Ethical Erotica?

by Elias Blum

When it comes to sex, Christians are often seen as censorious prohibitive prudes. Sometimes, this is a well deserved criticism. Too often, Christians have reacted against the overly-permissive mores and obsessive sexuality of wider society by going too far the other way. That negative, sex-rejecting approach – rooted in a gnostic aversion to the physical and the personal obsessions of Paul – does not make for a balanced, healthy attitude. In its most destructive and repressive forms, it makes sex out to be something sinful, shameful and dirty – something we shouldn’t talk about and shouldn’t enjoy. That’s gross distortion of a most natural and wonderful thing and it is important not to fall into that trap.

Christians should have an open, frank, joyous and healthy attitude to sex, and to nudity and the body. The biblical tradition positively affirms sexuality within a loving marriage – from Genesis 1, through Song of Songs, to First Corinthians. The intimate union of man and wife is symbolically representative of the union of Christ’s Spirit in us; we are to make ourselves open and receptive to the Spirit, and the Spirit enters and fills us, and brings forth new life in us. We don’t have to be shy or bashful about this.

Neither should we overly sacralise this imagery to the point at which we deny the physical element. Instead, we should see sex and sexuality as something that is good in its right use, as something that is a natural part of life, essential to our place in the created order, as well as being of spiritual significance. Done right, and in the right context, sex is a blissful and connective act, in which the blessing and love of God can be shown in and through an intimate and shameless encounter with the person we love the most on earth. It is also fun, squishy, messy, and sometimes hilarious. In fact, it is precisely because Christianity views sex as so good and so special, in its proper use, that its abuse is regarded as especially damaging. 

With that in mind, I wanted to discuss the issue of pornography, and particularly the question of whether pornography can ever have a legitimate place in the Christian view of sex. If sex is, rightly used, a good thing, then what’s the matter with looking at pictures of people doing it? If we don’t want to be prudish, then what’s wrong with porn? To address this question, I think it would be helpful to think about pornography in terms of the How, the What, and the Why.

(i) How is it produced, and how are those who work in the industry treated? This is an issue that is common to all industries, since economic exploitation is rife in all fields. Pornography produced under conditions of force, coercion or exploitation must surely not be acceptable – in the same way as we would not want to buy any product made by slaves or by mistreated workers. But when it comes to the production of pornographic material, perhaps there is a further difficulty here. It could reasonably be argued that even in the best possible, safe, unionised, regulated, working conditions, sex work is by its nature necessarily degrading – not because sex is degrading, but because it takes that which is lovely when used for love, and turns it into a trade. In the very literal sense, pornography prostitutes sex.

(ii) What it depicts – does it show respectful, loving, unitive sex, or does it depict exploitation or degradation? Again, this question cannot be addressed without first considering whether any sex-act engaged in for money can ever be respectful, loving and unitive, or whether a commercial transaction necessarily makes it exploitative and degrading.

(iii) How is it used – is it used to help a couple improve and keep fresh their own love-making, or is it used in a solitary, selfish way? In other words, is it used as an aide to good marital sex, or as an easy but shallow substitute for it? Like sex itself, the ethical status of porn depends to a large degree on the way and the purpose for which it is used. Is it unitive or destructive? Is it loving or hateful? Is it nurturing or exploitative?

A tentative conclusion – and perhaps not a very convincing or robust one – is to recognise the thin but important distinction between ‘erotica’ and ‘pornography’. Erotica is designed to enhance love-making, and I can see that there might be a role for such a thing as ‘Christian erotica’ to help couples to better enjoy the pleasures, joys and arts of the marriage bed. Pornography, on the other hand, is a sort of ‘do it yourself’ substitute for sex, and that’s much harder to justify – if, indeed, if can ever be justified all.