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The perils of pornography

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 18 July 2005

The self becomes adult and truthful in being faced with the incurable character of its desire: the world is such that no thing will bestow on the self a rounded and finished identity. Thus there is in reality no self – and no possibility of recognizing what one is as a self – without the presence of the other. But that other must precisely be other- not the fulfillment of what I think I want, the answer to my lack.
Rowan Williams, Lost Icons

In the past, the Australian Federal Government has explored the issue of pornography and has attempted to find out if adults are damaged by it. The answer consistently came up negative and the Australian Capital Territory is the only place in Australia that all kinds of porn (except the child variety) is freely available.

This approach to pornography is based on the medical model: can porn damage your health? In order to answer this question we resort to the standard methods of medical research. But how can medical research see into the mind of a teenage boy whose introduction to sex is to see actors and actresses bumping and grinding in all positions, with women giving off shrieks engendered by what seems to be pain? How can medical research see into the marriage of pornographic images setting the sexual agenda?


While the medical model serves us well in other areas of our lives, I would propose it has severe limitations when it attempts to quantify the effect of addictive behaviour in our lives, by which I mean behaviour that seeks a feeling of wellbeing obtuse to the normal source of those feelings. These activities amount to an artificial tinkering with the brain chemistry that makes us feel good. Feelings of wellbeing usually come from positive relationships, accomplishment and integration into society. The drug culture substitutes chemical substances for those activities. The use of pornography may be seen in this light because it is used to give a lift to a dampened, bored or depressed mood. Addiction disconnects us from a normal life and mood and as such leads us into a false world.

False worlds cannot be discerned from the standpoint of medical science because it lacks any idea of the purpose of human life. It can only seek longevity as the ubiquity of the phrase “save lives” indicates.

The disconnection between mood and reality that we find in addictive behaviour amounts to a split between body and soul. Contrary to the dualism we find in popular Christianity, the Christian tradition affirms the unity of man. Man is the soul of his body. To talk of the soul existing without the body is an abstraction. In other words, the only way we may be present to God is as embodied souls and besouled bodies.

The danger in sexuality is this proper unity of body and soul being split so the body satisfies its desire independently of the soul, which cannot help but reflect on the authenticity of actions and the future they produce. It is this threat to the being of man that is posed by sexual immorality and addictive behaviour, we find ourselves divided against ourselves and we enter a false world.

In order to discern a false world we must attempt to think beyond modernity, no easy task when we realise the conclusions of modernity are in the air we breathe. It was traditionally the task of those who were in charge of “the cure of souls” to discern false worlds into which those under their care were in danger of falling. The work of worship is that work that guides us “along safe pathways”, that is, into the true world of reality. It is here we encounter the Spirit of God that enables us to be the souls of our body, held in unity. This is what it means to “be saved”. We are saved from inner disunity and hence of inhabiting the false worlds conjured up by imagination under the pressure of ordinary human desire and perceived need. Scripture is the repository of texts that demarcate the real world from the false worlds to which we are prone.

Pornography is a representation of just such a false world in which women possess no self, no soul, of their own. There is the danger, especially among young men, that this false world corrupts the real sexual world in which the future is safeguarded by the promise of exclusivity and directed towards the bearing and nurturing of children. In the recent film We Don’t Live Here Anymore, the adulterous wife says to her husband, “When a woman opens her legs to a man, she promises a future,” (or words to that effect). Sexual activity is by its nature a promise of a future and is corrupted when that is not recognised.


Pornography, if it is some kind of art, is bad art because it provides us with a distorted view of the world. Sure, it gives ample illustration of how sexual organs fit together, as if we need to see that in so much detail, but it fails to convey the central aspects of sexual love. The beloved is both the object of sexual delight and life adversary, as the quote from Rowan Williams indicates. The husband or wife is the nearest neighbour who challenges our narcissism, ignores our self-indulgent neediness and brings us through into a full humanity.

This is a long way from the images of the relationship pornography gives us, in which the woman is always willing, always beautiful and always appreciative. These women are never insecure, never hurt, never unsure and do not need our care. They never challenge us.

The reason pornography is so boring is that it attempts to extract the physical act from its proper setting of real passion and love won in the face of bad times. The reason porn queens have to make so much noise is because they are attempting to portray real passion. However, a crucial ingredient is missing, a portrayal of any real feeling for the partner. What we get is a focus on the experience of the self to the exclusion of the feelings for the partner, yet another illustration of modern individualism. What we end up with is a poor imitation of what real sex is like: we become one flesh and lose ourselves in each other.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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