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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Definition of Porneia

In the Church, the typical label for the activity we would call 'sex addiction' is the final stages of the passion of 'porneia' (πορνεία).  It appears in the Scriptures (c.f., and even Jesus Christ mentions porneia as permissible grounds for divorce (c.f. Mt 5:32, 19:9) and a sin akin to murder (c.f. Mt 15:19).  That's pretty serious.

Here's an example:

But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication (πορνείας), causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery. (Mt 5:32) 

Our Lord Jesus Christ differentiates πορνεία (porneia) from μοιχάω, or adultery/illicit sexual intercourse.  Porneia is usually translated as 'fornication,' but it is really a bigger concept, hence the differentiation.

Porneia is an unnatural sexual desire.  Remember, Christ does not condemn marriage, and the Church has always fought heresies that have taught such monstrosities.  However, sex has to be kept within its natural boundaries and not become porneia.

Monks struggle with this passion, particularly since they seek to not engage in proper relations.  Their own natural desires can then become unnatural if not properly addressed through asceticism.  In the image below, you can see the sin of porneia listed as one of the demonic assaults (left side, second from the top):

Porneia is listed here as one of the 'Seven Deadly Sins,' what we commonly refer to as 'Lust.'

Lust is, at its very core, the desire to use another person.  It involves all kinds of manipulations, of which sex is but a single (though powerful) component.  Lust is the dehumanization of others, which we must keep in mind as we explore porneia.  It is not merely wanting to have sex, but to use others for that purpose without any genuine care for them.

Porneia, then, is a deep plunge into selfishness and the abyss of human isolation.  Porneia seeks to make sex-
  • self-oriented, focused on one's desires rather than the other.
  • anonymous, in that the pornic person cares little for the feelings or identity of the other.
  • irresponsible, since the pornic person seeks no other substantive contact with the other after use.
  • neglectful, as the pornic person will engage in the behavior even when it brings harm to other relationships
By this definition, porneia can be applied to a number of activities: promiscuity, fornication/adultery (i.e. 'cheating'), pornography viewing, and masturbation.  The latter often gets lots of people in trouble, since masturbation is commonly seen as 'understandable.'  To some degree it is, since we nowadays often require young people to forego marriage during their most hormonally-charged years and yet require them to abstain as monks (sadly, without the monasticism, which is usually replaced with shame-obsessed parents).  This is why traditional cultures tend to marry in mid-teens, making masturbation all the more irrational or unnecessary.

Because we require young people to bypass marriage, but give them few tools to deal with their urges, porneia is a common problem from adolescence.  Add to that the sexual elements of modern advertising, and we are almost machine-replicating severe pornic problems in all of our young adults.  For many of them, only a major incident or sheer 'burn-out' is enough to get them to reexamine their morals.

We are bombarded by images: advertising and the internet (often the same thing) hammer us with pictures (many of them altered to enhance their attributes) that stir our desires.  The demands of a real relationship, where wants and needs are negotiated with another free-will person, appears to be a burden.

Pornic activity is quick and easy.  But, as I previously mentioned, it is neither dignified nor enhancing.  It does not make us better people, only 'relieved' for a moment until the desire builds up again.

Those of you who watched my videos from St. Herman's Seminary saw how Lust fits into the Passions:

Lust/porneia is built upon the passion of Pride, which says that because I have 'needs' (really 'fears'), I have to take care of myself, even if that means using others or things.  Lust is the objectification of others so that we can use them without guilt.  In a crude way, you can use them for sex and not have to care about them because the reality of the other is not as important as your own. 

From there, Lust blossoms forth into manipulation and lying.  First, it lies about the harm you do to others, but then it it permits all kinds of abuse.  This passion turns you into schemer, manipulating people to go along with your plans to use them.  I see this often when working with young people who exhibit porneia, whose parents are often highly-controlling and exhibit manipulative behavior.

Make no mistake, a big part of what makes Lust so attractive is that it allows us to control another person, even if only partially and momentarily.  That is a big part of what makes it stimulating and attractive.  This is also why power and sex go hand-in-hand: Lust is found both in the desire to dominate and the desire to have sex.

Eventually, Lust can become entirely asexual when it becomes totally about control.  Extreme fetishes can arise from this condition, where people become aroused by non-sexual behavior or even objects.  Here, the object is desirable because it is controllable.

Pornography (πορνογραφία) exhibits objectification and control elements, making it a powerfully addictive subject when the passion of Lust/porneia takes hold.  I'll talk more about that in my next post.


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