Porn, Beauty, and the Power of Imagination

A couple of years ago, in an interview with Men’s Health, 1960s and ’70s sex symbol Raquel Welch criticized Internet porn, claiming it’s ruining men: “Do they know how to negotiate something that isn’t pre-fab and injected directly into their brain?” she asked. “Nobody remembers what it’s like to be left to form your own ideas about what’s erotic and sexual. We’re not allowed any individuality.”

Predictably, Ms. Welch’s interview attracted significant media attention, mostly for her accusation that “we’re all sex addicts . . . We have equated happiness in life with as many orgasms as you can possibly pack in.” Some media coverage has made offhand references to Welch’s background as a sex symbol, while a few bloggers have directly pointed out the irony of her criticism. But the general consensus is that she’s right. It’s hard to find a realistic and honest argument that ubiquitous porn has made for a healthier world.

While I don’t hold the same general worldview as Ms. Welch, and I find her criticism of erotic images more than a little ironic, I think she’s on to something. And not just about men and porn.

Among the mysterious gifts God has given people are the imagination and ability to develop sexual desire for people we love. We have the latitude to form attraction we can’t explain, and to grow in that attraction as we grow in love and commitment. Somehow, although a thousand men may overlook me, my husband finds me beautiful. And vice-versa.

Our image-saturated culture, with its rigid standards of beauty and predilection for plastic, does not allow for such variety in taste. We are programmed to view one another through lenses we were never meant to wear, and in the process we learn to despise ourselves.

In a typical day, most of us are surrounded by images of people. From television, movies, magazines, book covers, billboards, buses, computers, and even our phones, these images parade before us–often without our conscious notice. Most of these images are laced with subtle or anything-but-subtle sexuality. And they’re almost all fake. Bodies are airbrushed, reworked, even assembled from parts of various people, pulled together through the magic of Photoshop, forming a freakish and ironic twist on Frankenstein’s horrifying monster–and we’re convinced they’re beautiful, even though we know they’re not real.

Strolling through a museum exhibit featuring one successful fashion artist’s illustrations, I noticed a sign explaining that while the human body is, on average, seven heads tall, fashion sketches feature people who are nine heads tall so clothes will drape dramatically. My husband is almost seven feet tall (six-foot-nine), and even he is not nine heads tall. But when fashion designers envision their clothes, they see them draping gracefully from emaciated giants.

We all know such images are outrageous–yet such standards of beauty are so ingrained, most of us have to intentionally resist them. And many of us who are able to resist extremes still strive to bring our bodies closer to such standards without questioning why. As we do, we forsake our God-given capacity to form our ideas about beauty and attractiveness within the context of loving relationships with our spouses.

What would you and I find sexy if we lived in a small, isolated community with no exposure to media? Our cultural ideals would be formed by the characteristics of people in the community. And without constant exposure to processed images, we would be largely free to develop our own ideas of beauty within the context of our relationships. Attraction would be defined contextually rather than imposed by outside forces. We would all believe we were surrounded by the hottest people on earth. And we would be right.

From boyhood, men are told what is attractive and conditioned to respond to certain images with sexual arousal. Because of cultural assumptions about their appetites and cultural permission to indulge them, they are bombarded with such images. They are not allowed to develop their own ideas of beauty.

Perhaps because women are mistakenly considered less sexual, less visually stimulated, and less given to indulge our lusts, our sexual desires are not always so heavily manipulated. However, we are not free to imagine what is beautiful about ourselves.

This image-driven culture–and our appetite for it–is robbing us of the ability to fully enjoy what God has created and pronounced good. Our bodies are blighted by the effects of sin and sin’s cruel sister, decay. Even so, we are all beautiful examples of God’s creative work. Our amazing bodies point to him. How tragic that we allow ourselves to be shamed in the shadow of something he never created–a twisted version of ourselves.

Shame keeps us in a place whose door was opened at the beginning of human history. Immediately after Adam and Eve shared the forbidden fruit, “their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. So they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves” (Genesis 3:7). Their own bodies were the first place Adam and Eve directed their shame, and they hid themselves from one another and from God himself. How ironic that the capstone of God’s creation should become the portion of his work that we most despise and want so desperately to reinvent.

The antidote is in the transformation that comes through the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). With the Holy Spirit’s help, we can stop and consider where our own ideals are coming from. Married people can practice the cognitive discipline of refusing to compare their spouse with others. They can make their spouse the object of fantasies, training the mind to avoid attaching itself to others as objects of desire. Single people can find accountability partners, with whom they can be honest. They can surround themselves with people who aspire to the same level of integrity and who refuse to burden one another with unrealistic expectations perpetuated by false images.

Churches have responsibility to lead the way in challenging Christians to reject the world’s sexual manipulations. Church leaders must speak frankly about the porn crisis, challenging congregants to seek help and kick their habits. They must acknowledge that porn is not just a men’s issue, but is increasingly snaring women. They must also acknowledge that the problem with destructive sexual images in our culture lies far beyond the boundaries of what is considered porn.

Church leaders, please overcome your squeamishness and challenge people to see themselves as the pinnacle of God’s creation, their bodies as expressions of his creativity. Encourage small groups of married and single adults to discuss sex as openly as the youth group does. Invite counselors specializing in sexual addiction and body-image issues to speak to your church. Consider hosting a XXX Church event. And commit to provide support and accountability, rather than condemnation, for people who struggle.

Inherent in our cultural programming is a deep and thorough rejection of God’s creative abilities. We despise his artistry when we trade the pinnacle of his creative work for a freakish, grotesque alteration that doesn’t exist in reality. When we buy into the world’s standards of beauty and strive–consciously or unconsciously–to make ourselves into something he did not create, we not only hurt ourselves; we spit on the skill of the very artist who made us. This is true not only when we settle for pornography, but also when we allow fashion magazines, billboards, TV shows, movies, and other “benign” images to form our ideas of what makes us and others beautiful. After all, beauty should be in the eye of the beholder.

 

This article originally appeared here on Her.meneutics.

1 Comment
  1. Molly says:

    Great article. All true.

© 2014 Amy Simpson.