This post is part of the series I’ve been doing about the spectrum of pornographies, you can read the others (along with a few of my previous posts that cover the subject) here.
This is the second guest post from a Christian man who I asked to share his views…
I personally have been helped by some of the literature and resources developed by Christians aimed at men who consume porn of the types I did. Their frameworks for understanding compulsive behaviour and my motivations were very useful, as were the practical strategies for changing problem behaviour. I would commend the work of XXXChurch in the US particularly, especially as it is noteworthy that they are addressing aspects of the production of porn as well as its consumption.
However, the language in the books and on the websites produced by Christians can be problematic. Talk of addicts and addiction, of being a user can reinforce the notion of men being primarily victims and analogous to drug users. Yes, the literature does address the effects on family and friends of an ‘addicts” behaviour, just as those addressing alcohol or drug abuse do.
But telling men they are victims in a spiritual battle – whilst partially true – is only a part of the bigger picture.
The battle can be too often described only as the struggle of ‘good men tempted’ against the ‘flesh and blood’ of naked women (or men) having sex on screen.
It is closer to the truth, I think, to say that men are called – no, compelled – to take up a battle against the ‘powers and principalities’ behind the systematic and all-pervasive denigration and objectification of women of which pornographies are manifestations of.
That may mean men learning not to solely be obsessed with maintaining personal purity (though resisting the lust Jesus speaks of IS a non-negotiable) and being willing to speak about and root out every form of misogynistic thinking and practise. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and but it’s essential we stop casting ourselves as the victims of the piece and face up to our greater responsibilities.
What does an effective response to this issue look like? Do you have any thoughts about what a theological response to the issues looks like?
I only have tentative answers but there are some things I think we definitely do.
Firstly, given that the majority of exploitation and degradation one can observe in pornography of all forms is enacted by men against women, we men firstly need to listen to what women would have us do. Men are not the saviours of porn performers nor of porn consumers but we do have responsibilities. We need to learn not to shrug off our responsibility to act but we do need to curtail our assumption that men know what is best for women and that we know what women need us to do.
I think too that men need to engage more readily in conversation with – and especially in listening to – feminists within and outside the Church. They are able to teach us how pornography connects with wider issues of sexism and women’s liberation.
We also need to talk together more frankly and honestly about what is out there – I don’t mean talking porn for the sake of showing how much we know or how in touch we are with what is out there but in order to confront the realities and expose the mechanisms of exploitation and damage.
As I’ve suggested, we need to think more carefully about our language and terminology. Can we find language which is more accurate and honest than only “addict/addiction/purity/lust”? Should we be speaking of consumers not users given most pornography is unashamedly cynically marketed product, given that many pornographies is outworking of capitalism?
What about the language of “models” and “performers”? Where is the line between “performer” and “product”? I don’t want to deny the self-determination of women nor the fact that women do choose to produce and act in porn movies, and I don’t wish to speak for women (see above) but when women are saying “pornography is hurting women in all manner of ways” then to fall back on language which emphasises freedom and consent and downplays power and exploitation is disingenuous.
This goes for the larger narratives we employ in our writing and speaking about pornographies in the Church. Whose stories do we emphasise: men who have “suffered” loss due to porn, men who have “recovered” from addiction? Or do need to give more airtime and platform space to women telling their stories about porn? About the effects of the men they know consuming porn? Of their own experience of having been exploited by porn producers? Do we need to pay more attention than we do to the voices of women who have suffered sexual violence due in part to the shaping of men’s minds and actions by violent porn?
In some of the Christian books and websites I’ve read addressing pornography I’ve read much about men who “use prostitutes” and stripclubs, or pay to access porn online, but next to nothing in the same books and sites about who these prostitutes are, who works at these strip clubs, who made the porn and “performed” in it.
For every man’s life “ruined” by pornography consumption there is at least one woman whose life has been ruined and whose health and well-being have been compromised.
Even the well-meaning talk of “would you want your daughter to be watched in that way?” is problematic. We should instead be saying things like “should any woman be treated in this way or feel compelled to make a living like this?”
We need to resist shallow stereotypes about men and women and sex. Addressing porn has to be connected with what we teach in churches about men and women and sex more broadly. Much teaching can inadvertently give more license to men to consume pornography by emphasising “men’s needs” and their apparently greater sex drive, and women’s supposed more “emotional” and “passive” view of sex. If our church teaching on sex reinforces male potency and drive, and female passivity and receptivity, does this not shape men’s expectations of sex to conform to what they see on their screens?
We need to join the dots in our speaking and acting between pornography, sex trafficking/slavery, and sexual violence. These relationships are complex. Not all that comes under the banner “pornography” is necessarily exploitative and connected with sexual violence; but much is. However, we need to resist seeing ourselves as the male saviours of poor helpless women – back to listening and learning before acting – whilst still acting when we can.
We need to read our bibles “better” – to see the narratives of sexual exploitation, the gender stereotypes often under the surface of texts we read too simplistically.
A quick example:
David and Bathsheba: do we read this as David in a moment of weakness succumbing to temptation? Or do we notice and highlight the power dynamics at work: the powerful king seeing another woman as a sexual object to own and consume, a woman who could not realistically say no to the summons from the King who “sent messengers to fetch her”? In our modern terminology, was this really fully consensual sex or was this exploitative behaviour within an asymmetrical power relationship?
I’m not advocating that we demonize King David or dismiss the fact that he was a man “after God’s own heart”; rather we perhaps need to learn that “good men” are not simply “tempted”; sometimes they are exploitative and abusive.
We need to open our minds to recognise that when we laud a biblical character simplistically as a “goody” we risk overlooking the patterns of sexual exploitation and sexism even within our scriptures.
The same goes for other aspects of the Bible – how do we read Paul’s epistles within a “pornified” culture where women are routinely objectified on camera and in print? When I read in 1 Corinthians that a wife is not “master” of her own body, I must treat and read that text extremely carefully given that pornographies so frequently depict a woman’s body simply as an object for a man or men to use to achieve orgasm. Paul had his reasons for writing, and I don’t think he is advocating the routine objectifying of women. However, thousands of women within pornography industries are routinely treated and told that they are not “masters” of their bodies; they are told that their bodies exist for men’s pleasure, and their value as people is proportional to the degree of pleasure a man derives from gazing at or physically using their bodies.
We certainly can draw on Paul’s writing to develop a healthy theology of the body and of sex BUT we need to be very careful and not rely solely on a simplistic reading of him.
I’d also ask: please, please, please resist quoting chunks of Proverbs to address porn and sex. I’ve heard that book used too often to endorse narrow sexual roles especially for women, and to perpetuate the notion that men are “potential victims” who must resist the advances of “temptresses” whether in the flesh or on screen.
Finally, if we want to hold up Samson and Solomon as heroes of the faith, also be honest about the massively exploitative sexual behaviour they were engaged in. Solomon’s harem of women were not in his royal court purely of their own volition, acting from true freedom and self-determination. Our ancestors In the faith used women as objects for pleasure and to continue their bloodlines. Yes, God was gracious enough to “use” these men for his purposes but let’s at least be more honest about the long legacy of sexual exploitation in our faith’s story.
I realise I’ve offered more questions than answers. I realise I’ve offered no programme of action or 10 steps to eradicating pornography. I hope these suggestions about how we think and speak and listen will provoke others to develop appropriate ways of acting. My greatest concern is not so much ridding my home or computer of porn (though this is essential), nor to rescue men from addiction (though men do need help stopping what they’re doing). There is a bigger cause of ridding the world, our communities and churches of the ways of thinking, speaking and behaving which contribute to pornographies being so pervasive, and increasingly violent and damaging. That’s a huge and more complex task.