Porneia, Pornography, and the Sexuality of Israel



In the letters of the famous Christian writer, Paul of Tarsus, he often rants against what he calls porneia, which denotes sexual immorality, or misconduct with regards to sexuality. As pointed out by James W. Thompson (Moral Formation in Paul) this is a term used primarily by Greek-speaking Jews to refer to the wrongdoings of the gentiles. In other words, it is a word used to denote sexual practices unacceptable to Jewish moral sensibilities. What are these?

 Well, the Torah spells them out as bestiality, rape, incest, and forms of sex which are degrading or distressing to one of the partners (eg. sleeping with two sisters at the same time or anally penetrating a man- the latter example was considered humiliating for the passive partner in the ancient middle east). Paul appears to add to these idolatrous sexual rituals, orgies, pimping, prostitution and the use of prostitutes. These misuses of sexuality collectively give us a sense of what is not porneia: sex that occurs within a consensual context of mutual respect and which is not exploitative or harmful to either partner. Paul lived at a time when slaves, male and female, were used as sex toys by their masters; when the Emperor Caligula was known to openly rape dinner guest’s wives and then report on their “performance” to the other guests; when women and men were both secular and religious prostitutes; and when older men entered into patronage relationships with pubescent boys where they exchanged political favours for sexual service. (Ah the good old days, before Judeo-Christian prudery ruined things.)

 In our day these things are considered generally repulsive and often illegal as well, mostly because of the legacy of Israelite sexual ethics on our society. It is certainly true that the concern for sexual purity has also had neurotic or excessively repressive legacies. It is tragically true that the strictures against degrading forms of homosexual intercourse were misinterpreted as a general condemnation of male homosexuality in extremely harmful ways. The root concern, however, was for sexuality to be holy and to respect the dignity of all people and creatures, and that was and is a good thing. 

 In our day the old scourges of rape and prostitution persist, and we have a new toxin to contend with- pornography. Pornography is, in essence, some people engaging in porneia so that others can purchase (or enjoy for free while others pay) videos or images of them doing so. Enjoying pornography involves either ignoring the degradation of the participants so as to enter into an empathic (and delusional) fantasy world or what is worse, actively enjoying the degradation (as websites like “teen abuse” demonstrate). In either case the moral wrongdoing of the purchaser is clear- he or she is bankrolling exploitation. 

What about the consumer of free internet porn? They are not bankrolling anything directly (though their clicks surely support the websites in some way).They are, however, either enjoying the exploitation or degradation of others or ignoring that degradation in order to exploit the participants for their own sexual ends. Either way it is a sleazy business. 

This does not even begin to touch on the issue of consuming pornography while in a monogamous relationship. There is no doubt that to do so is an act of violence against that relationship unless you have the explicit permission of your partner, though even then it is not advisable for the reasons mentioned above. 

 The sexuality of Israel was not pleasure denying, and even Paul did not attempt to remove sexual pleasure for its own sake from marriage. It was degradation denying.  This principle is still an extremely important one which is imperfectly implemented in our society. Its greatest enemy today may be the proliferation of pornography, whose production and enjoyment should be beneath the dignity of men and women created in Gods image. 





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