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The Whisper of Power

Masculinity and porn culture

“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Gal. 5:13).

The struggle for power has always been part of the human story. Sometimes the quest of a person or group of people to dominate another is easy to see, such as in the rising and toppling of civilizations throughout history. But other times the struggle for power grows right under our noses, while we remain largely unaware of its serious consequences. Such is the case with misogyny, which is rapidly mutating and infecting society in the viral form of pornography. Pornography is growing more violent and abusive toward women. It is also becoming more culturally acceptable. And, alarmingly, most of us don’t even recognize how much it is seeping into our everyday lives. 

Pornography is so prevalent that often one does not ask if a man watches pornography but rather how much. In one recent study conducted on male sex buyers, researchers defined a “non-user” as a man who had not used pornography more than one time in the last month (Prostitution Research and Education, July 2011). 

Even mainstream magazine covers flaunt scantily clad women. Commercials for men’s body wash claim the product will give a man more sexual prowess (to the point of driving women into animalistic frenzies). And popular dolls sport overdone makeup, huge lips, and skimpy clothing. All of these examples receive their inspiration from pornography. 

Thankfully, many churches and ministries are now working to free culture from this growing and crippling addiction. However, the problem cannot thoroughly be addressed if we believe pornography use is motivated only by sexual desires or men’s “uncontrollable” sexual needs. Deeper issues fuel the pornography industry.

In Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, author Robert Jensen proposes that pornography is more about power than it is about sex. Jensen deals specifically with why men are so interested in pornography. He argues that men’s pornography use has to do with culture's modern view of masculinity:

But in reality pornography speaks to men in a whisper. We pretend to listen to the barker shouting about women but that is not the draw….Pornography ends up being about men’s domination of women and about the ugly ways that men will take pleasure. But for most men, it starts with the soft voice that speaks to our deepest fear: we aren’t man enough.

For Jensen, cultural definitions of masculinity ultimately glorify a quest for male dominance. Culture, he observes, teaches us that “real men” take charge and seize power rather than lay down their power to serve others, and they are usually willing to resort to violence to get what they want. Why is it that as pornography has become more misogynistic, it has also become more accepted by mainstream culture? The definition of masculinity offers an answer, Jensen writes. In a world where men are losing some of the absolute power which has historically been theirs, men are charmed by the whisper of pornography as a way to assert their culturally-defined masculinity. 

In porn, men are the ones in power for they are the ones obtaining sexual pleasure. This is especially true in the growing genre of misogynistic porn: men enjoy sexual pleasure from what makes the women uncomfortable or, worse, what puts them in great pain. The men are typically in control; the women are usually submissive. Women are reduced from human beings to objects: merely useful outlets for male sexual release.

This is a particular concern for egalitarians because porn not only hinders men's ability to experience true intimacy, but it also changes the way their brains process interactions with women in general. 

Take for instance a study done in 2009 by Princeton University on how men view women. First, men were surveyed according to a misogyny scale. They were then asked to view pictures of women both fully dressed and scantily clad. Men who scored higher on the misogyny scale showed no activity in the part of the brain that considers another person's intentions. In fact, it was the area of the brain mainly responsible for tool use that showed much activity. According to the lead researcher in this study, that means these men didn’t see the women in bikinis as humans with thoughts and intentions. They were simply objects, attractive objects perhaps, but less-than-human all the same. 

This dehumanization of women through pornography can be seen on an organizational level as well as an interpersonal one. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), for example, is notorious for valuing the world’s furry and feathered friends much more than the women who work for their organization. This year, PETA announced its plan to launch an adult-only site. Drawing people to the site with pornography, PETA plans to provide visitors with images of animals being slaughtered, in an effort to gain support for their mission. Not only does this fit well with the cruel porn genre, mixing sex and violence, but it's also a prime example of what pornography does to women: commoditizing them and using them to market a message. They are faceless, nameless, and a means to an end. They are tools.

This idea that women are tools runs rampant in an age of pornography. The “porning” of mainstream culture tells men and women that their power lies in their sexuality. When women’s bodies cease to be temples of the Holy Spirit and are relegated to nothing more than “temptations,” women lose their personhood. They cease to be ezer, a powerful source of help, and society loses the imago Dei, the image of God, that is evident in partnership of men and women. 

As Christians, we must respond to this deep and prevalent quest for and abuse of power. We are called to recognize the imago Dei in each other, and to advocate for those whom society deems less valuable. In today’s world, sexual promiscuity has become the religion, and pornography and power are the priests. But, God has something radically different for the human family. 

True Christian masculinity and femininity need to be shaped by Scripture. While the culture calls for hierarchy and the domination of males over females, God calls for equality, freedom, and a shared authority between women and men, of all classes and ethnicities. While culture dictates that “real men” must exert power over females, God says real power exists when we submit to, love, and serve one another. While culture says objectifying people for sexual pleasure is okay, God says our freedom in Christ is to deny immoral impulses and to respect the bodies of people created in God’s image. Our freedom never gives us the right to hurt others for our fleshly gain. 

God created male and female for more than impersonal, power-usurping sex. Men and women were created to show the face of God in their interactions with each other and the world at large. Those who are truly free never suppress others but walk with them, side by side, fully acknowledging their humanity and worth as a part of the imago Dei

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