#MeToo, Harvey Weinstein, Pornography, and the Ironies of Sex

Webster’s dictionary defines ironic as “strange or funny because something (such as a situation) is different from what you expected.” You expect something to be one way, but it turns out very different, often in a surprising, funny, and/or sad way. Some examples:

  • The most shoplifted book in America is the Bible.
  • On his deathbed, Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, asked for whiskey.
  • William Eno, who invented the stop sign, crosswalk, and traffic circle, never learned how to drive.
  • The first man to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel died after slipping on an orange peel.
  • None of the song lyrics in Alanis Morissette’s song, “Ironic” are examples of irony. As Morissette herself allegedly said, “the irony of ‘Ironic’ is that it’s not an ironic song at all.” (source)

But … do you know what aspect of our lives is probably most filled with ironies? Sex. And most of them are sad. Let me demonstrate:

It’s ironic that something designed to express and build intimacy between two people often becomes the thing that destroys intimacy (through betrayal and abusive behavior).

It’s ironic that something we spend so little time actually doing takes on such an important role in so many people’s lives. People spend so much time thinking, worrying, fantasizing, working towards it … and so little time doing it.

It’s ironic that something that is natural and universal in all animals and human beings is such a source of embarrassment and shame for so many people.

It’s ironic that something designed for expressing and building love becomes used to express hatred and violence (through abuse and sexual assault).

It’s ironic that something that is talked about and portrayed so openly in our society is also something that people feel so much shame about, and wind up struggling alone in. So many people struggle with their sexual desires and problems, feeling that they’re the only ones … while such problems are common to many.

It’s ironic that something talked about and portrayed so often in our society — to the point where it seems like everybody else must be doing it all the time — is found to be happening in real life less and less. Research shows that, despite the prevalence of the “hookup culture” among the young, people in the Millennial generation are less sexually active than other generations in memory (source). And also, whether it be stress, overwork, obesity, aging, the availability of pornography and other artificial forms of sexual experience … couples are having actual sex in surprisingly small numbers. Researchers tell us that about 20% of marriages are virtually “sex-less” (source), and in Japan it’s closer to 50%. (source)

Pornography carries an irony of its own. It’s ironic that this thing that seems to glorify and encourage sex actually robs the user of the enjoyment and experience of the real thing. Porn users become like people addicted to playing FIFA soccer on their video console, and never playing the real game. (source)

THE GREAT SEX IRONY

Those ironies are interesting, but pale in comparison to the chief irony about sex — and the most sad of all:

Sex is a beautiful gift
and is the source of great joy and pleasure …
yet it’s also the source
of tremendous pain and suffering for many

I certainly see this in the people I work with who are dealing with sexual compulsivity. Sexual obsession and behaviors increasingly take over one’s life, and turns it into a nightmare. And it certainly creates a nightmare for partners, friends, and family members of the sex addict.

I see this as the leader of and counselor in a spiritual community. I see single people struggling with their sexuality, married people struggling with sexual disappointments and betrayals, and many people — especially women — struggling with sexual harassment and /or the aftermath of sexual assault.

By the time this story gets published, the discussion about the #MeToo posts on social media and the Harvey Weinstein scandal will probably seem like old news, but they warrant further discussion. It would have been easy to dismiss a case like Weinstein’s as something remote and extreme (although undoubtedly the level of power he wielded in the high profile entertainment world is unique). But sadly, the toxic blend of objectification, manipulation, and lechery is present almost everywhere in our culture.

Pretty much every woman I know has had to deal with unwanted sexual attention and advances. Many are dealing with heart-wrenching experiences of sexual trauma — some kind of invasive sexual experience they did not want or consent to. Many are dealing with heart-wrenching experiences of sexual betrayal — where someone who professed to love and be committed to them looked elsewhere for sexual gratification.

I have heard more than one person say these words exactly — and many say a variation of it —

“Sex is supposed to be such a blessing,
but it’s been more of a curse for me.
It’s brought much more pain than pleasure.
Sometimes I wish there wasn’t even such a thing as sex.”

How about you? Can you identify with this?

We need to stop thinking and talking about sex like a bunch of school children, and realize how powerful, dangerous, and fragile it is. Yes we need to celebrate it, and encourage the healthy expression of it. But we need to recognize how confused so many people are about it, and how broken so many of our experiences with it have been.

We need to be much more sensitive to the dynamics of power and manipulation that are often present in relationships between sexes, and be very clear about what consent really means.

LET’S TALK ABOUT PORNOGRAPHY …

To that end I’m reminded of how, once again, pornography is NOT our friend.

We need to be clear about this, so let’s start with a caveat: Pornography is not a monolith … there are different kinds of media that we might consider pornography, ranging from romantic erotic material, to hardcore, to sadistic and illegal material. But there is a bent, a direction towards which pornographic — even softcore erotic — material pushes people: away from intimacy with an actual person towards fantasy and objectification. To use spiritual terms, it feeds people’s lust, which is all about gratifying the ego’s desire, rather than embracing the other. And further, as porn gets more hardcore, it erases the boundaries of healthy relationship altogether — including consent — promoting objectification, and sometimes even degradation, of the other person.

Back in 2007, I wrote an article about the Eight Lies that Pornography Tells Us. Granted the nuance I just talked about above, I still think this list stands, and is helpful. It’s also helpful to think about what these lessons mean for the issue of sexual harassment and assault. Please understand that I’m not saying that porn use is the cause of this problem. Harassment and assault are about a blend of power, objectification, and sexual gratification … and they were happening long before pornography ever was a “thing.”

But take a look at the list below … I’m sure you’ll agree that at the very least, pornography makes things worse. And keep in mind the really scary part about porn: it has become the defacto sex education vehicle for young people in our generation. Here’s what they’re learning (skewed towards the male perspective):

Lesson #1 — Women are bodies to possess and enjoy, not people to relate to
Lesson #2 — A woman’s value depends on the attractiveness of her body
Lesson #3 — “No” doesn’t really mean no
Lesson #4 — It’s okay to degrade women
Lesson #5 — It’s okay to sexualize — and even have sex with — children
Lesson #6 — Porn and prostitution are glamorous
Lesson #7 — Women are instantly turned on and always demonstrative
Lesson #8 — Sexual behavior doesn’t have consequences

Sex is amazing, and it’s a great gift. It creates life. It enables couples to bond together in a way that nothing else can. But it can also be a curse. It can create immense suffering. It can enable couples to be alienated from each other. It’s obvious that our society is filled with people in pain because of sex.

As knowledgeable as we are about sex, as much education as there is, and as many laws as we have about what constitutes consensual sexual activity … you’d think we would be better at this than we are. And now we have porn to occupy our time, to be an outlet for people to get their sexual needs met, to keep people from having to pressure their partners or hurt other people.

How well do you think that’s working? Isn’t that ironic?