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When High Fantasy Becomes Porn Fantasy, Part 1

Porn has invaded fantasy stories, and Christians must listen to warnings from outside and inside the church.

In just the last few years, some of our most popular fantasy stories include material that at one time would have been considered porn.

These include films such as Passengers, Blade Runner 2049, and The Shape of Water, as well as TV shows such as Game of Thrones, Westworld, and Altered Carbon.1

Concerns about content like this are often raised in relation to children and teens, whose emotional and physical development make them more impressionable. When it comes to adults, however, we find little concern expressed.

In fact, a lot of people claim to have no issues watching films with explicit sexual content. The material doesn’t affect them—or so they say.

But is this true? And if so, should it be true?

Let’s give a little pushback and look at four considerations. (This article will conclude in part 2.)

By many accounts, Blade Runner 2049 was brilliant–and yet bristled with images of undressed persons.

1. Criticism of fantasy porn from inside the church

If you asked a fish to describe what it’s like being wet, what would happen? Provided that you could actually speak fish, the answer might be unhelpful. After all, everything about a fish’s life involves water. The inability to detach itself from an aquatic existence would severely limit, if not eliminate, its ability to answer your question with any real accuracy or objectivity.

We need to acknowledge at least the possibility that we are in a similar situation.

After all, ethnocentrism (using the customs of one’s own culture as the standard by which to evaluate all others) and chronological snobbery (asserting that beliefs held by previous peoples are inferior simply because they are older) are temptations for most any given person in any given culture and time period. That our culture is now more lenient toward explicit sexuality only proves that social and moral standards have changed, not necessarily that they have gotten better (or, for that matter, worse).

Westworld season 2 is currently airing. Like many other “prestige drama” shows, the series features human nudity.

It would be wise for us to ask if we have progressed or regressed as a culture: why exactly is it now considered normal, and possibly even defensible, for there to be graphic nudity and simulated sex scenes in our entertainment?

Are we considering other cultures and time periods in evaluating answers to questions like that?

And for Christians, what does the wisdom of ages past have to say about where we are now?

When it comes to entertainment, we have no church fathers commenting on film and television, for these mediums are fairly new. What we do have, however, is thousands of years of commentary on the theatrical arts, and much of that commentary can apply, at least in principle, to the visual arts of our day. If the concerns of men like Tertullian, Lactantius, Richard Baxter, Pascal, and William Wilberforce seem legalistic and archaic, we need to ask ourselves why these giants of the faith were horrified by certain types of entertainment that we find permissible.2

Is it not at least possible that we, as ambassadors from another kingdom, have grown so comfortable with this culture’s norms that we have lost sight of the standards from the eternal and heavenly culture we are called to represent? I would argue that, to a certain degree, we have. To quote author Joe Rigney:

Cultural engagement (and enjoyment) can easily become a cover-up for indulging sinful desires, an excuse to watch trashy movies. We must never forget that worldliness is easy, that plundering the Egyptians is hard, and that many an Israelite has convinced himself that he is absconding with the world’s wealth when he’s merely in the process of going native.3

2. Criticism of fantasy porn from outside the church

Porn is losing much of its original stigma.

In fact, terms like “food porn,” “word porn,” “car porn,” and even “wedding porn” show just how normalized—and even standard-setting—porn consumption has become. It is safe to say that ours is a porn-ified culture. And within this environment, some people, deeply entrenched within our culture, are raising red flags—or, at the very least, pointing out some inconvenient truths.

Game of ThronesConsider the responses to various sexual acts portrayed in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Each time the show pushes the envelope a little more, there’s a backlash of some sort, with cultural commentators asking some form of the question, “Has the show gone too far?”

What I have found interesting—or, more like disturbing—is that most of the genuine and intelligent critiques of Game of Thrones have come, not from Christian sources (those ostensibly “in the world but not of it”), but from within the culture itself (those ostensibly just “of the world”).

Sure, conservatives and Christians have criticized the show, but often with a poorly constructed, knee-jerk reaction that unconvincingly communicates any real depth of thought.

Meanwhile, in articles I read and conversations I participate in, I see and hear Christians excusing and defending Game of Thrones’ sexual content.

Expanding our focus, observers outside religious circles freely admit the gratuitousness of much of the sex and nudity utilized in popular culture today—groups like Beauty Redefined, Collective Shout, and Feminist Current. They have brought pointed, thoughtful, and specific critiques of the sexualization and objectification on display all around us.

In the realm of film and television specifically, here is what Richard Brody, movie-listings editor for The New Yorker, has to say:

I think that very few sex scenes…are ever of use in movies. Most sex scenes simply check boxes for viewers, providing visual confirmation that a relationship has been consummated; the pneumatic heaving and thrusting has no additional dramatic or emotional significance.4

None of the above critiques are coming from those with a strict, let alone a Christian, sexual ethic. Still, they are pointing out what is obvious to them.

So why is this not as obvious to followers of Christ? When Scripture tells us not to be like those in the world, I don’t think the implication is that our standards should be lower than those who profess no love for God’s truth. Should we, as those who have been rescued out of darkness to “walk as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8) and to no longer “live according to the flesh” (Romans 8:4), exhibit standards of moral decency that are more lenient than those who are still conformed to the “elemental spirits of the world” (Colossians 2:8)?

Of course, to ask the question is to answer it. Light should not succumb to darkness—especially in ways that the darkness itself would criticize.

Next week, we’ll look at two other possible answers to the excuse that “explicit sexual content in media doesn’t bother me.”

  1. Editor’s note: This topic is bigger than any one film or show. But see previous Speculative Faith articles more specifically about Game of Thrones‘s role in pushing this envelope: But ‘Game Of Thrones’ Still Has Porn In It, Why We Condemn ‘Game Of Thrones’ Porn and Think You Should Too, and ‘Game Of Thrones’ Sex: It’s Not Just Awkward, It’s Violation.
  2. See chapter three, “What Does the Church Say?”, in Wayne A. Wilson’s Worldly Amusements for a helpful survey of early, medieval, and modern church responses to theatrical performances involving nudity and simulated sex acts.
  3. Joe Rigney, The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts, pp. 147-148.
  4. “Amber Heard and the Artistic Problem with Contractual Nudity,” Richard Brody, The New Yorker, Nov. 23, 2016.

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Allen Steadham
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Thank you for this article, it does need to be said. So, say on! *thumbs up*

Cap Stewart
Guest

I appreciate the encouragement, Allen. Thank you!

A.M.Pine
Guest

Thank you for talking about this topic. I’m very concerned about how desensitized we are all becoming to so much.

Cap Stewart
Guest

“Desensitized” is a good word. That’s why I’m thankful for the wisdom of others (both within and without our modern culture) who are helping me check the accuracy and reliability of my own senses (which I will talk about more in the second installment of this series).

HEATHER FITZGERALD
Guest

Such good points! I HATE the use of “porn” in hashtags etc too, as if it’s an innocent little word we can attach to whatever we’re obsessed about.

I’ve never watched GOT (having heard about its explicitness being worse than the books) but I’ve listened to most of the audiobooks. I noticed a serious shift in Martin’s use of sexual innuendo (as in shifting from innuendo to TMI) as well as using offensive language to convey character’s attitudes towards it. His first couple of books alluded to something with a sentence or two–but was over with before I could tap the fast forward button.
As the stories went on, I made use of the FF quite regularly, disappointed that he found it necessary to delve into things in such a way.

What an excellent and true quote from Richard Brody! And what does it say about Christian complacency? I think it is the frog in the boiling water scenario…I know I’m guilty about not noticing that the water is getting warmer in other ways.

Thanks for the thought-provoking article!

Cap Stewart
Guest

Yes, the normalization of porn is a public health crisis. We are indeed like the proverbial frog in the water. Thanks for your thoughts and encouragement!

Rebekah Gyger
Guest

Well said. I know that I try avoid movies and shows with content. Unfortunately, that means I can’t watch a lot of what friends, including Christian friends, are watching and I often feel left out of a discussion. But this content shouldn’t be any sort of real entertainment, so I’ll support creators who don’t shoehorn it in.

Cap Stewart
Guest

Thank you, Rebekah! Yeah, it sometimes feels a little lonely when we have to miss out on something that everyone seems to be enjoying, but the end result–a purer conscience, and a greater love for the actors whose privacy, dignity, and sexuality were violated–is well worth it.

Tim Brown
Guest
Tim Brown

Excellent beginning! I’ve been struck by the tendency (which I myself fall into) to simply blink at the bedroom (or wherever) scenes in shows I enjoy (never been tempted by GoT since I couldn’t stand the book, but some other shows have my eye). There’s an immediate jump past lip-service objections to praise and (self-)justification “But it’s good storytelling!” or “The characters are so compelling!” or “They raise such important issues!” – which might be reasonable arguments for watching, but it’s too easy to hide behind the excuses. It’s kind of falling into the same category as the old crack, “I only read Playboy for the articles” – it might actually be true, but everyone knows it’s probably not. Looking forward to the followup article(s).

RACHEL NICHOLS
Guest

Searching Playboy for a good article to read is like rooting through a bin of over ripe garbage in the summer in hopes of finding a good sandwich.

Cap Stewart
Guest

An excellent analogy, Rachel!

Cap Stewart
Guest

I appreciate the comments, Tim! I remember we touched on the whole “but the story required it!” excuse a few years ago: http://speculativefaith.lorehaven.com/actually-fantastic-films-dont-require-sex-and-nudity

notleia
Guest
notleia

I’d like to posit that nudity is different than sexual content. Related, but there are contexts that make nudity not really that sexual.

Also, at what point does nudity become “graphic nudity”? Shirtless guys are relatively “normal” in our culture, and ladies can often get away with sports bra-type tops for contexts like exercise and swimwear.

Cap Stewart
Guest

Yeah, the whole “sexual nudity vs. non-sexual nudity” can be a lengthy discussion all on its own. I agree that there can indeed be a difference between the two. (One is more likely to be titillating than the other, for example.) But then one could ask, “Is public nudity only a problem when it has the potential to sexually arouse its audience?” I’ve heard convincing arguments on either side of that debate.

Autumn Grayson
Guest
Autumn Grayson

One line can be how many ‘details’ are present. Like how in some anime there’s nudity but the ‘details’ are omitted, kind of like a mannequin. Or, even better, the nudity is there but the chars are obscured in shadows or something.

Author Terry Palmer
Guest
Author Terry Palmer

thanks for these articles. As a writer, I’m questioning my writing and that of other Christian authors with a similar question. What issues are we writing about that stand in the gap for readers to understand true biblical content or expression. With the liberal tendencies of our generations, it’s easy to see the trend. My writing makes a stand for Jesus, for purity before Him. anything at all which is more important than our worship and relationship with Jesus is sin. Of course porn is included here. Most of the third episode of my new series is dedicated to several of my characters involved in porn, then have a ‘Jesus moment’, find their place with Christ, and move on to a life in Christ and as a testimony to others to watch out for the trick of satan…. tough , tough issues.

Autumn Grayson
Guest
Autumn Grayson

I have a lot of mixed feelings on this topic, and it’s hard to define an exact line for every scenario when there is so much complexity to this issue. For my own writing, I don’t mind indicating that sex happened, the impact it had in the characters’ lives and, to an extent, having chars mention or hint at the topic. But I have yet to find it necessary to actually go into a full graphic scene.

To an extent full graphic scenes tend to limit the audience of a story, since not everyone is into that stuff, and a lot of times if there’s a sex scene I actually feel slightly annoyed since in the average movie it kind of subtracts from the story. Like, sheesh, can’t we just get back to the plot?

Sarah Witenhafer
Guest
Sarah Witenhafer

Great points! What I see in regard to social justice and being “culturally relevant” among most Christians is simply standing in the way of God in order to pretend to be God-like.

Well-meaning Christians often want to send the message to those around them that they’re above the legalism of others. We think we’re not affected because we know the truth. But there’s a reason we’re not sharing the gospel as much. There’s a reason we’re not finding joy in the ordinary. There’s a reason our love for God Himself is waning. We’re infected by what we’re ingesting.

I plead with Jesus. I’m Peter who’s gone back to fishing, and my only hope is that you will come to my shore and call me back, Lord. God is faithful.