Perhaps the most important lesson that I have learned in my life is that I am my body, and that my body is good. I cannot claim to value myself if I don't take care of and honor my physical self. I've also learned that while my whole body is sacred, certain parts of my body are especially sacred. I know this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they are the parts that do something so marvelously profound as to give life to another human being, and conversely, if those parts are abused or assaulted, the utter violence that it causes to the very core of a person tells me that those are no ordinary parts. These parts have a special dignity and deserve extra care and reverence.
Because the private parts are so intimately connected to the very core of a person, it follows that they must never be used as someone's plaything, or as a means of profit. People are not things. Even within marriage, spouses must not use each other. In saying this, I hope to make it clear that I am not advocating sex only as a means of procreation and then only in the missionary position and with a very serious and stern purpose and expression. On the contrary, my experience is that when I completely enjoy, reverence, and respect the person my husband is, and the more respected, reverenced, and loved I feel, the more passionate, fun, tender, exciting, and fulfilling sex is. Sex that occurs outside of such a relationship, or viewing another's most sacred parts outside of this context, (e.g. pornography) is always inherently violent, because it reduces a complex, intricate, amazing person to a thing.
Pope John Paul II has said that the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of a person, but that it shows too little. All of a person's physical parts are on display, but all the unique and intimate parts of his or her personality are left unknown. In pornography, the sexual parts of a person are not used to communicate love to another but used to exploit the person.
I remember a couple years ago coming across an essay that described one porn film. What the author described was the absolute humiliation of another human being, a woman, which apparently many men find "entertaining." I remember I cried that day. I remember how betrayed I felt because the men who are called to witness the selfless love of God the Father, the men who are called to image the love of Christ who sacrifices himself for our good, instead so often choose to sacrifice the vulnerable for their selfish ends. What the author described wasn't even "hardcore" porn. It was mainstream. I thought, this is a multi-billion dollar industry? I remember I didn't even want to leave my house for a couple of days because of how unsafe this new awareness made me feel. I wondered how many people that I encountered every day in the store, on the sidewalks, in church, in restaurants, in the post office--how many found pleasure in the humiliation of another person? That is to say, how many found my own humanity as a woman unimportant or even nonexistent?
Those who believe that pornography is okay often assert that the movies aren't real. They are actors and actresses. But for that actress, it is real. She is being humiliated on camera, not for the purpose of raising awareness of domestic violence or verbal and sexual abuse or some such thing, but so that others might receive gratification in it.
Such people also like to argue that she is an adult who is there of her own free will. I ask though, is it okay to humiliate people if they will let you humiliate them?
Since then, I have learned that pornography is extremely harmful to those who view it, as well as its workers. Many people suffer from pornography addictions in our present age and through the work of brain scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists, and others, it is now known that many deviant sexual behaviors cause chemical changes in the brain similar to those experienced by drug or alcohol addicts. Mark Kastleman, a co-founder of a pornography recovery program, writes that such behaviors "trigger the brain into releasing powerful neurochemicals like dopamine, norepinephrine and endorphins, producing a 'rush' or a 'high.'" It also harms their social relationships. Kastleman writes:
In this fantasy world, people imagine things like, "She wants just me." "He adores me—I'm desired, craved, loved." The person sees the experience as exclusive, private—"It's just me and her." The experience is seen as exciting, pleasurable, taboo, and privileged—giving the facade of intimacy, exclusivity, loyalty, and trust. And all of this is easy, convenient, instant and sometimes cheap or free. It does not require the risk and work of developing and nurturing a true intimate relationship.
Just as pornography isolates the inner person from his or her body, those who become pornography addicts become more and more isolated as they retreat from real, connected, and deep relationships with others. Though pornography is a fantasy, addicts often use it as a substitute for real intimacy.
Some feel that though most of porn is degrading, there exists such a thing as "feminist" porn, where women choose to take part and are in control. I feel, however, that whenever a person's sexual parts are used or viewed outside a loving relationship, the person is objectified. Even in "feminist" porn, women's most private bodily parts are sought after, without the knowledge of their hopes, dreams, thoughts, fears, etc. "Empowering porn" to me sounds like "empowering cutting." I, myself, used to cut in order to feel more in control. I, myself, have dressed and acted "sexily" in order to feel powerful. But cutting did not empower me and neither did using my body to stimulate men. They merely gave me illusions of power, while reinforcing the lie I believed about myself that I was a thing to be used, or that it was okay if others saw me as an object. Being looked at by others as something less than a person is degrading. What has truly empowered me is beginning to believe that I am a person with profound dignity, and the presence of others who treated me with great respect (even when I didn't believe that I was worth that respect).
It is well-known that victims of trauma will often recreate their trauma in an attempt to make sense of it. That is why girls growing up in an abusive home will often marry an abuser, or why kids with an alcoholic parent will often become an alcoholic. Dr. Mary Anne Layden, a clinical psychologist writes,
Most strippers, as with other women who work in the sex industry, are adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Research indicates the number is between 60%-80%. One study found that 35% of strippers have Multiple Personality Disorder, 55% had Borderline Personality Disorder, and 60% had Major Depressive Episodes. These are severe psychiatric problems and many of them are connected to childhood sexual abuse. These are women who when they were little girls would get into their beds each night and roll themselves into a fetal position and every night he would come in and peel her open. The physical and visual invasion of little girl's bodies damages them psychologically and gives them a psychologically unhealthy view of sexuality. Often as adults they reenact their childhood trauma by working as strippers, Playboy models, and prostitutes. The men who, now as customers, physically and visually invade the adult women's bodies, reenact the role of the perpetrator. These women work in the sex industry because it feels like home.
It makes me sad that those who do not know their incalculable value do not have hordes of people to raise them up and show them their true worth, but instead have many people willing to exploit and reinforce the falsehood that they are things.
Aside from learning that I am not a thing, another invaluable lesson that I have learned in my life is that human dignity is an absolute. Nothing can take a person's dignity away. Nothing a person does, and nothing someone does to another, can take away his or her dignity. Dignity is ours. May we live according to this truth and communicate this truth to others—especially to those who are in need of hearing it most.