Daily Life is mandatory reading for me. Its witty, funny, and insightful articles shine a spotlight on issues—like white privilege, racial profiling, and pornography—that don’t always get an airing on mainstream media. That’s why I leapt upon Erin Stewart’s ‘Paid to watch porn’, a piece canvassing Jeff Sparrow’s book Money Shot for its insight into porn debates today. Stewart’s rundown of both sides of this fractious debate doesn’t disappoint, but I couldn’t help but take issue with one detail in particular: its use of the word ‘immoral’ that invariably gets paired with the enemy of all well-meaning, reasonable people: Christians.
Why don’t we all shudder now and get it out of the way?
To be fair, the characterisation of Christians as the moral police is a tiny point in Stewart’s otherwise fine article. But when she talks about the anti-porn movement’s unlikely alliance between radical feminists and Christians—specifically, “Christian Lobbies who think that depictions of pre-marital sex are immoral”—as a Christian I’m finding it hard to simply turn the other cheek.
It’s true that anti-pornography activists might be taken aback at finding themselves campaigning alongside people with completely different values and beliefs. It’s my hope, however, that any initial shock gradually gives way to pleasant surprise as members of each group discover much to like about the other. I’ve heard a prominent, Australian, anti-pornography campaigner say as much about the friendships formed as a result of gathering around a common cause.
But it’s too easy to assume that immorality is the only thing Christians want to bang on about (pun intended), and pre-marital sexual immorality at that. Maybe prominent Christians talk about sex way too much, but if pre-marital sex was really the issue, then why haven’t we seen moves to boycott Magic Mike, Bridesmaids, No Strings Attached, or any other film of recent years depicting the dreaded knocking of the knees before a ring got put on it?
When it comes to porn, Christians are far more concerned about the effects it can have on people. These days it’s entirely normal to first encounter pornography at the tender age of 11. That age is ‘tender’ not because I’m waxing nostalgic about the innocence of childhood—though that is an issue—but because many sexologists tell us that at that age a young person’s budding sexual self is all too easily shaped by the demands and desires of easily accessible pornography. So pre-marital sex is less of an issue than whether porn has any business shaping pre-pubescent sexuality.
There’s also a capitalist dimension to the Christian critique of porn. Like any other massive industry—Big Pharma, Big Tobacco, Big Food—Big Porn is invested in creating an insatiable demand for its product in order to make money. It turns out that orgasms don’t just provide heady hits of positive reinforcement to make the porn consumer come back for more but rake in billions and billions of dollars for porn producers. And so Christians concerned about unrestrained greed and the subordination of everything to money have good reason to fight against porn because it is big business.
But we haven’t yet dealt with that horrible term ‘immoral’. It’s the kind of word that probably never went down well in polite company, but today it’s acquired a nasty, judgy, self-righteous zing—courtesy of, well, people like me. I’ll be the first to concede that Christians haven’t done so well when it comes to loving others instead of judging them. Too often we’ve been more like that crowd talked about in the Gospel of John, that drags before Jesus the woman caught in adultery and bids him to condemn her as they do. We’re less like Jesus, who doesn’t overlook what she did, but refuses to condemn her for it.
So it’s entirely regrettable that the failure of Christians past and present to live up to Jesus’ example has given people reason to dismiss the faith entirely. But the familiar media portrayal of Christians en masse as a harsh, unforgiving bunch doesn’t do justice to the efforts of faithful Christians both in Australia and abroad who are less interested in policing the sexual morality of others than in fighting poverty, sex trafficking and hunger, and giving an education to those who want one.
And if you don’t believe me, just hear Half the Sky co-author and New York Times columnist Nick Kristof jump to the defence of Christians involved in humanitarian work: “I’m not particularly religious myself, but I stand in awe of those I’ve seen risking their lives… and it sickens me to see that faith mocked at New York cocktail parties.” For Kristoff, that “casual dismissal” of Christians amounts to a “reverse bigotry” that is “profoundly unfair” to the evangelical movement as a whole.
In fact, Kristof may have some wisdom for those feeling awkward at the way anti-porn campaigns make strange bedfellows of groups that might not always see eye to eye—like Christians and radical feminists:
“Religious people and secular people alike do fantastic work on humanitarian issues—but they often don’t work together because of mutual suspicions. If we could bridge this ‘God gulf,’ we would make far more progress on the world’s ills.”
Perhaps a way to start would be if both sides were willing to let up on the mutual suspicions as well as the easy stereotypes.
Justine Toh is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Media, Music, and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University.
This article orginally appeared on Daily Life.