“Your soul-deep beauty is way more alluring than what any of those models offer,” I told Amber, as we walked past a giant Victoria’s Secret billboard in New York City’s Herald Square. We had been dating for about a month, and I was trying to tell her how much discovering her as a person was helping me to say “no, thanks” to the constant invitations to pornography and other forms of sexual self-centeredness that come with breathing in the 21st century. Instead of using Amber for my own sexual pleasure, I was encountering a person—and she was bursting with surprises. She was infinitely interesting.
For instance, there was the revelation (I overheard her talking with a friend) that most of all she looked forward to being a mom to a dozen children, and then a grandmother, rocking away on a porch. I had always half-joked that I want a dozen children, too, and then to be a wise old man with a flowing beard and white wispy hair. This girl was intriguing.
But then she kept talking about the pioneering feminist Betty Friedan, and how she may have been misguided, but at least (Amber said) she was responding to a real problem that confronted women in the 1960s: there was hardly any space for the “feminine genius” in worlds such as business and politics. This girl was complex.
Then there was the fact that Amber projected the personality of a shy, sweet little saint of a woman. I never heard her say a word in class. But I did hear about the nights she walked around New York City offering food to homeless people. And how merely passing a homeless person sent her into tears. This girl was sensitive to suffering. This girl had a beautiful soul.
But then I learned about how this “shy” girl, in high school, was a punk-rocking mosher. There was the time she moshed so violently that she lost her shoe. And there was the time she and her friends embarked on a social experiment: dress up as Goths and walk through the mall and find out what kind of reactions they get from people. This sweet little saint was a walking rage against the machine!
Amber’s “whole beauty” inspired me to look closer at her, and away from the pornographic images that bombarded me. With Amber I was going deeper into a real relationship—she was way more interesting and beautiful than a cheap thrill. That’s really what I was telling Amber there in New York City, in front of Victoria’s Secret.
Here is another way of saying it: I wanted to walk the path toward authentic ecstasy, not self-centeredness. “Sexual narcissism” is how Paul Horrocks, an insurance executive turned champion against the exploitation of women, describes practices such as pornography. It refers to the reality that “women are exploited by men who treat them as sex objects.” A sexually narcissistic person is like the young Narcissus of Greek mythology, who ultimately dies from falling in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water. Instead of thinking about the other person, the sexually narcissistic person is only concerned with the pleasure he receives.
I didn’t want narcissism—I wanted ecstasy. One of my college professors pointed out that ecstasy comes from the Greek word, ekstasis, which literally means “standing-outside-yourself.” It refers to the joy that comes when two people give themselves to each other in love. Ecstasy is what happens when a man and woman are looking not just for a skin-shallow sensation, but a soul-deep, body-embracing communion. Ecstasy is the fruit of lovers who go outside of themselves to discover the infinite surprise that is another person. As John Paul II said, “The lover ‘goes outside’ the self to find a fuller existence in another.”
But doesn’t pornography deliver unending ecstasy? Actually, no. Journalist Pamela Paul interviewed more than a hundred men, and reported that “Consistent heavy viewing takes its emotional toll. Men report going through a period of ennui—as excited as they were at the onset, pornography becomes like a drug necessary to maintain a plateau. The highs become harder to achieve. Boredom sinks in.” In many cases, pornography ends up deadening the sexual appetite for a real person. It offers a false ecstasy.
But how do we overcome sexual narcissism, especially considering the addictive nature of pornography?
1) Name it as a problem. This means recognizing how casual sex and pornography are essentially narcissistic, not healthy sexual expressions. (Check out the upcoming Justice NYC Men’s Conference that Paul Horrocks is hosting to draw attention to this issue.)
2) Say yes to beauty—and if you want to be in a relationship, or you are in a relationship, say yes to the person. As humans, we need more than something to say “no” to—we want to say “yes” to something better. For me, that meant focusing on the reality that discovering a person is ultimately more beautiful than cheap sex thrills. And I like what my fellow iBiL contributor Matt suggested: “Imagine if the first woman’s body you saw was your wife’s?” How would you think of that woman? How would you treat that woman?
3) Find a group of good people who will support your commitment to practice sexual integrity. For instance, my church has a team of fathers who regularly meet to challenge each other to become better men. Surround yourself with those kinds of people.
When it comes to sex, do I want to be a giver or a taker? Do I want to walk the path that leads toward authentic ecstasy, or the one that promises thrills but ends up in soul-deadening narcissism? I’ll take ecstasy.