Let’s see what the Bible has to say.
Hosea: national desertion of God as a metaphor for infidelity
In the first three chapters of the book of Hosea, the promiscuity of Hosea’s wife is used a metaphor for Israel deserting God, and Hosea’s reaction is a metaphor for God’s response. But for our purposes, it is interesting to reverse the metaphor. What does Israel’s desertion of God say about promiscuity, and by extension pornography?
Firstly, it is about the misuse of sex. Gomer’s behaviour in taking many lovers is emphatically condemned. But it is also contrasted with its alternative: “I will take you for my wife for ever… in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness…. “ (Hosea 2:19f).
Pornography too can be contrasted with these. In pornography:
- in contrast to justice and righteousness, power and domination are at the heart of the sexual relationship.
- in contrast to faithfulness, it is OK to have sex with anyone.
Secondly, Hosea is concerned with whole societies being undermined. Israel as a whole is turning away from God, not just individuals within Israel. Whole societies can chase after Baals – a common theme in the OT. This seems to me a very important point. Pornography is generally viewed as an individual matter – particularly as it is generally hidden from sight: people using pornography tend not to do so in public. But Hosea warns us that there is a very real possibility that whole societies can be undermined.
There is a plausible case that pornography is undermining Western society today. At one level, thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of young women are being sucked in – some trafficked in, and then rapidly discarded. Furthermore, in parallel with drugs, an increasing number of men are addicted to pornography. At another level, there are companies earning large amounts of money from pornography, and very prepared to re-invest it: there is a major annual trade show for the industry in Las Vegas every year, and several smaller ones elsewhere. At a third, more insidious level, the majority of men, and an increasing number of women, are regularly imbibing pornography’s core assumptions such as power and men’s right to dominate women. Many – perhaps most – are too ashamed to discuss these openly, but there is a dripfeed. It would be very interesting to see research on whether this influences people’s thinking in other parts of their lives. Might it be part of the explanation for a willingness to vote for Donald Trump?
Thirdly, Hosea affirms God’s willingness to forgive. “I will now persuade her.. and speak tenderly to her. From there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she shall respond as in the days of her youth...” (Hosea 2:14f). There is hope: we are not condemned. This is hugely important for people who have become addicted to pornography.
A problem with Hosea
Yet it has to be admitted that there is part of Hosea which, to a reader today, is itself pornographic. Before the eventual forgiveness, Hosea announces that “I will strip her naked, and expose her as in the day she was born,” (2:3) “I will uncover her shame in the sight of her lovers and no one shall rescue her.” (2:10).
Here is domination and salaciousness. And the blame for adultery is laid entirely with the woman – her male lovers get no attention.
The position of Jesus
Compare with that, Jesus’s reaction to the woman brought before him in John 8:2-11.
The Pharisees and Sadducees behave like Hosea:
- They have found “a woman who had been caught in the very act of committing adultery.” She, the woman, is the one at fault, with no mention of the man involved.
- The woman is dominated: “the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and making her stand ….” (8:3)
- And she is exposed: “making her stand before all of them….”
Jesus’s reaction is very different.
- First he draws attention away from the woman and to himself. It’s not clear why he is writing in the sand, or what he wrote – but it is clear that he becomes the centre of attention. Is it significant too that he “bent down”, making himself lower than the woman?
- Jesus says we are all sinners – women and men the same. “Let anyone among you who is without sin throw the first stone.”
- The prurient crowd slink away, one by one – until just Jesus and the un-named woman are left. No longer is she dominated or exposed. Instead, “Neither do I condemn you.” And only then, with nobody watching, does Jesus say to the woman, as to all of us, “from now on, do not sin again.”
Jesus says rather little about sex in the gospels, so we cannot read off his views about pornography. But from this story in John, we can see, clearly, his opposition to two of the key features of pornography: the subordinate position of women, and the use of power and domination.
The Song of Songs: the opposite to pornography
One book of the Bible that receives very little attention nowadays is the Song of Songs, also known (wrongly) as the Song of Solomon. It comes into the lectionary of Sunday Bible readings only once, and that as an alternative reading. But this embarrassment about it has not always been the case. St Teresa of Avila reflects on the Song with passion in her Meditations. St Bernard of Clairvaux, the great founder of monasteries, preached 86 sermons just on the first two chapters.
Teresa, Bernard and many other readers saw the Song of Songs as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and the individual soul, Christ and the church, or between God and Israel. This continues to be fruitful.
But for our purposes, it is very helpful to read the Song of Songs at face value. It is wonderful, fresh, delightful erotic love poetry. It’s probably a collection of poems, with two lovers in each, and sometimes a chorus. And it turns out to be the opposite of pornography.
If you don’t know it, it is worth stopping at this point and reading the book – it is only six or so pages. Here is an example (2: 1-6) :
I am a rose of Sharon
A lily of the valley.
A lily growing among thorns
Is my dearest among the maidens.
Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest,
so is my beloved among young men.
To sit in his shadow is my delight,
and his fruit is sweet to my taste.
He has taken me into the wine-garden
and given me loving glances.
Sustain me with raisins, revive me with apples,
for I am faint with love.
His left arm pillows my head, his right arm is round me.
This does not feel like pornography. It is suffused with sex, but its assumptions are completely different from pornography:
- The two lovers are equals, enjoying each other and pining for each other. Power is not an issue between them.
- Women are in the lead much of the time. Some two-thirds of the words are spoken by the woman – a major contrast to other books of the Bible. Furthermore, the women are articulate, unconventional risk-takers. The men are loving but less adventurous.
- They are in love – not after sex alone.
- Their love is marked by faithfulness. They have eyes for no one else: "My beloved is mine and I am his" (2:16; 6:3).
- This is no hole-in-the-corner, hidden-away encounter, of which anyone needs to feel ashamed. The freshness, and the repeated references to nature, echoes the garden of Eden, when everything was healthy – before Adam and Eve were ashamed.
Bible study alone is not enough to break the power of pornography for most addicts. Happily, there are resources available. In particular it is vital to share the problem with a trained counsellor and ideally with other addicts seeking to recover. But Bible study can point us in the right direction, and offer a different and attractive vision.
 For example, Patrick Carnes et al, In the Shadows of the Net: Breaking Free from Compulsive Online Sexual Behavior, 2007; or Joanne Marie Greer and Brendan Geary, Sexual Issues: Understanding and Advising in a Christian context, 2010, Stowmarket: Kevin Mayhew Ltd.