Kyle stood numbly in front of the church leadership. He was a big, sprawling redhead who always had a smile for people, and when he led the worship portion of the service, did so with sincerity and reverence. Today however, his face was glum. I sighed and looked over at the men and women in leadership. There was some sympathy in the younger set, but the deacons, the ones who comprised the lay leadership and handled the church finances, did not look happy. Brad – the church treasurer – looked at the others before finally breaking the silence.
"We accept your apology, Kyle. But you'll have to step down from leadership. We can't be having immorality in our leadership, and while I know you love Sarah, you aren't married yet."
Kyle nodded, his face red. Someone in the church had caught wind that his relationship with his long time girlfriend had become sexual and reported it to my senior pastor, who'd then gone to Kyle with it. Kyle had confessed that they were having sex, and Pastor Hall had told him that he'd have to apologize to the leadership of the church, and that they would go from there. I'd tried to excuse myself from the meeting, but Pastor Hall had been adamant that ALL of the leadership needed to be there, including the youth pastor.
"Is there anything else, Kyle?" Brad said.
"Um, no, sir." His words tumbled out in a half slur, a stark contrast from his singing voice, which was strong and clear. "I'm really sorry about this. I love Sarah, but we sinned. I love God so much…"
Pastor Hall stood up. He was short and stout, and his white hair was thicker than mine, although he was well into his sixties.
"Thank you Kyle. We know that wasn't easy. We'll give you our decision later this week."
Kyle mumbled something under his breath and walked out. I followed him to the parking lot a few minutes later after a word with my boss, but he was already gone. I knew what the Bible said about leadership and expectations, but the whole experience felt dirty to me. At least the leadership wouldn't gossip about it, I knew that much. My church was small, about a hundred and fifty people, but when it came to things like this, there would be no discussion with other members. Pastor Hall wouldn't tolerate it. Still, it didn't change what had happened, or the fact that I felt like I'd bathed in dirty water. And it wasn't Kyle's sex life that had me feeling like a creep.
Growing up in a small town in a conservative home meant information about sex was not forthcoming. Rumours and whispers after school when I was young, chatter in the locker room and at parties as I got older. I was still a virgin when I became a youth pastor, and I still knew relatively little about sex. That made it tough, because as a youth pastor, the one thing teenagers (well, all of us) are especially interested in, is sex. What I did know was that it was wrong. Sinful. A crime against your body. Unless you were married, of course, at which point it underwent a startling transformation to something amazing and wonderful and a special sign of your love for your spouse. That's what I knew, so that's what I taught. The internet was in infancy back then and pornography still required a visit to the video store or the magazine rack, but there were nights when I caught glimpses on flickering, blocked cable stations. It was sin, that much I knew, but there was something exciting about probing the darkness around a topic that was completely not only muted in the religious circles I travelled in, but a topic I knew so little about.
It wasn't until I'd left the ministry that porn became more interesting to me. That coincided with its availability as the internet blossomed. Even when I became engaged, I found porn to be more and more enticing. I was twenty four, and what I knew about sex could be summed up in two sentences. Sex outside of marriage was sin. Sex was great. That was the sum total of my knowledge, which, looking back, is mildly terrifying in that I was teaching others about it. I railed against pornography, and joined in condemning it with my Christian friends, while secretly watching it on occasion. Unfortunately, I never learned anything new about sex. All porn did was reinforce what the Christian books said about sex being guilt inducing and sinful. I felt dirty every time I looked at it.
What no one had prepared me for, however, was the marital transformation, the point where sex stopped being sinful and suddenly became wonderful. Despite the sudden "freedom", and the fact I engaged all the "Christian" jokes with my friends about being a "do-er of the Word", sex was never great. It wasn't even good. Mostly, it caused problems. I couldn't figure out what was wrong with me. I read a number of 'Christian' books on the subject, but they were no help at all. Mostly they parroted one another and kept sexuality in a guilt laden frame. It would be a number of years before I learned that what I thought I knew about sex was either a myth, or misinformation used to control me. And even then, I rejected it, because the human tendency is to hold to our illusions, even when they're destructive.
What I never expected however, was to be confronted with the truth that most religions (Christianity, Mormonism, Islam) view sex the same way pornography does.
Religion and pornography have seemingly always been at odds with one another, ever since the advent of photography and later film turned porn into an industry. (For the purposes of brevity, we'll skip the naked drawings and sculptures that have marked all civilizations of recorded history, along with the growth of pornography as technology has made it more available.) The two have always been seen as enemies, with religions uniting in the fight against pornography, their members leading the charge in cities and states to have it banned. And yet, the relationship between the two is not what it seems. Just as most people mistake love and hate as being opposites, with the true opposite of love being apathy, religion and porn are not opponents. They are, in fact, step-children of the same parents, children who squabble and make a lot of noise in public, but fall asleep at night in the same bedroom.
Religion perceives pornography as sin. An abomination. A dark evil. Most of that has to do with lust, the idea that any 'lust' outside of your marriage partner is sin. According to most religions, watching other people having sex and being excited by it is not only sinful and wrong, it's gross. Why would anyone watch that? They must be perverted.
Pornography perceives religion to be upheld by a bunch of uptight jerks that are self-righteous and deny their own humanity. Sex is not only good in marriage, but all the time. Isn't that what freedom is for, and clearly, sex feels good. So why not experience it as often as you can? Besides, watching porn is not the same as having sex with someone else. Why not celebrate the human body and watch other hot bodies go at it? What's the harm?
There would seem to be no middle ground between the two, except that both religion and pornography endorse a shallow and immature view of sex. Pornography is senses based, and so promotes that aspect of sex. With a nod to the fact it does feel good (sin feels good), religion considers only the spiritual aspect of sex, is it sin or not. The end result is that most people have no understanding of the deep complexity of sex, and the joy that comes from an intimacy based approach, one that is freeing without being moralizing. Because our need for sex is so powerful, both religion and pornography use it to advance their own ends. Pornography to make money. Religion to control its adherents. Understand that when I say religion, there are no doubt clerics out there who do their best to promote a more complete view of sex. But religion, by its very definition, is incapable of nuance.
But the most disturbing aspect of this is how the two shallow views of sex actually promote one another. That is to say, the more religious people talk about the evils of sex outside of marriage and how degrading porn is, they more they serve to add to porn's growing audience. The reason for that is not only the tendency of people to explore "darkness", but the sense of freedom in pornography when it comes to sexuality. For those raised in a culture of sexual shame, pornography presents sex as a celebration of something innately human. Unfortunately, porn is not actually about freedom. All it does is objectify an incredible gift and turn it into a pretty package so you will spend more money. Even more damaging is the implication within porn is that sex is merely a physical act. Watch enough porn and it dominates how you look at people, and how you measure them. Suddenly, people become commodities, and most of the time that means women. But when a religion argues that it has stood against porn for exactly that reason, they're lying through their teeth. For example, if Catholicism was interested in a mature, positive view of sex, it never would have banned contraceptives. As it is, it practically promotes pornography as the only alternative to a very human need.
We may not like it, but the truth is that religion funds pornography. Religion uses sex to sell its ideas of morality and porn uses religion to sell its false sentiments about sexual freedom.
Instead of hating porn, religious people should be dismissing it as we do childish views about the world, and looking to the positives that we can find in an intimate, emotionally connected relationship.
That isn't to say that porn is not destructive. Of course it is. And no matter what or who you read, there is little evidence to support the idea that porn is helpful. However, the market for it continues to grow, which means that it is filling a need. It's just not filling that need in a positive manner.
Porn is an addiction. That's what we've been told by psychologists and experts, and there's a growing list of textbooks and articles that deal with it. Unfortunately, the addiction label isn't very helpful in that it, once again, frames an immature sexuality within a negative frame. It certainly doesn't point us towards a healthy sexuality. Instead, it has become simply another item to add to the growing list of things people are 'addicted' to. A sampling of other addictions could include television, sugar, coffee, nicotine, sex, football, alcohol, marijuana, working out, candy, movies, Starbucks, work, fashion, cars, dating, computers, Facebook, food, and religion. There is not enough space here to debate our tendency to rank addictions, some of which are considered very bad (drugs, alcohol, porn) and some which are considered mild. (caffeine, candy) But we miss the point in that addictions are nothing more than ritually repeated behaviours which we use to help us deal with certain issues we have either not addressed or do not understand. That is, addictions are ALWAYS symptomatic of something else, and while they can reveal the destructive nature of people (think drunk man on a rampage) the problem is not with the thing which holds us, but the emotional and spiritual structure within the individual who manifests the symptoms. Professional, unbiased counseling often helps when it comes to addictions (we still have to be open to what we hear), so much as it helps us learn more about ourselves and teaches us new and healthier ways to deal with our issues. That's why religion is often ineffective when it comes to addictions, because it simply paints behaviours as sin but refuses to address the real issue. (There are a number of enlightened churches that reference professional counselors, and they should be commended for that.)
When it comes to pornography however, we do not regard it as we do other addictions. Within Christianity (as with most religions), pornography is simply evil, with no further explanations offered. Men and women who watch porn are perverts and sinners. And yet, in religious circles, the extreme levels of disgust directed towards pornography are completely inappropriate, and yet consistent with our fascination with "sexual sin." In biblical tradition, the most galling sin is pride. But you don't see people marching to remove pride from their town. You don't see lectures and townhall meetings and conferences to serve the need for more humility. You don't see religions uniting to talk about the need for humanity to be honest about their faults and admit them to the Creator.
Instead, religion commodifies sex in the form of negative advertising and sells its message to promote its own ideas about morality. It uses the mystery and power of sex for self-promotion in the same manner that pornography does, and in so doing, ignores the crying need in the populace for a better model of what sex is and what it can be. In short, it sells its soul for more adherents and more power.
Religion has created an aura of shame around our sexuality. Within Islam, that view is reflected in the treatment of women as sexual tempters and lesser citizens. Within Christianity, we can effectively date much of our current "shameful" view of the body back to Augustine and the predominant Greek influence of sinful flesh and the purity of the soul, a duality that did not exist within Judaism until after the first century.
When I think back over my life these past twenty five years, since the time of my first embarrassing erection, my ideas about sex have been largely guilt inducing. No freedom. No gratitude towards God for giving us such a powerful gift. In that way, as with many people I have counseled and spoken with through the years, both in and out of church, sex has been both the seed and seat of true dysfunction and a great deal of pain.
That isn't to say that I have it all figured out, because I do not. I have learned some things however, like the understanding that there is a difference between our genital prime, which happens at a relatively young age, and our sexual prime, which doesn't happen until late into our forties and early fifties. All of this impacts our view not only of life, but the foundations on which we build our relationships. Sad to say, neither religion nor porn do much to help, and in fact, have evolved into a destructive tandem that is not interested in what is best for us, and works actively to keep us in our sexually built hovels of ignorance. We may not like it, but sometimes the thing our religion wants and what God has for us are not the same. And that framing our sexuality in a culture of evil only serves our maddening tradition of defining ourselves only by what we are against.
Do you believe God wants the best for you? Do you believe God wants you to be in a healthy relationship? Do you believe that God, who created you, finds sexuality dirty and shameful? No. Neither do I. How about we move together then, towards a healthier sexuality and remove the stigma of shame from our discussions. Perhaps then we will no longer see the need to embarrass people in the name of our God, and in so doing, embarrass ourselves.
Authour's Note: I highly recommend Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch. For many people, including myself, it's been a life changing book.
Authour's Note II: As always, names and places are changed in my examples to protect the privacy of people.