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Christians: Stop defending Hollywood porn

'Fifty Shades of Grey'
A pedestrian walks past an advertising placard for the movie "Fifty Shades of Grey," which will be screened at the upcomming 65th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin, Germany, February 4, 2015. The February 5-15 Berlinale kicks off the European festival season. |

When filmmakers and moviegoers use the term “simulated sex,” they are employing a euphemism for “no protuberance was inserted into a bodily orifice during the making of this film.” Thus, the difference many make between “simulated sex” (what we see in mainstream entertainment) and “actual penetrative sex” (what we see in hardcore pornography). Both acts may include undressing, libidinous kissing, the fondling of sexual organs, grinding, and sexual noises, but “simulated sex” avoids ejaculations (except when it doesn’t).

In his book Eros Defiled, counselor John White writes that an approach to sexual morality “based on details of behavior (kissing, dressing or undressing, touching, holding, looking) and of parts of the body (fingers, hair, arms, breasts, lips, genitalia) can only satisfy a pharisee” (53). When all is said and done, “Once you try to map out morality in terms of anatomy and physiology, you wind up with an ethical labyrinth from which there is no exit” (52).

As a society, we are in that ethical labyrinth right now. Whereas porn is strictly masturbatory, “simulated sex” is ostensibly nobler. In the words of intimacy coordinator Alicia Rodis, “Sex scenes are not just a vehicle for someone to get off. Sex has so many narratives, and it’s so complex and it’s so important.”

When evaluating the sexual content of our entertainment, it’s almost as if we’ve borrowed the pharisaical ethics used by teenagers in the backseat of a Volkswagen and applied them to professional actors: “They technically didn’t have sex, so obviously their actions were chaste and respectful.”

We need to reject our culture’s euphemistic nomenclature and call “simulated sex” for what it really is: softcore pornography.

Spade, meet mirror

The actual meaning of “softcore” helps clarify the situation. According to Merriam-Webster, “softcore” is defined as “containing descriptions or scenes of sex acts that are less explicit than hard-core material.”

Similarly, the Collins English Dictionary defines “softcore” as “pornography [which] shows or describes sex, but in an indirect way.”

In like manner, Dictionary.com defines the word thus: “of, relating to, or containing sexually arousing depictions that are not fully explicit.”

According to Definitions.net, softcore pornography 

“typically contains depictions of sexual activity, such as sexual intercourse or masturbation. . . . In most cases sexual acts depicted in softcore pornography are simulated by the actors and actress[es] with no actual penetration occurring. The actors may wear latex genital covers to prevent physical contact.”

(I’m not linking directly to the article because it features a picture of softcore porn.)

In distinguishing between softcore and hardcore pornography, Encyclopedia.com says the following:

[Softcore] refers to “erotic” pornography, in which sex acts—real or simulated—are represented without a prurient concentration on the genitals, while [hardcore] would feature detailed representations of genital/anal penetration, cunnilingus, fellatio, and orgasm, particularly of the externally ejaculating penis.

Do the above definitions and descriptions of softcore pornography fit a typical Hollywood sex scene? You bet your clapperboard they do!

In the entertainment industry, “simulated sex” involves carefully blocked and choreographed sequences that avoid portrayals of actual coitus, while at the same time attempting to portray “more realistic depictions of it.” The result is, quite literally, softcore porn—sandwiched in the folds of Art and Acting and Themes and Whatnot.

Many defend such “artistic liberties” on the basis of intent: whereas a pornographer’s goal is titillation, a mainstream filmmaker’s goal is telling a comprehensive story. But that argument is moot if a filmmaker uses pornographic filming techniques. For the Christian, “porn” isn’t a legitimate category on the buffet of cultural artistic offerings. I have written elsewhere that pornography — even softcore content — isn’t something Christians grade on a curve.

“Well-intentioned” pornography is not only not a step up from “bad” pornography — it’s an oxymoron. It’s like Boromir in The Lord of the Rings trying to use the inherently-corrupting One Ring for good. The wrong thing for the right reason, however, is still the wrong thing.

Jedi mind tricks

Consider an article for The Week (originally published in Los Angeles magazine) entitled The last word: ‘It’s just actor sex’. This piece explores how sex scenes can turn actors on — a fact that can turn their real-life lovers off.

Those in romantic relationships with actors must comfort themselves with what the article calls “a sort of Jedi mind trick of perpetual disbelief” regarding the goings-on of filming sex scenes:

How else can an actor spend the day in bed with a stranger — limbs entangled, lips locked — and then later slip under the covers with his or her real squeeze? How else could that squeeze banish thoughts of those hands groping another? It’s weird for everyone.

One particular example of this weirdness comes from actor Scott Conte, who had to participate in a sex scene for a theatrical production:

[The script] called for him to simulate sex, half-dressed with a lovely blond co-star. He did his best to prepare his fiancée, now wife, Bibi Dhillonn, explaining that the physical stuff was highly choreographed: His hand would go on the actress’ hip, he would hold her, they would kiss longingly. It might look wanton, Conte told Dhillonn, but it was about as sexy as following a road map.

Here’s how the experience went down, from Dhillonn’s perspective:

The first time she saw the play, Dhillonn was fine. But when she saw it again, she noticed a facial expression of Conte’s combined with a gesture that was so familiar, it made her heart pound and sent blood rushing to her face. The theater was tiny, and she knew that she couldn’t walk out without being noticed and interrupting Conte’s performance. So she just sat there, watching the visage she’d thought Conte reserved only for her and tried to remind herself that the man she loved was acting.

“I knew it was coming, and yet for some reason I was like, ‘Oh. They’re actually touching each other,’” says Dhillonn, an administrator in UCLA’s theater department, remembering being surprised by her own surprise. “Sometimes Scott’s own mannerisms come out in the role he’s playing. When that’s happening, it’s harder to separate Scott from the act onstage.”

Dhillonn was “surprised by her own surprise.” Why? Because the scene involved something she had been told was fake, but which became demonstrably more real when the (half-naked) facts were in front of her face. What she thought was just actors pretending turned out to be actors “really touching each other.”

The article continues:

You can love your mate and trust them implicitly, Dhillonn says, but part of your brain is still screaming: if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, isn’t it a duck? (Or something that rhymes with “duck.”)

Quack, quack

We must stop ignoring the quacking duck in the room. Jedi mind tricks and perpetual disbelief are unacceptable self-delusions for followers of Christ. Watching people commit pornographic sex acts isn’t an issue of Christian liberty. It never has been and never will be.

We need to ask a question similar to that of Bibi Dhillonn: “If it looks like porn and quacks like porn, isn’t it porn?”

And we need to stop pretending the answer isn’t obvious.

Cap Stewart is the author of the curriculum Personal Purity Isn’t Enough: The Long-Forgotten Secret to Making Scriptural Entertainment Choices. As a cultural commentator, he has contributed to Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues (Zondervan Academic, 2019), among other print and online publications. He writes at Unpop Culture.

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