Forged in Jesuit logic and tempered in the cold bath of science. I nevertheless understood at that second the ancient obsession among the God-fearing for another kind of fear: the thrill of exorcism, the mindless whirl of Dervish possession, the puppet-dance ritual of Tarot, and the almost erotic surrender of seance, speaking in tongues, and Zen Gnostic trance. I realized at that instant just how surely the affirmation of demons or the summoning of Satan somehow can affirm the reality of their mystic antithesis - the God of Abraham.
Father Paul Dure in Dan Simmons' Hyperion
This is a post that I've been woolgathering about for a while. It's going to be one of those long chaotic ones. It's about sexuality, pornography, prostitution and sadomasochism. And religion. Consider yourselves warned.
Up front: I have no issue at all with homosexuality, am in favour of legalizing prostitution forthwith in the rest of the world as it is in the Netherlands, my main gripe with pornography is the poor quality of a lot of it, and I find sadomasochism relentlessly fascinating. This put me at odds, in part or in whole, with the mainstream of Christian opinion, as well as with the feminist-influenced Left (the standpoints of both overlap to some extent).
By 'mainstream of Christian opinion', I mean that body of opinion which tends to relate critically towards homosexuality and gay marriage, pornography, and legal prostitution. I am thinking here in terms of generalities which of course may belie the complexities of individual thoughts on the issue. Also, the underlying ideological basis of criticism is very different in case of the Protestant and Evangelical right than it is in case of the Catholic Church (or mainline Protestants, or Evangelical progressives, etc.), which tends to anchor its criticisms of, say, porn, into a general criticism of the commodification of humans and of human sexuality which relates to the Catholic Church's latent uneasiness with capitalism (in contrast, the Protestant right, especially in the US, seems to be extremely fond of capitalism).
Especially the Protestant and Evangelical right seem to be, at times, obsessed with such things as the photographic depiction of the girly parts of girls and the tendency of some men to scorn the girly parts of girls for the manly parts of men. As an example, take this letter from the Christian right group Focus on the Family warning about the horrors an Obama presidency would have inflicted on the United States by 2012. A remarkably large part of it is, you guessed it, about gays. I would bet that, regardless of their actual position on homosexuality, most European Christians would wonder why the gayness issue receives so much attention in comparison with, say, economic hardship and exploitation, environmental destruction, warfare, etc.
The unpleasant truth, I suspect, is that organizations such as Focus on the Family do not really mind such trivial issues as the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in Iraq, the legitimization of torture and dehumanization of prisoners by their own government, and so forth – not as much as the paramount issue of gays doing gay things with each other and wanting to get married.
The question which presents itself to this particular socialist-minded Dutchman is to what genuine extent James Dobson-style Christianity is 'Christian' and to what extent it is a rather idolatrous legitimization of American aggressive militarism and laissez-faire economics. It is, in any event, of rather slight religious interest to me, and my internal ideological 'sparring partner' in the sections below would be, instead, a Roman Catholic or a representative of traditional Protestantism or maybe a Christian feminist.
There is very little, if anything, about sexuality in the Gospels – only that Jesus seems to have been extremely critical towards divorce. The main passage in the NT which can be used to support a conservative sexual morality would be Paul's first letter to the Romans:
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. (Romans I: 21-26).
As basis for condemnation of homosexuality, I find it unconvincing. Paul was commenting here on sexual libertinism in Roman society, which cannot be unquestioningly identified with homosexuality in modern society – concepts such as ”homosexuality” as a sexual orientation in addition to heterosexuality did not really exist for the Romans and Greeks, but sexual relationships between men were widespread in addition to male-female marriage, rather than exclusive of it. Male-male relationships often enough involved a slave on one side of it (who did not necessarily have much say in the matter). The modern conception of homosexuality as a lifelong orientation was quite foreign to this mentality.
A sin is not a simple infraction of any specific rule from the Old and New Testament – the message of the New Testament is indeed precisely that it is not. Sin as a turning from or alienation from God is both condition and activity – and as an activity, it much more refers to one's intentions and motivations rather than the outward features and consequences of that activity. Love between persons cannot be sinful – but to the extent that sin as a condition prevents the lovers from loving each other perfectly, that some of the alienation between us and the other can never be quite overcome. But nonetheless interpersonal love is a heroic attempt to overcome sin-as-condition and in that sense revelatory of God (regardless of whether you believe in Him or not). I am convinced that love for gay men or lesbians is not of a different nature than that of heterosexual pairs and that's the end of it, as far as I am concerned.
This is an interpretation. I am not sure if it is the correct one (though I hope it is). But there is no level of reading the Bible without interpreting it in some fashion – and it is better to do so explicitly. The Bible is not a recipe-book with abstract rules and generalities (and it seems to be that Christ's message was precisely one of moving beyond such an understanding of Scripture).
My imaginary sparring-partner would have an immediate reply ready, and state that where I exempt safe, normative and socially acceptable homosexual relationships, the Pauline condemnation of sexual debauchery still stand – and with it, pornography, prostitution, darkrooms, a pretty significant part of the inner city of Amsterdam, etc. The above would be quite compatible with an interpretation of sexuality as a symbolization of interpersonal love but a simultaneous rejection of lust as a perversion of such a symbol. With my fondness for symbolism in concrete life and acts, my sparring-partner would suggest, I end up at an interpretation of sexuality which is quite compatible with that of the mainline Protestant Churches such as the Swedish Church, which are quite ”sex-positive” in that they will celebrate sexuality as a gift from God, will abandon moralizing about, homosexuality or, say, masturbation or premarital sex - but will still tend to resist pornography or prostitution as commodifying and objectifying.
I would answer that in this sense, the mainline Protestants follow general secular liberalism in looking at sexuality through rose-tinted glasses. In other words: sex is great, as long as it's consensual and safe and so forth – but let's not look at the seedy sides, the sex industry and its objectification of women, prostitution, etc. I think this is precisely idealizing sexuality too much. I do not believe ”lust” to be a sin in any kind of simple sense, but neither do I believe sexuality and sexual lust to be in any simple sense a gift from God – except for all the bad stuff.
Pornography is notoriously hard to define and I am not going to make any bad jokes about defining it. But the depiction of sexual acts and naked human beings in picture and text goes back quite a bit (though the cordoning off of such from mainstream society as precisely pornography may well be a very modern phenomenon). I generally have little time for feminist objections against pornography: I agree, to a large extent, that pornography deals with the commodification of sexuality, and of the human body, and that in this sense pornography very well reflects the values of modern capitalism (just as the sex industry itself is part of a capitalist economy, though still a fairly marginal one with a strong countercultural element at its more ragged edges). I want to be careful here for taking an overly Eurocentrist view (the Japanese had a flourishing pornographic culture, complete with the trademark tentacles and monsters etc., before Japan's forcible ”opening” to the West) but this is simply the way it looks from my neck of the woods. Where I would disagree is whether pornography is just that, or indeed, whether the focus on objectification, humiliation, etc. in some pornography (mostly the one focused on the most by critics of pornography) is even a bad thing. A liberal Christian take on pornography mentions that ”The critical feature of all pornography is not that it deals with sexual themes, but that it eroticizes violence, humiliation, degradation and other explicit forms of abuse.” and that no images are neutral. Indeed, they are not – but images have also a habit of meaning more than they mean at face value, or are intended to mean.
Opinions on pornography are often formed on filmed and photographed stuff from the post-Deepthroat era. But before that, of course, there were the erotic comics of the 50s and 60s such as the bondage-themed comics of Georges Pichard, erotic novels such as the hilarious 1907 slapstick Ten Thousand Rods of Apollinaire, etc., etc., etc. - I'm not interested in objections to the extent of ”this is not porn, it's art!” since I don't see how the two are mutually exclusive, and if the objection means that pornography should be more artistic, well, yes, that would be nice. In any event, go back to the end of the 18th century and you meet with Sade, who was both a pornographer as well as an artist and a philosopher. In fact, I think Sade is probably my favourite atheist philosopher, and this relates very much to the contradictions inherent in the man – which I believe is reflected, to an extent, in the contradictions inherent in pornography as well.
I've never been able to read Sade's classic 120 Days of Sodom from beginning to end. The book contains a catalogue of perversities and cruelties which is still utterly ”out there” (it is probably for the best that videocameras were not yet invented in Sade's day). But in all its relentless focus on dehumanization, objectification, cruelty, something interesting happens. The villains of Sade's texts (usually members of the aristocracy, or priests, which are depicted with slightly more venom) are pretty much empty shells. To the extent that they have internal worlds, that is not what Sade is interesting in. He's interested in the internal worlds of the victims, in their thoughts and feelings. Sade remarked rather darkly somewhere that women are capable of more refined cruelty than men because of their more delicate nervous system. He hit upon something important here: the basis of cruelty and sadism is indeed empathy. The ability to identify with the other, and with the other in pain (and I've wondered whether at least in some cases, sadism may not be a variety of masochism). And the fascinating thing about Sade is that he relentlessly criticizes conventional morality and conventional religion in his novels (seeing it as simply one more way of keeping the weak and oppressed in their place) precisely through exploiting the titillating, prurient aspects of cruelty and oppression. For all the bloodthirstiness in his novels, Sade detested the very real bloodthirstiness of the French revolution (and succeeded in averting quite a few executions during his time as a functionary in the revolutionary government).
This humanistic strain in Sade's writings is captured very strikingly in Pasolini's film adaptation of the 120 Days, Salo. The Marxist Pasolini's version is the best film I will not want to see again in the foreseeable future. By which I mean that the film (in which the plot is transplanted to Fascist Italy: four Fascist functionaries round up boys and girls to a remote mansion for a final debauched escapade before the inevitable defeat of the regime) is brilliant but quite hard to watch. It is ultimately strangely optimistic, in that a certain essential ”humanness” is shown as surviving against terrible odds. The four predators force two of their slaves to get married in a perversion of a marriage ceremony; then, they sit down to watch the boy rape the girl. It doesn't happen: the two shily shuffle towards each other, try to cuddle, but to not follow their masters' script. One of the guards starts an illicit affair with a servant at the mention: they are caught and their sexual action is of an all-too-human, all-too-affectionate nature for the four masters. As they put the boy against the wall to shoot him, he makes a defiant raised-fist salute before he is riddled with bullets, and in that fashion exposes the weakness of the masters: they can kill him, but they cannot defeat him. And most strikingly at the end of the film, as part of the slaves are brutally murdered in the courtyard, two of the guards find a record of dancing music, put it on, and start dancing. One of them asks the other what his girlfriend's name is. The answer is ”Margerita”. Here, ”humanness” survives in a place where the four Fascists are not even looking. For all their trying, they cannot stamp it out.
There is an element – explicit in Sade but often potentially in a lot of pornography – which subverts traditional gender roles, oppression, humiliation and dehumanization precisely through its depiction of it. Of course, a great deal of it is dross – but the part that is dross is often the safer, softer kind, the surgically or digitally enhanced American beauties of Playboy (and even Playboy retains a love for the subversive and countercultural in its writing, if not in its photography). The dross is not the focus of much of the criticism against pornography. Anti-porn activist Nikki Craft's pages are adorned with bondage pictures and Hustler cartoons. Which, to me, suggests that Craft has a tin ear for the media she rails against.
Sadomasochism (and here, for clarity, I am speaking of consensual sadomasochistic practice) plays with some very dark symbolism – the ropes, the display of power and submission, the controlled infliction of pain etc. - but in doing so, it tends to subvert and transcend that symbolism. Being bound up and gagged may, if taken at face value, signify loss of freedom, loss of agency and objectification – but for the participant, it may also signify the deep trust put in the partner. Love may be the ultimate end of sadomasochistic practice just as of any ”normal” sexual practice – precisely because the symbols involved sometimes seem to mean very much the opposite of love. By acting them out, they are disarmed. It need not be that serious of course. But even when Max Mosley went around spanking prostitutes while dressed up in a Nazi uniform, the meaning of the ritual was not that Max Mosley is, or wanted to be, a Nazi. Instead, he was making fun of authority figures (another mainstay in ”kinky” sexual practice as well as in pornography). Which is a rather anti-authoritarian thing to do.
Another example: mainstream pornography has been criticized a lot for the supposed racism inherent in its depiction of blacks. Suffice to say that 'interracial' is indeed a subcategory in pornography and that there are whole lines of movies whose title I shall not mention but refers simultaneously to the blackness of the black actor's member and the whiteness of the female actor. Here too there is no simple, face-value ”message”. It can be seen as reinforcing the stereotype that blacks are well-hung and sexually active. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that this is depicted as desirable from the white female actor's point of view. I think the bottom line is that stereotypes about blacks do exist among white males, and that these stereotypes focus on various aspects of the supposed masculinity of black men. What pornography does here is not so much create the stereotype as take it and make a joke out of it.
I'm not saying here that in no way pornography reinforces conventional role-models and sexual stereotypes. It does, but at the same time pornography in the West has always been countercultural, has always developed in opposition to the sexual mores of the day, and even with the commercialization and growth of the porn industry in recent decades, it cannot entirely lose that edge. It is part and parcel of the attraction. This point has has not been lost on some of those discontented with conventionalized gender roles and their reflection in pornography.
What, then, of the dark stuff? What of the quoted liberal christian notion that pornography ” eroticizes violence, humiliation, degradation and other explicit forms of abuse”? The bottom line is, that I am a complex person and I assume other men (hetero or gay) are no less complex. There is part of me that likes the eroticization of power-play, violence, humiliation and degradation. And if these are indeed as prevalent in pornography as claimed, I am hardly unique. At the same time, I am more than a collection of turn-ons. The dark sides of my and others' sexuality are not in themselves, I believe, sinful, but a relentless focus on them to the exclusion of the other person as a person, to approaching of and sharing with the other, which is love, which is very much the opposite of sin – rejecting all that is indeed sin.
At the same time, if the demonic side of me is not a place where I want to live, neither is the angelic. I also reject the high-minded sex-positive notion of sex as a simple and straightforward symbol of love. Because, things aren't like that. Things aren't that simple. I am simply not the person that the sex-positive but anti-pornographical liberal christians claim that I am.
(I'll have to save working out my position on prostitution for sometime later. But it flows pretty naturally from my somewhat jaundiced view on sexuality. And here, at least, I have tradition on my side).