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Angela Tilby: Neil Parish’s shame sends signal to all women 

06 May 2022


VISUAL pornography, which, owing to the internet, is now so easily available, is morally different from written erotica, in that it inevitably involves the exploitation and diminishment of other people, usually women. The porn that is in the news now, thanks to Neil Parish, is morally different again, because it sends a public signal to all women, everywhere.

Mr Parish resigned as an MP after admitting to watching porn in the House of Commons, where he was observed by two female MPs. He is, of course, not alone in his habit, which many — perhaps most — men share. Occasionally, it crops up in pastoral conversation, where admitting to watching porn usually comes with a sense of shame. Shame indicates a recognition of boundaries, and that there is a difference between imagination and act. What lost Mr Parish his job is that he chose to view porn in a highly public and serious place.

It is now, apparently, common for men to view porn in the presence of other people. Our smartphones trick us into believing that, even in public, we can occupy private space, that nobody is looking at us, and that therefore we need have no regard for others’ sensitivities.

Anyone who feels entitled to “an erotic snack” (as it was described last week), in the form of a quick quiver of pleasure from smartphone porn, has in effect turned a phone into an extension and expression of the inner self. There is no sense of shame, because the viewer really believes that they are in private space; the distinction between self and world has vanished. There is only the embarrassment of being caught, at which moment the outer world becomes shockingly real again. Mr Parish was quick to say that he meant no disrespect to women — real women, as he saw it.

But the very sense that a man feels that it is no big deal to consume porn in a public place suggests that he really believes that women’s bodies exist for his consumption. In the end, there is no difference between “real” women and the images on their screens, who are, lest we forget, real women, too. Women observing men consuming porn get the message, knowing that they are being degraded, ridiculed, and humiliated — even that a door is being opened for worse abuses.

We should not assume that shame is always a bad thing. Morality would suggest that it is a universal human instinct, and, although it can be manipulated against the innocent, it can also protect us from our own excesses. Shame came into the world with sin; it is represented in the Bible by the clothes that God made for Adam and Eve before they were exiled from paradise. Men tempted by a porn habit should not be ashamed of being ashamed. It might even save them from disgrace.

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