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Christians, Porn, and Guilt


Here's a thing. I came across this interview a couple of days ago which I thought was really interesting. It's an interview with a sociologist of religion (Samuel L. Perry) about a book he wrote about conservative Christians and their relationship with pornography (Addicted to Lust: Pornography in the Lives of Conservative Christians). His main conclusions were that this group of particularly pious Christians used porn only slightly less than the average person, they were much more likely to feel terrible guilt about it and to have depression, unhappiness, and marital disruption about it. I have thoughts.

Let's start with this: I'm not a fan of the pornography industry. But, it's not because of the general morality of it. I am opposed to it because there is very little ethically sourced porn from what I can tell. There is a lot of drug use, human trafficking, and infections within the industry. In addition, much porn, from what I understand, revolves around women being objectified and unrealistic sexual situations. And, it's just not my thing. But, from a moral perspective, I can see how erotica and ethically produced pornography could be acceptably used by people of faith.

The biggest problem here that I see from this researcher's conclusions are that conservative Christians (which I probably can't consider myself one any longer) have a very restrictive view of sexuality that doesn't necessarily comport with scripture. I grew up in this culture and we were taught that there was to be no sexual contact (including masturbation) until you were married. Of course, watching porn or reading erotica was not remotely considered because that was just to facilitate said masturbation. In marriage retreats, we were taught that the viewing of pornography was just as bad as adultery! No wonder marriages have broken up over this!!

So, where does all this guilt come from? There wasn't any porn around when the Bible was written and literacy for erotica was pretty limited. In Paul's letter's, he often tells people to flee from various sins, including "fornication" (KJV) or "sexual immorality" (NIV). What does that even mean? I grew up learning it meant no sexual contact (even with yourself) until marriage. And no dirty movies. But, you really have to read that into the text.

What did it mean in the context in which it was written, though? The 1st century Mediterranean world of Jesus and Paul was quite a bit different than our world. Women were property and marriage was an economic transaction. Teenagers were married off as soon as they were fertile. "Sexual immorality" in the first century Mediterranean world probably meant no visits for the men to the temple prostitutes and who knows what for the women.

What is sexual morality for the 21st century? I call bullshit on the "Purity Industrial Complex"! The Evangelical church in particular, has made an idol out of virginity. First, they've redefined virginity into no sexual contact whatever. Then, they've said that girls, in particular, who have any sexual experience, are damaged goods, no more use than a used piece of chewing gum. And it assumes that young male bodies have to be controlled externally because they are horny all the time. But, this same Purity Industrial Complex that wants to control these young adult bodies so rigidly during their teen years then promises amazing and miraculous sex as soon as the "I do's" are said. (Books and books have been written about the issues of Purity Culture; I'll stop here.)

What does Jesus tell us about sexuality? Matthew 22:37-40 "Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Jesus also talked about marriage and divorce in Matthew 5, basically showing how the Great Commandment could be used to protect each other even in the case of sin like adultery. In other words, in sex, just as in every other part of life, the overriding rule is love.

Here's what I propose. Instead of imposing 1st century Mediterranean values on a 21st century global culture, let's try to find the sexual values that Jesus and Paul were trying to expound and live by those values.

Of course, everything is based in love. That's the entire focus of Jesus' ministry. He didn't come to give us rules, but to show us how to love. And Paul did the same thing. Yes, some of his letters did include practical suggestions to particular problems faced by churches he communicated with, but he also focused on love. And shame has no place in love. We can sin, yes, and be forgiven, but Jesus never focused on shame or guilt.

In our churches, we must destroy the myth of "purity". There is no inherent value to a vagina that has not been touched by a penis. We cannot continue to let our women feel that they are "less than" because they had sex or were sexually abused. But we also need to teach our young men that their bodies are valuable and can feel pleasure as well, but with no hint of violence. These body-positive messages need to start at home from early childhood. The entire concept of virginity as a preferred status needs to be thrown out!

In the Purity Industrial Complex, porn is a big deal because the only form of sexual expression allowed is heterosexual married sex by two people who have never had any sexual contact with anyone else and who do not masturbate or view porn. I think there are maybe two couples in the US that fit that description.

There is nothing in scripture to prohibit masturbation (I'm not even going to discuss Onan). And as we've seen in our discussion of what Paul even meant by avoiding "sexual immorality", it's hard to believe that he meant pornography. or at least erotica.

But, the Purity Industrial Complex teaches, in seminars and marriage conferences, that masturbation and pornography will destroy your marriage. They are wrong. They make you sad and depressed if you are convinced that they are bad; i.e. you subscribe to the beliefs of the Purity Industrial Complex. But, really, masturbation is a way to have a short-term bit of pleasure and release of anxiety. It's not a third person in the marriage unless you let it become one.

How can you not let porn and masturbation ruin your marriage? First of all, re-evaluate your view of sexuality. Conservative Christians have been sold a bill of goods. We've been letting our sexual values live in the 1st century while the rest of us lives in the 21st century. I'm not saying to whole-heartedly adopt 21st century American values; I'm saying to read the Bible in context, understand the tensions you might feel, and pray about what is right.

Talk to your spouse. It's OK if you are uncomfortable with porn, especially what's being produced today. Maybe your partner wants to try erotica. You may not be into that either. But, give each other grace. Be there for each other. Be willing to talk through the issues you have. Consider that pornography and masturbation are not allowing another person into your bedroom.

Clearly, though, loving each other sexually has to include mutual consent. No one can tell another what to do. Figure out a way to get out of the shame and depression. Marital and sexual happiness is available. God doesn't want you to live in shame.

I'll bet you have thoughts, too. Let's discuss them rationally.

Catherine