Registration open for "Tell Her Story: Women in Scripture and History!" Early bird ends April 15 at 11:59 pm Click here to learn more!

Published Date: September 5, 2022

Published Date: September 5, 2022

Featured Articles

Like What You’re Reading?

Click to help create more!

Get CBE’s blog in your inbox!

CBE Abuse Resource

Cover of "Created to Thrive".

Featured Articles

Is There Such a Thing as Ethical Porn? Male and Female Perspectives

In a 2018 interview, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber argued against shaming the consumption of porn by suggesting that rather than harboring shame about it, Christians could use what she referred to as “ethically sourced porn.”1 Bolz-Weber is only one of many who have voiced a similar call, namely that while some porn consumption is harmful, there is a way to engage with it positively and responsibly. But is this really a viable position? Based on what porn is and what effects it produces, can Christian women and men come to understand the consumption of (at least certain types of) porn as ethical?

The reason why we must answer this question is simply because of the ubiquity of hypersexualized material. Our culture is becoming increasingly pornified to the point that it is extremely difficult to avoid engaging with porn, if not impossible. We need not rehash more statistics here, but it suffices to say that the presence of porn in our communities is unavoidable, and its negative effects on our development and on our relationships are becoming increasingly obvious.

When Bolz-Weber and others refer to ethical forms of porn, they mean porn that is made legally and consensually, respects the rights of performers, has good working conditions, and does not involve or display abuse or overt harm. This idea of sexual ethics is common but overly simplistic. The claim is that the way the material was produced is the primary factor that makes it acceptable, rather than who consumes it, how they consume it, or the psychological, relational, and societal effects of that consumption. Aside from the fact that there is no way that viewers could know with certainty the circumstances of the production of particular pornographic materials, effect has just as much bearing on ethics as source. For example, if a person falsely claims to be a doctor and performs a botched surgery on one patient, and another honest, qualified doctor also botches the same surgery on a different patient, the effect is just as negative for the patients either way.

Our core argument is that regardless of consent or intent, ethical porn is not a legitimate category, and there are no circumstances under which the consumption of porn does not lead to a negative result, particularly when understood from a Christian point of view. We intend to show this by focusing on how porn harms both women and men based on how we have seen its effects in our own lives, in the lives of those we love, and in the lives of those we serve in our work as mental health counselors.

A Male Perspective: Lessons in Objectification

In speaking to fellow men about this issue I (William) have found that, more often than not, porn is the main form of sex education that we receive during our teenage years, and it shapes what we find attractive. With repeated consumption of porn, the women men see become little more than a means to an end: women become tools of entertainment and catharsis more than people with souls and personalities. Inasmuch as it becomes habitual, porn serves as a way to practice this sort of thinking. Over time, the sexual ethic of the man who watches porn devolves from focusing on connection and relationship to idolizing personal satisfaction without consequences. When this happens, porn desacralizes and commodifies sex. It is not that men consume porn because they want to objectify (and thus devalue) women, but the effect of repeated consumption is the development of this kind of a pornified mindset.

I wish this was a more uncommon story. Whether inside or outside of a counseling setting, I regularly hear from men (both Christian and non-Christian) who complain that they feel like they cannot fully enjoy intimacy with their partners because their real, human experience feels boring compared to the fantasy world of porn to which their minds have become accustomed. This has obvious deleterious effects on their relationships, and it can create a sort of “grass-is-greener” mentality. Watching porn leads men into a perpetual sense of dissatisfaction with what was intended to be fully satisfying. If the goal is for men to be prepared for a healthy sexual relationship with one woman for a lifetime, the constant novelty and variety that characterizes porn sets men up for failure.

Porn cannot therefore be a victimless experience; there is real damage done to men as absorbers of such content and to the women with whom they interact. Perhaps the most negative effect of porn that I see in men is that it teaches them to use women for self-centered ends and does not prepare them for the constant self-giving that characterizes a healthy marriage. Porn depersonalizes what is intensely personal, and thereby cheapens what should never be cheap: intimacy. If these sorts of effects emerge when men watch porn, even when the porn was made with consensual participants, how can we call it ethical?

A Female Perspective: Healing Our Idea of Sexuality        

In counseling and small group settings, when I (Alejandra) talk to women about porn, it often becomes clear that our ideas about sexuality are based on a double standard that sees women as the sole victims of purity culture and sees marriage as the only gateway to sexual health and freedom. With this as our framework we’ve created a shame-focused idea of sexuality that neglects the inner work required to respond to sexual desire thoughtfully—with something more than total avoidance or total license. I believe that in order to appreciate their sexuality as a part of themselves and to overcome the shame associated with porn use, women need to understand their sexual story, and ultimately to learn how to embrace how their personal narrative informs their sexual ethic.

This is one of the core ideas in Jay Stringer’s recent book, Unwanted, which I frequently recommend to women.2 Knowing how our story was written and working to rewrite it are the keys to healing what porn has damaged. Our upbringing, our relationships, our hurts, and our insecurities all inform that story, and exploring these in a safe context with other women who love us can help us understand why porn hurts us and why we may continue to desire it anyway. Knowing our story helps us to understand our desires, and ultimately to take steps toward a more balanced perspective on porn. A balanced perspective is one that does not just seek to avoid porn or to treat it as harmless, but instead focuses on healing our deeper sexual brokenness. Make no mistake—this takes practice and a willingness to invite others into our process, but our answer should not be an attitude that says, “People are going to watch porn anyway, so let’s just change how it is watched.”

Whether a woman is watching porn or dealing with the effects of others watching it, the consumption of porn is ultimately degrading because it portrays womanhood only in explicitly sexual contexts, and often ones that involve subjugation to men. A Christian view of sexual health that values women is one that involves vulnerable, intentional connection at the deepest level of mutually interacting intimacy and safety. I encourage women who deal with their own or another’s consumption of porn to allow God and others to journey with them through their sexual story. This helps women recognize how their experience of their own bodies, of intimacy, and of sexual desire are deeply related to their own development as a person, their family background, and their innermost desires, hurts, and self-image. The end goal of this journey is not just greater self-awareness but a change in their mindset toward sex.         

Using ethically produced porn will not erase the negative effects porn consumption has on women, as if the problem is the type of porn rather than porn itself. Just because an act is consensual, that does not mean it is beneficial, neutral, or contributes to the flourishing of women. Ethically produced porn still presents a degraded, cheapened view of sex. Instead, every woman needs to step back and reevaluate what we believe sexuality is, what it means to us, and how our own desires speak to us about our stories and where their answers lie. As for the satisfaction of those desires, and the healing and restoration we need most, porn provides nothing.

Conclusion: A Practical Alternative

If we agree that porn can never be ethical, this leads to broader questions. Specifically, about how believers can emphasize that the most ethical, beautiful forms of sexual expression are other-focused, self-giving, and personal. They result in the most flourishing when expressed in a context of being fully known, where intimacy, commitment, and safety are equally present. The counterfeit experience porn provides is not only a cheap substitute of this vision of sexuality but actively works against it.   

Yet we know that stating our rejection of porn is not a long-term solution. Therefore, we’d like to share three practical, potentially fruitful ways forward in how our communities address porn and for our cultivation of a different, healthier sexual ethic.

  1. We must begin with providing open spaces to confront the reality of porn in our communities without shame, but with a commitment to pursuing a different way. This can only truly happen when we actively nurture a culture of real openness and trust, where people can discuss sexual issues without shame and with the assumption that sex is fundamentally good and beautiful despite how it has been distorted. This entails a confrontation not only with non-Christian distortions of sexuality which embrace license, but also with Christian distortions of sexuality which amplify shame.
     
  2. We ensure that sexuality is a regular, recurring conversation and not an occasional sermon topic or the focus of a (usually male) support group. Especially with our children, we address sexual issues with regularity, without avoidance, and we specifically address porn before they ever see it.  
     
  3. We perpetuate and sustain healthy sexuality in our communities by emphasizing the importance of relationships that are respectful and not sexually self-centered. Churches could cultivate this by highlighting the importance and legitimacy of male-female friendships, celebrating couples within the community who do this well, and giving those couples opportunities to guide and mentor younger couples.

Both women and men have been harmed by the creation and consumption of porn, and both women and men need to actively deconstruct how porn affects our thinking and our view of ourselves and of relationships. And, we would suggest, it also requires changes in vocabulary so that we can understand that “purity” is not the pursuit of a state of abstinence from porn but the active training of an un-pornified mindset. When we embody this in our lives and relationships, we will be more than a voice decrying the idea of ethical porn—we will be a living testament to another way, and a far more fulfilling one.

This article is from “The Problem of Porn,” the Autumn 2022 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.

Notes

  1. Johnny Walsh, “Nadia Bolz-Weber Does Ministry Differently,” Out In Jersey, 21 October 2018.
  2. Jay Stringer, Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2018).