Pornography: An Agenda for the Churches

by Mary Pellauer

Dr. Pellauer, a social ethicist who has written frequently on religious dimensions of violence against women, presently lives in Chicago.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 29-August 5, 1987, p. 651. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


If churches are to deal responsibly with pornography, they must also affirm healthy human sexuality. We in the churches especially need to concentrate upon disentangling sex and sexual violence from each other. Though its primary harms may be to women and children, pornography affects all of us, for it makes serious statements about our world and human life.

But opinions about porn have not spread so wide or so fast as has porn itself. The past 20 years have seen a dramatic explosion of porn products and outlets. Cable television offers sexually explicit movies, and corner drugstores and newsstands feature glossy porn magazines. Dial-a-porn phone numbers rake in calls and cash from coast to coast. Adult theaters are waning, but only because home video equipment has cut into the market. By one estimate, as many as 40 per cent of VCR owners consume porn in their homes (a figure thought to represent 9 per cent of all American households) It is estimated that the porn business involves some $8 to 10 billion annually.

In this changed social landscape, discussing porn is both risky and urgent -- perhaps especially so in the churches. Whatever we say about porn may reveal things about us we would rather keep concealed. In some circles, for a woman even to look at pornography, let alone to observe and analyze it, raises suspicions about her morality. Though I see the need to confront pornography as a Christian, I fear touching off a backlash against sexuality and against women in the churches. I often feel tongue-tied in the face of these issues. (Andrea Dworkin, a noted antiporn activist, has suggested that one function of pornography may be precisely to silence women.) Yet we must deal with porn in all its complications.

Pornography and the Laws. Even defining pornography is complicated. The word itself comes from the Greek words for "writing" (graphein) and "whores" (porne), and it once meant precisely that -- writing about whores. The difficulty in defining pornography is a problem not only for ordinary discussions about it but for the courts as well. In a landmark 1957 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court asserted that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. In doing so, it defined obscenity, not pornography. The justices said, "A thing is obscene if, considered as a whole, its predominant appeal is to prurient interest, i.e., a shameful or morbid interest in nudity, sex or excretion, and if it goes substantially beyond customary limits of candor in description or representation of such matters."

As any citizen might do, the court appealed to Webster’s to define "prurient": "having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts; uneasy with desire or longing; having itching, morbid or lascivious longings," etc. Later the justices referred to "sexual responses over and beyond those that would be characterized as normal," emphasizing that they did not intend to include "material that provoked only normal, healthy sexual desires." At other times the court has affirmed that obscenity applies to material depicting sexual matter "in a patently offensive way." Other qualifications have been made by the court. To be judged obscene, sexual materials must be "utterly without redeeming social value," lack any "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value," and portray sexual conduct "for its own sake and for the ensuing commercial gains." As is well known, the court leaves many such judgments to the "average individual" and local community standards. On the other hand, judgments of redeeming social value are subject to national standards, not to local ones.

The effect of these broad judgments has been to limit obscenity prosecutions to hard-core porn. The best description of hard-core porn may still be Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 comment -- that he wouldn’t attempt to define it but he knew it when he saw it. Evasive as that may sound, after nine years of investigating porn, I have a similar response. What is obscene or pornographic can be dramatically relative. For instance, an acquaintance of mine on the national staff of a Protestant denomination was deeply disturbed when an evangelical conference on porn used a photo of a woman’s naked breast among its examples -- hardly a case of the material available in porn shops. On the other side of the spectrum, feminists object to the portrayal of rape scenes in classic films and to the portrayal of violence against or exploitation of women in advertisements that don’t feature nudity. A new genre of ads (both print and film) , many with an "Old West" theme, features cowboys "roping" women or a group of menacing-looking men approaching a woman who has fallen from a horse (these ads are usually for blue jeans).

For me, pornography is problematic not because it is sexually explicit, but because it portrays violence and domination in a sexual context. I have no desire to return to Victorian prudery, to the earlier condemnations of sex as a special source of sin, or even to the lesser silences about sex in our own century. But because I cherish my whole sensual self and believe that good theology calls us to celebrate healthy human sexuality, I find pornography abhorrent.

As a feminist theologian, the greatest concerns I have about porn are not easily addressed by government regulation or prosecution. I am as concerned with the great pool of public sentiment out of which the laws arise and are applied -- the "ethos" of the people that is the subject of "ethics" -- as I am with the legal issues. Whether or not we favor stepped-up prosecution of obscene materials, those of us in religious communities have a special interest in the formation of character and dispositions -- in the moral atmosphere of our society and in a whole range of symbolic concerns. In the nature of the case, these do not bear directly on the legality of acts. The law provides a floor, a minimal standard below which acts of the community are not allowed to fall. Without de-emphasizing the crucial nature of the nation s laws in social-justice matters, we must recall that our theological heritage calls us to far more than the law can pursue.

Pornography and the churches. Churches have shown a new activism and concern about pornography. For example, the American Lutheran Church has updated its 1974 statement on pornography. The United Church of Canada has also created a new statement, responding largely to concerns about sexual violence. Ecumenical leaders in states such as Pennsylvania have joined to oppose porn. Evangelical groups, such as the National Coalition Against Pornography, claim a burgeoning membership and make use of activist tactics. The newer Religious Alliance Against Pornography, composed of both liberals and conservatives, sponsored a White House Conference last fall and has begun organizing local groups around the country. A 1985 report on "Violence and Sexual Violence in Film, Television, Cable and Home Video" by the National Council of Churches of Christ suggested that the churches give "priority attention" to the "glut of violence and sexual violence" in the media.

The NCCC report led to a 1986 Policy Statement by the General Board of the National Council which "affirms . . . adherence to the principles of an open marketplace of ideas and the guarantees of the First Amendment to freedom of speech, of the press and of religion," but which also called on the communication and entertainment media to regulate themselves before censorship returned. In its statement the NCCC called for greater involvement by the Federal Communications Commission in guarding the public airwaves. It also urged churches to assist their members in becoming more sensitive to the impact of media violence on families.

Certainly the portrayal of rape as something women desire proceeds out of and reinforces rapist perspectives. Some sex offenders do speak about their use of porn. Many porn scenarios are strikingly similar to the motives and concerns of the assailants we know as "power rapists." The chosen woman/victim says "No, no, no" but ends up begging to be conquered. The basic plot of many kinds of porn is the overcoming of a woman’s resistance so thoroughly that she is gratefully orgasmic. Other plots more directly assert that people derive sexual pleasure from being hurt or hurting others.

Some studies indicate that those exposed to sexually violent depictions are more likely to accept rape myths, the "need" for violence between men and women, and "adversarial" views about sex. Under laboratory conditions, the viewing of scenes of sexual violence correlates with increased aggression toward women. This effect appears to hold true especially when subjects are previously incited to anger at women. (A second large category of rapists is motivated by anger.) And after viewing depictions of sexual violence, subjects in simulated court cases are more likely to blame victims and less likely to convict offenders. These findings have extremely serious implications about the effects of porn on the health and safety of women.

Many observers of porn believe that its overtly violent content has increased significantly in recent years. Anyone who looks at porn wares will be struck by the frequent theme of "bondage" or "discipline." Certainly I will never forget some images: the black woman chained astraddle a stepladder with an apple in her mouth; the needle-nosed pliers coming toward a woman’s nipple; whips used and sexual organs wielded like punishing tools, to "teach a lesson." And violence lurks on the edges of pornographic material which is not explicitly violent. It is only a short step from systematically degrading people to harming them (as we have learned from our nation’s racist violence at home and abroad).

We in the churches need to concentrate especially upon disentangling sex and sexual violence from each other. Our theological tradition is less than helpful here. Classic theologians regularly confused sexuality with sexual violence, often mistaking rape for adultery. In condemning the sex, they barely noticed the violence. (For spectacular examples of the systematic confusions between sex and rape, see chapters 17-30 of Book I of Augustine’s City of God or Luther’s commentary on the rape laws of Deuteronomy 28.) Some of us may be learning for the first time about the devastations of sexual abuse by learning about pornography, and that is necessary. Nonetheless, the ready acceptance of concern about porn in many conservative churches raises serious suspicions that pornography has been singled out for action because it is sexual, not because it is violent or actively degrading to women -- especially since many conservative Christians have criticized battered women’s shelters, sex education and planned parenthood centers. Sexual violence, sexism and sexuality all come together in porn. Disentangling them is a difficult but necessary task.

My conclusion from my work with sexual and domestic violence is that porn is a serious danger to public safety, akin to shouting "Fire" in a crowded theater; but given legal rules of evidence, there may be little hope of convincing courts of this analogy. At the same time, the safety of women and children must be secured by a broad range of prevention and treatment measures. With money for social programs scarce, my own priority is to put cash into more direct actions on sexual and domestic violence rather than into prosecuting obscenity. Pornography does contribute to the multiple forces giving rise to sexual and domestic violence, but we cannot afford to be mesmerized by porn as the single issue. Complex judgments are necessary.

If the churches are to deal responsibly with porn, they must also affirm and celebrate healthy human sexuality. While many people may agree that depictions of sexual violence in porn are harmful (half to two-thirds of respondents did so in polls last summer) , whether all sexually explicit material is harmful is a matter of heated debate. Answers to this question involve the broadest evaluations of sexuality and sexual ethics: What is healthy or unhealthy sexuality? What belongs in public and what in private? What is legitimate education about sexuality? What differences are there between sexuality itself and depictions of it in film or print media? These questions are deeply relevant to porn, and many judgments on them are embedded in the Supreme Court’s decisions about obscenity. For instance, what is "healthy" and what is "morbid" sex may be strongly debated. What exactly goes "beyond the limits of customary candor"? Could that mean sexual contact between two unmarried persons, or between two persons of the same gender?

If we look to the Christian tradition for guidance, the answers are disquieting. Any sexuality uninterested in the "procreative end" of the acts, any sexual conduct focused on sexual joy for its own sake, has historically been condemned. To use contraception in marriage was called criminal, flagitious and debauched; to Augustine it represented "cruel lust or lustful cruelty" (to take but one classic example). In the Middle Ages, masturbation and "unnatural positions" were considered more severe offenses against the ordinances of God than were rape or incest.

These distorted views of sex were not limited to the time before the Reformation (as though Protestants have gotten our theology about sexuality straight). In the mid-19th century, the heyday of Protestant power in the U.S., women were condemned not for being too lusty, as in earlier centuries; rather, Victorians proclaimed women’s pure, high and spiritual -- i.e., nonsexual -- nature. "Purity" was extolled to the extent that women were thought to lack sexual feelings altogether. (Only in the 1970s did we learn that sexual anesthesia is a frequent consequence of sexual abuse.)

Many current pornographic scenarios build on these old mistakes about women’s sexuality. Plots often turn on a woman/victim who at first appears to be "good" (nonsexual) , but is later revealed, on the flimsiest of pretexts, as a sexually demanding, ultra-lustful creature. These scenarios are often a rebellious comment on Victorian prudishness. Frequently they echo the sexist dualisms that split women into either Madonnas or whores. Whatever we think about the legal questions, we have a responsibility to set straight these extremely damaging patriarchal notions about sexuality. The Protestants who propagated these notions helped create the early laws and ethos that gave rise to our present confusing obscenity standards.

Finally, unless churches take the economic issues of pornography seriously, we have little hope of being effective in the efforts against it. Christians who may agree that the symbolic dimensions of porn are a serious concern may be wary about tackling its financial side. We often ignore the "material" realities: how much things cost, what the profit is, where the money comes from and goes. We act as though the spiritual and the material were mutually exclusive -- itself one of the sexist dualisms of the tradition. But the production and profits of porn are part of its meaning. We have not truly grasped this subject until we see into the shady and exploitative finances of porn.

Some economic dimensions are easier to learn than others. For example, the prices of porn picture magazines and video cassettes are exorbitant. Picture magazines run between $20 to $40. (In areas where video competition is keen, "sales" are common.) These prices are not due to the high costs of producing porn, which is well known for its sleazy pay scales. In March of 1986 a Newsweek reporter provided some specific figures. A porn movie was made on $120,000 in five days, with a 27-page script, no rehearsals and 18 crew members. If this film attracted an average audience, it would sell about 10,000 video cassettes at $70.00 each; it would also make larger profits from foreign sales and a simultaneous "softer" version peddled to cable television. It was not the "stars" of this porn flick, however, who raked in cash. The male lead earned $750 per day, the female lead $1,500 per day (top money for the industry) -- a pittance in the whole financial deal. But those sums represent big money in comparison to the average woman worker’s earnings, and the money often looks good to women with few financial options. This example is among the most benign (see Linda Marchiano’s descriptions of the filming of Deep Throat for worse) Many porn products are made in "cottage industry" conditions by small-time operators who do not hesitate to use force, violence, blackmail and drugs on the "actors." Porn producers speak of themselves as a legitimate entertainment industry, but their practices are far from legitimate.

Who produces and distributes such work and who pockets the very big bucks are harder questions. Sham corporations, fictitious names and false records are common. In my home state, Minnesota, the finances of the local porn king came to light only after the Internal Revenue Service filed charges of tax evasion against him. Concern over porn’s connections with organized crime has been around for many years. The Meese report’s conclusions, based on information from law enforcement agencies (who presumably know) , tell us that it is too simple to see organized crime (in the sense of the Mafia) at the heart of porn, though there may indeed be payoffs, protection and other such connections involved. But no matter who are its ultimate producers, the processes of making and distributing porn are as saturated with exploitation as are its products. To plumb the multiple meanings of pornography, we must pay as much attention to its economics as to its images.

Observing and analyzing porn. It is extremely important for us in the churches not to avert our eyes from porn. Before taking a stand, look at it. (This is not a recommendation that you become a user or consumer of porn.) Some groups, such as New York City’s Women Against Pornography, sponsor tours of porn districts and shops. Many other groups (such as Minneapolis’s Organizing Against Pornography, state chapters of Women Against Violence Against Women, and local rape centers) have slide shows available for study groups. Observe the titles, the pictures and the prices. Go into the "adults only" corner of your local home video store. Watch for racism, bondage and titles that appeal to the theme of child abuse. Be respectful in your information-gathering phase. Don’t buttonhole customers or workers; if you are female, they may be very defensive about your presence. Look at drugstore racks and newsstands as well. Don’t fail to note the true crime magazines, thought by some to be seriously implicated in sexual offenses. Look at advertising. Think about the differences and similarities in what you see in these different settings and media. Talk to people in churches situated near porn shops about the quality of life in the neighborhood.

The testimony of persons claiming direct harm from porn has been crucial in forging new views about pornography. The women whose bodies are pictured describe coercion. Women sexually abused as children describe the use of pornography in their victimization. Others, often victims of battering or marital rape, tell of partners insisting on trying some practice discovered in porn wares (10 per cent of such victims in one study) These women report suicide attempts, nightmares, fears, anxieties, shame and guilt -- reactions which resemble rape trauma syndrome.

Anyone listening seriously to this testimony will be as changed by it as those who have listened to battered women or rape victims. I will never be able to see another item of pornography without being flooded by questions about the women pictured: Was this one an incest victim? Was that one coerced into this by violence or poverty? What was it like for her to be filmed chained, smiling, with a knife at her genitals? What was her pay? What percentage of the profit was that? Does she have colitis as a result of the nervous stress? When I go into a porn shop to investigate, the questions multiply. Who are the men in this shop? Why do they look so furtive? Why do they scamper away from me and my companions? (After being in a few porn shops, I find it very difficult to believe the argument put forth by some that porn frees people from hang-ups.) Who is buying this material and what are they doing with it? Are they showing it to children, saying, "See, it’s ok because it’s published in magazines?" Are they asking a lover or wife to participate in bondage? Are they using it to "educate" teenage runaways into prostitution?

It may be stressful for many people to look at this material. Frankly, it gives me nightmares, often for weeks afterwards. Go with somebody you trust, and process your responses together; this is an appropriate project for a church group. Be as honest as you can. Some people find porn frightening and/or boring; others do not. Some people are turned on by porn; they need the chance to say so and to explore what that means. There is a diverse range of responses. Don’t define some as politically incorrect or unChristian. Let yourself have time to experience your feelings, to let them percolate, to let your insights emerge. Take care of yourself.

We all need to pay serious attention to the multiple layers of meaning in pornography, and to the connection it has to the rest of life. We need to guard against reawakening some of the most unsavory chapters in Christian history such as those I have mentioned above. The only way to cope with the many problems porn presents is by going through them, not by evading them or averting our eyes.

Though its primary harms may be to women and children, pornography affects all of us, for it makes serious statements about our world and human life. It asserts that some people are legitimate victims and others legitimate victimizers; it reinforces the worst of our society’s hierarchies of inequality and injustice. It asserts that sexual pleasure comes from demeaning, exploiting, objectifying and degrading our partners in the most intimate ways, rather than from an eager and passionate cherishing of the wholeness of that partner. I believe that good theology can be helpful in clarifying what is at stake in porn. It may be due to the limits of my imagination or my theology, but I believe that no one who celebrates healthy sexuality among the many goods of God’s creation can affirm pornography.