Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Proper Metaphors for Porn (and Sex)

I attended a meeting recently where a general authority (from the first quorum of the seventy) likened pornography to AIDS. He said something to the effect of, ‘The addiction to pornography is everywhere, infiltrating our society. In my mind it’s worse than the epidemic of AIDS.’ While this certainly isn’t a direct quote, and he probably meant something like, “Porn is a serious problem that corrodes our spirituality”, the metaphor still made me uncomfortable. I realize that he is obviously not equating pornography with AIDS, but it got me thinking about how such language can impact the way we perceive pornography addictions, the way we perceive those addicted to porn, and the way those that are addicted to pornography perceive themselves.

We are a highly metaphorical society. By “metaphor” I roughly mean, to experience one thing in the terms of another. Most general conference talks are structured along the lines of metaphors. A preliminary story is given (say someone’s car breaking down in the middle of a long voyage), and then the terms of this experience become the means of understanding something else (trials experienced on the “journey” of life). The use of metaphors are also emphasized in “likening the scriptures unto ourselves” (to mis-quote Nephi) and in retelling and reenacting the pioneer travels.

Much more could be said about metaphors, but as far as this post is concerned, I’m interested in rethinking the metaphors we use in dealing with pornography addictions. We have come along way from resorting to divorce when an addiction occurs. And now it seems that the predominate metaphor (at least from what I’ve heard) is drug addiction. I have a problem with this metaphor. The problem stems not because there are not important parallels between the two, but I think likening pornography addictions to heroin addictions (for instance) imports a lot of harmful baggage. To be more specific, drugs and sex (I’m assuming here that porn addictions are rooted in sex drives—and addictions) differ in some important respects: We would claim that drugs are always morally inappropriate. Certain sexual acts, however, are appropriate in certain circumstances. We would never speak of a “drug life” with the positive connotations we could employ with a “sex life”. Smoking (and other drugs) is always physiologically bad for the body (except perhaps for certain psychosomatic benefits). But a healthy sex life is a part of a broader notion of “health”. We would rarely say that “heroin is a beautiful thing”, but would certainly claim that “sex can be a beautiful thing.”

So the question arises, what is a better metaphor for pornography addiction? The first thought that comes to mind is a food addiction. I should probably say here that I know little about the specifics of “addiction” let alone food addiction (perhaps someone could correct me where I’m wrong), but I think the metaphor better for several reasons: Certain kinds of food in certain amounts are “healthy” for our body, similar to the way that sex in certain amounts are healthy. Food can be both a wonderful and uplifting experience; and sex can be as well. Too much food, or the wrong kinds of food, can harm us; similarly, too much sex, or sexual perversions can harm us. Of course this doesn’t capture the moral differences between a food addiction and a porn addiction (nor the differences in the way other parties, such as the spouse, are impacted by the addiction), but I think the reason we’ve chosen the current drug metaphors are not because they are more accurate, but because of the moral repulsion we have to pornography—porn is “dirty and evil” like drugs are “dirty and evil”.

37 comments:

dude said...

This was a fascinating and timely post given the prominent, repeated mentions of pornography addiction in general conferences and other contexts.

In this case, though, I suspect that the drug addiction metaphor is more apt than the food addiction metaphor. I imagine that most addicts to pornography, while they may use the term "sex addiction", aren't addicted to all forms of sex, just this particular manifestation. (That's why General Authorities don't caution about pornography addiction and frequenting prostitutes in the same breath.) So although sex in some contexts is indeed wonderful and righteous, not sex in the context that porn addicts are compulsive about it. Drug addicts, likewise, are often addicted to a particular drug (or a few drugs), not drugs in general. Drugs can be VERY good for us: consider antibiotics.

Food addicts, on the other hand, are often compulsive about food generally. They eat too much, period. So it's not just that they eat too much junk food: they are compulsive about eating, both good food and bad food.

Porn addicts, alternatively, don't seem to be addicted to good sex (i.e., with their spouse); they're just addicted to bad sex. The same is true with drug addicts.

I have spoken with persons with multiple addictions (drugs, food, sex), and I have most often heard them equating sex addiction to drug addiction (eg, internet porn is the crack cocaine of sex addiction).

Anyway, that's one way to approach it. This whole discussion reminds me that I've wanted to read Susan Sontag's short book, Illness As Metaphor, in which - I think - she argues that using cancer as a metaphor has negative impacts on actual cancer patients.

Anonymous said...

dude is right on.

There is a very clear difference between A) a married couple participating, together with the Holy Spirit, in what Elder Holland has called a Sacrament, and B) an individual viewing staged and photoshopped images by the hundreds, allowing his pleasure center to override his better judgement, and driving away the Spirit to which he hearkens not.

A) is an emotional, spiritual, and physical union of two souls. It is edifying, strengthening, and Godly. As those individuals join together, they draw near unto God and become increasingly His ("If ye are not one ye are not mine").

B) is an individual who (for the 1000th time, he will angrily remind himself later) has ignored his own boundaries and the warnings of the Spirit, until his emotional and spiritual strength buckle under the powerful tide of hedonism. His pornography experiences flatten his emotions, destroy his empathy and love for other humans (particularly women; I remember well the first day in a decade that I saw all the women around me as people instead of as collections of eye-catching curves. It was startling and marvelous.), undermine his self-confidence, and poison his spirit.

One thing that would exacerbate the pornography pandemic would be if the sexual component of many marriages today, including within the Church, were nearly entirely physical. (Does anyone else think this is the case? I do.) Then the gap between a couple's sex life and scenario B) above would be much smaller, and easier to bridge.

I thank God for my Savior and Redeemer, who has freed me from the chains of death and hell.

dude said...

I thought a bit more about the metaphor after posting, and I wanted to include a caveat. Porn addiction and food addiction are more similar to each other than to drug addiction in the sense that exposure to either is somewhat unavoidable. Food is obviously unavoidable, and while porn defined narrowly is avoidable, seeing porn-related (i.e. lascivious) images is essentially unavoidable, at least in modern US society.

I still suspect drugs are the better metaphor, but this points to the fact that any of these metaphors are limited. That is, after all, the nature of a metaphor.

diahman said...

couple of points to clarify:

My use of “drugs”, and I think this holds true for us employing the metaphor of drugs in general, was not in the sense of “medication”, although I think that’s an interesting option to consider. Instead it was more along the lines of “narcotics”. In other words, you don’t hear people at church (at least I don’t) comparing pornography addictions to over-the-counter drug addictions. It’s more in line with crack, heroin, coke, etc.

The biggest problem I have with these metaphors is that comparing porn addictions to narcotic addictions imports baggage that causes those of us who are not involved in the porn addiction to view those who are (and thereby treat them) in ways that are similar to a crack addiction.

I should also point out that I totally agree with much that has been said. A metaphor is nothing more than conceptualizing one thing in the terms of an other. There are always important differences. But I also see metaphor as a valuable tool of expression, and one that we should not give up. As such we should choose our metaphors wisely.

So let me try to defend my position that we must find a better metaphor for pornography addictions (although I could certainly be persuaded to stick with the metaphor—perhaps anonymous could share more of his/her experience).

That being said, the largest problem I have with the narcotic metaphor is that porn is contextual and drugs are not. In other words, me being aroused by seeing a naked woman may or may not be pornography. If that woman happens to be my wife, then it is not pornography (assuming my intentions are true). The other hand is self explanatory.

Narcotics, though, are not contextual. It does not depend on the circumstance or the situation to determine that crack is crack or that crack is bad. Crack is always bad regardless of who is involved in it and where it occurs.

Pornography on the other hand has a situational element. Looking at a woman’s body parts is pornography in one instance and a physical exam in an other.

Now, I’m not sure that a food addiction is the best metaphor, but I think the food addiction shares some of these contextual traits. Food generally depends on the circumstance to determine what is good intake and what is bad intake (although there probably are certain foods that should never be ingested similar to the way there are certain sexual acts that should never be performed). I could probably develop this more, but I’m getting the hint that I’ve reached my maximum blogging time for today… so maybe more later.

Oh, BTW, I picked up Illness as Metaphor in the library today. I hope to have some time this weekend to look through it. If I do, I’ll try to incorporate it into future posts. Thanks for the tip.

Kiskilili said...

Pornography on the other hand has a situational element. Looking at a woman’s body parts is pornography in one instance and a physical exam in an other.

This is a great point, though I'm not sure what metaphor would be more appropriate. We discuss pornography as if it is nothing more than a dangerous substance, and what's immoral about it is exclusively its addictiveness.

Pornography is something else entirely. It is the result of exploiting individuals and treating them solely as physical objects like a table who exist to gratify our needs without having needs or subjective experiences of their own. In all our discussions of pornography, we never seem to mention that it involves the exploitation and objectification of human beings.

Handle said...

We also tend to forget another moral argument: pornography is a multi-billion dollar industry. It is a waste of resources in the truest sense.

diahman said...

I think much of what I was trying to say is that if we are serious about dealing with the problem of pornography among our members we have to create an environment in which they feel confident that they will overcome the addiction.

As it currently stands we treat them like diseased people and drug addicts. I dont think this is the best way to combat the problem. I believe reason we deal with porn addiction this way is because of the metaphors we use in disucssing it (at least partially). I think switching metaphors will combat the problem more effectively.

This is not by any means to justify pornography, but I think it must be viewed as a perversion of something natural (i.e. sex) and not something that is wholly unnatural (i.e. narcotic addiction).

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