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Discussing the Ethics of Porn in a Post-Christian Culture

This term, I have the honor of teaching college-level speech and ethics at a local trade school. And my ethics class, to be honest, can be a challenge at times. This is because I instruct from a philosophical perspective, which means that I am limited to teaching from two categories: reason and experience.

Certainly, my training at the seminary level had to do with the way of Jesus and how this provides the center of all ethical discourse. For instance, the title of the class I both took and eventually served as a teaching assistant for was called “Discipleship and Ethics.” The title implies that we take up our ethics from the rabbi, namely Jesus.

By no means would I say that religion never comes up in my philosophy of ethics course. Everyone knows I’m a pastor and that each of us comes to the table with various religious perspectives, but I cannot appeal to my faith as my foundation for argument.

This became increasingly clear in a discussion we had on sexuality and pornography recently. Several arguments can be made as to why pornography ought to be limited in a society. Sexual addiction, for instance, is one of these issues. The inherent degradation of women would be another issue, which feminists rightly point out is a reason pornography should be limited. These are two of many pragmatic reasons for setting boundaries around porn that complement a Jesus centered-ethic without having to appeal directly to the Scriptures.

If we were to appeal to Jesus on this matter, He easily renders porn (which ought to be distinguished from merely nude anatomy—for instance, art) outside of a life in a faith community that places God’s character at the center. My view is that porn always removes God from the center, replacing the divine with lustful desires. Porn never glorifies God or embodies what St. Irenaeus proclaimed: “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.” Porn distorts God’s image-bearers, thus misrepresenting our perception of God’s glory.

For obvious reasons, I wish that the previous paragraph could be part of my toolkit in class, but it is not. And clearly, the room was divided on the issue. No one outright said porn was always wrong, but some demonstrated varying degrees of comfort with accessibility to porn.

One student believed porn could be a useful educational tool. His reasoning was that we ought not to make sex a “dirty” thing to our children, so we should expose them to it (responsibly) at a young age. From his perspective, responsible exposure when coupled with education leads to non-predatory, healthy and safe expressions of sex as children grow up into their teens and early adulthood.

On one level, I agree. I hope to be the sort of parent who openly discusses sexuality with my children as something beautifully designed by God as an expression of marital love. Sex is not dirty. On this point, I agree with my student.

The application of how to train up children with a view of sex as something “good” totally diverges on two different paths from this point, though. I asked the student: “Would you be okay with watching porn with a 10-year-old?”

His response? “For the purpose of teaching about sex as something normal and part of life, I would have no problem showing my son pornography.” He went on to say that in doing so, we also need to train them that what happens in porn is fantasy, just like science-fiction films, so that we guide them to know the difference between that and reality. This approach, from his view, would lead to healthy and responsible sexual ethics.

Obviously, I disagreed.

After much discussion on the topic, I brought us back to a previous conversation we had on sexual ethics. The foundational question here was: “What is the proper context for sexual expression?”

I then broke it into categories as follows:

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– Consent between two adults?
– Recreational activity?
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– Love?
– Marriage?

If we believe the top two categories give us the basic context for sexual expression, then using porn for education might (almost) make sense in certain situations. As you watch two paid actors/actresses perform illicit actions, they are both consenting adults doing a recreational activity in order to make money. Porn does not auto-deconstruct an ethical system in which love and/or marriage only apply to the context of sex in some circumstances. This of course, assumes that the sort of pornography being viewed is not a product of sex slavery, prostitution and other non-consenting situations.

What changes the argument, then, is if we believe that sexual expression is supposed to be reserved for the context of love and/or marriage alone. As soon as we move in this direction (which for Christians is always covenantal), it becomes a logical impossibility to observe sex for educational purposes between two parties that do not love each other or, even better, are not committed to one another in the bonds of marriage. Porn always deconstructs love.

Clearly, these categories invite honest reflection about one’s approach to parental guidance when it comes to sex. In parenting, we have to first determine our foundational understanding about the proper place of sex, in order to determine if porn could potentially be utilized responsibly for educational purposes. Perhaps this is why PG has always meant “parental guidance suggested.” Of course, sexual standards continue to stretch beyond the imaginations of previous generations, which is why we are having this discussion in the first place.

For those of us who seek to follow Christ, we remember that the context of healthy sexuality is always in the marriage bed. Jesus says that looking at a woman (the same could be true for a man) lustfully is grounds for adultery. This is because he appealed to an inward virtue ethic that allows our inner life to determine our outward actions. God invites us to allow the Holy Spirit to shape our character to make us look more like Jesus, free from the shackles of longing for someone other than a spouse. Porn never accomplishes this aim in any circumstance.

Collectively, we are the “temple of the Holy Spirit” where God dwells. Whereas the cults of the ancient world facilitated degrading sex-acts in temples devoted to pagan gods, the biblical God abides in a temple preparing to be a bride, unblemished before Christ upon the church’s immanent wedding day in the renewed creation (1 Cor. 6; Eph. 5; Rev. 21). When sexual expression is placed in the biblical context of marriage, we recognize that porn can never be used responsibly because it never points us toward the most beautiful of unions: heaven to earth and God to us.

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