The US anti-porn campaigner Gail Dines has been popping up all over the place, expounding her views authentic feminine sexuality. Porn is bad, she opines because:
“The more porn images filter into mainstream culture, the more girls and women are stripped of full human status and reduced to sex objects. This has a terrible effect on girls’ sexual identity because it robs them of their own sexual desire.”
I confess to having some sympathy. From a Catholic perspective, the first part of that statement is entirely correct. One of the problems with porn, is, as the Blessed John Paul 2 observed, is not that it shows too much, but that it shows too little, pornography is by its very nature reductive.
What fascinates me is how certain feminists are becoming the new arbiters of sex and sexuality, the very same women who eschew Catholic sexual teaching as the product of an oppressive patriarchy are inadvertently embracing and proclaiming an identical doctrine, without so much of a hint of self-awareness or irony. Let’s compare Dines’ statement on female sexual identity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life. The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out. CC 2333
Both are certainly agreed on the subject of individual sexual identity, although gender theorists may well have something to say on the subject of complementarity, but there can be no doubt that both are arguing that men and women have diverse sexual identities.
Speaking in an interview last year, Joan Bakewell, the veteran broadcaster and former feminist icon conceded that the much maligned Mary Whitehouse was right to fear the sexual liberation of the ’60s would damage society.
“The liberal mood back in the ’60s was that sex was pleasurable and wholesome and shouldn’t be seen as dirty and wicked”
A view of sex that is not confined to liberals or advocates of free love. Consider the catechism once again:
“The acts in marriage by which the intimate and chaste union of the spouses takes place are noble and honorable; the truly human performance of these acts fosters the self-giving they signify and enriches the spouses in joy and gratitude.”Sexuality is a source of joy and pleasure:The Creator himself . . . established that in the [generative] function, spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit. Therefore, the spouses do nothing evil in seeking this pleasure and enjoyment. “
It seems that both feminists and the Catholic Church are in agreement in terms of separate male/female sexual identities and the inherent beauty of sex. In fact both Catholicism and feminism seem to want to hearken back to prelapsarian innocence, of Adam and Eve, cavorting freely in Eden, happily engaging in sexual intercourse as a sign of mutual love and affection, unbound by the chains of lust, oppression or exploitation. It’s not an image borne out of the free love movement of the sixties, indeed Milton pictures Adam and Eve enjoying conjugal bliss in their bower prior to the fall and the language that he uses to physically describe Eve is ripe with eroticism reminiscent of the Bible’s most sensual and sexy books, Song of Songs.
No doubt feminists will baulk at being identified with a religion which they perceive as being the product of patriarchy, but one has to admit that the parallels are compelling. Feminists display the qualities of prudery associated with Mary Whitehouse, as recently observed by Brendan O’Neill and therein lies the root of the irony and proof of women’s continued sexual oppression. Women feel uncomfortable with the marketisation of sexuality, which has been commodified, turned into a selling point and used as a yardstick against which women feel they must measure themselves. Any women who experiences discomfort or worse still expresses this, is according to O’Neill, an outdated conservative relic and something of a spoilsport. A particularly sexist advert in which women were objectified was aimed at a teenage market, which is why women are having a sense of humour lapse, no matter that women might be concerned about the effect of such advertisements on the developing psyche of the impressionable teenage boy who is immersed in a sexually saturated culture and who potentially has access to a volume and nature of pornography beyond the wildest dreams of the preceding generations. The usual Mos Eisley crew of Daily Telegraph commentators, point out in their usually charming fashion, that women are only complaining because they are ugly old harridans who can’t measure up and who are all probably rather useless in bed.
Women’s sexual liberation has paradoxically given birth to their sexual repression, couched in the language of sexual freedoms. Joan Bakewell noted that
“The Pill allowed women to make choices for themselves. Of course, that meant the risk of making the wrong choice. But we all hoped girls would grow to handle the new freedoms wisely.”
“Then everything came to be about money – so now sex is about money, too. Why else sexualise the clothes of little girls, run TV channels of naked wives, have sex magazines edging out the serious stuff on newsagents’ shelves?
What the pill did, was to strip the act of sex of its procreational qualities and create the illusion of consequence free sex. When procreation is removed from sex, it becomes nothing more than a leisure activity and thus ripe for commercialisation and exploitation. Marriages were no longer necessary or required, if it could be guaranteed that no children would result from sex. Everyone could have sex with whom they wanted when they wanted. As a result of this freeing up of sexual behaviour and attitudes sex then came to the forefront. It was a fun pastime that you could indulge in with everyone at will, no longer restricted to marriage and a natural topic for general discourse and commercialisation. With marriage now off the menu, women are the ones who bear the brunt of any unintended consequences of sexual encounters. It is women who have to cope with the aftermath of an unplanned pregnancy and women who are forced to override their natural fertility.
The sex industry is now huge business, the adult entertainment industry is worth billions of dollars a year, but are we really any happier or more fulfilled as a result, or are we all suffering from anxiety, body image and performance issues, men and women alike, as a result? The rise of metrosexualism demonstrates that body image and performance anxieties are not limited to women. Furthermore without going into explicit detail, not all pornography caters to a straightforward hetrosexual or vanilla market, therefore the narrative that pornography mainly humiliates and degrades women is too reductive, although I would contend that pornography humiliates and degrades all who are involved in it, be it as participant or voyeur.
I suspect it’s too late to turn the clock back nor do I advocate any sort of ban, given my innate liberal leanings – a ban on pornography skirts dangerously close to totalitarianism as well as being largely unenforceable. Like alcohol, tobacco, trans-fats and gambling, I suspect that its effect differs from person to person. Whilst I would be the last person to advocate pornography, having witnessed the pernicious effects of a fledgling pornography addiction in a previous relationship as well as believing pornography to be enormously spiritually as well as physically and psychologically damaging, it is not the role of the state to act as a custodian of personal morality and health. All anti-porn campaigners can do is commission and widely publicise/disseminate any scientific data and research as and when it becomes available. All the state should do is put effective controls on what may be accessed by children in public places. As I’ve said before, if parents are so concerned about their children becoming overly sexualised, then there is a simple solution, namely keeping tight controls over what comes into the family home and access to the computer.
Consenting adults should be able to make their own informed decisions and not be dictated to by either feminists or Catholics but the similarity between the two is more than a little striking. Catholics are often accused of seeking to impose their own version of morality upon others simply by speaking out about damaging sexual behaviours, yet unlike feminists we do not seek to impose legislation to regulate the sexual behaviour of others but advise of the moral dangers, for which we are deemed intolerant and as many commentators here have noted – warped.
Feminists have a much more overt agenda of wishing to regulate others’ sexual behaviour, by force if necessary, wishing to ban strip clubs and limit pornography, and yet at the same time, wish to revile Catholics for what they perceive to be regressive attitudes. It’s all rather strange considering we outwardly would seem to have much in common.