Pornography as art?

keira knightly interview magazine

Never before has pornography been as accessible as it is today.

I was reminded of this fact when recently Paper magazine tried to ‘break the internet’ with images of Kim Kardashian showing her backside on the front cover and going fully nude on the inside. Many have celebrated and praised the magazine and Mrs. Kardashian for these ‘tasteful’ images. But we have to ask the question: How is this any different than Playboy which, as of this writing, is still considered pornography?

In our oversexed world it is becoming easier and easier to pass these images off as art. No longer is sex or nudity something we reserve for the bedroom but as something to be exploited and treated as a commodity. In the instance of Kim Kardashian what seems to keep these images from becoming x-rated is the photographer who took them, Jean-Paul Goode. Goode is famous for his work, which is featured in museums around the world, making Kim Kardashian more of a muse and icon than someone posing naked for a magazine.

Over the years magazines have rarely shied away from gratuitous nudity. Jennifer Aniston, Miley Cyrus, Zoe Saldana, and even pregnant Demi Moore have taken it all off, though with creative placement covering up important parts. While nudity in the public forum is nothing new, the public discourse on whether or not this is pornographic has all but disappeared, even as the frequency of these images has increased.

A similar thought passed my mind this last summer when Keira Knightley posed topless for Interview magazine. She is most famous for her starring role in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Her desire was to show the public what she ‘really’ looked like. She was tired of having her body manipulated by airbrushing and wanted to share an image free of editing. At the time she said, ‘OK, I’m fine doing the topless shot so long as you don’t make them any bigger or retouch.’ She went on to say, ‘I think women’s bodies are a battleground and photography is partly to blame. Our society is photographic now.’ And she’s right, we do live in a photographic society, which is the reason it becomes important to clearly define ‘porn.’

Historically, most dictionaries define pornography as printed or visual material whose primary purpose is to cause sexual arousal. Groups like Fight the New Drug share how pornography rewires the brain, heart, and ultimately the way we engage in relationship with the world around us. Harvest USA says that pornography is anything the heart uses to find sexual expression outside of God’s intended design for relational intimacy. For all of my life, my parent’s life, and my grand parents life that has been true of pornography, until now.

Britannica online points out that porn is defined by society: Because the very definition of pornography is subjective, a history of pornography is nearly impossible to conceive; imagery that might be considered erotic or even religious in one society may be condemned as pornographic in another. Thus, European travelers to India in the 19th century were appalled by what they considered pornographic representations of sexual contact and intercourse on Hindu temples; most modern observers would probably react differently. Many contemporary Muslim societies likewise apply the label “pornography” to many motion pictures and television programs that are unobjectionable in Western societies. To adopt a cliché, pornography is very much in the eye of the beholder.

That is exactly what we find happening here in the United States. Magazines like Paper and Interview are changing the way we think about pornography by labeling it art. But in reality this is pornography. Or, to be more exact, this is soft-core pornography, which is sexually explicit images that are ubiquitously found in advertising. Dr. Gary Brooks, a psychologist at Texas A&M, has published many articles on the harmful effects of pornography and in particular, soft-core pornography. He states, ‘The problem with soft-core pornography is that it’s voyeurism – it teaches men to view women as objects rather than to be in relationships with women as human beings.’ According to Brooks, pornography gives men the false impression that sex and pleasure are entirely divorced from relationships.

The sad truth is that soft-core pornography, like the images of Kim Kardashian and Keira Knightley, are appearing now more than ever before. If you disagree that these images are art you’re labeled a prude or someone who lacks the ability to see this for the beauty the rest of the advertising world says it is, art. That is one reason we do not see much discourse on this in the public sphere.

Interestingly, three years ago she was crying on the shoulder of her mother, Kris Jenner, on the show ‘Kourtney and Kim Take New York’ after a W magazine spread came out and she was unexpectedly naked saying, ‘You can see my nipples, you can see my asscrack.’ She did agree to be naked, though she was supposed to have been painted silver with objects digitally cover her privates. When the magazine was published she found something very different exclaiming, ‘Oh, my god, I look more naked than I did in Playboy.’ In fact, she goes on to share how she wanted to be known for something more than her naked body. Well, it’s obvious she changed her mind…much like the rest of the United States is changing its mind about how pornography is defined.

We need to be alert to the desensitization of how we view pornographic images. As pornography is being redefined by advertisers, we need to also remember what science and research shows it to be, a force that is destructive and changes the way we see others. In an effort to counter some of what we see in our media, it is important we take the following steps with our kids and ourselves:

Clearly define what pornography is. As our society begins to change how it perceives and defines images like those of Kim Kardashian and Keira Knightley, it is important that parents and churches don’t do the same. One of the clearer definitions comes from Tim Chester in his book ‘Closing the Window.’ He says anything we use for sexual titillation, gratification, or escape, whether it is intended for that purpose or not, is pornographic.

Understand the impact that pornography has on our culture. We have to start being honest with the fact that pornography is rewiring our brain. In his book ‘Wired for Intimacy’ Dr. William Struthers says, ‘As men fall deeper into the mental habit of fixating on [pornographic images], the exposure to them creates neural pathways. Like a path is created in the woods with each successive hiker, so do the neural paths set the course for the next time an erotic image is viewed. Over time these neural paths become wider as they are repeatedly traveled with each exposure to pornography. They become the automatic pathway through which interactions with woman are routed….They have unknowingly created a neurological circuit that imprisons their ability to see women rightly as created in God’s image.’

Realize that we are made for relationship. Scripture tells us that we are made in the image of God. We are created to be in relationship with Him and others, just like He is in relationship with Himself through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But pornography demeans and objectifies others. It causes us to see the other as someone who is there to meet our needs. Research shows that when we are exposed to pornography, it becomes harder to be aroused by a real person or relationship.

Recognize that porn distorts God’s design for sex. Whether they want to or not, the majority of teens are getting some of their sex-ed from pornography. Researchers have repeatedly found that people who have seen a significant amount of porn are more likely to start having sex sooner and with more partners, and to engage in riskier kinds of sex. Sex is meant to unite two people. It is meant to lead to children and it is meant to recall, and even reenact, the promise that God makes to us and that we make to one another in the marriage vow. Pornography promises only to leave us lonely, empty, and unfulfilled.

Don’t believe porn is something we just have to accept. Although the number of images has increased over the last few years we should not think it is ever okay. Porn is never part of a normal and healthy relationship. As more and more data shows the negative impact images like these have on the brain and heart, the more important it becomes to educate our youth and young adults to push back.

Sometimes We Just Need to Pray…

Not sure if you knew this or not but Justin Beiber has been in the news a lot lately. From his antics in Miami (DUI, resisting arrest, and invalid license) to his assault against a limo driver in Toronto and now news that he was abusive and smoking marijuana on a flight arriving in New Jersey for the Super Bowl. He has been anything but the role model that many have made him to be over the last few years.

It makes me sad, but not for the reason’s you might at first suspect.

I remember having a discussion several years ago with a parent who raved about the values that both Miley Cyrus and Justin Beiber displayed in their life, most notably their desire to honor God and waiting to have sex. They professed it on camera and in books. The media grabbed a hold of this and, in the case of Miley, Disney flaunted her virginity and good values to parents.

Those values seem to be no longer as important as they once might have been…but it is not surprising.

My response at that time and now is the same. We need to be praying for those we try to place on a pedestal, like Justin Beiber. Especially if they are young celebrities that we’ve allowed our sons and daughters to emulate or, at the very least, watch and listen to. Why? Because these individuals have been given so much power. Tons of money at a young age. It doesn’t matter what your roots are, the older you get, the more money you make, the harder it is to stay true to the place you began. Showbiz has a way of pushing parents of these young children to the side and bringing in others to become their “family.” Eventually this new “family” becomes the authority and the machine that is needed to move a child star into adulthood. Among other things, they use their sexuality to help a growing fan base grow with them. It makes sense and we’ve seen this with people like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. It is no surprise that we are now seeing Justin Beiber and Miley Cyrus doing the same thing but amplified to fit into the ever grown hyper sexualized culture we live in. Miley even admits as much here!

Christians have contributed to the celebrity focused culture.

Often times we try to find that one example that we can give to our children. Just one! When we find someone that fits the mold and says the same things we say, we think finally!

This is a terrible dynamic. It is bad for the people we venerate because they then feel the stress of keeping a certain reputation, which, as we are seeing, can take a devastating toll. It is bad for the Christian because we end up putting too much trust in that person and so our faith is shattered when it doesn’t go the way we all hoped for and anticipated. So what happens when we’ve taught our kids to compare their lives with a celebrity? I think we can all take a guess. Instead of them looking to something or someone that is life-giving, we’ve given them a model of life that is anything but fulfilling.

It seems that Justin’s mother would agree with some of my earlier sentiment about prayer. I applaud her response. Pattie Mallete, Justin Beiber’s mother, recently stated in The Sun, “the world of showbiz is a dark place, and struggling young celebs need our prayers and not our judgement.” She goes on, “I think so many people go into the entertainment industry with amazing Christian roots and they get influenced somehow. I ask that people keep me and Justin in their minds. I pray for him every day. If Justin’s struggling, don’t kick him when he’s down or condemn him – pray for him.”

I agree.

I am always careful to avoid pointing out individuals as examples for us to be like. I’ve always believed it is dangerous to create and follow the Christian celebrity or those celebs that seem to have it all together. Who are we teaching our youth to follow?

It would be better served in the future for us not to lift the celebrity above the source of true life, Jesus Christ. Over and over again we read about life in Christ. Yet, we so often put our hope in a model that is only 14, 15 or 16 years old, only to become devastated when they don’t live up to our expectations. How quickly we turn to name calling, condemning remarks, and speaking horrible things that we would have never said just a few months earlier.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Last week I came across the video below from Craig Ferguson. He talks about why he was not going to joke about another young pop star’s problems. Ferguson, an alcoholic, spoke from the heart about how he was feeling “uncomfortable about making fun of these people” – troubled stars such as Britany Spears. It is an older clip but it reminded me of the current situation with Justin Beiber. And I think I am going to do what I’ve always said I would do and what Justin’s mother says we should do for her son…pray!

Hannah Montana is Dead

Miley on SNLIn fact, Miley Cyrus declared that she murdered her on Saturday Night Live this past weekend. And from the looks of her recent antics on the VMAs, SNL, and just about everywhere in the social media sphere I would say that runs truer than ever before. Hannah Montana is dead and we are not going to get her back.

I’ve not spoken about Miley yet mostly because others have done a good job of breaking down what they are observing. If you want to read some good explanations of what we see happening with Miley I suggest reading a blog from a good friend, Walt Mueller. His post last month on Miley and her recent transformation can be found here. He also writes some on the VMAs here. Which includes an excerpt on the realities of the world that Disney has brought us through their legion of former Mickey Mouse Club members (Justin Timberlake, Brittany Spears, Christina Aguilera) and TV show break outs (Selena Gomez, Amanda Bynes, and Miley Cyrus).

What strikes me most about Miley is not just her transformation, but the overall trend among today’s young pop stars to one up one another sexually. I just learned this weekend of Rihanna’s newest video and song, ‘Pour It Up’, which promotes stripping and has her simulating sex acts throughout the video. It makes Britany Spears new video for her song ‘Work B***h’ tame compared to Rihanna’s video and Miley’s videos for her recent songs ‘Can’t Hold Us’ and ‘Wrecking Ball’. Now this is nothing new. However, the level at which they are upping their game is. It has moved from scantily clad to almost nothing. From a few sexy dance moves to having sex with the floor.

Sex, it seems, still sells. Only it looks like we need more of it to notice any difference.

Many of the videos we are able to watch on YouTube today we could have never dreamed of watching 15 years ago without calling it soft porn. In order to stand out in todays pop culture you have to sell your sexuality. And at a younger and younger age. Which means making your video pornographic. It’s no wonder why we are seeing pre-teens and teens engage in sex earlier and earlier.

I remember having a conversation with a parent a few years ago about Miley. She beamed at the fact that she was a believer in Jesus Christ and was waiting until marriage to have sex. She expressed how happy she was that their was a female that her pre-teen could look up to and model her life after. At first, I shared her excitement but then I started to think about the long history of artists like Miley that have done the same thing. Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, and Britany Spears at some point confided in their desire to wait. They sold their purity to break down the fear that parents might have and used their virginity and innocence to gain trust. But around the age of 18 that changed. They moved from an innocent role model to a sex symbol. However, I don’t remember a former child star going so far so quick as Miley.

When Miley said that Hannah Montana was dead on Saturday Night Live I felt those words hang in the air. Miley is right. Hannah Montana is dead. But it’s not just Hannah Montana that I mourn for in this current state of our culture. It’s what this statement symbolizes for me as a parent, for the teens I work with and the world we live in.

PlanBChildren and teens are exposed to more sexually provocative messages and sexually mature messages then ever before. Many long before they are ready. Our social media coordinator at Project Six19 was with his 3-year-old daughter recently at Walgreens when he saw a Plan B package for sell next to the candy. If you’re not familiar with Plan B it is emergency contraceptive. It was not found behind the counter or in the pharmacy but right there near the M&Ms. Not only do we have to talk with our kids younger and younger about their bodies but now we also have to talk to them about things like this…long before they are ready. Then place the fact that we have to teach our children that todays favorite childhood celebrities might be tomorrows sex symbols means one thing.

Yes, it does look like Hannah Montana is dead and all the innocence that came with her.

As I reflect on Miley’s comments, her actions and those of her counterparts, and the Plan B cartridge on the candy aisle, I don’t blame anyone in particular. We’ve all contributed to this. We buy Miley’s music, watch Rihanna’s videos and buy Plan B for our teenagers so that they can skip the reality of the consequences of the decisions they made without realizing that we may just be creating others. No, I don’t blame anyone but I think it is time we start recognizing what is happening and taking responsibility where we can.

First, we’ve got to take some responsibility for this demand for the sexualization of the young men and women who feel like they have to bust free of this prudish image by flaunting their birthday suit in front of millions. Miley, Britany and Rihanna are no less valuable then you or I. And it is not just women. Daniel Radcliffe who you might remember for playing the part of Harry Potter is also getting into the mix and moving from child actor to adult by posing nude in several of his recent endeavors. It seems like it is a calculated career move. One that none of them would make if it didn’t pay the bills.

However, we must remember one fact. They were each made in the image of God just like you and I. Our sexuality can be a beautiful and wonderful force if in the proper context. But it can also be a tool for manipulation.

Second, GK Chesterton once said, “when we go knocking on the door of a brothel what we are really looking for is God.” Our deepest longings for sex, food, things, or whatever it is that we crave is really just a longing for God. We see this throughout Scripture. It is the reason I rejoice in the redemption story that all of the Bible points to and our opportunity to step into it through our relationship with Christ. I think there is a lot of longing happening in the stories of each of these individuals. As well as those that participate in their success by watching, viewing, and sharing their videos, music and movies.

Finally, let’s recognize that there is something holy that we are seeking when sexuality is placed before us. So often we want to place rules and restrictions around sex and relationships as Christians but I don’t think they work unless it is an act of obedience. That is why we must use the power of sex as a catalyst for discussions on the one that created this great gift and point individuals towards God. Only then can they understand the beauty of their body, the gift of their sexuality and where it is to be shared.