The Dangers of Emotional Pornography

We (rightly) worry and fight against visual pornography. But what about the dangers of pornography of the mind and heart?

Editor's note: This week, we're taking a look at some of the "Best of RELEVANTMagazine.com" from 2010. When we put this article up in May, it quickly became one of our most popular and talked-about articles. Cole's examination of our culture's seeming obsession with love stories and idealized romance certainly stirred up a lot of opinions. Some of you resonated with Cole's idea, and said he was spot-on in his critiques. Others suggested that Cole was blaming the media for our own sin and brokenness. Others suggested that there's nothing wrong with a little romcom. So revisit this article, and chime in to the conversation below.

I watched the pilot episode of Glee when it premiered a few months before the show was to begin airing regularly. It was decent enough to at least give some time to the next few episodes.  But by the end of episode two, I was getting a little uneasy. As I watched it, I was becoming aware of what the writers wanted me to feel—the good guy teacher to cheat on his evil wife with the gentle co-worker, and the main male character to cheat on his hypocritical Christian girlfriend with his female lead counterpart.It was one thing to want the characters in the show to do this thing or that, but I turned it off in the middle of a scene in which that male student finally decided to cheat on his girlfriend. It wasn’t because I was offended at the content before my eyes. Rather, in that moment, there was a transference of energy. I found myself thinking about whose girlfriend I should have stolen in high school and how easy and awesome it would have been.

Flash back to Nashville, May of 2009.  I’m driving in a rental car, scanning radio stations. I stop on the local Christian station, and the female DJ is talking about the coming The Notebook: The Musical. She goes on to fawn over the romance in the story and how well it will be adapted to the stage. “But what about A Walk To Remember?” she says. “That would make a fantastic musical. I just loved how that made me feel. And, of course, Switchfoot would have to have some songs in it.”

There’s certainly a war against the prevalence of visual pornography in many corners of our society—especially in the Christian culture. There is an attempt to expose pornography for its promotion of unrealistic sexual expectations and exploitation of human sexuality. And that attempt is a very necessary one.

But what about the unhealthy emotional and relational expectations portrayed in so much of our media? Is there really much of a difference in the hyperbolized sexual imagery of typical pornography and the hyperbolized momentary emotional high felt in a romance film or romantic comedy that sends us looking for a “love” that doesn’t exist?

I heard an interview on NPR with a female author named Elizabeth Gilbert. She was talking about the proliferation of the “Soul Mate Complex” in our modern culture and how the film Jerry Maguire served to reinforce it with the now illustrious line, "You complete me.”

It’s not necessarily only the resulting effects of such a movie that parallels the traditional definition of pornography. Just as there is sexual excitement surrounding the mystery and allure of what flesh might be seen in a movie known for its racy reputation, so too are we drawn in with an anticipation for the emotional and physical high of a romance film.

As a result, we’re taught to crave the moment of romantic ecstasy or to live for the wedding day. We’re raised to think these are the real stories of love and relationship, and we’re confused when they are so few and far between that we aren’t sustained. So we turn back to that which led us to believe in this fantasy all along. And we’re left with an old woman sitting alone, in her love seat, in front of the television watching her “stories.”

Kids eventually understand that pumpkins don’t turn to glass carriages and Fairy Godmothers don’t grant wishes, but many girls never grow out of the idea that one day they will be rescued from reality by some magic and a fictitious prince. And little boys never live up to the fantasy of the mind or that they’re supposed to be that prince and that their spouse is an all-fulfilling princess.

Next time you’re thinking about seeing a movie, be aware of what’s pulling you toward it. If you decide to watch it, recognize the moment when you feel the emotional reinforcement of fake love. And when you walk out, recognize what you now hope for and expect.

There is such a thing as love. There are beautiful moments. But love is about life. And life is about the long haul.

Cole NeSmith is a pastor at Status in Orlando and creator of Uncover The Color.

224 Comments

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Wattskc commented…

I have felt the burn of emotional pornography. I believe we're brought up with it from birth through Disney films, ingraining in us that we have to wait for a Prince Charming to come sweep us off our feet. I also had the same feeling towards Glee, the feeling that Mr. Shue should in fact cheat on Terry because she's just a terrible person and Emma is obviously the better choice. He doesn't even give her the chance to correct mistakes or attempt counseling (yes she was a crazy person but still) he opts for a divorce to gt out of it.

Glee isn't the only one. How many movies are there that try and talk you out of liking what's morally right? I don't think this is a fair thing to do to people, it's almost saying it's ok to do in real life!

As far Notebook-esque movies go, women believe that their own leading man is going to be as romantic and ridiculous as these men when in fact it's never going to happen. We get led down these paths where we never know what to believe. I don't think it's fair that we are subjected to this constantly.

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erin commented…

ok... i guess i would have to disagree because i actually have two guys that are doing this "gentle persistence" thing... and unfortunately instead of finding it alluring, i find it creepy. i dont like these guys and i have told them that. when they dont listen, it doesnt show that they care about me or my feelings. it shows they dont care about anything but what they want. if they were to back off, i might be able to continue a friendship with them.... however the way things stand it isnt possible... i honestly believe this article is correct. persistence is NOT a good thing if someone has already made it clear that he/she is not interested in you, then stop. it produces the opposite effect....

85,389

erin commented…

wow... umm can you please find it in the bible where i have to have sex with my husband anytime he wants? please and thank you

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Anonymous commented…

I've been noticing this dynamic for some time. I live in an area with a large demographic that is sadly enslaved to the relationship/marriage fairytale. Everyone is in a rush to jump into a relationship and get married. There is this perverse pursuit of eternal happiness, feeling loved, fulfillment of companionship...and dual incomes. Wisdom and prudence are sidelined as two people, caught in the moment, venture down a dead end street with an attractive entrance.
I, too, see the media as a vessel for misconception. I do blame the media. HOWEVER, I only blame the media to the extent that one could blame a drug dealer for making the drug available. In other words, the drug ADDICT is fully responsible for purchasing and TAKING the drug. I do think we have a vital responsibility to filter and assess what we feed ourselves. Music and movies really do influence our outlook on life - especially romance and relationships. Like the author, I can see 'through' various movies and songs, listening to the false underlying messages of happiness, fulfillment, 'completeness', etc. And, like the author, I sometimes feel the temptation to subscribe to it.
Most Tyler Perry movies that I've seen do this well: A couple's relationship/marriage is on the rocks. Turmoil is rampant and all their friends and family can see it. Something happens and it's the last straw (ie. over-the-top abuse, infidelity, etc). DIVORCE! Then, in as little as 2 weeks later, the broken and tattered individual finds 'true love' - the PERFECT person who fills every void - and is married a short year later and they live happily ever after - complete with a newborn girl, a brand new house, and a promotion on their job. THE END *cue doves and profound Maya Angelo cameo here*.
Music is redundant in this area too as it often takes us on a roller coaster ride from romantic bliss to cheating to sex sex sex to cheating to 'found me someone new' to cheating to sex sex sex to marriage and so forth. I can hear it on the radio, walk outside, and then see it in action all around me; people striving to live out the fantasies and falsehoods they've bought into as a result of their media diets. I, too, struggle to stay immune.

85,389

Anonymous commented…

HI I put a comment down here about 2 hours ago AND MY COMPUTER WAS ATTACKED I carnt afford to comment again!

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