This series explores sexuality and lust through the lens of the doctrine of two kingdoms, asking “What does love and sexual holiness, modeled after Christ, looks like in contrast to lust and sexual violence?”
The three sections of this series are as such:
- Part 1: Lust, Love and the Doctrine of Two Kingdoms
- Part 2: The Violence of Lust and Pornography
- Part 3: Sexual Sin, Purity, and Bearing One Another’s Burdens
There needs to be a fundamental change in the way Christians talk about sexual desire and sexual sin. This can first begin with the recognition that the sin of pornography as an expression of lust has stark and concerning similarities to power-based sexual exploitation. Porn is, in fact, often the sin of abuse and assault. There are several reasons for this.
Firstly, pornography is an industry that exploits and does violence to those who produce it. You may have heard of revenge porn, which is when videos of a person are posted without their consent. This directly contributes the risk of sexual attacks for many women (Citron and Frank, 2014). Paid porn actors and actresses often work in exploitative conditions and are threatened, controlled and coerced with violence. Many are also victims of human trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery. According to Ludzick (2017, pp.138-139),
pornography plays a unique role in fueling the human trafficking industry by both contributing to the demand for more traditional forms of sex trafficking and creating another route to profit for traffickers who enslave victims for the production of pornographic media. Evidence shows that pornography increases demand for sex trafficking… the very production of pornography often relies on trafficked victims. Through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, a major element in proving trafficking cases, pornography producers create pornographic materials of trafficked adults. Some of this porn is created for private consumption, but much is produced for commercial distribution. This means that porn that is bought and sold online legally may have been created illegally using trafficked persons.
Secondly, pornography does not simply portray sex, but a perverted form of sex that feeds the lust for violent power.
Certain types of internet pornography provide readily available sources of violent and exploitative imagery. This imagery normalizes these acts in the minds of some users. Additionally, those who heavily use such pornography may gradually become habituated to it, and seek to recreate those sexual acts themselves with trafficked persons to gain further satisfaction. (Luzwick, 2017, p.138)
Pornography, especially violent pornography, is shaping the teenagers of our day and has been linked to teen dating violence (Rostad, et al., 2019). Similarly, according to the Focus for Health Foundation, citing Bridges, et al. (2011) and Shore and Seida (2018),
According to a 2010 study that analyzed 304 scenes from best-selling pornography videos, almost 90% of scenes contained physical aggression, while nearly 50% contained verbal aggression, primarily in the form of name-calling. Targets of these displays of aggression were overwhelmingly women and either showed pleasure or neutrality in response to the aggression. Some studies that have shown nearly 90% of pornography depicts violence while other studies have placed the prevalence at only 2%. One of the most disturbing facts about the prevalence of violence in porn is that nobody can agree on what they consider to be violent content. What can be proven rather definitively is the association between pornography use in general and violence against women.
A meta-analysis published in Aggressive Behavior confirmed this link, and went on further to state that there was a significant correlation between sexually violent pornography and attitudes supporting violence against women. This correlation supports findings suggesting that increased pornography use has an influence on non-conscious responses to stimuli, meaning that we are both consciously and unconsciously being conditioned by pornography in a negative way. Consuming any content on a consistent basis has a way of altering our perceptions about that content, and pornography is no different. If one were to watch violent pornography frequently, it would desensitize them to both pornography and violence, specifically towards women. As Norman Doidge of Columbia University puts it, “pornography, by offering an endless harem of sexual objects, hyperactivates the appetitive system. Porn viewers develop new maps in their brains, based on the photos and videos they see. Because it is a “use it or lose it” brain, when we develop a map area, we long to keep it activated”. Porn changes perceptions, neural pathways, and lives as well, especially when introduced at younger and younger ages via the internet. The Witherspoon Institute presented documents titled The Social Costs of Pornography: A Statement of Findings and Recommendations. These documents posited that no gender or age group remains unaffected by porn. Most of the harm associated with pornography spawns from the intense behavior-teaching and permission-giving experience within the highly effective teaching context of sexual arousal, where violent sexual actions are demonstrated, repeated, encouraged, and/or proscribed via information-rich images.
One example of the lust for violence was a recent highly-publicized case of a “conservative Christian” celebrity convicted of possession of CSAM (child sexual abuse materials). Authorities witnessing in the court explained how incredibly violent these materials were and how they depicted the literal, horrific, torture of very young children (*Source) – these materials were used for sexual gratification. Pornography of any kind is not victimless – it is in many cases the perverted enjoyment of the suffering of others accompanied, often, with feelings of egotistical power.
Committing an act of violence and having complete control over the body of a helpless person or child can feed a sense of power, a power that can be exercised at any time an abuser needs to reinforce “authority”. This is lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and the pride of life. This is why many derive sexual gratification from causing pain, and why physical punishment and sexual abuse of children can occur In the same acts – beating. Euphoric power and euphoric sexual gratification have significant overlaps. This is why Roman crucifixion was not only a violent act but a sexually abusive one, and why wartime sexual assaults are not merely sexual acts, but aggressive assertions of power and dominance.
Thirdly, pornography destroys relationships. Andrew Bauman describes the dysfunctional behaviour and mindset caused by addiction, the pornographic style of relating (PSR). This occurs when a sexual drive is conditioned to manifest itself in the desire for control as well as objectification (particularly of women, as the majority of pornography targets a male audience). This is the direct opposite of the New Testament picture of marriage among Christians – to lust is to debase a person, to love is to honor.
We do not merely live in a sexualized culture – we live in a pornographic culture where the exploitative view of sex permeates everything from children’s clothing to vehicle advertising. Jesus actually discusses the lustful/pornographic gaze in Matthew 5, highlighting a situation where someone sees a woman and violates her in his mind.
But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:28)
Lust is not merely innocent sexual desire, because sexual desire is holy and God-breathed. Lust is the desire to see and to possess… the desire to violate God’s design as laid down in Eden, the desire to be unfaithful to a covenant spouse (Malachi 2:16), etc… Jesus states that to gaze lustfully, with lustful intent, is the sin of adultery and unfaithfulness. He places the responsibility on the person who chooses to view a woman with lust, saying saying “if your eye causes you to sin…”
The Pharisees had a very different view. The “bruised and bleeding Pharisee” saw women as the source of lust and thus “runs against the wall so as to bruise himself and bleed” in order to “avoid looking at a woman” (Jewish Encyclopedia, n.d.). It can be said that seeing an attractive woman as the source and cause of impurity is a Pharisaical view. I would describe such a Pharasaical view as concerned with keeping yourself free from defilement and seeing others as the cause of your defilement. Such blame-shifting is often a symptom of the refusal to take responsibility for one’s own actions – exhibited for example when the conservative Christian celebrity mentioned earlier blamed “pornography addiction” for his deliberate actions of unfaithfulness towards his spouse (Denhoed, 2015). Similarly, a “nonviolent” “egalitarian” pastor was recently found guilty of sexual misconduct against a much younger woman he was counselling. He chose to minimize his actions by calling it an “affair” rather than naming it for what it was – clergy sexual abuse (Tomlinson, 2022).
The Pharisaical mindset was manifested when Jesus was criticized for eating and drinking with “prostitutes and sinners” and for allowing a “sinful woman” to touch him – personal holiness and purity to the Pharisees was something you preserved as a status for yourself, by keeping away from others who were threats to your piety and purity. Jesus said the very opposite: it was not the woman who caused the adulterer to lust, but the adulterer’s own lusts. Jesus viewed prostitutes and “sinful women” not as objects of lust-filled desire, but as His children, as human beings in need of wholeness and healing.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39)
Someone who says, “seeing such and such person caused me to lust” reveals that they are, in fact, still operating under the assaultive mindset of pornography. They still disrespect, debase, and objectify others in their minds, and until they move from the mindset of lust to the mindset of love and honor, to the mind of Christ, then they are simply refraining from one or two acts of sin but remaining in the body of sin. Sexual holiness is not merely the absence of lust but the overcoming reality of love.
The discussion surrounding lust and pornography needs to change, rejecting the self-centered blaming of others. Pornography itself is inherently selfish. Thus, salvation is not just personal freedom from personal vices in order to achieve perfect purity and abstinence, but a transformed way of looking at others. True healing means moving from brokenness and narcissism to wholeness and restored fellowship, to Eden, to relational holiness. Avoidance of the human beings that supposedly “cause” lust only cements in one’s mind that that other people exist solely as objects of sexual possession and fantasy. In one extreme case last year, a young man from a conservative Christian background, struggling with self-described sex addiction, violently ended the lives of the women he perceived to be the sources of his temptation (Luscombe, 2021).
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. (1 John 1:7)
Similarly, the Apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians associates “passionate lust” with doing wrong and taking advantage of another person. It was the responsibility of the Christian to avoid this kind of sexual immorality, to behave in a holy and honorable way towards their own body, and indeed, from the larger message of his epistles and the New Testament, to love. Love and lust cannot co-exist any more than light and darkness can, or Christ and Satan. They inevitably come into conflict.
For Christians, the purest motive of all is love. There is no fear in love, no selfishness, no exploitation, no cruelty… love is the motive for another’s good. It is the motive to create something beautiful that is to be shared.
Too often we think of the love Jesus demonstrated on the cross as sacrificial, one-sided love, love that means valiantly suffering for those who hate you. This is part of the Biblical narrative, sure, but we often focus on a broken picture instead of the whole picture. We love our enemies so that they will turn from hatred to love. Indeed, if we all rejected Jesus, then His love does not reach its fulfillment. It lingers, unreciprocated. He does not begin the world anew with a new creation. There is no church, no community. His love does not achieve what it sets out to accomplish. This is incomplete, a tragedy. It does not have the utmost spiritual value — if we idealize it, we may well end up idealizing abuse and harm.
The whole picture of Biblical love is a shared love like that of the Godhead, a love that exists in a state of oneness … God. Is. Love. God’s love demonstrated to us invites us into this relationship, into this space where agape abounds. I believe that purity is, first and foremost, loving another person and having a desire for their good.
In the final installment of this series, we will look at the ways Christians have addressed the topic of sexual sin and purity. If we are called to “bear one another’s burdens”, does this mean we can, in some way, prevent lust? If love is the opposite of lust, then how do we valiantly pursue such love in our midst?