Like a lot of teens of my generation, I discovered the novels of Kurt Vonnegut like a breath of fresh air apart from the assigned readings in my school. Vonnegut wrote what even he described as “trash” fiction, but he peppered his books with matter of fact recounting of historical events, some of which were based on facts and a lot of which were just snarky imagination. The book that made him famous was Slaughterhouse 5 which was full of both dark humor and bits of hope, as well as very frank exposés of how corrupt and hypocritical that people are, while reassuring readers that it didn’t really matter much because we’re all pretty messed up.
Though 50 years have passed since I read his work, I remember his account of the invention of the photograph in the early 19th century being followed up by an assistant to the inventor being arrested for trying to sell photographs of a woman having sex with a pony. Like any good fiction writer, Vonnegut gave specific names and places to the alleged arrest of André Le Fèvre, in the Tuileries Gardens, even though there is no historical reference to such an event.
Still, his point was fairly accurate. Pornography, sometimes exaggerated and disgusting pornography, has been a ubiquitous part of civilization since long before the erotic paintings in first century Pompey. The closest we came to pornography in my home of origin was the underwear section of the J C Penny catalogue and the nudity in the National Geographic magazines my uncle sent to me. But Vonnegut’s more earthy depiction of human depravity made me feel a lot less guilty about the occasional sojourns my adolescent friends and I were making into more ribald literature available at the local drug store.
Almost every museum of fine art contains more than one Renascence era painting of the martyrdom of St. Sebastien. And most visitors to those museums stop and look and ask themselves, “Who was St. Sebastien?” which is more or less the point. Historically and religiously, he is a minor character of third century Christianity who probably never existed, but the story goes that he was tied up to a post naked and Roman soldiers shot him with arrows.
That made him a perfect subject for artists as the world emerged from the Dark Ages because it gave them an excuse for painting an athletic nude male, even tied up in a kind of kinky way, add a few arrows and call it “religious art.” When its real purpose was something else entirely. For centuries, we have debated what is art and what is pornography, what is culture and what is indecent.
Most of us can remember when John Ashcroft was the Attorney General and the Justice Department spent $8,000 to put a blue drape to hide the bare breasts of the statue of Lady Justice in the Supreme Court building because, right-wing evangelical Ashcroft didn’t want her boobs showing when he gave a press conference in the Supreme Court. With the rather expensive drapes hiding Lady Liberty’s chest, we only had to see one boob during Ashcroft’s press conferences. But I digress.
It is all a bit reminiscent of Lilly Thomlin’s one woman show, The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe, in which she plays a delightfully schizophrenic street dweller who is trying to explain to some imaginary space aliens the difference between an Andy Warhol painting of a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup and a photograph of a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup. “This is art. This is soup. Art. Soup.”
The sad fact is that our civilization has just never been able to make sense of our sexuality. And pornography, as a part of our sexuality, confuses us even more. We are simultaneously repulsed and intrigued.
I was a seminary student in 1980 when my then-wife and I went to the only theater in the small Kentucky town where we lived to see, Blue Lagoon, which featured the 14-year-old Brook Shields in what is broadly considered now to be child pornography. I don’t think anyone would have called it “art” but no one at the time was calling it child porn. In fact, it got a PG-13 rating in 1980 but it would not be a film that could even be legally made today.
I did my clinical field education in local mental health offices and, in those years, you could still find copies of the first clinician’s reference book, the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders, on the shelves. It is now in its 5th edition, but the first edition listed homosexuality as a diagnosis of a mental disorder. The DSM II updated that in the mid 1970’s to “sexual orientation disorder” but homosexuality was considered to be a diagnosable disorder in one way or another right up until 1987.
The World Health Organization only removed it in 1992, though they retain a diagnosis called “ego-dystonic sexual orientation” which is still used to label homosexuals as having something inherently wrong with them. You see, determining who is sexually normal and who has some kind of mental illness or moral deficit is a moving target that even the world’s largest associations of the best trained psychiatrists and physicians cannot seem to either agree upon or get right.
Religious people often like to believe that their sacred scriptures outline a divine plan for sexual purity but, I have to tell you, as a biblical scholar, the preponderance of scripture supports not just polygamy but concubinage and it shrugs at capturing neighboring nation’s young females to become breeders within the tribe.
In modern times, most of us who try to find a defensible, ethical approach to human sexuality, have landed on concepts of informed consent. It is apparent that children cannot give consent but who is a child is a subject of debate in different times and places. It’s a touchy subject, but the Muslim prophet, Muhammad, consummated his marriage to a 7-year-old when she was just 9 years old.
While every state sets the minimum age for marriage at 18, every state also has loopholes for exceptions, with parental consent. In the first decade of this century, more than 160,000 girls were married under the age of 18, some as young as 12. This is, in my opinion, is tragic, I only mention it to say that, as a society, we are still a long way from clarity.
The two things we all seem to agree upon is that rape and sex with a child is always wrong. Some politicians still use the troubling term, “forced rape,” as if all rape is not forced and children, even when consenting participants, cannot ethically be considered capable of consent. Beyond that the #MeToo movement and preceding cases such as the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 have gone a long way towards educating us about sexual harassment that enlarges both the social ethics and legal conversations about sexual morals.
The sudden rise of the internet has complicated the sexual landscape. Much like Kurt Vonnegut’s clever but fictional account of how quickly photography was turned into a means of distributing pornography, the internet immediately became a means of accessing porn without going to a sleazy interstate highway sex shop and running the risk of encountering someone you know.
Early estimates were as high as 90% of internet traffic was pornographic but now that most of us have one or two computers logged on all of the time, we work on the internet, research, post, and socialize on the internet but still, more sober estimates indicate that more than a third of internet traffic is still pornography.
Given the diminishing returns from exposure to pornography, it tends to become increasingly rough, with more than 80% involving violence towards women and not a small amount involving children. Rape is illegal but watching a video portraying rape is a part of TV shows, movies, and most of the pornography on the internet.
Watching a child in a sexual act, however, is a crime for which many people are now serving time in a federal prison of up to 20 years. Though we seem ready to accept that watching a video that portrays rape does not cause the viewer to become a rapist, we still insist that watching child porn turns the viewer into a predator even though research shows that assumption to be false.
A friend of mine asked me to go to court with her when her son was being sentenced for possession of child porn. He was in his early 20’s. A nice kid who had some impulse control issues related to a bi-polar disorder. He never had sex with an underaged girl or made any attempt to do so, but in the privacy of his own room, without the knowledge of anyone else, he had fallen into a spiraling dark hole of watching porn that involved teenaged girls.
You might think that a person like that would be court ordered to receive counseling, they might be restricted from owning or having access to a computer or a smart phone. They might even be required to do a great deal of community service and report to a parole officer for three or four years.
No one, and least of all me, believes that viewing child porn is a victimless crime. There is a point of origin and those who produce these videos are worse even than what Kurt Vonnegut’s trashy imagination could cook up. But the people who accidentally find themselves wandering around these dark pages of the web, rarely know when they have crossed a boundary from what might be thought of as normal curiosity into a universe that is inherently evil. By the way, did all of you who saw the Blue Lagoon get up and walk out when you saw what it was about, or did you watch the whole movie?
But what happens to tens of thousands of young men like my friend’s son, is a 15 year sentence and a lifetime on a sex offender registry that governs where they can live, what kind of work they can do, and even what kind of assistance they can receive for education or job training. 99% of offenders are men. 83% are white. Only 5% have ever had sexual contact with a child.
Our judicial system barely makes a sentencing difference between a young man watching videos on his laptop in his bedroom, and a predator who snatches a child off of the street to rape and murder them. And, in fact, as the parents of any one of these thousands of young people in prison will tell you, if their son or daughter had merely shot and killed someone, they would get out of prison sooner, have a shorter parole, and they would not be on the career-ending, and in many ways, life ending, registry of sexual offenders.
With more than two million incarcerated Americans now and more than nine million on parole, we have clearly lost our way as a society, reflexively imprisoning people who need help, often, help with addiction.
Hundreds of thousands of people are in prison because they had a drug addiction and I feel like our judicial system is finally recognizing in more and more countries and in more and more states here in the USA that these people need treatment and not incarceration.
But we are hardly having a conversation about the absurdity of how people who become addicted to porn are being imprisoned and then forced to live with the stigma of being a sex offender for the rest of their lives.
I have participated in conferences and support groups for families of these people. I have published newspaper articles and written sermons, but I can tell you, it is hard to generate sympathy for people who are obviously over sentenced and chronically punished, because, somehow, this is still the unforgivable sin.
What I find to be especially sad among the families of these young men is that the whole family often finds themselves being ostracized and cut off from their families, their friends, and even their spiritual community.
I wish that we could be confident that our spiritual leaders would be experts in giving love and support to those who have made a mistake or even to those who have committed serial offenses but all too often we find churches, synagogues, and mosques to be ill-equipped to deal with sex crimes.
When you don’t know what to say, it would seem that you could at least sit and listen, but the unsavory nature of the crime makes most people want to avoid contact and to pretend that it didn’t happen.
When I was in grad school in the early 80’s, our professors confidently told us that pedophiles could not be cured, and that the perversion only tended to get worse and more violent. This was based on clinical opinions that were not supported by any meaningful research. Habitual viewers of child porn, porn addicts, and even child molesters generally do respond to treatment. Still, society is, generally speaking, altogether comfortable with viewing these offenders as being disposable people. Those who love them, parents, siblings, and friends often find themselves being shunned.
I don’t take these biblical accounts as being an accurate recounting of historical events; I think that they are moral lessons but whether you read it literally or, like me, you read it literarily, there is a story in the 9th chapter of John’s gospel about a time when Jesus and his disciples encounter a man who had been blind from birth, an indisputably sad thing. His disciples asked Jesus, “Whose fault is it that this man was born this way? Is it because of something he did or something his parents did?” Jesus is reported to have sidestepped the guilt question, avoiding laying blame, Jesus told him, “This man’s suffering is an opportunity for you do a good thing,” literally, to “play God.”
Those of us who would claim to be spiritual, or to be in favor of loving families or meaningful friendships, need to remember that our “super power” is the ability to show compassion in the midst of terrible and sad events. I have tried to make it clear that the rush to judgement in the case of those condemned to the sex offender list for life is exaggerated and almost always inappropriate.
That is not to say that they are innocent, but since none of us are innocent either, maybe we can dig deep for that better part of ourselves that can act to show mercy in other people’s darkest moments.
Dr. Roger Ray
The Emerging Church