A slanted sunbeam shone down from a window in the dining hall and onto her face as she looked down at her plate.
“I hate it,” she said quietly after a few seconds. “It makes me feel like crap.” She actually laughed softly after saying this, audibly acknowledging the understatement of her confession and particularly her mild choice of sentence object. It was perhaps the saddest laugh I have ever heard. Her gaze was slightly awkward and even sheepish, as if in giving voice to a taboo topic she had broken a seal that is best left unbroken.
We were eating dinner together early last fall, a few weeks into our junior years at Notre Dame. With three theology courses in common that semester, we had been talking more frequently and getting to know each other better. As we ate that night, it struck me then—as it does now—that my friend is one of the most beautiful girls I know.
She, like countless other women, was struggling to articulate how she felt about her boyfriend’s pornography usage and accompanying masturbation. Nearly three years into their relationship, she was still suffering the worst sort of infliction—one borne in silence.
* * *
I’ll go out on a limb here and claim that for most American male college students, masturbating to pornography is so common as to be unremarkable—like brushing one’s teeth or doing one’s homework. This practice is so embedded in the American male psyche as an acceptable habit that it is assumed by men of other men. It’s a normative part of being a guy.
Therein lies the problem.
Highlighting the social costs of pornography—as the Witherspoon Institute has admirably done—is not going to change how men judge their own pornographic consumption because it constitutes a consequentialist rebuttal of these bad habits.
The heart of the pornography and masturbation problems is a “manhood culture” that promotes a vision of manliness that is enhanced by, rather than incompatible with, such habits.
In a piece I wrote during Ethika Politika’s Fatherhood 2013 symposium, I argued that men need to hold men to higher standards and that this was the best (not only) hope for transformation in modern American male behavior.
I think that this same argument holds true for pornography and masturbation for one simple reason: These abhorrent practices are only as prevalent as they are because the “cultures of manhood” in various communities—athletic teams, dormitories, friend groups, military squads—are constituted by guys who tell younger guys that these are acceptable ways of being a man.
Some will find this argument very simplistic. Those critics will be absolutely right, and that’s the point. The socialization of manhood is a rather straightforward process, in many ways for the worse—but also for the better.
Think about some traits, practices or behaviors that are deemed unmanly by most guys in such communities; anything typically associated with femininity springs to mind. Set aside for the moment the question of whether these proscriptions are fair or “right.” Just consider how effectively a consensus among guys in a community about what is “unmanly” rids those communities of those qualities.
How do you think Jason Collins felt as a Celtic in Kevin Garnett’s locker room? I don’t envy the man. There’s a reason that locker rooms—those uncensored temples of manhood—are considered “hostile” to homosexual men with non-normative male qualities or habits.
Why do you think pornography consumption is so rampant among military personnel? It misses the point to argue that these men are away from wives and home for much of the year. It’s not the impulse for sexual satisfaction that’s becoming an epidemic—that’s endemic to the human race. What’s problematic is the habit by which those impulses are indulged, unchecked by any peer disapproval.
When the inside crowd of any given community “okays,” by word or deed or both, certain ways of living, those practices embed and endure over time as new community members perpetuate the cycle. Everybody knows this. It’s human psychology. It’s this cycle, and not just “the way guys are,” that is largely responsible for this epidemic. Boys are being exposed to pornography prior to puberty. It isn’t lust—at least, not the lust of young boys—that’s driving the pornography industry. It’s the industry that’s inculcating lust in boys who aren’t all that inclined to lust, because that industry stands to gain a mammoth profit for their viciousness.
The epidemic of pornography and masturbation cannot be explained by adolescents blindly stumbling upon this magic combination for cheap pleasure. It is held out to them by those already under its spell.
I can remember a boy in my fifth grade class, boasting on our way to gym, that he had been looking at Playboys the night before. I had no idea what a Playboy was, but his tone of voice suggested a general idea.
Where had he gotten them? another boy asked with awe.
“My dad!” he laughed with pride. I got the impression that we were supposed to be envious of him.
Later, in high school, on the bus to an away basketball game:
“Why do you always joke about that?” I asked one of our point guards, who had made for the third or fourth time a crude masturbatory gesture, evoking laughter from the back-of-the-bus crowd (there’s one in every bus).
“Aw, Bradley, come on, everybody does it,” the “it” referencing the actual thing, not the joke.
We had never discussed the topic before, at all. Apparently he gathered simply from my questioning the joke that I did not approve of it. He was correct in that assumption, but my question was the result of honest curiosity, not moral opprobrium.
“No, they don’t.”
“Yes, they do.”
I pointed to a member of the JV squad, a guy I had always respected for being an athlete and a good leader in high school. The point guard nodded his head. I was genuinely shocked. We continued our silent communication, I pointing and he nodding, till we had covered enough people on the bus to discourage further inquisition.
I didn’t play well that night.
On the return trip (sitting near the front of the bus), I pondered the evil effects of inculturation. If you’ve ever experienced that “I keep hearing people say YOLO but don’t know what it means they must be listening to some radio station that I don’t listen to or watching some cable station that I don’t have” feeling, it was one of those moments.
It wasn’t so much that I’d been inoculated against such dangers by my Catholic faith and the adult figures in my life, though I certainly had those powerful influences in my corner.
It was as much (if not more) the absence of negative influences as the presence of positive ones that left me clueless that winter night about the extent to which those around me were possessed of this sad lie. That’s when I knew that these twisted habits were not naturally come by. They were products, messages; they bespoke producers, messengers.
For the past four summers I’ve worked as a counselor at an outdoor day camp for seven through twelve-year-olds. About 400 campers sign up each summer, more than half of which are boys. In my more existential moments (which are surprisingly common for me at camp; perhaps it’s working with the kids), I sometimes wonder how many of those innocent boys, within five or six years, will be bombarded with the doctrine that there’s nothing wrong with ogling naked women on a screen in order to feel good.
Then I’ll hear one of the boys laugh with the authentic joy of being young and alive, and that laughter too is sad to me in that moment.
Evil stirs the conscience. Many young men, absent intentional brainwashing, intuit that something is not right about pornography. They are dying for role models who will confirm that moral intuition, not belittle it. They want to look to the upperclassmen in their schools and see guys who make no bones about not objectifying women. They are desperate to know that there are others who find the jerking-off jokes stupid and immature. They are wondering if they’re the only ones who think that masturbating to pornography constitutes cheating on their girlfriends. They’re wondering if manhood doesn’t consist in self-mastery and sexual integration, rather than the laziness of lust or the illusory reward of self-abuse. They’re wondering if it’s their culture that’s wrong, rather than their churches, their parents, their conscience, their youthful propriety.
These young men are looking around and not seeing what they want to see, so they shut their eyes and join the crowd in its blindness. Are enough men willing to speak out and step up boldly, not timidly, to help them see more clearly?
* * *
My friend and I had finished eating. We walked slowly out of the dining hall into the fading twilight and the happy chatter of campus in September, nursing that powerful silence that follows conversations in which self-disclosure has engendered new contours of intimacy. She was less agitated now, as we said goodbye until Old Testament the next morning.
As she walked away, I wondered how she felt as she stepped back into the world of unchallenged assumptions and elephantine taboos—the cultural climate in which pornography and masturbation enjoy their reigns and in which men fail themselves and the women they purport to love.
She deserves so much better, I thought.