Thank goodness. We can all sleep more soundly in our unsullied beds. Rick Santorum has declared war on pornography.
On first hearing, this causus belli is part and parcel of his campaign against anything to do with the pleasures of the flesh, except it seems sillier and less dangerous than other components of his agendum. It doesn’t attack women’s agency or health access directly; indeed, it would seem that men might be the most inconvenienced. Is this Santorum’s idea of equal repression, one he hopes will soften the dislike of his anti-contraception, anti-women-in-the-workplace views?
I doubt it. Instead, a war on pornography (which has a spotty but persistent Republican history, most laughably expressed in former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s edicts to drape bare-breasted statues of Justice) fits eerily into a theocratic view of government, one based both on a literal reading of the Bible and on theologically shaky fillings-in of Biblical gaps.
The big lacuna is this: the Bible doesn’t really say much about sex. As everyone knows, the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament addresses intimate relations in the context of their time. Polygamy is fine (consequently, the anti-adultery commandment is directed at property rights – it’s not an endorsement of one man/one woman exclusivity), and women are essentially chattel who can be pimped out to save male honor (i.e., Lot’s daughters). Church Fathers and Talmudists strictly allegorized the Song of Songs (which originally may have been an actual love poem) into a mystical prayer that expresses the longing of people for Zion or Jesus or God.
In the New Testament, Jesus mostly comes across as a forgiving sort who doesn’t believe that sexual activity necessarily damns one for all time. It’s Paul who’s the zealot and demonstrates an unhealthy attraction-repulsion to sex (it’s best to be celibate; if that’s not possible, it’s better to marry than to burn). Paul taps into the underlying misogyny of one version of Genesis’s fall-of-man narrative. Woman, by her very nature and biology, tempts Man and imperils his immortal soul. And by the Book of Revelation, sexually unfettered ‘femaleness’ is grafted upon oppositional politics and governance through the figure of the Whore of Babylon.
Back to Rick Santorum’s war on pornography. There is zilch in the Bible about pornography – unsurprisingly, as a pre-print and largely non-literate culture would not have produced anything we today would recognize as pornography. (Just as there’s nothing about contraception and abortion, and [for different reasons that might need to be addressed in another blog] almost nothing about homosexuality.) So how do today’s Biblical literalists ground their objections to pornography? On one verse: Matthew 5:28 (“ . . . whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart.”)
I surfed a few ultra-conservative religious sites so you don’t have to. Here’s a typical exegesis (lurching off from Matthew’s adultery-in-your-heart pronouncement):
“Adultery in the imagination, or watching porn, leads inevitably to adultery either in person or virtually. Adultery usually leads to marriage breakdown and the nightmare of divorce. [. . .] Any sexual activity outside of [marriage], whether it be pre-marital, adulterous, by force, with self, same-sex, or contraceptive is harmful physically, psychologically, and spiritually.”
Santorum’s official site sounds much the same. For example: “Addiction to pornography is now common for adults and even for some children [. . .] Pornography is toxic to marriages and relationships.”
What we have here is a New Testamental fear and loathing of sexuality – indeed, of the physical body altogether. (Da Vinci Code fans alert: Santorum purportedly is a member of Opus Dei.) Sex so threatens faith and judgment (and patriarchy) that it must be bound and gagged.
The ‘pornography’ that Candidate Santorum would scourge is not just the kind that most citizens would find objectionable – child pornography, for instance, or sexualized torture. It’s everything that could possibly be called lascivious, including the boring ‘adult movies’ available in hotel rooms or a married couple’s perusing of Playboy to spice up a rare evening away from the kids. Only a baby step, if that, separates a war against visual pornography from book banning. The shades of D. H. Lawrence, Chaucer, Voltaire, and Walt Whitman might have thought they were safe from revived Comstock Laws. They would be wrong.
Even discounting the constitutional barriers to an all-out war on all conceivable definitions of pornography, even discounting the hyperbolic stratosphere towards which this new purity campaign aspires (according to Santorum’s official site, President Obama’s administration “seems to favor pornographers over children and families”), Rick Santorum’s self-presentation as pornography’s flagellant-in-chief is disturbing. Put plainly, why is this man so preoccupied with sex?
I’m sure (and I’m thankful that) I don’t know. But maybe there’s a clue in the photo below. Without going all-Lacan on you, there’s something Santorum is measuring . . . the length of which he may envy and find repulsive . . . something that is anything but an empty signifier (or is, and the horror vacui needs filling).
If you have another, better explanation of this photo, or a perfect caption, please comment on this blog or email me. Maybe there’ll be a prize (sent in a plain brown paper wrapper).
[Quote sources: John Henry Westen, “No, It Is Not Okay for Christian Couples to View Porn Together as a Warm Up for Sex,” Life Style News.com, March 19, 2008
Rick Santorum, “Enforcing laws against illegal pornography”