In a pornified culture like ours, it’s no wonder various scenes from mainstream films and television shows demonstrate a “porn aesthetic” (to borrow a phrase from academic Shelton Waldrep). We’re not just talking about raunchy comedies, erotic thrillers, or TV-MA (“mature audience”) HBO shows. Works of otherwise genuine artistry and quality storytelling can be tainted by the inclusion of a sex scene or two.
A recent example is Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Oppenheimer. Based on my observations of online chatter, Christians—among many others—generally agree the sex scenes in the film are gratuitous. The disagreement seems to be in how to respond to such material.
Some outright reject films with hypersexualized scenes. Hot takes include “That film is nothing but a piece of trash.” While a revulsion toward sexual immorality is commendable, such generalizations miss the complex reality that a given film might be a stellar work of art (with true and morally good themes) and at the same time morally compromised. It need not be one or the other.
A given film might be a stellar work of art (with true and morally good themes) and at the same time morally compromised.
However, an equal and opposite error exists: downplaying the immoral nature of a porn aesthetic to justify the “greater good” of the overall work. Those who take this posture typically utilize at least one of the following five arguments. Each deserves to be addressed directly and reasonably.
1. The Percentage Argument
Some say, “We’re talking about two minutes out of a two-hour movie.” The idea is that the relative shortness of the scenes negates any serious concern. The good far outweighs the bad. But assessing something immoral based on percentages is arbitrary. Are two minutes of pornified content better than, say, 10 minutes? Is a solitary, one-minute scene OK but two one-minute scenes too much? Rather than answering subjective questions like that, we might want to ask better questions. There are issues much deeper than mere percentages.
2. The Art Argument
Some reject comparing simulated on-screen sex with porn. “It’s a work of art, not pornography,” they say. Nevertheless, it’s far from prudish or draconian to suggest that, in a porn-saturated culture, the lines have been blurred between porn in the context of narrative art and porn in the context of illicit pleasure. Even secular scholars are making the connection. In his recent book The Space of Sex: The Porn Aesthetic in Contemporary Film and Television, the aforementioned Waldrep writes, “Ultimately, the line between what is and is not porn has eroded to the point that the distinction no longer has any meaning.”
It’s true that simulated sex in films and television usually avoids the explicitness of hardcore pornography. But defining porn as “only that which is explicit in the extreme” is reductionist. It’s a refusal to acknowledge what even secular sources recognize, and it gives off a naive and nonchalant aura.
3. The Category Argument
This approach broadens the category under discussion so a rejection of a porn aesthetic suddenly looks like a rejection of much more. It involves rhetorical questions like “Is all nudity in art sin?” “Do you want to castrate Michelangelo’s David?” and “Should we condemn the Song of Solomon too?”
In a porn-saturated culture, the lines have been blurred between porn in the context of narrative art and porn in the context of illicit pleasure.
In Christian circles, possibly the most popular form of this argument says, “The Bible’s use of sexuality is R-rated.” It sounds plausible because there are portions of Scripture that address grisly, gross, and graphic topics. But the Bible is a work of literature, not film.
The Bible’s text-based form (as opposed to the image-based form of films and TV) makes a world of difference in how its content is experienced. It’s a mistake to conflate the vastly different categories of written and visual narratives. The Bible has never been, nor will it ever be, submitted to the Motion Picture Association for an official CARA (Classification and Ratings Administration) rating. As such, Scripture isn’t rated R, or G, or anything else. The categories are different.
4. The Sliding-Scale Argument
This assertion compares one visual story with something obviously far worse: “That show is nowhere near as bad as Game of Thrones.” Such arguments assume the moral acceptability of a film or show so long as it avoids sinking to the bottom of the barrel.
Yet a moral standard is something to rise up and aspire to, not a baseline level of depravity to (barely) avoid. For the Christian moviegoer, sexual morality isn’t a game of limbo (“How low can you go?”); it’s an issue informed by the allowances, prohibitions, and general wisdom of Scripture. Comparing one form of sexual compromise with a worse form of compromise is, at best, to flirt with practicing situation ethics. Our guideline for evaluating pop culture’s malleable sexual ethics should be the unmalleable Word of God—not the lowest common denominator.
5. The Effect Argument
This argument minimizes the overall effect of the objectionable scenes: “Sex scenes are so boring” or “They’re more tedious than anything else.” I’ve seen such words used to describe the main sex scene in Oppenheimer, but then I also came across this statement of the same scene in GQ: “There is something deeply erotic about it.” One person’s “boring” is another person’s “erotic.”
Making judgments about the effect of a particular film involves making judgments about the temptations likely to snare others—not just yourself. You may downplay how affected you are by sexual imagery, but it’s often impossible for us to know what effect the same images will have on others.
Our guideline for evaluating pop culture’s malleable sexual ethics should be the unmalleable Word of God—not the lowest common denominator.
Ultimately, the effect argument unintentionally displays the desensitizing nature of pornified media on audiences. What does it say about us as a culture—and a Christian subculture—if one of our main responses to softcore sex scenes is “I find them boring”? Sadly, the porn-infused visual diet of some Christians has deadened their senses to the point that they’re actually the weaker brother, not the stronger one.
When Immaturity Masks as Maturity
Films can address serious, and even sordid, sexual issues without being exhibitionist or prurient. Examples from the last several years include Room, Spotlight, The Assistant, and She Said. “Mature” content certainly isn’t off-limits, as long as it’s handled in a legitimately mature way—creatively suggesting what’s happening without depicting it explicitly.
Exactly how a film’s artistry and morality weigh against each other is up for debate. Are there any contexts in which a Christian can patronize films that utilize a porn aesthetic in one or more scenes? Is it acceptable to use filtering services (or the fast-forward button) to do so? At what point should a Christian reject an otherwise masterfully crafted work of art, based on moral grounds? These are challenging questions modern Christian audiences must grapple with.
Such questions aren’t adequately answered—let alone genuinely addressed—by the five faulty forms of rhetoric examined above. Through oversimplification, misdirection, and obfuscation, these arguments sidestep the presence and prevalence of a porn aesthetic in our entertainment.
That’s not mature. Functionally speaking, it isn’t even a real argument. It’s an excuse.
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