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It is common for Christians to say that pornography is a form of idolatry. What is less well appreciated is how pornography, asa form of idolatry, affects the dignity that women hold in society. To see this effect, we need only take a stroll through contemporary culture, where we witness a distressing phenomenon: girls who half-believe that they are themselves pornographic idols and trade away the dignity that is theirs as beings with a transcendent end made in the image of God. When the idol of pornography dominates a culture, girls begin to see themselves as they are seen. Saturated by a certain image of what a woman is and of what a woman should be, they begin to believe the lie that is told about them.
In her book Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy, an editor for New York magazine, chronicles the rise of a generation of "women who make sex objects of other women and of ourselves," with the result that "spectacles of naked ladies have moved from seedy side streets to center stage." Levy describes a variety of ways in which what she calls "raunch culture" has taken its place among women and teenage girls, and one is struck by how much the sexual lives of these women revolve around exhibitionism.
So much is this the case, that one male student interviewed by Levy said that "looking loose"—not, note, being loose—"was the defining characteristic of his female friends' style." A female classmate of the student confirmed this: "We didn't do anything, but you wanted to look like you did." The girls are, in effect, emulating porn stars. They don't sleep around so much as present a hyper-sexed image of themselves that arouses male fantasies of sleeping around: They present the appearance of sexual availability, not the reality.
Mooks & Midriffs
This same fact is attested by PBS's Frontline program in its report on "The Merchants of Cool." The program explains how MTV and others who target the teenage market do so via two endlessly recycled archetypes, one male and one female. The male character, the "mook," is the incredibly crude perpetual adolescent, whose chief exemplars are Jackass, Tom Green, and Howard Stern.
The female character is called the "midriff," whom Frontline characterizes as a young woman defined by sex and "consumed by appearances." For young girls, cool is defined by premature adulthood and the flaunting of sexuality. The midriff does not fight against the objectification, but embraces it, saying (in the words of the narrator), "I am a sexual object, but I'm proud of it." Many programs on MTV are completely dominated by these archetypes.
In Frontline's presentation, there is a certain asymmetry between these two characters: Although the show's commentators emphasize that teenage males do not actually seek to emulate the mook, but rather watch him because he entertains them, they make no such statement regarding the midriff. It is obvious that the girls that they interview—girls in middle school—do treat the archetype as an object of emulation. They idolize this impossible ideal of womanhood and love midriffs like Britney Spears because they admire them and aspire to become them.
A third classmate interviewed by Levy explains that status--seeking motivates the girls' style. The girls dress as they do because they know that the guys will like it, and "if they think a guy's going to like it, they'll do it" in order to receive attention and status. There is a sort of honor in being a Britney Spears, and power in emulating her. The midriff archetype, of which Britney Spears is the preeminent example, in large part embodies "the same old sexual clichés, but repackaged as a new kind of female empowerment."
Britney Spears, of course, possesses male fans, but Frontline notes that "Britney's most loyal fans are teenage girls" and her message for them—the message embodied in every presentation of the "midriff" archetype—is that "your body is your best asset; flaunt your sexuality, even if you don't understand it." If pornography is an idol, a girl can leverage its power by adopting the idol's identity.
Slaves to Idolatry
Why is there so much power available to those who would emulate the pornographic ideal of perpetual availability without consummation? It is because of the unceasing grip with which the idol holds its worshipers, a power entrenched in the slavery that accompanies sin and idolatry. Jesus said, "Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin" (John 8:34), and with pornography this is especially so. Augustine writes in Of True Religion, "A man is necessarily a slave to the things by means of which he seeks to be happy. He follows them wherever they lead." When we do not believe we can be fulfilled in the ways that God has ordered our natures to be fulfilled, we must turn to a substitute, an idol. And the idol holds us fast.
As a result, millions of men in this culture are quietly enslaved to the idol of pornography. According to a survey by the Barna group, only 5 percent of Evangelical Christians think that pornography is morally acceptable, but the number of Evangelical men who view pornography regularly is often reported to be many times higher than this (see, for example, www.blazinggrace.org/pornstatistics.htm or www.safefamilies.org/sfStats.php). Or note the failure of a group of researchers in Montreal (as reported in www.telegraph.co.uk in December 2009) to find even a single man in his twenties who had not, at some point in his life, used pornography regularly—a group that presumably includes many who detest it. There is no clearer evidence of enslavement than the sight of those who morally despise something nonetheless practicing it.
Our culture destroys our already fragile ability to see what a woman's dignity consists in. These girls and women focus their attention on how to appear as a dead idol, as an empty means to an illusory satisfaction; their own satisfaction in many cases comes to be dominated by whether or not they can provide this image. To echo Levy, a woman in this position both wills and foils her own objectification, because she wills it for her own purposes. Even as she gains power, she resembles God less and less, while this resemblance is the very basis of her dignity. She wills to become something she would never desire to be except under our present conditions of degradation. She is, even here, an idol, and powerful only by means of the mirage she is able to present. She is living a lie.
The Liberating Gospel
In light of the dreadful effects of pornography upon both men and women, I think that it is clear something must be done. But secular society cannot confront this problem, because it does not know how to confront idolatry. It can only offer to exchange one idol for another, and few idols can compare to those that are built upon our sexuality.
Judeo-Christian religion, with its teaching on the creation of male and female in the image of God, is capable of teaching girls that they possess a transcendent end and dignity not recognized by the world, and of teaching men that they do not need a grubby idol when they can possess fellowship with their Creator. If communities of faith do not vigorously seek to reform their men through the liberating power of the gospel and to provide a counter-cultural image of what it is to be a woman, there can be no hope of slowing the progress of degradation, and much reason to fear how coming generations of girls and women will be shaped by this perversity. •
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