Pornography Is a Social Justice Issue

Millennial Catholic Megan McCabe, who has written on hookup culture and rape culture at Millennial, has a new article at America. She writes:

This process of desensitization and subsequent search for a new thrill is one way that male viewers find themselves aroused by acts of violence and degradation that they previously would have found horrifying.

Through “Create in Me a Clean Heart,” the U.S.C.C.B. attempts to address these social concerns. But the statement mentions them only briefly and without much explanation. Despite addressing issues of violence, the overall framing of the document remains focused on lust and chastity. To take pornography seriously as a structure of sin would require moving violence to the fore, allowing it to frame how we ought to understand the ethical challenges posed by pornography. Through further exploration of the negative social effects of pornography, it becomes clear that the primary concern ought not be lustfulness. Rather, use of pornography entails complicity in a social structure that makes violence against women seem normal, even erotic. It is a matter of social injustice.

Such an approach would lead us to see that the primary necessary response ought to be oriented toward justice and social transformation. It would require solidarity with those who are victimized by sexual violence. Avoiding such material is good not only because it promotes moral purity but also because it challenges the cultural underpinning of unjust, gendered power and sexual violence. The key moral issue is not one’s own “clean heart” but one’s participation in upholding and passing on cultural forms that promote violence against women.

You can read the full article here.


Around the Web (Part 2)

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Economic Inequality: Can Theology Say Something New? by Kate Ward: “In my view, a good deal of advocacy around inequality, including that of religious leaders, avoids one of the more important questions we should be asking: how does inequality affect our moral formation? For many of us, it’s easy to find common cause with those who are like us and more difficult to feel empathy for others who we may perceive as more distant. This adds urgency to the question of whether it matters if, for example, a CEO earns 100 times or 100,000 times what her lowest-paid employees do, even supposing the employees earn a living wage. Do we really think vastly different living standards have no impact on our ability to form solidarity with one another?”

In Lebanon, Syrian refu­gee children find safety from war but new dangers on the streets by Loveday Morris: “The United Nations announced that Lebanon registered its millionth Syrian refugee on Thursday, making the tiny country — which had a population of just over 4 million before the Syrian war — home to the highest concentration of refugees in the world. Among the most visible representatives of that influx and the impact of the Syrian war on Lebanon’s capital are children such as Mohammed, who fled the violence and ended up here, selling flowers, tissues, chewing gum or shoeshines on the streets of Beirut.”

Finding ‘Mercy’ in daily life by Gail Finke: “Yes, it’s funny (“In which I get locked out of the church while trying to help people into it”) and sad and thought-provoking and inspirational. If you take even one thing away from this book, you’ll be a better person and a better Catholic. But you’ll take away a lot more than one.”

On Coates v. Chait by Ross Douthat: “You don’t have to regard morality as at the seat of all our troubles to recognize that it’s intertwined with some of them; you don’t have to write off public policy to concede that there are ills that policy alone can’t solve; you don’t have to ignore structural disadvantages to recognize the importance of asserting individual agency — saying ”there are things under our control that we’ve got to attend to …,” as the president has put it — in the face of collective difficulty.”

Facts, Propaganda and Libertarianism by Michael Sean Winters: “Any thoughtful Catholic has sufficient difficulties with liberalism, all of which tend to wish it were less individualistic, less focused on human autonomy, less redolent of rights apart from correlative responsibilities. Libertarianism wants to pull liberalism in the opposite direction, removing even the few checks on unfettered license that liberalism supplies.”

Shifting the Focus: Objectification, Porn and the Longing for Belonging by Leah Perrault: “Objectification and depersonalization are natural consequences of porn, but I don’t think that the average porn user, at least at the beginning, is aiming for those consequences as a primary goal. The appeal of porn, and eventually the compulsion or addiction, isn’t about the (often female) body, person or sexual appeal. It’s about the longing, fear and/or compulsion in the viewer.”

Opinion: Forget Ukraine, Syria is now the world’s biggest threat by Simon Tisdal: “Al-Assad’s continued survival as Syria’s head of state is an egregious affront to the U.N. Security Council and its various related Syria resolutions, to the U.N. charter, to international law, and specifically to international war crimes legislation. Al-Assad stands accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, not least over the use by his forces of chemical weapons against civilian populations. But once again, nothing much is done, and the credibility of such institutions and laws suffers as a result. The moral example set by such dereliction is shocking.”

To prevent another Rwanda, all it takes is a few well-trained troops by David Blair: “Gen Dallaire’s searing memoir of those 100 blood-soaked days, Shake Hands with the Devil, contains a lesson of eternal relevance. This distinguished Canadian soldier offers his professional assessment that a mere 4,000 trained troops, entrusted with a mandate allowing the use of force to protect civilians, could have stopped the genocide in its tracks. For want of a handful of soldiers, 800,000 people died.”

Crisis and Need in the Central African Republic by Allen Ottaro: “Father Mombe shared an overview of the history of the conflict in his country, efforts by churches and faith communities to end the violence and initiate reconciliation, and his personal experience of the conflict in the capital city, Bangui, in December 2013.”


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Bring on the Dogma by Michael Sean Winters: “The mercy of God, the love of God, the human dignity of all, these are the core doctrines that we must embrace and defend, but our defense must be characterized by utter humility in part because we all so easily and so often offend against them!”

Going Home Again by David Brooks: “Sting’s talk was a reminder to go forward with a backward glance, to go one layer down into self and then after self-confrontation, to leap forward out of self. History is filled with revivals, led by people who were reinvigorated for the future by a reckoning with the past.”

How Bashar al-Assad created the feared shabiha militia: an insider speaks by The Telegraph: “A former Assad regime insider has given the first direct account of how Syria’s ruling family created the feared shabiha militia that is blamed for some of the worst atrocities of the civil war, and gave it orders to kill or torture anti-regime protesters.”

Emerging Adulthood: A Luxury Good by Anna Sutherland: “As Kendig, Mattingly, and Bianchi conclude, their findings imply that young adults from lower-income families need more support as they pursue a college education or job training, and they could benefit from earlier training in financial literacy as they contribute to their families’ income at younger ages.”

The Central African Republic has become a nightmare for Muslims by Peter Bouckaert: “The Catholics’ humanity, courage and leadership stand out amid the slaughter. They are virtually alone in trying to protect the vulnerable. France and the African Union have deployed thousands of peacekeepers; the United States and other governments have provided support to the peacekeeping mission. But their efforts to protect civilians pale next to the bravery exhibited by these clergy.”

Europe’s bishops: Politics needs to focus its attention on the common good by Vatican Insider: “The bishops ended their statement with a direct appeal: ‘We, Catholic Bishops, would plead that the European project not be put at risk nor abandoned under current duress.’”

Abby Huntsman wants to lead her own generation into poverty by Michael Hiltzik: “Huntsman has stitched her spiel together out of scraps and tatters of misinformation, of a sort we’ve heard from the older generation for years. They’re no more accurate coming out the mouths of a “millennial.” But it’s tragic to see that what she’s learned from her elders is how to mislead her public.”

Christians, Muslims join anti-slavery campaign by AP: “Christians and Muslims have joined to try to help free millions of men, women and children held in modern-day slavery, forced to work as maids, prostitutes, child soldiers and manual laborers. The Global Freedom Network launched Monday at the Vatican aims to eradicate slavery by encouraging governments, businesses, educational and faith institutions to rid their supply chains of slave labor.”

Best practices for charity and justice by Jack Jezreel, US Catholic: “Those in our parishes who work on issues related to human trafficking, for example, should celebrate—not diminish—the work of those dedicated to issues related to mental illness. Those focused on environmental care should celebrate—not diminish—the work of those focused on reducing abortions. Those who work on domestic issues in partnership with Catholic Charities should celebrate—not diminish—those who work on international issues in partnership with Catholic Relief Services.”

Love vs. Pornography by Bishop Paul Loverde: “Very often, a key factor in one’s descent into pornography addiction is a lack of affirmation, acceptance, and trust in one’s relationships. An important part of the ascent, then, can also be the sharing of this struggle with others, allowing their love and concern to aid in the healing.”

A Genius for Friendship by John Padberg, SJ: “Peter began to help Ignatius in his studies; Ignatius slowly became a dear friend and counselor to whom Faber unburdened his troubled inner life. Ignatius could understand it well; he had experienced the same trials of scruples, temptations, uncertainties that had long bedeviled Peter. These burdens never completely left Faber, but he learned from Ignatius both how to deal with them and how to help others in the same circumstances.”

Pope Francis: Style, substance and a man for others by Stephen Kent: “His remarks — critical of the “throwaway culture” and his skepticism about “trickle-down economics” ever reaching the poor — have captured headlines, as has his demand for a direct encounter with the poor.”


Most Popular Guest Posts in 2013

One of the reasons we created Millennial was because we were concerned that millennial Catholics did not have adequate forums in which to express their ideas on religion, politics, and culture. In particular, we felt that those who were both pro-life and pro-social justice, shaped by the personalist and communitarian principles of Catholic teaching, were too often excluded by those seeking to maintain ideological purity or advance a partisan agenda. In creating Millennial, we hoped to provide a forum to fill that gap and hoped that this would be done not only by recruiting a great set of writers but also by having a very open submission policy that welcomed millennial Catholic authors from a wide range of backgrounds. We had a great set of guest submissions in 2013, which can be viewed here. We hope to add even more voices in 2014, so if you have something to say and are willing to say it in a thoughtful, nuanced way, we encourage you to submit a post or idea today. Without further ado, here are the five most popular guest posts of 2013:

5. Liberty, Idolatry, and the Culture of Violence by Christiana Z. Peppard: “The idolatry of liberty—of rights unfettered from social responsibilities—is cancerous. In our culture of violence, it is at least partly fed by hyper-permissive interpretations of the second amendment. And we are too strapped to guns and gurneys for any of this to be even bleakly funny. If the body politic is to survive, the cancer requires surgery. Rethinking the contemporary stipulations of the second amendment seems as good a place to start as any.”

4. All Catholic Bishops Must Act on Medicaid Expansion by Ryan Casey: “Join me also in my hope that our Catholic clergy lead their flocks by embodying the social gospel that lies at the very heart of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, who did not just talk about compassion, but showed it; did not just teach us about love, but was it; and did not just preach about taking care of the least among us, but did it.  Will we as Catholics follow in the footsteps of Christ our Lord through our actions?”

3. Waging War on Porn: Trial and Triumph at our Finger Tips by Matt Aujero: “Our generation has been given the opportunity to grow up and explore the Internet, a tool that gives us unprecedented access to knowledge, but it has also given us an equally unprecedented set of temptations if we leave ourselves to our own devices… This is not just a personal battle; this is our collective battle.”

2. Letter to a “Conservative” Catholic by Rebecca Sharbaugh: “I promise to balance the emphases of my faith with yours by truly listening to what you have to say.  I promise to never demean the beautiful ways you serve God just because they are different than the ways I choose to serve God. And most of all, I promise that I believe the Church is better with you in it than it would be without you.”

1. The Danger of Pope Francis by Jonathan Lewis: “The danger of Pope Francis is no different than the danger that comes with the rise in popularity of any other figure, though it is magnified when the person happens to be the most talked-about person in the world: when we agree with someone, we are rarely moved to grow or change. The life of a Christian disciple requires growth and change. A God that does not make us uncomfortable is no god at all.”


Pornography is about more than personal purity

As Millennial’s previous piece on the subject noted, pornography is pervasive in our society, particularly among teenage boys and young men.

In addressing this, the focus is often on convincing these young people to embrace the virtue of temperance.  Those trying to break away from pornography struggle to live a life of greater purity and resist lustful temptations that would hinder their progress.  The focus is on self-reform.

Of course, there is also a great deal of discussion about the impact of pornography on the viewer’s immediate relationships.  Often the costs of pornography—including its negative impact on intimacy and the sexual relationship of spouses—are framed in terms of the way it damages the relationship between husband and wife.

But the consumption of pornography is also a social justice issue.  It is tightly connected to the objectification of other persons, who are used instrumentally for a rush of endorphins.  Many feminists would note the negative impact that the widespread objectification of women has, creating an obstacle to the full flourishing of women.

The thing is, this is not just an issue of virtue theory or feminist theory.  It is an injustice that affects real people. It involves the objectification and dehumanization of actual people (typically women).  Often actions that seem personal in nature have a social impact.  The drug user who purchases narcotics, giving drug dealers cash that is used to fund terrorism in Afghanistan or violence in Mexico, is complicit in the destruction of actual lives.  So too is the consumer of pornography, whose actions fuel an industry that ruins lives.  This consumer is providing the market for suppliers who prey on the vulnerable and use nefarious practices to convince people to engage in activity that is dehumanizing and that many will one day regret.

Some would argue that if the porn star has freely chosen their profession, those who provide the market for pornography are off the hook.  But Catholics are not supposed to think in such an impersonal, contractual way; the bonds of community are tighter and interpersonal duties are more extensive.

And of course, we have to question what consent means in this context.  In “This Is What Happens When A Porn Star Finds God”, Brittni Ruiz, who has left the business, explains why those in pornography often enter the industry:

While in front of the camera or the fans, porn stars often say they got into the business because of how much they love sex, but that’s them playing their character, Ruiz says. Girls usually get into porn because they’re “searching for love,” or for the money.

“I’m being told I’m beautiful and getting attention.”

Insecurity is among the most destructive forces in the modern world.  And convincing young people to enter the pornography industry by exploiting their insecurities is an effective way to profit off of their vulnerability.  Sure they consented, but what does consent mean to someone desperate for approval, attention, affirmation, or love?

And the results of preying on people like Brittni Ruiz can be devastating:

“In the beginning, I felt beautiful. I felt like I found my self-worth. And after a while I felt destroyed,” she told The View Monday.

“It was torture for seven years. I was miserable, I was lonely.” She eventually turned to drugs and alcohol, and attempted suicide.

When we try to help people break away from the consumption and addiction of pornography, it is essential to get them thinking about more than themselves and even their current or future spouse.  Certainly the quest for personal virtue is laudatory, as is a focus on creating better marriages.

But being virtuous also means that our actions are just—that we act in a way that reflects our commitment to the dignity and value of other persons.  And perhaps if we add this to the equation—a concern for the lives of those in this industry—more people will understand the gravity and impact of their actions and choose to turn their backs on an unjust industry that devastates people’s lives and offers only a false path to happiness.


More than a Day

This Mother’s Day, Americans will spend an estimated $21 billion to show their appreciation and love to the women who gave us the gift of life.  That breaks down to almost $170 for each consumer to say “Thank You!” in cards, flowers, brunch, and other gifts.

Moms certainly deserve the recognition, thanks, and praise.  But we should be better about doing this all year long.  And we should more consistently stand up for all the women in our lives, including others’ moms or  moms-to-be.

Robert and Sarah’s posts this past week highlight the denigrating images, messages, and pressures put on women today.  Robert cites the “real beauty” campaign by Dove.  And while Dove’s attempts to subvert dominant paradigms of unrealistic standards of beauty are laudable, Dove’s parent company, Unilever, runs ads with almost the opposite message for a different subsidiary, Axe (Axe soaps and scents seem to strip women of any brainpower or agency by depicting them as magnetically – and lustfully – drawn to any man who dons their product).  Ads like these make it hard to reverse trends that indicate women have one negative thought about their body every waking hour – and that as many as 97% of women have at least one negative body thought a day.

Maybe there’s more we can do for Mom – and other moms and moms-to-be – than send a card or some flowers once a year?

Cultural pressures and expectations are one thing.  When these degrading images start to shape us, they can lead to even worse objectification and exploitation.  Patriarchy of all kinds engenders a “rape culture” that stands idly by while pornography, domestic abuse, sexual assault, and human trafficking (including that of women and children trafficked for sex) impact an increasing number of lives.

These are not subjects that are easy to discuss.  Yet if we are going to honor Mom, we should move beyond words and gestures of gratitude.  We need to confront the realities of sin, both personal and social, that degrade moms and all other women and girls across our country and all over the globe.

This means addressing the fact that 40 million Americans watch porn regularly, including 70% of 18-24 males.  It requires that we acknowledge porn is so pervasive that it accounts for 35% of all internet downloads, is exposed to children on average by age 11, and that Sunday is the most popular day of the week for watching porn.  If ever there was a day to abstain, let’s hope it would be Mother’s Day.  Not only out of respect for Mom, or sisters and daughters who may one day become moms, but to girlfriends and spouses, since such widespread viewing is being linked to growing trends in sexual dissatisfaction, infidelity, and divorce.

It means confronting the fact that even if we vow never to raise a hand to a woman in our house, 1 in 4 women will still experience domestic abuse in their lifetime.  The same ratio of college women are sexually assaulted, and the numbers are also disturbingly high among high school girls, reaching almost one in five.  It’s not enough to refuse to be a perpetrator; we must be committed to being allies and advocates who are actively and steadfastly working to end violence against women.  One way to honor Mom is to end the culture of indifference that persists in our enlightened age that professes a commitment to liberty and equality.

It means standing with women and girls for human dignity and human rights.   It also means being more informed and responsible consumers, who refuse to buy clothing stitched by female garment workers in sweatshop factories like the one that collapsed and killed more than one thousand in Bangladesh a few weeks ago.  And boycotting produce picked by farmworker mothers that makes slavery a part of our food chain.

If we fail to acknowledge and atone for these sins, Mother’s Day risks becoming a Hallmark Holiday that ultimately rings hollow.  Moms and moms-to-be deserve better than that, especially since their love for us is anything but just-for-show.


Why Notions of Attractiveness Poison Our Society

Dove’s recent “Real Beauty Sketches” ad campaign has sparked strong praise from those who think it opens the eyes of women to the way their self-image regarding their physical appearance can become twisted and distorted (for a whole number of reasons).  Critics argue that the takeaway is that the women featured in the commercials really are closer to “beauty” than they realize, seemingly reinforcing an illegitimate standard of objective beauty or attractiveness.  My feelings are mixed, as it does both.

In all aspects of life we can magnify small or nonexistent shortcomings and stress over them, and this is particularly true for women and their physical appearance, as they live in a culture that glorifies the objectification of women.  At the same time, the Dove commercials do reinforce illegitimate stereotypes regarding attractiveness that negatively impact the perceptions of self-worth held by many women.

Yet the critics seem too tame when it comes to confronting the real menace.  It is not simply that common cultural standards of attractiveness at this moment in American history are wrong and harmful, but that any embrace of standards of attractiveness—the rating, sorting, and objectifying of human persons based on their physical appearance—is incompatible with respect for the dignity and worth of the human person and stands as a serious obstacle to the common good.

If we really want to cure or greatly reduce some of the most destructive ills in our society, including divorce, infidelity, suicide, bullying, sexual assault, the sexualization of children, sexual and street harassment, the pervasiveness of pornography, racism, colorism, materialism, greed, insecurity, superficiality, eating disorders, sexism, and human trafficking, our society needs to reexamine the way it views attraction and attractiveness.  Fundamentally irrational notions of attraction and attractiveness are widespread, and they lead to the dehumanization—or  the depersonalization—of others, opening the door for injustice, insecurity, hatred, and exploitation.  To be clear, these are all complex problems and they each require a myriad of responses in order to move toward the common good (far more than reducing the physical objectification of others), but what many consider frivolous and fun is actually a grave underlying problem.

Our society glorifies disconnecting people’s physical appearance from their spiritual, intellectual, and emotional natures in order to objectify them so that they can be used instrumentally as sexual objects or observed, classified, and rated like pieces of art or inanimate objects.

This fosters insecurity in millions of Americans.  Few things cause more widespread unhappiness in our society.  It can tear relationships apart with spouses looking outside of their marriage for affirmation of their worth as a person or spouses resenting the other based on whether or not each spouse is seemingly measuring up to standards of attractiveness.  The result: conflict, dysfunction, infidelity, and divorce.

It can lead to malicious bullying, which in turn can produce fear, self-hatred, eating disorders, self-harm, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, reckless behavior, and even suicide.  And all of these can exist without bullying when people, especially young people, measure themselves against airbrushed models or even their best friend and find themselves lacking the traits that supposedly make one attractive.  They turn to these self-destructive behaviors to fill that void, to overcome insecurities, or perhaps just to escape the pain and unhappiness of the moment.

Irrational notions of attractiveness foster materialism and greed because attractiveness can be purchased if one has the financial resources for expensive cosmetics, clothes, stylists, and even surgeons.  It reinforces the individualism that permeates our society by inciting the person to treat him or herself like an object that can and must be improved, and this self-absorption—this obsession with the superficial—leads people to betray other values like authenticity, community, and justice.

On a societal level, the obsession with physical attractiveness and pressure to conform to the fleeting, capricious standards of the moment bear a heavier burden on girls and women.  Those women who refuse to conform are often faced with scorn, contempt, and mockery, particularly those in the public spotlight, those shattering glass ceilings.  And those women who do accept conformity as a necessity or by choice are nevertheless often punished, seen as less serious than their male counterparts.  This plays no small role in the inequalities that exist between men and women in the workplace.

And this obsession leads to violence against women.  Certainly the desire for power often plays a dominant role in sexual assault, but sexual desire based on physical attraction cannot be left out of the equation.  It is integral to rape culture.  It drives sex trafficking and forced prostitution.

Notions of attractiveness also reflect and fuel ugly forms of bigotry in our culture: racism and colorism.  The preference for lighter skin in American society is both pervasive and repulsive.  Unjust, indefensible prejudice is dismissed as preference and harmful effects are ignored.

All of this should lead to one conclusion: retaining superficial attraction to those toward whom we are not genuinely attracted (as persons not objects) and maintaining standards of attractiveness regarding members of the opposite sex, or even our own, are harmful practices and morally indefensible.  Human persons, equipped with reason and the capacity to recognize the dignity of others, can and should discard them.  They should stop objectifying themselves.  And they should take on social structures that reinforce and perpetuate these practices.  The result would be greater human flourishing for both those who objectify and those who are objectified.  Deconstructing these irrational prejudices would lead to a more widespread appreciation for the dignity and worth of each person and make evermore present the kingdom of God.

Legitimate Attraction

For one whose life is directed by the desire to reach their full potential as a human person, the purpose of physical and sexual attraction is to find joy through communion in a unified relationship with a spouse.  Our notions and understanding of both legitimate attraction and standards of attractiveness should flow from this reality.

For those who are married (or in relationships of that nature, as well as in relationships on the way to marriage), legitimate physical attraction is based on genuine love that manifests itself in the desire for physical unity and sexual expression with one other person. This legitimate attraction is based on love and truth, not prejudice and cultural programming.  It reflects a real desire to be with another person, to share one’s self with them in a unique and intimate way.  And it inspires sentiments and desires that correspond with this legitimate wish for unity.

It is among these couples where we are most likely to find people who have discarded the erroneous belief in the objective beauty of others and turned away from superficiality and the objectification of others.  And it is most often not the product of a conscious choice to reject these, but instead the result of experiencing unparalleled attraction to another person and intuitively comprehending the authentic nature and sources of beauty.  Past notions of what is and is not attractive then seem silly and absurd.  This type of authentic attraction to another person, the real desire to love that person and become one flesh, contrasts sharply with superficial attraction, which is in fact fleeting, arbitrary, and useless.

To try to discern the attractiveness of others for whom we lack this desire and these feelings is to irrationally cling to an artificial construct that generates destructive prejudice and helps no one.  It is fundamentally irrational and pointless, disconnected from the lived reality of genuine, authentic attraction.  There is therefore a responsibility to make one’s understanding of attractiveness align with this reality and to deprogram the prejudices we have inherited and invented regarding superficial attraction and attractiveness.

For those still seeking a spouse, it is better if physical attraction flows from a real connection that holds the possibility of future communion—grounded in some mixture of common values and personal chemistry—rather than acting as a tool to arbitrarily spark relationships with people whose physical appearance will change with time, but whose values may never allow for genuine communion. This is not to say that authentic one flesh relationships cannot be sparked by a superficial attraction shaped by one’s subjective understanding of attractiveness, merely that these relationships would be the fairly rare, exceptionally fortunate outcomes of an approach that tilts heavily toward failure.  The divorce rate may actually be surprisingly low rather than surprisingly high when we consider how many people choose to build their marriages on such a shaky foundation.  But again, real attraction can supplant arbitrary attraction so failure is not inevitable.

A better approach to finding a spouse would be to discard one’s superficial standards of attractiveness and personalize the search for one’s spouse—to base it on the future one would like to build with a spouse and that ineffable, intuitive attraction to the spirit of another person instead of on meaningless, capricious predilections.

It is not just sensible and rational to deconstruct these prejudices; it is a Christian duty.  We are called to treat each other as brothers and sisters.  Think about how ridiculous it is to try to objectively determine the attractiveness of your brother or sister, mom or dad, son or daughter.  Is your assessment distorted by your love for them?  How about the fact that you are familiar with their spiritual and emotional natures?  Are you failing to objectively see them as they are in reality?

In fact, once we realize the notion of objective beauty is a preposterous, fanciful delusion, we might come to see that we are seeing them as we should—as a unified, whole person with not just a physical, but also an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual nature—and that capricious standards of attractiveness are in fact distortions of reality.  Our vision is not distorted by the proximity of the relationship, but rather because we love the person and know the person, we see him or her as an integral whole, just as God sees persons, not as a collection of parts or features.  And the more we love someone, the more easily we can see their genuine beauty.

And it’s not a matter of seeing their so-called internal or inner beauty.  We have all heard the aphorism that “beauty is only skin deep,” but this is not true.  The internal vs. external beauty divide is fundamentally false, possible only when we fail to view the other person as they are, as an integral whole with a physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual nature.  To appreciate beauty is to see how it permeates another person’s entire being.

And if we can see that is the case with our close friends and loved ones, we should be able to see why this standard—viewing people as whole, integrated persons—aligns with Christian responsibility to treat all as brothers and sisters.

If we do this, we might be able to live up to the challenge Christ places before us—to eradicate lust in our hearts.  This is among his most radical teachings and to most contemporary Americans it must seem like an entirely unreasonable duty.  That is probably true unless effort is made to get to the very root of the problem by eliminating that prejudice that generates that lust.  A person is perfectly capable of leaving behind this prejudice.  And once they do, they will see their past celebrity crush or random object of desire as a human being, a person with dignity and emotions, someone to whom they are not actually attracted, rather than seeing them as an object.  They will then live in reality, where their perceptions match their authentic desires and values.  At this point, the everyday obsession with capricious standards of attractiveness will look just as silly as when Brent Musburger embarrassed himself on national television doing what millions of Americans do every day.

Beauty is Subjective

The science of attraction/beauty is heavily contested.  Some studies equate symmetry with attractiveness while others claim “averageness” is the key to beauty, findings that are irreconcilable.  And this is just the beginning of the contradictions.  These studies range from what we might generously call ‘inconclusive’ to those that can only be identified as outright pseudoscience.  And many of the results, which are supposed to transcend cultural prejudice, seem to resemble precisely what one would expect to see in a similar study from the 1930s by Nazi eugenicists. Can an actual scientist in this day and age actually believe in the aesthetic superiority of whites?  Sadly, yes.  From dubious variables to missing variables to the failure to isolate environmentally-constructed biases, these studies are rife with methodological errors and fail pathetically in their attempt to prove a universal standard of physical attractiveness.  Many reflect the humorous fact that people tend to rate more highly the attractiveness of others who share their own features, leading to results that are more likely to reflect simple narcissism than confirm the existence of some imagined innate ability connected to passing on genes.

Further, in seeking to find some evolutionary basis for objective standards of attractiveness, there is a tendency in these studies to ignore the impact of some of the most powerful forces shaping understandings of attractiveness—fashion, cosmetics, status, talent, fame, public personality, etc.  No person with even a modicum of common sense could deny that these heavily shape understandings of beauty.  Whole industries exist because of their success in shaping perceptions of attractiveness, fostering insecurity, and promoting their products as remedies.  The media is often complicit in this.  This is why people wear makeup, get dressed up, have their hair done a certain way, and engage in various other activities that they have learned will make them more likely to meet contemporary standards of attractiveness.

The reality is that beauty is fundamentally subjective.  Notions of attractiveness are overwhelmingly shaped by personal prejudice, whether inherited from mainstream society, formed by a subculture, influenced by personal experience, or consciously constructed.  Even those with disdain for mainstream culture’s standards of beauty often retain some level of illegitimate and irrational prejudice regarding the external appearance of others.  They might be drawn to those who dress like a hipster or attracted to those who look like their ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend.  And they may feel superior to those who accept popular notions of attractiveness because they have largely deconstructed these.  They have not, however, moved past the type of illegitimate discrimination that impedes the quest for authentic communion.

The alternatives to seeking a spouse based on how they fit momentary standards of attractiveness are often equally facile, whether one is using another’s status, wealth, innate intelligence, “winning personality”, confidence and charisma, or any other characteristic that is not intimately connected to the character of the potential romantic interest.  Certainly these could reflect character traits.  Wealth may signify wisdom or temperance, but not necessarily, making it an ineffective proxy for character (and those interested in wealth are probably more often interested in the wealth itself than in the character traits that may have helped generate it).  There is no correlation between having equally high innate intellectual abilities and achieving marital bliss.  The link is not there between sharing a socioeconomic status and having an increased capacity for communion.   The construction of “types” can only inhibit the quest to find a spouse with whom one can achieve real, enduring emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual unity.

The foolishness of those who claim to identify objective standards of beauty can be exposed by anyone familiar with history, art history, popular culture, anthropology, cross-cultural studies, or a variety of other fields.  The knowledge of other cultures and eras make it clear that notions of attraction are fleeting and capricious.  They change radically with time and across cultures, even in the era of globalization.  The idea that “beauty is in the eye of beholder” is a bit of ancient wisdom that remains just as true today.  This becomes clear when one reflects on the radically different notions, for instance, of what constituted an attractive woman in the Renaissance, Victorian England, the 1980s, and today.  Contrast the past appeal of bound feet in China with how repulsive someone in the United States would find them today.  The differences are so obvious that explaining them would simply belabor the point.

Preferences for certain body types would seem to be the most likely biases to reflect a survival of the fittest instinct, yet these four eras alone show that there is no objective standard wired into the human brain.  Even today, when we look across the globe we can find cultures that obsess over thinness combined with voluptuous breasts (like ours), but we can also find others where the mark of an attractive woman is large physical size (which can be seen as a reflection of health, wealth, fertility, or simply what a woman is supposed to look like).  The dominant traits of attractiveness in one place can be seen as thoroughly unattractive—repulsive even—in another.

One needs no special knowledge of science, history, or culture to see how subjective notions of beauty can be.  Personal experience can show us how notions of attractiveness can (and do) come and go, rather than merely reflect animalistic programing.  A sour experience with someone can make one less physically attracted to them.  Many have developed a strong physical attraction toward someone who they did not find physically attractive initially. As one ages, it is common to shift one’s perceptions of the attractiveness of people at various ages.  For instance, 14-year old girls and 40-year old women are likely to rate the attractiveness of various boys and men in radically different ways.  Dating someone new can dramatically change one’s type.  A change in mainstream culture can alter how one views past attractions, as those with an embarrassing celebrity teen crush can confirm.  Nearly everyone has experiences that confirm just how fleeting and superficial these are.

Reason over Instinct

Let us imagine that there is some inherited instinct to use the appearance of heath and youth and (if we are really willing to stretch it) body type and facial bone structure to find fertile mates to pass on our genes.  It would nevertheless be preposterous for a civilized human with free will and the capacity to use reason to instead rely on irrational prehistoric prejudice to find a suitable spouse.  Animal instincts that reflect a primitive mind are no excuse to fail to develop one’s intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and even physical capabilities.  Reason allows us to connect notions of attractiveness to actual attraction.  The idea that we should evaluate spouses by their external appearance because cavemen did it and we must be controlled by the same impulses is more than mildly absurd.  Perhaps instead we should select our spouses based on their ability to kill a wooly mammoth.

Others should not be treated based on the supposed natural instincts of the homo sapien.  If an unfaithful man tries to hide behind his natural instinct to spread his seed, this defense rightfully is typically seen as ridiculous and indefensible.  If a man gets into a dispute and turns immediately to violence and kills another man, does he get a free pass?  Not in any civilized society that values human reason, free will, morality, and justice.

We are free to pick a spouse based on our desire to be with someone who will be a good partner and parent, someone with whom we would enjoy building a life together, someone with whom we have a desire to become one flesh.  To do otherwise is to turn away from our highest capacities and embrace irrationality.  Human persons are not ethically permitted to act like irrational animals driven by extinct.  There is a moral duty to eliminate immoral prejudice.

And ultimately if one wants to pick a spouse based on his or her fertility, perhaps relying on their skin tone or the size of the bridge of their nose is not the most reasonable, reliable method.

Race and Attraction

This all ties in to a reality that receives far too little attention: racism has an intimate relationship with popular notions of attractiveness in the United States.  In numerous studies, ideal features eerily resemble Aryan standards of beauty based on notions of racial superiority.  The argument that people are genetically more attracted to others because of their facial bone structure, hair type, or skin color is simply a contemporary manifestation of eugenics.  The premise that attraction based on race, which is itself a social construct, could be driven by natural rather than environmental factors is patently ridiculous.

Yet such prejudice is pervasive.  Data culled from dating websites show an astonishing amount of racial discrimination by those seeking a romantic partner, even among those who claim to not care.  Look at Maxim’s Hot 100 List which is full of blonde white women, yet has only a handful of black women. Consider the fact that fewer than 4% of runway models are non-white.  And where black women are included in a catalogue of objects we are to admire, there is a strong tendency to include only or predominantly light-skinned black women, reflecting and reinforcing colorism.

In 1970, Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye, which is about a young black girl, Pecola, who has internalized standards of beauty that reflect racial bigotry and longs to have blue eyes.  This poison persists in our culture.  On Race in America on CNN, they showed a little girl who was ashamed of her “ugly” black skin.  The real ugliness is the racism connected to the way our society commonly defines beauty.

There simply is no rational purpose for maintaining prejudice regarding facial features, skin color or tone, or other features of this nature.  One can try to hide the ugliness of prejudice behind the word preference but it does not change the basic reality of the situation.  Is it acceptable to refuse to be friends with someone because of the color of their skin?  Is that mere preference?  Then why do so many feel like it is acceptable to exclude those of a certain race from an even more important, more intimate, more potentially joy-inspiring relationship?  Why are we not indignant when we see SWM seeks SWF in a personal ad?  Why is this one area where racial prejudice largely gets a free pass?  There is no good excuse for this.

What the Church Should Teach

The Church should teach a personalist understanding of attraction and attractiveness.  This starts with the recognition that all people have dignity and worth as children of God and that each has an emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual nature.  The responsibility to love others as brothers and sisters demands treating them as integral wholes.  To isolate their physical nature and judge them based on this is to objectify them, to depersonalize them.  To truly appreciate the beauty of another person requires seeing their beauty as a person—undivided—and being animated by love for that person.  Appreciation for the beauty of another can become authentic attraction when it reflects a real desire to pursue the unique, intimate relationship shared by loving spouses.  Romantic, physical, and sexual attraction to others is fundamentally irrational and worthless, and looms as an obstacle to the full communion of spouses, their ability to become one flesh, which all married couples are called to become.  Persons can and should discard irrational notions of attractiveness and illegitimate attraction by deconstructing the prejudices that foster them.

It is not enough to work for individual conversion, it also essential to work for the breakdown of social sin embedded in social norms and structures that punish authenticity and promote the objectification of others.

The Church should work for a society that allows authentic spousal love to flourish.  It should stand against materialism, consumerism, and superficiality.  The idea that we can manipulate our physical appearance through conformity to fashion and cosmetic trends in order to find authentic, enduring love is absolutely senseless, and the Church should make that clear.  The responsibility is to be countercultural—to unapologetically promote a radical understanding of human dignity and love.

I once read a conservative Catholic periodical discuss how you can notice the cute waiter or waitress, but don’t flirt with him or her and embarrass your spouse and kids.  Others subscribe to the “you can look, but not touch” philosophy.  These are pathetic guidelines that reflect a weak, milquetoast faith that is infected by bourgeois values, particularly the supreme bourgeois value, individualism.  We live in a culture where relationships are often two people pursuing their own individual interests and desires, joined together by collective behavior designed to achieve these individual ends through enlightened self-interest.  Catholic marriage instead finds inspiration in the Trinity, seeking genuine communion based on selfless love.  This reality should permeate everything the Church teaches about human sexuality, including attraction and the recognition of beauty.  Sexuality without intimacy and exclusivity is beneath the dignity of the human person.

By opposing the objectification of others, the Church can provide a solid foundation for an assault on numerous forms of injustice and make a major contribution to the common good and human flourishing.  Only when we reject the legitimacy of capricious, fleeting standards of attractiveness can we really take on the insecurity epidemic present in our society and the evil that objectifying others can foster.

Otherwise, how can we tell teenage girls to focus on their character, academic performance, and the other things we value rather than their physical appearance when we fail to reject the legitimacy of their objectification and it has such a concrete impact on their everyday lives?  How can we convince spouses to feel secure and relish the joy of marriage when their spouse is attracted to others and disconnects the attractiveness of others from his or her actual feelings toward the person?  How can we fully utilize the gifts and talents of the female population when social norms often suppress their potential to serve the common good and create rivalry with other women?  How we can destroy rape culture without destroying the legitimacy of viewing other persons as objects to be consumed?   How can we eradicate racism when it is so deeply connected to the most important, intimate aspect of people’s lives?

We cannot get to the heart of any of these social ills unless this type of objectification is wholly and unambiguously rejected as illegitimate.  Given how pervasive notions of attraction and attractiveness are in our society, the promotion of these ideals represents a monumental challenge, but there is no alternative.  Truth, love, and justice demand it.