31 May 2013

Pornography, Desire, and Buddhism

Pornography is much in the news in the UK at the moment as various authorities try to figure out how to respond to the problem of exposing young children to graphic sexual images. When I was a youngster porn was relatively hard to get access to, and relatively benign - pictures of naked or semi-naked women. Today the internet delivers all kinds of sexual imagery to our screens, some of it involving violence. But the other thing that happened recently that made me want to try to write something about it, was a naive post in a Buddhist forum asking if porn was "OK for Buddhists".

I can only write about this from a heterosexual man's point of view. No doubt there are things to say from other points of view and I don't mean to exclude or downplay those other points of view. But it's easier for me to write if I'm able to tap into my own experience. If you have a different view then feel free to add to the picture in a comment. 

The first thing to say is that pornography is an industry. It has long roots. William Blake complains about sexually explicit engravings on sale in London in the early 1800s. Being an industry, the primary purpose of pornography is to make money. And it is reportedly a very successful way of making money. This fact alone ought to give us pause for thought. 

I've written about pleasure before - see particularly The Science of Pleasure. In many ways sexual pleasure is no different from other forms of pleasure. On the other hand we all know it's much more loaded. Sex involves other people (real or imaginary) and thus it partakes of relationship dynamics. Some will characterise relationship dynamics purely in terms of power, but I'm wary of this post-modern analysis. Certainly issues of power and status come into play in relationships, but relating is about more than this as well. 

Being like other pleasures, sex has a similar dynamic. Sensual stimulation produces a response which involves many bodily systems. We experience appetite, anticipation and arousal, seeking out, engaging, and satiation. All of these stages produce particular kinds of pleasure. However if we seek pleasure as an end in itself, if we short circuit the process, then we find we get diminishing returns. If for example we over-ride a lack of appetite and just have sex for pleasure, we will, generally speaking, enjoy it less. If we do this frequently and habitually, we will get diminishing returns. Similarly if we ignore signs of satiation and go back for more. As with eating, there are many motivations for having sex: procreation, intimacy, pleasure, loneliness, seeking favours, financial gain, etc. Stimulated we become sexually aroused. The problems, if there are problems, relate to seeking out stimulus in order to experience the pleasure of orgasm. 

The naive post I referred to above spoke about having a high sex-drive and using porn to self-stimulate in order to facilitate masturbation. I believe this person has fallen into a false view. Firstly the purpose of viewing pornography is to stimulate sexual desire. It may or may not be present to start with, but my guess is that with most men it's often absent. So this person who regularly views pornography claims to have a high-sex drive. My response is to wonder how much sex drive he might have if he stopped chronically stimulating himself with pornography. I asked are you masturbating in response to sexual arousal, and porn is just an adjunct to that process; or are you using pornography to stimulate arousal in order to masturbate and achieve orgasm. My hunch is that he views pornography with a view to achieving orgasm when he is not in fact sexually aroused to begin with. And this I think is neurotic or potentially harmful. 

Responding to bodily appetites is not a problem. We breath, eat, and have sex, all other things being equal, because we are responding to natural urges. I've argued on several occasions, however, that we no longer live in the natural surroundings to which our genes are accustomed. We're furnished with drives optimised for scarcity, but live in abundance (at least in the developed world). Thus the characteristic health problems of our societies are not communicable diseases on the whole, but problems brought on by over indulging in salt, fat and sugar, along with problems caused by synthetic chemicals. And also problems associated with not coping with our environment - stress related anxiety, depression, and other neuroses. Our main problem in the developed world, in other words, is lifestyle. The main thing we could do something about is our lifestyle. And yet our societies are characterised by the pursuit of increasingly empty and unsatisfying lifestyles. 

And thus it is with sex. Where food is concerned "we" (meaning we in the developed world generally) have become obsessed with eating vast quantities of food, laden with ingredients that give us the most intense experience of eating: fat, sugar, salt, and chilli. We crave more and more intense experiences because we keep over-riding our appetites and eat for reasons other than staying alive. And it is making us sick. In the case of sex, for men in any case, we turn increasingly to porn. And to more extreme forms of porn. More or less any sexual act you can imagine is available as a video on the internet. These days you don't really even need to pay. But pay men do. And pay and pay. 

Because feminists have identified the pornography industry as a battleground we are probably all aware of the arguments against pornography from a feminist perspective. Porn objectivises and degrades women. Women are exploited by the porn industry. I've just been listening to a teacher on the radio describing the effects on relationships between teenage boys and girls at her school and how she thinks porn has degraded those relationships. This is understandable because teenage boys are consuming vast amounts of porn. By the time they come to relate to flesh and blood girls and boys as potential sexual partners their sexual appetites are so dull as to require extraordinary stimulation to feel anything. They are so used to over-riding their natural sexual urges that they probably wouldn't recognise sexual attraction if it bit them. Research has shown that daily porn use can result in impotence - in other words men can become unable to become sexually aroused with real sexual partners because they've inadvertently set their own arousal threshold so high by hyperstimulating themselves with pornography. This is probably an exaggeration. No doubt there is a range of behaviour and responses to the availability of internet porn. But still the impact of boys using porn is quite negative, both on themselves and their partners. Girls in particular are often rushed into more risky sexual behaviour than they are comfortable with because the boys can't respond to anything else. Girls get treated like objects. It's not helping with issues that they already are socialised into. With young gay men, the potential for a positive feedback loop is frightening to contemplate.

Why do men consume porn? As far as I can tell, it seems that men respond to images more than women. No doubt some women do like porn, but the vast majority of consumers are men. Looking at women's bodies is arousing for hetero men. I can't even describe it. I just respond. As I would respond to music. It's an aesthetic response as much as a sexual one. I find women beautiful and attractive. Not in an overpowering way, not in a way that I can't control, but certainly in an unconscious and unmediated way. And men can get sexually aroused looking at pictures. It's an interesting fact taken in isolation - the unmediated response to certain visual cues resulting in arousal (I'm sure it's been studied).

Getting aroused and coming is some of the most fun a man can have. So there's not much point in telling every one that porn is just bad when it's aimed at getting aroused and coming. It's like drugs. If someone tells me that drugs are totally bad, I know they haven't tried them. Drugs are fun. Especially when you're young and resilient. But they have a down side. And young people are less good at evaluating risk, or assessing long term consequences. I think honesty is important when criticising these things. Boys look at porn mainly out of curiosity and fascination with women. Men consume porn in order to become sexually aroused and have an orgasm. We do it for the fun of it; out of loneliness or boredom; out of habit; as a way of sublimating desire etc. Maybe we retain a measure of fascination with women. 

And so although women are degraded by porn, men are too. Men are targeted by porn makers precisely because we respond to the product and are willing to pay for it. Like other stimulants it's a profitable product because of diminishing returns the demand for it stays high. We soon stop responding to one image. If we want to be aroused we have to get a new one. This is because in looking at pictures we are to some extent over-riding our lack of arousal. If we use that artificially stimulated arousal to achieve orgasm we're actually worse off. The pursuit of pleasure is like an addiction in many ways, particularly in the way we build up tolerance. Men (collectively) spend a fortune on porn. The answer would be to just relax and experience whatever it is that we are experiencing. But for most adults there's an uncomfortable period of cold turkey that produces some terrible cravings to fill the gaps left by not pursuing pleasure. It's not simply sex, but all of the areas in which we are over-stimulated. 

A further problem is that pornography exists in a context. Every other product we see has a female model attached to it. Women's products and services as much as men's (which I don't really understand). Advertising is ubiquitous and very often overtly sexual. Our films and television have joined in with the zeitgeist of displaying sex more openly. In the UK we have a great comedian, Reginald D Hunter, originally from South Georgia, USA. One of the things he says he likes about the UK is that "women dress like hookers on the weekend". Or in other words many young women are choosing to express themselves by dressing in sexually provocative clothing. This is portrayed as empowering for women, though I find it hard to imagine how being a hooker is empowering. I suspect is that it has more to do with creating desire in men, and the sense of power that comes with that, than expressing liberation in women. And men are much less responsive these days precisely because they use porn, so young women out to attract men have started to dress like porn stars and prostitutes. I find it quite disturbing. I'm an advocate of a gentle modesty - for men and women. I don't feel comfortable in a world where everything is sexualized. I have interests other than sex. When everything is sexualized it drowns out other aspects of human relationships (it's like pouring corn syrup on everything until you can't taste anything but sweet). 

I'm not convinced that having sex in public is quite the same thing as being more open about sex. It is certainly a good thing that we are more open about sex. After all sex is only natural and everyone does it, and my parents generation (and their parents) were woefully ignorant of sex and their bodies. But there's nothing natural about the sex in adverts, on TV, in the movies and in porn. What some people in the UK fear is that young people are growing up to think that the sex they see in the media is in some way natural. That left to their own devices people have sex like porn stars. 

I haven't mentioned Buddhism much because I'm wary of those people who proclaim "a Buddhist view on X". I don't think there is "a Buddhist view" on pornography. There are the views of Buddhists, and my views are certainly informed by 20 years of Buddhist practice and study. So this is more like the view of a Buddhist, than a Buddhist view. 

My approach to porn is informed by what I understand to be the nature of experience, especially with respect to the pursuit of pleasure. I don't get it so much now, but people often used to ask me "are Buddhists allowed to do X". My response was usually that Buddhism has no rules as such, it's just that we have to live with the consequences of our actions and as Buddhists we do try to pay attention to those consequences. I don't want to be preaching "porn is bad" because I think people just switch off to that kind of narrative, but porn has consequences. Personal consequences, and social consequences. I understand men's attraction to porn, and I've given some thought to the various issues involved. 

Obviously one Buddhist saying 'porn will screw you up' is not going to sink a multi-billion dollar multinational industry whose consumers are often addicted (more or less). Just as the tobacco industry continues to make profits in the developed world despite our certain and widely disseminated knowledge that smoking causes diseases of various kinds, including many which leave the smoker maimed or dead. 

What I will say, is that many of our personal and societal problems come down to lifestyle. They are not genetic or environmental per se, but down to choices we make. In theory we could all just choose to live a better way. But in practice there are constant forces trying to distract us from thinking clearly; trying to hyperstimulate our desires; and generally keeping us ignorant. It is so difficult to know what is best. We live in a cacophony of lifestyle advice, most of which is produced by sincere but equally confused people.

We are very much in the position of the Kālāmas who could not make out who was telling the truth about how to live. And the Buddha's advice might be summed up as "pay attention to what is happening". Interestingly one of my secular guru's Marshall McLuhan said just this: 
There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening. 
The question is do we have the courage let alone the willingness? And do we have compassion when we honestly answer "no"?


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