Excerpt taken from Matt Anderson, “Earthen Vessels,” available here.
The Problem of Pornography
We now know that every male in his twenties looks at pornography.
Researchers at the University of Montreal had been planning to conduct a study on the effects of pornography by comparing young men who watched porn regularly to those who had never seen it. But in December 2009, they announced that the research failed before it began: they couldn’t find anyone who didn’t watch pornography. Researcher Simon Louis Lajeunesse told the university’s School of Social Work: “Guys who do not watch pornography do not exist.”
That’s an overstatement, but the fact that researchers at a major Western university came up empty for their study certainly isn’t good news. While things may be somewhat better within evangelical circles, the problem is still rampant among most young men—and a growing problem for young women as well.
At the heart of the pornography problem is the commodification of sexuality, which turns other people—and the images of them—into objects for our own sexual pleasure. The pornography culture has taken our sexuality and industrialized, packaged, and sold it. This objectification of women in a pornified world reduces them to instruments or tools for self-gratification—which means that even if they did choose to enter the pornography world voluntarily (and many do not), it would still be fundamentally wrong to treat them as subpersonal creatures.
Yet the objectification of women—or men—in pornography depends upon a prior objectification of our own bodies. When we turn people into sexual objects so we can have an artificial sense of connection with them, we treat our bodies as machines meant to maximize our experience of pleasure. It is fundamentally depersonalizing for everyone involved—for the viewer and the viewed. Wendell Berry writes, “Our ‘sexual revolution’ is mostly an industrial phenomenon, in which the body is used as an idea of pleasure or a pleasure machine with the aim of ‘freeing’ natural pleasure from natural consequence.”
This is the fundamental problem of lust, one form of what the ancients would have called concupiscence. Disordered desires undermine our own personal integrity—that is, our own proper functioning as children made to love God and those around us. When Jesus said that anyone who looked on the opposite sex with lustful intent had already committed adultery in their hearts, he wasn’t suggesting that the consequences (in this life) would be the same as if we actually committed adultery. Rather, he was pointing to the basic corruption that happens when we give ourselves over to desires that do not conform to the reality of God’s love and his good creation.
When Jesus told us to love our neighbor as ourselves, he not only gave us a commandment, he also described a basic feature of human existence. One way or another, we will ultimately treat others the way we treat ourselves, which is why lust and sexual promiscuity are so often entangled with self-loathing. The more we see ourselves in light of the gospel—“You have died, and your life is hidden in Christ with God”—the more we will be set free from treating our bodies as objects, instead seeing them as the place of our personal presence and the indwelling presence of God himself. The Lord has come to his temple!
The reality that lust destroys the viewer as much as the viewed must be kept at the forefront of our evangelical teaching on sexuality. One of the more successful recent arguments against pornography is its link to sex trafficking—a horribly dehumanizing practice that depends on pornography for its existence. Pornography fosters a climate that encourages sex trafficking and child prostitution because men (primarily) are shaping their hearts and their minds to treat human bodies as objects. But the sex-trafficking link won’t be a compelling argument forever. Evangelicals need to be prepared for the day when pornography can be entirely computer generated. The scenario isn’t an idle possibility. What will be created is a type of pornography that does not require actual women, taking away one of the most forceful arguments against the practice, a practice that destroys the lives and families of those who engage in it as well as those who create it.
It is important, perhaps, to also say something about masturbation. While I remain skeptical that masturbation as a regular practice can be separated from looking at pornography or creating mental fantasies based on real women or men (the equivalent of lusting), the practice treats the body as an instrument for personal pleasure and gratification. Human sexuality is inherently social, and masturbation is not. In that sense, it represents a failure to fulfill the nature of Christian sexuality as God designed it.
“With my body I thee worship.”
It’s what I wrote to my wife in dedicating this book to her, and it’s a bit of an inside joke. We were married according to an old form of the Book of Common Prayer, and that line was part of the vows. My wife, worried that people would misunderstand it, wanted to take it out. I love the line and thought we should keep it in and add an explanatory footnote in the wedding folder. She won.
Worship doesn’t mean that I’ve turned my wife into an idol. Though she is practically a saint in every way, not even she is worthy of what is owed to God alone. But it does mean that I give her all the reverence, honor, and adoration due her because of her beauty and loveliness. And I do this with my body, giving myself up for her and seeking as much as possible, by the grace of God, to place her interests above my own.
Our confusion, though, over God and creation is at the heart of our sexual dysfunctions and brokenness. C. S. Lewis wrote in his famous passage: We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
We have broken sexual lives. We have objectified our own bodies and the bodies of others. We have turned sex into a technique wherein we seek to maximize our own pleasure at the other person’s expense, rather than seeing them as the temple of the Holy Spirit, the place where God himself dwells.
Yet the God who died for us, who revealed the pattern for our true humanity in Jesus Christ, has forgiven our sins and washed away our iniquities. And the Holy Spirit, his empowering presence, lives in the very sinews and bones of our mortal bodies, reshaping them and reforming our members into instruments of righteousness.
It is through this—the good news of the gospel—that we are set free from the shame of rejection and pain and empowered to respond in love to the one who gave himself for us—and then in turn to give ourselves to others. The gospel sets us free from the frustration of impotence and the fears caused by abuse, allowing us to enter into a journey of discovery filled with joy and freedom. It gives us the hope of a fulfilled, joyous, and abundantly flourishing life, even if we never taste the goods of marriage at all.
“We do not yet know what we shall be!” It is joy that awaits us in the kingdom of heaven, joy and pleasures forevermore. When we are raised up on the last day, we will not escape our physical bodies, but they will be marked by such a glorious beauty and splendor that we will barely recognize one another, and the transient moments of ecstasy will become the permanent features of our lives. Our bodies cannot hold such joys now—for all their splendors, they are too weak for the pleasures that await us, when we are transformed from “glory into glory.”
As Lewis once put it:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most un-interesting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”