevation and aggrandizement of self to the place where the self occupies the entirety of one’s perceptual space, leaving no room for anyone else. In this way, pornography use is sexual solipsism that bends inexorably toward hedonism. Thus, ever and always, pornography use is a spiritual, relational, and individual decay. To call pornography use a misguided attempt at transcendence is to mollify conscience and obscure the depravity of human exploitation, which, in their opening paragraph, the authors themselves assert that they don’t want to minimize. That awareness and sensitivity must also include those intimate others closest to home in our lives.

Pornography use is actually just that, a use of another person for individual arousal and gratification. It is neither an aesthetic of the human body nor a transcendent love of it, but a lust for an embodied collection and portrayal of stimulus parts, a fragmentation, a sexual objectification. The fundamental decay of pornography use is its poisonous socialization and scripting of sexuality (Butler, 2019; Leonhardt, Spencer, Butler, & Theobald, 2019a, 2019b) and enticement away from an “I–Thou” other-honoring relationship conceptualization and orientation to an empty, defeating, and inhumane “I–it,” solipsistic framing of engagement and exploitive interaction with other human beings (Buber, 1958; Fife, 2015). Further, in time one cannot help but presume that the solipsistic orientation of pornography eventually extends well beyond the autoerotic (masturbatory) impulse to affect, corrode, and poison every human relationship. 

Technically, perhaps, pornography isn’t a pure philosophical solipsism. Pornography doesn’t deny the material existence of the other and maintain that only the self is sure to exist—indeed, the use of pornography requires the perception of the material existence of an other—but it is an object other, an it (not Thou). Pornography denies the holistic existence of the other as a sentient being (beyond sexual experience) and a divine creation of infinite worth and deserving of dignity. 

Part of the arousal template of pornography lies precisely in this power dynamic—of objectification and instrumentalization—the fantasy of being able to manipulate and control the other as a mere object and an instrument of the user’s own will (acknowledged in the vulgar and grotesque vernacular of “tool”). Such socialization, far from some ethereal reach for transcendence in and through another’s body, is a very real and present danger to human sociality, intimacy, trust, and security. Herein lies the toxicity of the pornographic script and socialization, making pornography corrosive to self, other, and relationship.

Any overwrought misconceptualization of pornography use could risk mollifying conscience by obscuring the base reality that recovery requires us to face—a choice not among competing attempts at “transcendence” but between a truly transcendent spiritual way of being and a false, solipsistic, carnal way of being. For all of us, in one way or another, and across the lifespan, this is the fundamental choice of our mortal proving ground. Twelve-step work invites such fearless moral inventory and introspection. 

Over and over, persons in recovery find themselves circling back to the plain and simple comprehensible understanding and daily work that works.

We cannot, in the service of lust, deny others’ humanity without defeating and diminishing ourselves in the process. As Neal A. Maxwell described: “Surging selfishness, for example, has shrunken some people into ciphers; they seek to erase their emptiness by sensations. But in the arithmetic of appetite, anything multiplied by zero still totals zero! Each spasm of [selfish indulgence] selfishness narrows one’s universe that much more by reducing his awareness of or concern with others” (1999, p. 23). Maxwell added that “in one degree or another, we all struggle with selfishness. Since it is so common, why worry about selfishness anyway? Because selfishness is really self-destruction in slow motion. … Hence annihilation—not moderation—is the destination!” (1999, p. 23).

If we are to overcome each and every manifestation of the “surging selfishness”—solipsism and hedonism—of the natural man, then in the same moment we acknowledge the truth about pornography, we must also acknowledge the truth about ourselves—our divine nature and divine inheritance—and Christ’s redeeming power, which together can help us avoid equating any struggle we face in mortality with “who we are” and refuse the toxic shame of this other false equivalency. Mortality is a developmental proving ground, and Christ’s atoning sacrifice empowers our persistent striving in patience and joy.

A Pedestrian Disputation

Beyond philosophical contretemps, examining the fundamental solipsistic nature of pornography and its inexorable slide into hedonism, there is as well a pedestrian disputation of a ‘maladaptive attempt at transcendence’ model. Too many men treat marriage as a license to pursue lust—as long as there isn’t any “actual infidelity,” they say—and an aesthetic and transcendence model of pornography use could be used to justify lust, with pornography as the aphrodisiac–stimulant in the pursuit of some transcendent experience and aesthetic for which the body of one’s spouse is simply the proxy—using the spouse’s tangible body even while sexually arousing to and psychologically consumed by the “foreign object” in the mind.

The prophet Jacob called lust out for what it was, though: 

  • “If ye were holy I would speak unto you of holiness; but as ye are not holy, and ye look upon me as a teacher, it must needs be expedient that I teach you the consequences of sin” (2 Nephi 9:48). 
  • “I must testify unto you concerning the wickedness of your hearts” (Jacob 2:6, emphasis added). 
  • “Ye have broken the hearts of your tender wives, and lost the confidence of your children, because of your bad examples before them; and the sobbings of their hearts ascend up to God against you. And … many hearts died, pierced with deep wounds” (Jacob 2:35). 
  • “I can tell you concerning your thoughts, how that ye are beginning to labor in sin” (Jacob 2:5).

Dallin H. Oaks interprets: “What were these grossly wicked ‘whoredoms’? No doubt some men were already guilty of evil acts. But the main focus of Jacob’s great sermon was not with evil acts completed, but with evil acts contemplated” (Oaks, 2005, pp. 87–88). “Jacob was speaking as Jesus spoke when He said, ‘Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart’ (Matthew 5:28; see also 3 Nephi 12:28; D&C 59:6; D&C 63:16).” 

The relationship between husband and wife or the spouse and their partner’s porn use can be overlooked in an aesthetic and transcendence model of pornography use. Such an oversight would be a real limitation. I believe commonsense makes it clear that pornography promotes lust, not love, and in that promotion scripts eroticism, promiscuity, objectification, and misogyny (Butler, 2019; Leonhardt, Spencer, Butler, & Theobald, 2019a, 2019b). (Eroticism is defined here as obsessive and exclusive attention to the physical experience of sexuality to the exclusion of relational, attachment, intimacy, procreative, and spiritual dimensions.) These scripts do not represent themselves to us as anything like a template for transcendent or salvational sexual experience. More like self-indulgent euphoric escape and alter-ego fantasy, all through self-consuming and other-consuming obsession upon lust and pleasure—hedonism. As a psychoactive experience, pornography does not fuel an altered state of transcendence but rather a simple psychoactive, transitory hedonistic immersion. 

As pornography’s toxic scripts insidiously insinuate themselves into a marriage—and they surely will, whether through unseemly fantasies, appetites, or demands—their influence is certain to be anything but transcendent or salvational for the couple. Rather, pornography’s scripts threaten the relationship bond, safety, and trust necessary to secure attachment and individual and relationship thriving.

In 30 years of couple therapy practice, I have seen the long haul of both individual and relationship recovery and healing, and I have seen couples reclaim their relationship and the trust that shone in the rapture on their faces on their wedding day, when they first knelt at the altar and pledged themselves to God and each other in the matrimonial covenant. Yet the healing and reclaiming have not been easy or quick. Pornographic socialization is not easy to evict, nor is the spirit easy to heal, or are the scars easy to erase. 

One husband, well more than a decade in recovery, looked at his wife and said, “How did you survive these years of our marriage?” 

“With the help of the Lord. By God’s grace and Christ’s succor,” she answered. “And by the assurance that it would be worth it.” As she had journaled and shared:

Somehow during this terrible time, I found a spiritual sanctuary. My daily prayers became a refuge, a place of peace and growing spiritual comfort and reassurance. Many times I fell to my knees and poured out the anguish of my heart and my doubt and fear to Heavenly Father. He answered my prayers in wonderful ways. I felt spiritually endowed—with comfort, strength, and healing discernment—[including] … about the actions I should take for myself [and my spouse].

Like Alma’s followers, the burden wasn’t immediately taken away, but how I experienced my burdens was changed, and I was helped to bear them (see Mosiah 24:15–16), and even find joy. …

There were … sacred times when I felt a loving hand placed upon my head and every hurt and doubt [was] washed away in a wave of love and peace. Every time I unburdened myself to God, I felt peace and calm. I felt my own purity in His sight, and I knew that my Father in Heaven loved me and believed in me. A sweet peace and spiritual resilience miraculously suffused my soul. Through prayer, scripture study, temple worship, fasting, and priesthood blessings, I found strength I never knew I had. (In Butler, 2010, p. 213.) 

This woman’s pain was eased through Christ’s compassionate love. Yet even after all that time and forgiveness, as a therapist I could see, and the husband also saw and commented on how his question drew her back to that time. He could see the pain of the memory in her eyes, though thankfully no longer a present pain, just a past one remembered. 

In Christ, and through soul-searching repentance—the Twelve Steps’ “fearless moral inventory”—cleansing and healing are possible. Further, the sexual arousal template that had been ill-fashioned by pornography’s scripts can be re-formed, eliminating pornography and extinguishing all vestiges of its toxic scripts. Yet all this can take years for the re-creation of a marriage reborn to intimacy, trust, and safety. 

“How can I help you continue to heal?” the husband asked.

“Cherish me,” she replied.

Conclusion

The language of “transcendence” and “salvation” feels entirely misfit and misapplied to the pursuit of lust in pornography use (or any other psychoactive cattle-prod manipulation of the brain’s dopaminergic reward system, for that matter), though many academics, researchers, therapists, and individuals have sought to claim (and still do) an aesthetic value of pornography in the couple sexual relationship.

There is something more fundamentally wrong with pornography and its use than a misguided attempt at transcendence.

I equate sin to solipsism, fueling hedonism, plain and simple. We could well write it with the mathematical equals sign. Living as though nothing exists beyond the self (solipsism) is the most fundamental nature and conceptual capture of that which we call sin—behavior that is self, other, and relationship destructive. I model pornography use within that framework. If we are to avoid bending toward a soft censure of pornography use, a minimizing or even rationalizing of it, if we are to compassionately support those who are emotionally wounded by it—which is everyone whom it touches—it seems imperative to maintain a proper perspective on it. That perspective on pornography is that it fundamentally inculcates physical, relational, and spiritual solipsism—awareness, responsiveness, and accountability only to the self, to the “I” that bends inexorably toward hedonism, with all its undermining of mastery, motivation, generativity, and dignity. All the while, we must yet separate (externalize) the problem from the person, behavior from identity, the mortal struggle from our divine nature—and fastidiously refuse toxic, crippling shame.

Why does any of this matter beyond esoteric academic modeling of the psychology behind ubiquitous pornography use? Perhaps because such sexual socialization during the formative years of adolescence is particularly pernicious to the development of a healthy sexual template—one that is “I–Thou,” intimately relational, truly and deeply fulfilling, and wonderfully human—and we need to be alert, on guard, and overt about anything that derails development of healthy human intimacy. Perhaps because in order to sustain a healthy aversion to pornography use and commitment to recovery, and in order to support spouses’ own insistence on recovery, we need to call it out for what it is. We need to articulate pornography’s inherent repugnance and our intuitive revulsion arising from the light of Christ in us. There is something more fundamentally wrong with pornography and its use than a misguided attempt at transcendence. Indeed, it is not an attempt at all at transcending self, but a descent into a vortex of self, bringing the existential decay of self-obsession. Pornography is sexual solipsism. Inexorably leading to hedonism. Solipsism and hedonism are stifling and suffocating, alienating and isolating—making ciphers of us all. 

The life and light of Christ open to our view an expansive transcendence that, paradoxically, fills our souls to overflowing as we surrender the primacy of self to an “I-Thou” honoring and way of being that is inclusive of all others and all creation. Emulating Christ, we stretch our souls toward the sensitivity, compassion, and love of “I-Thou” being. Herein lies true love and compassion and the only real fulfillment of the measure of our creation and exaltation of our existence.

References

Buber, M. (1958). I and thou (2nd ed., R. G. Smith, Trans.). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Butler, M. H. (2010). Spiritual exodus: A Latter-day Saint guide to recovery from behavioral addiction. Provo, UT: BYU Academic Press. 

Butler, M. H. (2019). Procreative well-being and pornography—analyzing the script. Public health implications revealed through an ethological lens. Marriage & Family Review, 55(6), 544-583. https://doi.org/10.1080/01494929.2019.1588187

Fife, S. T. (2015). Martin Buber’s philosophy of dialogue and implications for qualitative family research. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 7, 208–224. https://doi.org/10.1111/jftr.
12087
 

Hess, Jacob Z., & Barborka, Vinny (2022, August 30). Whose body will save us from the pain inside? Public Square Magazine [online]. Retrieved from https://publicsquaremag.org/
sexuality-family/whose-body-will-save-us-from-the-pain-inside/
 

Leonhardt, N. D., Spencer, T. J., Butler, M. H., Theobald, A. C. (2019a). An organizational framework for sexual media’s influence on short-term versus long-term sexual quality. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, 48, 2233–2249. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-018-1209-4

Leonhardt, N. D., Spencer, T. J., Butler, M. H., & Theobald, A. C. (2019b). Sexual media and sexual quality: Aims, distinctions, and reflexivity—Response to commentaries. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 48(8), 2291–2303. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-019-01551-7

Maxwell, Neal A. (1999, April). “Repent of [our] selfishness” (D&C 56:8). In General Conference [23–25]. Retrieved from www.ChurchofJesusChrist.org (See also Ensign, May 23–25.)

Oaks, Dallin H. (2005, April). Pornography. In General Conference. Retrieved from www.ChurchofJesusChrist.org

About the author

Mark H. Butler

Mark H. Butler, Ph.D. Marriage and Family Therapy, is a Professor in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
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