Religion & Beliefs

Porn: Trying To Make It Look Good (And Failing)

I’ve been thinking a lot about pornography recently. In the past, I’ve had a laissez-faire attitude about porn. It doesn’t do anything for me, but I’ve never been particularly bothered by it. I believe in free speech, and much as … Read More

By / June 5, 2007

I’ve been thinking a lot about pornography recently. In the past, I’ve had a laissez-faire attitude about porn. It doesn’t do anything for me, but I’ve never been particularly bothered by it. I believe in free speech, and much as Playboy makes me roll my eyes, I figured it was ultimately harmless. Certainly an improvement over oversexed guys going out there and raping girls, I thought. But then, in the past few months, someone I know pretty well, someone from a very observant background who is, as far as I know, still shomeret Shabbat and kashrut, began making pornography. And I’m not talking a few scantily clad pictures, I’m talking a significant library of photos and videos available online of her doing a variety of things with a variety of partners of both genders. This is a girl who has a degree in biology from a top-notch university (something she touts on one of her websites), who spent time learning in a seminary in Israel, and who plans to teach Judaica. In one of the pictures someone sent to me she lies naked on a kitchen counter, her head hanging off of the edge and her naked breasts framing her face from above. The captions names her a naughty housewife. Suddenly, my ‘whatever works for you’ attitude seems horribly naïve. Because I’m now paying little attention to the consumers of this porn, and instead considering seriously what gets a girl to the point where she feels it’s necessary or ultimately beneficial for her to have sex with someone for money. And beyond that, I’m thinking about the ramifications this must have on her family and her community. It is hard to imagine what, specifically, the ladies of the Sisterhood might have to say to the mother of a girl like this, but one can safely assume it would be brutal and sharp. I have suddenly become an anti-porn crusader, and I hate it. I would prefer never to agree with Pat Robertson. I have no interest in sharing common ground with the Moral Majority. I wish I could throw my arms around all porn stars and tell them I think the work they do is great and important and not psychologically problematic at all, but I can’t, and I’m frankly horrified that I ever could.
In thinking about all this I did some research about halacha, Judaism and pornography. There’s a lot of information available online, which is good, because I have no interest in discussing this face to face with a rabbi. What I found was that, at least in terms of what’s online, no one in the Jewish world has anything really positive to say about pornography. Even the most liberal sources come down hard on pornography. No one in the Reform, Reconstructionist, or Renewal crowds is cheering publicly for porn stars. The only thing close to good that any Jewish source could bring themselves to say about Jews and porn was that at least these days Jews aren’t considered too unattractive to be in porn. And while I suppose it’s nice to know that the general public no longer considers Jewish girls prudish and frigid, I can’t say I’m overjoyed that the stereotype is now that Jewish girls are more in touch with their sexuality than gentiles. As Anne Roiphe writes in the column I just linked to, “With all our personal variety, we are probably no more or less sexy than anyone else. All the rest, negatives or positives, form a tall tale–and a slightly toxic one, at that.” Amazingly, the discourse on pornography seen through a Jewish lens is really intelligent, and uniformly condemning. The condemnation is usually not angry fire-and-brimstone ‘God will/should strike pornographers with lightening’ (the exception coming, shockingly, from a Reform rabbi’s commencement address at Liberty University, of all places). Instead, Jewish leaders and intellectuals have clearly struggled with the various ways pornography has affected and is affecting the world and the Jewish community. The discussion goes as far back as the Talmud, where a story is told of a man who’s so infatuated with a woman next door that he becomes deathly ill, and his doctors think the only way to make him better is for him to have sex with the neighbor in question. But the rabbis forbid it, and forbid anything even approaching it. They won’t even permit her to speak to him from behind a wall. Why? Because, the rabbis say, it’s better that he die than defame her dignity. (See Sanhedrin 75a, Rashi’s commentary). Though one might expect the Orthodox world to be devoid of porn problem, that’s hardly the case. A chabad rabbi on askmoses.com discusses how to stop a porn addiction. A cover story from the Jewish Journal tells of an Orthodox rabbi caught in a porn addiction, and his work to try to stop it. Last year Arutz Sheva featured an anonymously written article about a porn addict in the frum community. This has prompted a number of castigatory responses, all of which address porn viewing exclusively. The idea that a member of the Orthodox world could be involved in making porn is well beyond the imagination of most of the rabbis choosing to deal with the issue.
Even outside the Orthodox spectrum, though, the reaction to Jewish pornography is pretty icy. Bitch magazine, has an article about Playboy’s first Jewish centerfold, and what it means for Jewish girls (in short: nothing good). Over at Slate there’s an awesome conversation between Wendy Shalit, Laura Kipnis and Meghan O’Rourke about the effects on porn on American culture. Though the three disagree in a lot of areas, none of them can bring themselves to say anything really positive, or even anything not-negative, about porn. Google books took me to a page from a book called How Do I Decide?: A Contemporary Jewish Approach to What's Right and What's Wrong By Roland Bertram Gittelsohn. Though the book seems pretty liberal, it comes right out and calls pornography “wrong.” Beliefnet is actually home to some of the most interesting discussion of porn and religion. They have a fantastic conversation between Shmuley Boteach of Kosher Sex fame, and Lindsey Vuolo, the Jewish Playboy centerfold discussed in the Bitch article. Go read the conversation now. Though Vuolo comes off as intelligent and generally well-spoken, Boteach’s arguments clearly get to her, and by the end of the interview she actually says, “I mean, you definitely made me think and now you've made me think I'm a bad person—.” It’s pretty incredible. Equally fascinating is a response to that interview by Bradley Hirschfield, Vice President of The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL) and a modern orthodox rabbi. Hirschfield basically says that people shouldn’t be getting up in arms about the fact that Vuolo is Jewish. It’s not a problem exclusive to Jews, and he says Jews need to deal with it in the same way as Christians, Muslims and the rest of the world. The best line from his article is “I want to be very clear. If Jews have a problem with this, it ought to be a problem with Playboy, not with her as a Jewish girl. That is, their discomfort should be coming from the fact that a magazine is paying women to get naked for a camera.”
There is simply no justification for pornography in any facet of the Jewishly engaged world. No one is saying it’s okay. Of course, that hasn’t kept Jews out of the business. Ron Jeremy and Nina Hartley are Jewish, and here at Jewcy we’ve brought you interviews with Jewish porn star and producer Joanna Angel, as well as an interview with her distraught Jewish mother. You can even find an academic article on Jews in the porn industry over at the Jewish Quarterly. But no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find any publication, organization or blog willing to rave about how Jews in porn is a good or even acceptable thing. When I finished reading through all of these discussions and articles it occurred to me that what I’d been looking for was something that would let my friend off the hook. I wanted some rabbi somewhere to be giving away free heters to porn stars. But there doesn’t appear to be any such rabbi. And the more I think of that, the more I’m okay with it, even proud of it. I’ve written before about how important I think it is for us to provide realistic sex education and information to the frum community, but I’m relieved to find that even I have clear boundaries. And pornography is way out of bounds.