Christianity has a reputation for being prudish about sexual desire. Yet the Old Testament contains an extended erotic love poem in which two lovers anticipate their lovemaking. From the outset it is dripping with sexual desire:
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth–for your love is more delightful than wine… Take me away with you – let us hurry! Let the King bring me into his chambers.”
By chapter 4 the male lover is praising the beauty of his beloved in very erotic tones:
“your breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies. Until the day breaks and the shadows flee, l will go to the mountain of myrrh and to the hill of incense. All beautiful are you are my darling, there is no flaw in you.… You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; your plants are an orchard of pomegranites with choice fruits… and all the finest spices.”
To which his beloved replies “let my beloved come into his garden and taste its choice fruits.”
According to the latest study of sexual behaviour of Australians 63% of men and 20% of women viewed pornography in the previous 12 months (http://www.ashr.edu.au/pdf/sex_in_australia_2_summary_data.pdf). Is this not the modern equivalent of reading the Song of Solomon?
I think not. The fundamental difference between the erotica of the Song of Solomon and the pornography provided on the Internet is that the Song of Solomon envisages a couple engaged in sexual intimacy. Their lovemaking flows out of a relationship in which there is mutuality, kindness, and a deeper knowing of one another.
This is not what happens in the vast majority of pornography videos. As Gail Dines points out in Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality,
“in one of the few studies to have been conducted on the content of contemporary porn, it was found that the majority of scenes from fifty of the top-rented porn movies contained both physical and verbal abuse of the female performers. Physical aggression, which included spanking, open-handed slapping, and gagging, occurred in over 88% of scenes, while expressions of verbal aggression, calling the woman names such as bitch or slut, were found in 48 percent of the scenes.”
Dines goes on to argue that pornography creates a damaging story about men and women.
“The messages that porn disseminates about women can be boiled down to a few essential characteristics: they are always ready for sex and enthusiastic to do whatever men want, irrespective of how painful, humiliating, or harmful the act is. The word “no” is glaringly absent from porn women’s vocabulary. These women seem eager to have their orifices stretched to full capacity and sometimes beyond, and indeed, the more bizarre and degrading the act, the greater the supposed sexual arousal for her.… Indeed, women of the porn world seem to enjoy having sex with men who express nothing but contempt and hatred for them … It is a world filled with one-dimensional women who are nothing more than collections of holes.
The story pornography tells about men is actually much simpler. Men in porn are depicted as soulless, unfeeling, amoral life-support systems for erect penises who are entitled to use women in any way they want. These men demonstrate zero empathy, respect, or love for the women they have sex with, no matter how uncomfortable or in pain these women look.…
In a world populated by women who are robotic “sluts” and men who are robotic studs, the sex is going to be predictably devoid of any intimacy. Porn sex is not about making love, as the feelings and emotions we normally associate with such an act–connection, empathy, tenderness, caring, affection–are replaced by those more often connected with hate–fear, disgust, anger, loathing, and contempt. In porn the man makes hate to the woman to the woman, as each sex act is designed to deliver the maximum amount of degradation.”
The contrast with the Song of Songs could not be greater.
Dines’s book has proven controversial, for over against those who believe that the vast majority of those viewing pornography treat it as a fantasy and do not allow it to spill over into the real world, Pornland argues that pornography is degrading and destructive to its female actors, that it frequently degrades the real world sexual intimacy of men and women, and that while substantial long-term studies are yet to be conducted, that porn is a significant part of a cultural narrative that permits violence against women. It is the final claim that is particularly contested. See for example http://eprints.qut.edu.au/14567/1/14567.pdf
The day after finishing Pornland I saw an advertisement on late-night television in which good-looking thirty-something men jovially sang, “I’m looking for someone other than my wife”. The ad finishes by directing viewers to a website where they can arrange casual sexual encounters. The site’s tagline is “Life is short. Have an affair”. This seems to be clear evidence that the mainstreaming of pornography is seeping out of the realm of fantasy and into the realm of reality.
Christians frequently attempt to discourage the viewing of pornography by declaring the sexual desire involved as shameful. This is a throwback to earlier Christian history where desire of any kind, even of husbands and wives for each other, was seen as a manifestation of sinfulness. In an era in which sexual desire is seen as healthy and something to be celebrated, it seems to me the classic Christian disincentive is unlikely to be very motivating. Indeed, the Song of Songs suggests that sexual desire, directed properly, is something to be savoured and enjoyed.
Rather than seeing pornography as problematic because of sexual desire, it is more accurate and I suspect will be far more powerful to see it in terms of its degrading of those who act in it, particularly women porn actors; its potential to be destructive of sexual intimacy and tenderness in our own real-world relationships; and the possible impact it is having in creating a culture that tolerates violence towards women.