Something New under the Sun: Hyper-Reality and Pornography
In a 2018 piece in New York Magazine, Max Read inquired, “How much of the internet is fake?” He asked this not so much about factual content or so-called “fake news,” but rather because “studies generally suggest that, year after year, less than 60 percent of web traffic is human; some years, according to some researchers, a healthy majority of it is bot.” Nonetheless, that observation carries deep implications for the possibilities of truth and its perception, beyond the mere unreliability of web page view counts or playback manipulation. Inversion is Read’s key insight, developed in a subsequent interview with NPR: “The inversion is the point at which there’s so much fakery going on that our natural ability to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s fake becomes inverted. And real things all of a sudden seem totally fake to us, and fake things have this sort of power and the presence of the real.”
. . . more recent forms of pornography allow product consumers to subscribe directly to content creators.Fake things that have the power and presence of the real are an ancient menace to humanity. In Plato’s allegory of the cave, those who have only known shadows will certainly kill anyone who might loosen their chains and invite them to encounter higher reality. According to the apostle Paul, we “exchanged the truth about God for a lie” to worship and serve creation rather than the Creator, and so became darkened in our understanding (Romans 1:24–25), and corrupting all of our faculties, including human sexual desire (Romans 1:26-32). There is indeed “nothing new under the sun,” as the grim refrain of Ecclesiastes reminds us, and temptations toward sexual immorality and adulterous desires in the heart have marked every generation.
Pornography of some form or another has a long history as a bare semblance that nonetheless carries a very real sense of presence and power to de-form its users. Beyond re-wiring how the human brain functions, as a habit or ritual, pornography trains its servants to relate to others newly through an objectifying gaze. The frustrated and defeated feel powerful and free, despite being ruled by desire and exploiting others. The bored chase a rush of exhilaration, only to crash onto doldrums requiring ever-more extreme highs. The lonely perceive themselves as chosen, like a partner to someone who has shared their most intimate and sacred parts of themselves, but without ever being known by another in the binding cords of commitment. Practitioners cultivate a subtle contempt toward all of humanity, recalibrating our sense of the worth of other human beings into categories of desirable and non-desirable objects for instant self-gratification.
A recent study at BYU illustrates that despite stereotypes, pornography is not merely used by teenagers and single young men, but a significant number of women, married people, and older people as well. There are efforts to denounce the companies who profit handsomely from hosting images and videos brazenly involving human sex trafficking, exploitation, rape, and child abuse. Only last December, The Dallas Morning News profiled how easily 6th graders and much younger children are effectively learning sex ed on their smartphones, not only from the deception of photoshopped images, but also from videos of rape and violent humiliation of women in particular.
However, The Economist’s 1843 magazine arguably profiled something new under the sun last week. According to 1843’s Sirin Kale, more recent forms of pornography allow product consumers to subscribe directly to content creators. Content creators retain more profit than they would using a publisher or studio, and can offer personal and exclusive images, videos, text, and even interactive calls with their subscribers. In other words, pornography in 2020 now allows users and providers to be in sympatico. One such creator confides that “[p]eople think that everyone who follows a girl on [a certain website] is being filthy, when in actual fact it’s just a lot of people who are lonely or unhappy in their marriages or who haven’t got a lot of friends . . . I have quite a few guys who have social anxiety and would love a girlfriend but can’t speak to girls.” A man named Andrew readily attested to the reality and presence of the fake in his own life:
This illusion of proximity is critical to [the website’s] appeal. “Hardcore porn is easy to come by, but a relationship with a girl is hard to get,” explains Andrew, a 42-year-old engineer from Sheffield. “But with [this site] you get it.” He’s been following [a content creator] since September 2018 and estimates he spends around £300 a month on her page. He believes that she does care for him. “If I go quiet and don’t take part in things for a few days, she notices and will start messaging me and asking me how I am.” I ask Andrew if it feels like [they] are in a relationship. He pauses. “It’s difficult to define,” he says finally. “There are times when it feels like we almost are a couple.”
Despite Andrew’s occasional sense that they are like a couple, the purveyor of his relationship is rather frank about about the economic realities of relational supply and demand:
[She] knows she is in the business of digital intimacy. Through a constant stream of content and messages she indulges the fantasy that her customers could go out with a woman just like her. (Tellingly, followers prefer it when [she] posts make-up free selfies, because they feel more like the sort of image a girlfriend would send.) As I prepare to leave [her] home, . . . I ask [her] if she thinks her followers crave intimacy. “A million percent,” she responds swiftly. “Porn is all over the internet. This isn’t the same. My fans aren’t paying for porn. They’re paying to have a personal experience, one-on-one, with a girl.”
During the stress of a global pandemic and boredom of being stuck at home during social distancing, big pornography companies have sought to take advantage of this time, and statistically they are booming. Pornographic media is nothing new, but how prepared are contemporary Christians to live in an age flooded with this latest iteration—or, perhaps better, apparition—of pornography? With the rise of realistic sex robots and rapidly developing opportunities for pseudo-relationships with sexual content creators, past concerns about magazines and videos, or public declarations in Utah of porn as a public health hazard, seem like a mere similitude compared with how realistic, or better than reality, today’s similitudes can appear.
Alongside affirming the goodness and high dignity of being called to eschatological singleness (1 Corinthians 7), Christians today can reclaim the goodness of marriage as having a paradoxical and inimitable glory.On May 20, 2020, the Canadian government charged a teenager with terrorism for his violent attacks on women associated with online “incel” (involuntary celibate) groups; that same day, an Arizona shooter who injured three people targeted couples considered himself an incel. The new inversion point of content-subscriber pornography is not a healthy reprieve for socially anxious men, but arguably a corrupting incubator for self-destruction, perverse resentment, and violence against women and other vulnerable human beings.
Though not writing about pornography, David Graeber’s 2012 essay captures the “hyper-reality” belying its most recent forms:
The technologies that have advanced since the seventies are mainly either medical technologies or information technologies—largely, technologies of simulation. They are technologies of what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco called the “hyper-real,” the ability to make imitations that are more realistic than originals. The postmodern sensibility, the feeling that we had somehow broken into an unprecedented new historical period in which we understood that there is nothing new; that grand historical narratives of progress and liberation were meaningless; that everything now was simulation, ironic repetition, fragmentation, and pastiche—all this makes sense in a technological environment in which the only breakthroughs were those that made it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we came to realize, never would.
In addition to content-subscriber pornography, similar developments that seem more real than than the originals they seek to imitate include artificial-intelligence-generated images of women who do not actually exist. Contemporary Christians can ignore hyper-reality to our peril, respond to it unwisely, or work to understand and countervail its sexual destruction that already is at work in our society and, sadly, our churches. Utterly disastrous havoc can be wreaked upon people’s lives where this is handled poorly, not least when pastors or Christians writers advocate that “marriage is likely to fix” so-called “normal” problems with pornography. If a man cannot respect women while single, he almost certainly will not do so when his life is placed in the pressure cooker of relational stress that the blessings of marriage and parenthood always involve.
If there is one thing Christians today can or should do in light of these trends, it is to recapture a sense of wonder about reality as created after the pattern of Christ himself, and become wary about the potential for digital media to not merely distort reality, but create “hyper-reality.” Digital media obviously exist and have unfathomably vast, and sometimes horrifying, effects on the world. But caution about how digital media as context effect content is far more than asking if a reported fact is correct or incorrect. The very possibility or plausibility structures needed for distinguishing between reality and mere simulacra have become increasingly frayed. For instance, L. M. Sacasas describes how “pseudo-events” can come to dominate news cycles that influence real-world decisions as hyper-reality:
They are media events that exist as such only in so far as they are spoken about. “To go viral” is just another way of describing the achievement of hyperreality. To be “spoken about” is to be addressed within our communication networks. In a networked society, we are the relays and hyperreality is an emergent property of our networked acts of communication.
Learning anew to regard the cosmos with wonder is not to deny it is presently cursed and under the powers of Sin and Death, nor is it to speculate about natural orders and conveniently impose arbitrary norms on others. If the created world is patterned after Jesus Christ the God-man, as St. Maximus the Confessor held from passages such as Colossians 1, fresh light is cast on reality as it really exists, even for those whose gaze is jaundiced by mere semblances.
Christian perspectives on these matters are not likely or easily to effect significant changes against world-historical forces in society like the sexual revolution, but each of us to some extent are navigating their aftermath in relationships with others and our own selves. Now more than ever, it might be an appropriate time to foreground the goodness and reality of distinctively Christian friendship and the relational treasures such friendships can hold for those with unwanted sexual desire and are committed to traditional Christian sexual morality. Alongside affirming the goodness and high dignity of being called to eschatological singleness (1 Corinthians 7), Christians today can reclaim the goodness of marriage as having a paradoxical and inimitable glory.
Across our lifespans, every person is constantly changing, destined to develop wrinkles, get sick, and disappoint or hurt others; our lives are a fleeting shadow or rising mist, and if we live into old age we will become frail and completely reliant upon the patience and compassion of others. Any spouse will always pale in comparison with the instant gratification, novelty, and ever-renewing youth sold by today’s digital intimacy hyper-reality purveyors, whose only relational commitments are sacrifices of banknotes. A sense of loneliness, boredom, pain, and unhappiness can haunt not only singles but married couples as well—sometimes due to no fault of a spouse, but merely our finitude, mortality, and visceral desires for the infinite and transcendent.
Yet, even here, there is a particular honor and glory in following Christ our bridegroom, in dying to oneself and one’s lusts for instant gratification, and in loving another human person in a covenantal commitment, as God has loved us in Christ. Fidelity to Christ in singleness carries a unique glory that confounds our age that so fervently worships sexual expression; it is a sign testifying that God’s kingdom has come in the crucified Messiah, and that God’s kingdom will come in its fullness at the resurrection when we are no longer given in marriage, but will be like the angels (Matthew 22:30). Fidelity in marriage testifies to a different kind of paradox, following the Messiah who loved his bride the church, and gave himself up for her. There is a unique kind of honor in knowing another person across seasons good and bad, seeing one another at their worst, becoming like God the Father by mutual forgiveness again and again, and having a companion bound to one another in both sickness and health, across the exhilarating and mundane, amidst the precious and horrifying, through life and even death.
We can make contact with the real, embrace it with wonder, and fight valiantly against the forces of darkness and on behalf justice, truth, beauty, and goodness. But the presence and power of the real might sometimes be as appealing as crucifixion, while shadows, with even greater intrigue and allure than the realities they emulate, subtly make us tyrants of fakery.
Joshua, your insights are far-reaching and profound. I resonate strongly with your convictions on a number of things and would love to discuss them in person or otherwise. Please contact me if you are interested in connecting. I live in Plano so my offer is first to buy you lunch or coffee. I believe I’d enjoy that very much.
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