Yesterday morning a picture of a half-naked young woman scrolled through my Twitter feed from an account called “College Babes Daily.” Someone I follow ‘Liked’ a tweet from this account, and Twitter’s algorithm thought I ought to see it too.
I don’t think I need to explain any more about this Twitter account, why so many (men) follow it, and why so many young women want to be on it. I don’t object to the right to create such a Twitter account, the right for men to follow it, or the right for women to submit their pictures to it, so long as it follows United States law.
However, I do object to what the philosopher Alain de Botton calls, “the unchecked flow of pornography down our fibre-optic cables.”
In his book How to Think More About Sex, de Botton argues that the immediately-available wealth of pornographic imagery can have subtle, yet devastating effects on human psychology:
“Only religions still take sex seriously, in the sense of properly respecting its power to turn us away from our priorities. Only religions see it as something potentially dangerous and needing to be guarded against. We may not sympathize with what they would wish us to think about in the place of sex, and we may not like the way they go about trying to censor it, but we can surely–though perhaps only after killing many hours online at youporn.com–appreciate that on this one point religions have got it right: sex and sexual images can overwhelm our higher rational faculties with depressing ease.
Given its resistance to censorship and its faith in mankind’s maturity, the secular world reserves a special scorn for Islam’s promotion of the hijab and the burka. The idea that women should have to cover themselves up from head to toe so as not to distract male believers’ focus from Allah seems preposterous to the guardians of secularism. Would a rational adult man really turn his life upside down because he caught a glimpse of a pair of beguiling female knees or elbows? And who but a mental weakling could be seriously affected by the spectacle of a group of half-naked teenage girls sauntering provocatively down the beachfront?
Secular societies have no problems with bikinis or sexual provocation because, among other things, they do not believe that sexuality and beauty have such extraordinary power over people. Men are presumed to be entirely capable of watching a group of young women cavort, whether online or in the flesh, and then getting on with their lives as though nothing out of the ordinary had just happened.
Religions are often mocked for being prudish, but insofar as they warn us against sex, they do so out of an active awareness of the charms and the power of desire. They wouldn’t judge sex to be quite so bad if they didn’t also understand that it could be rather wonderful. The problem is that this wonderful thing can get in the way of some other important and precious concerns of ours, such as God and life.
We may not want to go so far as to veil beauty, but perhaps we can come to see the point of censoring the internet and applaud any government attempts to reduce the ready and unchecked flow of pornography down our fibre-optic cables. Even if we no longer believe in a deity, we may have to concede that a degree of repression is necessary both for the mental health of our species and for the adequate functioning of a decently ordered and loving society. A portion of our libido has to be forced underground for our own good; repression is not just for Catholics, Muslims and the Victorians, but for all of us and for eternity. Because we have to go to work, commit ourselves to relationships, care for our children and explore our own minds, we cannot allow our sexual urges to express themselves without limit, online or otherwise; left to run free, they destroy us.”