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Porn, Religion and 'The New York Times'

A powerful piece about how porn shapes young people's views on sex made no mention of the students' faiths. Could they really be irrelevant?

February 15, 2018
 
 

The New York Times Magazine just published a typically insightful cover story on pornography and adolescents, with one glaring hole. The author, Maggie Jones, reported on her conversations with high school students who are taking porn literacy classes, underscoring the frightening point that pornography is essentially serving as sex ed for these young people.

I was struck by the identities that Jones chose to mention in the article. Gender obviously matters, and appropriately serves as the center of the piece. LGBT issues come up, largely in the context of how pornography can actually be affirming for gay kids who are coming to terms with that part of their identity. Race is mentioned, as is geography.

But religion – I couldn’t find a single meaningful reference to that.

This frankly flabbergasts me. In an entire article on the ways pornography warps how adolescents view sex and relationships, the author does not reflect a single time on how the religious identities of the youth in her study might matter. I am glad that the writer highlights that the youth she spoke with are white, black, Latino and Asian – those identities might well have had some impact on porn consumption and approaches to sex and relationships. But were there no Mormons, Muslims, Baptists, Catholics, Buddhists, Jews, Pentecostals, etc., among those kids? Did those identities have no relevance?

For the writer, the chief problem with porn is that it is shot from the male perspective, and thus pays too little attention to female pleasure. But, is pleasure the only value at stake in sex? How about bonding, union, dignity, maybe for some people morality.

Once you get into this territory, it is hard to ignore religion. After all, as the Times’ own David Brooks likes to point out, when you start speaking of character, you quickly learn that the traditions that have thought longest and deepest about ethics and related issues are religions. 

From a Muslim perspective, here is one thing I would bring up with young people about porn. There is a concept in Islam called the nafs – the lower self – and there is a call in the tradition to struggle against your nafs to realize your higher self. I would ask young people in a porn literacy class, as a question of self-reflection not shaming, whether (or in what conditions) consuming porn encouraged their higher selves or their lower selves.

There are of course, similar concepts in other religions. Some of my Buddhist friends talk about ‘right relationship’, for example. Such concepts do not strike me as especially puritanical or repressive, although religious traditions certainly contain some of those notions as well.

Here is the main point: pornography is a subject where religious identities are especially relevant and religious thought especially useful. Why would it be ignored? I mean, if we can talk about ejaculatory facials, we can talk about faith, right?    

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