“I’ll know it when I see it”
These famous words were uttered by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on a trial of public obscenity. The case dealt with the ambiguity of the term “pornography” and whether the material in trial was such and should be censored. The words above have become the sliding scale standard for how most think about porn, and it’s an impossible measure.
We might all say that porn is explicit sex, but what does that even mean? In the Muslim world, showing a woman’s hair is considered intimate and not public knowledge, it has strong sexual connotations. In the 1920’s America, ankles had a similar effect, essentially the cleavage of that decade. It was both an immodest provocation and a sign of female public equality. So our are definitions of pornography limited to cultural conditions and standards?
In current America, no one is moved by ankles anymore. Even short skirts and short shorts are becoming less and less provocative and taken as a norm in style. I’ve seen godly women wear them without a twinge in conscience. Has the bar moved? Or is pornography in the reception? Is it the effect of ankles, or hair, or legs, that moves an other?
Consider the case of nudity: one will be hard pressed to see empty shelves of National Geographic, and yet some issues have full page nudity. But the nakedness is not provocative, but descriptive. There are peoples, ranging from South America to New Guinea, whose women wear next to nothing. These photos are merely showing them. Yet Playboy magazine will fly off the shelf with women who expose much less. Why? One woman is completely naked, the other wearing lingerie, but the latter is seductive and pornographic, while the other lacks any sort of appeal.
Does the reception have something to do with the intention? Sex appeal certainly comes in presentation. A dour look, a drowsy disposition, anger, horror, terror, sorrow, all of these will do havoc on the ‘sexy factor’. Cuteness and interest create an atmosphere which is more apt to arouse. But then this is not even true. S&M contradicts this, where replicated (or real) pain, fear, anger become sexually arousing. This is considered deviant by most, but that general disgust doesn’t remove it from the equation. It’s still pornographic.
Why is any of this important? It is because this issue is so easily sublimated into our Roma-Redux, our social and cultural apparatus. If the Lord commands us to flee from sexual immorality, porneia, then what are we supposed to do? How is this applicable?
My main contention is that by making the Command into a Rule, many (in good Pharisee form) try and excuse themselves. However, there then is created a separate box for the trespassers, those who’ve soiled themselves in the polluted waters of porn, and need to find guidance. But, as Wisdom will prove, it’s not that simple.
Consider the fact that while many will claim to not watch porn, will watch a show like Game of Thrones. I have watched this show, I am not outside of this category. The story contains a vibrant and powerful story, good character development, and contains explicit, graphic sexual scenes. Some are scenes of whorehouses, some are rape scenes, others are intimate couple moments or adulterous affairs. Is this pornography? When most will consider a Porn with a plot, it’s no more complex than a woman who can’t afford a pizza. How is this not pornography?
I had a friend who was so thoroughly enmeshed in pornography, that it stopped even having an arousal effect on him. But he still found it interesting. He’d claim that he would watch it for hours “just for fun”. Is this still pornography for him? If yes, then how is viewing Game of Thrones not porn, even if the sexual elements are merely drama? If no, then is pornography purely subjective?
I use to say, and know others who do, that I did not watch Game of Thrones for any sexual reasons, I enjoyed the story. This was true for me, and I’m sure for some others. But is my will really that pure and unbreakable? How can someone watch a complete sex scene without blinking? For myself, as expected, my feelings became convoluted. There were times I closed my eyes, yet had I not claimed that I didn’t watch it for sexual titillation? And it, or the threat, was still occurring?
I would say, and it was true, that these scenes contributed to a deeper appreciation that the world was depraved. So does that mean I should spend my Friday at a Strip-club to see how American sexual mores are bankrupt? If I justify Game of Thrones for the plot, I could equally justify that I wanted to make friends with some in the shady part of society. Yet I know full well that if I went into the strip club to make friends, even if I thundered it from my will, I would fall prey to desires swirling in me.
The reality is that we are all perverts and whores. None of us, truly, are guiltless in this regard. If we catch our eyes wandering on a Victoria’s Secret commercial, we must be honest that we’ve fornicated in our hearts. Well, we might protest, I didn’t put it on! It was a commercial on during the Football game! True, I’ll say, but what did you do in the moment? Are you willing to turn the TV off, even if it means getting strange looks? Or are you willing to give up Football games, and TV generally, to avoid the possibility?
The above queries are not options I’m necessarily advocating. What is revealed is that our motivations and intentions are revealed. We don’t need naked women to lust after them. It could be hair or breasts, it could be from anything or from any motivation. But are we realistic?
I watched a music video from a popular rapper, and my heart was twisted up in it. I was enticed by lust, but it’s a music video? Is it porn? The reality is yes, The rapper even knows it. That’s part of the game, it’s part of the hustle. In this particular case, sex appeal, at the basest and most powerful level, is a power grab. While we might primarily envision this as the province for women, men are also guilty in committing the same horror.
Around the time I became a Christian I was able to walk away from explicit, internet pornography. But this is not a badge to wear. For the longest time, I would say that I didn’t watch porn. But I’m not so sure. The fact I don’t masturbate or watch self-described porn is merely a different point of the continuum in regards to mental fantasies or allowing my heart to be captivated by a TV show or a music video, let alone actual fornication.
I am nothing more than a pervert and a whore.
If you’ve read anything on this blog, you will know that the solution is that Jesus Christ, who shed His cleansing blood on the cross, rose from the dead on the 3rd day. I could wax eloquent about atonement, but allow this to be a given, lest this post get longer. The question is: how do we live as the redeemed?
Let me qualify that I know I’ve been talking about men near exclusively, but the condemnation falls on women too. It’s a smaller percentage of women who look at the physically graphic pornography then men. So the above applies to them. But there is a different kind of pornography that is considered benign: emotional porn.
What fuels the Rom-Com industry of vapid plots of boy meets girl, and live happily ever after? It’s a similar objectification and reification of the emotion in an intimate relationship, appealing to what a lot of women want. It’s as fake and staged as filmed sex, and is deleterious for the imagination and the intellect.
Anyway, what do we do? Well, many could take the above and retreat to the mountains. There’s a long tradition of monastic retreat. There are nuances, but, to paint a broad-brush, is just a worldly solution and will end worse. The demon of lust for flesh is replaced with a sevonfold demon of lust for godhood. Sexual immorality is replaced with pride and arrogance. The Apostle calls this solution false humility, an empty display of godliness, and useless. I’d wager even to call it demonic, as the Devil can appear in bright light and majesty.
Despite the negative connotations of the word lust, the problem is that we do not lust rightly. The Spirit is said to lust against the lusts of the flesh (c.f. Galatians 5:17). I do not wish to reclaim the word, its negativity is rather fixed and I’m not in the business of fighting up-hill and useless battles. So let us use the word ‘groan’.
When we hunger for bread, we groan. Can Man live by bread alone? No. But implicitly it means that, indeed, man lives by bread. Where evil manifests is when a man would take the bread out of another’s mouth to feed himself. I mean this literally and figuratively. This is where a groaning becomes a lust. Where life-affirming reality becomes destructive.
Now sex is not afforded the same place as bread, but the same structure can be applied. The Scripture has a strong, but ordered, place for erotic love: it is called marriage. Ultimately, marriage, between man and woman, is an ikon, an image, of God’s communion with man, manifest as the Christ and His People, His Assembly.
Perhaps our groans for sex, as sometimes our groans for bread, are denied, instead finding true delight in the Lord of Life. This is the call of celibacy, sometimes spanning a lifetime, which is afforded equal good in God’s sight. However, perhaps we find our groans filled in the bonds of marriage.
Augustine is generally misunderstood in his councils, and his deep psychological insights are condensed into half-truth platitudes. But he is popularly cited as the figure who invited guilt into sex, even between married couples. He is claimed to say that sex is only justifiable to produce children, any other time is sinful indulgence.
That is a lop-sided argument, and while Augustine did give this advice to couples, and even worked it into his doctrine of sin, it was out of his own reflection on his own heart and desires. Augustine knew that sexual groans can easily become sexual lusts. He believed self-concern will always trump love of the other. He was afraid that giving unqualified permission would lead Christians into excusing sin, a problem that was rampant everywhere in his day.
His point stand: marriage is not an unqualified approval of sex. There is such a thing as marital rape. One’s groan and love for the other can easily become lustful and utterly self-concerned. Husband and wife can utterly destroy each other with sex. Some popular Evangelical advice denies this and affirms marital sex without any qualification or understanding. It is just naive and reactionary pendulum swings against a culture of repression and false humility.
But what Augustine said is of no concern, he did not understand the Apostolic council nor the beautiful and graphic poetry of the Song of Songs. And that’s the point: overcoming porn can only be found in rightfully subjecting our groans beneath the Word of God. Yes we will groan, we will hunger, we will thirst. But none of these are enough. Only the Word of God can rightly order and maintain.
Loving God does not lead to hating the creation, but learning to enjoy the creation ‘in Christ’. We are called to hate the world of this age, not the creation. We are to hate porn in all its manifestations, but not the created goods of sex and pleasure, which come from the Father of All Lights.
May my reflections help prime the pump and keep seeking the truth.