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Topic: Eikon

Instruments of Unrighteousness: How Pornography Offends Male Embodiment

June 8, 2021
By Joe Rigney

Editors Note: the following essay appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Eikon.

When confronting an evil, a faithful Christian line of inquiry frequently involves examining the good that lies beneath the evil. Absolute evil is a nullity, a nothingness. Everything created by God is good, and therefore, evil is always a corruption, a perversion of some divinely designed good. This is true even of pleasures. As C. S. Lewis reminds us, God is a hedonist who has filled the world with pleasures. Sinful pleasures are simply those that we pursue at times, or in ways, or in degrees that God has forbidden: “It is the stealing of the apple that is bad, not the sweetness.”[1]

The evil I wish to confront in this essay is the evil of pornography, specifically the way in which pornography distorts and corrupts male embodiment. To that end, we must first ask what the male body is for, situating it within God’s larger purposes for humanity and the world. Having done that, we can then explore the ways pornography corrupts and distorts this divine design.

Divine Design

We begin with a brief overview of God’s purposes for humanity as set forth in Genesis 1–3.[2] God created man in his own image, after his likeness, dividing man into two complementary sexes — male and female. Our sexual differences serve God’s larger purposes for humanity, expressed in the original blessing and commission given to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Such fruitfulness and multiplication includes the multiplication of families and households, as a man leaves his father and mother in order to cleave to his wife.

Within these larger purposes, we observe different descriptions of the creation and purpose of man and woman. Adam is taken from the dust of the ground and commanded to work the ground and guard the garden. Eve is taken from Adam and is designed to be Adam’s helper. These relations are both complementary and asymmetrical. As Paul says, “Man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (1 Cor. 11:8–9). These asymmetries emerge again after the Fall, as God curses the ground because of the man, increasing his pain in his labor, and God multiplies the woman’s pain in her labor (childbearing) and introduces frustration and conflict into the marital relationship.

The differences between men and women extend to their embodiment. While both men and women are necessary for procreation, they realize their procreative potential in different ways. Fathers beget children, whereas mothers bearchildren. Men exercise their procreative potential outside of their own bodies, whereas women exercise their procreative potential within their own bodies. To use the biblical imagery, the woman is a garden in whom the man plants his seed.

And of course, we plant seeds in order that we might bear fruit. These differences between men and women serve a larger purpose. God divides the human race into man and woman in order to reunite them. God takes woman out of man and then brings her to the man so that they can become one flesh. Sex is the consummation of this union and is designed for fruitfulness. The fruitfulness begins with the couple together as they grow in knowledge of each other. The common biblical euphemism for sexual union is “knowing.” Adam knew his wife (Gen. 4:1), and therefore, the marital act is about knowing and being known. The marital act binds husband and wife together and then bears fruit, first in children, which are the fruit of the womb and the glory of the marriage, and then in producing households, and then societies, and then civilizations. Marital intimacy and procreation are the good and proper goals of sex.

So then, to summarize, God designed men to guard the garden and subdue the earth. Taken from the ground, they are oriented to the ground and labor to make it fruitful (even in the face of the curse). A central part of this fruitfulness comes when a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife. In doing so, a man gives his strength and seed to one woman within the covenant bonds of marriage in order that they might form a new household and so fulfill God’s call upon humanity to fill the earth with his faithful image-bearers.

And as we see in the New Testament, these natural purposes for men and women and marriage give way to supernatural purposes. Christian marriage is an enacted parable, a picture of Christ’s relation to his bride, the church. The self-giving of a husband images Christ’s own self-giving, and, like Christ’s, is meant to be spiritually fruitful in the holiness of his wife and the children that they raise together in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. What’s more, this parable is displayed before a watching world as a testimony to the gospel of God’s grace by which he saves sinners who have been lost and ruined by the fall.

The Corruption

With that picture in mind, we turn to the evil and corruption of pornography (and its implied partner, masturbation). Lewis again is remarkably astute in identifying the fundamental evil of pornography and masturbation. In a letter to a friend, he notes that these two evils take an appetite designed to lead us outside ourselves (first to a spouse, and then to children and grandchildren) and turns it back on itself. Masturbation “sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides.” And the longer a man lives in this prison, the harder it is for him to escape. A man in the grip of such lusts has enormous difficulty in pursuing and uniting with a real woman. The harem in his head (or on his computer) is “always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival.”

In the imaginary film that plays in his head or on his screen, “he is always adored, always the perfect lover.” In fact, the desire to be adored and admired as a “real man” is often as much a motive for pursuing the pornographic as any biological or bodily appetite. But this fantasy makes no demands on his selfishness; “no mortification [is] ever imposed on his vanity.” The imaginary harem, in the end, simply becomes the medium through which a man increasingly adores himself.[3]

Unsurprisingly, this twisting and perversion includes a corruption of God’s design for sex. Frequent pornography use rewires the brain, molding it and shaping it in destructive ways.[4] Pornography is a poly-drug, meaning it is both an upper (a dopamine high, like cocaine) and a downer (an opiate release, like heroin). The porn high that builds up to orgasm and the porn crash that follows is a potent drug that creates neural pathways that harden through habitual use. Dopamine is released during arousal, as men search for image after image to sustain the high. This is the pornographic equivalent of foreplay. After orgasm, opiates are released into the body, resulting in the feeling of relaxation. The effect of these chemicals (and others) is that our bodies take a neurological snapshot in order to remember what triggered the euphoric sensation. In doing so, the snapshot binds us to the object that caused it.

Now it’s not difficult to see God’s purposes for this sort of bodily process. Sex is designed as the consummation of the one-flesh union between husband and wife. God intends for that neurological snapshot to be taken as a husband makes love to his wife so that the two of them are more tightly bound together. Orgasms are meant to strengthen the bonds of marriage.

But instead, pornography binds us to the ephemeral images in our minds or on a screen. Whereas the marital act is a part of an enduring relationship and a shared narrative between husband and wife (and the generations begotten from them), pornography is inherently episodic, isolated, and barren. Rather than taking the snapshot in the midst of the marital act, the snapshot occurs alone in the dark while clicking a mouse or swiping a screen. The effect is to habituate a man so that he becomes aroused in the wrong contexts. Porn use rewires the brain so that sin is easy and real relationships are hard.

In fact, more recent forms of pornography seek to offer a false intimacy in the face of the true. Whereas traditional pornography was largely viewed from a third-person perspective, newer forms of pornography such as virtual reality and certain interactive websites are increasingly first-person and involve a false emotional intimacy between the performer and the consumer.

But whether we are talking about older or newer forms of pornography, in both we are, to use the Pauline language, presenting our members as instruments of unrighteousness (Rom. 6:13). And this bodily presentation has an inevitable compounding effect. Offering ourselves as slaves to impurity leads to more impurity and lawlessness (Rom.6:19). Sin begets more and deeper sin.

This accents the way that pornography use offends male embodiment. The broad shoulders that are meant to carry great weights and to support a household instead sit stooped and hunched over a computer screen. The eyes that are meant to study the works of God, to survey the land and see the unseen potential in God’s world instead flicker over image after perverse image. The bodily member designed to plant seed in a fruitful garden instead spills the seed on the ground, wasting it in a barren place.

More could be said about the corruption inherent in pornography.[5] But this brief exercise demonstrates the simple reality that pornography offends male embodiment because it distorts God’s design for the male body. The drives and urges designed by God to push men into the world, to call forth sacrifice and service, and to bind them to wife and children through self-mastery instead become avenues for the barren pleasure of self-worship.

But there is good news, even in the dark room where pornography thrives. If sin has corrupted and distorted the male body, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into the world to restore it (and all things). Grace restores and perfects nature. What sin has wrecked, the love of Christ can and will renew. The call for us as Christians is both to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ, and then, from that deep confidence in our new identity in him, to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus. This is our spiritual worship, and it is a great and glorious calling.

Joe Rigney is the president of Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. He is the author of five books, including More Than a Battle: How to Experience Victory, Freedom, and Healing from Lust (B&H, 2021).

[1] C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1992), 89. See also Joe Rigney, Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 151-153.

[2] Alastair Roberts, “Man and Woman in Creation (Genesis 1 and 2)” in Complementarianism: A Moment of Reckoning (the 9Marks Journal).

[3] Lewis to Keith Masson, March 6, 1956, in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis. Vol. 3, Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950–1963, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 758. For further discussion of Lewis’s view of pornography and the distortion of erotic love, see Rigney, Lewis on the Christian Life, 220–29.

[4] I’ve summarized the effects of pornography on the body and brain in chapter 4 of More Than a Battle: How to Experience Victory, Freedom, and Healing from Lust (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2021). For further reflections, see Joe Carter, “9 Things You Should Know about Pornography and the Brain,” Christian Living, May 8, 2013, https://www -about-pornography-and-the-brain/, and William Struthers, Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009).

[5] See Joe Rigney, More Than a Battle, especially chapters 4, 7, and 8.

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