After Bridgerton’s second season premiered, Slate published an article by porn industry producer Noelle Perdue in which she evaluated “sex soaked shows on Netflix and HBO.” In the piece, she addressed the “horror and anger” expressed by Bridgerton’s cast upon hearing that their sex scenes (like those from many other shows) were uploaded to porn sites: “[The] moral panic surrounding the show’s approximation to ‘obscenity’ was confusing [to me]. Watching the show as a consumer, I didn’t see much of a difference between their well-lit choreography and what I was producing for work.”

Perdue’s ultimate point—that pornography deserves wider cultural respect—is diametrically opposed to a Christian sexual ethic. And yet her piece includes several instructive insights into what actually constitutes pornography. She continues:

In the adult industry, work like Bridgerton, Normal People, and a lot of HBO’s lineup would be categorized as “softcore porn”—frontal nudity, but no penetration or visible “money shot.” This is clearly not mainstream Hollywood or media’s definition. A Vulture article described Normal People’s sex scenes (which occasionally dominated up to a third of the episode) as “never pornographic but quite explicit.” If explicit sex does not make a scene pornographic, what does? As . . . shows only seem to get more graphic—and more popular—the need to hold on to this distinction is looking a little dishonest, and maybe a little desperate.

Perdue makes a distinction worth considering—i.e., between “hardcore porn” and “softcore porn.” However one may quibble over the precise definition of “softcore porn,” it seems safe to say that it includes depictions of the sex act that are more suggestive than hardcore pornography. Hollywood gives an indirect acknowledgement of this reality by using the terms “penetrative sex” and “simulated sex.” In other words, the first is “real” sex because it involves—and shows—actual penetration, whereas the second is fake (“simulated”) because no such penetration is shown.

An assumption undergirding this nomenclature seems to be that the category of “porn” is best defined narrowly, leaving room for scenes of sex to be “explicit” without the label of “pornographic.” But as Perdue says, such etymological gymnastics give the appearance of dishonesty.

This apparent dishonesty is also evident to individuals like Allie Oops, an intimacy coordinator who (as her title suggests) has experience working in the adult film industry. As quoted in Perdue’s article,

Oops said that while a performer’s experiences do vary based on whether or not penetrative sex is actually involved, the processes of sex-scene coordination and porn production have huge overlap. “Sure, maybe their genitals aren’t touching,” she said—though unsimulated sex does occasionally happen on mainstream film sets—“but in porn, we go through similar negotiation processes, similar contracts, similar choreography and blocking.”

Notice the reference to a “huge overlap” between mainstream and adult fare. Perdue’s article shows that whether the two industries admit it or not, they aren’t just bumping elbows. They’re playing footsies and sipping from the same fountain drink—even if they are eyeing each other warily from across the table.

As Perdue writes, “Art can be pornographic, and pornography can be artistic.”

Sex by Any Other Name

Art can be pornographic even if not intentionally so.

I’ve previously explored four reasons why Christian artists and audiences are denying the pornographic capabilities of art. One of those reasons is the desensitizing nature of living in a society inundated with hypersexualized material. Professing Christians still rightly reject the concept of free love handed down to us by the ‘60s and ‘70s, but our standards have nevertheless been weathered by the constant ripple effects of the Sexual Revolution.

In his book Eros Defiled, Christian psychiatrist John White writes that “ethical issues have become fuzzier through situational thinking, and the taboo has been weakened because we have all become so used to sexual sin” (53). White further explains how different acts of sexual sin have been downplayed through technicalities:

It is true that the further you proceed with physical contact the nearer you come to coitus. But defining coitus in terms of penetration and orgasm has as much moral significance and as much logical difficulty as trying to define a beard by the number of hairs on a chin.

I know that experts used to distinguish light from heavy petting, and heavy petting from intercourse, but is there any moral difference between two naked people in bed petting to orgasm and another two having intercourse? Is the one act a fraction of an ounce less sinful than the other?

Is it perhaps more righteous to pet with clothes on? If so, which is worse, to pet with clothes off or to have intercourse with clothes on?

You may accuse me of being crude. Far from it. If we pursue the argument far enough we will see that an approach to the morality of . . . sex which is based on details of behavior (kissing, dressing or undressing, touching, holding, looking) and of parts of the body (fingers, hair, arms, breasts, lips, genitals) can only satisfy a pharisee [sic]. (52-53)

Indeed, Jesus himself pushes back against the Pharisaic urge to limit the scope of what is sexually verboten by expanding the definition of “adultery” to include much more than mere “genitals touching”: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28). He goes on to encourage tearing out one’s eye and cutting off one’s hand (see vv. 29-30)—hyperbolic language that shows just how ardently we should avoid a morality of sex that straddles the fence and hides behind technicalities.

The Sex Act is a Spectrum

As indicated by the aforementioned Slate article, we’ve gotten to the point of differentiating between sex scenes with “genitals touching” and sex scenes with “genitals not touching,” as if there’s an ocean (instead of a puddle) between the two. But that’s akin to differentiating between “smoking without inhaling” and “smoking with inhaling.” Such standards only serve to honor the letter of the law while functionally offering a plethora of ways to circumvent it. Or, to once again quote John White, “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).

For the Christian, sex is a more dynamic and holistic experience than just “genitals touching.” It involves the four stages of the sexual response cycle, not just stage three (the literal act of coitus). In the words of author Paeter Frandsen, sex “involves the entire spectrum of fixation on each other’s bodies. This fixation on the body of another, or presenting oneself for that kind of fixation, is part of the sexual experience intended for marriage.” And as I’ve noted elsewhere, “The sex act involves a domino effect of progressions, culminating—not beginning—with penetration. Sex cannot be defined merely by how it ends.”

The entire spectrum of the sex act is beautiful and wonderful when experienced between covenant partners in the privacy of the marriage bed (Proverbs 5:15-19; 1 Corinthians 7:5). When it is publicly plastered on screens all over the world, however, it can easily become pornographic.

In considering the legitimacy of pornography—as a genre or a filming technique—a pornographer like Noelle Perdue and a Christian like myself aren’t on the same page. Indeed, we’re following completely different scripts. Nevertheless, Perdue’s Slate article contains a certain amount of moral clarity. Art can be pornographic even if not intentionally so. That is a reality that needs to be acknowledged by more producers and patrons of the visual arts. And it is a reality that we as a Christian subculture need to reckon with, as well.

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