Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Life in the FleshAn Anti-Gnostic Spiritual Philosophy$

Adam G. Cooper

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780199546626

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2009

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199546626.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 08 December 2016

Pornography and Violence

Pornography and Violence

(p.213) 9 Pornography and Violence
Life in the Flesh

Adam G. Cooper (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Pornography cultivates a cult of the flesh in which sex and the flesh are abstracted, etherealized, and finally destroyed. De Sade's vision of unlimited lust gives way to a pornocracy in which violence against the flesh is normalized, since pornography directly impacts the perception of the body, persons, and their sexual value, objectifying them as items for manipulation and consumption. A redemptive moral pedagogy will be sensitive to the proclivity of the sexual affections for disorder, yet unstintingly cultivate chastity as the healing force for shame and shamelessness.

Keywords:   pornography, pornocracy, eroticism, Sade, morality, shame, shamelessness, cyberporn, desire, chastity

Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.

G. K. Chesterton1

One of the major forces at large today that shapes the way people think about flesh and the body is pornography. With the recent advent of ‘cyberporn’, pornography is increasingly consumed in living room, web café, library, and office with an appetite barely exceeded by that indulged in the fast‐food industry. Indeed, as with the fast‐food industry, it is difficult to avoid pornography's ubiquitous ambience, as its spirit increasingly permeates advertising, music, art, cinema, and television. It would hardly be exaggerating to assert, with David B. Hart, that ours is already ‘a casually and chronically’ pornographic culture.2 Recent surveys in Australia have found that among 16‐ and 17‐year‐olds, 80 per cent of boys and 60 per cent of girls had viewed internet pornography, and nearly 40 per cent of boys did so intentionally and regularly. In 1996, even before the internet boom, some 665 million hardcore videos were rented in the USA alone. Grossing somewhere between eight to ten billion dollars per annum in the USA, pornography is one of the biggest industries in the world, out‐grossing Hollywood's domestic box office receipts.

Sex is a prominent topic in modern philosophy and theology. Pornography, however, is less commonly treated as a phenomenon for serious philosophical or theological reflection. But in a book about flesh it would seem remiss to avoid discussing the phenomenon of pornography, the effects that exposure to it brings about in the minds and bodies of human moral subjects, and its impact on the (p.214) way we perceive and experience that particularly excarnate aspect of our humanity, sexuality. This discussion in turn will illustrate the claim that pornography is a destructive social and moral force. For as novelist Walker Percy has claimed, pornography represents ‘a radical disorder in the relation of the self to other selves which generally manifests itself in the abstracted state of one self (male) and the degradation of another self (female) to an abstract object of satisfaction’.3 If this definition is true, then pornography inevitably cultivates a view of the human body in which the body's deployment and use as an object of more or less violent manipulation follows as a logical step. For pornography takes one dimension of the human person, the visible bodily surface, and from it projects the whole person as a sexual object, an instrument for pleasure, a mere commodity to be marketed, manipulated, and consumed.

What will be more difficult to explain is why pornography is so attractive, especially to men. Here we wish to discover precisely where its power lies. We shall see that pornography works by constructing a world of non‐reality, by fabricating an abstract, discarnate fantasy. Its attractive power lies in its capacity to cultivate a visual illusion, and therefore in suppressing any real tangible and interpersonal interaction with the subject. Thus the experience ‘enjoyed’ by users of pornography does not arise from any real relational engagement between persons, but takes place almost entirely at the level of consciousness and the imagination. But precisely for this reason pornography creates in its users a powerful urge to resolve the dissonance between the imagined and real, to act physically on what is in the mind. Thus pornography addicts are almost always habitual masturbators, and many tend strongly towards sexual promiscuity and erotic violence.

Clearly, the abuse of the actual persons involved in the production of pornography, irrespective of their level of consent, is as patently evil as other forms of sexual abuse. But if this is the case, if pornography is such a blatant form of human exploitation, why is there not a greater outcry against its degrading and insufferable character? Why, at the very least, are the makers and marketers of pornography not obliged to bear more stringent financial and legal burdens?

(p.215) These are questions we shall address only towards the end of the chapter, and then only briefly. In the main it is my purpose in this chapter to index in closer detail the dynamics at work in pornography and its use. While it may be difficult at times to distinguish between erotic art and pornography, it is possible to posit a fundamental difference. For the ancients, only that is art which is beautiful and true, which benefits both body and soul. What is admirable in works of art is ‘not their aesthetic surfaces but the logic or right reason of their composition’, their capacity to cultivate spiritual freedom over against sensual servility.4 By contrast, it has always been the purpose of pornography, even in the ancient world, ‘to teach women to be whores, presenting themselves as objects for male pleasure’.5 Pornography propagates not the cult of the divine or the spirit, but the cult of pleasure, the body, the violent, and the obscene. Pornography is an industry that captures, manipulates, and projects living human beings, making them the servile subjects of its ‘art’. With the advent in world history of print and electronic media, helped along by the liberalization of censorship regulations, the appetite for pornographic flesh, the desire to use and be used, and the capacity for mass‐scale human exploitation have all escalated exponentially. It is our purpose first of all then to describe the effects of pornography on the way people think and live as embodied persons.


It may be no coincidence that the inauguration of modern pornographic culture coincided with the violent upheaval of the French Revolution. One of the notorious criminals temporarily set free from incarceration by the Revolution, then later reimprisoned, was the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814). Few in the history of the modern West offer so prominent an example of how worship of sexual pleasure and hatred of the body coincide. While in prison Sade devoted himself to flooding Paris with hand‐drawn pornography, obscene literature, (p.216) and anti‐Christian propaganda. His tireless productivity bequeathed to modernity a ruinous legacy, as the word ‘sadism’, coined from his name, suggests. Difficult though it may be to distinguish between the historical and legendary details of his life, Sade's philosophical and moral commitments speak loud and clear through a good many of his literary characters. Sade declared his entire philosophy to be derived from Holbach's Le Système de la Nature (1770), a work that came to be called ‘the Bible of materialism’. In the materialist tradition of La Mettrie, though marked by a more aggressive anti‐Christian atheism, Holbach had argued that since man's chief goal is happiness, which in materialism equates with sensual pleasure, then as long as vice makes him happy, he should love vice.

In Sade, this overtly hedonistic and deterministic philosophy is simply taken to its logical and extreme conclusion. ‘Darwinian avant la lettre, Sade sees the domination of the weak by the strong as a universal natural law, designed to maximize the health and promote the survival of the species. Thus, when the strong exploit the weak, they are merely conforming to natural laws.’6 Among the crimes approved and alleged to have been committed by Sade himself were serial rape, cannibalism, and the torture and murder of children. Sodomy, incest, and masturbation were pet loves, usually coupled with sadism. By inflicting pain and injury on his sexual victims he assured himself of his direct influence upon and power over them, since signs of pleasure, he felt, could always be feigned. In words from one of the characters of his infamous Story of Juliette:

Do not all the passions require victims? Well then! In the lustful act the passive object is that of our lubricious passion; spare it not if you would obtain your end; the intenser the sufferings of this object, the more entire will be your enjoyment. They are not pleasures you must cause this object to taste, but impressions you must produce upon it; and that of pain being keener than that of pleasure, it is beyond all question preferable that the commotion produced in our nervous system by this external spectacle be created by pain rather than by pleasure.7

Sade envisaged overwhelming sexual desire as a necessary, innate appetite, and commended indulging it as rampantly as the glutton (p.217) indulges his appetite for food and drink. He both practised and actively propagated a semi‐religious cult of the carnal, attempting to turn pure sensuality into a kind of sacrament or means of transcendental experience. The deeper the sensual intensity, the higher the transcendental pleasure. It was this concentration on sensual intensity that led him to celebrate heinous physical acts, from coprophilia to rape, torture of children, and murder, and to compose a vast literary corpus (some twenty‐seven volumes have been edited to date) glorying in obscene drama, sacrilege, and demoniacal sexual violence. Indeed, Sade's most decadent work, Juliette, ‘swarms with libertines of each gender who yearn to commit the ultimate crime: the destruction of the entire universe’.8 Anything that signifies order, reason, or beauty must be defiled and destroyed. Sade surely sensed the intrinsic connection between metaphysics and morality, though precisely to the extent he sought to disincarnate God and destroy the world, he only frustrated and debilitated his own mad sexual desire.9 Is it any wonder that Sade's universe has been described ‘as Manichaean as it is materialist’?10

Of course Sade knew all too well that his enjoyment of material and sensual decadence depended overwhelmingly on his capacity to excite an imaginary world of sensual indulgence. Since the real world resists total manipulation by puny individuals, Sade's pleasures were in large part confined to his imagination and what he could engender within his own body by habitual autoerotic practice. Yet by means of his literary and pornographic creations, Sade sought to extend this imaginary kingdom of self‐insatiation, and through them to foster the obscene and violent manipulation of the world of real human beings.

We have cited Sade not only because his work exemplifies the cult of the flesh which pornography serves to perpetuate, but also because his influence on the rise of decadent literature, sexual pathology, and philosophical nihilism in the modern West has been so pervasive. In the English‐speaking world it might have been hampered had his works remained in the obscurity they deserved. But in the first half of the twentieth century Sade's writings, still banned from publication by the French courts, attracted new interest. In 1951, about the time (p.218) when she was competing with four other mistresses for the waning sexual attentions of Jean‐Paul Sartre,11 Simone de Beauvoir published a lengthy essay entitled Faut‐il Brûler Sade? (‘Must We Burn Sade?’). While not wholly uncritical, Beauvoir looked past Sade's blatant misogynism to proclaim him a virtual proto‐Freudian pansexualist, a bold adventurer who had discovered in sexuality the controlling impulse of all human behaviour. In Beauvoir's estimate, Sade's view of a world in which ‘libido is everywhere’ makes him worthy of recognition as a great moral philosopher. Of course, Augustine of Hippo had said virtually the same thing; where Sade and the saint differ is in the value they attach to this fact.

Beauvoir's essay, which ‘undoubtedly helped to place Sade at the top of the intellectual agenda in France’,12 was eventually followed by sympathetic studies from other well‐known Continental figures, including Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Gilles Deleuze. Captivated by these authorities, humanities departments throughout the world have increasingly been awash with courses bent on Sade's rehabilitation as a respectable though much‐maligned thinker. Neil Schaeffer, Professor of English at Brooklyn University, has recently hailed Sade as ‘one of the great literary imaginations of the eighteenth century’.13 John Phillips credits Sade with ‘a dogged determination to tell the truth about the human condition, a truth that he located, not in a soul or a spirit, as most previous philosophers had done, but simply, scandalously, in the sexual body, which for him was the only reality’.14 And Quills, the first English‐speaking film about Sade based on the play by Doug Wright, goes a long way in trying to domesticate the brutal fact that, in the words of Robert R. Reilly from the Committee for Western Civilization, Sade ‘perceived and approvingly depicted in his works the inexorable logic of pornography: sex outside of the moral order ultimately leads to murder and death’.15 Wed to the vigorous throes of Nietzschean nihilism, the spectre of Sade's worldview will no doubt continue to loom large in the near future.


Sade's life and writings demonstrate how the pursuit of physical pleasure as an end in itself leads seamlessly to the manipulation of the body, by both the unconscious and overt will, even to the extent of causing physical harm. And indeed, pornography and murder are not such strange bedfellows. Clinical and sociological studies conducted since the 1980s demonstrate the correlation between an increase in pornography and an increase in reported cases of sexual violence.16 That the criminal careers of many serial rapists and murderers have their roots in exposure to pornography should not surprise us. It is surely because pornography somehow initiates its subjects into a world of illusion, deluding them into believing the claim of Hobbes's Leviathan, namely, that each individual has a natural right to dispose himself, and others, how he pleases.

The great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (d. 1881) also possessed a clear sense of the connection between sexual licence and physical violence, and of how both arise from the denial of God and normative morality. His novels are laden with characters whose existential despair and violent self‐hatred are fuelled by a lust for sexual corruption. Dostoevsky knew Sade's works well. In conscious opposition to Sadean philosophy, Dostoevsky effectively exposed the relationship between pornography, in so far as it is an act of erotic violence, and murder. In the words of acclaimed Dostoevsky scholar Robert Louis Jackson, Dostoevsky ‘appreciated the gravity of the moral and psychological questions raised by Sade’, but ‘rejected the Sadean world view as amoral, disfigured and destructive of the moral and social fabric of men and society’.17 It could, of course, be argued that the debauchers in Dostoevsky's works, being just as corrupt as those in Sade's, are the products of no less cynical a (p.220) mind. Not a few of Dostoevsky's characters embody the Sadean ideal of the self‐justifying debaucher consumed by a lust for defiling the pure and vulnerable, all the while willing his own actions without respect to any moral law. The difference is, however, that while Sade revels in his characters' carnality, Dostoevsky laments it. In Sade, vice is a matter for exaltation and glory; in Dostoevsky, it is a matter for repentance and redemption.

One such character, from the novel Crime and Punishment, is Svidrigaylov. The main figure in the story, Raskolnikov, has just awoken from a nightmare when he meets Svidrigaylov for the first time. He had been dreaming of the violent murder he himself had recently committed, except in the dream each blow of the hatchet upon his victim's head had elicited from her only rollicking laughter. On waking, he finds Svidrigaylov observing him silently. In the conversations that follow, Svidrigaylov betrays his Sadean philosophy of life, in which sheer boredom compels him to commit humiliating cruelties and monstrous acts of sexual violation. Women, says Svidrigaylov, enjoy being humiliated. ‘Generally speaking, human beings rather enjoy being humiliated. Have you noticed it? But women especially. I'd even go so far as to say that that's the only thing that matters to them.’18 He boasts in his ability to seduce the virtuous by flattery, a method ‘equally effective with every female without exception’.19 He finds the innocent face of a child, ‘the face of a sorrowful religious half‐wit’, especially enticing. ‘It's worth something, isn't it?’20 Like Sade, Svidrigaylov ascribes his appetite for vice to nature, to ‘something that is always there in your blood’.21 Yet acting on his depraved impulses leads him only to self‐hatred, isolation, despair, and, eventually, suicide.

According to John Attarian, it is in The Brothers Karamazov that we find Dostoevsky's ‘greatest effort to confront and answer Sade's demonic impiety’, with its veritable ‘gallery of Sadeans’.22 Fyodor, Ivan, Dmitry, Smerdyakov, Rakitin, Lise: each either embodies or gives voice to the bestial sensuality that alone remains in a universe without God. Before his saintly brother Alyosha, Dmitri confesses to regarding himself as a cruel ‘insect’ possessed by lust. ‘And all of us (p.221) Karamazovs are the same kind of insect, and that insect lives in you, too, my angel, and raises storms in your blood. I mean storms, for lust is a storm.’23 Ivan, less beset by passion than Dmitri but nonetheless in the grip of a zealous rationalism, is still able to perceive that virtue depends entirely on faith in God and immortality, so that, to his way of thinking, ‘if you were to destroy the belief in immortality in mankind, not only love but every living force on which the continuation of all life in the world depended, would dry up at once. Moreover, there would be nothing immoral then, everything would be permitted, even cannibalism.’24 Ivan is here describing, quite disinterestedly, a world in which the rejection of spirit leads to the destruction of the flesh. Yet he is not entirely aloof to the horrors such a world entails. He is particularly overwhelmed by the physical abuse of children and the universal moral corruption from which it derives:

I know for a fact that there are people who get so excited that they derive a sensual pleasure from every blow, literally a sensual pleasure, which grows progressively with every blow….I repeat again most emphatically that this love of torturing children and only children is a peculiar characteristic of a great many people…this is their way of loving children. It's just the defencelessness of these little ones that tempts the torturers, the angelic trustfulness of the child, who has nowhere to go and no one to run to for protection—it is this that inflames the evil blood of the torturer. In every man, of course, a wild beast is hidden—the wild beast of irascibility, the wild beast of sensuous intoxication from the screams of the tortured victim.25

Again, lust for sensual pleasure is seen to go hand in hand with cruelty, violence, and self‐annihilation. If, as the staretz Father Zossima discerns, the spiritual world is ‘the higher half of man's being’, then its rejection through self‐assertion can result in ‘nothing but slavery and self‐destruction’.26 Only naive love, effectually embodied in such characters as Sonia, Alyosha, and Zossima, can redeem souls from the pervasive corruption of Sadean nihilism. Love, like beauty, is always vulnerable, always capable of perversion. It is a power that can be used for good or evil. Attarian comments: ‘For Sade, beauty is (p.222) only an incitement to lust and profanation, an invitation to evil, and it functions thus for Fyodor Karamazov. For Zossima, by contrast, beauty is one of God's most important witnesses, an incitement to reverence.’27 With this comment one may recall that for the Socratic tradition, beauty (kalos) is inseparable from goodness (agathos), indeed, it is the very form and expression of the Good.28 Its opposite, so manifest in pornographic culture, is not just ugliness or evil, but vulgarity (apeirokalia), which literally means lack of experience in beauty. To cultivate discernment for real beauty—beauty in its perfection (kalokagathia)—as opposed to a purely aesthetic captivation, requires a long and deliberate process of pedagogical initiation in the orders of goodness and truth. Only what is good and true is also beautiful. It is this kind of beauty, as Dostoevsky famously penned in his notebooks, that will ‘save the world’.

Dostoevsky's dramatic meditations on the connection between raw sensuality and murderous violence were echoed in the thought of his younger contemporary, the Russian moralist Nikolai Fyodorov (d. 1903). Anticipating the funerary practice satirized by Evelyn Waugh in his comic novel Loved Ones, in which the corpses of the dead are dressed up to function as lifelike guests at their own funeral wake, Fyodorov reflected at length on the penchant of modern industrial cities for ‘tarting themselves up’, that is, for fabricating beauty and for denying, by concealment, the disturbing realities of suffering, death, and decomposition. Here exhibitionism is turned into an industry. Things and people are utilized as so many superfluous goods—for entertainment, for pleasure, for economic expansion—without being brought into any vital relationship with one another. ‘Such a city, he said, is not a democracy but a pornocracy in which the citizens will eventually finish by loathing one another.’29 By definition a pornocracy is a state ruled by prostitutes, but for Fyodorov it can also mean a state ruled by immoral desire, a society bound together by mere appearances. Everything that cannot be subjected to that desire—modesty, chastity, fidelity, fecundity—must ultimately be excluded or at best relegated to the sphere of the indifferent. (Here we are reminded of Sade's hatred of marriage, (p.223) ‘the most loathsome of all bonds’, his strictures on childbearing on account of its selfless demands, and his approval of infanticide and abortion, the latter of which he considered no more significant than fecal evacuation.) It is, in short, a prostituted, prostituting society whose luxury goods (beauty) are placed in the service of ‘sexual selection’. Fyodorov foresaw a technological future in which the entire human race would come under the sway of such a state. I quote from the paraphrase of Donald Nicholl:

In that pornocracy men will have abandoned first the belief in God held by their grandfathers, and then the belief in man held by their fathers; and they will have come to regard themselves as ‘zoomorphic’, animals and nothing more. Then, ‘having accepted that they are nothing but animals people will turn themselves into animals.’ But technology will also make childless marriages possible as a result of which lust will be given free rein and will drive out love for fathers and children. Since everyone will be concentrating on obtaining the maximum of comfort and luxury for themselves as individuals they will all come to compete against each other, and to loath one another, and finally to destroy one another.30

To gather the contemporaneity of what Fyodorov is saying, it may be instructive to consider his comments in the light of Chantal Delsol's reflections on her university education under Deleuze. According to Delsol, Deleuze ‘taught us how to despise depth and to prize artifice’. Why? Because ‘depth is uncertain, a matter of faith, while passing phenomena are there for all to see’. Delsol's point is that, in its cult of the flesh, its celebration of immodesty, and its preoccupation with appearances, postmodern society—epitomized in the Deleuzean doctrine—has replaced the deep, unfathomable personal subject with an empty, superficial social construction. By nature, ‘[m]an is always more than he can show….His secret defines him’. Now, because ‘not a single nook or cranny in which the subject's privacy is protected remains, his interiority finally disappears altogether—and with it, his identity’.31 This evaporation of the mysteriousness of the embodied subject, I would suggest, is simply one of the many noxious fruits of the pornocratic state.


Fyodorov's description of the shift of focus in pornocracy from anthropology to zoology parallels what English philosopher Roger Scruton has described as the shift of focus in pornography from the embodied subject to the body itself, a shift that paradoxically results in disembodiment. Here we move to an analysis of how sexual arousal and desire works, and how pornography or the pursuit of pleasure undermines the successful and healthy negotiation of interpersonal relations. In his extensive reflections on the dynamics of sexual desire, Scruton argues that the relational human drama of arousal and desire presupposes personal and mutually reciprocal intentions on the part of the subjects involved.32 An integral component of arousal and desire is not only the thought the lover and beloved have of each other, but the conception each has of his or her own impression upon the other. He is not only thinking of her, but of her thinking of him, thinking of her. This ‘chain of reciprocity’, which saves the holy sexual drama from the sadistic tendency to control or manipulate the other, concurrently involves a conception of the other as identical with his or her body. ‘I am awakened in my body, to the embodiment of you.’33 In this matrix the involuntary movements of the body, such as facial expression or genital arousal, in which the subject becomes incarnated in the surface of his or her body, are brought into vital play:

In smiling, blushing, laughing and crying, it is precisely my loss of control over my body, and its gain of control over me, that create the immediate experience of an incarnate person. The body ceases, at these moments, to be an instrument, and reasserts its natural rights as a person. In such expressions the face does not function merely as a bodily part, but as a whole person: the self is spread across its surface, and there ‘made flesh’.34

Scruton is describing a paradoxical and mysterious dynamic. As long as the object of desire is a person, based on a conception of who the other is as an irreducible, irreplaceable partner in the unfolding (p.225) of the sexual drama, bodily union coincides with and indeed consummates the mystery of an interpersonal encounter.

Our efforts are concentrated upon making ourselves present and perceivable in bodily form. The body is tangible, seizable: I can touch it, squeeze it, bite it. It responds as a unity to my presence, and pleasure or pain in any part of it is also pleasure or pain in the creature as a whole. I rejoice in this unity, and in the fact that I have in my hands the single thing which is you.35

Or again, just as poignantly:

I seek to unite you with your body. I seek to summon your perspective into your flesh, so that it becomes identical with your flesh; I thereby at last discover your true individuality (your self) as a constituent of the physical world in which I move and act. I wish you to be your body, not in the straightforward sense in which this is always true, but in the metaphysical sense in which it can never be true, the sense of an identity between your ‘unity of consciousness’ and the animal unity of your body.36

But where the focus of sexual desire shifts from the embodied subject to the body itself, the interpersonal union just described is rendered ultimately unattainable. ‘I no longer find the person whose embodiment enticed me: only the body which, in its frightful dissolution, its character as melting flesh, fascinates and also repels me.’37 For unlike the appetite for food, human sexual desire is properly ordered towards a personal, individualizing response. C. S. Lewis made a similar point in The Four Loves when he contrasted purely carnal appetite, which he termed Venus, with the broader‐based sexual affection he called Eros. Venus, denuded of Eros, ‘wants it, the thing in itself; Eros wants the Beloved’.38

Pornography, which is sexual obscenity in its published, pictorial form, introduces and grossly exacerbates this tendency to reduce the person to an object for sexual gratification. It shares with other perverse uses of the body, such as sodomy, bestiality, necrophilia, fetishism, masturbation, the malady of divorcing the physical aspect of sexual arousal and desire from the dramatic strategems and moral demands of interpersonal union. In this perverted dynamic the body becomes opaque, the self is lost, and love's true (p.226) realization is frustrated. Which is why ‘making love’, a term that implies an interpersonal mutual enterprise, is in the native language of obscenity commonly reduced to ‘f—ing’ or ‘having sex’, terms which denote little more than an impersonal physical act. Relational realism, in which the other person is honoured in his or her personal, vocational, and sexual integrity, gives way to an at‐once Epicurean and Manichaean fantasy, whose effect is, in Scruton's words,

to ‘commodify’ the object of desire, and to replace the law of sexual relationship between people with the law of the market. Sex itself can then be seen as a commodity: something that we pursue and obtain in quantifiable form, and which comes in a variety of packages: in the form of a woman or man; in the form of a film or a dream; in the form of a fetish or an animal. In so far as the sexual act is seen in this way, it seems morally neutral.39

To focus on the embodied person rather than on the body as such by no means eliminates the propriety of expressing intense sexual interest in the body, or in its various ‘zones’. Within the context of what Karol Wojtyla called ‘the culture of marital relations’, even such practices as fellatio and cunnilingus, which pursued for their own sake sunder sexual activity from its fecundic meaning, may be affirmed as acts appropriate to the reality of interpersonal union. Christian theology has always revered the highly physical eroticism of the biblical Song of Songs for its capacity to disclose the sacramental character of nuptial love. It is well known that Origen of Alexandria posited the Song as the third and highest rung in a ladder of ascent from practical morality (Proverbs), through natural philosophy (Ecclesiastes), to mystical theology (Song of Songs). Origen advised those who want to read the Song merely to satisfy their fleshly curiosities to leave it well alone. Only those who have first been purged of carnal attachments by rigorous formation in the moral and intellectual virtues are in any fit state to contemplate the divine mysteries veiled in its poetry. But we need not suspect the Alexandrian of excessive prudery if we remember that to be life‐affirming marital intercourse presupposes a complex and vulnerable moral framework, apart from which the divinely endowed dignities of sex and of the individual spouses are placed at risk.

Still, those who do read the Song can only be struck by its frank representation of sexual play in which the lovers dwell longingly on (p.227) various parts of each other's bodies as sensual sources of erotic delight.

  • Your two breasts are like two fawns,
  • like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies.
  • Until the day breaks
  • and the shadows flee,
  • I will go to the mountain of myrrh
  • and to the hill of incense. (4: 5–7a)

Or let us take the euphemistically stylized, yet still transparent exchange in the next chapter:

  • I have come into my garden,
  • my sister, my bride….
  • Open to me, my sister, my darling…
  • my head is drenched with dew,
  • my hair with the dampness of the night….
  • My lover thrust his hand through the latch‐opening;
  • my heart began to pound for him.
  • I arose to open for my lover,
  • and my hands dripped with myrrh
  • on the handles of the lock. (5: 1, 2b, 4)

Yet despite this express interest by each lover in the various features of the other's body, not to mention the arousal they are able to excite, we are far from the Freudian doctrine of erotogenic zones, which boils down to asserting that the dynamics of arousal and desire can be reduced to physical sensation. To borrow an observation made by Eugene Peterson, the Song of Songs presents the body as ‘an index’,

a listing of reality that receives its fullest treatment in the incarnation, for the body is never just a body but a region of being, a network of living processes combining creation and salvation….In such ways sex becomes a parable for prayer, prayer being the inner quest for intimacy with God of which sex is the bodily expression with persons.40

The capacity of the body and its sensual powers to excite sexual arousal is a dimension of an interpersonal dynamic in which each person is acknowledged, consciously or otherwise, to be irreplaceably unique.


Finally we come to ask how the kind of damage wrought by pornography in our time can be healed. We asked at the beginning of the chapter what it is about pornography that makes it so attractive, so powerful in its capacity to entice and enslave the minds and passions of its users. It seems to me that part of the answer lies in the fact that pornography takes what is real (for example, a body‐person), and constructs from it a world of unreality. This discarnate illusionism corresponds in turn with a natural propensity in men in particular to idealize the objects of their love, in contrast to what is widely attested as the more material, incarnate ideals of a woman's love. In an elegant but little‐known essay on love, Gustave Thibon, who in 1941 became the personal friend of Simone Weil, explored this mysterious difference between male and female desire. ‘A man’, Thibon observed, ‘loves a woman for her qualities. He has, or thinks he has, reasons for loving her: he justifies his love at the judgement‐seat of conscience….A man will say: I love you because you are beautiful, or gentle, or good. The woman will say simply: I love you because I do!’41

Does this account risk rehabilitating an antiquated stereotype? One's answer should be tested against the common experience of countless women and men. It is from the specific tendency of a man's desire to rationalize his love, to idealize and therefore to idolize the female body, that his vulnerability to pornography arises. Thibon writes: ‘A man's love is a thing of judgements and comparisons; whenever it feels itself menaced by some lack in the person loved, it has a way of promptly reacting with illusions.’42 Pornography specializes in providing precisely this kind of ideal, illusory object. Herein I suggest lies much of its power. But to construct its images pornography must make use of real objects, real bodily persons. This leads us to ask how the bodily integrity of these persons is in fact diminished, not magnified, through their pornographic, idealized depiction.

(p.229) In a study in which he traces the difference between sense experience and imagination, Marie‐Dominique Philippe has shown how sense experience of an object gives rise to a number of questions concerning the being and existence of that object. Using the senses of sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste, the intellect asks what the object is, what it is made of, where it comes from, and what it is for: four questions that basically correspond to Aristotle's four causes.43 The imagination, by contrast, tends to reduce these complex dimensions of a given reality into a certain unity, into an image. This unity eliminates the multiplicity of questions necessary for a fuller appreciation of the reality as it is. ‘Indeed, an image only gives rise to a single question in our intellect: how.…’44 What and why are the primary questions in metaphysics. How is the primary question in technology and magic. The shift in focus in the move from experience to imagination, from sense object to image, alters the form of one's engagement with the object.

Let us transfer this distinction, raised by Philippe in quite another context, to our analysis of the power of pornography. If what takes place in the imagination of the person who uses pornography were to be translated into the real world of the flesh, he would likely be so filled with fear or revulsion that all desire would freeze and die. For although pornography makes human flesh its particular material focus, by using it to construct an imaginary situation into which the viewer virtually places himself it actually ends up alienating people from the real world of the flesh, in separating bodies from the persons to whom they belong. Were we to place the realities depicted in pornographic images before the senses, were we actually to experience them, to see them, touch them, hear, smell and taste them, then—unless, like Sade, we were wholly given over to unreality—something of the fleshly reality of what is before us would soon disabuse us of our fantastical illusions. The proximate goal intended by those who use pornography is not an actual union in the flesh with this or that woman (for sexual union, even within its proper conjugal bounds, can be a messy, complicated affair), but the conscious state of being under the dominion of one's passions, which increasingly come to depend for their excitement on an imaginary or (p.230) pictorial construct abstracted from the real world of embodied, morally involved human relations. There is a sense in which an image is demystified, flattened out, emptied of the carnate complexity of the tangible and actual. To the extent that the persons and activities depicted in pornography are reduced to the level of images abstracted from reality, they become objects vulnerable only to the question ‘how’: how they can be used, enjoyed, preserved, dominated. They become reduced to their functions. What is most deeply and fully real in them—personhood, conscience, soul, pathos, logos—is obscured and rendered unrealizable. It is paradoxical that by stripping its subjects bare and exposing them in their raw physicality, pornography succeeds in concealing the true nature and glory of sex and the body, succeeds in putting a barrier between the viewer and the object of his lust. Indeed, the success of pornography in initiating its consumers into a state of slavery to their own passions depends on first veiling and concealing its subjects and their acts, thereby frustrating satiation and fuelling curiosity. Only later do consumers progress to the use of ‘hard‐core’ porn and experimentation in real behavioural perversities; such acts normally only follow numerous titillating solicitations with so‐called ‘softer’ varieties of pornography.

John Paul II, whose pontificate was marked by an especial concern for the integrity of human sexuality and marriage, is famously associated with the notion that the trouble with pornography is not that it reveals too much, but that it reveals too little.45 By exposing the body as an object for use pornography actually obscures its nuptial significance and the person's true beauty as a bearer of the divine image. This in turn suggests that only by veiling the flesh, by covering the body and treating it with due modesty and respect, do its true spiritual nature and glory become apparent. Long before his election as pope in 1978, Wojtyla commented extensively on the phenomenon of modesty and sexual shame, two vital factors in the preservation of human dignity. Reflecting the thought of Max Scheler, Wojtyla defined shame as a phenomenon which ‘arises when something which of its very nature or in view of its purpose ought to be private passes the bounds of a person's privacy and (p.231) somehow becomes public’.46 The development of sexual modesty, which varies in form from males to females, from one social milieu to another, has to do with one's self‐perception, and especially one's perception of one's body, as a potential object of sexual desire. Shame functions as a kind of protective reaction against forces that threaten to violate one's self‐determination as a person. Sexual shame is ‘a revelation of the supra‐utilitarian character of the person’.47 Only a person can feel shame, because, unlike things, it is the nature of a person not to be an object of use.

If this is true, then a crucial difference exists between being ‘without shame’ on the one hand, and being ‘incapable of shame’ or ‘shameless’ on the other. Where in a sexual relationship there is true love, the love which by an act of willed recognition honours the other in his or her integrity as a human being and bearer of the divine image, sexual shame is ‘absorbed’, that is, modesty is preserved within the mutual realization of wholesome conjugal union. Adam and Eve were naked and felt ‘no shame’, not because they were shameless, but because where love is mature ‘it is no longer necessary for a lover to conceal from his beloved or from himself a disposition to enjoy, since this has been absorbed by true love ruled by the will’.48 In that pithy phrase from Saint John, ‘perfect love casts out all fear’ (1 John 4: 18).

But shamelessness is quite different. Shamelessness results wherever the instinct to avoid being used as an object of sexual gratification has been undermined, overwhelmed, or repeatedly violated. Wojtyla defines physical shamelessness as ‘any mode of being or behaviour on the part of a particular person in which the values of sex as such are given such prominence that they obscure the essential value of the person’.49 Emotional shamelessness consists in ‘the rejection of the healthy tendency to be ashamed of reactions and feelings which make another person merely an object of use because of the sexual values belonging to him or her’.50

Measured against these insights, the power of pornography to eliminate all sense of shame, both in individuals and in a whole society, is not difficult to explain. Pornography is simply shamelessness (p.232) in art. It is not the portrayal of naked bodies as such that presents the problem. Indeed, Wojtyla will always be remembered as the pope who restored Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel nudes to their pristine, unclothed condition. ‘Immodesty is present only when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person, when its aim is to arouse concupiscence, as a result of which the person is put in the position of an object for enjoyment.’51 Pornography debases all its participants by robbing them of the defence mechanism by which personal modesty and sexual integrity are preserved.

In a similar vein, Roger Scruton has studied the rising phenomenon of shamelessness and its roots, and results, in lovelessness. Scruton argues that the massive shift in focus effected by the toleration of pornography in our day has resulted in the widespread ‘profanation’ of a whole generation of human beings. He cites the description of sexual shame given by Scheler, to whom Wojtyla was indebted, though not uncritically, for key aspects of his personalistic philosophy. Scheler uses for shame the term Schutzgefühl, ‘a shield emotion that protects you from abuse’. Scruton explains: ‘If we lose the capacity for shame we do not regain the innocence of the animals; we become shameless, and that means we are no longer protected from the sexual predator.’52 Traditional morality, which seeks to cultivate the capacity for shame through modesty, works in large part by impeding our pleasures and circumscribing passage beyond certain relational boundaries. Only in this way is the possibility of real erotic love preserved, ‘which comes only when the sexual act is hedged round with prohibitions, and offered as a gift and an existential commitment’.53

A personal and social morality formed by pornography, by contrast, detaches desire from the demands of love and attaches it instead to ‘the mute machinery of sex’. This represents no less than a total transformation of the way we envisage, and live out, our human embodiment. Sex idolized is in fact sex abolished and lost. Pornography's cult of the flesh, ironically pursued largely by virtual, non‐fleshly means, is in fact the desecration of the flesh. What may (p.233) appear on the outside to be appreciation for the body, is in fact hatred for the body. ‘The growing toleration of pornography, which will soon be regarded as an industry like any other, protected against criticism by the same moral inversion that now protects homosexuality, is rapidly changing the way the human body is perceived…. When sex becomes a commodity, the most important sanctuary of human ideals becomes a market, and value is reduced to price. That is what has happened in the last few decades, and it is the root fact of post‐modern culture.’54


How can this tide of destruction be halted? How can the polluted bodies and souls of the profaned be cleansed? How can the seared consciences of the shameless be healed? The rape victim knows it is not just her body that has been violated; it is she, her self, who has been attacked and debased. That is because the rapist pursues ‘a sexual release that avoids or obliterates the other, obliterating his embodiment with the obscene perception of his body’.55

Two levels of response are called for, the social and the personal. The exponential escalation of pornography in the past twenty or thirty years has been linked by not a few critics with the increasing domination of a political liberalism that ‘aims to regulate political life without reference to any particular conception of the good for human beings as such’.56 Based on a theory of justice defined somewhat incoherently by independence from specific moral commitments, the principles of utilitarian rights and universal tolerance have in fact resulted in the alienation of persons from common values which, when socially embodied, bear a constitutive role in the formation of personal moral sense and communal identity. Against this background any moves to curtail the evils of rampant (p.234) pornography through stricter censorship will, of course, be perceived as an illegitimate infringement by the state of the freedom of the ‘private sphere’. But this perception amounts to a failure to see the intrinsic relation between the ‘private’ and the ‘public’, not to mention the fact that the very production of pornography entails real exploitation and real harm to individuals who are worthy of legal protection. There are, of course, some theorists who, seeking at once to subvert all sense of normative moral order as well as to undermine the pornographic industry's monopoly on defining sexual categories, commend the proliferation and wholesale deregulation of pornographic representation.57 Clearly however the ‘chaotic multiplicity of representations’ that would result could only exacerbate the phantastical character of a given society's moral vision. I would argue that what is needed instead is a social policy capable of negotiating common human goods and curtailing threats to those goods accordingly. Thus, besides a purely negative response, appropriate social action will include support for those traditions and institutions that best cultivate human dignity, moral formation, and social cohesion.

At the personal level, it is only moral and spiritual renewal that can reopen the path to sexual wholeness. The reintegration of reason and affective sensuality, the revitalization of procreative marriage, the renewal of fecund virginity: these are all the fruits of chaste love. By love, the lover goes out of himself and becomes the beloved, without ceasing to be himself, so that the two, lover and beloved, are made one. It is ironic that the radically egalitarian vision championed by various waves of feminism has failed to stem the tide of pornography and sexual abuse. What we may need instead is to discern anew the mysterious difference between men and women, and to cultivate symbols and strategies that magnify their respective perfections and protect their respective vulnerabilities. If pornography preys upon the especially male propensity to idealize the object of his love, the tendency to make his love ‘too intellectually exacting’ and so ‘strip a woman of her mystery’, then the path to healing surely lies in acknowledging this mysterious and irreducible difference between male and female love and structuring our personal and social lives (p.235) accordingly. These reflections from Gustave Thibon, which I offer in closing, are worthy of our careful consideration:

The two sexes are complementary, and therefore different; each remains somewhat opaque to the other. More than this, the love that unites them actually lives on this mutual mystery; it depends, to some extent, on the fact that complete ‘understanding’ is impossible….In marriage, as in the mystical life…it is necessary to respect and love what is not fully understood. The love of the creature, also, calls for acts of faith.58

(p.236) Further Reading

Both Wojtyla (1981) and Scruton (1986, 2005) provide penetrating analyses of sexual desire, arousal, shame, and sexual ethics. Von Hildebrand (1936 [1927]) and Thibon (1952) are also enlightening. Russell (1993) and Layden (2005) are important for documenting the social impact of pornography, though Layden's research, while based on extensive therapeutic practice, is difficult to obtain in published form. A comprehensive study of the history of the sexual revolution from the time of the Marquis de Sade to the present, available to me only after writing this book, invites close inspection. By E. Michael Jones, it is entitled Libido Dominandi: Sexual Liberation and Political Control (South Bend, Ind.: St Augustine's Press, 2005).


(1) Chesterton 1991: 518.

(2) Hart 2004.

(3) Percy 1992: 10.

(4) Coomaraswamy 1956: 12.

(5) King 1996: 1226.

(6) Phillips 2005: 36.

(7) Quoted ibid. 21.

(8) Ibid. 37.

(9) McAleer 2005: 17.

(10) Phillips 2005: 97–8.

(11) See Johnson 1988: 225–51.

(12) Phillips 2005: 117.

(13) See Schaeffer 1999.

(14) Phillips 2005, from the Preface.

(15) Reilly 1998.

(16) Court 1984; Russell 1993: 118–48; Layden 2005. Those clinical trials that use controlled exposure to pornography and that depend on definite signs of aggression towards women in trial subjects to predict increased predilection for violence should not be said to offer conclusive results. A more useful approach may be somehow to measure the subjects' altered perception of specific persons and their sexual value.

(17) Robert Louis Jackson, ‘Dostoevskij and the Marquis de Sade’, Russian Literature 4∕1 (1976), 27–46, quoted in Attarian 2004: 343.

(18) Dostoevsky 1966 [1870]: 298.

(19) Ibid. 488.

(20) Ibid. 492.

(21) Ibid. 482.

(22) Attarian 2004: 347, 349.

(23) Dostoevsky 1958 [1880]: 123.

(24) Ibid. 77.

(25) Ibid. 282–3.

(26) Ibid. 369.

(27) Attarian 2004: 350.

(28) See Plato, Timaeus 87c.

(29) Nicholl 1997: 83.

(30) Nicholl 1997: 97.

(31) Delsol 2006: 188–91.

(32) Scruton 1986.

(33) Ibid. 26.

(34) Ibid. 70.

(35) Ibid. 127.

(36) Ibid. 128.

(37) Ibid. 32.

(38) Lewis 1963[1960]: 87.

(39) Scruton 1986: 345.

(40) Peterson 1992: 56–7.

(41) Thibon 1952: 106. Wojtyla (1981: 109–14) discusses similar tendencies under the terms ‘sensuality’ and ‘sentiment’.

(42) Thibon 1952: 106.

(43) Philippe 1999: 12–14.

(44) Ibid. 14.

(45) See the comments in West 2003: 234–6.

(46) Wojtyla 1981: 174. Italics in the original.

(47) Ibid. 178.

(48) Ibid. 184.

(49) Ibid. 187.

(50) Ibid. 188.

(51) Wojtyla 1981: 190.

(52) Scruton 2005: 39.

(53) Ibid. 41.

(54) Scruton 2005: 40, 42.

(55) Scruton 1986: 343.

(56) Haldane 2004: 170. Haldane's comment is made with reference to the moral theories of John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin.

(57) See e.g. the argument of Judith Butler (Salih and Butler 2004: 183–203).

(58) Thibon 1952: 107–8.