Sunday, 18 May 2008

Porn, porn, porn (& more about "Covenant Eyes").

Lately an old post has been attracting comments: it’s the one I wrote back in January when the manufacturers of a dubious application called Covenant Eyes criticised an an earlier post in which I made fun of Moore Theological College (where you’ve got to study if you live in this town and want to be ordained) for making its installation mandatory for all student and faculty computers.

Guys – I don’t know how to break this to you – but there are bigger problems in the world than your spending time polishing Mr. Lonely. I know it feels a big thing to you (no pun intended ;-), and naughtynursenancy.com or wherever it is you’ve been secretly hanging out seems really wicked, and like a giant wedge between you and God, but porn really isn’t the huge barrier between you and God that you’re making it out to be. The guilt, pain, anguish and unworthiness you feel as a result of your obsession is in your head, not God’s. The shame and embarrassment your society places upon you should as a result of your fascinations and urges are didn’t originate with anything Jesus said.

Look, if you feel Covenant Eyes really helps you that’s great. If someone feels more in control of their life and sexuality by rubbing yak butter behind their ears that’s also fine – whatever helps you be more in control of being yourself. But just because the yak butter works for one person doesn’t mean it’s going to help everyone. Nor should those for whom it doesn’t work feel like failures, or second-rate Christians whom God couldn't call for anything.

They’re the people I’m most concerned with. I’ve met an awful lot of people who’ve tried “just-say-no” cures to all sorts of things, and only ended up even more depressed when these didn't work. I’ve also had pretty much all I can take of people reducing Christian morality to sexual abstinence, meanwhile ignoring the things that Jesus mentioned quite explicitly (sorry if that word causes anyone to stumble ;-) - judgementalism, bigotry, religious hypocrisy, materialism… why isn’t there the same market for some kind of software that can filter these out of our churches?

Clearly, if my Google Analytics figures are anything to go by, porn reigns on the internet – even in the micro-niche of quasi-religious blogs about the Diocese-that-time-forgot. Google “French boat porn” and number one (out of 234,000) is a post I put up back in last December about fast sailing craft, and I still regularly get hits from people who’ve come looking for something other than trimarans. Then there’s the guy from Wichita who drops by every Tuesday morning (Sydney time) after googling “hot boat porn Christian” – that gets 1,070,000 hits and I’ve no idea how far he’s got to search down the list before finding this place (nor why he bothers week after week when he must be disappointed with what he finds here). But that’s human sexuality for you. A strange beast, that can indeed seem an uncontrollable and irrational force. Yet if God is all-knowing none of it’s going to come as a surprise, and none of it can ever apply as an exclusion clause to “For God so loved the world…”

Let’s face it, as men each of the apostles had at some time taken their own one-eyed lizard for a stroll, Paul included. Nor can you tell me that the women of the Bible were as sterile as how they’ve traditionally been depicted. They were humans! Which also means that, given there was more than ten in the entire entourage, at least one of the people alongside Jesus preferred thinking about their own gender while self-administering the sacrament of soothing.

And guess what? Jesus never told off any of them for it! Not a single mention. Which, given the joy people find in reporting on other’s predilections in this department, is strange. Surely if Jesus had made some profound off-the-cuff criticisms of one of the disciples for spending too long in the john after one of the Marys had a wardrobe malfunction, it’s pretty certain someone would’ve remembered it. But instead we get nothing. Either Christ’s priorities were wrong, or ours are: take your pick, but I know which way I’ll be voting.

I’ll try and rant some more about this topic soon, just as soon as we can all pull ourselves together for another round (boom-tish!). In the meantime, if you're the guy in Wichita can you please tell me how far down the list we come? And why isn't it easier to just add this place to your favourites?

15 comments:

Wormwood's Doxy said...

I agree with everything you've said, Alcibiades. I loathe the church's ridiculous myopia on the subject of sex. I still think it keeps people from having to consider the REALLY radical teachings of Jesus with respect to money, power, and status.

And yet...

I have two close friends who are porn addicts. Both are good, kind, Christian men. Both have tried counseling. Both have thought of suicide because they cannot kick their addictions.

One has never been able to have a relationship with a real woman, despite his best efforts. The other, after decades of porn use, is unable to function sexually with the woman he describes to me as "the love of my life."

To my friends, porn is not necessarily a barrier to God (though it certainly causes them a great deal of guilt), but a barrier to human relationship. And that IS a huge problem. Telling them that there are bigger problems in the world may be true, but it isn't necessarily helpful. (In fact, it's that kind of statement, broadly speaking, that they have used in the past to defend their porn consumption---"hey, it's not as if I'm *killing* anyone!")

I don't know how I feel about Covenant Eyes in general---but as a couple of your commenters noted in the earlier thread, it has been a godsend to some. My biggest problem with the Moore Theological College thing is imposing it on people. It is one thing to choose it yourself, as a way of helping you avoid temptation or manage your addiction---it is another thing entirely to have no say in the matter. (And, in this particular case, I suspect that those doing the imposing are getting off on the power they have over their charges...)

Be that as it may, I have sent information on Covenant Eyes to my friends---don't know if they have/will use it. As you note, repeated failures in trying to kick the addiction have been about as harmful to their psyches as the addiction itself. Both consider themselves to be failures as human beings because they have not found a way to stop their consumption of porn.

I wish the Church had something else to offer beyond "Don't do that!" The "shame and blame" business hasn't worked all that well, has it?

But I suspect that neither does telling people that Jesus didn't say anything about their problem, so therefore it isn't a problem. My friends have up-close-and-personal evidence that this particular thing IS a problem. Based on the reading I've done, they are not alone--not by a long shot.

So I guess my question for you is this: what *do* you tell people like my friends? What does Jesus offer them here? And what can we, as a community of faith, do to support them in their desire to find a positive, life-giving sexuality?

Pax,
Doxy

Alcibiades said...

Doxy: I agree with you, really I do, but I'm going to have to ask for your patience. I promise to arrive at a few conclusions, but it'll be over the next few weeks.

Believe it or not there is a method in my madness, and a lot of it has to do with my belief that Christianity (along with most things that really matter) is best communicated within the context of narrative. So that's how I'll be travelling here - but unlike the "quick Christian truths" kind of answers (which I know you’re as uncomfortable with as I am), the process of narrative takes time.

For me the first path along this step is creating a "neutral zone" - a way of thinking in which those feeling enslaved can rest for a moment with those who aren’t; where everyone (and particularly those who feel obsessed with pornography) can let down the guard they must normally hide behind in order to function. In doing we can begin addressing the problem that while that these people are not alone, they generally feel that they are very, very alone.

This is probably Covenant Eyes strongest feature - it's a way that the 'addict' (I'm still not entirely comfortable with using that word and definition, for reasons I'll explain another day) can feel connected to others in the face of his secretive passion. They're no longer alone – someone else is involved in the problem with them. Proof of how well it can achieve this is the number of guys who can come out and say “I’m using it” – for them the hurdle of referring to this thing that is causing them so much pain has been overcome. And that’s wonderful for them – but I’d like some independently verified statistical evidence before saying the program is wonderful per se.

The down side is that I don’t believe Covenant Eyes helps establish mature ways of thinking about sex and sexuality – to pre-empt a future post, the best way to think about something is to be told you must never think about it. To be fair, the people selling the program only claim it’s an aid in overcoming the problem, not an answer in itself, but my concern is that in the long-term it’s an approach such as will generally only exacerbate the problem.

But that’s another post as well… ;-) To put things in a nutshell, I care about these guys too much to simply repeat a formula which I have seen fail time and time again. So I’m trying to find different ways of thinking about it – but that’s not going to be achieved in one blog post.

Come to think of it, is anything solved in one blog post, except perhaps at Stand Firm and Father Christian?

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Sorry for jumping the gun! ;-)

(Actually, I know just what you mean...I'm stalled out on the discussion on race on my own blog because of the complex nature of the issue. Computer problems haven't helped...)

I'm going to let you finish your train of thought, and then I'm going to point my friends here. I look forward eagerly to the rest.

Cheers,
Doxy

Sean the Blogonaut F.C.D. said...

I can't help but think that the collective churches stance on sex and sexuality is a major contributor to the problem of porn addiction or unhealthy attitudes to sex

I have no problem with porn (providing it is legal of course) and can see it having a healthy place in an adult relationship.

I have issues with the exploitation of women in the industry but then there a huge numbers of men and women who make a home business out of starring in and producing their own porn.

I would rather have my partner watching the porn with me than forcing her to check my visits to porn sites - it shows a distinct lack of trust that to me indicates that something has gone wrong with the relationship far earlier on.

Alcibiades said...

Sean: I quite agree with you that the collective churches must shoulder a fair degree of responsibility for unhealthy and/or obsessive attitudes towards sex. As Orwell illustrated so memorably in 1984, an organisation wishing to control and dominate people collectively must gain control over their sexuality, and this is an axiom autocratic groups, many religious organisations included, have universally applied.

The problem is finding a way forward. Any pattern of thinking learned over time is not easily reshaped, particularly if deeply ingrained and etched with connotations of guilt and damnation – and even more so if it involves something as primal as sex. For those of us who want to define ourselves as “Christian” this poses a special challenge – what of our thinking about the subject is ours, as opposed to merely the manipulative accretions of both our churches, and those parts of society in opposition to the churches. Clearly much of the current dogma produces only hypocrisy, guilt and depression (among other problems) – the struggle is to find new and more empowering understandings.

I also have grave concerns about any relationship based upon one partner receiving a daily report of the other’s online activities. If it works for them….. ok (I guess), but to me it seems a less than optimal basis for and enduring and trusting relationship. As for having her watch it with him – I’m quite sure many men wished their partner shared their interest (and if she did I suspect the husband’s obsession would quite often fade as it ceased to be a captivating “secret” relationship) – but many women raised within conservative Christianity (and elsewhere) find the concept of porn as abhorrent as their partners find it fascinating. Forcing her to participate would be tantamount to abuse, and observing her partner’s interest in something she finds so distasteful would be extremely distressing. It’s this broader lack of communication that makes developing a response from within the religious context that many of us come from so difficult. As I think I said to you before – a lot of us from a religious background have very poor listening skills ;-)

Doorman-Priest said...

"...self-administering the sacrament of soothing."

What a lovely term.

Can one "just say no" to covenant eyes then?

Grandmère Mimi said...

Alcibiades, I do appreciate your willingness to take on such a loaded subject - as I do Doxy's willingness to take on racism. I commented at your January post, not realizing that it was several months old and that you had posted recently on the subject. My response was rather flip, which was perhaps inappropriate.

I explored a little at the "Covenant Eyes" website, and as far as I can make out, the cure for what one considers an obsessive and life-defeating practice is to have another monitor one's internet viewing. It seems to me that shame is part of the cure, and I wonder if that can be a good thing. However, if "Covenant Eyes" works for some, then fine. Use it. It still gives me the creeps.

I think it might be quite helpful if a person in the grip of obsessive viewing of porn can come to know that they are not alone.

Luke Gilkerson said...

I was wondering when you'd be blogging about us again. :)

I'm glad you are willing to grant that if people are helped by Covenant Eyes that it can be a good thing. There are many who do find it to be helpful.

I totally agree with you that Christian morality is far from simply a clean sexual slate. It is aggravating when churches prop up sexual sin as the most mortal and detestable of sins.

Of course you may be overlooking Matthew 5:27-30 in your survey of Jesus' teachings. I agree that this message is not Jesus “telling off the apostles” for lust. But it is a warning directed to the apostles and all of His disciples. Jesus places lust in the same damnable category as anger, breaking oaths, retaliation, and hating your enemies. Of course grace is available for sin, but what would a disciple of Jesus who heard him preach this message often (as the text indicates) be thinking when Jesus got to the part about lust in the heart? He'd probably conclude that Jesus was just as serious about lust in the heart as he was other sinful conditions.

Luke Gilkerson
Internet Community Manager
Covenant Eyes

Kate Morningstar said...

I'm more than a little hesitant about responding to this one.

Doxy -- there are people who are addicted to porn, and it ruins their relationships, with other people and with God. Gets in the way of their own healthy view of self too. And there are people who sometimes, or even regularly look at, or read, or listen to, porn once in a while; slap the salami (or the gender-appropriate alternative) -- and then they go away and do something else.

There are also people who drink a glass of wine or two with dinner several times a week, and those who drink 12-oz of bourbon to manage from the time they wake up til lunch. Those who buy lottery tickets from time to time, and those who lose their cars, homes, trust funds and families at the casino or track. People who can go out for a walk and get an ice cream cone on Sunday afternoon, and others who can't stop there and wind up weighing 300 or 600 pounds.

It is very, very hard not to look at addiction as a moral problem. Someone I know says that people look at what addicts are doing as taking voluntary actions, and addicts know they're not.

Back to Alcibiades' discussion of porn as a moral issue -- maybe some things ARE relative. Even St. Paul said, "It's better to marry than to burn." Well, what if you burn, and there's a reason you can't marry? Or you are married, and there's an impediment (certain illnesses come to mind) to what gets called "normal" expressions of love and sexuality?

I don't believe we don't need the physical comfort of another's touch, or an outlet for the sexual feelings we're made with. God could have made us like other animals -- we could go into heat like cats, yowl around a little, mate with any tom that wanders into our pheromone-range and have kittens. But God made us so there'd be pleasure -- it seems a little disrespectful to say, "Well, thanks for all the gifts, God; I'm not ever using this one ..."

And at the same time I DO believe that the porn industry is usually exploitative of the poor, especially women, in the industrial process; and men, in terms of marketing. I'm so glad God has to decide these things for humankind; and I only have to decide them for me.

Lindy said...

No one has ever said to me, "You know, I really hope I can be in some porn sometime. It's on the list of things I really want to do. Yep, I want to learn a foreign language, hike the Appalacian Trail, and be in porn!" I never hear that. You might spend some time thinking about why that is.

If Alcibiades wants to make it morally neutral for purposes of discussion, well, OK. I'm interested to hear that discussion. But, just as a suggestion, you might want to talk to some people who've been in porn before you make up your mind.

Porn is not like drinking or gambling because human beings are not like wine or lotto tickets, they are like God. In God's image, and all. It's not the same, not the same at all. Real people ARE hurt by porn.

It doesn't matter whether you look at it every day, once a year, with your partner, or alone.

Porn = abuse.

That's the end for me.

I wish "Covenant Eyes" could be marketed to people who feel that they need/want that kind of accountability. It shouldn't be forced on people. People should refuse to look at porn because they find it abhorrent to abuse the image of God, not because they are forced to report in.

So, while we're all having feelings of sympathy for Doxy's friends, and that is right and as it should be, let's also keep in mind the unhappy little fact that they are abusers and as consumers they are the ones who make pron profitable. I am glad they feel shame for that. That at least is some evidence of humanity.

Linda Diane McMillan

Alcibiades said...

Lindy: Maybe it's an indication of the disreputable crowd I move in, but I've known (and still do) a few people who have in various ways and times worked in the sex industry, and to be fair, one of them often expressed a desire to become more involved in the porn industry, and did. But (and it's a bloody big BUT that person was so unstable and emotionally flakey that it was hard hearing them express a desire to simply walk across the road without worrying about them, and they were as powerful a warning against the commercialisation of sex as I think it’s possible to find. Yet I also know others for whom it’s just something they did at one point in their lives, something pretty weird and not normally included in their resume, which is now in the past as they’ve moved on. Which is my way of saying it takes all kinds and all types of people… and the issue that worries me is the abuse, harm and exploitation, not the activities of themselves.

None of which is to be implied that I don’t think it’s an abusive and exploitive industry which frequently causes people a great deal of harm – don’t forget the first person I mentioned in the paragraph above. I’m not kidding when I say I’ve seen first hand what can happen to some of those involved – both as participants and consumers. You’re quite right, it is a business founded upon abuse and devaluation of people.

But if saying these things was all it took to stop consumers shelling out their hard-earned to look at the stuff a great many would have stopped long ago. The people - almost exclusively men – who I’m particularly interested in thinking about here are those like Doxy’s friends who express a desire to stop their involvement with porn, but don’t, or feel that they can’t. There are literally hundreds of thousands – probably millions - of men like them, and they've invariably heard all the facts about the realities of porn countless times; but still they feel compelled to keep going back to it; riddled with guilt shame and you-name-it, but still spending the money that keeps the whole thing churning on. And that's the cycle I'd like to see broken.

As I said to Doxy yesterday, I’m going to go slowly in thinking this through. Yes, I know that will sometimes seem really annoying, because a lot of things about porn will to many here seem bloody obvious (you probably need to read that last sentence with an Oz accent to understand what I’m trying to say ;-), but I’d like to try anyway, because I’m quite passionate about finding ways to help those who feel obsessed and I’m far from convinced that what we’ve (by which I mean the Church catholic and universal) done so far has been in any way effective.

Please understand that in asking everyone here to try and – for the purposes of future discussions here only - stop looking at porn consumption in terms of it being a moral issue I’m not condoning it – as I started out saying, I’ve seen the damage done to people on both sides of the industry. You won’t ever hear me say “Hey, go out and look at whatever you want – nothing matters and it’s all great.” Because I most absolutely do not believe that to be true.

But I really do believe there must be different ways of approaching the issue which can more effectively help people preoccupied with porn find more healthier things to do with their time, money and emotions. I also believe the church has done much to foster and exacerbate present circumstances – not least through actively developing a patriarchy in which women have been blatantly regarded as somehow not fully human – and our challenge (and obligation) is now to undo the damage of the past, and find new ways of moving forward: simple once we can figure out how ;-)

Alcibiades said...

Hey Luke: Nice to see you back! I was worried when I saw the comment from the otherwise anonymous John on the other thread that you'd been replaced by a more aggresive spruiker - which shows I really must try to be less cycnical ;-)

"Lust in the heart" - I thought most of us felt those kind of urges in another place :-) I'm specifically not going to get into an argument involving exegesis at 20 paces because (a) having spent waaay too many years studying Greek and theology I become really boring when that happens (and you thought this was bad!), and (b) I don't believe exegesis helps anyone stop feeling compelled to view the stuff - and that's what I'm more interested in thinking about here.

Please feel free to throw in your $0.02 worth anytime though - just don't get offended if I (or anyone else) responds with something other than the official party line.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Kate--my friends classify their relationship to porn as an addiction. (I wouldn't have used the word if they didn't.)

The problem, as one of them told me, is that it is a "hidden" addiction. Unlike alcoholism or overeating, there are no "obvious" signs of porn addiction. Even the results of the addiction are secret and hidden from view---which serves as yet another barrier to them stopping.

See, they can keep telling themselves "I'm not hurting anyone" and "This doesn't affect me like drinking too much or eating too much." They know in their hearts that this is a lie, of course.

It's true that some people end up losing their jobs or their relationships over porn---but, in general, it seems to be much easier to hide a porn addiction than it is to hide other forms of addiction.

Lindy---I totally agree with you about the difference between porn addiction and other addictions. The objectification of other human beings is, to my mind, an entirely different category than alcohol, drugs, or food.

The problem, I think, is that the shame they feel is PART of their addiction. Both of my friends are deeply religious men. I have a very strong suspicion that they are addicted to the shame aspect of porn---that it may well be the sense of shame itself that is sexually attractive.

I'm not even talking about "It's naughty and that's what makes it so attractive!" I'm thinking more along the lines of self-flagellation (pardon the pun!), and other ascetic practices that the Church has long condoned. This particular addiction reminds me of accounts of medieval monks, for instance, or the Desert Fathers, who continually injured or starved themselves for their "impure thoughts." I suspect they began to get a charge out of the punishments themselves---and that's the way I think my friends may have come to see their shame over porn. The shame itself is a "high." So shaming them for their porn use may be exactly the wrong tactic...

Having said that, I have no idea what the proper approach would be. I'm not a therapist, nor do I play one with my friends. Mostly I just try to listen when they talk. Even talking about this stuff is so terribly difficult for them. As Alcibiades notes, they know the party line about the issue of porn---my spouting it would not help them or our relationship.

Sean--as a woman, I have several issues with porn. There's the obvious one that Lindy has raised--porn objectifies people. Another is the fact that, for those of us in committed relationships, porn is a threat to the commitment. It means that your mate is finding sexual satisfaction with someone/something other than you. You can read me all the biology and psychology you want, but---ultimately---porn use means that your partner is giving the most intimate part of himself to someone besides you.

And, finally, there is the vanity issue. Those of us who left our 20s and our perfect bodies a long time ago can't match up to the image of some 20-something with big, perky breasts and the ability to do gymnastics in the bedroom. I'm always a bit amused by the fact that men never seem to consider how their pot bellies and their own breasts look in comparison to the buff guys in the porn flicks. I wish women had that kind of self-confidence, but most of us do not. We look at those photos/movies and find ourselves wanting in our partners' eyes...not a happy place to be.

Alcibiades--I am VERY much looking forward to the rest of your discussion! And I apologize for doing the very thing I say I hate---writing novels in other people's comment box! I'm going back to the race issue today, and after I've done that, maybe I'll do some writing of my own to answer you.

Luke Gilkerson said...

Hello Alcibiades

I always enjoy your blog as a place to vent my $0.02 worth. It certainly isn't worth much more than that simply because its me writing.

I agree that for most endless hours of pouring over Greek manuscripts and theological text books can be tedious and boring. I do, however, think that good exegesis can lead to right thinking, which in turn can demolish the shrines we have built in our hearts to the false gods of pleasure, popularity, and power, and exalt Christ to the place where he is meant to be.

I only brought up the passage about lust in the heart because I find your $0.02 worth of advice to someone who is trying avoid porn online to be so contrary to the teachings of Jesus. There are better ways to help people overcome addictions, avoid temptations, and think rightly about their sins that don't involve demoting particular sins as somehow less serious than others.

I realize that you are, in effect, responding to particular abuses and misguided advice you perceive coming from your social religious climate. I won't pretend to understand why people using Covenant Eyes seems so problematic to you. Still, as I've read through some more of your posts, I can't help but see you swinging the pendulum the opposite way. To trivialize habitual or even addictive patterns of sexual sin is as ineffective in changing hearts as someone misusing CE software as a band-aid to cover the deep wounds in their heart.

Alcibiades said...

Ok Luke – I’m trying to be friendly, but you’re pushing the relationship’s boundaries:

(i) I’m not trivializing anything. If you read what I’ve written above you’ll find I take the problems and pain resulting from the porn industry extremely seriously. I’m simply interested in exploring new and more effective responses, because in the face of an ever-expanding industry I’m convinced current responses are particularly effective.

(ii) I’m trying very hard to not misquote those from your side of the argument; it would be appreciated if you tried to extend me the same courtesy. I did not say ”endless hours of pouring over Greek manuscripts and theological text books can be tedious and boring” – I said ”I become really boring when that happens”, which was short hand for my belief that the solution for most men and women suffering in some way as a result of pornography is to be found through me adding to mountain of didactic exegesis already available on the subject; and that I see Jesus as doing theology within the context of relationship and narrative, not propositional exposition, so I’m interested in approaching this topic in a similar way. Plenty of places on the web are taking a different tact – that’s fine, but this is somewhere trying to explore a different path. We may well want to reach the same destination, but my interest is in those for whom the current route isn’t working.

As an example – my personal reading of the NT tends to be in the Greek – I might as get some use from those years of study ;-). And if I thought having others reading the text in this way would help them I’d be doing everything within my power to teach them to read NT Greek. But I don’t believe that, and I think all it would result in is them spending an enormous amount of effort for something that wouldn’t help them find what they’re looking for. That doesn’t mean I don’t find certain nuances of the text fascinating – just that I don’t think they’re relevant to the question these people are asking.

(iii) Nobody says that their exegesis is unwieldy and inaccurate. Everybody thinks (or at least hopes) that they’re heading down the right track. You think mine is suspect, ok, so I might find aspects of yours alarmingly similar to that of the Pharisees – but is arguing about that going to help us reach any conclusions? So how about you keep statements like my advice being ”so contrary to the teachings of Jesus to yourself - at least until you can demonstrate some understanding of what those statements are and until I’ve finished making them? In return I promise to not start carving up the position from which I’ve assumed you’re coming – better still, in return I promise to try and make as few assumptions about you as possible.