Our Beacon Forum

Yes to Sex, Yes to Intimacy, and no to Pornography
By:Farhan Shah, Norway
Date: Tuesday, 9 July 2019, 1:40 pm

We offer a Muslim and Christian reflection on online pornography: "the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement."

We offer this because pornography is so influential in the respective cultures in which we live -- Norway and the United States -- including and perhaps most problematically among teenagers discovering their sexual identities. Please read the New York Times article above for much, much more. ​Here is but a snippet;

“There’s nowhere else to learn about sex,” the suburban boy told me. “And porn stars know what they are doing.” His words reflect a paradox about sex and pornography in this country. Even as smartphones have made it easier for teenagers to watch porn, sex education in the United States — where abstinence-based sex education remains the norm — is meager....​The problem with porn “is not just that it often shows misogynistic, unhealthy representations of relationships,” Vernacchio says. “You can’t learn relationship skills from porn, and if you are looking for pleasure and connection, porn can’t teach you how to have those.” ​

​How might we respond to this boy? First we might rightly wish that he had good sex education so that his teachers were sages not porn stars, and we might rightly wish that this education went beyond sex to mutually supportive relationships. We are well aware that he will not receive such education in the mosque or the church. In so many instances he will receive no teaching at all concerning sexuality, or he will receive teachings that support unhealthy and dominating gender relations. The teachers in such schools -- imams, ministers, priests, religious educators -- often need such education themselves. And they are not exactly to blame. They themselves are parroting teachings they have received from others, some of which may come from their traditions themselves.

What is needed, not only in public schools and in churches and in mosques, but also in society at large, is the emergence of fresh, honest, and nurturing understandings of sexuality, rooted in the best of positive science, to be sure, and also in the best of wisdom traditions, including Islam and Christianity. And these understandings must at the same time not pretend to exhaust what can best be described as the ineluctability of sexual desire itself.

In thinking about sex, it helps to begin cosmologically. Sexual excitement carries a power and a vitality, a yearning for harmony and a desire for intensity, that is human but more than human. Other animals feel the yearning and desire, and yet it is more than them as well. From our point of view as process theologians, the foundation of sexual activity lies in a eros that is within molecules and atoms as well, and still deeper. Wherever there is energetic attraction and, for that matter, energetic repulsion, there is something like sexuality. Or, to put it the other way around, sexuality is an expression of a primordial form of desire that precedes all that is human and animal. Even within the depths of atoms there is something alive and vital: a desire for intense experience in response to, and influential upon, other realities.

Given the power of sexual desire, it is not surprising that human cultural institutions – including the world’s religions – have been so poor at ‘managing’ it. It is a bit like human beings trying to manage a whirlwind, except that the whirlwind is psychological as well as physical, and it dwells within them.

In human life 'managing' the whirlwind is further complicated by gender-identities and gender-relations. Human cultural institutions, again including the world’s religions, have been relatively poor at understanding managing gender relations as well. And, of course, for thousands of years now, members of one “gender” – namely men in power – have been the self-designed managers. Both of our traditions are problematically patriarchal. We look forward to a more egalitarian future for Christians and Muslims alike.

In any case, a we think about pornography we try to keep this cosmic context in mind. And despite the abuses of sexuality found in pornography, we also try to keep in mind that the motivating impulses in sexual activity -- the desire for excitement -- have a spiritual side. So often sexual impulses partake of qualities of mind and heart that are quite healthy: joy, playfulness, intimacy, imagination, wonder, and creative self-expression.

The sexual dimension of human life is one context in which all of these can be known and experienced. Moreover, the qualities are ways in which humans can have touches of transcendence, tastes of God. At least so we believe, influenced as we are by process theology and its notions (1) that we humans are embodied beings,(2) that bodily pleasure in intimate and caring relations is good in its own right, and (3) that even the very Soul of the universe - even God - enjoys pleasure and receives pleasure from worldly joy.

Pleasure alone is not the highest good, but it is a good -- even for God.

What, then, is a still higher good that can include but also transcend sex. It is to become what one process thinker, Bernard Loomer, calls a soul with size. Here is how he puts it:

​"By S-I-Z-E I mean the stature of [your] soul, the range and depth of [your] love, [your] capacity for relationships. I mean the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality, the intensity and variety of outlook you can entertain in the unity of your being without feeling defensive or insecure. I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness. I mean the power to sustain more complex and enriching tensions. I mean the magnanimity of concern to provide conditions that enable others to increase in stature."

​If we unpack Loomer's paragraph we find that a wide has at least six characteristics:

- Capacity for Loving Relationships: A person with a wide soul enjoys range and depth in its capacity for loving relationships, helping others to become freer in their diversity and uniqueness. It is open-hearted.
- Open-Mindedness: A person with a wide soul can understand a variety of outlooks on life without feeling defensive and insecure. He or she is is open-minded.
- Openness to Complexity: A person with a wide sou has the power to sustain complex relationships and enriching tensions. He or she does not lapse into either-or thinking but is inclined toward both-and thinking.
- Tolerance for Enriching Tensions: A person with a wide soul can live with enriching tensions without being overwhelmed. He or she does not flee from constructive conflict.
- Personal Integrity: A person with a wide soul does all this while maintaining a sense of integrity. He or she sticks to its principles and enjoys a sense of individual freedom.
- Individuality: A person with a wide soul does not lose his or her agency or self-creativity. He or she celebrates diversity and delights in uniqueness, and it enjoys unique agency itself.

If we assume that this image of soul development carries wisdom, then the porn industry has two major problems. First, it distorts legimate needs for wonder, creativity, play, somatic intimacy through objectification and dehumanization. That is, the logic of porn industry is a form of reductionism. Human beings are viewed as tools and not an end in themselves. Second, It treats pleasure as an isolated good separable from growing and maturing into a wide and spacious soul.

​A process approach favors sex education (1) that consider sex in the context of legitimate spiritual needs; positive relations between equal human beings, and the natural drive to grow in spiritual aliveness (become a wider soul), (2) that sees sex in the context of committed and healthy relationships, and (3) that is open to the possibility that sex, in these contexts, brings a person into a "touch of transcendence" that partakes of God's own life. The porn industry neglects these three possibilities.

An additional problem is related to addiction, affecting the functioning of the brain and the body in a destructive way. One of the most severe symptoms of addiction is loss of control. Addiction to porn can control a person as powerfully as addiction to alcohol, such that "he" loses his power of decision. We are making clear that we are using the word "decision" in its etymological meaning of "cutting off". That is, according to the process perspective, human beings have limited but genuine power of choice. Among several possibilities, humans have the capacity to realise one. Neither past occasions nor God decide.

This self-determination and self-creativity underlies the sense of normative responsibility for what we choose and do and become in our individual capacity. Porn addiction reduces severely a person's capacity for agency, for becoming what the person uniquely becomes, all under the lens of free, bodily self-expression. In truth, the 'freedom' of bodily self-expression is a shallow freedom, compared to the freedom of being mindful, alive, thoughtful, and wonder-filled.

Thus the porn industry can be understood as a destructive industry in its own right, and also as a sickness of soul that is afoot in our modern culture. The sickness builds upon legitimate human needs.

​What is needed, more than moralistic revulsions against pornagraphy, are thoughtul presentations of vital, relationship-building, wonder-filled sexuality, which can be embraced by young and old alike. God's aims for all life are for those needs to be satisfying in ways that build strength of beauty, increases healthy self-actualization and thus wideness of soul.

Farhan Shah and Jay McDaniel