An opportunity to talk about the paradox of sexuality?
In November 2021, the Catholic University of Lyon organized an interdisciplinary colloquium with the title: “Pornography in the digital age: what challenges for sexuality education”. The negative impact of the progressively earlier exposure of children and young people to pornography is increasingly recognized by education, health and digital professionals. The main objective of this conference was to raise awareness among parents and educators on how to address the matter with minors.
Catherine DENIS, a member of the Chemin Neuf Community, was invited to offer a theological perspective on this issue in relation to sexual education. Here is a summary of her presentation.
Becoming fully human
As a starting point for her reflections, Catherine DENIS begins with her faith in the Triune God and its anthropological consequences. The first accounts of Genesis lead her to affirm that every human being, whoever he or she may be, is created in the image and likeness of God and that by describing God as blessing this human being and speaking to him or her, the account reveals that God engages in an ever-present covenantal relationship with every human being as Creator Father but also as Reconciling Son and liberating Spirit.
Every human being is defined by a sexual body, male or female, which he or she receives from God and from those from whom he or she owes life. But this gift is also a task that calls him to become fully human, by becoming a man or a woman in a personal and relational history. Becoming human implies a freedom and a responsibility in the way of being and existing as a man or a woman. It is in this context of humanization, in its anthropological and ethical dimension, that the question of sexuality and sexual education in the broadest sense of the term is situated.
This interpretation of the first creation stories reminds us that at the origin of all human life, there is this relationship in the Trinitarian God and a relationship between a man and a woman, however fleeting and tenuous it may be. This leads to the definition of the gendered human person as a relational being and to the placing of the meaning of human sexuality in this relational context. This approach already implies a particular way of apprehending sexuality, and through it the question of pornography. But it must be recognized that today’s society has other, very different approaches to gender identity and sexuality.
A PERSON IN HIS OR HER SEXUALITY
IS A BEING DEFINED BY RELATIONSHIPS
In this perspective, sexual education implies allowing this path of humanization, encouraging each person to become a man or woman in a free and responsible way, starting from the reality of his or her sexed body, in his or her personal history and in his or her relational history. This educational challenge is particularly relevant during adolescence, even if it is also played out in childhood and, even if in a different way, in adulthood.
Contemporary challenges posed by pornography
And it is within this framework that it is precious to reflect upon the contemporary challenges posed by pornography. For that, it is advisable to try to specify what hides behind this term and to recognize first of all that pornography is a very old reality even if, in fact, the deployment of the digital amplifies its diffusion. Even if its definition is problematic, it can be simply defined as: “an explicit representation of sexuality”. The moralist theologian Xavier Lacroix allows us to go further by evoking “the paradox on which pornography is based”:
- Between the explicit and the implicit
- Between the objective and the subjective
- Between the public and the intimate
- Between the visible and the invisible
A reductive representation of the body and the impulses
With regard to the singularity and the dignity of the sexed human body, pornography proposes a reducing representation of the body and its impulses. The bodies are objectified, they appear as objects subjected to impulses. The obscure world of the sexual impulses is translated into objective, external, amplified demonstrations… The body is also fragmented, presented without a face, without expression, without words … with an essentially mechanical and technical representation of the sexual relationship. A representation centred on the search for pleasure, a kind of obsession for the enjoyment which seems guaranteed by technical gestures to be reproduced, having even a tendency to instrumentalize the persons and to trivialize the violence. It cannot therefore be considered as information on sexuality and even less as education on human sexuality.
Recognizing the paradox that runs through every sexual act
However, the phenomenon of pornography has the merit of placing us in a radical way in front of the paradox that runs through every sexual act. The stake of ethics, in particular in a perspective of education to the affective and sexual life, does not consist in denying this paradox nor in suppressing it. On the contrary, it is a matter of recognizing it and accompanying each person towards a humanization of sexuality.
Accompanying everyone towards humanization
Two anthropological references can help in this accompaniment. The first reminds us that in order to be truly human, sexuality involves the whole human person, his or her body, psyche and spirit. The second benchmark consists in recognizing that, in one way or another, the sexual act implies a relationship between oneself and the other. This relational involvement unfolds in all dimensions of my person as well as that of the other.
Recognizing that the sexual act involves the whole human person implies reflecting on the articulation between the body, the psyche and the spirit in the sexual act. It leads to underline the critical place of the word which is invited to cross these various dimensions, so that the word takes form in the body.
Wonder. Wandering. Enigma
Three words borrowed from Paul Ricœur can lead our reflection on pornography today:
- First, to consider sexuality as a marvel for every human being: because of its subtle articulation between carnal and spiritual, it is indeed this fragile alliance that allows the emergence of the human person. But also, because it allows a mutual personalization, in a reciprocal recognition even in the nakedness of the bodies.
- To recognize however what there is of errant or aberrant in sexuality: threat of a loss of sense in a society marked by the logic of performance, of efficiency. Wandering when the selfish culture of pleasure prevails over the reciprocity of the gift.
Finally, and perhaps above all:
- To recognize and dare to evoke the enigma of sexuality which calls each one to a personal interpretation in a relational history.