Posted by: Ken Brown | June 13, 2008

Art, Nudity and Sex and the City

As you may be aware, the new Sex and the City movie has caused quite a stir in some Christian circles, for its graphic sexuality and nudity. Though the movie was mostly panned by the critics (Rotten Tomatoes has it at 52% – rotten), it was popular at the box office and at least a few Christians have written positive reviews (for instance, Barbara Nicolosi, whom I respect). When Christianity Today (CT) published its own quite positive review, however, it sparked so much controversy that they felt obliged to post a response defending their right to review morally objectionable films. Ted Slater then wrote a scathing Open Letter at Boundless Line (an arm of Focus on the Family), denouncing them for “promoting” such a film and calling them to repent:

Your review grudgingly admitted that “there is a lot of sex and nudity in the movie.” Your disclaimer went on to say that this movie isn’t for “some adults.” By “some adults,” do you mean those who take the call of Christ seriously, to flee sexual immorality and pursue a life of righteousness? And that other, less conscientious adults should disregard the pursuit of holiness and “enjoy” (to use a term from the original review) this portrayal of illicit vulgarity?

The post drew 150 comments and a number of blog reactions, ranging from enthusiastic congratulations to impassioned objections (for example, see these discussions at Christ and Pop Culture). The key issues at stake seem to be: 1. Is it OK for (some) Christians to watch sexually explicit films, and 2. If (some or all) Christians should not watch such things, do Christian publications have a responsibility not to “promote” them through positive reviews?

Now I have not seen Sex and the City, I have no desire nor plan to do so, and I’m not even that concerned to defend or condemn Christianity Today (I think their review was questionable, but Slater’s response was over-the-top). But these two questions are broadly applicable and have left me rethinking my own approach to film. The truth is, my own views have become much more permissive over the years. When I was single, I firmly believed that any nudity in film (and most sexuality) was sinful and not something I should see. I don’t think I was wrong, either; as a single guy that was a temptation I was not equipped to handle well. When other Christians tried to distinguish between “tasteful” nudity and mere pornography, I understood the artistic difference (sort of), but could not see the moral distinction. As far as I was concerned, any movie that included such a thing, no matter how good otherwise, was off-limits.

But since I’ve been married (five and a half years now), my views have softened and I find myself watching films with stronger sexual themes without qualm. Whether because I’m more mature, or just desensitized, I know that these films do not affect me in the same way that they once did. For instance, if I had watched Knocked Up as a teenager… well, let’s just say it would not have been good for me; but at this stage in my life its excessive sexuality left me more disgusted than harmed. It was gratuitous and immoral, but it’s a simple fact that such images don’t stick with me the way they did as a teenager.

More generally, I no longer think that the amount of nudity (or other immorality) is as important as the context in which it is shown. If deliberately sexualized, even implied nudity can be much more harmful than explicit (but non-sexual) nudity. An obvious example of the latter would be the nudity in Schindler’s List, which is very graphic, but not at all sexual nor gratuitous. In contrast, these days it seems like almost every soap commercial is filled with highly sexualized images of women showering. Though they never include full nudity, these ads present a sexuality with no connection to any relationship. Added simply to get a reaction out of the audience, it doesn’t much matter that the sexual organs are just off-camera, this is essentially pornographic.

Alternatively, if a film shows two people fall in love and then implies that they had sex (perhaps even showing some skin), that may often be immoral, but it’s not necessarily as harmful to me as a viewer – it largely depends on the moral tone of the story. Is it presented as a legitimate expression of sexuality or a mistake? Are the real consequences of sex recognized or ignored? Does the film have an overarching moral tone, or is it simply trying to titillate the viewer? Unfortunately, the vast majority of the sexuality in modern film falls into the latter category, but this is not always so, and when it is an important part of a redemptive story, even full nudity can be less harmful than using sensual images simply to induce a sexual reaction in the viewer.

But however that may be, such distinctions require a level of maturity that is not automatic. It’s not just that I didn’t recognize them when I was younger, but that I couldn’t. At that stage of my life, almost any nudity was liable to affect me as strongly sexual, and I have to realize that this is still true of many other (younger) Christians, some of whom may perhaps read this blog. I’m starting to recognize that if I’m going to discuss films or TV shows with sexual elements, I need to be more aware of this potential and do a better job than I have of warning about such aspects of anything I recommend or discuss.

Moreover, even such considerations do not excuse all my viewing of sexually explicit material. However I may have matured, I’m still a human male who (whether I see it or not) is liable to be influenced by the presentation of sex I see in the media. And just because I now believe that some nudity can be legitimate and, occasionally, even necessary, that doesn’t change the fact that most of what Hollywood produces does not fit that category. Even if I am better at recognizing and critiquing such distortions than I once was, that doesn’t mean it’s good for me to see such things. As St. Paul said, just because it’s permissible doesn’t mean it’s beneficial (1 Cor. 6:12-20).

As I’ve shifted from judging film by the amount of immorality it portrays, to judging by the overarching worldview it embodies, I may have become a more mature critic, but in the process have I rationalized my own exposure to immorality? Where once I would have rejected a movie with brief nudity or even just too much swearing — even if the story as a whole was redemptive — today I’m more likely to do the opposite, forgiving almost any fault if the eventual goal is positive or thought-provoking. Granted, the world can be a messy and immoral place, and it is legitimate for film to acknowledge that, but have I drawn the line too far? If a film does include gratuitous nudity and excessive sexuality, can I justify dismissing that just because the story symbolizes some spiritual truth that, frankly, I could just as easily learn elsewhere? I’m not so sure anymore. “Mature” or not, perhaps I’m more a child of my culture than I’d like to believe.


Responses

  1. I won’t see it, but not because it has nudity. I can appreciate the artistic use of some nudity in films, even if it occurs as part of a sex scene. The problem I have is the gratuitous nature of the sex in this show. The message it sends to young women. The values, or the lack thereof, leave me cold.

    I watched some of the HBO series years ago and some of it was funny, but I found nothing of value about any of the characters.

    Call me old-fashioned, but …there used to be a special word for women like this.

  2. I’ll have to take your word for it; I’ve only ever seen one episode of the show (and it was a sanitized TBS version), which didn’t include anything that would lead me to want to watch more.

  3. very interesting review

    dave

  4. An interesting thought – thanks Ken.

    I am always wary of moral judgments that conclude that we ought not to be exposed to certain ideas. So in that sense, I’d say you have become a more mature critic. You are right, of course, that some ideas and images are easier to handle for certain people than for others. Even safer, in a sense.

    An entertaining and surprisingly fun portrayal of our culture’s tendency to oversexualize life is found in the movie Little Miss Sunshine. Have you seen it? (No nudity, no violence, I think there’s some strong language.)

  5. Dave,
    Heh, does it count as a review if I haven’t seen the movie? :)

    Timothy,
    I think a major aspect of maturity in this area is the willingness/ability to consciously analyze what it is we are seeing and hearing. The better we can do that, the less of a negative effect poor content has on us, but I don’t think it completely eliminates it, especially with truly over the top content (like full pornography). Advertizers wouldn’t spend millions of dollars for 30 seconds of airtime if it didn’t make any difference.

    As for Little Miss Sunshine, I haven’t seen it, but you’re not the first person to recommend it to me; I’ll definitly have to check it out soon.

  6. Our attitudes and reactions to sin are very peculiar. There is a glitch somewhere and maybe you can help me find exactly where it is:

    Sexual activity with a spouse is neither sin nor crime, however watching an explicit movie of same activity is a sin. Sexual activity between unmarried partners is not a crime but is a sin. Rape is both a crime and a sin. So here we have a single activity (sexual activity) that is not always immoral or illegal but is always a sin to “watch”. Murder, on the other hand, is never good, never right and is always a sin and a crime, yet there seems to be nothing wrong with watching tv shows or movies that are extremely explicity in their depictions of murder. There are hundreds of tv shows and movies about nothing more than murder. The moral implications of watching explicit murder scenes never seems to be as serious as those surrounding the watching of sexual activity, in spite of the fact that murder is ultimate evil and sexual activity can sometimes be the ultimate in human expression of love. I’d like your opinion of why this is so.

  7. Our attitudes and reactions to sin are very peculiar. There is a glitch somewhere and maybe you can help me find exactly where it is:

    Sexual activity with a spouse is neither sin nor crime, however watching an explicit movie of same activity is a sin. Sexual activity between unmarried partners is not a crime but is a sin. Rape is both a crime and a sin. So here we have a single activity (sexual activity) that is not always immoral or illegal but is always a sin to “watch”. Murder, on the other hand, is never good, never right and is always a sin and a crime, yet there seems to be nothing wrong with watching tv shows or movies that are extremely explicity in their depictions of murder. There are hundreds of tv shows and movies about nothing more than murder. The moral implications of watching explicit murder scenes never seems to be as serious as those surrounding the watching of sexual activity, in spite of the fact that murder is ultimate evil and sexual activity can sometimes be the ultimate in human expression of love. I’d like your opinion of why this is so.

  8. Welcome back Majorsteve!

    Funny, I was thinking about that very question just yesterday. Why are Christians so much more tolerant of fictional violence than fictional sex? I’m not completely sure, and I suspect we are at times merely being inconsistent, but a few things stand out to me:

    First, fictional violence does not actually hurt anyone; no actor has to die or commit murder for a film to include it in the storyline. But fictional sex often does require the actors to be sexually immoral to film (not usually going so far as actual sex, but often everything short of it).

    Second, watching a character be murdered on television doesn’t (generally) lead the viewer to think wrongly about the actor as a person, but watching characters have sex can lead the viewer to think of the actors themselves (with whom we have no relationship) as mere sexual objects.

    Third, though murder is more harmful than illicit sex (obviously), it does not offer the same temptation as sex does. We are sexual beings by nature, we are not murderers by nature. So while uncritically watching fictionalized sex can fairly easily draw us to fantasize about (immoral) sex, most of us are not so easily drawn to fantasize about murder.

    Just a few thoughts; what do you think?

  9. I think those are reasons, but they’re not THE reasons. As you said, we are sexual beings. We all have very conspicuous sexual equipment and learn at a very early age the association with extreme physical pleasure, even before we learn the biological purpose of the entire system. As Christians, even as non-religious society, we have established rules of behavior that contradict millions of years of biological evolution (yes I did go there). For example, young people are physically “ready” to begin mating and bearing children in their very early teens, however, because our society is so complex it has become an extreme disadvantage for them to do so. Sexual urges are so powerful and the consequences of early sexual activity are so acute that we are taught at a very early age that there is something “wrong” about sex. This may not be the intention on the part of parents and society but as toddlers and young children we make the connection that sex is “bad”. We wear clothes to hide sexual parts of our bodies. We get in trouble if we show each other our “private parts”. We are discouraged from speaking about sexual activity until we reach a certain age and then we do so in the most clinical and generic terms. Sex is very private and very secret. It is obvious that every one is doing it because there are so many children around, so for young people it can become an obsession to actually see how it’s done. But we can’t because that would be a sin. We learn to make the connection between sex and sin at a very early age. As a result many individuals see sexual activity as much more sinful than any other sin, almost the epitome if sin. When we get older we learn that it is not a sin, but that knowledge is primarily in the head rather than in the heart. We learn that under very strict circumstances sex is not a sin at all, in fact, God wants us to do it. Reconciling all of this is very confusing because the taboo against sex resides in our sub-conscious and is not easily accessed and dealt with. This battle in our heads between sex as a taboo and sex as a natural activity underlies the extreme perversity of sex that we see in society. In my opinion sex is seen as basically a sinful activity. The Bible says Jesus’ mother was a virgin. Why? The Bible says that Adam and Eve saw each other naked and suddenly realized what sin was. Why? Because they saw each others sexual equipment? Sex is closely associated with shame. If one is happily married and sees a healthy and fit nineteen year old in a skimpy bathing suit it would not be abnormal to experience a physiological sexual reaction, however, what we feel emotionally is shame and guilt and we are taught that this is what we should feel. In order to protect the integrity of familial and societal structure we have no choice but to suppress our natural sexual inclinations at every turn. This is why we feel so strongly about stories and tv shows and movies that are sexually explicit. It is not the only reason, but it is the main reason. We are constantly on guard against our own sexual responses. In my opinion we should be equally concerned with watching and reading about violence, whether explicit or implied. Murder is horrible, ugly and sad, however, most of our reading about it or watching shows and movies about it involves finding out “who done it”. As humans we naturally want to solve puzzles and we naturally want to deliver justice to those who did the crime. So there is your answer. We stress over sexual themes because we are on guard against our own sexual responses and because we constantly seek to uphold the rules of sexual activity that protect the familial and societal structure of our species. We do not stress over violent themes because the primary direction is usually solving a puzzle and delivering justice to the maleficent.

  10. I think those are reasons, but they’re not THE reasons. As you said, we are sexual beings. We all have very conspicuous sexual equipment and learn at a very early age the association with extreme physical pleasure, even before we learn the biological purpose of the entire system. As Christians, even as non-religious society, we have established rules of behavior that contradict millions of years of biological evolution (yes I did go there). For example, young people are physically “ready” to begin mating and bearing children in their very early teens, however, because our society is so complex it has become an extreme disadvantage for them to do so. Sexual urges are so powerful and the consequences of early sexual activity are so acute that we are taught at a very early age that there is something “wrong” about sex. This may not be the intention on the part of parents and society but as toddlers and young children we make the connection that sex is “bad”. We wear clothes to hide sexual parts of our bodies. We get in trouble if we show each other our “private parts”. We are discouraged from speaking about sexual activity until we reach a certain age and then we do so in the most clinical and generic terms. Sex is very private and very secret. It is obvious that every one is doing it because there are so many children around, so for young people it can become an obsession to actually see how it’s done. But we can’t because that would be a sin. We learn to make the connection between sex and sin at a very early age. As a result many individuals see sexual activity as much more sinful than any other sin, almost the epitome if sin. When we get older we learn that it is not a sin, but that knowledge is primarily in the head rather than in the heart. We learn that under very strict circumstances sex is not a sin at all, in fact, God wants us to do it. Reconciling all of this is very confusing because the taboo against sex resides in our sub-conscious and is not easily accessed and dealt with. This battle in our heads between sex as a taboo and sex as a natural activity underlies the extreme perversity of sex that we see in society. In my opinion sex is seen as basically a sinful activity. The Bible says Jesus’ mother was a virgin. Why? The Bible says that Adam and Eve saw each other naked and suddenly realized what sin was. Why? Because they saw each others sexual equipment? Sex is closely associated with shame. If one is happily married and sees a healthy and fit nineteen year old in a skimpy bathing suit it would not be abnormal to experience a physiological sexual reaction, however, what we feel emotionally is shame and guilt and we are taught that this is what we should feel. In order to protect the integrity of familial and societal structure we have no choice but to suppress our natural sexual inclinations at every turn. This is why we feel so strongly about stories and tv shows and movies that are sexually explicit. It is not the only reason, but it is the main reason. We are constantly on guard against our own sexual responses. In my opinion we should be equally concerned with watching and reading about violence, whether explicit or implied. Murder is horrible, ugly and sad, however, most of our reading about it or watching shows and movies about it involves finding out “who done it”. As humans we naturally want to solve puzzles and we naturally want to deliver justice to those who did the crime. So there is your answer. We stress over sexual themes because we are on guard against our own sexual responses and because we constantly seek to uphold the rules of sexual activity that protect the familial and societal structure of our species. We do not stress over violent themes because the primary direction is usually solving a puzzle and delivering justice to the maleficent.

  11. Very interesting thoughts, and I think largely correct as a second, deeper level of analysis from mine (though I would take issue with your description of Adam and Eve).

    The only other thing I would add is that murder (or at least, killing) may seem to be treated only as a mystery to solve if you restrict your analysis to shows like CSI, but if you include action movies in the equation we also seem to be drawn to fictionalized violence for its own sake, though for less biologically ingrained reasons than why we are drawn to fictionalized sex. In fact, I think underlying both presentations of murder/killing (as a crime, or as heroic) lies a basic desire to catch/destroy/escape personified evil.

  12. Loved majorsteve’s take on this topic. I have no problem with nudity, we came into this world nude, its our natural way to be in the world. The effects of sin have alienated us not only from God, but from our own bodies, and from our own sexuality.

    The only distinction I would make is that I don’t believe the Fall in the garden made our bodies or our sexuality sinful, I believe sin makes us view ourselves and each other this way. It’s a subtle but important distinction that has more to do with our perceptions as they are distorted by sin rather than any real ontological change.

    • Thanks for the great comment!

  13. INCREDIBLE! Sex and nudity is ONLY right between a man and a woman who are married and in private (PERIOD). I can’t believe “Christians” would ever state otherwise. The Laodicean church age is truly here. Criticize me if you wish, but I believe the Bible teaches as I believe (BTW: Isaiah 20, he wasn’t nude, implied in verse 4; King David didn’t dance naked either, he only took off his robe). Why would God Himself provide coverings?


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