In talking about pornography, key word: Perform

Jun. 01, 2014 @ 04:22 PM

I am a Christian ethicist, and I teach about sex.  So, I’ve had way, way too many former students send me emails about the student at Duke University who has helped pay her college tuition by performing sexual relations with men while being filmed.   My gut reaction to the news story was simple.  If she performs one act of heterosexual sex on film once a month, she is making $10,000 more than I am after teaching for 15 years at Duke. 

But I am at heart (if not gut) a Methodist minister, so my next thought was “What would Jesus do?”  Jesus would ask the “Duke Porn Star” if he could have dinner at her dorm with her friends and then wash everyone’s feet.   Jesus would not have been sexy with the young woman trying to make her way through college by being a part of the pornography industry.   Jesus would have ignored the sex trade industry and instead tried to be her actual friend.  This complicated reply to former students who’d sent me irate emails confused them, or made them angry.  Here I will try to confuse readers by comparing pornography to online learning.  And, as if that is not confusing enough, I will also compare churches that use video screens to XXX cinemas. 

In the argot of pornography, a key word is “perform.”  What does it mean to “perform” a sexual activity with another person?  It means to be an actor, not oneself.  To “perform” means to follow a script, to be a character different than oneself, and to disconnect from the reactive parts of your soul.   The person watching another person on film “performing” a sexual act is not engaging with a person.  That person is reacting to a human trying to “perform.”   The last time so many students sent me a link to read about pornography was when John Mayer had an interview with Playboy confessing (among even more miserable things) to having viewed 300 photos of women’s private parts before crawling out of bed some mornings.  What made me sad then and still makes me sad now is that this man felt safer with photographs and films of parts of women than with a real woman herself.   I wish for him the courage to wake up each morning with the same, real person and know himself beloved.

Now to “MOOCs” or Massive Open Online Courses -- a big fad right now.  A student I taught a decade ago said that the problem with academics is that we all had to beg for a date to the prom.  Many academics are insecure, whether because we were too smart or too hairy or too tall or too short, and we are susceptible to the allure of being accepted.  

So, if you tell one of us that we would be really good at giving a “TED” sort of talk (on video, with a snappy theme) then we might feel like we have been finally invited to the prom by a popular kid.  We might then be more likely to agree in general to more MOOCs and fewer actual classrooms with real people.  But, to “do” a TED talk, or to “teach” a MOOC is a performance.   Good teaching requires a kind of trust and openness to new ideas and new voices that real intimacy also entails.  At my best, as a teacher, I try to hear, and sort out, and reconsider, and hear again and remain open.  Granted, teaching this way sometimes makes me nearly sick with fear, but I re-enter the pedagogical fray and facilitate the eyeball-to-eyeball, soul-to-soul conversations that happen at the intersection of truth.

The place where I have been taught to trust actual people is an actual church.  I grew up a preacher’s daughter in West Texas, and I don’t idealize the mess that is “church.”  Churches are made of people, after all.  Similar to MOOCs, a new trend for super-churches is to use video technology to broadcast the leading leader, sometimes across states, in different church buildings.  I submit to such leaders that it is better to trust another person to be in the pulpit, not performing but actually preaching, than to ask someone to pull down a video screen and introduce your disembodied self to a room full of people.   My father has an apropos rule for this.  He told an aspiring pastor that he should not appear on a televised screen for a “satellite campus” on Sunday mornings because parishioners “need to be able to smell you.” 

So, for the sake of actual love, and actual teaching and actual preaching, I suggest that the real problem with pornography is performance.  Sex, love, teaching and preaching should be about real people -– smelly, scary and beautiful.