We all remember those awkward “talks” with our parents or those sixth grade reproductive health lectures, but in reality, our primary source for sex ed is not our mom, dad, a local health provider, or our middle school science teacher.
Admittedly, few of us want to hear about sex from our moms, and those sixth grade sexual reproduction lectures were just too weird. So where have we regularly turned to sate our wide-eyed curiosity?
Besides listening in envious shock at the daring escapades of our bolder (and perhaps slightly exaggerating) friends, we’ve turned to a source less awkward than parents and science teachers: Screens.
The expectations of what sex is supposed to look like and sound like are established in our society by way of the entertainment industry.
Less awkward, perhaps, but also less reliable—the steamy footage is not designed to offer us truth on sexual intimacy. Those “love scenes” are carefully choreographed not to educate, but to entertain. Whether we realize it or not, this on-screen footage is nonetheless educational—we are learning about physical intimacy under the tutelage of cinematographers, studio execs, cameramen, paid actors and even pornographers.
For Christians anticipating (or trying to enjoy) marital sex for the long haul, considerable unlearning is required.
So what has our entertainment media been teaching us about sex? There are many lessons we could identify. We will just take a look at three:
Lesson 1: Normal People Don’t Have Sex
For one, the stylized sex downloaded from the Internet or portrayed on the big screen teaches us something about who can have sex. It would be quite understandable if we assumed that sex is primarily for really hot young people. Relational intimacy between the sheets, it would seem, is reserved for people with zero body fat and photo-shopped abs.
This profile rules out most of the planet’s population. If sex is only for sexy people, then most of us are in trouble.
Our entertainment culture has been effective particularly in informing us about the ideal body of female sexual partners. In her oft-quoted article on the effects of pornography, Naomi Wolfe writes that in our current mediascape, “real naked women are just bad porn.”
Lesson 2: Sex Lacks Context
Not only do we learn that normal people do not have sex; we also learn from entertainment media that sex is only suitable for rarified occasions (like after falling suddenly in love from a brief encounter) or for ridiculously unrealistic settings (like an abandoned beach or an airplane bathroom).
For most folks, sex happens in quite normal settings yet within life’s complicated matrix of joys, burdens, and unresolved relational tensions. Real sex has context.
But sex with context does not amass online “hits” or sell many tickets at the box office. Our fantasies create demands cinematographers rush to satisfy, and many of us are fantasizing about decontextualized sex.
This supposedly more epic sex does not come with questions like, “Do you think the kids are asleep?” Decontextualized sex does not take into account the previous discussion in the living room over finances and the grocery list. None of the on-screen partners ever seem to have a headache or a cold. There is no alarm clock to set for the morning.
Lesson 3: Sex is an Ending, not a Beginning
Another lesson to unlearn is that sex is the ultimate end or goal of romance. The plot of many big screen stories is held by sexual tension. Once the two protagonists finally end up clasped together in bed (or in some more exotic location), we can rejoice and the credits can roll. Sex becomes the goal of romance, or, put differently, romance is incomplete until the clothes start flying.
Not all films are this shallow and predictable, of course. And in some recent television, sex is indeed a beginning—that is, if the sex is good, then perhaps romance can then develop. But in many of the mainstream romantic comedies, the aftermath of sex (good or bad) is given little narrative attention.
In real life, sex is a “beginning” much more than an “ending”—the beginning of a deeper relational bond, or maybe the beginning of a life with regrettable relational wounds. Though Christians may eagerly await the wedding night, sex is never the point of the wedding. The marriage is the point. The goal of romance is a lifelong, sacrificial friendship, not sex.
Christianizing Fictional Sex?
There are times when on-screen sex is quite honest about the real thing. Some entertainment artists do strive to depict the multifaceted wonder and beauty of sex, along with its less inspiring realities.
But many of us are being shaped by a mediated vision of unmediated physical intimacy that does not sanction normal sex for normal people amidst the normalcy of life. Though many of us may indeed enjoy epic marital sex at times, we need an understanding of sexual intimacy expansive enough for imperfect bodies, clocks set on alarm, complicated contexts, women who are people rather than objects.
But many Christians seem to be responding to the entertainment media’s portrayal of sex by Christianizing it, at least to some degree. Eager to avoid the label of cultural curmudgeonry and fearful of being regarded as prudish, we can be quick to assert that the world has nothing on us when it comes to enjoying epic sex. Pornography, as the logic goes, will lack power over Christians when we realize we can enjoy epic sex of the kind seen on screen…
…if only our squeamish spouses will repent of their unwarranted sexual inhibitions.
Sex and the Honest Medium of Scripture
Some of our sexual inhibitions are certainly unwarranted. But the Church cannot take its sexual cues from mainstream entertainment media. We have other media to turn to. In a world (and Church) so invested in fictive sex, we need some honesty. And few media sources are as honest about sex than Scripture.
Proposing the Bible as a reliable source for understanding sex today may seem archaic and backwards. Understandably, women might especially cringe at the proposal that ancient texts from a patriarchal society might have something to say about their sex lives.
Then again, is Christian Grey much of an improvement on Solomon?
The sexual oppression of females is not just an ancient custom. It is a mainstream component of today’s entertainment media—porn’s brutal dehumanizing of women keeps surfacing in pop cultural outlets. E.L. James, the author of Fifty Shades of Grey, has signed a movie contract.
In spite of the male-dominated milieus of antiquity, those old texts of Scripture include erotic literature promoting mutuality among both partners (Song of Songs). Even Paul, a passionate lover of his singleness, told the promiscuous Corinthians that women possess authority over their husbands bodies (1 Corinthians 7:4), as well as vice versa—a radical idea in first century Greco-Roman culture!
What I most appreciate about the Bible’s depiction of sex is the stark honesty. Since our Scriptures are not beholden to profit margins, viewer ratings or online hits, there is no interest in catering to unrealistic sexual fantasies. It offers, rather, a vision of sex that is sober, practical and yet hopeful.
Is sex beautiful, fun, and worthy of celebration? Yes. Is it powerful and freighted with potential for consequences good and bad? Yes. Is it emblematic of wondrous theological realities? Yes.
The Christian Scriptures are not going to answer all our questions about you-know-what. But they offer us more honest media on sex than our entertainers.
Adapted in part from Andrew’s recent book, TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age (Cascade Books, 2013).
Andrew Byers serves as chaplain at St. Mary's College, Durham. He is the author of TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age and Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint. He blogs at hopefulrealism.com.