The Pornography Plague

William E. May
© 2010 Culture of Life Foundation
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

The April 10, 2010 bulletin of iMAPP Marriage News1 highlighted this issue. It focused on the Witherspoon Foundation's recent conference and book, The Social Costs of Pornography.2

After summing up Marriage News's report of the Witherspoon Foundation's conference and book on the social costs of pornography, I will present the masterful analysis of pornography and "pornovision" offered by a prominent philosopher/theologian during the last quarter of the 20th century, namely, Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II.

The Witherspoon Foundation's Conference and Book on The Social Costs of Pornography

The Conference (and papers included in the book) featured the following presentations: "The Moral Bases for Legal Regulation of Pornography" by Gerard V. Bradley; "Pornography's Effect on Interpersonal Relationships" by Ana Bridges; "Pornography: Settling the Question in Principle" by Hadley Arkes; "Desire and the Tainted Soul: Islamic Insights into Lust, Chastity, and Love" by Hamza Yusuf; "Freedom, Virtue, and the Politics of Regulating Pornography" by James Stoner; "The Impact of Pornography on Women: Social Science Findings and Clinical Observations" by Jill C. Manning; "Industry Size, Measurements and Social Costs" by K. Doran; "From Pornography to Porno to Porn: How Porn Became the Norm" by Pamela Paul; "On the Abuse of Sex" by Roger Scruton; "Pornography and Violence: A New Look at Research" by Mary Anne Layden. In a later essay for Culture of Life I will summarize and comment on these presentations.

Maggie Gallagher, president of iMAPP, summarized Layden's paper. Layden showed that the vast majority of men who use porn are not sex offenders. However, men who view sexually violent porn are more likely to say that a "rape victim suffered less and that she enjoyed it, and that women in general enjoy rape. ... Those reporting higher exposure to violent pornography are six times more likely to report having raped than those reporting low exposure," and "ordinary" men, after viewing violent porn, urged sentences for rapists only half those of men shown other kinds of images. In addition, Layden pointed out, "The large body of research on pornography reveals that it functions as a teacher of, a permission - giver for, and a trigger of many negative behaviors and attitudes that can severely damage not only the users but many others, including strangers."

Gallagher considers that the most important potential cost of porn is the way it affects ordinary men and their ordinary relationships. Layden makes this a major point in her contribution: "Exposure to pornography leads men to rate their female partners as less attractive than they would have had they not been exposed and to be less satisfied with their partners' attractiveness, sexual performance, and level of affection, and expressed a greater desire for sex without emotional involvement."In her conclusion Layden declared: "For males, more pornography use was associated with greater acceptance of sex outside of marriage for married individuals, greater acceptance of sex before marriage and less child - centeredness during marriage. The reduced desire for children is especially pronounced in a reduced desire for female children."

At the end of her report Gallagher said: "Porn disconnects the reward system of the male sex drive from the drive to master reality. Porn is nowhere near as satisfying as a real relationship with a woman, but it is a lot easier and much less fraught with the possibility of failure or humiliation. Porn use thus is an aid to sexual failure in men, and a contributor to our ongoing failure to create a culture that connects men and women, parents and children, sex and love."

But precisely what is "pornography," and why is it so harmful to men, women, children and the entire society? In my opinion, Pope John Paul II has given us one of the most powerful and insightful analyses of this terrible evil available in some of the "catecheses" we find in his celebrated Wednesday audiences devoted to developing a "theology of the body."

Pope John Paul II's analysis of pornography and "pornovision"

In his "theology of the body" (hereafter TOB)3 catecheses 60-65 John Paul is concerned with "the ethos of the body in art and media." A central theme of TOB as a whole is that "The human body - the naked human body in all the truth of its masculinity and femininity - has the meaning of a gift of the person to the person (61.1, p. 367; emphasis in original).

The crucial difference between portraying the human body in films and photographic arts from portraying it in paintings and sculptures

John Paul II thinks that the portrayal of the human body in films and in photographic art differs essentially from its portrayal in paintings and sculptures. "In painting or sculpture, man/body always remains a model that is subjected to a specific reworking by the artist. In film, and even more, in the art of photography, there is no transfiguration of the model, but the living human being is reproduced and in this case the human body is not a model for the work of art, but the object of a reproduction obtained by means of suitable techniques" (60.4, p. 366; emphasis in the original). This is an important distinction for the ethos of the body in works of culture. It is so, first of all, as John Paul II then notes, because a kind of anonymity is associated with films/photos and photographic reproductions of paintings and sculptures, and this anonymity, a way of " veiling" or "hiding" the identity of the person involved, is a specific problem (60.5, p. 367).

Moreover, and precisely as a result of its objectivization in reproductions typical of the film and photographic techniques of our time, the body "loses that deeply subjective meaning of the gift and becomes an object destined for the knowledge of many, by which those who look will assimilate or even take possession of something that evidently exists (or rather should exist) by its very essence on the level of gift - of gift by the person to the person, no longer of course in the image but in the living man" (62.1, p. 368).

Continuing he says, "the man of developed sensitivity overcomes, with difficulty and interior resistance - the limit of shame" when there are situations justifying undressing the body to others (e.g., medical examinations). Still man "does not wish to become an object for others through his own anonymous nakednesscto the extent to which he lets himself be guided by the sense of the dignity of the human body" (61.3). He then raises a question: "when and in what case is this sphere of man's activity - from the point of view of the ethos of the body - regarded as 'pornovision,' just as in literature some writings were and are regarded as 'pornography'" (61.4.p. 370).

Art and the privacy of the body; the nature of "pornovision"

Both "pornovision" and "pornography" occur when "the limit of shame or of personal sensibility is overstepped with regard to what is connected with the human body, with its nakedness, when in a work of art by audiovisual media one violates the body's right to intimacy in its masculinity and femininity across the whole structure of being human. This deep inscription - or rather incision - is decisive for the spousal meaning of the human body, for the fundamental call it receivescof forming 'the communion of persons'" (62.1, p. 377).

Here it seems to me John Paul II gives us a good criterion for determining that works of art are truly "pornovision." It is this: if, on viewing the body, one wishes to "consume it," regarding it as object of personal sexual gratification and not as the sign of the "gift" of the man - person to the female - person and vice versa, then it is "pornovision; i.e., if its intention is to threaten "the element of the 'gift'" (62.3, p. 378).


1 iMAPP stands for Institute for Marriage and Public Policy; its website is [Back]

2 The book, edited by Mary Anne Leyden and Mary Eberstadt, is available from for $5.00. [Back]

3 All translations of TOB will be taken from John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, Introduction, Translation, and Index by Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006). References will be made to the number of the Audience (133 are given in the new translation), the paragraph number of that Audience, and the page on which it appears in the new translation. Thus TOB 60. 4, p. 366 refers to Man and Woman He Created Them…, 60.4, p. 366. [Back]