Turning Sex Into a Spectator Sport

In the wonderfully entertaining film Captain America: Winter Soldier, there’s a scene where two fugitives, a man and a woman, are trying to avoid being caught. A corrupt official who knows them is about to walk by, so the lady turns to the guy with a plan: he needs to kiss her. Confused, he asks why. She answers, “Public displays of affection make people very uncomfortable.” And so they kiss. It’s not a racy kiss, but it still causes the corrupt official to turn his head slightly away, effectively causing him to miss the fact that he just passed by his targets.

We all instinctively respond the same way, don’t we? As a culture, we may be more comfortable with PDA than we were, say, a couple decades ago, but we still don’t automatically gawk when two lovebirds share airtime. Rather, if we see a couple making out in public, our inclination is to turn away. This response hints at something we all instinctually know: intimate moments are not for public observation.

Sexual intimacy isn’t something God positioned on center stage. It is not a spectator sport. And regardless of your stance on PDA, the Christian position regarding the sex act itself is that it is supposed to be off stage, so to speak. A violation of this principle in our entertainment is an artistic and moral failure. Let’s look at the artistic problems first.

An artistic failure

How is a public display of sex (real or simulated) an artistic failure? In his book Reading Between the Lines, Gene Edward Veith says it “violates aesthetic decorum” (p. 36). Pointing to the Greeks, who admittedly “were hardly prudish or moralistic,” Veith notes how ancient dramas avoided certain words and deeds on stage. They dealt with violence and sex, for sure, but they did so through “exalted poetry,” not explicit acts that took viewers out of the experience of the story.

Fast forward to modern-day filmmaking:

When an actor and an actress take off their clothes in a movie, viewers begin reacting sexually instead of aesthetically. The dramatic effect is interrupted and displaced by the sexual effect. Stimulating an audience artistically takes skill and craft; stimulating them sexually is far easier. (p. 36)

Anyone with a pulse knows this to be true. We label such scenes as “hot” and “steamy” because of how they affect us. (Heck, my dictionary’s definition for the word “steamy” uses the phrase “steamy sex scenes” as the example.)

When filmmakers present us with an up-close view of an intensely personal and sexual act, they become (unlike Gandalf the Grey) conjurers of cheap tricks. We stop responding to the characters in the movie as characters. Or, as Donald Sutherland once put it, “When I take my clothes off people are no longer looking at me as a character, they’re looking at me with no clothes on.” [1]

When we’re faced with a sex scene on screen, we’re left with feeling either uncomfortable (like those who come across couples making out in public) or aroused (like peeping Toms anxious for titillation)—or possibly a mixture of both. Whatever the case, sex scenes are an aesthetic canker that pushes audiences out of the story.

A moral failure

For the Christian, the problem is not only artistic, but also moral. Veith continues:

The moral problem with obscenity is even more significant than the aesthetic problem. We might think of the “obscene,” in the Greek sense, as portrayals of what should be kept private. Sexuality is for the private intimacy of marriage, not for public eyes. Striptease shows are obscene, not because nudity is wrong but because nudity is private. To pay a woman to take her clothes off in front of crowds of ogling men is to violate her in a very brutal way. Public sex is obscene, not because sex is evil but because sex is sacred. (p. 37)

As I mentioned earlier, the sex act is, by God’s design, inherently private. To publicize the act is to pervert the act. Sex gone public is sex gone wrong.

In the book of Proverbs, the author of our sexuality speaks about His design for its enjoyment:

Drink water from your own cistern, and running water from your own well. Should your fountains be dispersed abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be only your own, and not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice with the wife of your youth. As a loving deer and a graceful doe, let her breasts satisfy you at all times; and always be enraptured with her love. (Pr. 5:15-19)

Sexual enjoyment that is pure and satisfying and fulfilling involves this component: keeping your experiences private—away from outside intrusion. Public sexuality is no more refreshing than a broken well whose water leaks out and runs through the dirt.

In contrast with our Creator’s beautiful provision of covenant faithfulness, exclusivity, and holy pleasure, sex on the silver screen offers an obscene, pornographic substitute. This cheap replica defiles true pleasure, as well as our experience of the One who created us to delight in that pleasure. For the glory of God and the enjoyment of our own souls, let us not be content with inferior copycats of God’s abundant provisions.

Previous entry: “But Professional Actors Aren’t Sexually Affected”
Next entry: When Did Voyeurism Stop Being a Vice?

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/my-mums-going-to-see-this-actors-and-actresses-reveal-secrets-of-the-sex-scenes-7658255.html (I’m not providing a direct link to the article because of its explicit nature.)