Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Limits of Reason

Recently, Bravone posted on The Problem with Porn, and Scott followed up with a post of his own on Pornography. Each post presented a reasoned perspective on why pornography is harmful, or potentially not harmful, respectively.

Since I essentially agree with Bravone's position, I commented on Bravone's post by applauding what he had said, but adding that I felt it was important that in dealing with our weaknesses in relation to porn, we not succumb to feelings of shame or guilt. Our created natures as sexual beings is fundamentally good, and it is important to remind ourselves of that. We should resist the temptation to use self-shaming techniques to reinforce our efforts to avoid porn. ("Oh, I'm such a bad person, so weak, so terrible; I'm just disgusting..." etc.) Rather, we could use self-affirmation techniques to achieve the same goal. Remind ourselves that we are good, we are children of God; our sexuality is a good, integral part of our created natures as embodied spirits; and appropriate enjoyment of sexuality is one of life's greatest gifts. We avoid porn not because our sexuality is bad, but because it is exceedingly good. We avoid porn because we want to reserve our sexual expression for situations where sex has context and is meaningful, and where it can strengthen our most significant earthly relationship: our relationship with our spouse.

Bravone applauded my comment, and noted his complete agreement with it. So as far as I can tell, Bravone and I are of one mind on this subject.

Scott's post took a slightly different angle. Scott's starting point is that shame and guilt are bad, and have distorted the lives and the sexuality of gay men. He suggested that the bad experiences Bravone and others (myself included) have had with porn stemmed not from the porn itself, but from our guilt about using porn. If we eased up a bit on ourselves, we could see that porn in and of itself is not bad, and it may even have positive uses. By viewing the porn as inherently bad, our focus was in the wrong place.

I commented on Scott's post that I once had a view of porn very similar to the position he had outlined, but that through experience I had in fact learned that porn is not good. My life has been better without it, and in retrospect I am aware of ways in which porn has harmed me and my relationship with my partner. I also discussed experience I've had with my foster son, that indicated that porn is harmful. In Scott's response to my comment, he reiterated his view that perhaps the problem lay in my negative emotions related to porn, and not with the porn itself. Both I and Bravone observed, in response, that we both recalled periods of our lives where we used porn without any sense of guilt, and that in our experience, the harmful effects of porn didn't seem to be merely related to any sense of guilt, either conscious or unconscious, we may have had about using the porn. We both testified to having observed porn having negative effects related to body-image, and ability to be responsive and sensitive to a spouse, that appear to be independent of guilt. (Though we both agreed that guilt could be an additional, negative effect of using porn, and one that we should guard against.)

Now I will say that there is some truth in Scott's observation about the evil of porn not being inherent in porn itself. This connects to a broader spiritual principle expressed in Christ's teaching that "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.... Those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man" (Matthew 15: 11, 18). But to observe this spiritual truth is merely to place the onus back on each individual to search his or her own heart, to discern his or her motives and the effects of any given action. Bravone and I have each done this in relation to our use of pornography, and have concluded that it's not possible for us to use porn (it's not possible for us to have an intent in using it!) in a way that doesn't diminish us and diminish our relationships with our partners. And, by the way, "diminishing of self and others" is what I would call a pretty good definition of "defilement."

Ultimately, of course, it behooves each of us to make these decisions for ourselves. I am grateful to Bravone, with whom I agree on this subject, and I am grateful to Scott, even though we apparently disagree, because I think reasoning our way through the various moral dilemmas we face as gay men is critical. We are desperately in need of less knee-jerk reaction and more moral reasoning. Bravone and Scott each have made rational cases for their positions, each in a way that requires moral courage. It's not easy to put your heart and your life out there in the way they have, and in the way many of us do on our blogs. And both have done so out of a compassionate desire to help others.

But what I'd like to add to this discussion is my sense that there's a way in which our wrestling with these problems is beyond reason. I've stated that what I believe I know about porn, I know from experience. I've experienced an improvement in the quality of my life since discontinuing my use of porn, and am aware of a diminishing of my life and my relationship with my spouse that occurred when I was using it.

But my reasons for giving up porn didn't come from me performing a rational analysis of the subject; looking at pros and cons and deciding. It was an act of faith. It came from a willingness to put to the test Church leaders' teaching on the subject. I thought my life was fine enough with porn; I had convinced myself there was no harm in it. I couldn't have obtained the experiential data I did on it if I hadn't been willing to simply set it aside for at least a time and live without it, as a faith response. There was a point where I simply had to say, "Well, I've always told myself I could take it or leave it. Let's try leaving it, and see what happens."

I'm forty-seven years old, and I came out of the closet at age twenty-four. And I've been in a relationship for almost nineteen years. And I'm damn lucky, I think. I never stop thanking my lucky stars, because I'm now so painfully aware of so many ways my life could have become a wreck. I'm here to tell younger gay men, those who now in their twenties are coming out and making the same decisions I had to make over a generation ago... There are tons of pitfalls. There's a psychology and a mentality that comes with coming out of the closet and coming to terms with being gay from an extremely conservative, religiously homophobic background. The "second adolescence" is far more dangerous than the first one, because there are far fewer constraints on what we can and can't do when we're experiencing adolescence as independent adults. I've seen the "going off the deep end" phenomenon again and again. And I've seen it ruin people and destroy relationships and diminish us. We mustn't do this to ourselves! I wish we wouldn't!

We mustn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. There's so much good in the religious upbringing we had as Latter-day Saints that will protect and nurture us if we can hold on to it. I know it's confusing and disorienting because the Church seems to be so wrong about sexual orientation, and that leaves us wondering if everything else isn't just bullshit. So we feel obligated to throw everything out and learn every single painful damn lesson for ourselves. And some of us may or may not make it through the learning process happy, healthy and intact.

Sometimes I just throw up my hands and hope and pray. But aren't we obligated at some point to try to learn from history? What good does it do for an old fart like me to hang around if we're determined as a community to make again and again all the same mistakes my generation made?


Sean said...

you are truly a Saint. i am on the verge of crying because you so eloquently and spiritually remind me of who i am.

i, honestly, feel i gain more by eating at your Spiritual Banquet than i do spending my time at SS/PH. I can't tell you how much i appreciate your thoughts.
it truly boggles my mind why, in this Church, a person like me is labeled as a model while you are unable to partake of most simple ordinances. You are a far better man than i am.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your comments. I am sending a link to your site to my adult daughter who is in a lesbian relationship and has totally rejected the LDS church. Maybe your views will help her understand that she doesn't have to discard everything she learned growing. (That was me above...typo in message so I removed the first post.)

Quiet Song said...

John, I find there are many types of "porn" in the world. Gun Porn and Political Porn are but two that extend the concept beyond sexuality. All porn by its titilating nature is at minimum a distortion of reality which inflames our passions. When addicted to the rush or using it to avoid truth it becomes a source of trial to both the user and those around the user.

J G-W said...

Sean - I'm so grateful. And touched to know that if my Church membership were up for a vote, you would vote "yes"! Thank you!

Anonymous mom - I don't know your daughter, but I'm guessing she has not discarded everything she learned growing up.

You should know that probably the biggest single factor in my own decision to embrace the Church again was my relationship with my parents. We went through some bumps initially, but they never stopped showing and communicating unconditional love; they made my partner welcome in their home and treated him as a son; and they continued active in the Church, quietly living their faith, bearing their testimonies, and being good examples to their children.

Quiet Song - I know what you mean about "Political Porn." I used to be news-a-holic, and it was mostly making me bitter and angry. I still try to stay informed, but I'm not a news junky any more.

Anonymous said...

Wow, John. This is an excellent post. Thank you for this.

J G-W said...

Thanks, Jake.