This is the fourth contribution to the Intercollegiate Review symposium “Sex and the Polis: Perspectives on Marriage, Family, and Sexual Ethics.” For more perspectives on this topic, check out our Student Voices, who weigh in on each symposium contribution.
The genius of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s September film release, “Don Jon,” is that, despite the discomforting number and nature of sexually explicit scenes, it delivers a message much more subtle and meaningful than one first supposes. Nestled in the midst of what initially seems like a moral exposé on the harms of pornography lies the real crux of this movie: a powerful statement about right relationship.
Gordon-Levitt, who directed and wrote the 90-minute film, stars as Jon Martello, Jr.—a New Jersey bartender whose life revolves around his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls…and his pornography. Nicknamed “Don Jon” for his ability to consistently lure into bed the local club scene’s “10s,” Jon cuts an intriguing leading role as a creature of puzzling habits. A young man who almost nightly sleeps with different, beautiful women, loves vacuuming his own rugs, and makes a weekly sacramental Confession before Sunday Mass, Jon embodies the nuanced matrix in which so many men’s pornography addictions metastasize.
Gordon-Levitt sprinkles Jon’s narration into a story that is ultimately about what love is—and isn’t. Beginning with serial one-night stands, moving through a substantial and eventually broken relationship with romantic comedy-obsessed Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), and culminating in a happy ending relationship with middle-aged Esther (Julianne Moore), “Don Jon” certainly covers the spectrum of relationships.
Pornography encourages objectification
The first thing to be said—and this couldn’t be made clearer in the film—is that viewing pornography fosters a psychological, neurological tendency to objectify the class or category of persons depicted in the pornographic material. Ample social science evidence confirms this claim, one that common sense renders nearly self-evident.
To objectify a person is to subvert her personhood by dismissing or ignoring some aspect of it in order to more easily utilize some other aspect for one’s own satisfaction. What is pornography if not the separation of everything that makes sex beautiful from its purely animalistic dimension?
In pornographic material, the actors are purposefully presented as raw tools: objects that, in order to induce and habituate lust—the disintegration between one’s sexual appetites and one’s comprehensive personhood—in viewers’ minds and hearts. Studies have indicated that when men view pornography, the area of their brains that regulates the employment of tools in the achievement of a task—in other words, utilization—lights up.
There is a natural separation between a person’s desires on the one hand and his incapacity to consummate those desires on the other. In proper relationships, those desires are rightly ordered to some properly understood good. Pornographic material distorts the desire on the one hand and offers a bypass across that distance via the short route of fantastical indulgence. Furthermore, pornographic material warps those organic erotic desires, fanning the flames of desire with images that are, simply put, not real.
Pornography fosters unreasonable and unhealthy relational expectations
Through these fantastical indulgences one flees from the daunting, life-long project of working toward real interpersonal communion. The pornography addict dismisses or ignores the real qualities of real persons who offer the chance of real romantic relationships in favor of sexualized phantoms.
Thus, the fantasy becomes the standard for reality, displacing the personhood of one—whose essence is both bodily and immaterial—with the lustful, pseudo-erotic representations of another.
Jon and Barbara, whose romantic relationship occupies the majority of the film, are both prisoners to these exacting simulacra of human intimacy. The couple, each engrossed in their fictional, hollow representations of reality—one pornography, one romantic comedy— find themselves unable to meet unspoken demands in a relationship that is doomed from the beginning.
Pornography is addictive
Pornography-induced climax does indeed stimulate the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter released through intake of addictive substances which also induces the “subsequent craving for a repetition of the high.” Unlike a human sexual encounter, however, pornography-induced climax does not release endorphins, the chemicals that transmit feelings of satisfaction and contentment. The organic cycle of sexual expression is thus thwarted by pornography.
Additionally, unlike chemical substances—which the body processes and eventually eliminates—pornography sears itself into the brain, where it creates new neurological pathways that alter and dictate one’s expectations of all sexual interactions according to the often violent, deviant expressions common in “hard-core” pornography.
So, pornography consumers are primed to become victims of a biological law of diminishing returns. In exchange for the same “high,” viewers are drawn into more frequent and more violent pornographic expressions, often winding up addicted to content that they themselves find appalling, such as child pornography or group sex.
After finally courting Barbara to her satisfaction—a courtship that includes accompanying her to watch romantic comedies at the movie theatre, where Gordon-Levitt intentionally zooms in on Johansson’s entranced, longing gaze at the model on-screen relationship —Jon finally has sex with Barbara in his apartment. But even after waiting a whole month for their embrace, Jon is unfulfilled. So, as usual, he sneaks away to masturbate at his computer while Barbara sleeps. She awakes, though, and catches him in the act.
Jon is physically and psychologically incapable of consummating his desires in actual human encounters. He is addicted to the high that comes from finding the “perfect” girls on the internet, whose actions conform to his every wish and desire. He is addicted to the chase of an ever-elusive satiation; already in the film’s earliest scenes he is incapable of real intimacy, of person-to-person (rather than body-to-body) communion. He has been so fractured by so many masturbatory hours spent in front of the computer that he doesn’t possess enough of himself to make a gift of his love.
Such is the fallout of the world’s most popular and profitable drug: internet pornography.
The way out
After Jon promises Barbara that he will stop looking at pornography, he takes to viewing it on his cell phone while at night class, where he meets the film’s other female star: Esther. The first few exchanges between Jon and Esther are passable; but after Barbara discovers a string of pornography sites on Jon’s web browser and breaks up with him, Jon’s relationship with Esther begins.
Esther and Jon have an unusual relationship. For one thing, their interactions are not the fruit of Jon’s typical nightclub qualification method; for another, their relationship begins in friendship. Eventually, through a series of physical encounters and following Esther’s revelation that her husband and son had died 14 months prior in an accident, the movie’s pivotal scene occurs.
Shortly after Esther tells Jon that if he wants to lose himself, he has to lose himself in a person, the two embrace in what is the movie’s only (and therefore most awkward, because most private) love scene. However distorted by the incomplete giving of fornication, here are two people who have each other’s whole person in mind: not simply each other’s bodies.
Jon feels that for the first time, he has found love. He has encountered a person, with all her baggage and faults and past, has shared himself with her, and received her in return. This is the beginning of a real relationship. In this relationship, Jon finds within himself the capacity to give himself in a way that neither he nor Barbara, locked into their insular fantasies, ever could.
After that scene, Jon drives back to his apartment singing along to “Good Vibrations.” He later happily tells his confessor that he has abstained from pornography. He informs his friends that for the first time, he is in love. He skips his routine weight-lifting during his next visit to the gym, instead choosing to shoot hoops with his friends; to interact with persons rather than relate to lifeless things.
In the final analysis, “Don Jon” is not a moral exposé on the harms of pornography. It is first and foremost a commentary on right relationship and the many culturally-embedded habits that cripple such relationships. Among these habits, though, pornography consumption is particularly destructive due to its inherently addictive, dehumanizing, self-fracturing, objectifying nature.
Gordon-Levitt consistently yet subtly laces the film with messages about objectification, shallowness, insularity, selfishness, immaturity and fear—all qualities that are fostered and expressed by Jon’s uncontrollable pornography intake.
Given that there are 40 million regular users of online pornography in America, and that contemporary relationship is more pathetic than ever, “Don Jon” presents a timely and crucial message about those habits that impede human flourishing and block authentic communion. If the Don can recall to the viewer any moral to this story, it’s the same message that another man taught the world two thousand years ago: In order to find yourself, you have to give yourself away.
Nothing is less conducive to the cultivation of charity than pornography.
Michael Bradley is a senior studying philosophy and theology at the University of Notre Dame. He is the editor-in-chief of Notre Dame’s independent student newspaper, the Irish Rover, managing editor of Ethika Politika, and a 2013-2014 ISI Honors Fellow.
 From Morgan Bennett’s October 13 Public Discourse piece, “The New Narcotic”