Editor’s Note: This is one of the Top 15 2020 CBE Writing Contest winners. Enjoy!
Since before the advent of the “porn in your pocket” generation, churches have been vehemently opposed to the production, dissemination, and consumption of porn. The majority of church teaching holds that using porn violates commands against nonmarital sexual lust, encourages sexual activity outside of marriage, and catalyzes deviant sexual behaviors in society. The discussion more recently has also focused on the damaging effects of using porn on mental health.
Even though one in three visitors to porn-sites are female, discussions on porn, particularly in the UK and US evangelical church, focus primarily on how porn affects men. One prominent evangelical who writes about porn, bio-psychologist William Struthers, uses evolutionary biology to suggest that “the promiscuous approach is inherent in the reproductive system” of men. His book, Wired for Intimacy, is devoted to the effect of porn on the male brain and the elements of maleness that predispose men to porn addiction. Many writers follow Struthers’ approach, with the majority of Christian resources that address porn being aimed at men.
There aren’t many published statistics for porn usage among Christian men, but it is clear from the abundance of Christian resources on porn targeted to men, that a lot of Christian men use it. What are these resources saying? Are they entirely helpful? Or could they be damaging to equality between men and women in the church, upholding abusive messaging, and perpetuating rape culture? Let’s take a look at some popular Christian resources.
Blame the Wife?
Mark Driscoll’s book Porn-Again Christian, published in 2009, and his sermon series on Song of Songs entitled The Peasant Princess are both popular among Christians internationally.1 In 2011, UK-based Preaching magazine named Driscoll one of the top 25 most influential pastors of the previous 25 years. Even though Driscoll was widely discredited in 2014 following accusations of bullying, plagiarism, and the misappropriation of funds, the free accessibility of both the book and sermon series means his work continues to be influential.
Driscoll’s resources aim to promote a “healthy” sexuality within marriage while highlighting what he sees as the dangers of porn use. However, Driscoll’s objectification and demeaning characterizations of women, both porn performers and the Christian wife, are extremely troubling. Although he says he condemns the objectification of women, Driscoll describes porn performers as women with “hot” bodies “and no discretion,” suggesting such a woman is “nothing more than a well-accessorized animal… fun to roll around and get dirty with.”
Indeed, the warning to women in the opening pages of Porn-Again Christian not to read this book (unless she has a kind husband who could explain it to her!) is perhaps the clearest indicator of the misogyny and hostility towards women in the pages that follow.
The general message of Porn-Again Christian and The Peasant Princess sermon series, is that women are created as objects of male desire and it is their job to prevent men from the sinful act of watching porn by supplying “redeemed images” to satisfy their husbands. This, apparently, enables men to fulfil their service to the church. Driscoll enshrouds the temptation of porn in images of spiritual warfare, urging wives to fight the battle with their sexual submission. In doing so, wives are trained to fear, and husbands are trained to expect, that if a woman does not sexually please her husband she invites Satan into their bed and can be blamed for infidelity as well as porn use.
Here, the onus is on the wife to prevent the husband’s sexual sin, so if a husband uses porn, it is because his wife has failed in her purpose. Considering the violent nature of most porn, encouraging wives to perform the sexual, pornographic desires of their husbands perpetuates existing abusive behavior and could even increase abusive behaviors in Christian marriages.
Blame the Porn?
These male-focused messages that uphold misogyny are not confined to Driscoll. Activist and gender-justice specialist Natalie Collins, has shown that resources released by the Naked Truth Project are similarly problematic. This Christian charity creates resources and recovery programs to enable churches to tackle the issue of porn in their congregations. Natalie describes these video resources as containing an overall message in which the victims of porn are the men who watch it. By portraying porn as the “evil siren” or “abusive ex-girlfriend” as well as using other euphemizing and passive communication, the videos portray the male porn-user as the victim and not responsible for his actions.2
This communication, not unlike Driscoll’s teaching, paints women as either evil sirens, seducing men to sexual sin or as hot wives performing to entice men away from porn. Natalie advocates for a change in the conversation about porn in the evangelical church—it ought to center on male violence and the abuse of women rather than male victimization.
Are Men the Real Victims Here?
Christian resources may make men out to be the victims of the porn industry, but statistically speaking, women are more often the actual victims. Most mainstream porn includes a cluster of repetitive themes that portray verbal and physical violence against women. A recent analysis of the 50 most popular pornographic videos showed that 88% of scenes contained physical violence and 49% contained verbal aggression. Of these aggressive acts, 87% were perpetrated against women with 95% portraying neutral or pleasurable expressions. Multiple studies have indicated an explicit link between the consumption of porn and comfortability with rape, with participants showing less empathy for victims, a diminished emotional response to violence, and increased behavioral aggression following exposure.
Porn not only normalizes and perpetuates violence against women but, while watching, the viewer also becomes complicit in the violent, abusive behavior in the scene. Given the nature of most mainstream porn shown in the stats above, we must ask some serious questions. Why do churches treat those who watch porn as victims rather than perpetrators? Why isn’t the perpetuation of violence against women the overarching messaging in evangelical communication on porn? Why aren’t resources for porn users more concerned with protecting women?
How the Church Should Respond
There is a place in the church for communication about purity and resisting lust, as well as a place for a holistic approach that supports those attempting to stop using porn. However, only focusing on breaking addictive patterns and keeping men from sexual sin is inadequate for dealing with the issue of sexual violence and the degradation of women. There is a pressing need for the UK and US church to address how porn dehumanizes and exploits women. There is a need to recognize how resources meant to address porn use have centered on the male gaze and perpetuated rape culture.
To understand and respond to porn requires more than the assertion of sexual sin and harm to the viewer. Churches need to educate their congregations on porn’s oppressive and humiliating nature, the gendered and racial sexual dynamics it represents, the violence and coercion involved in its production, and the effects it has on the development of patriarchal and violent practices.
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1.The Peasant Princess (2008) and other sermon series by Mark Driscoll were formerly available on the Mars Hill website but have been removed since Driscoll’s resignation. The Peasant Princess, however, continues to get thousands of hits on the videos published by independent users on YouTube.
2.It should be noted that the artist who performed the spoken-word video for Naked Truth has also released a video centred around human trafficking that expresses the connection between watching pornography and engaging in an industry of abuse. This video, however, was produced by an independent record label and is not connected to any evangelical anti-porn charities.