Question: Is pornography always bad? What does it mean to live a chaste life, whether married or single? What does it mean to be celibate?
Warning: some explicit images
This questioner wants a course in sexology. I’ll give the Cliff Notes version. Let’s begin with your questions asking about celibacy and chastity because those terms are often confused and then to go to the main question about pornography.
Celibacy is the easiest question to answer. It is an intentional commitment not to get married or to be in a sexual relationship. It is abstinence from any sexual relationship. There have been renunciates in several religious traditions who have given up marriage and family to devote themselves to the work of God. Jesus spoke of those who are celibates (eunuchs) for the sake of the kingdom of God. The early church had orders of widows and virgins who took vows of celibacy. This is the origin of orders of nuns. Celibacy is usually accompanied by a vow, just like marriage. Some celibate monks, nuns, and priests may have had spouses and sexual relationships in their past. But once they make their vow they are single thereafter (although this singleness is often lived in a community of celibates, which provides guidance and support). In Christianity celibacy is a holy calling and it is not for everyone since it requires resisting the natural biological urges.
Chastity is more complicated. To lead a chaste life means to be sexually pure in one’s thoughts, words, and actions. Martin Luther, in his Small Catechism, gives a traditional Christian understanding of chaste sexuality in his explanation of the sixth commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” He writes: “We are to fear and love God, so that we lead pure and decent lives in word and deed, and each of us loves and honors his or her spouse.” The commandment forbidding adultery (unfaithfulness in marriage) is linked with chastity. Being chaste in marriage means, above all, being faithful to your spouse. Marriage vows are not primarily about love but about fidelity. You “forsake all others” and cleave to your spouse. Being chaste means you don’t get involved with someone else in a way that could lead to an adulterous affair. You don’t even think about it. But there’s also an interior dimension to chastity. You suppress lust and desire, which is hard to do.
Being chaste in singleness has meant that you don’t have sexual intercourse until you’re married. That’s been the traditional Christian view (and the view of other religions also). The problem in our modern world is that people are waiting longer to get married today than they did in earlier times. Especially young adults who go to college or university and are getting started in a career may put off marriage until their lives have stabilized. Can one hold off from sexual intercourse until, say, one’s thirties? This may seem impossible in today’s hook-up culture, but it’s been known to happen.
It seems that the church has had difficulty providing guidance to single persons about sex. The reason for this is (I’m letting you in on a little secret here!) is that the Bible says nothing about pre-marital sex. It’s focus is on marital sex, and to a lesser extent on celibacy. It simply doesn’t address singleness and sex.
Singleness cannot be understood just as a prelude to marriage. Many people in Western societies today don’t get married at all, although they may parody marriage by moving in with a partner and living together. They may even have children without the benefit of a public, legal commitment. But there’s usually some kind of private commitment. They are really living a married life without the benefit of legal recognition or the religious bestowal of God’s blessing. So I would say that chastity also applies to this relationship of co-habitation. Hopefully the relationship will move toward a legal marriage which would secure the relationship, at least for the sake of children born to this sexual union who should have the stability of two parents in their lives. But the kind of chaste mutuality that exists within marital sex should apply to all sex and to all sexual relationships, no matter how long they last.
Now we can move on to what I assume is the main issue in the question: pornography—good or bad?
What is porn? It is a visual image or literary work that seeks to sexually arouse the viewer or reader. It would be difficult to have chaste thoughts after viewing or reading pornography. Just on that basis, the person who wants to avoid unchaste thoughts should avoid pornography.
That said, what is pornographic to one person may not be pornographic to someone else. In 1964 U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward, in describing his threshold test for obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio, famously wrote: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
I think Justice Stewart’s description applies to everyone: we know pornography when we see it because it arouses us and offers no further redeeming value. This definition of pornography is necessarily subjective because what arouses me may not arouse you. We also need to recognize that some works of art, novels, and films, which are erotic, have redeeming qualities. This may be because they profoundly probe the human condition (e.g., D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover) or idealize human sexuality (e.g. medieval Indian Shiva-Shakti figurines in yab yum posture). Here’s an example of a Loving Couple from the Eastern Ganga dynasty in 13th century Odisha, India in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, on display for everyone to see.
Back in the days of my youth (in the previous millennium) we had Playboy and other girly magazines that we smuggled into our bedrooms and hid from our parents. Some guys in college, of course, said they bought Playboy for its literary content and suggested that some of the centerfolds were works of art. After all, the photos had been air-brushed and touched up. Probably those Playboy nudes would not be considered pornographic today. I think pornographic material is not only sexually explicit, but its sole purpose is to arouse the viewer or reader (and it usually lacks any artistic merit). The above 13th century figure could definitely be arousing, but it also has cultural merit and historical value.
The internet presents a whole different situation. Porn on the internet is ubiquitous and available at the click of the mouse. Who hasn’t viewed it? I can’t imagine anyone who uses the internet—from youth to old age—who hasn’t encountered porn. It manages to seep through even the strictest security settings. I can’t imagine anyone who, upon encountering it (even by accident), doesn’t linger a bit…and then maybe go to a few more links. It is highly seductive and viewing regularly it can easily become addictive.
Married folks, and even celibates, take occasional or regular dips into the murky waters of internet porn. Religious people watch porn. So do women. A New York Times article reported that many young women learn about different sex positions from watching porn. British photographer Amanda de Cadenet teamed up with Marie Claire to create a comprehensive survey exploring modern women’s relationships with porn and the results indicate that the majority of female porn fans are viewing the erotic videos alone, for their own pleasure, rather than with a partner. “Using porn to cultivate one’s own sexual agency is very different from what we often hear: that women feel threatened by it or watch it reluctantly in order to please their partner,” Amanda explained.
The problem is that regularly watching porn can escalate what you are willing to watch. Viewing a man and a women having ordinary sex fails to arouse after a while and so the person moves on to threesomes, gang bangs, rape scenes, and other perverted types of sex. Some people end up watching child porn because of this escalation. At this point you’re into illegal stuff because child porn involves taking and looking at explicit pictures of innocent children who have been taken advantage of for commercial gain. Viewers as well as producers are exploiting tender youth and that’s just plain sinful. The viewers are as guilty as the producers because if there weren’t potential viewers, there would be little reason to produce it—which is true of all pornography.
Sex on the Brain
I won’t pretend to be an authority on why people who are prone to addictive behavior fixate on viewing porn. But there is an obvious link between porn, masturbation, and erectile dysfunction. Why are so many millennials complaining about erectile dysfunction? Does it have anything to do with the amount of pornography they view on the internet?
Masturbation and porn can cause erectile dysfunction when the brain becomes confused about whether one is self-gratifying or having sex with a partner. There is a difference between being in complete control over one’s movement toward orgasm and reciprocating with a partner to bring about mutual orgasm. For some single people watching porn while masturbating may be the only sex they have. But consider that when masturbating while watching porn the body’s energy is going into the screen because that’s the source of your arousal. The body’s energy follows the focus of the mind’s attention.
So if you’re interested in autoeroticism, there is a better way to pleasure oneself than by watching porn. Sex occurs both in the brain and genitals. A thought or visual image can trigger a reaction in the genitals, which is the way many of us function when looking at porn. This is a “hot arousal” because it’s fed by what we see and the resulting fantasy it produces. But masturbating while watching porn results in a weak ejaculation that does not revitalize the body because the sexual energy goes into the screen rather than staying in the body.
One can engage in self-pleasuring that is not prompted by porn and focused only on the genitals. A “cool arousal” places awareness in the body itself and its senual awareness. Your genitals can react to any stimulation, like a breeze blowing on your naked body, rubbing your body all over as far as your arms and hands can travel, and breathing deeply. You can feel your body vibrate with self love while holding the charge until you reach the absolute point of ejaculation. The energy loss from this ejaculation is not as great because the body has received energy through your self-pleasuring. Your attention has been on pleasuring your own body, and perhaps generating your own fantasies, not on watching the screen.
The Ethical Issue: Commercial Sex
We have been considering the impact of porn on one’s personal sexual gratification. Consider that video pornography is a multi-billion dollar industry. The economics of porn are colossal, and the human costs are perhaps more drastic. Especially what women are asked/made to do in many porn videos is demeaning if not violent. Viewing these representations insensitizes us to the abuse they portray, and they are being consumed on a mass market scale.
We regard sex as private rather than public. Whether gay or straight, what individuals or couples are doing should be intimate and not to be shared with millions of customers. But we are paying, directly or indirectly, to see sexual intimacy. Sexual intimacy has been commercialized. While this has always been the case in porn films, there is difference between viewing these films in an “art cinema” or adult book store and viewing it in your own bedroom. All things considered, it’s best not to get caught up in it.
Connecting with Another
While I see no shame in self-pleasuring, I must say that humans are created to connect with others sexually. When exploring and loving another person bodily our energy is going out to that other person and we are also receiving energy from that person in return. Psychologists report an increasing number of male clients who experience erectile dysfunction and aren’t interested in sex with a partner. Upon further probing it turns out that they spend several hours a day viewing porn. Their sexual energy has gone into the screen, not into their bodies or into real relationships.
Also, the Christian view of sex is that it is a gift we freely give to each other; it is not an economic exchange.
Many people feel guilty that they get into pornography. They want to stop looking at this stuff but it’s damn hard to break any addiction, and watching porn is no exception. For those who want to break the habit I suggest getting into more interesting and productive projects or spending time in meditation. But be aware that relapse is not only probable — it’s inevitable. Rather than shaming yourself and feeling really bad, reflect on what led you to relapse and think about how you can better handle the situation next time you get the urge. Nothing is gained by cultivating self-hate, and it could even lead to deepening your addictive habit.
Having said this, I must also ask: Is viewing pornography—at least the “legal” stuff—the worst way to be bad? I don’t think so. The grave sins enumerated in the ancient church were apostasy, murder, and adultery. We usually rank “sins of the flesh” as the worse sins because they are so close to us. And viewing porn can produce guilt and shame and may cause some Christians to even despair of their salvation.
Justification by Faith through Grace
When guilt over getting caught up in viewing porn gets bad, I must bring to bear on the despairing believer Martin Luther’s most famous doctrine: “justification by faith alone.” After studying St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Luther concluded: you cannot do anything to be saved except believe that you cannot do anything and Christ has accomplished your salvation by his suffering and death on the cross. Luther concluded that giving up women and sex for the austerities of monastic life won’t save you; he tried that. Making vows to give up pornography won’t save you either, even if you are successful at it (and doing so would certainly be a healthy move). Those who seek justification and forgiveness by trying to follow the moral law will end up in despair because, as St. Paul said, the Law kills. Only the freely-offered grace of Christ’s sacrifice offers hope. That is what we depend on for salvation — grace! Not vows we make such as not watching porn.
Christianity provides an image to look at: Christ crucified on the shameful cross. He bears our shame as well as our sins in his sacrifice for us offered to his Father in heaven.
Pastor Frank Senn