Kings of smut Larry Flynt and Joe Francis made a lot of Americans uncomfortable in January when they requested $5 billion of stimulus cash from Congress. It is unclear whether the request was earnest or a cynical joke, but most commentators in the media expressed disgust that Flynt and Francis wanted taxpayers’ dollars to fund porn. What often went unsaid in these discussions was the awkward fact that taxpayers were pitching in plenty of their own cash for Flynt and Francis already. Government assistance wasn’t needed to keep the porn industry afloat; we were taking care of that ourselves. This is not hard to see: sex saturates our movies, television, magazines, books, and advertising. And it sells.
It’s refreshing, then, to encounter someone as disgusted by the culture of pornography as Luke Reynolds. Drawing from his own experience of pornography addiction, Reynolds calls men, in his book A New Man, to reject any conception of masculinity that sees porn use as a natural—or, even worse, an essential—part of being a man. And he sees porn use as an inevitable part of the beer-swigging, truck-driving, “tough man” ideal exemplified during National Football League commercial breaks. For Reynolds, these images in popular culture are not ideals of manhood, but the opposite. Men addicted to pornography are not strong, but weak. They are not only slaves to their appetites, but also participate in and perpetuate violence against women. In Reynolds’ mind pornography is not a height of masculinity: it is its destruction. I think he is right.
These are ideas that need to be shared. Opposition to pornography is often dismissed today as mere prudishness, as if it were only motivated by outmoded anxiety about sex. We’re told that if we could only lighten up and shed some of our inhibitions, we’d see that porn helps men let off steam and have a little fun. It’s a way men can harmlessly satisfy their sexual needs. It’s sometimes even necessary. Reynolds has no patience for these justifications of smut. They assume that men have little control over their appetites and that they should do little to try to control their behavior. They conflate masculinity with sexual aggression and, therefore, violence. No, Reynolds rightly says, these attitudes are as incorrect as they are destructive.
The central plea in A New Man is for a different masculine ideal, what Reynolds calls “authentic masculinity” (or also “authentic strength”). This is the core of Reynolds’ book, and it is easiest to understand what he means by looking at his examples of it. The authentic man is Mr. Hooper, Reynolds’ middle school band instructor, who modeled joy and support in the classroom and who, in a chance meeting years later, deflected Reynolds’ gratitude and instead boasted of his wife’s accomplishments. Or the authentic man is Reynolds’ grandfather, who, after nursing a tough man persona his entire life, learned gentleness and love when he had to nurse his wife through Alzheimer’s disease. Reynolds’ ideal of masculinity loves, gives, admits weakness, and is vulnerable. And he argues that a man loses these virtues when he looks at pornography: “Love can only be given from a place of vulnerable strength, and pornography is the opposite of vulnerable strength.”
I respect how Reynolds wants to redefine masculinity, and I think his ideal is more or less the right one. But I am concerned about the language he uses to describe it, particularly his central phrase: “authentic strength.” It’s an odd choice, considering that Reynolds, each time he uses it, makes clear he’s not talking about strength as one would expect. So we find statements like: “Authentic strength is not independent and successful on its own.” Or: “The more vulnerable we become, the stronger we become.” I don’t doubt that Reynolds is describing here virtues that are important for men to cultivate. But I’m unsure that strength is the right word for it, rather than, say, humility or meekness or brotherly love. Unlike Reynolds, I don’t believe that strength is the defining element of masculinity. And it is telling that when he describes how only God’s power will release the porn-addicted man from his bondage, strength is never mentioned. Instead, dependence is.
Still, A New Man gives us an admirable example of someone who rejected the lies of pornography. The most outstanding passages in the book are those in which Reynolds displays the vulnerability he commends by telling his own story: his first encounter with pornography as a boy, how it became an addiction, how an ultimatum from his future wife led him to therapy and eventual repentance, the pain of confessing to his parents and parents-in-law. I found Reynolds’ story stirring because he was narrating parts of my own shame-filled history of porn use. I found it stirring because it is a story, by God’s grace, of repentance and healing. I found it stirring because we need more men like him, willing to testify in public about what porn has destroyed in their lives. May we all find that courage to live transparently, honoring God and each other.