Porn in the City: Are the kids really alright?
What does it mean to grow up in the age of sexting, of Instagram and Snapchat (which lets you show a picture on someone else’s smart-phone, and then have it ‘disappear’)? I think about this because I work with teens, and their natural curiosity mixed with super-charged digital lives kinda freak me out. I wonder: Are we equipping them with what they need to live in an easy access, easy self-satisfaction world?
“Pornography should interest us, because it’s intensely and relentlessly about us. It involves the roots of our culture and the deepest corners of the self…” – The Eloquence of Pornography, Laura Kipnis. ( As part of a special report on PBS Frontline on Pornography way back in 2002).
For Eugene Jerome, Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical main character of Brighton Beach Memoirs, sex was an adolescent obsession. At the end of the play his brother gives young Eugene a foldout picture of a topless woman. In reaction to this, Eugene write down in his journal: “A momentous moment in the life of I, Eugene Morris Jerome. I have seen the Golden Palace of the Himalayas…. Puberty is over. Onwards and upwards!”
The line gets an appropriate laugh, as it should. The play is set in 1937 when a picture of a topless woman might be a rarity, but this is 2013, an age when there are approximately 200,000 commercial porn sites. This means that an introduction into sexuality no longer begins with a picture of a toplesswoman, but of a video of a couple having actual sex. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a young man or woman with the expectation that porn-star sex is the norm.
Martin Buber taught that there were two natures of the self. The “I” which is we might sum up as shallow, and surface oriented. This is the “me” that is involved in world of doing things. This surface “I” in relation to the everyday, he calls “I-It”. There is, Buber taught, also the “I” that is experienced as “whole-being,” fuller, more complete, perhaps we could say “more alive.” This whole-being “I,” Buber calls I-Thou. A fair simplification is to say, sometimes we relate with our soul, and other times we do not.
A mistake of modernity, a poison, is to ignore the depth experiences that humans need (I-Thou) and focus completely on the surface experience of the mundane (I-It). We see this everyday – and with technology, we see this “shallowing” in potential escalation.
Our popular culture seems to be polarized on the topic of pornography. On the one hand it is scandalous and predatory (which it certainly is) and on the other its seen as the new normal (and what does it say about us if it is?).
“And yes, pornography is a business — as is all our popular entertainment — which attains popularity because it finds ways of articulating things its audiences care about. When it doesn’t, we turn it off. Pornography may indeed be the sexuality of a consumer society. It may have a certain emptiness, a lack of interior, a disconnectedness — as does so much of our popular culture. And our high culture. (As does much of what passes for political discourse these days, too.) But that doesn’t mean that pornography isn’t thoroughly astute about its audience and who we are underneath the social veneer, astute about the costs of cultural conformity, and the discontent at the core of routinized and civilized lives.” - The Eloquence of Pornography, Laura Kipnis. ( As part of a special report on PBS Frontline on Pornography way back in 2002).
What does porn tell us about ourselves, our culture?
Among other things, I think modernity’s great porn addiction speaks to the fact that we, in the age of speedy technology, and infinite private access, have grown selfish.
In an age that worships business, sexuality has continued to grow as a commodity; sex, from one perspective of our popular culture has become a transaction. There is little training of the self these days about being relational. Satisfaction of the self rather than another is the value these days. Sex, and satisfaction becomes transactional, self-absorbed, and to that extent non-relational, Buber might say, decidedly I-It, and I would add “less human.”
“If love is only self-interest, than love is a fake, a pretense… And can you imagine a life without love?” – A J Heschel
No wonder than, that porn is on the rise and marriage is on the decline. We haven’t given any value to the idea of generosity to another, or to love, and without that, what are we?
Sex is a natural human drive. Freud was right about that. Cheap, fast, and easy, are all hallmarks of the 21st century, so I doubt that porn is going away any time soon. Modernity gives us instant access to I-It. But our souls crave something deeper.
The solution has to be to teach our kids about love, about romance, about desire, about the ecstasy of your soul that can be. They need to learn that this can happen when you give of yourself, when you are a self in relationship to another self, when you think, and feel, and act for not only “me” in a particular moment, but about what is right and beautiful in “us.”
I and Thou.
Two days ago my colleague, Amy Small, wrote a powerful piece putting the news glut on the Petraeus scandal into perspective as neighborhoods continue to reel after Hurricane Sandy and many are still without light or heat in their homes. While I wholeheartedly agree with her call for priorities, particularly when it comes to what gets the media’s attention and our own, I find myself reflecting on the Petraeus case this week, and looking at another aspect of the story. I think it is because I can empathize with many who feel such disappointment in a man who was held in such high esteem.
And what I notice is that it is not unusual in these situations, when the esteemed fall off the pedestal that we have put them on, for our society to take things to the other extreme. Disgust is expressed; more than disappointment, so often the whole being and legacy of an individual is put down and not just the specific behavior that is the focus of attention. I’ve noticed many commentators on the radio and TV in recent days questioning Petraeus’ judgment on all matters, given his clear poor judgment on the matter of an illicit relationship.
My reflections and empathy stem, I think, from my own experience of watching an admired teacher fall from grace. When it happened, it also involved inappropriate relations that, as is so often the situation with men in positions of power and influence, were largely inappropriate because of the unequal power relations involved. While it was questionable whether the behaviors were illegal, there was no question that they were morally and spiritually deeply flawed.
How do we react when someone we have learned from and admire acts in a way that deeply disappoints or, more, causes hurt and harm to others? Is it possible to maintain a connection or a friendship? As a rabbi, should I continue to share wisdom in the name of the teacher I learned from? Should one simply stop speaking of the person, or do we have an obligation to speak out and loudly about their deficiencies so that they become known to all?
Clearly the answers to these questions will depend on the nature of the behavior. Sometimes we must speak out. Sometimes we simply walk away in disappointment.
In my own life I have tried to walk the line, distinguishing between the behavior and the broader legacy, teaching or guidance received. I continue to share the wisdom of my teacher and recognize its value. I do not speak of him, knowing that we live in a society that so often conflates words with personality, and I do not wish to lead others to flock around him. But the line that I try to walk is one where I recognize, with humility, that our leaders who disappoint are often holding up a mirror to our own souls. We may be repulsed, but is it solely because of our leaders’ behavior, or because we are reminded that even people who do great things are flawed human beings?
And, if those we mistakenly placed on pedestals can fall off them so easily, that must surely mean that each and every one of us, even if we think of ourselves as good people, are equally capable of revealing our flaws and weaknesses at any time. And that is a picture we don’t like to look at. So we ostracize and demonize the one, blotting out their good, so that we can more easily label them and their actions as ‘not us.’ But, in the quiet of a moment alone, if we are willing to take a good, hard look in the mirror, we find that its really not quite that simple.
The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is everywhere. I saw a woman reading it the subway last week and another at the pool. This book, which started as an e-book and gained a following because women could read it in secret, has come out of the closet. Women are reading it out in the open everywhere. Magazine articles and blog posts are calling it the “Summer of Grey.”
I like that the book is helping some women get in touch with their sexuality. Judaism has always seen sex with in a committed relationship as a positive act. The Talmud dictates how often a man is to please his wife by having relations with her: for men of independent means, every day; for laborers, twice a week; for donkey-drivers, once a week; for camel-drivers, once in 30 days; and for sailors, once in six months. Having sex on Friday night during the Sabbath is even referred to as a “double mitzvah.” If this book is helping some couples come together then that is a good thing.
However, I find the threat of violence which hangs over the entire story to be chilling and dangerous. The book hooks readers by keeping them wondering if Ana the female character will submit to Christian’s “Red Room of Pain” and allow him to dominate her. This commingling of sex and violence is abhorrent to me as a woman and a Jew.
According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year. The National Crime Victimization Survey, which includes crimes that were not reported to the police, 232,960 women in the U.S. were raped or sexually assaulted in 2006. That’s more than 600 women every day. Young women, low-income women, and some minorities are disproportionately victims of domestic violence and rape. Women ages 20-24 are at greatest risk of nonfatal domestic violence, and women age 24 and under suffer from the highest rates of rape. The Justice Department estimates that one in five women will experience rape or attempted rape during their college years, and that less than five percent of these rapes will be reported.( Statistics can be found here. )
I fear that this book sends the message that violent acts as part of sexual play is okay. I know that in the story Ana has to consent to everything. However from the start, she and Christian are not on an even playing field. He holds the power. He has more money, knowledge, and experience than her. She is in the under-24-years-old demographic. I fear that many women will be hurt physically and emotionally by putting themselves in the hands of men who don’t know when to stop, who will push the pain element too far, who will not hear the safeword.
There is no grey area here. Sex and violence do not go together. One is an act of love; the other is an act of hate. Millions of women suffer each year at the hands of abusive men. This is not sexy or alluring.
I wish I could quote a text from Jewish tradition which clearly says “Thou shalt not hit your lover.” But nothing is that clear. Jewish law however has built in many statues to safeguard vulnerable women from others’ abuses. Widows must be taken care of, and male family members are admonished not to have sex with female relatives. In addition, the stories of the rape of Dina and Tamar make it clear that raping a woman is a punishable act. Unlike the Christian tradition, Judaism does not see sex itself as shameful. But many structures are put in place so that sex is a pleasurable act between consenting adults, not a violent one.
If you enjoyed reading Shades of Grey, please take a moment to think about what you enjoyed about the book. And reflect on some of the messages it sends, particularly to young women who may not have the wherewithal to stand up to a dominating man. As women, we need to talk about the interplay between sex and violence so that we can protect ourselves. If this book helps to open up that conversation then I am glad that it has come out of the closet.