By Alan Noble, Ph.D.

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It’s hard for me to resist exploring the online lives of strange people. For a time I followed white nationalists, read their bigoted Twitter rants, kept track of their memes, learned how they twisted Scripture to justify bigotry. These people exist offline, too, but they are smart enough to recognize how socially unacceptable their views are; unless you get really close to them, they aren’t going to tell you that they think that blacks are a genetically inferior tribe that has corrupted America’s pure, European heritage. But put them online and they won’t hesitate to call for black criminals to be lynched. Searching out the online world of strangers feels a bit like walking as a ghost through their home, flipping through photo albums, reading diary entries, hearing them curse and damn the world. The scary thing is, more often than not you end up remembering that it’s your own home you’re haunting.

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Typically, I don’t go out looking for these people; you don’t have to. If you pay attention they show up. And that’s how it happened to me a few days ago.

I was looking for an image of a “marathon” to use for a CaPC article, and among the results Flickr gave me was this odd image of two female runners standing around before a race. It was odd because the image was of their backs; their faces weren’t visible and it wasn’t a flattering or compelling image, so there was no good explanation for why the picture was taken. Either it was a random image that got uploaded and tagged on Flickr by mistake, or someone purposely took a picture of two women wearing tight running shorts from behind.

There were more pictures like this one by the same Flickr user, a lot more: women stretching before a race, running, or just standing there. But always their behinds were the focal point, and usually the women seemed to be oblivious to the presence of the photographer. Does this guy really go around secretly taking pictures of women’s butts? I couldn’t be sure until I came across a picture of three women in tight jeans with this caption: “If I remember correctly, they actually spoke to me; evidently they didn’t know that I got their picture.”

The title of that picture was “sea world 1984.”

1984? Since it’s so easy to quietly take pictures and share them on a smartphone, it wasn’t surprising that there was some dude on Flickr violating women by sneaking pictures of their behinds. There’s probably huge communities online devoted to this sort of thing, like the subreddit where guys post pictures of their hot friends from Facebook. But 1984? This man had been doing this for thirty years.

What made it all worse was that he also had pictures of his wife, taken when she wasn’t looking, bending down to pick stuff up off the ground. And some of these pictures had demeaning captions about the size of her butt. In one caption he wonders if this is what Kim Kardashian will look like in 30 years. And then there were pictures of he and his wife and daughter together–normal, awkward family portraits mixed in with gratuitous photos of butts in spandex. A picture of his wife playing keyboard and his daughter on bass guitar. A pair of pictures of him showing off his Boston Celtics, Paul Pierce jersey, which he had tucked in. It was probably the only Paul Pierce jersey to ever be tucked in to jean shorts (I hope it’s the last). I found myself being drawn into the strange world of an unapologetic voyeur.

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How could someone feel so comfortable violating these women, taking pictures of their behinds and sharing them with millions of Flickr viewers, possibly with entire communities of butt-fetish viewers? The guy is a dad, and it’s not like his Flickr account was private. Does his daughter know about this? How could she not? And who knows how many women he has captured on film in the last thirty years. My wife runs marathons, many of my friends do, too. Any one of them could have been a victim of his sexual predation.

That night I went to bed feeling ill. I woke the next morning feeling guilty. For 45 minutes I lay in bed trying to find some reason behind my guilt, and I decided it was those pictures–it was the idea of this guy stalking women to steal their images. To hell with the old creep and the whole disgusting voyeur, internet-porn machine that enables him, I thought in disgust.

But he stayed with me the whole day, reminding me of how really terrible people can be to one another. That day I sat in the library and I thought about exposing him, shaming him online and letting the social media world attack him for his disgusting behavior, but I didn’t. I didn’t because a beautiful woman walked into the library wearing this flattering shirt and yoga pants, stretched over a splendid behind. Dear God, I’m the disgusting, old voyeur.

Sure, I don’t secretly take pictures of women and share them with the world without their knowledge or permission, but I want to. I want to do more; I want them to be mine. I want to take their beauty for my own, collect it as a sign and seal of my value as a human. And so does he. When I “look lustfully upon a woman” I’m not just getting some sexual thrill at visual stimulation, I’m longing for validation through ownership. If I could only have that beautiful woman, then . . . .

When I was younger I really couldn’t deal with this feeling. I couldn’t figure out when I was lusting and when I was just noticing that someone was attractive, and my own deep insecurities added to the confusion. Half the time I didn’t even really want to do anything with the women, I just wanted them to know me and still want to be with me. I felt so frustrated and lost that I just didn’t want to talk to attractive women anymore. I knew this response was wrong–how could I possibly love my female neighbor if I avoided eye contact and refused to say “good morning”?–but I figured my alternatives weren’t any better. If I acknowledged their existence I would get angry, mad at them for being so lovely; I’d resent a girl for having a great body and a wonderful smile, I really would. When they dressed attractively it only made it worse. And it killed me when a beautiful girl in a revealing top would talk to me while casually covering up, as if to say that she wanted someone to admire her, just not me. When I didn’t avoid beautiful women, sometimes I’d just give in and lust, not knowing what else to do.

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Evangelicals like me are terrible about understanding and promoting “modesty,” and I think a major reason for this is that men don’t know how to live with beauty without owning it. Either it’s ours, or it shouldn’t exist. So, when we see a beautiful woman, it frustrates us.

Ad 4We don’t want to covet, we don’t want to desire to have her, but what choice do we have except to ignore? And sometimes, probably all the time, beauty doesn’t let itself be ignored. There aren’t enough burkas in the world to hide the beauty of what God has made. On one hand we can’t have all the beauty around us. It’s not ours to richly and intimately know and delight in. But we want to. We desperately want to steal images of beauty that will validate our consumption of oxygen for eighty years on earth. And since we can’t do that righteously, then, to hell with beauty.

Only that never works. Whatever drastic measures we take to hide beauty from us, it asserts itself; that’s just what beauty does. We are stuck in a world filled with beauty that God has created for His glory and our options cannot be a frantic effort to capture and consume all that beauty or to damn and hide it.

The Voyeur couldn’t accept the distance of beauty, the idea that some fit, female marathoner with a great behind could exist and yet not be his. So he stole her, captured her in his camera, froze her beauty in time for himself. And he’s not alone. Huge portions of our economy are taken up by industries selling stolen beauty of one kind or another–sometimes this includes the consent of the subject, but sometimes it doesn’t. This is just what we do now; voyeurism is normal.

What the Voyeur spent 30-plus years not understanding was that the distance, the difference of beauty was actually good itself*. He saw every lovely woman as a thing to be contained, to be brought under his control, to be drawn near to himself. In love we speak of a lover who gives himself or herself to us, because that is what we desire: the whole self for ourselves. We are taught by culture to see the distance of beauty–the beautiful woman outside of our grasp–as a problem to be overcome or a sign of our failure, and so we want her to either disappear or to acquiesce to our power. But it’s all wrong.

Ad 3The radical truth is that it’s good that God made the world filled with beautiful people and it’s good that their beauty isn’t mine to take and have. Sometimes I make this a prayer, “Thank you God for her beauty and that it is not mine.” And I have to pray it because I don’t always believe it until I do. That’s the thing that the Voyeur couldn’t understand. He was fighting against the world God made, against a basic truth of being: distance and difference are fundamentally good, not bad. This is after all what we find even in the Holy Trinity, in which three different persons remain distant but united in love. Those differences are not weaknesses or problems to be overcome; it is not as though the Trinity would be better if They could all get it together and agree to only be one. No, in the Trinity we see that there is a goodness, a beauty, in being distant and different.

Even in marriage, where the two become one flesh and where neither has exclusive authority over his or her own body, the model taught in Scripture is not that one spouse asserts his or her authority over the other, controlling and dominating, owning the spouse. Each spouse is called to give endlessly and selflessly to their lover, but there is always a self to give; it never gets consumed (except in abusive relationships). And so I can pray and thank God that my wife’s beauty is mine to participate in intimately and richly and uniquely, but I also thank God that its not utterly mine. My wife’s distance and difference from me, particularly as it is articulated in our giving of ourselves to each other, is beautiful and good. And in an analogous way, the distance of beautiful strangers is good. Like in marriage, when I can appreciate and thank God for this distance, I can better love my neighbor and God.

It may be one of the hardest lessons that I have had to learn, that nearly all my purity efforts were built around denying and even condemning the beauty that God has created. And that’s really just the flipside of what the Voyeur was doing. There are powerful forces in our culture and flesh driving us to view one another as bodies to be owned and captured. And unfortunately, there are also powerful forces in evangelicalism and our own hearts driving us to condemn and resent beauty. The church does well to fight against the abusive vision of sexuality promoted and profited off of by the world, a vision which is fundamentally violent. But we also need a richer theology of beauty and bodies, one which will allow us to preserve the purity of our thoughts and to delight in the beauty of God’s world.

*Although this concept does not originate with him, I owe my knowledge of it to David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite.

Alan Noble, Ph.D., (Co-Founder and Managing Editor) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his Ph.D. in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor in 2013, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.