Human dignity, properly understood, is of tremendous value and importance to God. This is why you frequently see Christians involved in causes fighting global issues like human trafficking and sex slavery. On those issues, thank God, the broader culture agrees with us. But when it comes to the core motivations and contributing causes behind such human rights issues, the broader culture is unfortunately not with us. And those areas of human dignity wherein they disagree with us are of great importance.
Rarely has this difference been as apparent as it was this past week. Longtime purveyor of pornography Hugh Hefner, founder of the Playboy Magazine, passed away recently. Since his passing, many individuals of cultural importance have praised him as a forward-thinking cultural leader. Among these was the New York Times, who ran a glowing 3,000-word obituary on Heffner. Perhaps even more noteworthy was the announcement of a biopic about Heffner, starring Jared Leto.
While there are some engaging in distracting arguments, pointing to Hefner’s philanthropy, for example, many are saying that Hefner’s core work, the pornography, was not actually a negative for society. The key ideas behind this praise, essentially, is that by making pornography more mainstream, he freed America from a traditional morality, which is incorrect and impractical, and the fact that these women participated willingly absolves him of the common assertion that he used and abused women.
Embedded within these statements are two assumptions, that: 1. Traditional morality is either bad for society or impractical, and 2. That choice removes the indignity of a certain action or lifestyle. Are these assumptions correct?
It probably will not shock you to find that I disagree with these assumptions, given my past articles on erotica, and a sexualized culture in general. But where I want you to pay attention is not just to pornography itself, but to the core issues that make pornography so common and accepted. Even if you are a Christian that is coming into this discussion already opposed to pornography and the damage it does to society, you might have already given up more ground than you think.
First, pornography pretty clearly has some dangerous effects societally, as well as spiritually. Pornography creates an addiction detectable by MRI, and leads to decreased interest in actual sex, increases the likelihood of physical aggression, and an increased negative attitude toward women.
But is traditional morality harmful? No, as it turns out, it isn’t. That is demonstrated predictably through multiple studies studying multiple factors. When it comes to happiness, for example, Psychology Today concludes “One, it turns out, may in fact be the least lonely number.” On economic well-being, the fatherless homes created by male promiscuity creates a deep cycle of poverty – fatherless homes create nearly half of all persons in poverty, while two-parent homes account for only 10%, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And perhaps most condemning, one study from the University of Pennsylvania found that 40% of abused women indicated their partner had used violent pornography.
More to the point, there are individuals who are limiting their sexual partners, and staying married. It is the habits of those who do not do those things that is creating a negative effect on society, one that has been particularly damaging to women. This is the case in the more culturally accepted venues of pornography as well, as displayed in the link between 50 Shades of Grey and abusive relationships.
All of these pile onto the social problems that are present when pornography is allowed to fester unopposed in society, which a fact even if pornography is produced with the consent of the subjects. But that fact is itself frequently questionable, or at least in a sort of gray area. Take the story of Marilyn Monroe, for example, who posed nude for a small calendar early in her career because she needed some extra money. Once she was on her feet, Hugh Hefner purchased the photos from the calendar company, and published the photos to wide popularity without the permission or even financial compensation to Monroe herself, who did not even sign her real name to the original photos.
“I was nervous, embarrassed, even ashamed of what I had done, and I did not want my name to appear on that model release.”
Hefner purchased a burial place next Monroe, a woman he never met, much less paid for her contribution to his success.
But even if we grant consent, that does almost nothing for actual human dignity. Take this quote from Hefner himself:
“The notion that Playboy turns women into sex objects is ridiculous. Women are sex objects. If women weren’t sex objects, there wouldn’t be another generation. It’s the attraction between the sexes that makes the world go ‘round. That’s why women wear lipstick and short skirts.”
The fact is that the way women are presented in pornography – as being present simply as tools for man’s gratification – fosters an image of women as things and not as people. This hardly sounds congruent with the concept of God’s creation as image-bearers. Women, like all people, ought tobe treated like human beings, and not like things. When you treat people like things, that’s when you end up with quotes like you see above. And yet – and this is where I want to speak specifically to Christians – we can frequently find similar attitudes budding in ourselves, even if it is not quite so far down the road. Because while we may not go so far as to establish a pornographic magazine, we do entertain ideas of women as tools for our pleasure, rather than human beings that bear the image of God.
Jesus went further back than “thou shalt not view pornography.” He says that even lust is to be treated as sexual promiscuity in Matthew 5. And herein lies the kicker – even in lust, we grow to treat others as tools for our enjoyment. This is why men sleep around with women and then demand that they abort the children. This is why men abuse women in all contexts. This is why men entertain sexual fantasies – whether on screen or in the “safety” of the mind.
I’m reminded of Joshua Harris, who in the book Not Even a Hint (previously titled Sex Isn’t the Problem, Lust Is), urges Christian men to stop placing as enormous of an emphasis on masturbation as THE sin to avoid. Rather, he says, we ought to denounce and oppose all forms of lust, in whatever way that grows out in our lives. If I may give my own paraphrase, we must focus on the source of the problem – the heart problem – and not just the symptoms of the problem.
The praise of Hefner that we have seen in the past week is the symptom of a culture driven by the self. That is ultimately the core problem that drives sins like lust, and allows them to continue to fester in society, and is exceedingly apparent when it comes to pornography. The next step for Christians is not to continue addressing the symptoms alone. It is to address the core problem – a worship of self that leads to decadence in all sorts of ways.
“Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.” – Philippians 3:19