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The Unbearable Lightness of Pornography

Every relationship is essentially an experiment in how real, raw and honest you can be in front of this other person.


Photo by/of Luke Renoe

I’m 26 and single, but not for lack of trying.

Several months ago I met a girl in a coffee shop and we had instant chemistry. We sat in the same booth from 10pm until the shop closed at 1am, supposedly getting work done but really just talking late into the night.

I came home that night and couldn’t sleep. The creative and emotional side of myself was awakened, and on nights (or mornings) like those, it seems like every sentence from a podcast and every note of a song is heightened exponentially. Like something about the way this other human sees the world makes me come so much more alive.

That night I felt like I had known her for decades.

She made me feel nostalgic.

I wanted her, bad.

Despite the apparent feelings of nearness and intimacy I felt with this girl, in reality, I had known her for three hours. My mind was high on the possibility of what may someday be a reality.

I didn’t know the secret, intimate bits of her, but that didn’t stop me from making them up for myself. As time passed, I realized I didn’t really know her as well as I thought (Naw, really??). What had seemed like such immediate intimacy was really projection of myself and what I wanted her to be like into the mysterious parts of her person.

To be honest, she really just reminded me of someone I used to love.

I had filled in all the pieces of her I didn’t actually know so that in my mind, she was exactly what I was looking for.

Time will cure you of this.

The longer you get to know someone and their weaknesses and their small, icky bits and the nooks and crannies of their soul which reek of selfishness and ignorance, the more you realize the realness of their humanity.

Last night I was with some friends in a pool and had a revelation of sorts. We were splashing around and wrestling, ‘drowning’ each other, and just having a blast in the chlorinated water. It was in this small neighborhood pool that I realized the vast difference between real humans and the two-dimensional images of them which seem so arousing.

Every so often I’m reminded of this: How vastly different the people portrayed in pornography are from real, stinky, heavy human beings. It’s a difference so large that mere language alone cannot convey the disparity between the two.

Pornography robs not only the actors of their humanity, but the viewer of theirs too.

Sometimes we think of pornography as a substitute for a real man or woman in your bedroom when you’re alone at night, yet when you’re actually in the presence of another person’s body it is so unlike the two dimensional images that the two are not even comparable. The word ‘substitute’ implies that there is some similarity or correlation between the two, but in this situation, the two aren’t even on the same planet.

Even pornstars wake up with bad breath.

My pastor once told me that “You’re longing for this beautiful four-course meal of marital  intimacy, but you’ve gone and acquired a taste for crap instead. It’s literally like you’re trying to fill yourself up on this handful of feces instead of this delectable, satiating meal of real love.”

The more I think about it, the more I realize how weightless and flighty pornography is. It is faint and ethereal. Not only does a real human body have weight and smells and smoothness of skin and roughness of whiskers, but the intense presence of other humans is richly intimidating. Being around friends in person carries with it weight which runs deeper than mere sensory perception.

When we are with other people, we are, to some degree, exposed and watched in ways we never will be by our screen-centric relationships.

Every relationship is essentially an experiment in how real, raw and honest you can be in front of this other human.

One time someone asked me how I would describe “feeling the presence of God.” I thought for a second and said, “It’s like this. You know when you’re in the same room as someone but you’re both reading? You’re not looking at them or hearing them or interacting with them in any way. But the room is still different because they are there and you are aware of it. The air shifts when they walk in or leave. That’s how it is with God. There comes a point in solitude when you just become aware of His presence in a way you can’t describe.”

When we are starved for human contact of any form, we tend to try to find replacements. We try to make up for this lack of human intimacy by acquiring a taste for crap rather than pursuing deeper intimacy with others and with God.

As a single person it’s easy to forget the rich beauty of being in community and the realness of being the tangible presence of others.

One of the first times I realized this was when I went to see the film Noah in theaters with my friend Lila. I had spent the last year and a half getting to know her pretty intimately as a friend, but that night something seemed to shift. In my eyes, she was slipping from the friend zone into a place of deeper beauty and richness as a person because of how well I was coming to know her.

Now, Emma Watson starred in the film and she had long been a celebrity crush of mine. I would sometimes see films of hers and leave sad because of how beautiful she was and how I would never know her. That night when we sat down in the screening of Noah, I expected the same thing to happen. Yet when she came on screen I internally shrugged.

Because what does this two-dimensional character have on this beautiful woman seated next to me whom I’ve come to know at a deep level and who can actually love me back?

It wasn’t her photogenic beauty or the measurements of her body that drew me to Lila, but the richness of pleasure I experienced just by being around her. In time I found myself wanting to be around her no matter what. Even if she grew old and saggy. Even if she got sick and all her hair fell out.

I just wanted to be with her.

But our eyes are deceptive and it’s easy to forget the depth of this intimacy and how much more satisfying it is than simply looking at girls on screens and pleasing ourselves in isolation.

How hollow!!

In many ways, I’m coming to see the work of God in our lives as one of unfolding us from ourselves. Lifting us up from being people who strive to pleasure ourselves into people who are patient. People who find true joy in the presence of others, in His presence.

May we be people who seek to please ourselves in the rich presence of others rather than the fleeting and imaginary presence of pornography. May we come to appreciate the weight of those around us in place of the unbearable lightness of distant 2-dimensional actors. May we pursue intimacy at all costs and retrain our taste buds to crave wholesome meals more than the flavor of feces.


PS- Lately I’ve been thinking heavily on the true definition of beauty. We tend to think of supermodels and sunsets as beautiful, but I think that definition is two centimeters deep. I have some thoughts for future posts, but I’d love your input too. What is beauty? What makes something beautiful? Is it deeper than what we can sense and perceive?

13 comments on “The Unbearable Lightness of Pornography

  1. e,
    I know I comment on almost every post (I blame my keyboard) but as soon as I read the post script, I knew I had to reply to it. I write about beauty over on my blog site. I have struggled with an eating disorder and body dis-morphia. Recently, I spent a year in RI working for a non-profit ministry and while there, I learned so much about “beauty” and myself. But since moving back home to small town Illinois where everything reminds me of my ED past, it gets hard. I used to think beauty meant that I needed to have perfect everything. I was terrified of gaining weight and my ED allowed me to control my “beauty” but now I know that beauty is how you act and how you love. I think the most beautiful people are the ones who just love well. Beauty from the heart is deep like when you get to know someone to their core and you see their passions. Beauty shines when a heart is full and is loving the way God loves and I think that is truly beautiful.

    • That’s great! Thanks so much for sharing, Caitlin!

      • You’re so welcome. I loved his post. I wrote a whole post on beauty called “identity thief” feel free to read but don’t feel like you have to. Thought it might help in your quest to find the definition of beauty.

  2. Hey Ethan thanks for this post. I just broke up with a man I adored who was very involved with God’s work. It turned out he was watching porn and lying to me about it. I forgave him the first time but he went back to it. I also found out that he wasn’t very physically attracted to me and had been praying to God to open his eyes up to my beauty. Just what every woman wants to hear.. to my profound hurt, he told me that it was a struggle for him to overlook my “physical imperfections.” I was so shocked; I’ve had many men call me beautiful but my boyfriend couldn’t. He said that it was the pornography that has so distorted his view of beauty. I’d love to hear your thoughts on beauty. I think men who watch porn can have a very narrow, closed minded, arrogant view of what beauty is. I really liked how you said you found incredible beauty in your friend, more so than the actress in screen.

  3. What makes something beautiful… that’s a really good question.

    Growing up, I was taught that sin is anything that breaks the heart of God – anything that grieves or angers him. That was sin. That was true ugliness. So beauty, I suppose, would be the opposite of that – anything that glorifies or reflects the heart of God.

    Some of the most beautiful people I know aren’t conventionally attractive. I’ve been in love exactly once, and it was a friendship that developed into something more – like it sounds like your relationship was with Lila. He was my best friend for years – but not my type… he had bad teeth and a receding hairline at twenty. But as we grew closer as friends and I got to know him. His desire to love others well, his passion for the gospel, and the joy he brought the people around him made him the most excruciatingly beautiful person I knew. As feelings developed (over the process of three years), eventually couldn’t see what I wasn’t attracted to anymore.

    I don’t think supermodels and sunsets aren’t beautiful. They’re an expression of God’s artistry. The night sky in particular has always held my heart. But I think there are lots of ways to be beautiful, and our culture has focused primarily on one. We’ve taken the novelty out of beauty by relegating it to only what our eyes can see. But like silently reading a book with someone else in the room – there is beauty in what is shared. There is beauty in the ability to be comfortable with another. There is beauty in not needing words. There is beauty in humility, and gentleness, and joy. These things are beautiful because they are glimpses of God in others, and we miss them because we’re taught to look only at the surface, which gives us such an incomplete picture.

  4. I recently made a post on living the gay life called “The chocolate bunny”. Reading this article made me realize that I didn’t go far enough with the chocolate bunny story. Pornography is just as hollow as that bunny. Like the gay lifestyle I lived, it is a hollow existance, full of empty promises and only two minutes of pleasure. On top of that, you are wracked with guilt, shame and you have to hide everything from your family. My exboyfriend accidently downloaded something inappropriate and is now on a sex offender website. This is another danger of porn. Find his picture only encouraged my abstinance from it (been clean seven months now).

  5. Eric Miller

    What up E? I love the post! My friend emailed it to me. We’re in a men’s purity group at my church and he’s legit with the sharing of good things he finds. I’m glad he did. I do wholeheartedly agree with your thesis and as I read your post-script I began to ponder on beauty.

    For what my two cents may be worth (probably now 2.78 cents thanks to the declining Euro), I believe our greatest cultural disillusionment with beauty may lie in the presuppositions inside the mind of each person who draw upon it. I would then assume that your blog post, in one form or another, would be led to call upon each of your readers to identify their own presuppositions of beauty.

    For example, Miriam defines beauty as something which “gives pleasure to the senses.” In this definition lies a certain subjectivity. Namely, “what gives pleasure to our senses?” Does anything give the same pleasure/enjoyment to all of humanity’s senses? I would say not. In this focus, I believe that the personal definition of beauty, rather than a noun to be defined, would instead be a measurement tool by which to gauge the hearts of the man/woman with whom you are conversing.

    So then the question of “What is beautiful to you?” truly says, “What gives your heart deep pleasure?” I refer to Caitlin above and humbly suggeset that as her mind shifted from “physical perfection” as beauty to a healing and wonderful understanding of beauty as being found in who you are (even to the point of fulfilling our Imago Dei by bringing the love of our Father to the world through our actions). *applause for Caitlin, I love it!* Compare this, then, with a young man who would say that beauty is a perfect 6-pack and a hot bikini. Does not his measure leave one with the impression that these two people would have drastically differing hearts? Each “beauty” does indeed evoke emotional pleasure in the respective person’s senses, and therefore would be defined as beauty rightly by both people. Still, does our heart not deflate at the second person’s definition of beauty? As you put it, such a definition would be 2 centimeters deep… and most likely pitied.

    But then we can also push further into our experience of beauty being subjective, such as with the sunset. Though it does evoke pleasure in many a soul, does it not also say that God “saw that it was good?” Therefore would it be our cultural platitudes of experiencing sunsets which withdraws the beauty from our experience of it, rather than it, in itself, losing certain levels of beauty? But before I digress too far, I will end this comment. 🙂

    Thank you for writing, you have been given a gift. I’m glad you choose to share it with the world!

  6. Thanks for asking these questions! I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now and have been so blessed by your insightful perspectives on such important topics!

    I think as humans we all recognize beauty around us, because this reflects the reality of a beautiful God. Whether it’s something in nature, or a piece of music, or a person, there’s an emotional experience that happens when we collide with something beautiful. It’s like our soul “feels” the beauty in some way. Recognizing beauty on earth is maybe us catching a “glimpse,” if you will, of an invisible God within this very physical thing in front of us. And yet we’re always left dissatisfied – always wanting more. As C.S Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory, “We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it” (42).

    Of course, like anything good that God has created, the idea of beauty gets twisted and warped when viewed within a worldly lens. It’s like what you wrote in your previous post that time plays such a role in our experiences. We see a glimpse of eternal beauty and God’s character when we see beauty on earth, but what inspired this divine experience is often not eternal, it’s temporal. It’s so easy to focus on these temporal things and miss the eternal. In particular, I think that because secular culture doesn’t recognize the reality of the soul, people become obsessed with each other’s physical beauty. Because we were never meant to be fully satisfied by the beauty around us, the world’s quest for beauty is never-ending, and often self-destructive and damaging. Yet, the longing these temporal things of beauty create points us toward our future destiny-when we will ourselves enter eternity and become part of a beautiful glory that we cannot fully imagine here on earth.

    As believers, we can point people back to true beauty and truth by being creators of beautiful things (writing/art/music/relationships). Creating culture and relationships that move away from a two-dimensional view of beauty, a shallow view of beauty, and move towards that “weight of glory” that is available for us to receive someday should be our goal. Sorry for the super long post; once I got started I couldn’t stop! Maybe this will be fodder for my next piece on my blog too haha 😉 God bless!

  7. Ethan I love your posts cause u are so honest and funny and hopeful. I don’t agree with all you say. My boyfriend is a famous Sicilian gay porn star. And I see films more than before to see his work . Was not really a porn fan so much. Though I find it can be a great way to spark ones mind creatively. To keep a sex life Alive creativity is necessary. Not everyone who likes porn is empty inside and sad. One can’t generalize like that. ! many people are so shallow I know. Shallow and hollow. His friends say. Why be with tony. You can have the most beautiful men in the world( let’s say I look like a sexy Woody Allen ). And my friends say. You are so Lück to have such a hot boyfriend. It’s like having your cinema crush at your side for real.

    But we are not together because of beauty or lack of what people call beauty. We are together cause we see and feel the beauty of our good hearts. And we love to see beauty which is really when we see imperfect things being confident and free. That is beauty for us.

    Porn does not ruin our hearts or being, And being around other porn actors I see many like that. Not all of course like but just saying don’t generalize.

    I would love to chat once . Again your blogs make me think which I love. And I love that you write antiporn blogs when you could be a movie star yourself.

    Have a great day. I look at the church of beautiful St Agatha as I type this. Sad story. But St Thersa of Avilla fascinates me. Wonder what you think about that one? Makes me think about pornography and religion all in one.

  8. Beauty is what breaks the rhythm of what feels ordinary to us and connects us to something deep within us that somehow makes us feel more alive. Beauty forces us to pause and ignites in us a sense of awe, something I think our human nature naturally longs for. A researcher (Paul Piff) described awe as “that sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.” I think beauty, in the same sense, transcends our systems of knowing while simultaneously making us feel deeply connected to that which is beautiful. Maybe that’s what makes it so powerful.

    A close friend of mine is super passionate about this idea of seeing beauty in the common. You’d like it – I’m betting.

    Love your blog – excited to see where this topic takes you.


  9. Pingback: Beauty – ethan renoe

  10. What is beauty? Somebody said not long ago about Adam and Eve in the Garden beeing naked but not ashamed, that they were not really naked, they were “dressed” in the God’s light – just like you can’t see the filament in the lightbulb when it is on, just like you can’t touch a wick of a candle, when there is a flame – but with the sin they both saw the fragility and poverty of their own “filament” or “wick”. This, for me, is beauty: people and things radiating God’s light, making Him visible … This radiance of infinity, which is really inherent in all the creation, but we are mostly blind to see. But you cannot see beauty better and clearer than in those you love. F.I. Dostojevski once said: “The beauty will save the world.”

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