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Recovering from the Relational Health Crisis of Pornography

Pornography is toxic to relational and sexual health. Recovering from the relational health crisis of pornography involves forsaking pornography and its toxic scripts, regaining and deepening our intimate empathy, and learning and committing to safely hold one another.

We are experiencing a relational health crisis, a crisis of the safe holding of the human heart. Empathy can be a path back to safe holding and a constraint upon our lesser impulses. In this essay, I describe pornography’s toxic scripts and follow with an invitation to empathy that can strengthen the resolve to forsake pornography’s toxicities. 

What I will describe is the influence of pornography’s toxic scripts in isolation, excluding the (potential) mitigating and countervailing influence of the user’s resilient innate humanity. Thankfully, pornography does not operate in such a values vacuum, and the dangerous reality of pornographic scripting is not a real-world description of what ensues. A natural pullback from pornography’s toxicity arises for many from the rescuing restraint of our divine nature. Our hardwiring for human connection and compassion is like a relational immune response countering and curtailing the pathogen of pornography. Thankfully, most people have a strong relational immune system and a robust relational immune response that pulls them back and holds them back from the relational and sexual toxicities which pornography scripts and towards which pornography drives. With that reassuring hope of pulling back in mind, we will first examine the inherently toxic nature of pornography and then set forth intervention to strengthen the human empathy that lies at the heart of our relational immune system response. 

Pornography is ubiquitous, and the pervasive viewing of pornography is highlighting its toxicities. Pornography consumption has increased exponentially in recent years for all ages and genders. A nationally representative survey of adults in the United States found that one-third (33.5%) of dating men and one-third (33.1%) of married men report weekly or daily pornography use, as well as 13.4% of dating women and 1% of married women. In another survey, irrespective of relationship status, 46% of men and 16% of women reported viewing online pornography at least weekly. In attitude, over 70% of men and women report some level of approval for pornography use. Another recent national survey showed that three-quarters of teenagers have seen porn by age 17, with the average age of first exposure being 12 years old. This “adult” entertainment industry yields a significant amount of underaged exposure, shaping how youth view sex and how they cultivate future intimate relationships.

Empathy can be a path back to safe holding.

Embedded in pornography are specific scripts—eroticism, objectification, promiscuity, and misogyny (see here, here, here, here, and here)—for triggering and “amping up” autoerotic sexual arousal—“sexual soloing.” Pornography’s eroticism scripts a non-relational sexual arousal template focused entirely on physical gratification without distracting reference or responsiveness to the other as a whole person—pornography invites erotic self-obsession that is merely through the body of another. A slide toward an “I-it” (objectifying) instead of “I–Thou” (honoring) relational orientation begins and gains momentum. In modern vernacular, this is sometimes referred to as “othering,” viewing and treating another as intrinsically different, less than, and thus not granted equal status and duty of moral care.

Pornography’s psychological and relational deterioration of one’s view of others begins with its eroticism script and continues with a closely related second script of objectification—narratives and depictions for exploiting the physical body solely as a collection of sexual triggers and stimuli. Continuing its non-holistic and non-relational nature, its denigration of the personhood of the other, pornography also scripts promiscuity, an entirely detached, non-committal, serial approach to sexuality, anchoring sexual gratification to novelty and scripting men as sexual marauders and raiders. Pornography never offers any reason to hold back on moving on and on and on. 

Most persons are perceptively aware of the reality of these first three pornography scripts—eroticism, objectification, and promiscuity. Pornography’s first three scripts for sexual arousal and gratification obsessing upon eroticism, objectification, and promiscuity, hardly demand empirical documentation to be known—they are quite obvious. So now we get to the fourth script embedded in pornography, which is misogyny. Perhaps some say, “The first three scripts are plainly evident in pornography, but you’re saying that pornography scripts for misogyny? How so?”

Misogyny, Really?

Misogyny is disrespect, disdain, negativity, contempt, or hostility toward women. No matter the severity of manifestation, misogyny is rightly viewed as corrosive and counter to empathy (toward women)—an essential relationship virtue and wellspring of care and restraint. The psychological and relational deterioration cascading from pornography use to misogyny deserves unpacking. As we consider the psychodynamics of pornography, the connection between pornography and misogyny may become apparent. 

Pornography scripting for misogyny seems far-fetched to some. Perhaps they are unaware of the prevalence of depictions of aggression, abuse, and violence in popular pornography. Content analysis of best-selling pornography videos found high levels of both physical (88.2%) and verbal (48.7%) aggression, with males almost always portrayed as the perpetrators of aggression and females overwhelmingly the targets of aggression. Further desensitization and, unbelievably, even normalization of such misogynistic behavior comes as women are depicted as responding neutrally or with pleasure to such degrading and abusive behavior. Who can doubt that depicting the denigration of women in a framework of reinforcing male sexual gratification and female acceptance foments and confirms misogyny?

One need look no further than stereotypical “frat-boy” and “locker-room” talk or high-profile public figures’ sexual exploitations and contemptuous talk and behavior for anecdotal and observational confirmation of misogynistic creep. Past unwelcome exposure to so-called “locker-room talk” of young adult males offered putrid awareness of how some men view and exploit women as mere sexual “tools” for their own gratification. Further, outright misogyny was evident as they described sexually “using” women (exploitation) and taking satisfaction in emotionally damaging (abusing) the women they were involved with. Does anyone believe that partner consent can qualitatively transform such sexual experiences into a condition of psychological and relational wholeness? Can we see the misogyny in it? Pornography’s scripts fuel such degrading attitudes, marauding sexuality, and misogyny.

Pornography scripts for sexual “taking.” As happens in every sexual interaction where “my gratification,” rather than our “shared satisfaction” and “our relationship” is the focus, removing the other person’s needs, wants, and desires from the relationship and sexual frame of reference turns a couple into two solipsistic individuals taking what they want. The word self-ish doesn’t even really apply because “self” implies an “other,” and the solipsistic are “other-oblivious.” The universe may exist apart from them, but it exists just for them. The other isn’t removed from the equation; they were never entered into the equation. 

This is non-relational sexual taking, each person taking what they want from the other with minimal regard to the other, and there is a real consequence and pain to all involved in it. Making others objects for sexual gratification—even with such mutual consent that the world supposes—can change the contours of the human psyche and our divine nature. While it is increasingly relationally, socially, and legally accepted—“as long as there is consent”—sexual taking is nonetheless relationally reprehensible. Further, the mindset of sexual taking scripted by pornography, if left unchecked, easily degrades to much worse. Yet sexual taking without concern or consequence is exactly what pornography sells.

Some will note, however, that a smaller percentage of persons report viewing explicit pornographic scripting of misogynistic (exploitive, degrading, abusive, violent, non-consensual) depictions. Consequently, setting aside these extremes that so-called “soft-core porn” may put in the background or leave out, some speciously reason that soft-core pornography elevates women (their physical beauty, sexual attractiveness, and inherent appeal) in the eyes of its viewers. We will use attachment principles to show that such is not the case, that pornography is ubiquitously corrosive to male–female relations and inherently misogynistic, no matter the type of pornography.  Understanding attachment dynamics that support sexual wholeness helps us to see that pornography is anti-attachment, inherently scripting male attitudes of disrespect, disdain, negativity, contempt, or hostility toward women through porn’s erotic objectification and exploitative promiscuity. For some, porn can condition sexual arousal to misogynistically tinged depictions. 

The viewing of pornography inculcates scripts of objectification and exploitation of another human being for one’s own sexual gratification. Fantasizing, or worse, enacting such scripts—such as those young adult males in the locker room were boasting of—is inherently offensive to our humanity (until we deaden our senses). Our inborn attachment behavioral system and caregiving behavioral system are simply not wired for such interpersonally corrosive and exploitative transactions. We are naturally wired for sympathetic and empathetic connection and responsiveness. “Though our culture may tell us otherwise, we are not designed for self-actualized, pleasure-seeking autonomy. We are deeply relational beings, designed … for … connection.” Coming to the same conclusion from a spiritual framework, Jeffrey R. Holland similarly affirms that “human intimacy, that sacred, physical union ordained of God for a married couple, … is—or certainly was ordained to be—a symbol of total union: union of their hearts, their hopes, their lives, their love, their family, their future, their everything.”

Consequently, fantasizing or enacting pornography’s exploitative, transactional view of the other and of sex cannot help but lead to psychological dissonance—negative feelings about one’s behavior and oneself for engaging in it. 

The mind has to do something about the dissonance—either change the offending behavior or get rid of the feelings. That is where psychological projection and misogyny enter. The next step in the cascade is the psychological projection of the pain of the spiritual–moral dissonance that threatens one’s self-concept and sense of well-being. By faulty but commonplace psychological projection—a defense mechanism—painful yet properly inward-aimed feelings of moral dissonance, repugnance, and disgust get projected outward. Psychological projection is a process not amenable to rational explanation but nonetheless commonly understood and readily recognized—it’s the stubbing of one’s toe on the door and then slamming the door in anger as though it were at fault. Irrational projection is blaming women for how badly one feels (spiritual–moral dissonance) and how badly one fares in relationships with them in consequence of one’s own pornography use and assimilation of its associated attitudes and scripts. Psychological projection fuels misogyny.

In turn, in time, this becomes an entrapment. For one cannot help but surmise and predict that such attitudes will be corrosive to actual male–female interactions and produce distancing, alienation, and rejection in the relationships of men and women. One’s own spiritual–moral dissonance is now paired with relational rejection, and together they amp up the resort to pornography and amplify misogyny. Sexual intimacy, not sexual taking, is the better representation of human individual and relationship ideals.

A Way Out—Empathy Training 

One might surrender pornography use and then gradually re-trend toward healthy human transactions. Being innate to our being, our humanity and our attachment are durable and resilient in that way. A converse approach, one often deployed with offenders, is to begin with empathy training. The anticipation is that the development of real human empathy will naturally produce a sensitivity that ultimately strengthens resistance to and shunning of pornography, its toxic scripts now being plainly revealed. “Our … [moral] agency endows us with the responsibility and privilege of becoming beings who can experience the deepest forms of [human] connection.” The potential for intense joy or searing pain in our most intimate sharing of ourselves and receiving of the other is tremendous. 

Empathy can be, indeed is designed to be a natural metric of our relationship behavior and a check on our self-, other-, and relationship-destructive passions and exploitations. Empathy can be the beginning of a path of healing and helping. Empathy doesn’t automatically lead to caring behavior; one still must choose to act on empathy. Empathy, and then importantly, disciplining ourselves to be bridled by empathy, is what allows us to safely hold the heart and soul of another human; we become vessels of safe holding—fully and completely trustworthy.

Sexual intimacy, not sexual taking.

Our conduct in relationships is undoubtedly (or ought to be) deeply informed by our “empathic resonance” with the experience of the other person. We intuitively grasp this truth. Empathy is both a compass in our relationships and a push to self-restraint/self-mastery. We guide our relationships by asking, “How will my words and my behavior affect this person I care about?” and “How would I feel if …?” (The Golden Rule is such a simple, straightforward, powerful tool). Empathy is a wellspring of relationship success.

Human empathy is developed and deepened as individuals seek and achieve (a) a deeply held view and felt experience of the humanity of every person, (b) an ability to emotionally and cognitively place oneself within the lived experience of the other, and (c) sensitivity and responsiveness to both of these (their humanity and lived experience).

Nurturing human empathy is likely a significant, if not the foundational component of all manner of behavioral rehabilitation in relationships (including communication, anger management, relational aggression, pornography use, and, in incarceration settings, sex offender treatment). Empathy development can likely be helped by “training,” such as in treatment settings, but empathy must ultimately be understood as a virtue to be pursued holistically through spiritual, emotional, cognitive, and relational work. People can be helped in learning to listen, connect, care, and respond. Fully formed empathy is a cognitive, emotional, relational, and spiritual connection that can support self-restraint and self-constraint, including sparking and sustaining motivation for overcoming pornography use—for the sake of everyone harmed by it, from the supply chain to the end user, spouse, and family. 

I–Thou, Abandoning I–it

In a broader sense, empathy training is about initiating and expanding our capacity to truly and fully see one another, the whole human person, in every transaction. Philosopher Martin Buber referred to this as a fundamental “I–Thou” humanistic orientation, abandoning the core, corrosive “I–it” view of the other rendered in pornographic depictions and narratives. “I–Thou” is relational humanitarianism, living and acting for the welfare of all beings. In contrast, “I–it” is relational solipsism, living and acting as if nothing but the self exists or matters.

While the sexual drive is powerful and easily perverted into exploitative pornographic forms—co-opting the sexual arousal template toward solipsistic use—our innate humanity represented in our attachment and caregiving instincts and behavior pull us back from the solipsistic brink and rescue us for the experience of relational wholeness. Our relational drive for connection is an ever-present pushback against pornography’s scripts for sexual misuse.  From a developmental perspective, sexual drive comes on fast and furious, and we perhaps cannot anticipate complete avoidance of pornography’s toxic socialization, especially in a sexually saturated society. We can, however, persistently and stubbornly promote empathy and affirm our own and others’ humanity through “I–Thou” respect and honor. In all our relationships, we can reach for relational wholeness and celebrate the joy of whole-being relationships.  With wife or husband, we can add to relational wholeness, sexual wholeness.  We can persistently and stubbornly redeem our desires and our relationship through attachment caregiving and Christian virtue.  Empathy can help us “take back sex” for the ultimate and intimate relational experience it is so beautifully and powerfully designed to be.  

 

 

 

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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