Sex Obsession: Pornography and Purity Cultures

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It might seem that pornography and purity cultures are polar opposites. One provides instant gratification for sexual appetites whereas the other promotes abstinence and encourages young people to ‘save’ themselves for marriage. However, while pornography does accomplish its short-term aims, purity cultures often fail at their intended goals.

Purity cultures, a product of Protestant fundamentalism, arose in reaction to the promiscuity of mainstream America in the 1960s and as an effort to protect the next generation. It is fueled by the regrets of some who, like Augustine, indulged in fornication themselves and is also promoted by others who were just plain fearful of outside influence. However, as with most fear-based reactions, purity culture has created as many problems as it has solved. The promise of the ‘right’ one being the reward to those who most carefully adhere to its teaching has often only led to long-term dissatisfaction.

This purity teaching, especially when introduced to the already reserved conservative Mennonite culture, has made the threshold for entering a dating relationship nearly impossible for some. It has led to paralysis for the most conscientious and added unnecessary difficulties for all but the boldest and superficially attractive. Worse, while this reactionary movement has not delivered as promised to those who most fearfully adhered to the expectations, it has done absolutely nothing to stop those said “boldest and superficially attractive” from gratifying themselves outside of a marital commitment. So the net gain is more guilt for those who already have too much guilt and increased the hardness of hearts for those who are already predisposed to do as they please.

Purity culture fails because it does not provide any real help or practical solutions to those who desire a healthy relationship and, sadly, is too often as (or more) carnally focused on carnal pleasures as the carnal-minded are themselves. Purity culture never transcends or brings us closer to holiness and, sadly, ends up often leads many young people right into pornography addiction and a self-defeating cycle of shame. Pornography use is as prevalent in these fundamentalist purity cultures (albeit almost never confessed openly for fear of the social stigma) as anywhere else.

This obsession with physical purity and on female virginity, in particular, paired with the dogmatic emphasis on female modesty, has had some terrible unintended consequences. Consequences which are all but ignored by fundamentalist leaders who think that their doubling down on preaching condemnation will someday change hearts.

Here are some observations about the similarities between pornography and purity cultures:

Two Sides of the Sex Obsession Coin

Sex, in the right context, is a wonderful thing and not something to ever be ashamed about. Unfortunately, sex is also something that can be twisted into a harmful obsession.

It is fairly obvious how pornography is degrading and a destructive habit. However, what is not so understood is how purity culture mirrors this obsession. The first notable similarity between pornography and purity cultures is that both represent an unhealthy fixation with sex and physical bodies. Both undermine us spiritually, objectify women and pervert our interactions:

  • Pornography and purity cultures both objectify women. The biggest irony of purity culture is that it is as obsessed with sex as the mainstream culture it decries as sinful. Yes, purity culture is in opposition to sexual promiscuity, but it is also as objectifying as pornography in that it places a woman’s value in her virginity and also spends an inordinate amount of time in discussion of the female physical form. I can still recall the men’s meetings about things like the so-called “peekaboo effect” pertaining to slit skirts (below the knees) and also hearing how some men claimed a woman’s exposed elbow somehow resembled a nipple and thus needed to be covered. To anyone outside of a purity culture, this sort of talk is perverted and ridiculous. It is little wonder why women in these cultures feel especially objectified and are often extremely distrusting or weirded out by men.
  • Pornography and purity culture pervert interactions between genders. This is the most insidious similarity between the two and the one that is most frustrating to me. There’s a picture of me on the beach, as a toddler, holding hands with a female cousin—our touch was friendly, completely non-sexual and entirely appropriate. But somehow, by the time I reached my teenage years, many young women were convinced that a mere conversation with a young man was a risk of defilement. This fear, sadly, is what became of the coffee date offer made in response to one of my blogs, the young woman who made the offer backtracked, and—while we did meet in the most awkward of settings—it was another bitter reminder of how perverted purity cultures have made male and female interactions. Rather than have a good time getting to know one another, as would be appropriate, we instead waded through topics of defilement and “guarding hearts” and her predetermined lack of interest in getting to know me. I don’t blame her for this nor the dozen other Mennonite girls before her who treated me more like a rabid dog than a Christian brother. It is what she was taught and it is also something she likely caught by seeing men constantly talk about her body as being this irresistible object. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the female form is beautiful to me. But I’ve gone on many friendly dates with non-Mennonite women, even studied alone with them, and never once did we engage in sexual conversation or behavior. A good man sees a woman as more than an object, not all physical interaction is sexual, but both pornography and purity cultures pervert our interactions, make everything about sex and make it much more difficult for healthy relationships to develop between genders.
  • Pornography and purity cultures feed guilt without providing effective long-term solutions. Sin needs to be called out. That said, guilt-tripping a person stuck in a sex addiction is not going to stop them and, if anything, will simply keep them from speaking openly about their struggle with sin for fear of being stigmatized. Those mired in shame do not need more sermons, they need practical solutions. Feeding guilt may provide gratification for purity culture preachers, but does little more than the pornography itself to helping those who already feel shame yet are caught in a vicious cycle and defeated. Rather than obsess on sex and sin, we would be better to focus on holiness and fostering a church environment where those ensnared feel free to confess and find their salvation from the addiction.

We should—at very least—be promoting healthy relationships and providing opportunities for young people who desire relationship to interact without it being assumed to be a sexual encounter or regard every conversation between two unmarried people as a potential defilement. If we believe in a transformation of heart then we need to stop telling young women to fear their brothers in Christ, we need to humanize each other rather than treat ‘sisters’ like objects or treat ‘brothers’ as if they are animals. This means that purity culture leaders need to trust God to work in hearts, stop living in fear of losing control, and love as Christ loves them. If Jesus welcomed prostitutes, we should be fully ready to embrace and restore those who have ‘defiled’ themselves with pornography or other sexual immorality. The long-term solution is to stop promoting fearful reaction and sexual obsession and start with leaders willing to acknowledge this current quagmire and their repentance for creating it.

Both Produce Unrealistic Expectations

There is often a nasty surprise waiting for those who do manage to navigate the dysfunction of purity culture courtship expectations. The high ideal that kept them fearful of talking to the opposite gender for fear of defilement doesn’t guarantee that they will find satisfaction in marriage when they finally find someone superficially attractive enough to give a chance. No, if anything, this will likely lead to their discontentment when this magic person, who checked all the right boxes, turns out to be a sinner like the impure others they’ve rejected merrily along the way and isn’t what they thought he/she was when they married.

Purity culture, like pornography, creates this unrealistic expectation for male and female relationships. Yes, pornography is different than purity culture in that the expectations it creates are solely pertaining to the physical and yet both push for this perfect fantasy ideal. Whereas pornography often centers on perfect bodies having amazing sex, purity cultures paint the right guy as being this courageous knight in shining armor and a young woman as this pristine princess. However, in reality, a real-life relationship often falls well short of these expectations in even the best of circumstances, real people have “bad hair days” and make mistakes.

I’ve heard a purity culture pastor explain that he needs to portray is own marriage in glowing terms as an example for others. But that sort of whitewashing is in direct contradiction to what we see in Scripture where even the heroes of faith are portrayed in their flawed and very unflattering moments. King David, for example, was an adulterer who murdered the husband of the woman who he had sinned with. Elijah was working miracles before he fled like a complete coward when faced down by a female tyrant. Even Peter, the leader of the early church, denied Christ. All of these men would be unqualified by the standards of a purity culture fathers and daughters, yet they are the best examples of faith we have besides the literal son of God!

Pornography and purity cultures both imagine a world where real people do not live and true Christian love is not required. These unrealistic expectations will lead many to great disappointment when they finally get to marriage. It has led to many others giving up on marriage because they can’t get their wish list of expectations with options currently available. This goes completely contrary to a love that transcended our imperfections and died for our salvation while we were yet dead in our sin. No, not saying that we should marry someone unbelieving and unrepentant, certainly not, nor even someone unconcerned with things like hygiene, etc—but we should also show love to others as we want to be loved by God.

Both Have Diminishing Returns

Pornography, like any self-gratifying indulgence of the senses, often requires more and more novelty to have the same effect and can eventually even lead to erectile dysfunction. Likewise, fear-based purity culture preaching, rather than make us more vigilant, often deadens ears. Sure, it might get the heads nodding in agreement, it might even get the commitments to purity from the idealistic youth still trying to navigate their way through their own sexuality, and yet there is nothing in it that will lead to holiness. Just like consuming all the porn in the world won’t produce a meaningful relationship, you can’t actually “scare the hell out of people” and drive them into the kingdom of God through fear. No, salvation depends on a new birth, an encounter with God’s grace, and spiritual transformation.

Salvation isn’t pounded through skulls by screaming fits on Sunday mornings. Sure, we do see where Jesus used the threat of being thrown into a trash pit to try to knock some smug self-righteous religious folks off their high horse, but that certainly isn’t all he did nor is that what drew the crowds. We have no indication that Jesus was overly dramatic or ever raised his voice, in fact that would go against what was prophesied about him in the book of Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.” (verse 42:1,2) What Jesus did do was heal and work miracles, his words were full of truth and love, that is why the religious needed to put him to death—he had something they themselves could not match.

We can preach sexual purity and saving oneself for marriage until the cows come home and it will not save anyone. Even this effort does actually convince some to abstain from sex before marriage, sexual purity is a false hope for winning God’s favor and especially if it comes accompanied by pride. It is very likely that many of those who rejected Jesus never viewed pornography and lived completely righteous lives according to the law and yet lacked the one critical component necessary for salvation. The bigger issue with purity culture is that it keeps us fixated on physical or emotional purity and takes our focus off of what is actually consequential.

We aren’t saved by our ability to live out a high moral standard. No, as Hebrews 11:6 tells us, without faith it is impossible to please God. So, yes, sexual purity before marriage does potentially come with some temporal returns, but eventually, it will be worth nothing unless we repent of our pride and depend fully on Jesus in faith.

Both Render Us Impotent

The most striking similarity between pornography and purity cultures is how both effectively neuter us and keep us from healthy relationships. Prior to writing this blog, I came across a YouTube video, “Porn and You,” from a secular source, talking about the damage to men and culture as a result of porn. In the video he cites an article, “6 Ways to Develop Sexual Integrity,” (a terribly misleading title) that presents this degradation as positive:

“An interesting effect happens as people watch pornography. They become more egalitarian, and more supportive of women and men sharing roles and work, less accepting of gender-based discrimination. They also become more accepting of sexual diversity and less stigmatizing towards homosexuality. They become less religious, and may even experience more crises of faith. Enjoying porn leads to people changing their beliefs about sex and gender, and, in some cases, rejecting the dogmatically rigid sex/gender values they were taught in church.”

That could be fine for a ‘progressive’ social engineer who does not see declining birth-rates and hypofrontality as an issue. But, for the rest of us, that should be the writing on the wall. Pornography addiction is pushing us towards cultural dysfunctionality and a potential demographic disaster. There are many good reasons to stop consuming pornography now, to not wait another day, and that it renders us spiritually and sexually neutered is top of the list. A great video to watch on this topic, “The great porn experiment,” gets into some of the ill-effects and also the benefits for those who quit their pornography addictions. But quitting is enough (or even possible) without filling the void (the answer to addiction is not sobriety, but connection) and that is where the church should be stepping up to the plate.

Purity cultures, likewise, render both men and women impotent. Rather than encourage us to live in faith, to take necessary risks and seek meaningful connections, they keep us fear-bound, on the sidelines and paralyzed. Again, young Christian men are treated by young women and their fathers as threats to purity and not as true brothers. The discernment of a young man is routinely dismissed as irrelevant, he can’t even get a date until he meets a list of expectations that have nothing to do with his faith or good character, and that’s assuming he is not run out completely by jealous and competitive church leaders. Many women too are kept from fully expressing their maternal and nurturing abilities, perpetually saving these complementary strengths for the one who is deserving and never arrives.

In purity cultures, ironically, unmarried men are turned into servile drones, often failing in their frustration to the very things that this focus is supposed to guard against and basically groveling at the feet of women who see them as creepy or weak. An end result is a growing number of older unmarrieds, those with standards that can’t be pleased on one end and others defeated—might as well be eunuchs—on the other. It is not healthy, it is not a model of Christian relationship, and often goes hand and hand with pornography addiction rather than being the cure. Both pornography and purity cultures feed our fantasies in the short-term, but in the long-term, they can destroy our chances at the most meaningful relationship a man and woman can have together.

It Is Time To Get Over Sex Obsession!

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8 NIV)

One tendency of fundamentalists, as reactionaries, is to fixate on the problem so much that their own thinking is perverted in the process. Everyone sincerely seeking after righteousness already should know, at a heart level, that taking advantage of other people for our own sexual pleasure is not Christ-like and sin. But the pushers of purity culture do not seem to trust the Spirit to convict their children and rely instead on isolation from outside influence and their heavy-handed regulations.

Purity cultures are motivated out of fear and a need to feel in control rather than faith. But, while they do force conformity of visible behavior (at least when others are watching) and keep many bound in their shame, they do not lead to a transformation of heart. Faith, not keeping the outside of the cup clean, is what pleases God. And faith will keep us focused on Christ, loving others as he loves, rather than obsessed with securing our own immediate gratification or turning to our own purity in the eyes of our religious peers for salvation.

Purity is not produced in a fearful reaction. It starts in a heart that seeks after goodness, walks in true faith, and is purified in fire. As Jesus said, defilement doesn’t come from the outside in, but from what is inside and comes out. In other words, we need to be pure in heart rather than filled with fear, obsessed with sin and frozen. The idea of guarding your heart, while it will keep us from sin, has nothing to do with avoiding friendly interactions that could lead to more down the road and everything to do with knowing the intentions which come from our heart:

“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips. Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.” (Proverbs 4:23‭-‬27 NIV)

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Godly Men Should Honor (Not Patronize) Women

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I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head and wept. ‘All right,’ I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’

That quote of Daisy, from The Great Gatsby, about the birth of her daughter, sardonically expresses her resignation to the male-dominated society of her time. She is saying that it is better for a girl to be a fool—because for a girl to be anything other than that would be to live a frustrated and repressed life, like her own life.

It shows that Daisy, though always acting flighty and fake, a rich ‘privileged’ woman in the roaring 20’s, has far more depth to her character and real intelligence than she is allowed to openly display.

One might assume that someone in her position, all of her material needs met and sheltered from any responsibility, would be content. I mean, the wealth of her husband, the brutal Tom Buchanan, walled her off from the toils and freed her from work or consequences.

But, beneath the veneer of playfulness, she seems miserable. She was powerless beyond what her husband provided for her and merely acting out the role carved out for her by society, the part of a fool, rather than truly free.

There is only the slightest difference between walls intended to protect and walls that imprison, the smallest gap between guarding someone’s child-like faith and enabling their childish behavior, and a person can claim to be protecting others yet really only be protecting their position. There are many people, men in particular, who like to keep others around them weak so they can feel strong or needed.

A fundamental misunderstanding of the weaker vessel…

The idea that women can’t be expected to handle certain circumstances or rise to the same level of behavior as a man is not something new to me. I know in fundamentalist circles many men regard women to be wholly inferior to them (besides in child-bearing) and thus a comment to that effect was not completely unexpected. However, it was still a bit jarring, in the context it was given, to hear a woman being excused for her unsociable behavior because she, as the “weaker vessel” and thus somehow incapable of doing any better.

I had to wonder what women (conservative Mennonite women in particular) would think of that comment.

Is that what they really want?

Do they truly want to always be regarded as helpless, the perpetual damsel in distress, rather than be treated as an equal and emotionally/intellectually capable?

I have a feeling that is not the kind of male protection that most women want.

But then, I could be wrong, my lack of success in the realm of conservative Mennonite courtship could indicate that my treatment of women as an intellectual equal was a grave error. Perhaps this is why I’ve been described as “intimidating” by a couple intelligent Mennonite women? Could it be that women really do feel better being coddled and patronized?

I will say that many women, especially attractive women, expect to be catered to and this is because men (including yours truly) are generally nicer to them for a variety of reasons—some of those reasons less noble than those more often expressed.

Anyhow, these hidden wants, openly expressed opinions and general tendencies aside, the real question is whether or not this is what the “weaker vessel” of Scripture truly means. Yes, obviously, women are, on average, weaker than men in terms of some measures of physical strength. But does this make women more feeble and less capable in all regards? Are women generally inferior to men?

Here’s the text:

Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered. (1 Peter 3:7 KJV)

I used the King James version because other translations replace “vessel” (σκεῦος) with “partner” or “sex” and potentially muddy the waters as far as this question more than they make things clearer. Again, I’m not an expert on the Greek language, but judging by how this word is translated elsewhere (John 19:29, Romans 9:21, Acts 9:15,10:11, etc), the word “vessel” seems to be a more literal, direct and appropriate translation.

That word “vessel” is an important qualifier to the word “weaker” (ἀσθενής) that precedes it. It is used in reference to objects or physical things and, in context of 1 Peter 3:7, would be reasonably understood to be a reference to a woman’s physical body rather than her person in general.

But more important is the rest of what is said. First, this passage is specifically about the relationship between husbands and wives. Second, the answer to a woman being the “weaker vessel” is for husbands to give “honour” (τιμή) to her, which means to value her, as one “being heirs together” with him, and it never suggests treating her like an inferior. If anything, this is an instruction not to use a woman’s lack of physical strength as means to diminish her other abilities or as a reason to otherwise patronize to her.

Yes, certainly we should protect what is valuable and Paul warns (similar to Malachi 2:13-15) about a man’s prayers being hindered if he mistreats his wife. However, that’s not the same thing as saying that we should be an enabler of weakness or should create unhealthy dependencies in our marriages. It is certainly not an excuse to allow a woman to act in an unChrist-like, inappropriate or otherwise unsisterly manner in the church.

The sexism of lower expectations is not honoring or Scriptural…

For the same reason we tell a bully “pick on someone your own size” we also say “don’t hit a woman” and should always take a clear stand against those who would exploit weaker people. Scripture always sides with the protection of the poor and against the oppression of the weak.

However, protection is not the same thing as pandering and nor does having Christian compassion mean we should coddle. No, a man should use his strength to encourage, empower and strengthen the weak. His role should be to give a space for his family to flourish. I believe that is the goal of our protection. Men protect the weak, in essence, by lending them our physical strength against external threats and that allows their abilities to shine rather than be crushed.

It is well-established that countries that protect the property and freedoms of their citizens prosper economically compared to those that exploit and/or do not. This is because people who know their work will likely be stolen have no reason to innovate or be ambitious. Likewise, a man who is a controlling tyrant, who sees his wife or children as wholly inferior, even if he does prevent their being exploited by others, will stifle and destroy the abilities of those entrusted to him.

Sure, maybe some women do employ their weakness as a means to get what they want in a relationship. I also know a couple cases of wives who can’t make their own decisions and depend on their husbands for everything besides picking the color of the drapes. But that level of dependency is not a good thing nor is it something we find in Scripture as an example of exemplary womanhood either:

A good wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from afar. She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and tasks for her maidens. She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds her loins with strength and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy. She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet. She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple. Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land. She makes linen garments and sells them; she delivers girdles to the merchant. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates. (Proverbs 31:10‭-‬31 RSV)

That is not a limp-wristed wimp of a woman who follows two paces behind her man to keep in her place. No, that is a human dynamo, a force to be reckoned with and not that extremely anxious woman waiting for her husband’s input before doing anything on her own. No, the ideal woman, according to Proverbs, is the one who “makes her arms strong” and engages in commerce, a manager of a wide variety of affairs, and a wise teacher to boot.

Paul didn’t write so that men would lower their expectations for women. No, Paul has many expectations for women. Including in the verse prior (1 Peter 3:6) where he tells women not to be fearful. Telling a woman not to be fearful (φοβούμεναι) is the same as telling her to be emotionally strong and mentally capable.

It is not honoring of women to treat them as generally inferior or incapable.

How should men honor women?

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, fear not!” (Isaiah 35:3‭-‬5a RSV)

Honoring means to protect and protect means to strengthen.

A wise man knows that he might not always be able to provide for his wife and children. For that reason, he will protect them by making them strong and not only shelter them with his own strength.

Yes, there is a kind of man who likes to keep others around him permanently disabled so that he can feel strong and useful. There are also women who enjoy being fearful and hanging on the arms of any man who will give them attention. But there is nothing in Scripture that suggests we should encourage this kind of codependent behavior and plenty that indicates we should strengthen and bring out the best in each other.

Men and women may serve different roles in the church and home. After all, people are different, regardless of gender, with different strengths and weaknesses. However, acknowledging that the reality of our differences in strength and honoring the “weaker vessel” does not mean treating anyone as our intellectual, emotional, or spiritual lesser. What Paul is really teaching, in a fuller context of Scripture, is that we not use our own physical strength as a means to diminish the abilities of our wife and rather we should honor her as someone capable.

In the end, nothing good comes from pandering to the women. Instead, we should respect them as capable, despite their lack of physical strength, and should encourage them (as Paul does) to be free rather than fearful. Fundamentalist purity cultures do the opposite, they seek to subjugate the weak and twist Scriptures (sometimes ever so slightly) to justify their dishonoring treatment of women. It is very subtle in some cases, it can be as small as lowering expectations based on gender alone, yet it is pervasive and perverse.

Maybe these men need a reminder? The word “helpmeet” used in Genesis 2:19-20 denotes a “suitable helper” and uses the same Hebrew words used to describe God’s help in battle. It does not imply subordination. It implies capability and strength. So, if we do not honor God through our doubt, then we do we honor women by lowering our expectations for women. Instead, we use our own unique strengths to encourage and strengthen each other.

A woman can be so much more than “a beautiful little fool” and we should not deprive them of the opportunity to rise up to the challenge of meeting the standards of competency that we would expect from a man—so do not dishonor her with sexism of low expectations.