On the Topic of Porn

Recently, a NY Times article ran that focused on our use of the word “porn” for so many other areas of our lives. “Food Porn,” “Real Estate Porn,” and even “Poverty Porn.” All of these have become a short-hand to describe a specific kind of relationship we have with pleasures or concerns in our life. The author described this much better than I can:

The philosopher Michael Rea has a helpful account of sexual pornography. He says that an image is sexual pornography when we use it for immediate gratification, while avoiding the complexities of actual sexual relationships like physical intimacy, emotional connection and romantic interaction.

To capture the new, generic sense of porn, we need only to generalize Professor Rea’s account. Food porn is images of food, used for immediate pleasure, without your having to go out and buy the food, cook it or worry about the calories. Real estate porn is pictures of real estate, used for instant gratification, without your having to buy the house, clean it or take care of all that furniture. And so on.

The author goes on to hazard us that when we react instinctively to “social justice porn” or “outrage porn,” we may not be responding the best or most useful way possible. In the same way that trying to bring sexual porn into real-life is unlikely to work (it’s unrealistic and unconnected), “moral outrage porn” may not be our best guiding light for social action.

Ironically, although this was clearly NOT his primary point, I believe he does a service with explaining the superficial relationship we have with sexual pornography, and why it’s not transferable to real life. Personally, I love “real estate porn.” I love poring over crazy expensive homes that would never really work in my life: they’re too big, too far, too much work, and frankly unlivable. They are a fantasy and an escape from real life, and it’s still really nice to come home to my real-life house, with its clutter and warmth.  Frankly, that would define the healthiest relationship to porn. It’s fun for a fantasy, a look at an unrealistic, unattainable, and frankly sterile world. But then, it’s nice to come home to yourself, or to your partner.