‘Don Jon’ and the Damage Porn Does

‘Don Jon’ and the Damage Porn Does

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The influence, prevalence and acceptance of pornography in our culture has been spreading for decades now. And for much of that time, Christians have been at the forefront of describing and decrying porn’s pernicious effects upon those who use it. (More recently, we as the church have also begun to tell the hard truth about how much pornography is also an issue for many who seek to follow Jesus.) You don’t have to tell most believers that pornography takes God’s beautiful gift of sexuality and removes it from its rightful context, marriage, then distorts and debases it in the name of self-centered gratification and indulgence.

In our mainstream secular culture, however, pornography hasn’t always been viewed as a damaging social evil. Many voices dismiss it as harmless. Or a rite of passage for adolescent boys. Others say it can even be an aid to a couple’s sex life by helping them spice things up, so to speak. Still others have framed the pornography debate in terms of rights and free speech. Actress Amanda Seyfried, for instance, who recently played the part of influential porn actress Linda Lovelace in the film Lovelace, said of the United Kingdom’s attempt to limit pornography’s access to minors, "You can't put a ban on it. I mean, kids under age are still drinking. It just makes it that much more powerful. It's freedom. You should be free to watch it whenever you want."

Interestingly, however, some folks in the mainstream culture are also beginning to question whether pornography is really so benign and whether it’s alleged “benefits” are real … or perhaps the gateway to relationship-destroying addiction. For example, the new film Don Jon, starring, written and directed by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, portrays a young lothario coming to the realization that his deeply entrenched pornography addiction may be crippling his ability to find genuine intimacy in the real world with a real woman.

In a recent interview with Fox News regarding his film, Gordon-Levitt said of his motivation for making it,

"I wanted to tell a story about how people sometimes treat each other more like things, than like people, and how the media can sometimes play a part in that. I've always paid a lot of attention to the reactions people have to movies and TV and things like that because I've been an actor since I was a kid and especially recently I've heard a lot people say ‘Why can't my life be like that movie you were in?’ or ‘Why can't I find somebody like you in that movie?’ and I find that a little startling because real life isn't like it is in the movies. Real life is actually a lot more beautiful and rich with detail and nuance, but you'll miss it if you're constantly comparing your real life to fantasies. So that's why I thought a story about a young man who watches too much pornography going out with a young woman who watches too many romantic Hollywood movies would be sort of a funny way to ask these questions."

In her article for Verily magazine focusing on Don Jon's critical take on pornography, Mary Rose Somarriba writes, "For Gordon-Levitt’s first written and directed feature film, Don Jon (which sensitive viewers should know is filled with porn clips) raises a good question: Does our culture have an unhealthy relationship with porn? Has it diminished our view of women, relationships, and sex in general? … Don Jon’s portrait of a porn user suggests at the very least that we might not be aware of its overall effects."

It's significant, I think, that people like Gordon-Levitt and others in our culture's mainstream are waking up to the reality that pornography isn't just a benign indulgence. Don Jon is generating lots of critical buzz, and it's got people talking, perhaps in some new ways, about the significance of this important subject.

That said, I also can't help but wonder if actually depicting these problematic images so graphically in a movie is still dangerously problematic for those who are wrestling with this issue. Don Jon is ultimately a cautionary tale, but it also gives viewers an eyeful — and a mind-full — of the very images it's ostensibly seeking to critique. In his review of the film for Plugged In, Paul Asay focused on exactly that point. "Don Jon's addiction is graphically realized onscreen. Countless porn clips are shown — edited just enough to keep the movie on the R side of an NC-17 rating."

And in his conclusion, Asay adds, "And there's still one more thing that plays out like a sinful lie in Don Jon: In exposing the lie of porn, it splashes tons of the substance of that lie up onscreen. Even as its characters tell us that it's empty, the images that flicker around their words continue to seduce and sing their siren song, leaving, for some, the already weakened moral beached and bereft of meaning."

I think that's a good word for Christians who might be curious about how Don Jon deals with the important issue of pornography. Gordon-Levitt has, it seems, crafted a story that reveals just how degrading pornography can be — even as it reveals quite a lot of the very subject its critiquing along the way.

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  • --So if the film is trying to expose porn as something so terrible, why does it show the bits and pieces of porn? It doesn't make much sense to me. If all this sexual garbage should not even exist, the film should not show the images.

  • --What's interesting is that in some ways, only a SECULAR movie starring/directing a well-known actor could really pull off this kind of movie in mainstream to get the message across.  If this were a Christian backed film made essentially covering the same issue, it A) probably wouldn't get widely distributed, B) probably wouldn't receive positive reviews by critics (in part simply because Christians produced it), and C) you'd definitely not get much of an audience outside of Christians who already know that porn is bad.  True, it doesn't quite make the leap to "well ALL sex outside of marriage, including premarital sex, is bad" and essentially sends the message that "it's OK as long as it's in a committed relationship and monogamous" I'm still surprised this film was made in the first place.

  • --What's also interesting is that the film reveals how even chick-flicks/rom coms can set people up for unrealistic expectations.  Now let me be clear that porn is not in the same ballpark as rom coms in terms of sinfulness.  However many would argue (including myself) that it certainly can create unrealistic expectations on how men ought to behave towards women just like porn can teach men that women behave in a certain way towards them.  And this false expectation can definitely lead to disappointment and relational issues.  Therefore, I'm not suggesting that ladies stop reading Jane Austen or Nora Roberts (but yes, DO stop reading 50 Shades of Grey), but seriously, some of that stuff in excess can't be that wholesome for you (I mean, have you seen some of those book covers?  Right there that almost shouts porn and what's inside likely has more sordid details between the pages).

  • --Jane Austen is wholesome even in excess. ;)

  • --An intriguing film it sounds like, I'll have to check it out.  Certain films I do think, just based on the subject matter... are best served by being very up front about the content.  The film 'Shame' comes to mind, which was about sexual addiction... and the main character's inability to have a real relationship because it.  

  • --That second wave feminism argument against pornography, that it treats women as objects, never really seemed to me to hold water. As human beings we are the very interplay of object and subject. We are embodied spirits. Sex that is completely in the spiritual realm with no bodily contact kind of misses the point that God intended. And yes, sex that is completely bodily without the spirit is dehumanizing.

    There are two kinds of depictions that we call pornography, though the one might be better termed erotica. On the one hand you have simple images of the human form. The idea is that the viewer is enjoying a thing a beauty, gazing upon a part of God's creation, contemplating the very image of God. This sort of depiction is all about the body and so would seem to be nothing but objectification. On the other hand, you have depictions of people having sex. The idea is that the viewer is imagining himself or herself joining one or more of the people depicted. This would seem to be worse than the other kind except if you are depicting people having sex then you are depicting people making each other happy. You're depicting agency. You are depicting that very interplay of object and subject that is all of us.

    And while erotica and pornography certainly seem to be bad things, there really isn't much to support that in the Bible. True, there is that one bit about committing adultery in ones heart but then Jesus goes right into the part about divorce, that "anyone who divorces his wife...causes her to commit adultery and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." Jesus affirms the Old Testament idea of adultery, that it is about violating the property rights of another man. It isn't the marital status of the man that makes it adultery, it is the marital status of the woman. As a married man it would be adultery to have sex with my neighbor's wife but not adultery if I had sex with my neighbor's daughter. So, as long as the woman depicted in the pornography aren't engaged, married or divorced and as long as the viewer isn't a woman who is engaged, married or divorced  then the viewing of the pornography wold be permitted.

    Be that as it may, I suppose we are all welcome to think of pornography as wrong or unhelpful. But to think that the depiction of the human form is garbage or the depiction of people engaged in sexual activity that is mutually affirming and pleasurable is garbage is a little over the top. The human form and sexual pleasure are both gifts from God and nothing that God has made is garbage.

  • Nemo,

    "And while erotica and pornography certainly seem to be bad things, there really isn't much to support that in the Bible."

    I won't wade into the area of erotica since that topic in my opinion is dicier (given Song of Songs is erotica, you can try and say that it isn't but really is by mainstream definition).

    However, porn is wrong because it's primary purpose is promote prurient feelings.  And even if Jesus' words were talking about adultery in the "looks after a woman lustfully" passage, to most the precedent is clear: lust in the heat equates to the act itself in a spiritual sense.  And although some may say it was focusing only on adultery, note that the Bible uses the term "sexual immorality" (porneia) which covers a variety of sexual sins (not explicitly specified).  Even Jesus notes that the two are separate sins (Matt 5:19).

    Now, what constitutes pornography is certainly debatable.  Ask 10 different people from around the world and you'll probably get 10 different answers.  Best to maybe paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, "I can't describe it but I know it when I see it"/

  • @Nemo, I hear you, but have you heard testimonies of ex-porn stars? They are gut-wrenching. Many are destroyed both physically and emotionally. Many develop substance addictions to cope. A large percentage of them were sexually abused as children and think they don't deserve anything except to be used. Some women believe they have no other way to survive financially. Most pornography nowadays portrays degrading and violent acts, not a couple mutually enjoying sex. Many people start out using vanilla pornography, then slowly grow bored with it, and have to seek out more and more extreme content to feel the same excitement.

    Not to mention the strong connection between human trafficking and pornography, and the harm pornography has done to marriages.              

  • Reminds me of the similar argument that always gets leveled at movies that try to criticize violence.  You have a movie like "Saving Private Ryan" that is supposed to portray the horrors of war, but then there is always someone who will argue that showing the violence in detail undermines the very anti-violence stance of the film.

    Personally I feel like some level of depiction of what you are trying to criticize is always necissary to get the message across, but that it shouldn;t be "gratuitous"  but of course what constitutes gratuitous is probably largely a matter of opinion.  I know some people thought "the Hunger Games" was gratuitous, but I would disagree on that (I didn't even think "Battle Royale" was that gratuitous, and it was a lot more intense than Games was).  if your going to criticize something, you've got to show it for what it really is, and show the consequences of that action.  Its hard for me to think of a film that doesn;t actually *show* what its critical of (wether its Violence or porn or something else) as still being effective in its message.  

  • @Alyson, One wouldn't expect too many people to get up in front of Church and testify about what a wonderful job they have performing in pornography. And yes, there are stories about ugly situations but there are also many stories of performers that love their work and come away from the experience feeling empowered. One would expect, though, that anyone who is interested in getting rid of pornography would play up the stories that demonstrate that it is bad and would ignore the stories that show that it is good. Lots of women have found their marriages to be abusive but that doesn't mean that the institution of marriage is a bad idea. Some women have had horrible experiences as performers. In the same way that first wave feminists worked to transform the institution of marriage to one where violence, emotional and physical, has no place--we often forget that is was once considered proper for a husband to discipline his wife by spanking, go watch some old episodes of I Love Lucy--in the same way, first wave feminists are now working to produce and promote pornography that is respects women as both performers and consumers.

    As to the harm done to marriages, if some woman divorces her husband because she can't get him to stop looking at dirty pictures then it's not the dirty pictures that are the problem. The problem is that she is trying to control him. And lets not loose sight of the marriages that are preserved because of pornography. There are many men and women who are miss-matched sexually. I would say that in those cases pornography is just masking the problem and that divorce would be a better option, that the marriage shouldn't be held together in the first place. But pornography is keeping those marriages together, nonetheless.

  • A friend on Facebook has just linked to a British article talking about this very topic.  They were interviewing children and the amount of porn they had been exposed to had really shaken the writer.  He, too, used to think porn was benign but once he saw the adictive force it had on the children and how some had ruined their lives because of it (kids still in their teens who flunked out of school and lost jobs because they spent all their free time watching it) he realized it was something he wanted to protect his own son from.  Also, the girls were complaining that their sexual encounters with boys were becoming increasingly violent due to the acts the boys were watching in porn and that the boys were trying to make them to measure up to the impossible standards and calling them gross names.  

    There is no way to guarantee that the actresses in porn are there voluntarily or even age of consent.  By consuming porn you are most likely feeding the demand for human trafficking.  And some of these women are abducted.  It's not like they signed up to be porn stars and then realized they were trapped.  They were taken from their homes under false pretenses.  These women could be your sisters, daughters, etc.  And what do you think happens to them when they become pregnant or old and "ugly"?  They're not retiring to a villa in France, that is for certain.  I didn't see the movie, but I saw a trailer for a movie based on this very topic.  It's a true story of a girl who managed to escape after being kidnapped into the industry.  The trailer showed how all the girls are underage and that once they hit 20 they are taken to the desert and shot.  And this happened in the States.

    And if porn simply showed two people genuinely sharing in their love for each other then it would be a different beast.  But honestly, is that really what is being depicted?  Some how I doubt it...

  • And I certainly don't think the human form is garbage and neither is sex.  But some things are meant to be private and exclusive.  I keep my sexual relationship with my husband private, not because I'm ashamed, but because it is precious and beautiful.  Taking it out into public makes it common and animal-like.

    And way to blame the woman for being hurt by her husband's porn use.  If a man would rather get his jollies from an imaginary woman and isn't satisfied by what his wife has to give then the wife is just supposed to be OK with that.  All right.  That makes total sense.

  • "But pornography is keeping those marriages together, nonetheless."

    False. Pornography does not satiate sexual desire, quite the opposite. It just makes people more and more aroused until they eventually satiate their desire with masturbation or sex. Using pornography for this purpose makes as much sense as saying, "I'm going to go watch food commercials so I'll feel less hungry."  

  • @TaraPW, I don't mean to suggest that pornography always depicts a living relationship, though it sometimes does that I'm told. But It often depicts mutual good will and benevolence, I'll call it.

    In the US there is a federal law that requires the checking of IDs and the keeping of records and this is taken very seriously, And ther are strict industry guidelines regarding the health and safety of the actors. Just because some pornography is exploitative of the workers doesn't mean that all pornography is like that in the same way that just because some coal mines are exploitative of the workers doesn't mean that all coal companies are like that.

    It is interesting, and counter intuitive, that pornography use correlates with reduced violence in a society but I'll agree that it still a bad thing for young people to get their sexual education and expectations from it. But if we really want our young people to have healthy, positive sex lives then we would need to educate them and help them to figure out just what they want and teach them to negotiate that with their sex partners. But then I'm pretty sure that we don't want our young people to be having healthy, positive sex lives. We don't want them to have any kind of sex life until they are older and married.

    I wasn't referring to the rare husband who would rather look at dirty pictures then have sex with his wife, I'm referring to the rather common husband who would rather have sex with his wife but his wife would rather not.

  • @Alyson, you're just not understanding male sexuality. And unfortunately I don't think that I could explain it to you without massively violating the forum rules and common, human decency.

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