20pluscommunitydigestion

There is a great difference in excellency, usefulness, and comfort between people of clear, digested knowledge, and confused, undigested apprehensions. -Richard Baxter

pornography: a form of suicide

Pornography: ubiquitous, an inordinately lucrative industry, it’s very definition debated in the highest corridors of public discourse, and a devastation to innumerable relationships and careers.

This is an imagined story of what is probably an all too real experience, repeated more often that we’d care to know.

 

There was nothing particularly noteworthy about Richard.  He garnered neither many complaints nor many compliments.  He, like many his age, had parents who loved him, but they had their own marital problems-sometimes so severe their caustic words sprayed at each other like acid.  Richard and his siblings, while still children, had always felt paralyzed whenever their parents fought, desperate for them to stop the angry shouting but never knowing how to intervene.  As teenagers they resigned themselves to living in their parents line of fire and quietly retreating whenever tempers flared.

Richard had always worn the shy hat around girls, increasingly interested in the opposite sex but never quite knowing how to take the first step to meet some girl who struck his fancy.

From his earliest days his guy friends would find the occasional girly picture ripped from some “naughty” magazine lying near some dumpster.  Outwardly they giggled at the strange pictures of women but inwardly they marveled.  They supposed these must be the things men and women do that kids their age weren’t allowed to watch in rated-R movies or on late-night television.  At the time, Richard didn’t think much about what he’d seen but did realize that such material did clear up some growing questions in his mind about boys and girls.  Plus, it awakened certain feelings in him that he enjoyed.

Growing up, Richard was by no means a loner.  His collection of friends stretched across grades and across that uncodified caste system of jocks, skaters, beauties, and geeks.  But when it came to relating to girls, Richard’s awkwardness was palpable.

When adolescence had set in with all its hormonal fury, neither of Richard’s parents had taken the time to prepare him for the kinds of changes he was undergoing.  Nor had they mentioned how those “icky” girls would slowly become something intriguing, perhaps even attractive. At some point that Richard could not pin down in his own mind, girls had changed from a thing to be avoided, taunted, or outdone to something to be noticed, admired, even approached-though the latter felt almost out of the question since females seemed so different and therefore so foreign.

About half way through high school his parents’ marital problems intensified.  It seemed the fights got louder, the fallout period lasted longer, and the distance between them grew wider.  While some kids in similar circumstances might turn to alcohol or some other substance to escape the pain of living in a war zone, Richard had seen too many drunk-driving accidents and heard too many stories about drug overdoses.  Whatever their ability to take the edge off, drugs or alcohol, he thought, were both too difficult to conceal and too dangerous to get entangled with.  But he did remember something else that made the troubling complexities of his world fade away for a time-a substance that left neither odor on the breath nor visible mark on the body.  Inspired by mere curiosity months earlier, a friend of his had ordered some pornography off the Internet, first, just to see if he could get away with it, and second, to find out what all the excitement was about.  The intrigue was fueled by a number of abiding questions: What could be so interesting that every other website had some link to an “adult site?”  Why did so much of the banter in the locker room after gym-class coalesce around the physical dimensions of various girls?  Why did most parents seem to be holding out on their kids in discussing sex when so much of their media intake was rife with sexual themes?

So when Richard finally borrowed “the tape” from his friend, a whole new world opened up for him.  Never had he seen the kinds of things portrayed on that tape.  Never had anyone told him of the kinds of emotions seeing that material would evoke in him.  Other things had mesmerized him as a child-mostly the things he’d seen displayed in toy store windows at Christmas.  But this material took his breath away and helped him forget the difficulties at home for a time-and all seemingly without the consequences associated with alcohol or drugs.  Sure, he would have to conceal his interest, but getting caught with it seemed to be the only possible harm-a variable for which he could easily control.

Whatever inhibitions he might have had about obtaining his own tape or magazine slackened over time.  After weeks of cherishing his friend’s tape, Richard took the plunge to buy his own material.  His intrigue had germinated into interest and now blossomed into a pursuit.  What he saw provided him with something he wanted, but of a kind that required nothing of him: a kind of knowledge about the opposite sex and about his own mysterious longings for closeness.  Although his parents had, by their silence, refused to address those issues, both curiosities had emerged over time and lingered there, refusing to depart.  The shortcomings he felt at relating to girls seemed to pale in importance now that he could-at his own discretion-invite himself into a world full of delicious sights in which he was asked to give nothing in return.  To him it seemed this was free excitement.  In truth there was a cost to his pursuit.  Aside from the financial investment-an expenditure that grew proportionally to his growing affinity for such material-a careful observer might have noticed how he was becoming more isolated as his attention to this fascinating world ramped up.  With that uptick in time spent came a necessary increase in the energy exerted to conceal his hidden exploration.  As that exploration became a habit for him, unconsciously was his exposure to pornography shaping the way he viewed a number of things: the nature of sex, his view of what was beautiful, and what formed the basis of real closeness with a female.  So many teachable moments his parents could have capitalized upon had come and gone-moments they thought would come again and at some “better” time.  How many images or notions of sexuality had passed before their collective eyes as they watched television as a family that could’ve served as the first step into a discussion of sexuality-images and notions left unaddressed but which were nonetheless contributing to Richard’s secret habit?

His avid interest in pornography never led him toward the overtly destructive world of exploitation or violence.  How someone like Ted Bundy connected the dots between exposure to pornography and sexual assault or even murder, Richard couldn’t fathom.  His appreciation for pornography was never so consuming that he entertained breaking the law to feed his habit, but that appreciation was never far from him-even after he broke the impasse of his own awkwardness with girls by trying out the dating scene through trial and error.  When finally he overcame his apprehension of spending extended time with girls, he found their world to be more complicated than he’d bargained for and not nearly as exciting as the solitary one he’d known before and would return to whenever stresses grew.

Then, in his mid-20’s, Lacy entered his life and turned it upside down.  She won his heart only after a few weeks of dates.  The idea of marriage for the first time entered his head and wasn’t quickly ushered out.  She had made a lasting impression: gorgeous, articulate, adventurous-even a bit feisty.  His enamoring gave way to imagining life forever with her as a spouse.  And during those heady days of courtship and honeymoon, all interest in the alluring world of pornography ceased.  He thought he’d found beauty and closeness that would attenuate the appeal for more salacious images.  Yet when the novelty of new marriage wore off and the reality of day-to-day living set in-warts and all-Richard’s mind returned to an earlier way of thinking.  Intimacy came easily between them early in the marriage but as their combined wills collided in the rough and tumble of marriage, obtaining that same intimacy required more effort.  Before his married days, pornography had provided Richard an avenue, if you will, toward sexual gratification.  It was an avenue that (to continue the metaphor) didn’t require traversing through the meandering side-streets of honest communication, or patient listening, or genuine empathy, or trust.  No, it was a mere b-line to pornography to find what now took increasing effort to enjoy with his wife.  Hesitantly at first but with increasing temerity as time went on, Richard renewed his exposure to pornography.  Concealing the exposure took more effort than it ever had, now that he lived in such close quarters with another.

A panoply of thoughts swirled inside him concerning his reawakened preference for this on-demand gratification:  “Looking at other women-what real harm could it do?”  “We both enjoy art; this is just another art-form.”  “Lacy just doesn’t understand my need for sexual intimacy; what’s wrong with finding it in a way that involves no one else?  I get what I need without asking her to give what she isn’t willing to give at that moment.”  In the Parliament of his own mind, the voices justifying his pornographic escapade narrowly edged out those voices warning him of its potential consequences.  To placate the latter, he vowed to keep the interest concealed since, he thought, she’d never understand even the best argument for his behavior.  His vow, however, could not guarantee his intent.  Cleaning out the clutter from the cabinet beneath their bathroom sink, Lacy made a discovery that sucked the breath out of her.  Interspersed randomly among his stacks of Popular Mechanics, Smithsonian, and Newsweek, were his cherished issues of “intimate art.”  With tears welling up and a face red with rage, she walked downstairs with surprising calm to confront him, clinching a single issue filled with photos of these uninvited bedroom guests.  As he sat in the living room eating a sandwich and watching a football game, she approached him, and slammed the evidence of his secret recreational activity upon his plate.  Saying nothing, her face said everything.  Whatever “peace” he’d conjured earlier within himself earlier about his activity suddenly evaporated.  Whatever certitude he’d had about the appropriateness of his behavior vanished.  He could take her gaze for only the slightest of moments before his embarrassment drove his eyes violently downward.  What had once seemed to be a merely frivolous activity of marginal cost now appeared, by the look in her eyes, incalculably expensive.  In that same moment, another revelation began to take shape for him.  At first, dimly, but then with increasing clarity could he see the series of ostensibly insignificant choices and circumstances in his past whose aggregate effect now shone upon him in searing brightness. . . .

Annie Dillard describes how Eskimos would catch wolves by slathering their hunting knives in seal blubber, allowing the thin coat of fat to freeze, and then burying the knife’s hilt in the snow with the blade pointing upward.  Soon, a wolf would catch the scent of the blubber and proceed to lick the blade until his tongue, savoring the fat but numbed by the icy coating, began to bleed from an unwitting, self-inflicted wound.  The more the wolf licked, the more the blood flowed, the more savory his feast became-until, of course, the wolf bled to death, the victim of his own ignorant, and ultimately destructive appetite. What the wolf thought he was enjoying was, in the end, killing him, and all by his own efforts.

The same scenario still plays out today, far from the icy climes of Eskimo territory, among men whose appetites prove self-destructive.

PRL–9/2003

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