When Did Voyeurism Stop Being a Vice?

Did you know that the term “peeping Tom” was inspired by an 18th-century story? As legend goes, Lady Godiva persistently begged her husband, the Earl of Coventry, to ease the tax burden of the people under him. Finally, in exasperation, he promised to acquiesce only if she rode through the town on horseback—in the nude. She agreed.

During her ride, the townsfolk remained indoors out of respect—all of them, that is, except one man. This person’slustful curiosity compelled him to gaze at her and [he] was then, according to various versions of the legend, struck either blind or dead in punishment.” What was the pervert’s name? I’ll give you a three-lettered guess.

No Christian would want to be labeled a peeping Tom. After all, it is indecent and immoral to receive sexual pleasure by watching someone other than your spouse undress or engage in sexual activity. We fully acknowledge that.

Or do we? Douglas Wilson says we do not. In his book Reforming Marriage, he lays before our eyes the naked truth (so to speak):

Many Christians are willing to watch, by means of a movie camera, what they wouldn’t dream of watching in person. You couldn’t get them into a topless bar, and yet they cheerfully go to films where they see far more. Would most Christian men be willing to be peeping Toms, roving the neighborhood? Certainly not. But what if they discovered a woman who knew of their presence and was willing to undress in front of the window? That would be worse. What if she were paid to do all this? Worse, worse, and still worse. And if she is paid lots of money, has a producer and director, does all this for the movie cameras, and has millions of men drooling at her window sill? This is suddenly different and becomes quite a “complicated” issue. (p. 111)

Pastor Wilson is exactly right. In light of what Scripture has to say about public nudity and public sex, and in light of what we’ve already studied in this blog series, it isn’t the issue that is complicated, but rather the tangled web that is own hearts.

Have you noticed that one of the main ways we as a society seek sexual enjoyment is through watching? We justify gazing on people sexually acting out by labeling it as entertainment. We peruse articles telling us what it was like for Actor X to kiss (or share a sex scene with) Actress Y in Movie Z. We pore over Victoria’s Secret and Sports Illustrated Swimsuit magazines with relish. We play videogames that invite us to ogle their characters’ bodies. It could be argued, I suppose, that we’re not actually participating in any sex act ourselves. After all, we’re just watching. But that’s just a denial of how the sex act works. The authors of Every Man’s Battle make a helpful clarification:

For males, impurity of the eyes is sexual foreplay. . . . Because foreplay is any sexual action that naturally takes us down the road to intercourse. Foreplay ignites passions, rocketing us by stages until we go all the way. . . . No doubt about it: Visual sexual gratification is a form of sex for men. As males, we draw sexual gratification and chemical highs through our eyes. (pp. 66, 68)

In light of the sexual nature of even simulated sex scenes, the sexual stimulation that occurs in such acts (for both actors and viewers), and the obscenity involved in these scenes, it’s no wonder that they promote voyeurism.

Cinematic sex scenes and porn films invite us to do something we were never designed to do: watch people sexually act out. Through the medium of film, we have grown accustomed to gazing on moments of intimacy. Something about putting a camera lens between the participants and us provides enough distance for us to squelch our conscience and soak in the sights and sounds of sex.

All in the name of entertainment.

I’m not up in arms about this because I’m an opponent of pleasure, though. Just the opposite! Voyeurism is a poor substitute for true sexual enjoyment. In our voyeuristic culture, we find ourselves needing the sexuality of those outside our relationships in order to enjoy even our own relationships. We treat blatant porn or “acceptable” cinematic sex as the standard to which we (secretly, at least) hope to attain. Only when we can make our sex lives mirror the lives of those we see on screen do we feel like we’ll be happy. We’ve made an unnatural connection between voyeurism and sexual release, between the sex we see on the screen and the sex we hope to enjoy in our own lives.

That is not how sex was designed. God created sexual intercourse to be enjoyed personally, not vicariously. Through His provision of marriage, He wants us to experience the ecstasy of sex firsthand, not secondhand. He has provided us a way to enjoy true intimacy, not just to be on the outside looking in, snagging meager scraps that fall off the table of stars and supermodels.

Remember also that God created our sexuality to know Him more fully. His provision of marital union is an image of the personal and harmonious relationship between Christ and His church. Through marriage, God calls us to see His love and devotion for His cherished, blood-bought bride.

Just as God did not design us to be sexual voyeurs, He also didn’t design us to be spiritual voyeurs. Through the gospel (which is illustrated in the marriage relationship), He calls us to know Him personally, not vicariously. He invites us to experience His grace firsthand, not secondhand. He offers us the privilege of knowing Him intimately, not to watch from the outside.

When all is said and done, voyeurism isn’t so horrible because it seeks pleasure, but because it involves trading in covenantal enjoyment for cheap thrills. It leaves us with much less than God has promised. With that in mind, do we really want to defend entertainment choices that offer such a bastardized version of the beauty and glory of sex?

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