Lose Yourself: Pornography and “Don Jon”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s film is brutally honest about the sickness, but not about the cure

MPAA Rating, R
USCCB Rating, O
Reel Rating: (2 Reels out of 5)

At the very opening of Don Jon, Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) candidly declares that “porn is better than sex.” It’s a shocking statement partly because for many men it is true. The film’s best quality is its brutal honesty about the grip porn holds on millions of men.

Yet Jon’s sex addiction is only one of the symptoms of his deranged lifestyle. Every person and situation exists for his personal pleasure and indulgence. He loves nothing, cherishes nothing, and sacrifices nothing. His life is a perfect example of the sin of Adam and Burger King: to have it our way. By the end, Jon has learned much and begins to open his life to others, but the film itself is still constrained by the demands of a sex-obsessed society. It tries to uplift the human soul but wants to do it in a way that ensures twenty-something Americans will still buy tickets.

Nothing arouses Jon more than the sound of his computer starting; it is the sound of endless permutations of pleasure opportunities. Yet this is only the beginning of Jon’s Xanadu. Everything in his life is an extension of his vision of the Universe. He keeps his apartment immaculate. He works out constantly. He even goes to confession every week and lists off his one night stands and porn habit, despite obviously having no contrition whatsoever, and receives a standard “5 Hail Mary/5 Our Father” penance. He meets the girl of his dreams—er, fantasies. Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) is not opposed to sex, just not sex right away. When they do consummate their month-long relationship, he is uncomfortable cuddling at night and leaves to watch porn. Naturally, she catches him and gives him an ultimatum: porn or her. He chooses her…and secret porn.

Esther (Julianne Moore), a much older female classmate, sees Jon watching porn on his smartphone during a lecture but is oddly accepting and curious; she even gets him to smoke weed before class, adding to his long list of indiscretions. Barbara inevitably finds out and dumps him, but Jon is sad for only as long as it takes him to reach his computer. To fulfill his outward desire for sex, he hooks up with Esther, who challenges Jon but doesn’t judge him. He discovers she has a broken life that is probably the cause of her seeking a younger man, smoking weed, and falling apart at random moments. His care for her propels him to stop looking at porn and start a real relationship, not “marriage or anything” but a relationship where he can “lose himself” in a person rather than porn.

Don Jon pulls no punches in its approach to this difficult moral subject. Maybe secular men are comfortable admitting their porn use, but Catholic men hide in shame. It may provide some cathartic release in shining a light on the darkness. Consider a scene where Jon goes through his laundry looking for clean clothes only to find pair after pair of jeans soiled. It’s a funny way to show a sad reality. There’s also a scene where Jon, several days on the wagon, has a perfectly normal dinner with Barbara but frames of porn scenes loudly pass through his mind. Every American male knows what these intrusive thoughts feel like, and it’s refreshing to see how Gorden-Levitt, who also wrote and directed the film, is able to articulate it. Jon truly is addicted to porn, and Esther points out that he cannot remember the last day he went without it. Indeed, Jon’s whole life is an addiction. He is addicted to cleanliness, body image, sex, and most of all, having complete control over his life. Any created thing can become an addiction when it is not used for God’s purpose.

Jon states that he loves porn because he can “lose himself” in it. Jon means that he finds momentary release from his life in orgasm. Yet porn is not “losing yourself.” All pornography is masturbatory; it is a reflection of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and desires. The reason porn is so attractive is it’s the only place the Law of Attraction actually works. All male fantasies can manifest as reality on the screen. It is the oldest sin: the desire to be God. Even after Jon gets rid of porn and tries to love Esther, he admits marriage is not on the table. Extramarital sex, and even porn use, is still permissible, only now it must be mutual.

Jesus says that “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” Losing yourself means giving your life to God by serving your neighbor. This can be done sexually, but only in marriage because in the sacrament the couple agrees that their relationship mirrors the love of God. This requires a lifelong and fruitful union. Yes, a married couple loses themselves in sex. They also lose themselves in changing diapers, caring for their elderly parents, and saving for college tuition.

In his interview Light of the World, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI famously stated that a HIV+ male prostitute who used a condom in order to avoid giving his virus to others was a “first step in the direction of moralization.” Many journalists erroneously saw this as an affirmation of condom use, but it illustrates an important point. Even when clouded by great sin, God recognizes the baby steps taken towards the light. Jon’s relationship with Esther, while fraught with immorality, is a step towards love and away from selfishness.

However, Don Jon suffers under the weight of its genre and audience. It doesn’t see porn as a problem, just porn addiction. It is like Thomas More’s adage: “it’s easy to survive: just don’t cause trouble, or, if you must cause trouble, cause the trouble that is expected of you.” Don Jon challenges its audience as far as is socially acceptable in a sex comedy, which is not very far at all. It has taken the sobriety coin but has a long way to go.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Nick Olszyk 207 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".