The Difference Between Sex and Porn

There’s something I frequently touch on when talking to students at Christendom College. I go there to lecture on creative writing, and my intent is not just to help them create great fiction but also to understand it — both as an art form and as a way to express their faith. That something that I bring up with them is this: what is the opposite of a culture consumed with extramarital sex?

We live in a society where most people identify as Christian, yet we are told we must accept things that are markedly against Christianity. This is not new; as has been said for nearly two thousand years, we are in the world and not of it. Yet how do we approach this? Do we retreat and avoid that which isn’t expressly Christian? Does it mean that we may walk in it without being participants?

When I wrote my Deadpool review last week, I had almost universally positive responses, both from those who knew they didn’t want to see the movie and from those who loved it. Only two people were negative; one in particular accused me of being a fake Catholic who would encourage people to commit adultery in my living room.

Well that escalated quickly

But that wasn’t the oddest thing that I was told by this individual. I mentioned in the review that I didn’t pay attention to the sex because I found it boring. This, I was informed, proved I had the wrong attitude about it, because I should have been embarrassed. WTF 1

I really don’t get that statement. I’ve seen both nude art and erotic art from the Roman Empire. I lived in Rome for three years as a child and became very interested in history, and the Romans had a lot of art that involved bare flesh. Pompeii in particular had a lot of erotic murals preserved due to being buried in ash. I was twelve. By standard wisdom, that should have driven me into a hedonistic mess.

Instead, I found it just as boring then as I do now.

Entertain a thought without acceptin it

Does that mean that I’m immune to sex scenes in movies? Hardly. I’m the farthest thing from immune to pornography. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to find the stuff on the screen alluring just because “sex sex sex.” Nor is nudity a guarantee turn-on, just as clothing isn’t a guaranteed turn-off.

And that’s the problem with that statement. I was told I should have been embarrassed; but why would I be embarrassed unless I was affected? And why is that a better state compared to finding an act of sin boring?


The common, and sometimes even serious, definition of porn is that “you know it when you see it.” It’s a rather unhelpful definition. I prefer this: a form of artistic expression that divorces the act of sex from sensuality.

This may not, at first glance, seem to be helpful either. After all, sensuality is usually associated with the gratification of the senses. Yet that’s the key right there: senses, plural. Sex is a physical act that engages all the senses, and yet it is often depicted as if there should only be a minimal amount of physical contact. Now, there is a reason for this, in that the camera is supposed to show us both participants; but that still depicts something with essentially the same relationship to actual sex as the movie Armageddon has to the physics of space travel.

They actually put this piece of junk on Blu-Ray. Guess it's so you can kill your brain cells in high definition.

They actually put this piece of junk on Blu-Ray. Guess it’s so you can kill your brain cells in high definition.

And that’s where the real source of the danger lies, whether or not you’re Christian. The further a fictionalize version of something departs from the reality, the less believable it becomes; but the more it’s used, the less people know about the real thing. Physics, guns, cars, the law, police procedure, insurance details, and yes, sex — the more it gets fudged for story after story, the less people understand about the real thing. One of my most common and most annoying things to say as an editor is “No, you can’t do it that way. I’ll try to explain why.”

Research 2

And study after study shows that both sexes, and men in particular, are affected by this culture of sex without sensuality. Or you can just look to 50 Shades of Grey for an example of the confusion.

In other words, porn is where one person is focused on the minimum part of the other person’s body to give maximum momentary pleasure. It ignores the whole of a person. And that’s what many of us are bombarded with, to the point where if you don’t have any experience with the contrary it feels like that’s what sex is supposed to look like. Just like everyone knows Catholics are anti-woman and medieval.

Facepalm Pope

I said at the start that I frequently bring the point up with students: what is the opposite of a culture consumed with the idea of sex outside marriage? It is something to drive home, even at the risk of sounding like a broken record. So very many Christians treat the opposite as no sex. This is not the case. The opposite of extramarital sex is marital sex. If you want to combat the spread of oversexuality, you don’t become prudish; you show the marital act in its proper context.

Of course, how can I avoid being prudish when I just referred to sex as “the marital act”? That’s the ultimate show of prudishness right there!

No 1

Sit back for a moment. I’m going to introduce you to the origin of that phrase.

In philosophy, there is a specific meaning to the word “act.” It is the thing that makes another thing be. An act is how something exists. For example, the soul is the act of the body; it is its first act, as well as both its formal and final cause.

In Catholicism, there are seven Sacraments. Only two Sacraments can be performed without a priest; and one of those is never performed by a priest. That Sacrament is marriage. In marriage, the only proper ministers are the two people getting married; a priest is there to officiate, but he does not actually perform the Sacrament himself. Only the couple in question is capable of doing that.

This begins with the ceremony, but it is only finished in intercourse; this is called the consummation. At that point, the marriage has come to be. And from that point on, whenever a married couple has sex, they renew their union.

Sex is, quite literally, the act of marriage.

Romantic philosophy

And just as studies show that the pornographic glorification of minimal contact for maximum pleasure harms relationships, so too do other studies show that people in marriages have both happier lives and happier sex lives. Just Google “people in marriage are happier” or similar search terms to get bombarded with articles.

You want to combat porn? Promote marriage.


So that brings us back to that strange accusation: that because I’m not embarrassed by a sex scene, I have the wrong idea about sex. Because I find it boring, I’m clearly exposing myself to sin.

No. I’ve been exposed to sin. I can’t walk around the world without being exposed to sin. Hiding from it, being afraid of it, does me no good. I’d rather spit in its eye, and drown it in a sea of my own disdain.

Gates of Hell

Am I perfect at that? Hardly. As the joke goes, I can resist anything but temptation. Yet why should someone tell me what I should and should not find tempting?

Certainly, there must be others who would see something like that and find it dangerously alluring. I can’t picture it, though, because I don’t. I know there must be, because there are people who keep making that kind of display; but I can’t wrap my head around it. And I don’t want to. I’d rather point and laugh, and try to inspire others to join me.

Why should I be chastised for finding sin boring? Why should I be embarrassed instead?

I’d be embarrassed if I didn’t find it boring.

About Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman is a traditionally-minded Catholic convert and freelance science fiction and fantasy editor, which means that he's in high demand in a small population. Fortunately, he loves talking about stories. And Catholicism. And history. And philosophy. And lots of other stuff.
This entry was posted in Analysis, Commentary, Sacraments, The Church and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Difference Between Sex and Porn

  1. Emily Pass says:

    I feel as if the last section of your article would fit very well with a Chesterton quote, but I could only find this: “There are some desires that are not desirable.” (From Orthodoxy) Since the shame your one commentator expected you to feel is one of the results of original sin, I can understand his surprise that you didn’t experience it, but I would agree with you that the fact that you didn’t feel shame means there is something wrong with you. Since God witnesses all acts, good and evil alike, and never sins, it seems feasible to me that He would create some people that would have the ability to witness certain things without being tempted (it is likely easier to minister to the people in certain kinds of sin if you are resistant to that sin yourself). To me, it can be summed up as an inability on the commentator’s part to understand that some people have different strengths and weaknesses. For example, I can walk past an open cash box without being tempted to steal most days. Others may have a serious difficulty with that. It sounds as if you could watch Deadpool without sinning, which is great for you. I don’t think I could.

    And finding the pornographic stuff boring doesn’t sound unrealistic either, since I think most of the world is getting progressively more and more bored with sex used outside of it’s proper context. Which is why they are desperately trying to make it more “edgy” and “interesting” (you already mentioned 50 Shades of Stupid) as if the divinely designed marital act is something that could be improved on.

    Like

    • I think you meant to say it doesn’t mean something’s wrong with me.

      I’m afraid you’re wrong about the shame, though. This person didn’t use that word, but shame isn’t a result of Original Sin. Shame is a result of our own guilt. If I have committed no sin, why should I feel guilt, much less shame?

      But you also give me too much credit. As I said, I’m not immune to this. I simply find certain things boring, this one included. I’m far from immune to pornography. That includes some things that are not actually labeled as pornography. I have to know what I should avoid.

      As an example, I’ve studied drawing. It’s nearly impossible to learn to draw the human figure without working from nudes. It’s vital to know how a person’s muscles move before you can draw them in various poses without using a live model each time. In the context of an art studio, things are usually pretty safe. It doesn’t mean I don’t have to be careful. Actually, there’s one model I’ve used that’s the safest, because we’re practically family and we can trust each other.

      I don’t do much drawing anymore because of the pain in my hands, but it taught me valuable lessons about art, beauty, and how an artist shapes beauty. As Ross wrote in his essay from last week, the artist can shape perception, and it’s his duty to avoid shaping it to wrong things. Beyond that, it is the responsibility of the viewer to meet the art halfway. If everything is in the art, then no one is at fault for their sin; if everything is the fault of the sinner, then the art doesn’t matter. Clearly, it is a mixture of both.

      Like

Speak now, or forever hold your comment.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s