A sentence I never thought I’d have occasion to write: Thank you, Shmuley Boteach and Pamela Anderson, for opening the conversation on online pornography.
You read that right. In case you missed it, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Pamela Anderson co-authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on the dangers of internet porn. This is a partnership that is going to catch attention.
Rabbi Boteach, a celebrity rabbi, is the author of thirty books. Among these are such titles as Kosher Sex, Kosher Lust, Kosher Adultery and, yes, The Kosher Sutra. While Rabbi Boteach has many other arrows in his quiver, sexuality is clearly not an area he is scared to tread. (Lest readers be misled, please be advised that the subtitle of Kosher Adultery is “Seduce and Sin with your Spouse.”)
Now, Ms. Anderson… where to begin?
For starters, Anderson starred in the television series Baywatch, which featured beautiful young women – Anderson foremost among them – running on the beach in bathing suits. Anderson appeared nude in Playboy magazine numerous times over several decades; she graced the cover a record 14 times and was apparently the subject of the magazine’s very last nude photo shoot. (Playboy went nude-free within the past year; now people really do read it for the articles!) Anderson was also the subject of a stolen sex tape with her then-husband, rock star Tommy Lee.
Because of her history as a sexual fantasy for a generation of teenage boys, Anderson may strike one as a strange advocate against pornography. Please note that her one true contribution to the world of porn – her sex tape – was made public without her consent. (The Lees sued and won.) As far as her modeling career, there’s a world of difference between nudity and pornography. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art is full of nudity; not so much pornography.) To suggest that Anderson’s opinion is less valid because of her career would be what’s called a genetic fallacy – judging an argument based on who presents it rather than on its merits. (No matter how you slice it, Anderson on pornography is far more harmless than her fellow Playboy alum Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccination crusade but that’s a story for another day.)
In any event, the Boteach-Anderson pairing is brilliant specifically because of its incongruity. Boteach’s followers might express surprise that he’s co-writing with a Playboy model; Anderson’s will certainly be surprised to see her partnered with a rabbi. (Boteach undoubtedly knows more celebrities than Anderson does rabbis.) This is a good thing because the porn-addiction conversation needs to take place. It’s one I’ve been avoiding for years.
Almost nine years exactly, in fact. I have an email conversation in my inbox dated Sept. 17, 2007, in which the suggestion was made to address the problem of internet porn addiction. I’m not too shy to talk about such thing; when people write me about this – and they do – I answer them. But in those cases, they’re the ones who brought it up. I’ve been reluctant to raise this issue publicly for fear of looking like a “right-winger.” I was content to let someone else handle it but no one else picked up the ball. Until now.
Pornography is by no means new. Before the internet, there were video tapes. Before that, stag films. Before that, “French postcards” and “Tijuana Bibles.” Before that, I dunno, cave paintings? There has always been something. According to at least one opinion, the word kumaz in Exodus 35:22 means a pornographic sculpture. (See the footnote on this verse in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s Living Torah. That’s right: when the Jews left Egypt 3,500 years ago, some of them may have been carrying porn.)
The first problem with online porn beyond its predecessors is its ubiquity. Back in the day, getting the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue off the rack was challenging enough for a pre-teen; getting Playboy or one its contemporaries from behind the counter was unthinkable. A teen might acquire a handful of magazines (which he would keep beneath his mattress because, you know, mom would never think to look there). Nowadays, an unlimited volume of far more extreme content is available – for free – to anyone with internet access, which is everyone. Every adult and teen has a laptop and a smartphone. Has any 14-year-old ever been deterred by having to click a box confirming that they’re 18?
The second problem, aside from the ease of access, is the nature of the available material. Playboy is a bizarre amalgam of wholesome and naughty. It might present an unachievable standard of airbrushed beauty but that’s the extent of the potential damage. What’s available for free online runs the gamut, catering to every fetish imaginable. When a person gets acclimated to A, he moves on to B, and from there to C, D, M, R and Y. (I know you were expecting me to say X, but that was too easy, don’t you think?) This creates a new problem: a completely skewed idea of what a relationship can or should be. Real life seems awfully boring if you’re expecting your every fantasy to be indulged.
Porn addiction is not a problem just in the Jewish or Orthodox community; it’s a societal problem. Observant Jews have an additional problem because of the religious taboos against masturbation, which can lead to terrible, crushing guilt (though Jews are not unique in this, either). It’s not just teens; this problem affects adults as well. And it’s not just men; women are also victims of this affliction. In fact, I answered a question from a woman on this topic just last week:
Q. I need help to stop watching porn.
A. The best advice I can give you is to remove the source of temptation as best you can. Referring to idolatry, the Torah says, “Do not bring an abomination into your house or you will become cursed like it” (Deut. 7:26). Similarly, the book of Job advises “If sin is in your hand, put it far away and do not let not evil dwell in your house” (11:14).
Along similar lines, the Talmud says that if there are two roads – one that goes past women washing their clothes in the river and one that doesn’t – it is evil for a man to take the road that passes the women. Even if he doesn’t peek, he shouldn’t put himself in the position to be tempted!
The Rambam says that the way to break a bad habit is to go to the other extreme. Accordingly, I’d advise that you only use the Internet in a public space, like in the living room with other people around. When you’re in private, stay offline. Make yourself busy with other things. Minimizing the opportunities is a good place to start.
Sadly, my advice is superficial, and I know it. It’s chizuk (giving someone support), not a cure. If someone has a habit they’re having trouble breaking, saying “Don’t do that no more!” will not be an effective strategy. Some people have the strength to break the pattern themselves, others might require therapy or other professional services.
This is why I applaud Rabbi Boteach and Ms. Anderson for putting this issue on the table. Awareness is essential. People suffering with this problem can draw strength from the realization that they are not anomalous; in truth, they are far from alone. Those who are in danger of being drawn into this trap might be spared by having useful information in time. And hopefully, those not suffering from this affliction – especially in the religious community – might become better informed as to how common the problem is, enabling them to assist those so afflicted without being judgmental about it.
Let’s not be afraid to talk about it. Speaking up is not a “right-winger” thing to do. This problem affects your community whether you come from Team Shmuley or Team Pamela.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is the author of five books, including The Tzniyus Book, available on amazon.com.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.