On Porn: Defining Porn, and Double Standards

I would like to thank my readers for their kind comments on my previous post on porn. This indicates that many people feel that this is something that really needs to be addressed. Today I plan to differentiate porn against some cultural artifacts that might point out to double standards.

Let us start with a working definition of porn:

A cultural artifact whose chief aim is to bring sexual arousal to its consumer.

As you might see, the key parts are (a) we are dealing with a cultural artifact (the genus), and (b) the fact that those artifacts are intended to bring arousal (the species).

Sadly, one of the main factors behind the pastoral failure when dealing with porn is the application of a double standard. This double standard is a direct result of ambiguity in delimitation of both genus and species, and is manifested in the following way:

  1. A particular kind of content is deemed as porn; therefore, “people of our own” accessing it should be exposed, disgraced, shamed, and disciplined; and
  2. That same particular kind of content is expressed as something else that is not porn; consequently, “people of our own” accessing it should be left alone undisturbed and unquestioned.

The double standard exists. This might not be so obvious to you; but this is evident to anyone with a minimum acquaintance with both porn and regular cultural products. However, as I also plan to show, reasons for the currency of this double-standard are complex, and hypocrisy is just one of them. The emergency of this double-standard touches such deep questions as the role of art and beauty for a Christian worldview, the real value of porn, and the extent of depravity as manifest in many cultural artifacts.

For the sake of this discussion, instead of doing a full analysis of both genus and species, let us consider a working differentiation of porn against four types of cultural artifacts:

  1. Porn vs. Arabian Nights.
  2. Porn vs. The Turkish Bath.
  3. Porn vs. Harlequin novels.
  4. Porn vs. Maxim.

Let us consider each of those cases. For the most part, I will try to set up hypothetical situations where your pastor is discovered in a compromising situation. As a typical example of pornographic material, I simply put “Playboy.” You are free to replace that name for another if that represents pornography better for you.

Porn vs. Arabian Nights

The double standard manifests here as follows: Sexually explicit depictions are deemed as porn in certain kinds of material, but on others they are deemed as “great literature.” In this way, if your pastor’s hard drive harbors sex stories saved from the Internet, he is a sinner and pervert barely above child molesters in the scale; but if you are reading Arabian Nights (for example, in the Burton version) you are just reading good literature. I could provide other examples (such as recent books by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, or older material by French writers and poets Pierre Louÿs and Charles Baudelaire) but this would suffice.

This is a question posed by ambiguity of the whole definition of porn. Both the Internet sex story and Arabian Nights are cultural artifacts. Both have erotic content. However, are they both intended to provoke sexual arousal? On the first case, yes; on the other, a definite maybe. But one is regarded as smut, and the other, as great literature.

In order to solve this ambiguity, we must seriously consider as a Christians what is the place of the erotic in art and literature, and how Christians should regard instances of generic erotica. In other words: Is it permissible for Christians to produce or consume material intended to bring sexual arousal? Is the seeking of sexual arousal sinful per se? Or, are we relieved of our responsibility if the material is “a great art masterpiece”?

The chief text employed against permitting sexual arousal is Matthew 5:27-28. However, this injunction (a) is against actually looking at someone; and (b) this refers not to sexual arousal, but to actual coveting motivated by sinful lust (cf. Greek epithumesai, from epithumeo; sorry for my awful Greek transliteration. The operating idea here is coveting). Thus, it seems that for this to be applicable, you must actually think of someone and you must actually covet her. Thinking of Scherazade in Baghdad or some unnamed lady in some unknown state as the main character of the Internet sex story, it seems to me, does not fit the bill.

Consequently, this double standard really points out to this unresolved area: the place of erotism for Christians and Christianity. We need to seriously consider this question if we are to avoid the catastrophic pastoral failure of porn.

Porn vs. “The Turkish Bath”

This is one of the most painful double standards for anyone victimized by the Church’s attitude towards porn. It manifests in the following way: Let’s say that your pastor is found with some topless photos on his hard drive. Again, he gets the whole rundown: shaming, exposure, discipline, and his placing as a “pervert.” Then, you go into the Louvre on a tour, and watch The Turkish Bath by Ingres among the general oohs and aahs of awe at seeing such a masterpiece. But no, you are not watching porn. You are not a “pervert!”

My choosing of Ingres’ Turkish Bath is by no means coincidental. I won’t provide a link; but if you see it you will notice that it contains more naked female pictures than a Playboy Collector’s Edition, and it could be argued that the poses of Ingres’ painting are even more enticing. But the Playboy is “porn,” and the Ingres is “art” How come?

This differentiation points out to the power of images, the place of visual arts in a Christian worldview, and more specifically, the place of the naked human form. We must answer such fundamental questions as “what is art?,” “what is the purpose of art?,” and others more to the point such as, “is it lawful to paint nudes?” “are those nudes ‘art’?” “is it lawful for a Christian to paint nudes?” “is it lawful for a Christian to pose as a nude model?”

Those questions might appear as petty and byzantine, unless you happen to be affected by them. What would you do if your church decides to open a Christian college? How would you educate your art majors? On one side, you could play it safe and ban all nudes; but then, you risk losing a rich, legitimate art tradition that spans several millennia. On the other, you could close your eyes and allow nudes, and perhaps risk a serious moral compromise on people whose parents expect you to teach Christian moral values to them.

Is in this context where the “topless findings” I mentioned earlier should be placed. Those might be sinful; but then, if those are sinful, then why Ingres’ paintings, Canova’s sculptures, or certain very revealing Indian reliefs are not? Here lies this double standard, and this double-standard is certainly hard to overcome. Meanwhile, people is still being labeled as “perverts” by churches for looking at images far less risqué than many art masterpieces.

Porn vs. Romance Novels

Another double standard comes out when you compare a standard porn icon such as, say, a Playboy magazine, with the typical “romance novel.” When we compared porn with works such as Arabian Nights, we could offer the excuse that the latter was “established quality literature” while porn was not. Similarly, when we compared porn with an Ingres painting, we could say that the painting was an “art masterpiece” while porn was not.

However, when we compare porn to romance novels of the Harlequin type, these excuses fade away. Here we have run-of-the-mill pulp literature that cannot be counted as “quality writing.” And yet, it has some characteristics commonly thought of porn. It is an artifact that brings sexual arousal. But what is the difference? That its content and its nature is geared to women. For a small explanation, see this Slashdot comment together with its associated discussion.

And here lies the double standard: A Playboy (or a sex novel, such as those by Harold Robbins) is labeled as porn, because is used to bring arousal in males. It should be sold behind covers, and if your pastor is caught off with one of those, all hell would break loose. On the other hand, a Harlequin romance novel is sold openly at every newstand, and if the average church lady is seen reading or buying one of those, no one complains. And yet, those novels cater to women in the same way that Playboys cater to men.

This brings out the question: Is the Church’s crusade against porn not more than a selective indictment of male sexuality? This double standard seems to reinforce the notion that women are incapable of committing sexual sin when consuming cultural artifacts while at the same time men are dangerous, perverted beasts that should be caged and tamed lest they become molesters and predators.

And believe me, this is bollocks. We are all sinners. Ed Hurst’s Holy Cynicism has it: (Hu)mankind is fallen. Sinners will sin. The notion that pornography is mostly a male phenomenon is patently false. What might be true is that pornography aimed at males is more high-profile, and thus females can think they are safe and holy while they are actually debasing their views of human sexuality in fantasies riddled with lust and eroticism.

To overcome this double-standard, we do not need to become more repressive towards women, or romance novels. What we need is a fresh, non-Victorian understanding of the place of pornography inside the normal human mind, and address this fact with a truly Christian, pastoral intent.

Porn vs. Maxim

I reserve this for last because it is mostly a straw man. That is, for most purposes the items compared are the same thing; and yet we need to make some precisions on the issue.

I won’t talk about your pastor here; but picture yourself with a teenage or college-age son. What would upset you more: discovering a Playboy, or discovering a “men’s magazine” such as Maxim, GQ, FHM, etc., in his dorm? For most Christian people, the usual answer would be “Playboy,” and here lies the double standard.

Why should a Playboy upset a parent more than a Maxim? Because the latter has some tiny cloth over the model’s private parts and the former doesn’t? One could say that Playboy presents women as mere objects; but if that is true, how is that Maxim women are not mere objects, too? In both cases, we have pictorials of beautiful women showing their scantily-clad bodies for all who buy the issue at hand. And yet, for the popular mind one is “porn,” while the other is not (although, I admit it, for a very narrow margin).

The double standard undoubtedly exists, and this is the most hypocritical of all. This is more a result of a society’s double morals than a particular pastoral mistake made by Christian congregations. Nevertheless, it still needs to be resolved.

Concluding thoughts

Please note that I am not endorsing pornography, and I am not trying to discharge persons guilty of consuming it. What I am trying here is to point out that there is a double standard in the Church’s understanding of pornography, and that this fact needs to be addressed to avoid the catastrophic pastoral failure of the Church’s dealing with porn.

God willing, I intend to pursue my analysis of porn as a pastoral failure in upcoming posts. Firstly, I plan to look at the usual arguments employed against porn, noting that most of them are intrinsically flawed and really point out to other, less public and less convenient, reasons. Secondly, I plan to take a look at responses towards porn at several levels: community, spousal, and pastoral. Nevertheless to say, in all stages your comments will be appreciated and welcomed.


  1. Very interesting analysis, Eduardo. I never thought of all the categories, although, I admit, the issue of the place of art such as the “Turkish Bath” (or, say, “the Birth of Venus”) has occurred to me before. I think you hit a lot of it based on intent: people _generally_ do not study the great painters for the purpose of arousal and, I suspect, the painters’ intent had more to do with aesthetic beauty than anything else.

    Not having read _Arabian Nights_ (as embarrassing as that is to admit as someone interested in literature), I would suggest that this is true here too. I think _most_ who read it have a different intent than those who read, for example, your aforementioned romance novels. (I think this is helpful in separating the Song of Songs from a romance novel too, for example.)

    Intent is relevant here, just as it is in legal crimes such as murder versus manslaughter, IMO.

    Keep up the great series!

  2. Tim: thanks for the comment. IMO, the intent is relevant, but it is not all. The Turkish Bath, for example, was intended as a work of erotica from its inception. Firstly it belonged to the bedroom of Napoleon III of France, but Mme. Napoleon had it removed because it was too offending to her. Later, it went to the private collection of a Mr. Bey, who was Consul of the Ottoman Empire, and believe me, he also regarded it as erotica. That’s why I purposefully chose the Turkish Bath instead of, say, a Venus from Tiziano. You also have to keep in mind that we right now might be studying the great masters with a measure of academic interest; but the masters painted for an audience of contemporaries that wasn’t exactly interested in the academic subject matter at hand.

    I concur with you on the intent of Arabian Nights. However, this is also not too important, since the key question here is the intentionality of the writing itself. Believe me, if you read the Burton version, you will raise an eyebrow or two since it could be pretty titillating.

    Regarding the Song of Songs, my contention is that it is also first and foremost a work of erotica and it should be regarded as such. But the Church could have only a good grasp on it when it comes to grips with the place of erotic works of art within a Christian worldview.

    But what you say it is true: intent is relevant.

  3. While we could academically separate out the intent of the consumer of such works, we cannot in real life remove that from consideration. I note the most important element in the verse in Matthew is Jesus’ focus on the fact of evil in the heart of the sinner, wanting in any way at all something which cannot be righteously supplied. Perhaps I should add a chapter to my Cynicism teaching. While the provider’s intent is one kind of sin — building an evil appetite in his customers so he can profit more from addiction — the consumer’s acceptance of the product is another. Further, it’s tangled up in our Western Victorian twist on human sexuality, and it is very twisted, indeed. The biblical Eastern viewpoint of frankness puts us off, and you correctly note we struggle to draw the line between frankness and cheap arousal. Is it sin because of our internal mechanism and thoughts (ref. Paul’s discussion of eating meat), or are we sinning more for continuing in such a damaged mechanism? And can we differentiate between appreciating the Grecian feminine ideal and the base lust for this particular woman? I can’t begin to guess all the finer points in your local Paraguayan culture.

  4. Ed: Thanks, and that’s certain indeed. I suspect you already got the gist of my posts, even of the upcoming ones?

    Any pastoral response tho this set of phenomena should be articulated with the utmost care, but all we get is Victorianism and double morals…

  5. Eduardo,
    Thanks for this insightful discussion. I am in the early years of what I expect will be a lifelong vocation as a sculptor, a calling I believe comes from God. I sculpt in stone and have done a few bronze pieces as well. I am a follower of Jesus and have recently begun to understand that studying the nude form will improve my understanding of structure and balance even if I am working in the complete abstract. With that end I have begun to search google for “Christian nudes” which is how I found your post. I’m challenged by this endeavor partly as I search to not click on anything I think would cause me to lust but I’m also driven to read, see, and understand how we as Christian artists can move from objectification to what I have coined “subject-ification,” as in basic sentance structure where we have a subject, verb and object. I would like my nudes to be subjects, not objects, and therefore elicit thoughts of the higher aesthetic nature of beauty than to arouse the viewer. Thanks for your thoughts on the subject.

  6. Adam, thanks for the kind words, and for stopping by! Welcome! Your aesthetic position seems to me as fundamentally sound and Christian.

    I intend to pursue this series further. A new post is in the works. Feel free to come back here often!

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