Let's Talk About S-E-X: Women, Porn, and The Real World

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Let’s talk about porn. It seems to be the topic du jour in Christianity, what with the recent article in Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics section discussing female pornography addictions neatly coinciding with my reading of Mark Driscoll’s Porn-Again Christian.

I’ve hinted previously that I have a nuanced position on the topic, and now is as good of a time as any to discuss my qualified position on the topic.

I was raised in an environment where porn of any kind – from soft-core sex scenes in a movie to the stuff found in scurrilous corners of the internet – was verboten. Not allowed. If you engaged in any kind of viewing of what could be deemed as pornography – loosely defined as that which arouses sexual desire – then you were engaged in sin and must repent. This is the typical evangelical stance.

In feminism, however, pornography is the subject of heated debate – there are camps of total anti-porn feminists, sex-positive feminists who see zero problems with the industry, and feminists who try to take a more nuanced middle of the road approach (guess where I am!).

For me, reconciling the rigid stance I grew up with and a more fluid nuanced feminism has been a bit of a struggle – partly because it’s very hard to have any kind of nuanced discussion about pornography with Christians who think ANY porn viewing is a sign of addiction and a cry for help. Such a misapprehension of addiction and fear of discussing sexuality openly create major barriers to talking about porn in any method beyond "DON'T!"

The Christian position often conflates pornography and masturbation, so I’m going to separate out those two topics here. Masturbation does not necessitate porn usage, so we need to stop talking about masturbation as though it means that you’re engaged in porn watching all the time. I do not believe that masturbation is a sin – indeed, it can, in many ways, be beneficial as it encourages people to know themselves and to get to know their wants and desires before entering into a relationship with a partner. This means, ultimately, it can be a healthy thing in moderation – if it becomes something that is controlling your life and you find yourself unable to do daily tasks without a routine of masturbation, it might be a problem worth consulting a therapist over. But masturbating every so often to relieve tension? Probably not sinful and I think the energy we spend worrying over it is energy better spent elsewhere. I said as much on Rachel Held Evans' blog a while ago.

That said, using pornography in aid of masturbation is a much more problematic subject, and it should be noted that my comments only represent my view, not that of feminists as a whole or even a majority group of feminists. So here goes.

I think porn can be okay.

But – and this is a big but – I think a person’s use of pornography needs to be subject to continued interrogation of motivation, of how views of other people shift, and what porn one is choosing to view.

In other words, if you are going to watch porn, you need to be careful which porn you choose and do so in a mature, healthy fashion. Yes, I believe it is possible to view porn in a healthy manner, just as I believe it is possible to view violent movies in a healthy manner. All things in moderation, as it were.

There’s a major problem within pornography of violence against women being portrayed as erotic. While BDSM is a genuine kink that some people engage in, much mainstream pornography is not categorized BDSM, but still features choking, slapping, hitting, and basically treating women like objects. Additionally, much porn is hetero- and cisnormative and features unrealistic, hyperbolic depictions of sexual encounters.

For many young people, pornography is often their first venture into sexual education – partly because many of them attend schools in which comprehensive sexual education has been banned in favor of abstinence only. This means, for many young men, professional porn stars’ theatrics, violence, and lack of foreplay are often the only education they receive about what a sexual encounter looks like. Consent often isn’t a consideration, and objectification is the norm.

Finding ways to use pornography as a tool in a healthy manner takes discipline, maturity, and a good sense of self – three things many people, I’m sorry to say, often lack. The very existence of “revenge porn” – websites in which mainly men post explicit images of their exes in an attempt to shame them for breaking up – prove this widespread objectification of women and lack of maturity in many people.

But a hardline stance of “no porn ever!” results in simply pushing porn viewing underground – because the church has spent so long characterizing any and all porn viewing as a harmful addiction, we’ve created an environment wherein people hide their viewing habits, absorb harmful messages about sexual relationships, and learn about the ways bodies work without any outside guidance. Rather than offering a nuanced approach as to how to handle porn (and sex in general) healthily and what the warning signs of addictions are, we instead create a world of fear in which watching a movie with a sex scene leads to days of repentance and no reflection on whether or not the scene had artistic merit and demonstrated healthy sexual values.

Using fear to reinforce rules is a recipe for shame and cognitive dissonance, as well as perpetuating patriarchal oppressions. By taking a more nuanced approach which is not so much concerned with the act of watching porn but rather what lessons are being learned, we draw a line between sexuality and shame, and encourage a healthy, moderate approach to the world.