Ideally, porn would excite our lust in contexts which also presented other, elevated sides of human nature — in which people were being witty, for instance, or showing kindness, or working hard or being clever — so that our sexual excitement could bleed into, and enhance our respect for these other elements of a good life. No longer would sexuality have to be lumped together with stupidity, brutishness, earnestness and exploitation; it could instead be harnessed to what is noblest in us…
Culture plays a huge role in directing our attention to things that are valuable or, in this case, attractive.
The real problem with current pornography is that it’s so far removed from all the other concerns which a reasonably sensible, moral, kind and ambitious person might have. As currently constituted, pornography asks that we leave behind our ethics, our aesthetic sense and our intelligence when we contemplate it.
Yet it is possible to conceive of a version of pornography which wouldn’t force us to make such a stark choice between sex and virtue — a pornography in which sexual desire would be invited to support, rather than permitted to undermine, our higher values…
Erotica realises there is a problem with porn and locates the issue in explicitness. If only porn were less explicit — the argument seems to run — then it would be OK. One might start from a different point of view. Explicitness is fine, the issue is what it’s in the name of, where it’s pointing us too, what it’s attempting to excite us about…
It is perhaps only people who haven’t felt the full power of sex over their logical selves who can remain uncensorious and liberally ‘modern’ on the subject. Philosophies of sexual liberation appeal mostly to people who don’t have anything too destructive or weird that that they wish to do once they have been liberated.
However, anyone who has experienced the power of sex in general and internet pornography in particular to reroute our priorities is unlikely to be so sanguine about liberty. Pornography, like alcohol and drugs, weakens our ability to endure the kinds of suffering that are necessary for us to direct our lives properly.
In particular, it reduces our capacity to tolerate those two ambiguous goods, anxiety and boredom. Our anxious moods are genuine but confused signals that something is amiss, and so they need to be listened to and patiently interpreted — which is unlikely to happen when we have [on] hand one of the most powerful tools of distraction ever invented.
The entire internet is in a sense pornographic, it is a deliverer of constant excitement which we have no innate capacity to resist, a system which leads us down paths many of which have nothing to do with our real needs. Furthermore, pornography weakens our tolerance for the kind of boredom which is vital to give our minds the space in which good ideas can emerge, the sort of creative boredom we experience in a bath or on a long train journey.
It is at moments when we feel an irresistible desire to escape from ourselves that we can be sure that there is something important we need to bring to consciousness — and yet it is precisely at such pregnant moments that internet pornography has a habit of exerting its maddening pull, thereby helping us to destroy our future.
(I added paragraph breaks above to aid readability.)
Although I am not sure what his ideal porn would, er, look like in practice, I think de Botton makes some genuinely interesting points. For example, I think he’s exactly right about the harmful psychological effects that can result from using porn.
He may also be right about what porn could be at its very best — if such could ever be realized. Is there any way to reduce these harmful effects of porn, without taking away what we “like” about it?
What do you think?