“By love and not by fear does a soul avoid committing the least fault.” – Saint Thérèse of Lisieux

Mary Rose Somarriba, in her Verily Magazine cover piece, examines the recent release of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon, asking, “Does our culture have an unhealthy relationship with porn? Has it diminished our view of women, relationships, and sex in general?”

Gordon-Levitt, who wrote and directed the film, has earned my respect for having the audacity to broach the topic. He plays the lead role in a story that centers on his character’s pornography addiction and the way it permeates every aspect of his life—including his romantic relationship with Scarlett Johansson.

Somarriba does a good job of citing scientific and psychological analyses in her piece, but she really hits the nail on the head when she concludes with the powerful moral argument that “authentic relationships are not one-sided.”

How can a Christian understand pornography in contemporary America? How can she make intelligible the reality that most men (much more so than women) make a habit of masturbating to digital images of naked women, and think this morally unobjectionable?

Most importantly, how can one combat this saddest of status quos, especially when cultural tycoons like Oprah endorse it as a healthy relational practice? How can we convey the truth that pornography is wrong and why it is wrong, when natural law arguments seem unproductive?

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I once read a John Mayer interview in which Mayer admitted that he is so addicted to pornography that he has a difficult time being in relationship with actual women (surprising, right?). No reality can satisfy expectations that have been forged by fantasies, he frankly acknowledged.

As I read the interview, I didn’t think to myself, “John Mayer is doing something sinful,” or “Why doesn’t he realize that what he’s doing is wrong?” My only thought was, John Mayer has habituated himself such that he is incapable of loving someone and receiving her love. His addiction has actually nullified his greatest human potential: the capacity, rooted in his moral freedom, to make of himself a total gift to another person and to freely receive her free commitment of love as gift in return.

Most men don’t share Mayer’s candidness. (I speak of men throughout this article because, being male, I can’t really speak to female pornography usage). But no man likes to think of himself as a bad lover, as someone who doesn’t (or can’t) love well: love authentically. Indeed, ask most men (especially those in dating or married relationships) why they think their pornography addiction is morally unobjectionable, and their answer will be that it doesn’t actually reflect negatively on their ability to love or on the authenticity of their love—some may even side with Oprah in proclaiming that it enhances their ability to love well.

Conversely, those who firmly endeavor not to view pornography do so because they realize and acknowledge that in viewing pornography, they would be damaging or diminishing their own ability to love, and wronging those to whom they want to gift their love, and whose love they receive as gift.

The act of viewing pornography itself is an expression of (evidence of) a love that is imperfect and immature—an erotic or sexual love not yet matured and perfected by caritas. Even those who regularly view pornography take pains to justify their use by arguing that it doesn’t damage or reflect—or both? —their capacity to give and receive love as gift. This justification effort is telling. Maybe the best way to reach young men who use pornography is to explain that pornography is antithetical to and incompatible with authentic love. So rather than trying to convince a young man that he shouldn't (want to) look at pornography for reasons exterior to himself, help him to realize that in indulging the impulse to view pornography he is contradicting the deepest desire of his own heart.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI describes the transformative nature of caritas in Deus Caritas Est thus (with my emphasis):

By contrast with an indeterminate, “searching” love, this word [agape, or caritas] expresses the experience of a love which involves a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier. Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.

It is part of love's growth towards higher levels and inward purification that it now seeks to become definitive, and it does so in a twofold sense: both in the sense of exclusivity (this particular person alone) and in the sense of being “for ever”. Love embraces the whole of existence in each of its dimensions, including the dimension of time. It could hardly be otherwise, since its promise looks towards its definitive goal: love looks to the eternal (6).

No man wants to think of himself as a poor lover, which is why most men won’t accept that indulging their lust through pornography usage reflects and creates an immature, selfish love: an attraction that sinks down into the intoxicating depths of venus rather than being lifted up and perfected by the infusion of caritas.

As Benedict points out, the true love befitting of marriage (or dating relationships, the purpose of which is to discern marriage) expresses and extends itself concretely across the dimension of time through the relational norms of permanence and exclusivity. It is precisely through extension in these dimensions that our natural erotic love—the sort of love underlying dating relationships relationships—organically speaks to its infusion with the theological virtue of caritas, and thus can become capable of true self-gift.

Viewing pornography is a blatant offense against the norms of exclusivity and fidelity both. So, to answer Somaribba’s questions—“Does our culture have an unhealthy relationship with porn? Has it diminished our view of women, relationships, and sex in general?”—the simplest response is, yes: It has systematically warped most young men’s ability to give and receive love freely. It has disabled their ability to offer themselves as a gift, and it has crippled their ability to receive authentic love in return.

At its heart, pornography usage is an offense against love, and thus is an offense against the real persons (including, first and foremost, ourselves) who we love or will love in the future. In this light, pornography usage is also an offense against gratitude and humility, without which love is not authentic. If we want to love our wives or girlfriends (present or future) perfectly, viewing pornography is entirely antithetical to that wish, because it harms our capacity to be givers and recipients of love. It violates the norm of exclusivity, which is expressive of a romantic love infused with caritas.

My hope is that the story of Don Jon penetrates the hearts of those young men who view it and artistically communicates to them its message.

Speaking of artistic expression, I’ll cede the final word to GK Chesterton. I quote here from a beautiful passage in the greatest chapter he ever wrote, “The Ethics of Elfland,” from Orthodoxy. 

To be allowed, like Endymion, to make love to the moon and then to complain that Jupiter kept his own moons in a harem seemed to me (bred on fairy tales like Endymion’s) a vulgar anti-climax. Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman.

A man is a fool who complains that he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once.