The Culture of Pornography & Committment Phobia

December 17th, 2004 - 8:00 AM PST

By John Mallon
© 1992, 2004 By John Mallon

Everyone today has heard of the problem of “commitment phobia.” That is, a situation where a couple goes out together for a long time until it seems that it would be logical to take the step of engagement and marriage; but one of the parties, usually the man, starts to claim that he isn’t ready yet, or can’t make a commitment. The woman, of course by now has made quite an investment already and can hear her “biological clock” ticking away. She would like to have children and the security of marriage, but he just gets cold feet—or a cold sweat—whenever the topic comes up.

The problem seems quite vexing but I think the reasons for it are quite clear: It is the logical outcome of living in a pornographic culture—a culture of of so-called “free sex” which has created a great deal of isolation, until it is basically a culture of masturbation. I will never forget the pathetic scene created a few years ago by a group of Boston College feminists led by a condom dispensing male professor when they attempted to disrupt a lecture by Professor Janet Smith who was speaking on the evil of artificial contraception from the context of the beauty of human love.

When Professor Smith spoke about the spiritual riches to be mined in the life of a marriage from periodic abstinence within a program of Natural Family Planning, this tragic mob howled, as if from the pit of Dante’s inferno, “What about mutual masturbation? What about mutual masturbation?” —as though they were being deprived of food and water. Nor shall I forget the desolate sadness and introspection on these women’s faces when Professor Smith went on to speak of Pope John Paul’s vision of the beauty of tender committed human love. They’d never heard it before. Up till then they’d been sold a bill of goods. (See The Observer of Boston College; January, 1990)

Without love, and without marriage, sexual activity is out of its workable context and becomes an insatiable addiction. The stages of psychological development freeze at the point an addiction sets in. That is why so many men in our society have remained in adolescence far beyond their teenaged years. Most men in our society have grown up with the idea that any form of sexual activity, including promiscuity, and masturbation, supported by soft-core pornography, is something good, something healthy, now that we’ve been “liberated” from all those old fashioned mores, and silly tales of going blind or growing hair on the back of one’s hands. Also, there is the matter of the exaggerated guilt which accompanies this subject resulting from poor pastoral practice—and then exaggerations about poor pastoral practice itself.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that the actions we perform play a large role in the way we are formed. Sex, by its very nature is the fountain of life, and the center of human union, union being the chief desire of the human heart. Therefore, any kind of sexual activity affects us profoundly to our very depths. This affects us in many ways, not the least of which are developmental, emotional, spiritual, and psychological, in the formation of our world view and how others fit into it.

So the man who begins a fantasy sexual life in his early adolescence, as so many men of today have, with the use of soft-core pornography, such as Playboy magazines, gets a habit deeply ingrained in his psyche linking a false idea of female perfection with an ideal fantasy harem. None of the members of his fantasy harem has any qualms about his fantasizing about another woman, and even seem to approve, because that is all the woman’s eyes in those photographs ever communicates. She is all approving, all understanding, and lovingly naked—for him. His stable of concubines is a big happy family who exist all and just for him. If one has rounder breasts, or another a cuter face, or another a firmer derriere no one minds! No one gets hurt or jealous. Hence he is free to always search for that more perfect woman—each month. But always has the old ones to fall back on and they never mind.

Now, translate this mindset, firmly formed, and deeply linked to this man’s patterns of needs into the real world of real women and real love affairs. At first he is all hearts and flowers, candy, cards, presents, dinner and dancing, until she starts to like it and believes he really cares for her—and he does. But can he commit to just one? To her alone? Or is he always scanning the horizon for something (as opposed to someone) “better”? Is he capable of truly loving a woman or merely addicted to adolescent romantic fantasy linked to sexual gratification—which is now unquenchable by one woman?

He will weep with sincere frustration that she can’t tolerate his desire for more and others. He is accustomed to the unquestioning sweetness and acceptance of his paper harem, and genuinely can’t understand himself, and feels guilt over the sense that he is using this real live woman, unconscious though it may be, in the same way. She’s fed up, he’s in terror, facing more rejection, shame, and terrible loneliness, doesn’t know what happened, and can’t help himself. Such is the way of sin.

This process is not merely limited to the all-too-common chronic masturbator. The same principles also carry over to the Don Juan—the promiscuous male (or female) for whom the term “dating” is equated with sex. Either way, it is still a fantasy world of concubinage that destroys one’s ability to love, and creates a cynicism towards trust—which is obviously a necessary component of loving commitment.

The so-called sexual revolution has liberated no one, but rather has thrust us deeper into isolation and loneliness and cynicism and has left many of its adherents to grow old alone. And women have paid the highest and most conspicuous price, as they always do when sexual mores are loosened.

The preventative to this gloomy prospect has always been found in the traditional Catholic Teaching on sexual morality, rightly understood in all its metaphysics, mysticism, spirituality, anthropology—and beauty—in the context of the order of creation. It is these teachings that are in accord with the way we were made, and the way the world works.

We are whole beings, and our sexuality cannot be split off from the rest of our instincts for permanence, love, and family, for the sake of temporary pleasure without tragic results—anymore than the procreative aspect can be split off from the unitive aspect of our sexuality without damaging that very union. A fragmented self cannot commit, much less give.

Some misguided theologians have wrongheadedly located Catholic sexual morality within an arbitrary context of guilt, instead of viewing it in its proper light as an expression of God’s loving concern for our well-being and happiness, worthy of attendance and self control in our own best interest. Any “punishment” incurred by violation (provided it is not a matter of cold, knowing, willful rebellion) is simply a matter of the damage we are doing to ourselves by pushing ourselves into an evermore pathetic state, that cannot help but damage others as we hurt ourselves.

Just as the preventative is in the Church, so is the cure, in the recognition that rebellion against creation is sin. Regardless of the guilt incurred, damage has been done. And that there is healing in the Blood of Christ. We are washed by it in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and nourished and strengthened by it in the Eucharist—which is also the sacrament of union—with Christ our Bridegroom, and with others in His Body the Church. To sin is to become a victim, a slave; when God created us to be free. Free of isolation, free to love, free to enter into the freedom and joy that commitment brings in the bond of the sacrament of the Matrimony. Freedom that is lost in sexual sin.

© John Mallon, 1992

Originally published in The Observer of Boston College, April 1992,
which John Mallon served as associate editor.
And from the unpublished collection by John Mallon,
"Common Sense Spirituality"
Quoted in the book, Quest For Love, by Elisabeth Elliot, Revell, 1996
-- John Mallon is contributing editor for Inside the Vatican magazine

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Keywords:  Dating, Catholic teaching, sexuality, committment phobia, John Mallon, sexual ethics, pornography