When Is Public Indecency Acceptable?

During a recent plane ride across the country, I looked up from my seat and encountered two people pretending to have sex—right out in the open. They didn’t act in the least bit ashamed or embarrassed. They weren’t completely naked, but discarded pieces of clothing were clearly visible.

A quick glance around the cabin revealed that some of the other passengers had seen the incident as well, but none of them were reacting to it. Some continued their business, while others seemed content to watch passively. No flight attendants intervened; no one protested. It was a surreal experience—one which provided me with an opportunity to apply God’s grace in fighting the temptation to lust in my own heart.

What happened after that? Well, the bedroom episode ended and the movie went on to another scene. Yes, it was “only” a movie. But does that relieve you at all? If so, something is dreadfully wrong.

There seems to be a huge disconnect between what is inappropriate in “real life” and what is inappropriate in front of a camera. We have laws against public indecency. But the same indecency, if put on film—where thousands or millions more might see, and which can be paused or replayed at any time—is suddenly socially acceptable.

You’re probably aware of the debauchery-infused performance of Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke at the Video Music Awards last week. It seems that most people, Christian and otherwise, agree on the impropriety of this VMA dance number. But my guess is that if that same dance routine was a scene in a movie, no one would have responded with such outrage. In fact, many Christians would likely have gone to see the movie—as long as it had some “redeemable” content, that is.

In my post Sex, Lies, and Star Trek, I talked about some of the ways in which the Christian community has become lax in its entertainment standards. We have grown accustomed to cultural expressions of sexuality that Scripture explicitly forbids—namely, nudity (full or partial) and sex scenes.

Probably the main objection I received to the article was the “it’s not as bad as…” rationale. Comparisons were repeatedly made to something that was either worse or similar but socially acceptable. The undressing scene in Star Trek Into Darkness, it was argued, was short—barely worth mentioning. And after all, it was no worse than what a man might see on the beach; her underwear was basically the same thing as a bikini.

It’s hard for me to see a Biblical defense for the line of reasoning above. First, the shortness of the scene makes little difference. It existed for the sole purpose of sexually objectifying actress Alice Eve. If you don’t believe me (or Star Trek producer Damon Lindelof), consider this: the Facebook ad that appeared in my news feed when the movie first came out exclaimed “Star Trek is Back” (or something similar), accompanied by a photo of Alice in her underwear.

Surely this is a mistake, I thought. They accidentally combined a Star Trek ad with a lingerie ad.

But I soon realized, to my dismay, that it was actually a freeze frame from the movie itself. Now, film runs at 24 frames a second. At 132 minutes, the movie contains over 190,000 frames. Out of all those frames, marketers chose Alice Eve in her underwear to advertise the movie. It may have been a “short” or “mild” scene compared to others, but sexual exploitation is sexual exploitation.

Regarding the argument that some underwear is similar to (or covers more than) a bikini: would it be acceptable for a woman to walk around on the beach in her underwear? I’d guess most Christian men would say no—that a woman in her underwear in public is indecent. Or, I suppose it could be argued that underwear is different from a bikini because underwear was designed to be covered by other clothes. But that eliminates the excuse that underwear and bikinis are basically the same thing. Whatever the case, the “underwear = bikinis” argument is problematic at best.

I’m aware that rules for modesty vary among different cultures. As C. S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity, “A girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally ‘modest,’ proper, or decent, according to the standards of their own societies: and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or equally unchaste).” Still, most uses of bikinis in our Western entertainment culture are strictly for titillation. (There’s a reason why the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition traditionally sells 10-15 times as much as a regular issue.)

Several of my readers pointed out that some men can legitimately go to the beach while successfully remaining pure. Standards for guarding one man’s eyes will likely and legitimately differ from those of another. I never meant to imply otherwise. (If you want to explore the topic of bikinis further, I recommend this presentation by Jessica Rey and this article by Rachel Held Evans.)

As I pointed out in my earlier blog post, though, personal holiness is only part of the issue. Loving others is an essential component. It isn’t inherently loving to financially support women being objectified—not even if we could avoid temptation in the process. We have more than ourselves to think about. We are, to a certain extent, our brother’s—and sister’s—keeper. The good of our neighbor should be a primary concern in our entertainment choices (and it is a topic we will explore more in the future).

So, when is public indecency acceptable? The short answer is, it shouldn’t be acceptable—especially not by those of us who have been rescued from the dominion of our sins (sexual and otherwise) and transferred to the kingdom of God (Col. 1:13). We must not condone watching through a camera lens that which Scripture forbids us to watch with our own eyes.