For those who missed it, Chris Hayes had the guts to do a segment pointing out what should be obvious but sadly wasn’t for a lot of people: That Ariel Castro’s excuses for himself were evocative of the excuses more ordinary wife beaters and rapists make for themselves every day. Of course, most rapists and batterers don’t go as far as he did, and so this long line of excuses tends to work better for them in terms of keeping them from facing justice, but I wasn’t particularly surprised that Castro, who had a fairly classic domestic violence situation with his now deceased ex-wife—right down to drawn-out custody disputes and MRA-style self-pity on Facebook—would go to the same well of excuses again. Like Hayes said, this should be a teaching moment. We all understand that Castro was just making excuses when he whined about pornography and how women make life so hard for him with their existing and their talking, and understood that no, he’s just a misogynist who was acting out a deep-seated hatred and resentment of women. And so we should learn to be more skeptical of men who are making similar excuses for their misogynist behavior, even though very few men who are violent and controlling of women take it as far as Ariel Castro did.
Alas, some folks are so wed to excusing or minimizing misogyny that they’ve gone the other route: Taking Castro’s words at face value and trying to draw some kind of moral lesson from it. No, I’m not kidding. Of the many things besides Ariel Castro and his misogyny that Ariel Castro blamed for his actions, pornography was at the top of the list. James D. Conley at First Things, the blog for the The Institute on Religion and Public Life, has fallen for Castro’s lies eagerly, and wants to make this about pornography. Specifically, he’s eager to distract from the real problem of misogyny by claiming that lust is the problem here.
Pornographic addiction is powerful, destructive, and all too typical. Ariel Castro’s addiction is no excuse for his actions, but it points to a deep and sobering reality: Free, anonymous, and ubiquitous access to pornography is quietly transforming American men and American culture….
But freedom from sin comes through grace. Lust begins with loneliness—with the pervasive detachment which has become a hallmark of modernity. Lust begins with a yearning for love. If we want to combat the social consequences of pornography, we must begin with a commitment to love.
I quote the “lust” part because it is critical to understand what Conley is saying here. He’s not particularly concerned about the misogyny that’s widespread in porn, probably in no small part because while misogyny is common in porn, it’s hardly universal, and I doubt very much that Conley approves of men jerking off to porn that manages to depict sex acts without calling anyone any nasty names, spitting on anyone, or trying to get semen in anyone’s eyes to see if they can fake a smile through the pain. All porn, misogynist and non-misogynist alike, is considered bad, because it’s about lust, which he seems to think is somehow made worse not by having people around. (If you find them sexually attractive, it can often make the experience of lust stronger, in my experience.)
Hopefully, the immediate problems with this should be obvious. Nearly all people experience lust and express it through sexual fantasy and masturbation, often with the aid of fantasy materials like porn. But only a small subset of people, who are mostly male, become rapists or abusers. While men definitely look at porn more than women, there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest they feel more lust, particularly how it’s understood in Christian circles as a feeling of sexual desire that is unto itself, instead of simply the expression of desire to be affectionate towards a spouse. But even setting aside quibbles over who has more sexual fantasies on average, there can be no debate over the fact that people of every stripe and gender indulge and masturbation is widespread. That makes it very shaky indeed to suggest that lust itself is the root of sexual violence, especially when you understand that rapists—like Ariel Castro, in fact—are also far more likely than non-rapists to beat women in non-sexual situations. There’s zero evidence for a correlation between experiencing sexual fantasies, whether your own or those created by someone else, and violence. In fact, research into the relationship between porn use and rape shows no correlation, and frankly, the rape rates have gone down as porn use has gone up, though that’s probably just a coincidence.
No, the common thread linking together various kinds of domestic and sexual violence, including extreme cases like Castro’s, is a will to dominate that, coupled with a violent strain of misogyny, causes some men to believe they are entitled to control women. Rarely does it get expressed as vividly as Castro’s crimes, but every day in this country, someone is raping or beating a woman for the same reason that Castro thought he was entitled to kidnap young women off the streets: Because they believe women are for dominating and forcing into servitude, and they dehumanize them. Yes, men like that look at porn and probably drive the market for some of the uglier, more misogynist stuff out there, but men who don’t beat and rape women also look at porn without creating those problems. That’s because the link between wanting to rub one out and wanting to feel the power over a woman as she pleads for her safety aren’t the same desire.
This isn’t that hard to understand, so why does this Christian blogger refuse to see it and instead tries to make it about lust and pornography? Well, because to talk about the real causes of violence against women is to implicate social systems that teach that women are a servant class put here for men’s use….and the church is one of the biggest promoters of that belief. So yeah, I can see why they want to talk about anything else, preferably in terms of making people feel guilty about harmless behavior like sexual fantasy and masturbation.