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When High Fantasy Becomes Porn Fantasy, Part 2

When porn invades fantasy stories, we must honestly face the power of visual media and our risk of self-deception.

I’m a card-carrying film and television fan. But many other enthusiasts often insist that sexualized content in media (we can also call this “porn”) doesn’t bother them.

After all, can’t mature adults clearly tell the difference between fantasy and reality?

Can’t we naturally avoid being unduly influenced by the fantasy?

Last week, we looked at two considerations in answer to that question:

1) Criticisms from outside the bubble of modern western Christian culture

2) Criticisms from within our Christian cultures.

Let us now make two more observations.

3. The influence of visual media

Plot twist: all along, the nude and sex scenes were altering not just our carbon, but our perception of what it means to be human.

Practically every Oscars ceremony includes at least one speech or monologue that praises the power and influence of the visual arts.

Granted, a self-indulgent ceremony may not be the best source from which to derive our standards. Still, you’ll get few artists who argue that their crafts are ineffective, that stories do not affect us, and that film and television are only good for cheap thrills and empty entertainment.

Yes, there’s plenty of cheap and empty material out there. But storytelling can change and move and affect us in numerous ways. It can make us cry, flinch, and cheer.

In fact, when we emotionally resonate with a story, and the characters within that story, we experience a phenomenon known as “transportation.” In the words of neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak,

Transportation is an amazing neural feat. We watch a flickering image that we know is fictional, but…parts of our brain simulate the emotions we intuit [a character] must be feeling. And we begin to feel those emotions, too.1

This emotional response even has physiological ramifications. For example, comedies can lead to dilated blood vessels and decreased blood pressure, whereas horror films can cause an increase in adrenaline and cortisol levels, and thus an increase in blood pressure. Our entire being can be affected by a story—and not even necessarily just the well-told ones.

The reality is that the visual arts are immensely powerful. Artists tout this power all the time…until it comes to the topic of depictions of sex. Then (and, ostensibly, only then) does the power of film become insignificant.

Conventional foolishness says that when we watch sexualized material, we are suddenly objective and detached viewers. The sex isn’t real, so it doesn’t bother us. Once the sex and/or nudity is over, however, we are magically reengaged: we’ll laugh when a character takes a spill down the stairs in a comedy (even if the fall isn’t real), or cry when a beloved character dies (even though the death isn’t real), or feel vindicated when the bad guy gets his comeuppance (even though his crimes aren’t real). Onscreen sex and nudity is in a category all by itself, however—a weak and impotent category, leaving audiences unaffected and unscathed.

That line of reasoning smacks of fantasy—not the good kind, but rather the wishful thinking, reality-denying kind.

4. The unreliability of calloused senses

One prevalent cultural assumption is that a mature person can enjoy a piece of entertainment without being scandalized by sexualized content. If there is any shame involved, it isn’t related to watching nudity and sex scenes, per se, but in being unable to watch them dispassionately.

Now, there’s a kernel of truth in that idea. A mature Christian is less susceptible to certain forms of sexual temptation than a weak brother or sister is, in part because she is more captivated by the beauty of holiness; inferior offers of fulfillment and satisfaction will hold less sway on her than they otherwise would. So in that sense, a more mature believer may very well be able to, say, minister to people in a red light district.

Such a believer, however, is probably rarer than we believe.

That is because we must also acknowledge that it is a sign of health and maturity—not weakness and immaturity—to be sexually affected by sexual stimuli. That’s how God designed us to operate.

Arguing that sexualized scenes don’t affect us because they aren’t real, and because they are different from actual porn, is arguing against how sex is designed to work.

As an example, we could consider a woman performing a strip tease: she isn’t engaging in sex, and she might not even become fully nude during the process, but her actions are nonetheless titillating.

Sex is more than a mechanism of behaviors that we can use, legalistically, to argue that we haven’t actually seen porn. It’s a blessed relationship between a husband and wife, before, during, and after their actual joining.

It is not just the narrow, literal act of copulation which God designed to be pleasurable and stimulating. God has given us plenty of sexy and satisfying stuff leading up to it (such as foreplay) and following it (such as afterglow). Pretending that these acts, real or simulated, aren’t inherently stimulating, is a reductionistic view of both God’s gift of sex and how sexual arousal works.

Or, to put it another way: imperviousness to sexual stimuli is a defect, not a badge of honor.

In fact, for many of those ostensibly not bothered or aroused by onscreen nudity and sex, it may be an indication that they have tampered with God’s design for sexuality and diminished their capacity to enjoy what He has provided.

For example, if you struggle with porn, it makes sense that anything less graphic and explicit won’t arouse you in the same way that actual porn will. Your sexual boundaries have crumbled, your self-control is frail, and your love of pure and holy pleasure is constrained by your love of illicit and fleeting pleasure.

In such a situation, when nudity and sex in your mainstream entertainment doesn’t bother you, it is because you are the weaker brother, not the stronger one.

A hardened conscience isn’t a clean conscience

On the surface, a seared conscience and a clear conscience may look similar: in either case, you feel guilt-free about taking, or avoiding, a particular course of action. This peace of mind and heart may be a sign that everything is right—and it may be a sign that something is horribly wrong.

How can you tell the difference? One step in the right direction is to question your assumptions:

Ask yourself why your conscience seems out of step with those in generations past.

Ask yourself why explicit sexuality in media doesn’t bother you when some within our own culture see a problem with it.

Ask yourself why you can freely admit the influential power of the visual medium, except when it comes to content like nudity and sex scenes.

And if you are struggling with any habits or patterns of immorality, ask yourself what kind of chinks in your spiritual armor are keeping you from having victory over besetting sexual sin.

If you ask these questions sincerely, transparently, and prayerfully, you may find your soul cut asunder with the blade of God’s gracious truth. And while the wound will hurt at first, it will also bring with it healing and freeing power. That’s something we should never be bothered by.

Editor’s note: The following video by Paeter Frandsen at Christian Geek Central is based on Cap Stewart’s earlier articles. Frandsen helps explore this topic with biblical truth and sensitivity.

  1. Paul J. Zak, “How Stories Change the Brain,” Dec. 17, 2013, Greater Good Magazine.
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Tim Brown
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Tim Brown

The question struck me while pondering this issue over the last few days: Is there *ever* a truly good reason to watch someone having sex?

notleia
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notleia

[insert CHALLENGE ACCEPTED meme]

Watching your partner having sex with you technically counts as watching someone have sex.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Pretty implicit in his question is the phrase “on the screen.” 😛

notleia
Guest
notleia

That’s not how the CHALLENGE ACCEPTED meme works, tho

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

“Let’s view general nudity/sexual content policy based on the biblical exceptions, such as marriage” isn’t how Christianity purity belief works either. 😉

Krystine Kercher
Guest

Good points. This is why it particularly irks me when superhero film producer think they have to throw in a moment of full or even partial nudity. I’ve had people justify it to me as “but the story-line calls for that.”

Could the story have been fine without it? Why was it even necessary to add that?

There are otherwise great movies that I won’t watch because of this, and franchises I’m now avoiding because they threw in a scene with little to no warning, and I resent having been inflicted with something I’d rather not have been party to.

Cap Stewart
Guest

Yeah, the argument that “the story-line calls for it” is fairly common. The veracity (or complete lack thereof) of that statement aside, it reveals something interesting about our culture: we want stories that need blatant sexuality in them.

Rebekah Gyger
Guest

I remember when I first saw Passengers and was struck by the nudity. It earned a laugh from others, and while I acknowledged that in that circumstance it might have been realistic, I had to wonder what it added to the story. It didn’t make me care for the characters more or enhance my understanding of what complete isolation would do to a person (the rest of the story did that). It just made me frustrated that a guy’s butt was suddenly in my face.

Cap Stewart
Guest

That brings up an artistic problem with onscreen nudity in film and television: it takes audiences out of the moment. Donald Sutherland once said, “When I take my clothes off people are no longer looking at me as a character, they’re looking at me with no clothes on.”

RACHEL NICHOLS
Guest

As a single Christian woman I have to be extra careful about what I view. Married folks can view it and not be tempted but anything even mildly arousing makes me feel the need to turn it off or leave immediately.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Trust me, these temptations certainly do not vanish or even weaken after marriage!

Cap Stewart
Guest

Let me echo Stephen and say that a married person can definitely view such material and be tempted! We are far from immune.

notleia
Guest
notleia

Honestly, I feel how Christians treat sex is too close to the concept of thoughtcrime for comfort.

Fred Clark, the Slacktivist, had an article or two (that I can’t find conveniently) about how the emphasis on purity is pretty harmful. It’s not tangible, so it’s easy to abuse and manipulate people by moving the goalposts. On the flip side, the intangibility also encourages a sort of laziness, where you get to be totes righteous without lifting a single finger — or BECAUSE you don’t lift a single finger.

I know there’s a whole faith vs works debate about this, but there’s a certain benefit to having physical evidence of your efforts to be a not-crappy person. If someone wants to create doubt about your self-worth and/or the good you contribute to the world, your response can be “look at these pics of crochet blankets I sent to charity” (personal example there).

Also that’s my motivation for saying that purity is not really a virtue, and also why my current motto is “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Autumn Grayson
Guest
Autumn Grayson

Anything and everything can be a problem, including having physical proof that someone has done a good thing. If someone tries to be a good person, or feels guilty for something they genuinely did wrong, they can try to soothe themselves with physical proof of their goodness. But for some people it might not be enough. ‘Did I crochet enough blankets for charity?’ ‘Did I donate enough money?’ Or ‘If I stop making donations or doing community service, am I suddenly a bad person?’

Additionally, intangible isn’t always inferior to tangible. If a person talks a stranger out of suicide and never sees that person again, that might have a bigger impact than making a donation. Yet, that person wouldn’t be able to prove they talked that person out of suicide, if proof was demanded. Positive impact can’t always be measured, but that doesn’t make intangible things useless, harmful or irrelevant. And doing intangible good things does not prevent someone from doing tangible good things as well.

Now, let’s say that someone doesn’t make any effort to actively hurt someone, and does tangible good things. Deep down in their mind, though, they want to hurt others, and have no qualms with fantasies about hurting. They leave those thoughts completely unchecked because they think that it’s their right. In their minds, they are indifferent about others or even look down on them, and only do good things for the sake of social status or because they know that they would be punished for following through with their malevolent fantasies. This person can’t be punished for doing anything wrong, but the way their mind is, it would be difficult to truly call them a good person. Both the tangible and intangible matter, in terms of goodness.

Trying to be moral or pure when it comes to sex isn’t the issue, it’s when people beat themselves up over their mistakes instead of simply picking themselves up and trying to do better next time. That can exist for anyone trying to live a good life, and its a genuine struggle for many that are trying to do something as simple as be a nice person.

A moral goal, like purity, and the way people react when they don’t achieve that goal, are two different things. Instead of treating purity as the enemy, people should focus on teaching themselves to respond constructively to the issue. Again, part of that would involve people doing their best as far as purity goes, but understanding that mistakes will still be made and to simply do better next time.

notleia
Guest
notleia

The thing is that “purity” is so poorly defined in application. What does it look like when you get close to purity? How does that look in practice?

Autumn Grayson
Guest
Autumn Grayson

The thing people normally get wrong about purity is that, although it’s a goal, it’s not something people are truly expected to obtain, at least not in an absolutely perfect way. I mean, sheesh, the whole concept of Christianity is based on the fact that people are imperfect. So it’s not about ‘how close am I to purity?’ It’s more like ‘Am I truly doing my best to live a pure/healthy life? Am I being honest with myself about why I am watching a show with high sexual content and not skipping anything?’

For comparison, we can’t truly be good and kind at all times, yet the average person still tries to be good and kind, or will at least define themselves as that. On the surface, defining goodness and kindness seems easy, but when we look deeper they truly aren’t that simple. So, with both kindness and purity, it’s about people doing their true, honest best, rather than their efforts only mattering when they get close to the ideal.

As for exact definitions…as with any subject, that’s going to vary a bit based on context. Sometimes purity means avoiding sex outside marriage, but in other contexts it could mean avoiding things that we know will drag our minds into the gutter. To an extent it’s about self control, which is a very important part of being a human and thus a very healthy thing to practice. These multiple meanings don’t have to be a bad thing, though. That’s kinda how language and morals work, and dealing/coping with ambiguity is part of being human. It’s only stressful if we let it be.

notleia
Guest
notleia

I just keep thinking about a YouTuber I watch who recently lost a lot of weight. He talks a lot about the various attitudes in the weight loss culture, about how feeling good was better than a strict number goal, but he could lie to himself about all that. He’d been lying to himself for years while he kept gaining weight. When the scale told him he’d dropped below 200 lbs, he had a huge emotional reaction (which was very cute) because he couldn’t lie to himself about the numbers that meant he was succeeding beyond what he’d hoped.

But if he didn’t bother with the scale, it would be so easy for him to delude himself again and relapse (he’d done it before). Or some jerk purity ponies (that’s more of a political label, but the meaning translates) could end up shaming him for his schedule or his diet not being hardcore enough to suit them (especially if they have something to sell him).

There’s also that thing about knowing them by their fruits. (look! look! Biblical allusion!) I think the fruits produced by the purity culture more often look like thoughtcrime and repression and emotional abuse than like anything healthy.

Autumn Grayson
Guest
Autumn Grayson

The bad fruits you speak of are a matter of people not knowing how to behave in a healthy manner. That is an issue with nearly everything in life. That does not mean that trying to be moral/have self control when it comes to sex is bad. I’m saying keep the goal, but modify the behaviors around it into healthy ones.

Let’s look at it this way. Weightloss is a good goal, provided someone is overweight. But there are many unhealthy or ineffective ways to attempt weight loss. Someone could become anorexic, for instance. Does that mean weightloss is immediately a bad goal? No, people just need to be more honest with themselves and learn how to truly approach those things right.

With weightloss, a healthy, nutritious diet would be a reasonably healthy approach. Purity is similar. (I kind of feel weird that we keep trying to say purity, since that word doesn’t entirely mirror the goal many people have.) Just like with weight loss, we can do research and work to understand and train ourselves to have a healthy approach, and be better/healthier as a result.

Also…I’m not saying that having tangible proof, definitions, etc. is bad. Just like in your weight loss example, it’s great to have direct measurements of results. All I’m saying is that the intangible stuff isn’t INFERIOR to the tangible. We need both the tangible and intangible to be healthy. Additionally, just because something is a bit vague or hard to define doesn’t mean it automatically has to be harmful or painful.

notleia
Guest
notleia

I guess we’re falling into the trap that we think if we explain enough, the other person will agree, when we just don’t agree in the first place.

Buuuuut since I like arguing on the internet :), I don’t mind intangibles in of themselves, per se, but purity culture offers a very skewed ratio of tangible:intangile and also the tangibles I see are no bueno. Like, the fruits I’m observing are guilt, shame, paranoia, and more guilt, and also if you’re not feeling guilty or shamed enough for your interrogator’s liking, then you’re the one in the wrong.

But going back to the weight loss analogue, it’s soooo easy to be unhealthy if only weight loss is your goal. But if your goal is to be healthy, that could include weight loss but preclude the pitfalls. Ergo andotherfancyLatinwords, is our goal supposed to be purity, or is it a means to an end, with our real goal being something more like righteousness? (Tho come to think of it, righteousness is another rather poorly defined and easily skewed word.) Even taken in the generous abstract, purity isn’t the same as righteousness. The ideas serve different functions. So I view purity as being only as necessary as it is useful. (spoilers it is not very useful)

So in my practice, looking at boobs on a screen isn’t a disaster, or even a disaster in the making. Banning the boobs isn’t going to make misogyny or sexual entitlement and mistreatment go away. The boobs in of themselves are neutral (tho maybe chaotic neutral).

Autumn Grayson
Guest
Autumn Grayson

Eh, now days, even if I’d like to be able to change people’s minds, I don’t really expect that to happen most of the time, so my normal goal is just to have a fun discussion to learn more about different perspectives and maybe bring more understanding between me and the other person 🙂

And yeah. With the weight loss example, though, we can see that even if people can easily be unhealthy with weight loss as the goal, that doesn’t actually have to be the case. Again, goals, and whatever surrounds them, are two different things. We’re probably trying to say the same thing ultimately, though, at least from the standpoint that whatever goal someone has should be pursued in a healthy manner.

The stuff you’re saying about purity and righteousness was kind of why I was feeling a little eh about us using the word purity in this discussion. I’m not entirely sure which word I think actually fits the discussion, though, especially since we’d probably both imagine slightly different things for each term.

I think for me personally it’s about being reasonably modest and respectful. If I accidentally see something inappropriate I don’t view it as a disaster, just something not to let my eyes linger on too long. I try to avoid seeing stuff, and skip sex scenes, but I don’t beat myself up if I accidentally see something. People’s thoughts aren’t always going to be pure, so to me the more important thing is that people put out effort to be respectful and modest. I guess in some ways it’s working toward purity but not actually expecting one’s self to obtain it, if we want to use the same terminology we started with. Not sure how to explain it exactly. Maybe part of it is the entitlement issue you brought up.

At the very least, someone brought up to respect modesty might have an easier time comprehending why people don’t want to be eyed like a scrap of meat. That’s one benefit to modesty I’ve seen in many of the people I’ve grown up around.

Cap Stewart
Guest

Indeed, the concept of purity is easy to abuse and manipulate (just like the sex act itself). However, we must not make the mistake of treating something as inherently abusive simply because it has the capacity to be abused.

notleia
Guest
notleia

Well if it has the capacity to be abused, then we need to put safeguards on it. Or because denominations are about as easy to herd as cats, refigure the system so it functions better.

I refer you to my righteousness v. purity bit just up there in the previous super-long thread.

Cap Stewart
Guest

I’m all for safeguards, as well as personal (and corporate) course corrections. As with any other virtue/aspiration, a proper pursuit of purity requires a proper cultivation of the right motives and methods.