You have known about the birds and the bees for many years; the basics of human sexuality and reproduction are no mystery to you—though no doubt you have a healthy dose of natural curiosity about what sex is like to experience. (Don’t panic! This note will not attempt to answer that question!) Without saying much about what sex is like, I want to say something about what sex is not like, in order to explain why pornography offers something totally different from sex.The world of money-making intends to keep everyone in an agitation of desire, for desire can be turned into profit. Sexual desire is among the strongest and the easiest to excite, and so advertisements often feature pornographic images. (I define pornography as an image designed to excite sexual desire.) Porn operates by teasing the eye. It at once conceals and reveals (as with lingerie)—or, in the alternative, it reveals in such a way that it draws attention to the revelation itself (as with a woman who slowly opens her shirt to bare herself to a viewer). In all cases, it sensationalizes the body: adding a mystery to nudity, a veil that obscures its simplicity and naturalness. In this and other ways, it grossly magnifies the sexuality of the nude form.
In reality, the nude form is not particularly sexual: think of tribal nudity in Africa or even a patient in a recovery room. It is only with the addition of something sexual (like the deliberate revelation, the erotic pose, or the inviting gaze) that it becomes a particular object of sexual desire. (But note that this additional thing can be supplied by the viewer alone!)
Porn doesn’t just lie about the sexuality of nudity. When I was successfully teased as a teenager—or, to take more responsibility, when I indulged in lustful glances—I used to console myself with the vague thought that someday I would be married, and then the teasing mixture of revelation and concealment could—finally!—give way to pure revelation without concealment, which would (I imagined) be even more desire-inspiring, as well as desire fulfilling, all at once. This circular thought could not have survived scrutiny, but then I wasn’t really scrutinizing it. I was mainly vacillating between secretly savoring it and trying, piously, to cease from dwelling on sex.
I wish I had scrutinized it more closely, for I could have discerned, even then, that there were multiple fallacies in the thought: to start, that since it was precisely the concealment that sexualized what was revealed, pure revelation would have been less sexual, not more. My fantasy also failed to take account of two other facts: first, that the fulfilment of sexual desire is primarily a tactile matter, and not a visual one; and second, that there is tension between being fulfilled and being aroused. All natural desires are meant to be fulfilled, and thereby satiated and quenched.
Pornography therefore doesn’t just offer a deceptive, objectified form of sex; it offers something fundamentally different from sex. It is merely visual, so it can only arouse, not fulfil. Most porn users revert to masturbation for “fulfillment” (and a temporary release from desire)—but orgasm is not the fulfilment of the desire for porn. The desire for porn is merely the desire to be aroused—or, in other words, the desire to experience desire. It is like the mirror of Erised in Harry Potter: “men have wasted away before it, not knowing if what they have seen is real, or even possible.” As Dumbledore says, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.”
If you are like me, when you are aroused by the sexualized female form, you desire something different in kind from married sex: you desire agitation, excitement, mystery, further desire, further teasing—you desire above all to keep looking. Married sex offers something calmer, sweeter. One can use lingerie to create a similar effect as part of foreplay—and there is nothing wrong with that, I think—but the fact is that you already know what is behind the veil—you have known your wife, have experienced her desexualized, naked nudity. Her naked form is much more like a nude statue than it is like porn: it may be viewed in such a way as to arouse sexual desire, but it does not inherently ask to be looked at in this way; it is not especially “sexy” on its own.
In God’s wisdom, it is left to the married persons to ask to look or be looked at in such a way—to sexualize their own nude form or that of their partner, at appropriate times and within the broader context of their relationship and lives. However, the visual sexualization, and the ramping up of desire, should not be the main focus—not even on the wedding night. (I should perhaps say, especially not on the wedding night: it seems to me that first-time brides and grooms would best place the initial emphasis on the gentle side of intimacy.) In the sex act itself, there is agitation and desire enough, but it has an end—and the act has purposes and meanings beyond either the arousal or the fulfilment. So it remains doubly or triply removed from the desire for pornography, which has no purpose beyond the arousal of desire, with no eye even to fulfilment, much less anything beyond (like the marriage relationship or procreation). And though it does not aim at anything beyond arousal, it arouses very effectively, potentially ratcheting desire and expectation up to so high a pitch as no earthly reality could possibly justify.
Sex gives pleasure, but not vastly more of it than fine chocolate; it is beautiful and moving, but not immensely more ravishing than a great symphony; it is exciting, but not more so than watching the game-winning play; it is fun, but no more than a good party. Marriage, not sex alone, has the potential to become heavenly. (Though perhaps when marriage truly is Celestial, sex will be as well—who knows?) In the meanwhile, both marriage and sex fail to transport anyone beyond the earth. Porn lies—lies damnably—when it claims, implicitly, that “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which pornography hath prepared for them that love her.”
These are the main insights I wanted you to know. I hope this will help you avoid disappointment, recognize the lies of pornography, and avoid the delusions of lust as you begin your preparations for marriage. In the meanwhile, you live in a pornographic society, and you cannot help but be affected. You are free, of course, to respond in various ways, but affected you will be.
You will certainly experience—and have already experienced—sexual desire, together with the early, most agitated stages of sexual pleasure. When I was in my early teenage years and experienced such sexual pleasure, varying degrees of fault or faultlessness belonged to me, depending on the particular experience. Sometimes there was no fault at all, and the pleasure was innocent. Pleasure is a good thing, including sexual pleasure, and in and of itself should never give rise to guilt. But nor should sexual pleasure be sought for its own sake outside of the marriage bed. Why? Because it is so prone to overflow itself beyond its proper channels; to waste the time, imagination, and industry of the person who seeks it for its own sake; to entangle such a person in unhealthy relationships and commitments; and ultimately, if unchecked, to poison the very wells of his being. Plato had some sound wisdom to share on this point in The Republic and elsewhere. Consider also the sad fate of Oscar Wilde (a fate for which he was partly responsible—not because of his sexual orientation, but because of his sex addiction). So this is tricky: sexual pleasure is good, but should not be sought outside of marriage because the seeking itself has serious side effects. How, then, should you respond to these experiences of desire and pleasure?
I wish I could tell you from experience how to utterly overcome lust, but so far I cannot. But I offer three pointers for how you can turn these experiences to more productive use.
First, be thoughtful about sex and sexuality. It is not a subject forbidden to thought; I only caution against seeking to create sexual feelings in yourself or in others. If you are thoughtful, you will notice the ways people seek to use sexuality—their own, yours, and others’; you will then be better able to recognize the lies, the insecurities, and the tragedies that our sexuality gives rise to. Since you must experience sexuality, whether you will or no, it is better to be thoughtful about it. Of course, there is a danger here of self-deception: you may tell yourself that you are doing scholarship when what you are really doing is self-arousal. Be warned and do not deceive yourself in this way. But nonetheless, be thoughtful.
My second pointer is an extension of the first. If you are thoughtful about these experiences with sexuality, you will notice, among other things, that there is both a sexual and an aesthetic element to your engagement with the human form. Though closely connected, these two are distinct. When you find yourself attracted to a beautiful woman (or man!), you need not feel guilty. Beauty is not forbidden to your eyes any more than sex is barred from your thinking. There is a risk of self-deception here as well—for it is easy to say to yourself that your engagement with a particular person or image is aesthetic appreciation when it is actually lustful. The two are connected, and aesthetic appreciation easily degenerates into mere carnality. But unless lust has poisoned the well, I believe that most men’s initial apprehension of female beauty—or male beauty—is primarily aesthetic. The problem is that in a society obsessed with pornography, it is sometimes unknown or forgotten that any apprehension of the human form is possible besides a sexual one. The result, I firmly believe, is that many misinterpret their own experiences, playing into the pornographic dynamic of society, and paving the way to greater lust and agitation than necessary—and to greater guilt as well (if they believe, as you have been taught, that lust should be eschewed).
Finally, and most importantly, I would suggest that you try not to take sex and sexuality too seriously. It is beautiful, pleasurable, and meaningful—but also silly and carnavalesque. “Lovers, unless their love is very short-lived, again and again feel an element not only of comedy, not only of play, but even of buffoonery, in the body’s expression of Eros.” The quote is from C. S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, which I cannot recommend too highly. The pornographic imagination takes sex and sexuality far too seriously, and is serious about the wrong parts of it. Sex is serious, even sacred—but not with the sort of sacredness that is offended by lightness and laughter. It is serious because of the powers of creation and the emotions and trust and vulnerability involved. But sexual desire and the sex act itself, together with pornography (if we could see it without being taken in by it) are rather ridiculous. Sex is superlatively undignified, and we will all be healthier if we can laugh at it and treat it as a romp than if we “go to it with the complete works of Freud, Kraft-Ebbing, Havelock Ellis and Dr. Stopes spread out on bed-tables all round [us].” (Again, C. S. Lewis.) And nor should we go to it with an inapt piety—treating it either as a solemn sacrament of love or as a deity. It is a sacrament of love, but it is not solemn. And it is not a god. “[Venus] herself is a mocking, mischievous spirit, far more elf than deity, and makes game of us.”
God bless you, my son, to avoid these pitfalls—and, in the right time, may he bless your marriage bed with the blessings of joy, sweetness, and chastity. In the meantime, your task is to practice the chastity. And so I pray that God may keep you chaste: by helping you to eschew the agitated inflammation of desire that pornography aims at, aimless but intoxicating; by helping you to appreciate beauty and innocent pleasure without allowing your appreciation to degenerate very far into the banality of lust; and by teaching you to laugh at the silliness of sex while respecting its sacredness—to laugh at your own foibles and lusts while earnestly seeking to learn chastity and prepare for marriage. If you can manage all of that, you will be far better off than your father, who is still trying to un-learn what his society has taught him, and to break his thought-processes and imagination from some of their accustomed channels. Yet all of this is quite manageable—and I trust that with God’s help, we will both manage it.