The Harm of Porn & the Wound of Beauty

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by Stina and Fr Sean in an episode on the various dimensions of pornography. 

In that interview, a significant portion of our discussion focused on a tendency within our culture to reduce human persons to abstract characteristics on a list. Long after our discussion was finished and the episode was aired, I am still finding myself thinking about this part of our exploration into pornography, and realised there is a point that I did not cover: the place of beauty in each. 

For apart from the purveying of sex (or more accurately, a parody of it), I realised that pornography’s stock and trade is a parody of something else, something more fundamental, to our existence. This is the universal of Beauty. 

The philosophers say that every one of us is driven by the search of Goodness, Beauty and Truth. These are the goods that are essential to the proper flourishing of every human person, regardless of race, nation, religion and station in life. Even when we engage in actions that work against our flourishing, we are (even if unconsciously) still doing so with the intention of pursuing one of these three universal goods. What is more, a Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe once suggested that the search for Beauty is what captivates humankind most of all. It is the most sensory of the universal goods, and thus the easiest to access. It also touches us at the deepest level, going to the core of our existence. 

No wonder then, that we have such a deep seeded problem with pornography. More fundamentally than our sexuality, pornography intrudes into our search for Beauty, and winds up distorting it. The source of the distortion, I believe, is the fact that pornography is abstract, and what is abstract, we try to control. Thus, pornography’s “beauty” is a beauty that we try to control. In the course of exerting that control, the only fruit that can be borne from that is harm, both to those who are acting out those controlled fantasies in the material, and the ones who are indulging in those fantasies by consuming that material.

In the face of this harm of pornography brought about by a distortion of Beauty, the response ought not to be a pollyannish version of beauty that focuses only on exterior appearance. If anything, this approach ironically repeats the logic of pornography, because like pornography, this pollyannish beauty also reduces things to exteriors and focuses on controlling those exteriors. 

More fundamentally, it also neglects the interior fruit of Beauty. 

This interior fruit of Beauty was best summarised by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. In a work entitled On the Way to Jesus Christ, the then Joseph Ratzinger spoke of Beauty as an arrow, and an arrow that wounds whoever it touches. However, this wound is unlike the harm that parodies of Beauty inflict. For the harm that porn inflicts is the harm of being satisfied by a simulation. By contrast, Ratzinger says that the wound of Beauty stuns us, and for that stunning moment, Beauty makes us lose our urge to control. Unlike in pornography, which closes us off and confines us to exteriors, this stunning Beauty opens up our person, puts us in touch with reality in all its depth. Rather than a series of abstract categories, Ratzinger says that the “arrow of Beauty” puts us in touch with the reality of a person. Going further still, Ratzinger says that beauty puts us in touch with the deepest reality of personhood, the “personal presence of Christ himself”. 

In light of this, what we must do is not give in to the temptation to confine our response to pornography with a simply “do not look at porn”. What we must do must also go beyond simply saying “I want to find Beauty”, for even that is to chase abstracts. What we must do is be intentional in the search for things that are beautiful. It can be found in, regardless of genre, a work of art, a piece of music, a film, a scenery. The world, charged with the splendour of beauty, is God’s constant invitation to go beyond mere surfaces, and delve deeper into reality. Ultimately, if Ratzinger is right, Beauty points us to God Himself, who is the source of our reality. 


Written by: Dr Matthew Tan

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