I have a confession. The other day, I watched porn. Or at least it felt that way.
But I’m a pastor, and my husband was home. Who does that? Or who admits it on the internet?
Pornography is the depiction of acts in a sensational manner meant to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction.
The endorphins were flooding my brain; the dopamine and oxytocin were formulating feelings of attachment with the actress. When I was done, I really felt better, more relaxed. It was a great pick-me-up after a rough day at work.
My porn of choice? Legally Blonde starring Reese Witherspoon. I laughed at Elle’s shenanigans, empathized with her when she experienced heartache and hardship and eventually felt release when she won her legal case and the guy at the end.
Watching a romantic comedy produces the same chemical cocktail that watching pornography does—dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins. It creates the same longing, the same high. Except romantic comedies are appropriate in public. Encouraged, even.
I talk about them with my girlfriends. At church. Moms watch them with their daughters. Women’s Health magazine even made the case that we should watch romantic comedies to improve our moods.
But these chemicals don’t just produce a type of feeling, they create a habit. These hormonal triggers forge neural pathways the same way a person walking through the woods creates a pathway.
One or two times might be harmless, but the more we watch, the more we crave. And the more we crave, the more it takes for us to achieve the same high, and will we ever be able to recreate what we view in either pornography or chick flicks?
The verdict has been in for a while: Porn is harmful. This is nothing new. More and more research consistently surfaces on the negative effects of pornography. Our brains on pornography look eerily similar to our brains on addictive drugs. Porn ruins relationships. Elizabeth Smart’s hell-on-earth was worsened as her abductor became addicted to porn. Former Playboy Playmate Pamela Anderson conceded that pornography is a public hazard. Even GQ listed 10 reasons to quit porn.
We know that pornography alters the brain. It creates unrealistic expectations and creates a barrier to meaningful connection. It is simplistic, reductionist and objectifying.
It’s no surprise that pornography creates unrealistic expectations for bodies, sexual performance and immediacy of sexual contact without relational engagement.
But I don’t think it’s actually a surprise that romantic comedies also create unrealistic expectations for bodies, for relational performance, for immediacy of intimacy without real work.
Our favorite ones display the most beautiful people in the lead roles, with wingmen and women just a tad less beautiful to spotlight our heroes. They have clear skin smoothed out by makeup and editing, perfect hair stuck together with a can of hairspray, the best wardrobes handpicked by paid stylists and they wake up a perfectly disheveled type of messy that takes hours to sculpt in the dressing room behind the scenes. But we don’t see behind the scenes; we only see what the producers design for us to see: comedy and romance.
The beautiful, quirky, doesn’t-have-it-all-together girl next door finally meets Prince Charming. They hit it off (or maybe they don’t), and a series of events where they cross paths ultimately leads to romance, then a crisis leads to separation, then to an epiphany where they both realize just how terrible life had been before they met.
They find each other serendipitously in public, profess their love, then the movie cuts to the happily ever after. This is the cinematic template for romance in a nutshell. This is what girls see when we graduate from Disney movies. This is the blueprint from which too many of us have drafted our ideas of relationships.
The expectation that finally comes together when we meet “The One” is overwhelmingly prevalent.
We’re supposed to know The One by the butterflies in our stomach, or some sign the universe sends our way, and it will feel like we’re finally complete—we’ve found our other half. But when we hit a rough spot, crises are handled through dramatic outbursts, demanding that if he can’t “handle me at my worst, then he doesn’t deserve me at my best,” we flee the room, remembering our favorite scenes from Runaway Bride, expecting The One to follow us.
It’s the drama that makes the movie so great, but the drama is what makes the real relationship so bad.
Romantic comedies perpetuate unrealistic expectations for how men and women should interact, for timing, fate, conflict and connection on a basic level. We want the Pinterest-perfect wedding without committing to the hard work of a real relationship.
And when I think about it that way, expecting that type of relationship really is a form of objectification. Pornography reduces women to their sexuality, diminishing their multi-dimensional being. In rom-coms, men are treated as a means to an end—a woman’s happily ever after. Women spend a lot of time dreaming about our wedding day—it typically starts when we’re little girls.
I created a Pinterest board for my wedding before I had ever met my husband.
To view someone as a means to an end, is to strip that person of his or her human dignity, the imprint of God’s own image.
The very first thing we learn about humans in the Bible is that God created us in God’s own image, and that’s a very good thing (Genesis 1:27). When we refuse to identify the God-stuff in those around us, we’re missing out on what could be a real and meaningful relationship.
The second thing we learn about humans is that God doesn’t want us to be alone (Genesis 2:18). We were created to be with others in community, and when we reduce our relationships to sex or a wedding, we deprive ourselves and others of real connection.
Watching pornography isn’t as good as having sex; in the same way, watching a romantic comedy simply isn’t as good as experiencing a real relationship. My relationship with my husband is a mosaic of memories, connection, emotion, boredom, excitement, work and play. He’s better than Netflix.
So are romantic comedies as bad as standard porn? Of course not. But junk food never nourishes the body.
It’s time to have a moment to think about what we watch and how it affects our relationships, whether or not our porn of choice displays naked bodies.
is a Deacon in the United Methodist Church, and a writer and researcher who develops curriculum and other resources for pastors, churches, and publications. Read her blog and follow her on Twitter.