I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [‘hardcore pornography’] and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…”
-Justice Potter Stewart, Jacobellis vs. Ohio
This infamous quote describing Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s understanding of pornography in 1964 fairly well encapsulates the difficulty in defining and delineating what is considered porn- or, in the context of this particular court case, what is considered “obscene.”
In the 52 years since this opinion was written, it has become even harder for us to really encapsulate what pornography is. I think we can agree that there is a difference between porn, art, erotica, and nudity, but trying to tease of the difference between these things becomes increasingly more difficult.
For example, nudity (the act of being naked) is not an act that is
inherently sexual in and of itself. Erotica and porn, however, both have a central sexual component (which often includes nudity), and art spans across genres. There are some who consider porn and erotica to both be types of art, and many more who consider the human body (e.g. nudity) to be a living work of art in and of itself.
The delineation wouldn’t matter as much if there was not a moralistic hierarchy associated with each category. Nudity can go many different ways: there are those who claim that nudity is immodest, while others claim that they are better able to commune with God when they are fully present in their bodies (and thus, the image of God). There are those who believe that, if something is categorized as “art,” it is supposed to inspire human emotion- both good and bad- and thus art is distinct from moralism. Others, however, feel the term “art” is overused to describe works that are obscene.
Engaging with erotica and porn, however, is generally assumed to be immoral by many who claim Christianity (in fact, most of the Western religious traditions speak out against porn and, to a lesser degree, erotica). There is a quote from the television show “The West Wing” in which a conservative Christian man asks, “If you can buy pornography on any street corner for $5, isn’t that too high a price to pay for free speech?” This question fairly well sums up much of the feeling of mainstream conservative Christianity with respect to pornography.
However, as sex- and body-positive Christians, how do we approach, address, and discuss porn in a positive way? I think we often fall into the habit of silence about things like porn usage because it can be hard to tease out exactly how this relates to our relationship with God.
I remember when I started taking testosterone, and my sex drive spiked rapidly, to the point that I needed to masturbate every day. If I didn’t, I was incredibly irritable and cranky. At times, I wasn’t “in the mood,” so to speak, but knew that I needed to find a way to get turned on enough to masturbate so that I could go about my day. At those points, porn was an incredibly useful tool to elicit certain physical responses to allow myself to have an orgasm.
Furthermore, I have participated in making porn. Not often, but I have had sex for money while being filmed: perhaps the most crude method of defining porn. Most of my reasons behind doing it were because I wanted to, but there was also the element of financial stress that led me to do it at the time that I did. I have also been photographed doing sexual acts when I go to kink conventions, and those photographs are for sale via the photographers hired by the company. I don’t know if that counts as porn, exactly, but goodness knows, there are plenty of naked pictures of me on the internet. I don’t think porn is an inherently bad thing. There are certainly problematic aspects about the industry (including, but not limited to, economic and financial distress, poor working conditions, and abuse/mistreatment of models, particularly women), but porn as a concept is not, to me, inherently bad.
With porn, we have to consider the aspects of fetishization and objectification. People searching for a specific type of porn (e.g. “trannys” or “big black cock”) are problematic because they tend to be dehumanizing. And while some people may like being objectified, many other people get tired of being seen as a one-dimensional object to fulfill someone else’s fetish…particularly when that objectification doesn’t end at the computer screen, but carries out in day-to-day life. They can also perpetuate oppressive stereotypes that are sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic, etc. (from “women are submissive” to “black men have large penises” to “lesbians just need a man to come finish them off”). Each of these ideas are easy to find on most porn sites, and there are entire sites that are dedicated to a particular fetishization.
Is it wrong to be attracted to a particular aspect of a person? Of course not.
But the difference is, porn often allows us to be attracted to an aspect without considering the person. Porn also has the unfortunate byproduct of creating unrealistic expectations about sex. Porn is not necessarily about sex, but about performance of particular acts. Much as drag is about the performance of gender, porn is about the performance of sex (and much as drag bears little resemblance to gender as we see it in every day life, porn bears little resemblance to everyday sex).
Like anything, in order to interact with something in a healthy way, we have to understand what it is and why we are interacting with it. We can’t judge someone else’s intentions, but it’s important that we look at our own and try to understand (if we are consumers of porn) what it is we get out of it- including whether it impacts our expectations of our own sexual lives. I don’t think there is anything wrong with watching porn- regardless of whether someone is monogamous or polyamorous, porn can have a role in a person’s sexual satisfaction (both self-satisfaction and satisfaction with partners).
We know that our relationship with porn can be unhealthy. But is it
possible for our relationship with porn to be healthy or neutral (e.g. causing no harm or benefit)? I think it can be. I think porn can be an incredibly useful tool. But as with all things, it’s important that we have an analysis of the industries and products we consume. It is, for example, beneficial to pay for porn from companies that are known to treat their models well, rather that utilizing free porn that may come at the cost of a person’s well-being.
Recognizing that porn is a service (much like many other services we consume) and approaching consumption of the service in an ethical manner is important. It’s also important that we ensure we aren’t allowing our consumption of porn to interfere with our relationships- with ourselves, our partner(s), or God. In moderation, porn (like alcohol, working out, dieting, and many other things) is just fine. It is when we reach the extremes- either of our consumption itself, or the expectations and assumptions we make about other people- that porn becomes a detrimental aspect of some people’s sexual lives.
Both Malachi and I are comfortable with nudity and have said so here . We think it healthy, fun, and body-affirming.
However, one of the objections nudists often encounter is that baring all in “public” (a term that encompasses a wide range of circumstances) is “pornographic.” So what is pornography, what makes something pornographic?
As shown above, Justice Stewart famously remarked that he did not know how to define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. It was likely not his intention to open the door to a wide range of interpretations and definitions, but in effect what he is saying is that one person’s porn may be another’s art . . . or at least erotica.
Nudity, art, erotica, pornography……..four terms that often are used in connection with bodies, sexuality, and sexual activity.
In my view, the naked body is never pornographic, no matter the context, no matter the body. Human bodies are creations of God, gifts from God, in all our varieties and forms of beauty. We may well be naked when being sexual, but being naked does not equate to being sexual. Most nudists are quick to point out that being naked does not lead automatically to sex. Yet, being naked and sexual can be beautiful, wondrous.
Regular readers of this blog know I have carried negative feelings about a part of my body, my penis or dick or cock or whatever name you use. Much of that has been healed, in part because I have been able to share it openly here. My shame—for that is what it was—is no longer a secret, and thus its power has been greatly reduced.
Another help has been to spend some time looking at pictures of small penises online, to let myself see the beauty of the men who share themselves, in celebration. This has involved seeing all sorts and conditions of men—old, young, thin, not thin, white, black, Asian, Latino, Native, tall, short, cute (to me) and not so cute, etc. On occasion, these pictures show men engaged in sexual activity, solo or otherwise.
Is all this pornographic? Not for me. It has been healing. I have felt God in it, showing me how creative God is in sculpting penises. It finally broke through to me that God did not punish me by giving me a small penis. God blessed me, and still blesses me, just as I am.
It has also been useful in this exploration to look at art. Michelangelo’s sculpture of David is perhaps the most famous nude male ever. This hero has, thanks to the sculptor, a small cock, although it is bigger than Adam’s as pictured by the same artist on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I have seen more recent portrayals of the crucifixion with Jesus and the other two men hanging with him naked, and their dicks are of moderate size. None of this feels pornographic to me (of course, the crucifixion is ugly).
So what is porn?
A common definition is “printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.” A legal definition may be “the depiction of sexual behavior that is intended to arouse sexual excitement in its audience.”
For the layperson, it may be hard to differentiate that from obscenity, which the Supreme Court has described as materials “utterly without redeeming social importance.” But obscenity is not limited to sexual acts.
So the statue of David is not pornographic, even though it displays sexual organs, because it was not intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings. It might of course stimulate someone who is struggling with sexuality but that was not, presumably, the sculptor’s intent.
So, intent matters.
But I wonder how easy it is to sort out erotic feelings from emotional ones. One person would see those pictures of men with small organs and think “that’s erotic, and therefore pornographic.” But others, like me, may find emotional healing. In the process, I might even become sexually aroused, but the primary focus is emotional healing. And to me, that would have enormous social importance, helping me to become a more balanced, evolved person and therefore a better citizen, co-worker, leader, etc.
And then I have to wonder about the conflation of “erotic” with something negative. Personally, I like erotic feelings and often find them laden with positive emotional feelings and reactions as well.
I have referred previously to an interesting website, “Christians Enjoying Nudity and Erotica” (click here to visit). The developer of that site, a male clergyperson who uses a pseudonym, which is exclusively oriented towards heterosexuality and marriage between a man and a woman (even as it contains many erotic pictures of men, and of women, which can excite sexual feelings in not only heterosexual persons but also those who are homosexual and bisexual), says
I confess that I simply love to see nudity. I also enjoy the sensuality and beautiful sexuality of erotica. But I am definitely not a fan of porn! In fact, I find the stuff uninspiring, un-stimulating, and unfulfilling. I hate it and how it depicts women and defiles men. . . . neither is erotica pornography no matter how much some writers would like to simplistically lump it all together. Porn can rightly be described using the degrading “F” word, or as someone “screwing” someone. Erotica depicts the sacred splendor of sexual activity between a man and a woman, and it can do so in a way that is redemptive and glorifying to God who gave us the gift of sex and designed our bodies to engage in and enjoy it.
So, perhaps we might say, following him, that porn is sex without heart, without larger meaning, without any spiritual or divine connection. Or we might say that porn is sex as a mechanical act, and/or a way to make money for those who control the production (not so much for the sexual actors). Porn is, we might say, a way to degrade women or others who are made into objects.
So what do I think? Porn is indeed in the eye of the beholder. The porn with which I am uncomfortable is whatever is done to make money for the producers without being sure the actors and the crew are well compensated (including for the actors at least some sort of royalty system). It is not the sex but the economics that make it porn.
I don’t think individuals or couples or groups who take pictures of themselves to share, to give away, make porn. Sexting is not porn. Posting your naked picture or your video masturbating on the internet is not porn.
Personally, I don’t really have the guts to do it, but I admit I get turned on by the idea. I did write a piece about nudism for a blog (“A Naked Wholeness” at Jonathan’s Circle and I offered to let them use a full-frontal nude picture of me—the only one I have ever had taken—but the owner declined saying they did not use “explicit” pictures. I was very excited by the idea of my picture appearing (and there is a more chaste version of the photo with my post.
Finally, back to those pictures of small cocks I looked at on the internet. Some of them were professional models and actors in commercial sex films. Most were ordinary men. It depended on the site. Not one of the sites charged money to view the pictures or even the videos (often excerpts from commercial fare, but also often just an ordinary guy or more than one).
What I did realize is that what started out as a curative for me could become a habit. I realize there were days when I looked more than once. There were also whole stretches of time when I did not look. I hesitate to say I feared an addiction, although I am aware that some claim that about themselves and/or others.
But because of a special event at my church this weekend, some of us are fasting—food, fast food, alcohol, sex, overworking, etc. I have chosen to fast from looking at pictures of naked men with small or small-ish, or even larger, penises. In fact, I deleted the links so as to make a stronger commitment, and I have decided to not look for a longer than this week. I am thinking forever.
After all, the small cock I really like is mine. I don’t need to go on the internet for that. And if I want to see a bigger one, well . . . . I can stay home. And if I want to see more of them, of whatever size, I can go to a nudist gathering.
And the good news is that it will be more than me and my PC and screen.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
How do you feel about pornography? Do you see a difference from it and erotica? Do you utilize porn as part of your life, or have you at some other time ? Do you feel addicted to porn, or do you know, or suspect you know, someone else who is? Is a naked body a sign of sex for you? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us THURSDAY, October 20th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online: Session 3, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity: Part 3” from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. Although not required, we encourage participants to read Sex as a Spiritual Exercise to mentally prepare for this discussion. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Workshop description: In this session, Robin and Malachi continue to lay out some historical context of sex within Western Christianity, exploring how a faith whose origin rests on incarnation has become known for a deep anti-body and anti-sex bias. In this session, we will move beyond early church fathers and what might be called the social construction of early Christianity to later medieval and Reformation eras, and perhaps into more modern times. There will be time for questions and discussion as well.