Chances are that if you were raised in a mainstream Christian denomination, you likely heard at least one message as a teenager about sexuality and the pitfalls and evils of pornography. If you were raised in a fundamentalist Christian church, you heard about this at least once a year.
A story was posted on The Daily Beast last week about Florida pastor Jay Dennis’ call for “men to destroy [their] computers in quest to live ‘porn free’.” Included in the story was a compilation of messages Dennis has produced over the years in the course of his anti-pornography crusade. (The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks.)
Watching the video brought back dozens of memories from my own teen years. There were the ubiquitous PSA-style videos shown in my church’s youth group that portrayed young men tragically falling victim to demonic temptation, and the havoc that giving in caused in their lives and future marriages. There were “Quaker” sessions where guys and girls gathered separately to talk about sexual temptation and how to “stay pure.”
There aren’t words to describe the horror I experienced as a teenager, hearing those messages and knowing that I was facing the worst temptation of all, the sin that dare not speak its name — being gay.
It wasn’t until years later after I came out gay (and even later when I came out as an atheist) that I finally began to confront the toxic scripts and narratives that I learned as a teenager about my own sexuality, as a male and as a gay male. So here are just a few of the lessons I learned in church about my identity as a sexual being, as per Jay Dennis.
1. Sexuality is Shameful
I recently learned that a friend of mine attended a Unitarian church with his parents as a teenager. Part of the Unitarian Christian education curriculum still includes a sexual education component that teaches students that sexuality is something to be talked about, embraced and (responsibly) explored — and not to be ashamed of.
The attitude towards sex at my church, like many, growing up can be summed up in one word: DON’T. Sex was something to be discovered only as an adult, and after marriage. This is equivalent to not permitting anyone to drive until they’ve bought a car, and handing keys to someone who has never driven a car before, doesn’t know how to turn it on or off, has no clue what the rules of the road are, or even how to brake.
The party line on sexuality was that it was a gift from God to be experienced within the bounds of holy matrimony. Yet the implicit message we learned as children from the hushed tones and looks on the faces of adults who we asked about anything related to sex was that it’s something decent people didn’t talk about.
As children do, we internalized those responses and the belief that our sexual natures as human beings are something so repulsive that they could never be spoken of in the light of day. Sex was an uncomfortable fact of life that happened behind closed doors where it didn’t have to be seen or thought about.
2. Natural Born Predators
One of the tropes about male sexuality is that “boys will be boys,” and we simply can’t help our sexual urges. Growing up, I heard many messages about the need for female modesty so that wandering male eyes wouldn’t be seduced into lust and sin. Of course, Christians don’t often talk about the implication that, by their own beliefs, God created men with these repulsive impulses that make everyone so uncomfortable.
One commonality shared between the monotheistic religion (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) is the almost pathological fear and repression of female sexuality. In recent years, Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men have refused to sit next to women on planes, and there has been a disturbing trend of this same group of men picketing schools and harassing young girls because “their religious sense of modesty is offended by the sight of the girls and their families passing their homes on their way to school.”
The message that the anti-pornography movement inadvertently sends to young men is that their sexual desires are repulsive, destructive forces that need to be controlled and channeled until marriage. The solution? Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and Bible reading. Without the guidance and oversight of Jesus, the uncontrolled male sex drive will lead a man to become hopelessly entangled in pornography, lust, sexual addiction, and disease, and even lead him to become a sexual predator.
We just can’t help ourselves.
3. A Perverted Sexuality
Many fundamentalist Christians believe there’s a spiritual war raging between God and Satan for human souls. (Never mind that this makes Christianity a dualist religion by definition.) Every thought or action is a potential battleground, with eternal consequences. In this context, the belief that viewing pornography makes sense.
There is also the belief that as an active agent, Satan has been at work since the dawn of Creation, perverting all the good things that God has done – including sexuality. Anything outside of a one man-one woman marital relationship is both a sin and an open invitation for demons to enter one’s life.
In this context, merely entertaining sexual thoughts (let alone masturbating or having sex before marriage) becomes torment for men. Natural impulses are transformed into “demonic attacks” on God’s design for human sexuality. Deciding whether an eternity in hell is worth a moment of worldly pleasure is a real brain teaser when you’re a horny teenage boy.
The problem with telling anyone to just resist and ignore our most basic and primal impulses is that they do become overwhelming and destructive. By failing to teach young men how to properly manage their sexual lives, the church has created its own “pornography problem” by making sexuality forbidden and illicit. And driving any behavior underground is the best way to encourage its flourishing.
After all, Prohibition was so successful in eliminating alcoholism…