Atheists for Opressive Modesty Culture

Alain de Botton’s essay on pornography seemed generally well received by those used to beating the anti-porn drum to near universal indifference or mockery. I found it rather disheartening–if a public atheist is going to join the Church’s stance against sexual vice, must he merely parrot the reasoning offered by said Church’s most sexist elements?

De Botton starts to flounder when he elides porn and sexual desire in general. A traditionally (but by no means intrinsically) male vice becomes the reference point for robust sexual desire; the sexist assumption that sexuality is male, that men are the sexual subjects in whose concupiscent dramas women play supporting roles, persists unchecked throughout the entire piece.

This assumption leads him to the kind of subjugating reverence for the power of beauty (and, as sexual subjectivity is inherently male, beauty here is inherently female) I’d expect more from some poor 16 year old boy hopped up on Christopher West.

The secular world reserves particular scorn for Islam’s promotion of the hijab and the burka. The idea that one might need to cover oneself up from head to toe, because believers might lose their focus on Allah after seeing someone scantily clad, seems preposterous to the guardians of secularism. Could a rational adult really change their life on account of the sighting of a pair of beguiling female knees or elbows?”

De Botton seems to think the answer is yes, and perhaps he is right. But that’s immaterial. Women do not exist primarily or solely to be looked at by men, and I do not need to cover my disruptive, titillating female body so the men can get back to their important, spiritual, rational lives. My knees and elbows belong in public space every bit as much of a man’s.

He continues in the same vein, before offering a defense of the aft mentioned “severely affacted.”

“Would one not have to be mental weakling in order to be severely affected by a group of half-naked teenagers sauntering provocatively down the beachfront?”

What exactly does a provocative saunter look like? Something like… just walking down the beach? Has it ever occurred to Botton that those teenagers whose walk he finds so wanton might just be taking a walk and enjoying sunshine and salt without parsing how some random onlooker is sexualizing their movements?

When men are the only sexual subjects, women are only sexual objects. Female attractiveness is conflated with sexual action, and men are allowed to unilaterally assume mutual sexual engagement based on an internal and subjective desire. Any outfit, any movement, any action can become “provocation.” Bizarrely, Botton is allowed the language of passivity and resistance–he is a weakling severely affected by these instigators and aggressors, those provocateuses sauntering towards him–even though he is the one projecting his own sexual stance upon a bunch of complete (and underage) strangers.

I am no friend to pornography, as a Catholic, as a feminist, as someone who would like to fillet anyone who tries to corrupt the sexual sensitivity of her younger siblings.

But, as someone who believes that my faith actually has some content, I don’t have to swallow every cultural taboo, sexist trope, or faddish formulation jumbled pell mell under the moniker “religion” by someone searching for beautiful museum pieces with which to furnish his moral life.

Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials.”

The Catechism is strangely silent on the dangerous power of female beauty. Catholics and atheists alike, take note.

Poetry Wednesday



Poet to watch: Madeleine Fentress, who published this gem at Commonweal recently.

It reminded me of another meditation from a walk-on role in the life of Christ. 

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.


–T.S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi”