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Pop Culture, Porn Culture 2

sexy powerMy last post dealt with the issue of pop culture’s current fascination with all things porn-like.  I mentioned movies, reality television stars, and magazines.  I ended the post with a series of questions, pondering what it would be like for the church to engage in this issue.  If the fascination with porn is the culture’s way of expressing a current dialogue, I asked, then how could the church engage in that question.

Here is my answer.

1.       Understand the larger story.

The highly sexualized nature of the culture is incredibly complex.  We aren’t just talking about teenagers having sex.  Nor are we speaking solely about Victoria secret models and men’s magazines.  The culture’s sexual addiction goes all the way down to the likes of Toddler’s and Tiara’s, and Disney Princesses.  Beneath the issue of sexualisation is the issues of commodification, identity and freedom.  (I wrote a bit about this in the ‘Dismantling Princesses’ post).  The cultural message heard from a very young age is that nudity and sexuality is empowering and a mark of self-assuredness. Consider the ranks of celebrities who embrace either nudity or overt sexuality as a means to garner popularity.  In his new movie “That Awkward Moment” High-School Musical heart throb and all around-nice guy Zac Efron’ will be shown naked in a bathroom after his character takes a high dosage of Viagra. Also, despite the public outcry over Miley Cyrus’ pornographic dress, VMA performance, and music video, her recent album is currently #1 in 70 different countries. (Her VMA outfit is also the number one Halloween costume this year) The cultural message is not too hard to hear:  The true man is the one who is unashamed to bear his six-pack abs on the beach; the true woman is one who sees her body as a means to garner fame and popularity and entice the men who judge her.

Here the creation narrative of scripture can be helpful.  We can affirm the basic premise as held by culture that one’s nakedness is a sign of one’s strength of character and personal liberation (i.e., one’s true self).  After all, in the garden Adam and Eve were naked but felt no shame.  However, this is not the full story.  The pure expression of original nakedness  was corrupted in the fall.  The shame associated with nakedness and nudity is not based on the naked body itself, but on the twisted association with nakedness to commodification, objectification, and idolatry.  To be naked, or explicitly sexual in today’s culture, is to be objectified by the culture; it is to partake in a system that judges people based solely on their attractiveness and ability to sexually excite.  Thus, while the culture may say that overt sexuality is a means to empower one’s identity, it is actually serves to deny it.  Madonna, Sharon Stone, and Miley Cyrus may push the boundaries of sexually appropriateness as a means to ‘take control’ of their image, body and future, however in the process they merely enslave themselves to the ogling eyes of the culture.  Thus to tackle the issue of sexuality, we must tackle the issue or our God-given identity.

2.       Understand the confusion

In tackling this issue, one will undoubtedly run into the many contradictions, mixed messages, and U-turns that make this topic utterly confusing.  As an example, in the early 2000’s, both Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson made headlines by asserting their virginity while they danced provocatively on stage wearing next to nothing.   Brittney adamantly maintained her sexual purity (which was linked to her faith as a good Baptist girl) while she sang lyrics like ‘don’t you want to dance upon me” and “I really want to do what you want me to do.”  Purity and sexual adventure are held in tandem.  This confusion is seen in current television as seen in the hit television show “How I Met your Mother.”  The main character spends the series telling his children the story of his quest for authentic relationship, where sex is viewed as the full expression of love and commitment.  Of course, this quest occurs through the endless line of sexual escapades.  This same confusion occurs in shows like ‘The Tudors’, ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Reign’.  These shows are ‘romantic’ in period and in style, yet push the boundaries of appropriateness through their graphic depictions of sexuality.  While popular shows seem to value a more reserved, romantic vision of sensuality and sex, the manner it does so validates the overt sexuality dominant in the culture.  Answering the moral questions of ‘do this/don’t do that’, then,  is a lot more difficult because the culture is always serving up another vision of what sexuality should look like.

3.        Understand the deeper issue

Regardless if one believes in pre-marital sex or not, the cultural propagation of overt sexuality is not just about sex. As popular culture grows increasingly (and uncomfortably) cozy with porn culture, this has farther reaching implications that how one thinks about sex.  We must put the matter of our sexually addicted culture in proper context.  This is about how we see, respond, and value each other.  When sexual pleasure becomes an end to itself, and not an act of self-offering, is it any wonder why so many people find themselves addicted to porn?   A culture that bombards people with depictions of consequence free sex, and over-the-top graphic representations, will naturally adopt an understanding which states that this is what sexual relationships are to look like. The role of women is thereby perpetually understood in relation to their seductiveness and ability to please the men who act as their saviour; men are understood as emotionally stunted but physically and sexually powerful. Yet when a woman doesn’t fit into a size zero, or when men do not rock the bedroom like a porn-star, is it any wonder why so many feel judged, and why so many relationships seem to suffer?

The current fascination with pornography, then, seems to shed a light on the faulty and damaging view the culture has about relationships.  In fact, one review of new movie “Don Jon” (dubbed the porniest movie of the year), states that this is the true meaning of the film.  The review states that the film  “illustrates well the societal norms created by pop culture, as they relate to our desires and the suffering they create.” (Click here for review).   As flawed as Don Jon’s porn-based understanding of relationships is, so too is Barbara’s; she bases her understanding of relationships upon an obsession with Hollywood Romantic comedies.  In the context of the movie, both are seen as equally flawed, equally manipulative, and equally damaging.

Is the issue pornography?  Is it sexuality? Is it scantily clad models and bare-chested male super-hunks?  Or are these things mere products of the deeper issues of love, identity, acceptance and the meaning of relationships?  In addressing the issue of sexuality in our culture, we must be willing to wrestle with the deeper issues and conversations at work.

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith. Connect with Kyle on
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6 Responses to Pop Culture, Porn Culture 2

  1. Once again Kyle a very well argued, very well written piece. I only wish there were more people willing to join in the discussion because these are crucial issues for us today. I’m curious (note that read curious not critical) as to why you have avoided the money and power issues. I’ve commented before that I think pop culture is driven by money and power ie there is lots of cash to be made and lots of prestige to be enjoyed and the only way for that to continue is to push the envelope. Sex is the current product that is selling the best and bringing the most attention.
    While I whole heartedly agree with your evaluation in this post and the previous one, I’m just wondering if we need a wider frame to see the issue in the broad scope. I would be interested in your thoughts

  2. There is a saying that goes like this “Two creatures live within my breast one is cursed ,one is blessed ,one I love and one I hate .The one I feed will dominate.” We have this on going conflict going one in the hearts of man, a battle between the flesh and the spirit ,as Paul puts in the 7th chapter of Romans,it is a battle between the old nature and the new nature. The church has to be clear that that if you entertain these life choices you will not come away unscathed ,as Proverbs says “Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned?” There will be consequences in this life and the next. We just have to look at how David lost fellowship with God after the sin with Bathsheba and he has laid out the consequences in Ps.51 .Broken fellowship with God is one of the most devastating states that can enter a Christians life.
    The world has taken something beautiful and intimate made for a relationship in marriage and turned it into something cheap and vile. this not only denigrates the the god ordained relationship but the people themselves. This is a cancer in the church ,how many marriages have suffered harm and some breakup because of this evil. We as the church must stand for something different and live in reflection of that. I think it was Justin Martyr who once said to defend Christianity that those who were condemning them to judge them by the way they conduct their lives. Sadly I do not think that we could use that in our defense.

  3. Thanks for these two articles Kyle, and thanks to the comments others have posted. This is a topic that I think we will see continue both in the foreground of popular culture, and in the background of church culture. The statistics are astounding. We struggle as a culture with defining what is right and wrong in so many different ways. I just read an article on the Huffington Post about #rapeface. Yeah – that stopped me in my tracks. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading it –
    http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/sandra-hawken-diaz/rapeface-meme_b_4136653.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000008#slide=more262414

    I find this article brings together things that you were talking about and adds the element of sexualized violence and the further complicated nature of sexuality and our engagement of it in society, culture and in the church. Rape is no laughing or joking matter, and yet inappropriate humour persists around it, it continues to be belittled, victims continue to be further victimized, and perpetrators all too often seem to “get away” with sexualized violence. If we (and I mean we in the context of society and culture) already have such a disposable, throw away attitude to sex and sexuality, then it really isn’t a stretch to sexualized violence.
    As you point out, if the norms are for men to be “Dons,” known for their sexual conquests, and for women to submit to that dominating and conquest-type attitude, but then also get labeled “slut,” and “whore,” for engaging in those behaviours this speaks further to the brokenness and the “deeper issues of love, identity, acceptance and the meaning of relationships.” Its not enough to just point out the wrongs and say “that”s bad,” there has to be some better space, to be able to teach about healthy sexuality, healthy boundaries, healthy relationships, healthy identity, and healthy consumption / stewardship. We need to better navigate the lines around all of those things that are intimate and to be shared privately, and teaching about all of those things in healthy ways that build people up. This will continue to be a challenge, but one that will only grow. If, as the body of Christ, and through our faith, we offer an alternative as we claim we do, then we need to be able to follow through with that, otherwise we will be ignored and irrelevant.

    • @scott, I’m shocked. I didn’t know #rapeface was a cultural phenomenon. The article has me wondering about the way we use words, and they way words can lose their meaning. Perhaps it’s a little off topic (perhaps not), but the church has been guilty of using the same word in its rhetoric–I don’t think I can count the number of times I’ve seen references to “raping creation” in prayers and stewardship resources. And until now, I hadn’t thought twice about it. What other word could capture such nonconsensual violation? And yet… does such poetic use also trivialize the word’s sexual meaning?

  4. The question remains then – what drives pop culture? On the surface, it seems to me that to be successful in pop culture, one must stand out. That is unchanged in the time that I have been on this planet. However, standing out, can also mean desensitizing along the way. By constantly pushing the envelope, pop culture over the years has become more and more graphic in what it takes to stand out. That a 12 year old boy in the referenced Huffington Post story, who has a social conscience, would think that “rapeface” was no big deal, shows that we are constantly moving the bar on what is acceptable, by dragging it along behind us in our quest to push the edges. As a teenager the “F” word was one I used everyday, but I felt uncomfortable if it was used anywhere but “with the guys.” Sitting in a movie theatre on a date, an F bomb would at least slightly embarrass me. Now, my kids rent movies that I want to see that are full of the F word and every other four letter expression known. The point of acceptability has been move simply because pop culture has said in no uncertain terms that this is the way we will “stand out” So let me ask this – will there ever be a time that pop culture will “stand out” by going the other way, to be less shocking, less offensive, less pushing the bounds of good taste? Is that a conversation we can have? Or will we spend forever simply reacting to pop culture and it’s drive for expression and freedom at all costs?

  5. Your question is a very good one Keith. I don’t know the answer to it. I hope that at some point the short answer is yes. What that looks like and how it happens…..?

    If we do spend time forever reacting to pop-culture and not being proactive about change, then we will always be reactive. But that is more easily said than done (also by someone who is poor at planning!). Is it our lot to always be reactive to pop culture? Maybe. Arguably it has been for 2000 years.

    On a slightly different but related note, very interestingly, I thought, the following program was on CBC’s Ideas this week –

    “Generation Porn” http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2013/10/21/generation-porn-1/

    “Thirty years ago, a peek at a Playboy or Hustler centrefold was a rite of passage for teenage boys. Today children as young as ten are viewing hardcore pornography on smart phones. The ramifications for young men and women are both complex and disturbing. Hassan Ghedi Santur explores the long-term consequences of this burgeoning exposure to pornography.

    This program contains extremely graphic language. Listener discretion is advised.”

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