Sex and theology

Sex and theology August 12, 2012

One of the massive and ongoing projects in Christian theology is the filtering out of all the Neo-Platonism we’ve been ingesting ever since St. Augustine spiked the punch bowl with that stuff.

Intrepid blogger Dianna Anderson tackles a smaller, but similar project — trying to explain to American evangelicals that C.S. Lewis’ pervasive Platonism isn’t from the Bible. (As Lewis’ own character, Prof. Digory Kirke, put it: “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”)

Part 1: “C.S. Lewis and American Protestants

Part 2: “The Forms of Shadows

Part 3: “Mistakes in the Shadowlands

This is a smart and helpful series of posts, including a sharp exploration of how Lewis’ embrace of Plato’s ideas has, like Augustine’s NeoPlatonism, led to some Christians having some strange and extra-Christian notions about sex.

* * * * * * * * *

Speaking of strange notions of sex and problematic theology … Darrel Dow of Stuff Fundies Like takes another look at the most recent sex scandal at Hyles-Anderson College. The unaccredited fundamentalist Bible College in Indiana, Dow writes, has been home to a series of “Isolated Incidents (Completely Unrelated to All the Others Just Like It).”

While the folks over at Hammond are still feigning shock that one of their own would be guilty of a “sexual indiscretion,” I though it might be a good time to look back at the last few years and observe some of the other infamous offenders from this church and school. This is not an exhaustive list and do keep in mind that these are only representative of the ones who have been caught.

And then he lists a dozen examples of predatory and criminal sexual behavior by people in leadership at the college and its related mega-church, First Baptist Church of Hammond, all within the last 20 years.

This appalling, astonishing list raises a chicken-and-egg question about Hammond/Hyles-Anderson and its aggressively patriarchal, authoritarian theology. Specifically: Is that theology simply the product of all the sexual predators who have served in the leadership there? Or did they become sexual predators due to that theology?

The answer, I think, is “Yes.”

* * * * * * * * *

Nevermind the Bricolage has been blogging through a short class on theology and popular music, wrapping up with a discussion of some recent works by Flo Rida and Niki Minaj.

This led to a fairly lengthy conversation about how we might think theologically about sexuality in light of what had been expressed in terms of the overt sexual stuff we had watched. I began with an invitation for the class to offer up some theological views about sex and sexuality — what we might garner from the theological tradition, from scripture, about how we should look at sexuality. There were a few ideas here and there, but it became apparent very quickly that there was very little sense of a comprehensive theology of sexuality — which is a bit ironic given how much time and energy it seems that churches and the like spend on rattling on about sex morality etc. It was actually a very good discussion once we came to terms with the lack and thought about how important it might be to think these issues through and develop some theological shape and not try to fudge and proof-text our way forward.

That lack of any comprehensive — or coherent — theology of sexuality is a bit ironic, isn’t it?

It’s also a bit ironic that if I want to see the clearest articulation of what most evangelicals have instead of a theology of sexuality, or instead of sexual ethics, I have to turn to a blogger here in Patheos’ atheist channel. Libby Anne’s “tale of two boxes” at Love, Joy, Feminism does a terrific job of spelling out the clumsy approach that American evangelicals have been employing in lieu of such an ethic or theology.

When “forbidden” and “not forbidden” are the starting point of your ethics, rather than the conclusion, then you’re bound to be confused.

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  • Jeremy McLellan

    But…but…John Milbank says Christianity only makes sense within a Neo-Platonic framework! 

  • It [this world] is the ideal – just a broken one.

    Wait… what?

  • Your response is glib, but not particularly helpful.

    Diana’s statement seems pretty clear to me. Are you having trouble understanding what she said, or do you disagree with it? 

  • I didn’t know an honest question could be “glib”. I have not got the first clue what she could possibly mean.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Don’t feel bad. You’re not the only one confused. 

    I think she means that the world is *supposed* to be broken? And this is ideal because people are broken and imperfect? 

  • AnonymousSam

    It’s all perfect and flawed.
    If it were perfect, then it would be even more flawed.

  • I think she means the world was created in an ideal state but then broke. Like you might have made a beautiful vase, the ideal one of its kind and then dropped it on the floor. It would be broken, but that doesn’t mean it was flawed to start with (unless, of course, it was supposed to be unbreakable).

  • caryjamesbond

    I think that they’re going for something like Leonard Cohen:

    Ring the bells that still can ring 
    Forget your perfect offering 
    There is a crack in everything 
    That’s how the light gets in. “

  • friendly reader

    the Neo-Platonism we’ve been ingesting ever since St. Augustine spiked the punch bowl with that stuff.

    No, Neo-Platonism in Christianity goes back much further than Augustine; bear in mind he learned it from Bishop Ambrose, because it was pretty standard already by then. The entire Alexandrian school of theology is heavily Neo-Platonist, as is the Eastern Orthodox church (which doesn’t care much for Augustine). This is, in part, because Neo-Platonism was the most Christian-compatible Greek philosophy of the time.

    None of this is to say that we shouldn’t question how wed we are to it, I’m just saying don’t dump this all on Augustine.

  • friendly reader

    You’re using the wrong definition of “ideal.” Ideal can mean “perfect,” but in Platonism it means more like “archetypal.”

    She’s talking about the Platonic world of ideas vs world of forms. The word “ideal” comes from “idea,” and Platonism is a form of philosophical idealism. The idea is that there is the perfect, real world of which ours is only a flawed reflection.

    She’s saying there isn’t a parallel version of this world that is the perfect version of this one. This is the real one, the archetypal one, it’s just not yet perfected.

  • LoneWolf343

     It’s called Leibnezian Optimism.

  • Wingedwyrm

    It occurs to me that conservative Christian sexual ethics is the practice of a society shooting itself in the foot.
    All the talk about sexual purity is less talk of keeping one’s body/soul clean and more talk of keeping oneself controllable.  The call to teenagers to save themselves, to keep themselves pure, is actually a call for them to “follow the rules”.  The rules are of all importance.  And the purest are those most under the control of these special and archaic rules.  Those most lauded are those who most submit to a set of ill-explained, ill-reasoned, in many points completely arbitrary rules.
    But, telling this all to a group of teenagers who all have a biology that is instructing them to take control, to fight for leaderhsip, to seperate themselves from previous authority figures and establish who they are as people effectively delivers them a bad message.  “If you want to control your own lives, break the rules.”
    They might as well be singing psalms to encourage kids to have sex and do drugs.

    May have been a touch off topic, but it’s something I’ve been thinking on.

  • MaryKaye

    I’m not sure I agree with Libby Anne that the “two boxes” for liberals are consensual and non-consensual.  That’s a reasonable starting point but I think there are plenty of complications.  Who gets to give consent, to start with?  Only the people having sex, or also people in significant relationships with them?  (I think many liberals regard marital infidelity as wrong, though not in the same degree as rape.)  Also, what about sexual relationships that are consensual but mutually harmful in some way?  And the consensuality or otherwise, and licitness or otherwise, of prostitution and pornography are of course well-known flashpoints among liberals–we are far from in agreement there.

    I also can’t rid myself of the feeling that for a lot of conservatives all sex is really in the “not okay” box, with a grudging exception made for procreative marital sex–still not seen as a good thing in itself, only as a means to an end.  You see this in, for example, the tirades against marital oral or anal sex.  Why shouldn’t people do that, if it’s licit for them to have sex?  One gets the impression that it really isn’t licit for them to have sex–only to procreate, with sex as an unfortunate means to that end.

    But yes, there’s a yawning chasm between “this is wrong because of its results/because it violates moral principles” and “this is wrong because God said so.”

  • arcseconds

    Dammit, Fred, Christian theology is neoplatonism!

    It got you the trinity and the Gospel of John  (‘In the beginning was the Logos’ is pure neoplatonism) took you away from a tribal sky-god, and helped immensely with the initial marketing amongst the educated classes. 

    There’s no gratitude…

    (*shakes head sadly*)

  • friendly reader

    Intriguingly, one of the earlier attempts to meld the Platonic notion in the ideal/archetypal world into Hebrew thought was to look at Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”) and treat that as a complete action – God creates the universe, but it’s the universe of ideas that exists in the Divine Mind. Then God gets busy making the real world based on the  plan he has in his head. For the best image of this in Christian fantasy, see not Lewis but Tolkien’s Ainulindalë, which is a rather rich piece full of questions on free will vs. divine plan, participatory creation, etc.

    It is amazing when people who hate all things High Anglican cite Lewis, who was only a few steps away from his best friend’s Catholicism.

    I guess one last note, if there is something I’d like to keep from Platonism, it’s the idea that evil is the absence of good rather than a Thing in itself. Augustine was especially fond of this idea after his long sojourn in Manicheanism. There can’t be a true Devil in a Platonist perspective, because reality isn’t a spectrum with two absolute poles of Good and Evil. Everything is radially connected to the One Good, and evil is simply distance from that Good. As such, nothing is ever completely beyond the reach of the Good, which is why, I think, Lewis had to embrace a kind of potential universalism. This emphasis on “everything is rooted in One Good” is why Christians felt a strong report with Neo-Platonism, though the philosophy itself has perhaps more similarities to monist versions of Hinduism.

  • connorboone

    WRT marital fidelity – that’s actually an easy one.  It’s about keeping promises – If you promise to your partner that you won’t seek a partner outside your marriage, you should keep that promise.  Breaking a promise is a Bad Thing, but nowhere near as bad as, say, assaulting someone.

    On the other hand, if your promise of marriage is one that is open, well, you’re not breaking that promise unless you’re dishonest about it.  The point is that fully informed consenting adults should be able to enter into whatever sort of relationship they want.

    My view on pornography and prostitution as a liberal (and I certainly don’t claim to speak for the entire left) is that they are not bad things in and of themselves, but the way they happen most often in our society is exploitative and coercive – things that sex should never be.  If we can change things to make sure that those involved are not denied their agency, their boundaries are respected, their consent made paramount, well… that’s the way it always should have been.

    (As an aside, I am reminded of an article I read about a documentary I have not seen – following a single mother as she started into a life of pornography at the studio of a real sleazebag, where she was being urged to do things she did not want to do.  The documentarians apparently stopped their cameras, because they refused to be complicit in her rape.  That’s bad and not how things ought to be.)

  • Lori

    For fairly obvious reasons I have no real opinion on the influence of Plato on Christian theology. I would like for someone to explain to me why parents keep taking their children to First Baptist Church of Hammond, IN or sending them to schools that employ Hyles-Anderson graduates. It’s like sending your kid for a sleep-over at Michael Jackson’s house. It might be OK, but does a responsible parent bet his or her child’s life on it? I think not. 

  • arcseconds

    I also can’t rid myself of the feeling that for a lot of conservatives
    all sex is really in the “not okay” box, with a grudging exception made
    for procreative marital sex–still not seen as a good thing in itself,
    only as a means to an end.

    “I praise wedlock, I praise marital union, but only because they produce me virgins.” – St. Jerome

    The pagan neoplatonists were anti-sex (and more generally anti-body), but they were also elitists who believed in reincarnation.  Chastity is the way of the philosopher, but not the ordinary people (at least, that’s the way I’ve heard it).    This attitude seems to have become something pathological amongst the early Christians, who combined it with manicheanism (real evil!), a one-time-around view of mortal life, and a populist religion.

    However,  it doesn’t seem all that uncommon for human societies to be fine with sex, but only in the right way and with the right people.   I don’t know how much contemporary protestant attitudes to sex are really to do with neoplatonism or to do with a more general tendency for human beings to want to imbue this area of human life with strict norms.

    (Catholicism, however, certainly remains strongly influenced by neoplatonism)

  • I’m a liberal Christian, so I get *three* boxes (and aren’t you atheists and conservatives jealous!):
    Things that are okay for me to do– not forbidden by God and doing no harm to others
    Things that are not okay for anyone to do– things that harm others (here’s the rape-and-bestiality-and-pedophilia box)
    Things that I believe to be immoral and will not do but which I believe the state should not legally prevent others from doing (here is the incest box, the sneaking around behind your spouse’s back box, the being a pickup artist box)

    Of course nobody has to agree with me on the contents of each box, but I really wish a lot of the US electorate would internalize the difference between “things I believe are immoral” and “things the state should prohibit and prosecute.”

  • For this particular liberal, it’s “safe, sane, and consensual.” And so long as there’s consent, except for extreme cases that are blatantly, objectively unsafe, I keep my mouth shut except when blowing off steam with good friends.

    Sexual relationships that are consensual — really truly consensual, i.e. no manipulation or lying — and that are still somehow harmful to the people involved, are not my business unless those people are in my personal sphere or claim their relationship is the best and/or only way to do things. If strangers want to be in a relationship that I think is harmful psychologically, and they don’t hurt children or other people over whom they have power, that’s their right. 

    There have been too many judgments about what is and is not harmful sexually over the millennia that have nothing whatsoever to do with the well-being of the people involved (especially women) for me to feel I’m special enough to get it right when most of humanity has gotten it mostly wrong mostly always and everywhere. I can and will go to the mat for consent. Anything else gets iffy. And since consent is still a radical idea and honored so little, I’ll spend my energy there.

    I don’t have to like the way people have sex to defend their right to do it. A lot of things people choose to do sexually would be harmful to me if I did them, but are healthy for them, and vice versa. 

  • Turcano

    I have to admit, when I read the title “A Tale of Two Boxes” my mind went in a different and dirtier direction.

    On the topic of sex and Platonism, Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in “Of Wasps and WASPs” that the main reason Alfred Kinsey’s work was so revolutionary and troubling to many was due to his refusal to treat sexual behavior in Platonic terms.  (He took the same tack with regard to species, hence the “wasps” part of the title.)

  • Lori


    I don’t have to like the way people have sex to defend their right to do it. 

    This is very true, and also often difficult to implement even when one really believes it. Our culture trains us to be so judgey about sex that it can sometimes take real effort to separate “makes me extremely uncomfortable” from “not OK”.

    For myself I’ve found that when I encounter something sexual that pushes my “Oh hell no” button* the best response is often to just stop looking.

    *The list of things I’ve encountered that push that button isn’t all that long, but it happens. Far more things push the “so not into that” button, which is no problem to deal with.

  • ako

    I think the consensual versus non-consensual thing is definitely a simplification, but is a good starting point.  I put a high value on honesty, bodily autonomy, and consideration for the well-being of others (so, for instance, cheating is bad because it involves lying, breaking promises, inflicting emotional harm, and potentially putting the cheated-on partner at risk of physical harm they aren’t aware of and can’t protect themselves against).  But if I had to pick one value to start with, I’d put consent at the top of the list.

    Similarly, I took the God-box as a simplification.  I’m far from expert on theology, but I’ve picked up enough that it’s not a simple and straightforward case of “Follow the rules written in the Bible, end of story”, even for people who claim to take that approach.  (And it’s a good thing it isn’t, because the literal interpretation of what the Bible says about rape is horrifying.)

    Still, I quite like the piece because it captures the weird alien feeling I sometimes get in these conversations about sexual ethics, where stuff that’s obviously completely different from my perspective gets lumped in together, things that seem harmless (or positively good) from my perspective are treated as bad and wrong, and things I see as really, obviously, appallingly wrong gets shrugged off with a depressingly weak “Well, that’s not good but…” response.

  • arcseconds

    I’m not sure I entirely understand where Anderson (and for that matter, Fred) are coming from with this objection to neoplatonism, and to Lewis.

    Platonism and neoplatonism have gone hand and hand with Christianity ever since John , if not Paul.  It’s fundamental to traditional Christian theology. 

    C.S. Lewis has, I think, a bit of an idiosyncratic metaphysics, and takes platonism to an extreme.   But he’s got plenty of company in the Christian neoplatonist wing of theology (and of course there were pagan and Islamic neoplatonists, too, so a time machine could get you a neoplatonist interfaith congress).    So I don’t see him as being all that far from a long-standing thread of the traditional mainstream.

    Now, sure, Anderson’s obviously got a much more immanent theology.   But what’s going on here apart from “I’ve got my favoured theology, and you’ve got yours” ?  (not that I mind too much if that’s all there is, but Anderson is talking as if there’s more to it than that).

    The only real argument I see here is that it isn’t biblical. 

    OK, so sure, the Bible doesn’t mandate neoplatonism.    Is that enough to reject it?  What’s the principle to be here? Theology is to stick strictly with what is found in the Bible and nothing else?

    I’m not sure they realise how radical this is – and if they do, they’re not mentioning it.    It’s a good deal more radical than anything Lewis ever said, even though Anderson is trying to paint him as an alien figure to modern protestantism.

    The Trinity, surely, has to go.  And that’s just for starters.

    (I was joking about this before, but that doesn’t stop it being true.)

     (I’d be impressed if anyone could extract a coherent bible-only theology, actually, there’s simply not enough explicit theology in there, and what is there doesn’t present a consistent picture. So basically, I think any theologian is going to end up in Lewis’s position of introducing a lot of extra-biblical material).

  • It’s funny I have those two boxes (consent vs non-consent) now but even when I thought that homosexuality was wrong I never equated it with rape or paedophilia.

    Looking back I think it’s because I had three boxes. Box one was taboos (which had a sub-label of ‘most religions and even some secular groups have examples of these and they never make sense to outsiders so don’t even try’), Box two was things that are blatently obviously wrong because they are non-consensual or hurt other people (covert adultery was here because even though the persons having sex are consenting it’s a betrayel of the partner (or partners)) and Box three was “Permitted Stuff”.

    And the purity taboo vs things which hurt other people distinction led to me being pro secular marriage equality (once I got over thinking “secular marriage should just be abolished because what about unmarried couples who didn’t want to get married’s rights” anyway) and similar at the same time as I though homosexuality was immoral because purity taboos had no business being enforced on people who weren’t believers and denying people their inheritance rights is a method of enforcement. (I have a pretty counter-ideological view of marriage).

    As a side-note I did find that articulating this position tended to bring debates to a crashing halt not because it was a “because it says so” argument, but because I used to use the JW ban on blood transfusions and the Morman ban on tea and coffee as examples of other religious taboos that had no place being legally sanctioned which left both sides flailing around because I’d just compared consensual sex to drinking tea*. (I used them as examples because they were generally things people in the debate didn’t think were wrong and were therefore good examples of how nonsensical taboos look from the outside).

    Of course I eventually realised that there’s no reason to think the taboo is real and that led to a change of mind.


    *Obviously not a great analogy because tea drinking is a choice and sexuality isn’t but it served in context.

  • Tonio

    While I don’t pretend to understand why both consent and purity is are oversimplications, I do sense that the progressive view is about consequentialism as applied to interpersonal relations. Or as you put it, consideration for the well-being of others. The focus on purity seems like a type of self-absorption, which fits well with authoritarianism because the latter is about one’s relationship with authority.

  • AndrewSshi

     Exactly.  It’s not just the neo-Platonism–the erotophobia of the early Church has deep, deep roots.  Indeed, the reason that Augie had such a struggle with converting is that he felt that if he were to become a Christian, he couldn’t just be a married and monogamous man, but that he’d rather need to be one of the Best Possible Christians, i.e. a celibate.

  • Isabel C.

    Basically, this.

    I also have the caveat that keeping a promise is not always paramount.  Most of the time, yes–and my advice would be to negotiate an arrangement or to leave in ninety percent of cases–but I can see the view that sometimes people look the other way, sometimes a bit on the side enables a marriage to function, and, y’know, ultimately that’s between the two people involved, and not my business.

    On sex work: sometimes it is, indeed, exploitative and horrible. Sometimes it’s not. Either way, legalization and less social stigma would probably help a lot. 
    I read a blog post by Linda Holmes recently where she was talking about stripping and said that what bugs her was something like “…most people don’t take this job if they have other economic options.” Which is true, but you can say the same thing about the guy working at McDonald’s, and nobody calls you a bad person for buying the occasional Big Mac.

  • Lori


    The Trinity, surely, has to go.  And that’s just for starters.  

    As well it should, because it makes no sense.

  • I’m in the “safe, sane, and consensual” camp, meaning all three need to be present for something to be “OK”.

    Infidelity with a third party? Violates the ‘safety’ clause between the committed pair, not only exposing the monogamous partner to potential STIs, but also damaging the emotional safety of the monogamous partner by violating the promises of fidelity. 

    Pornography? Consent is not quite as easy to evaluate when you factor the influence of money and business; the liberal standard for consent requires that it be both fully informed and free of undue coercion. Pornography does a decent job with the first*, especially with STI screenings, but the second is less clear. One reason I have always opposed the “Girls Gone Wild” genre is that it largely relies on women who are to some degree intoxicated and thus may or may not be giving informed consent. 

    Sex work? Again, those conditions for consent (fully informed, free from coercion) get really tricky when we’re talking about money and business. The illegal nature of the work creates serious barriers to safety**, and while some type of legalization and regulation might help that, it’s going to be murky.

    *There are several niches of pornography where informed consent is questionable. The “Voyeur” or “Hidden Camera” genre is built on the premise of non-consent (or consent only obtained after filming) while the BDSM genre involves a lot of trappings that make consent difficult to verify as an outsider. 

    **There is (at least in America) a certain cultural bias favoring extra-legal ‘punishments’ for illegal activity as a good thing, and necessary for systems to function. Prison rape, for example, is viewed as an ‘undocumented feature’ of the penal system, rather than a gross and flagrant violation of human rights. In a similar vein, by keeping sex work illegal, sex workers are at risk of exploitation and abuse; this is seen as an ‘appropriate’ check against the practice of illegal sex work. 

  • WhiteBirch

    Not to the same degree they do if you patronize prostitutes, no. But there is a pretty vicious strand of food-policing in our culture, and plenty of people will call you bad, stupid, or irresponsible for eating in a way they don’t like.

  • I read a blog post by Linda Holmes recently where she was talking about stripping and said that what bugs her was something like “…most people don’t take this job if they have other economic options.” Which is true

    Actually it’s not. Stripping pays really, really well. I guess that could be seen as being trapped because other careers that don’t require degrees don’t pay as well, but I don’t really buy it.

    Also that ignores the fact that many women actually enjoy being sex workers. There’s a lot of sexism in the idea that a woman can’t like being paid to do sexual things with lots of different men. (One of my friendly acquaintances once said, “I just got 3 hours of massage and oral sex and I was paid for it. I love my life.”) I hope our society can someday come to Beta Colony’s ideas about sex work: it’s a personal service, not something demeaning and terrible, and most definitely not something that should be outlawed.

  • All porn is not created equal. Opposition to all porn, sticking Girls Gone Wild with Tristan Taormino’s stuff, does no good and is actually harmful. I see it as like sticking Transformers 2 with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Twilight with Cordelia’s Honor. People used to condemn all movies, and before that, all novels, the same way they now condemn all porn. 

    As for legalization “might help,” it will help. I know this because sex workers tell me so. They are the people who have the best chance of seeing who’s being exploited and informing the authorities, but they can’t inform the authorities because they’ll get arrested, and they probably won’t be listened to anyway because they’re seen as icky stupid immoral whores. Abuse of sex workers is so rampant because they cannot go to the authorities because their jobs are illegal, and because their work is not seen as legitimate. 

    The only way to figure out how to help people is to ask those people. Condemnation of sex work is mostly outside-looking-in, with anti-porn crusaders doing things like writing and speaking as if we are all supposed to understand that a man penetrating a woman anally is inherently demeaning and horrible for the woman. It is precisely the same garbage so many Victorian do-gooders perpetrated, trying to save people from themselves, thinking they know better than the people they’re trying to save.  

  • Isabel C.

    Ah, good.  I agree with you in principle, but didn’t have the financials to back it up. 

    I know for myself, I’ve worked both food service and the adult-modeling version of porn, and if I had to pick one or the other today, I’d go with porn in a heartbeat. And while the state of prostitution in the US causes me some concerns about safety*,  if it was better-regulated and the choice was between it and retail…well, for rent I could deal with one asshole or fifty, you know? ;)*And also I suck at acting. 

  • Isabel C.

    True, yeah. Not usually for how the company treats its workers, though. 

  • All porn is not created equal. Opposition to all porn, sticking Girls Gone Wild with Tristan Taormino’s stuff, does no good and is actually harmful

    Word. This is part of why I so despise Professional Liar Gail Dines and other such anti-porn crusaders who try to convince people that all porn is Max Hardcore and that any woman working in porn is incapable of giving consent.

  • Tonio

    The most common feminist argument that I hear against porn is that it degrades women. That’s a difficult argument to refute, just as it’s difficult to refute the argument that the viewers (whatever gender they are) are objectifying the participants (whatever gender they are.) I suspect that the exploitation in the porn industry is not inherent to the medium but is the product of the power imbalance between the genders. Is porn that caters to straight women considered less degrading to men because our society doesn’t place limits on male sexuality? What would porn be like in a world where there was no such imbalance and men weren’t socialized with a sense of entitlement? Would the Girls Gone Wild approach be replaced with something more egalitarian?

  • Tonio

    “society doesn’t place limits on male sexuality” – And before anyone brings up homosexuality, I see homophobia as a variant of sexism. Both are about enforcing gender norms to preserve male privilege.

  • Isabel C.

    No, it’s a perfectly easy argument to refute. 

    “All porn? Really? So any expression of sexuality is degrading, then?” and go from there.*

    Re: objectification: “And how much do you know or care about [attractive TV star]? How much do you know or care about the guy who serves your coffee? Or the CEO of your company?” And…go from there.

    *Some porn *does* degrade women. Sometimes that’s explicitly the point, and that’s kink; sometimes that’s Girls Gone Wild and is deeply problematic. But generalizations don’t help anyone. 

  • Isabel C.

    Also, re: porn directed at women v. men: per True Porn Clerk Diaries,  some of what’s aimed at “mainstream” straight men does have a lot of unexamined hostility toward women, and that’s creepy and not okay. That said, there’s a demand-supply reinforcement loop going on here;  the industry wouldn’t make that stuff if men didn’t buy it, which they probably (hopefully) wouldn’t do if society (including the porn industry) didn’t reinforce certain images, and so forth.

    That’s worth examining. But it’s worth examining in a nuanced, context-aware way rather than condemning all porn ever, which just convinces people that you can’t tell the difference between a camgirl working for herself, an issue of Penthouse, and the Animal Trainer series. (Do not Google that.) Which, in turn, just convinces people that you’re not too bright. 

  • Tonio

    I agree that generalizations are unhelpful, and your refutations are good starting points. The chief reason porn bothers me is that it generally seems solipsistic like “the world is your sexual oyster,” sort of like this Cracked video

    Regarding specific types that you mentioned, a fantasy where one gets to degrade another person doesn’t seem healthy to me, partly because it rejects the the concept of consent, and partly because men too often exploit the gender power imbalance to exploit women. And to a lesser extent,  the Bunny Ranch type of fantasy where everything is about the man also seems unhealthy. Both of these seem like fantasies not about sex but about power and entitlement, like the men are dissatisfied with the nagging tendency of real-life women to think for themselves and not base their lives on what men want. 

    And I’ll gladly throw myself under the bus when it comes to fantasies. My own is the classic unrequited scenario with a happy ending, and I know damn well that comes from my own unhealthy need for approval.

    Now, if a woman had a fantasy where she had power over unwilling men or where hordes of men catered to her desires, that might still be unhealthy but less so, because they’re generally not in a position to degrade men in real life.

  • Tonio

    I meant “partly because men too often exploit the gender power imbalance to mistreat women in real life.”

  • Isabel C.

    Warning: Extreme sexual practices. 

    Here’s the thing about sexual fantasies: they are what they are.  Many of them *wouldn’t* play out very well in real life–you get everything from public sex to rape to scat to a website I saw once involving, for serious, *leeches*, I don’t even–and many of them are none too palatable to those who don’t share your wiring.* As long as you keep those two things firmly in mind, and act accordingly, fantasizing doesn’t hurt anyone. Furthermore, there’s a fair amount of evidence that, by the time you’re an adult, your sexuality is pretty set: what turns you on turns you on, and flagellating yourself about it does way more harm than good** and doesn’t actually impress anyone with your sensitivity and enlightenment. 
    The chief reason porn bothers me is that it generally seems solipsistic like “the world is your sexual oyster,” sort of like this Cracked video.  

    Right, well: again, fantasy. 

    Most fantasy (in the daydream sense, not the genre sense) *is* solipsistic.  You’re the hero, you save the world, Aragorn is your best friend, you play guitar just like ringing a bell, you punch your boss and everyone applauds, you have a million dollars and the Batmobile, and all the chicks want to fuck you senseless.  Vary the details according to taste.

    There’s plenty of media that caters to this in one way or another, and by no means is most of it porn: a lot of video games are based on the first two premises, a lot of movies and books and TV shows on the latter three, and a fair amount of everything on the last. ***

    And I think adults can, by and large, tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Arguments that start by assuming otherwise don’t really pass muster with me. 
    *Even the less extreme ones: if a guy started calling me cutesy-poo pet names during sex, for example, I would a) throw up on him, and b) walk, but I’m sure there are people who dig that. God help them. ;) **Er, unless you’re into that, I guess.
    ***Including romance novels, which get a fair amount of “OMG UNHEALTHY FANTASY” pearl-clutching, because…I don’t know, they’ll result in women refusing to settle for anything less than a vampire pirate who’s actually a Duke, or something.  And yet, despite the popularity of romance novels, the human race continues to perpetuate itself. 

  • Tonio

    Of course adults can generally distinguish fantasy from reality. I don’t think the issue is that simple. The types of fantasies someone has, sexual and otherwise, may reveal something about how the person sees hirself and others. Perhaps many of the men who fantasize that “all the chicks want to fuck them senseless” believe in real life that what women want for themselves is less important than what men want from them, and for them the fantasy may merely be the ultimate expression of that. Many other people might have the potential to become a Lt. Barclay, becoming addicted to fantasy because for them it’s a means to avoid the real world and not occasionally escape from it. At what point does fantasizing become an exercise in ego gratification and self-centeredness? 

  •  You seem to be strting from the assumption that every sexual fantasy should be a microcosm for the fullness of healthy sexual experience. Why should it be wrong if, one day out of the week,  a person indulges in a fantasy that would be exploitative and harmful if actually acted out, and then the rest of the week, had healthy, egalitarian fantasies?

    I get the impression that what you mean to do here is not so much condemn the porn, as to condemn the sort of people you imagine enjoying that sort of porn.

  •  I thought he was a tribal mountain god.

    Now I’m confused.

  • Tonio

    Maybe my real objection is that I know how I would feel if someone had a harmful fantasy about me. (Remember Troi’s reaction to seeing Barclay’s version of her?) I’ve fantasized about women I know and I’ve never felt right about it. Nothing harmful, but I don’t know what I would say to them if they ever found out. Female celebrities probably have it far worse – it must be so comforting to know that their photos are prison currency.