By Cap Stewart, Crosswalk.com
While on a domestic flight several years ago, I looked up from my seat to discover two people disrobing and pantomiming sex in front of me. This was no discreet incident taking place in a secluded corner; it was obvious and public. I felt like I had entered The Twilight Zone, as no one else on the plane behaved like anything was amiss.
The reason for my fellow passengers’ nonchalance was that the sexual acting out was a scene from the in-flight movie displayed on all the screens in the airplane cabin. Because the action wasn’t “live and in person,” it was not only not shocking, but perfectly acceptable visual fare for everyone present, young and old alike.
In the years since then, public pornification in our society has been increasingly normalized. Pervasive presentations of private sexual acts have, to a degree, desensitized even those of us committed to a distinctly Christian sexual ethic. In such a climate, how can we push back against what seems to be an insurmountable tide of immorality?
We need a thoroughly robust, God-entranced, and neighbor-centric answer to that question. We must say much more than merely the obvious (i.e., “We should reserve sex for marriage”). Instead of settling for surface-level remedies, we must dig deeper to some key root-level realities.
How Society Influences Our View of Sexual Sin
Under the surface of our society’s unabashed promiscuity is a root we can easily overlook: a climate of consumerism. Using an impersonal, utilitarian lens, our consumeristic culture encourages us to evaluate others based on their perceived usefulness. The more willing others are to play to an individual’s felt needs, the more willing he is to treat them with dignity and respect.
This tendency essentially views or treats others as objects. It points back to the end-user as the end goal: what he wants reigns supreme. The emphasis becomes inward rather than outward. The question becomes, “How can this person benefit me?”
An inward, consumeristic focus explains much about our culture’s view of sex. When people are mere objects, the result is that sex primarily becomes transactional rather than relational. The desired aim is our pleasure, and everything—and everyone—around us can be a means toward that end. In areas of romance and sex, people are products for appraisal, experimentation, and consumption. Those whom God has called us to love as neighbors are instead evaluated on their performance, or attractiveness, or ability to please us—or all of the above.
God’s Original Design for Us
The Bible’s view of humanity directly contradicts our culture’s approach by encouraging us to see others as far more than impersonal objects. We first see this emphasis in the book of Genesis, during the apex of the creation account: “God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). This is the foundation both of human existence and interpersonal relationships. Human beings are uniquely fashioned after the very nature of God. Thus, when we interact with others, we are engaging, not with impersonal pawns, but with people—people inherently endowed by God with dignity and worth. To honor the image of God in others is to honor the God who made us, and to embrace our duty to serve our fellow humans.
A right view of sex, then, begins with acknowledging that God has made mankind in his image. Whereas viewing others as objects points back to us as the end goal, viewing others as made in the image of God points back to God as the end goal: his purposes for sex reign supreme.
There is much more to include in a proper understanding of sex, of course, but not less. The uniquely divine fingerprint placed on each human should inform our view of others and our treatment of sex at every level. Without this foundational understanding, sex is unmoored from its moral, relational, and purposeful anchor points.
Practical Steps to Overcome Sexual Sin
If, at a root level, we must fight to see others as image-bearers rather than objects, how do we go about doing that in everyday life? How should a God-focused, neighbor-loving perspective affect our views and treatment of sex? There are many possible answers to that question, but we will focus on one general principle and one specific practice.
1. A General Principle: Focus Less on Yourself
One reason why fighting sexual lust can be so hard is that we absorb our society’s consumeristic attitudes into our strategies. We can inadvertently cultivate a self-centered mindset even in our attempts at sanctification.
A myopic focus on our own needs could lead us to treat others as subservient. If we keep our heart’s orientation inward-focused, we could end up objectifying others based on their value—or danger—to our own wellbeing. One example for guys might be treating women as potential temptresses to be avoided, rather than as neighbors whom God has called us to acknowledge and honor. Thus, even in our pursuit of sexual purity, we will evaluate others primarily from an object-making, lust-encouraging concept.
Counterintuitively, one of the best ways to fight lust is to switch from looking mainly inward to looking mainly outward. If we can cultivate an awareness of the image of God in others, and if we practice habits that encourage a service-oriented posture toward others, we can more effectively replace the object-making habits of lust with the neighbor-loving habits of our heavenly citizenship. A Good Samaritan will treat others not as obstacles to be ignored or overcome, but as human beings that we are called to love in the same way God has loved us.
2. A Specific Practice: Adjust Your Response to Pornified Media
It is no exaggeration to say ours is a society overrun with pornographic imagery. As such, Christian patrons of modern media must exercise discernment. A typical approach to hypersexualized entertainment is to use a filtering service or manually skip over problematic content and consider our duty fulfilled—as if we as consumers are all that matter in the cultural equation.
Shielding our eyes from nudity or sex scenes might allow us to place a check next to the “Personal purity” box, but it completely ignores the “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” box. We’re still patronizing forms of entertainment that dehumanize others.
What’s more, even the actors themselves often feel, and loathe, being objectified. The evidence is out there if we have eyes to see it: actors routinely share their feelings of discomfort, guilt, or shame as a result of having to undress or sexually act out for the camera. Examples include Jennifer Lawrence, Evangeline Lilly, Margot Robbie, and Salma Hayek. The stories are legion.
It is easy for us to assess how perverse and inhumane it is for studios to coerce their employees to participate in sexually charged situations. But our assessment often fails to take in the entire chain of events. Too many of us have experienced no qualms about financially supporting sexually charged entertainment, fast-forwarding through the inappropriate content, and then washing our hands of any guilt, choosing rather to blame the actress for getting herself into that mess in the first place.
Such a response fails to acknowledge our role as consumers. The entertainment industry pays specific attention to our patronage—not the protests we make while handing over our money. As I have written elsewhere, “Both prudes and perverts give equal support for a film when they buy a ticket, purchase a movie, or watch streamed content.”
It isn’t enough for us to protest the objectification of others in our entertainment while financially supporting that same entertainment. We must view ourselves not primarily as consumers of popular culture but as salt and light within the popular culture. Our love for others will speak with much greater efficacy if we sacrifice some of our consumer “rights” and choose instead to champion the dignity of God’s image-bearers—including those we pay to entertain us.
What if you refused to financially support movies that objectified actors because you wanted to treat them with the humanity they deserve? Would you not start viewing the actors you encounter in the movies as real people and not just potential sources of eye candy or gratification? Would [a love-your-neighbor mindset] not help you fight sexual lust even more effectively with gospel power? Would it not help you keep from focusing on yourself (which is what lust does) and instead focus on the needs of others (which is what a healthy, Biblically-informed sexuality is all about)? Would that not be a gloriously countercultural way to demonstrate God’s love to your fellow human beings?
True Love Sees People—Not Objects
Earlier this year, a 21-year-old man was arrested for shooting several individuals at three separate massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia. As someone who was evidently “very emotionally distraught that he frequented these places,” he eventually “saw the people who worked at the spas as ‘temptations’ he needed to ‘eliminate.’” While much about this tragedy remains unclear, it is undeniable the gunman’s actions represent a violently extreme example of treating people as mere objects. He deemed the lives of other human beings as utterly worthless and dispensable in comparison to his personal goals.
The objectification of others through sexual sin cannot be overcome by another act of objectifying others for the sake of personal purity. We cannot solve the problem of self-centeredness with another form of the same problem. When our self-determination reigns supreme, it is an excuse for countless evil actions.
The gospel offers us a different way to overcome the evil in our own hearts. Because of our hostile antagonism to God, he could have rightly dismissed us as “objects of wrath” (Romans 9:22) and dispatched us in righteous judgment. That would have been his just prerogative.
But that is not what God chose to do. He came to rescue us rather than eliminate us. In Christ, God “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). His servitude went so far as to involve the laying down of his own life (not the forced sacrifice of others). He offered himself on our behalf.
We are the recipients of a pure, personal, and passionate love that has transformed our identity and our trajectory. We now have the privilege of displaying that same love toward others. In a culture obsessed with reducing people to their various body parts, we can look at others holistically—as humans endowed with God’s image and worthy of dignity and respect.
Such a mindset can and will radically affect our views of sex. And such a mindset can radically affect how we steward sex as a gift from God—for his glory and the good of our neighbor.
Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/manopjk
Recognized by Zondervan Academic as one of the top Christian thinkers on sexualized entertainment, Cap Stewart is a contributor to the anthology Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues, released in 2019. His cultural commentary has appeared in several print and online publications. Cap has been writing about theology and the arts at capstewart.com since 2006.