Issues & Answers: Pornography
Extent and Cause of the Problem
Pornography is rampant within society. It is an epidemic that is damaging the lives of young people, destroying marriages, producing false views of sex and beauty, and degrading women. The pornography industry has increased rapidly, and its increased availability has weakened moral and public standards that have traditionally stood opposed to pornography. The combination of the weakening moral standard and the increased availability has caused its effects to become even more widespread, making proper teaching about pornography a necessity.
According to Family Safe Media, pornography is a $57 billion world-wide industry, including $12 billion in the United States alone. According to their statistics, pornography revenue exceeds the combined revenues of all professional baseball, football, and basketball franchises and the combined revenues of ABC, CBS, and NBC. Family Safe Media also reports that there are over 4.2 million pornographic websites, which include over 373 million pornographic web pages. The average email user receives 4.5 pornographic emails each day, and the average age of first exposure to Internet pornography is 11 years old. While pornography is typically only associated with men, a significant portion of Internet pornography users are female. Family Safe Media reports that 72% of Internet pornography viewers are men and 28% of viewers are female1.
As can be seen from these statistics, pornography is a large problem within society, and Christians are not immune from this problem. Approximately 47% of Christians state that pornography is a major problem in their home2. While polling data on pornography use among adults are unclear and varying, a ChristiaNet poll finds that as many as 50% of Christian men and 20% Christian women could be addicted to pornography3.
The growth of technology has also increased the devastating growth of child pornography. Jan LaRue states that a search of “teen porn” on the Internet can produce upwards of 7-8 million results4. Family Safe Media reports that child pornography generates $3 billion annually5.
Pornography has become extremely accessible through technological innovations and is now virtually a mainstream form of entertainment within American culture that is willing to accept hyper-sexualized images and lewd behavior. A survey by The Barna Group in 2003 found that nationally 38% of adults believed there was nothing immoral about looking at pornography, and the same survey found that almost 50% of people ages 18-38 believed looking at pornography was not immoral6.
The combination of technical innovations that allow what was once a small, remote, seedy market to be mass produced and accessed within the most common of places (foremost being the home), the devaluation of sex from being a sacred union to an entertaining action of lust and selfish pleasure, and the mainstream cultural acceptance of sexual freedom have all contributed to the explosion of the pornography market. The Internet, cable television, and home videos are the vehicles that have transported the effects of the underlying moral and cultural changes in American society. These media outlets have allowed pornography to be distributed more widely throughout society, but increased technology alone is not the cause of the rapid increase in pornography. The changes in the morality of sex, entertainment, and modesty, in conjunction with technological transformation of media in American society, have conjoined to create a dangerous atmosphere where pornography is widespread and often accepted.
Pornography and the Law
Christians may find pornographic materials morally and socially offensive, but not all pornography is legally prohibited in America. Individuals, groups, and companies advocating for the public availability of pornographic materials primarily cite the First Amendment’s freedom of expression clauses. However, obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment, though there has been considerable debate and evolution over what is considered obscene. Despite this debate, the legal restrictions prohibiting obscene materials have remained, because protecting society from obscenity is considered a public good. It is good for the welfare of society that obscenities not be available. Just as freedom of speech does not allow someone to yell “Fire!” in a theatre because it could cause a riot and human injury, freedom of expression cannot allow for expression that is obscene because it may harm those viewing and hearing the obscenities.
Many Supreme Court decisions have set forth guidelines for use in defining obscenity. In 1957 the Roth v. United States decision stated that the test for determining obscenity is “whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest7.” However, this ruling did not decide who defines “contemporary community standards” and who determines when prurient interest or lustfulness is aroused.
In addition to the Roth v. United States case, the Court ruled on three obscenity cases in 1966. These rulings held that the advertising and promotion of the materials in question tended to prove the prurient intent of the material itself. Such materials, said Justice Brennan, speaking for the majority, have no “redeeming social value” or “saving intellectual content.” By upholding jail sentences against the purveyors of such materials, the Court served notice that hard-core obscenity for profit would be illegal.
A 1973 case, Miller v. California, largely answered the unresolved question about who determines what constitutes “community standards.” The Court ruled against the concept of a national standard for obscenity. Citizens of one state are not governed in their standards by the standards of another state8. The guidelines set down by the Court in this care are the foundation for state statutes dealing with obscenity which have been upheld by the Supreme Court.
Soft core publications such as Playboy and Penthouse are not legally obscene, and their distribution cannot be controlled by obscenity laws. Hard-core materials like the movies and videos shown in “adult” theaters have routinely and regularly been held obscene when citizens have urged law enforcement officers to prosecute those distributing and showing them. Some other materials, such as Hustler magazine, have received ambiguous rulings, being declared obscene in some jurisdictions and not obscene in others.
Federal statutes were updated in 1984 and 1988 to specify child pornography as a crime and make possession with intent to distribute illegal. In Osborne v. Ohio in 1990, the Court ruled that mere possession of any one piece of hard-core child pornography was illegal.
The Supreme Court and Congress have also addressed use of pornography over the Internet. In the 1997 Reno v. ACLU decision, the Court held that “Transmitting obscenity and child pornography, whether via the Internet or other means, is . . . illegal under federal law for both adults and juveniles9.” Congress, likewise, has tackled online obscenity through the Communications Decency Act of 1996, as amended by the PROTECT Act of 2003, which prohibits knowingly using a computer service to display obscenity in a manner available to viewers under age 18. The Child Online Protection Act of 1998 bans making available obscenity in online commercial communication to minors under age 17. Further, federal law prohibits Internet domain names from using words often associated with cartoons that could mislead children into viewing indecent material10. A more recent law, the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005, increases the maximum possible fines the Federal Communications Commission can levy for radio and television broadcast indecency violations from $32,500 to $325,000 per incident. Satellite and cable programming are not directly affected by this legislation.
While the Court has consistently upheld the right to ban obscene materials and child pornography, what many would consider obscene is still highly prevalent within society. Sexual morality, except for rare forms of obscene sexual images and child pornography, has been removed from the understanding of public morality. The rights of individuals to consume and sell materials as they see fit has triumphed in recent years over the right of the government to protect society from public evils. In 1970 the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography stated, “The government interest in regulating pornography has always related primarily to the prevention of moral corruption and not to . . . the protection of persons from being shocked and/or offended11.” However, this view has been eroded in the public and in the law by those proclaiming free speech rights and those influenced by the sexual revolution.
Despite the arguments for sexual freedom, numerous studies have found that consuming pornography has negative results for youth and adults. Pornography use increases violence and sexual violence. It degrades women, damages the family, and produces a highly sensual society. These reasons should be central in legitimizing public restrictions on pornography, because limiting pornography is a public good. As legal scholar Robert George declares, “In any society, careful deliberation by citizens committed to the common good and informed by both sound moral judgment and prudent practical understanding, needs to be brought to bear in the effort to, at the same time, preserve honorable liberties and protect public morality12.” One of the primary ways government can protect public morality is to limit the sale and availability of pornographic materials, which are dangerous to society.
While it is important for Christians to emphasize changes in laws that will benefit the country, changes in laws alone will not rid society of pornography. The primary change must be a change in the heart, and this can only come through the grace of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, and a belief in the Bible as God’s authentic Word to guide people in ways that are best for them. In the Bible, God outlines moral guidelines, not to make the Christian life more difficult, but to guide individuals into what He originally created them to be. Christian morality is a gift from a good God, who wants what is best for His creation.
In providing a moral guideline for sex, the Bible does make some explicit statements related to pornography, but it also builds a positive case for sexuality and marriage, which pornography clearly violates. Therefore, there are explicit and implicit biblical commands against pornography.
The biblical passage most explicitly related to pornography is Matthew 5:27-28, where Jesus declares, “You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery. But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” In this passage during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expands upon the understanding of the Law. The seventh commandment states, “Do not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:14). While this was understood by the Jews to be physical adultery, Jesus clarifies that lust, adultery in the mind, is of equal weight to physical adultery. While Jesus’ statement, which equates lust with adultery, may seem extreme (and it most likely sounded extreme to Jesus’ Jewish listeners), it is not contrary to God’s design for sex and marriage in the Old Testament. God created people to be physical, psychological, and spiritual beings, and He designed the marriage covenant to be a faithful union of a man and a woman in all three areas. Therefore, mental adultery, or lust, is unfaithfulness to the marriage covenant that binds a man and a woman physically, spiritually, and psychologically.
In addition to Jesus’ declaration that lustful thoughts are equal to adultery, the Bible makes many other clear statements related to adultery and the proper view of sex. In True Sexual Morality, Daniel Heimbach thoroughly evaluates biblical standards for sexuality. Heimbach develops seven categories that biblical sex always fulfills. According to the Bible, sex should always be personal, exclusive, intimate, fruitful, selfless, complex, and complimentary13. According to Heimbach’s evaluation, these principles are God’s design for sex. However, pornography violates every single principle.
The personal nature of sex means that it must be relational. As Heimbach describes, this is the primary feature of biblical sex. In fact, all the other principles depend on the relational nature of biblical sex. This can be seen in Genesis 2, where God instituted marriage and sex. The unity between men and women, who leave their parents and cleave to one another, is central to God’s design for marriage. Pornography violates the personal principle for sex, because it is not relational. Pornography incites lustful thoughts and sexual actions toward objects, pictures, and images rather than individuals. It is not relational, thus violating God’s key principle for sex.
Beyond the personal attribute, pornography is not exclusive. As previously discussed, Jesus declared that lustful thoughts are the equivalent of adultery. Adulterous sex, including adulterous sexual thoughts, violates the exclusivity command for the sexual relationship.
Pornography is also not intimate. Heimbach states, “Sex must be intimate because God made sex to join souls and not merely to join bodies14.” Because pornography is impersonal and lustful, it cannot be intimate. It reduces sex to personal gratification, minimizing God’s purpose for sex. Because of this, it can easily be seen that pornography is not selfless. By definition, lustful thoughts are selfish, only satisfying personal cravings. God’s design for marriage and sex is that it be selfless, modeled after the selfless actions of Jesus Christ. Pornography destroys this model.
Pornography is also not productive. In fact, it is unproductive. Pornography is not just neutral, not producing anything. Pornography actually erodes the heart, the mind, and the soul. It disrupts marriages, impedes relationships with God, and damages future relationships.
The complexity dimension of biblical sex is directly related to God’s creation of humans. God designed humans to be complex individuals with a spiritual, physical, and psychological dimension. Because of the complexity of His creation, God has designed sex to be pleasing to all dimensions through the context of marriage. However, pornography violates this, because it reduces sex to the physical and the mental, ignoring the spiritual aspects of sex. In fact the complexity of sex is a primary reason why youth need to be taught that merely physical abstinence is not enough. God desires that sex be kept holy on a physical, spiritual, and psychological dimension, in order that sex can be a wonderful blessing in all these complex dimensions during marriage. The complexity of individuals combined with the complexity of sex is the reason Jesus equates lustful thoughts with adultery. Sex is not merely physical, and neither is adultery. Therefore, it is obvious that pornography violates the complexity dimension of sex.
Finally, pornography is not complimentary. Heimbach states that complimentary sex “unites corresponding differences,” adding, “Unless sex brings corresponding differences together, it produces nothing of value, the parts never make up something whole, and sex never advances beyond individual isolation15.” Pornography cannot be complimentary because it is not relational. Thus, it can be seen that pornography does not merely violate some of God’s principles for sex; it violates them all. Pornography is unhealthy, unproductive, and unholy. It diminishes God’s design for sex, relationship, and fidelity. God has a much greater design for sexual satisfaction and beauty that is physically, spiritually, and emotionally fulfilling.
Reason for Biblical Perspective on Pornography
While it is often easier to take a stand against pornography by citing biblical commands against lust, coveting, and adultery, it is more complete and even more accurate to declare that the Bible is against pornography because God is for things that are much better. God has a design for human relationships, marriage, sex, and families that flow out of His perfect nature. The reason God does not approve of pornography is that He has a much better plan for sexuality and marriage. God created sex and marriage, and, being the Creator, He has a design where sex and marriage can flourish, achieving His purposes, which flow out of His perfect character. God’s design is that marriage be a representation of Christ’s relationship with the Church, so that Christian couples can use their marriage to help share the love of God with others.
God’s moral laws and commands in Scripture go beyond rule keeping and legalism. God has created moral standards for His people because He desires what is best from them. Marriage, beauty, and sex are God’s designs, and since He is the Creator, He knows what is needed so that they can achieve their purposes. A proper orientation of sex, as the union between a man and a woman in the covenant of marriage, moves couples much closer to God’s perfect purposes for relationship, marriage, and holy living. The proper practice of sex and self-discipline to keep marriage sacred, holy, and free of lustful thoughts will help lead to a godly marriage between a husband and wife, and a godly marriage can serve as a powerful witness to the world about the sacrificial love of Christ, God’s perfect plan for human life, and the joy of being in a committed, self-sacrificing relationship. As God’s covenant with Abraham was designed to be a blessing to Abraham and to all the peoples of the world (Gen. 12:2-3), the marriage covenant between God, a husband, and a wife is designed to bless the couple and bless the world. It is this high purpose of marriage and sex that is deflated and minimized when people give into lusts of the flesh and unholy actions.
Pornography is dangerous on multiple levels. It is a sinful action that corrupts the mind and the soul, distorts God’s design for sexuality, beauty, and womanhood, and taints current or future marriage relationships. God’s objection to pornography is grounded in His design for marriage, because pornography inhibits sex and marriage from being what God designed. Additionally, pornography has numerous personal consequences related to the heart, the mind, and the soul. So, Christians should guard their eyes and their souls from pornographic images, in order to live a more holy life, not for the sake of legalism, but to achieve God’s perfect purposes. As the issue of pornography confronts Christians, they should heed the words of John: “[T]he lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one’s lifestyle—is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever” (1 John 2:16-17).
Protect yourself—No matter how strong you think your willpower is, continually protect yourself from the dangers of pornography. Like most things, it is much easier to resist pornography if you are never tempted by it. Be honorable in the websites you visit, the movies you watch, and the magazines you read.
Protect your family—Be careful about what types of media your family is consuming. Install parental controls on your television and computer. Also, be watchful of the websites, chat rooms, and weblogs your children and adolescents participate in. Many popular websites for teens and youth can be dangerous places for pornography and Internet predators.
Protect your computer—Install Internet filtering software, such as Bsafe Online, on all computers to prevent your family from accessing pornographic material online. Parents should also monitor the websites visited and time spent online by their children.
Contact your member of Congress—Contact your local member of Congress and your state representatives, expressing your displeasure with the accessibility of obscene material. Additionally, be watchful of when Congress is considering bills in committees and on the floor dealing with obscene material. At these times, it is imperative that you contact your member of Congress. Studies have shown that a vocal minority expressing their opinions before votes can have an impact on votes in Congress. The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission will keep you alerted on its website about times when you can make an impact by contacting your representatives.
Report obscene materials—Obscene materials encountered on the Internet or via email should be reported. The Department of Justice recommends http://www.obscenitycrimes.org , a project of Morality in Media, Inc.
Learn about God’s design for sex and marriage—God has designed marriage and sex for sacred purposes that glorify Him. Sex is not a selfish action to pursue lustful desires. Rather, it is a selfless action that intimately connects a husband and a wife committed to love each other in all dimensions. Gaining a proper understanding of God’s view of sex and marriage will help you see how much greater His view of them is than the world’s.
Learn to appreciate true beauty—The world’s view of beauty is a distorted view of what God deems beautiful. The world largely discounts inner beauty and instead focuses on physical beauty, giving men and women a false understanding of true beauty. God sees beauty as the unity of the physical, the psychological, and the spiritual. Commit yourself to seeing beauty as God created it rather than how the world defines it.
All Scripture is from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
1 Pornography Statistics, Family Safe Media (2007).
3 ChristiaNet Poll Finds That Evangelicals Are Addicted to Porn Market Wire, 7 August 2006.
4 Jan LaRue, “Road to Perversion is Paved with Porn,” Human Events, 19 April 2006.
5 “Pornography Statistics,” Family Safe Media.
6 Morality Continues to Decay, The Barna Group, 3 November 2003.
7 Roth v. United States (1957).
8 Miller v. California (1973).
9 Reno v. ACLU (1997).
10 U.S. Department of Justice, Citizen’s Guide to United States Federal Exploitation and Obscenity Laws.
11 “The President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography” (1970), qtd. in The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis, by Robert P. George (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), 114.
12 Robert P. George, The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), 123.
13 Daniel R. Heimbach, “Biblical Principles Shape Moral Sex,” in True Sexual Morality: Recovering Biblical Standards for a Culture in Crisis (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 153-173.
14 Ibid., 161.
15 Ibid., 170.