“Everybody’s looking for something.” I’m not a big fan of the Eurythmics, but I think they got this right. With the way sex permeates every facet of our society, clearly people are looking for something. What are they looking for? Magazines, movies, internet, TV shows, and now even the hit books on the shelves. What do we lack that we are looking for so desperately?
The explosive popularity of the book 50 Shades of Grey illustrates how desperate we are in our search for something, and that we believe sex is a part of it. If you don’t know what this book is, then you’re not paying close attention. It has sold over 100 million copies worldwide, and is one of the fastest selling books ever. In fact, it’s a whole trilogy, and – no surprise here – they’re making a movie, set to release in February.
50 Shades is not the only book of its kind by any means; there are many adult oriented novels that include graphic description of sexual activity. But it is certainly the most popular, and with its popularity comes the need for discernment.
NOTE: I’ll use the standard term for these kinds of stories: “Erotica”, which is defined as “works of art or literature that deal with sex and are meant to cause sexual feelings.” We might also note that this fits the functional definition of pornography, which is “printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.” But many people make a distinction between Erotica and pornography.
If you’re in the camp of people who like the books, I’m betting you’re rolling your eyes and thinking, “Great. Another church person telling me why I shouldn’t like the books. I’ve heard this before and I don’t want to hear it again.” Please, stick around. Maybe I won’t say anything new to you, and maybe you won’t think differently. But give me an opportunity.
I want you to search your heart with this question – What are you looking for?
I’ve heard lots of reasons why people like the book. They include:
- “It’s entertaining.”
- “It’s an escape from a routine life.”
- “I get good ideas for spicing up my sex life.”
- “It has a good story.”
- “It gets me in the mood for sex.”
- “The Bible also has erotic language, so it can’t be bad, right?”
I’ve also heard some arguments against it:
- “It is pornographic.”
- “The sex scenes involve abuse.”
- “It has a terrible story.”
- “It cheapens God’s design for sex.”
- “It is poorly written.”
- “It started as a Twilight parody.”
All arguments for and against aside (I have posted some thoughts on those arguments on my personal blog), it is Erotica, and so we have to address the spiritual implications. As we do so, there are three principles that relate directly:
- Sex and intimacy are inseparable. Despite claims that sex is just a physical thing, the reality is that sex is incredibly intimate. In the world of family research the two terms are almost interchangeable. Closer to home, the hurt and betrayal people felt by anyone who has been sexually betrayed is evidence that these two things can’t be separated.
- Sex and intimacy are good gifts from God. God created us to enjoy sex both to express and to foster intimacy. It is part of the “and the two will become one flesh” part of marriage that God designed, and he designed that for perfect humans in a perfect world. When used properly within marriage, they are a powerful binding force.
- Intimacy takes effort. True intimacy requires communication, forgiveness and forbearance, openness and vulnerability, genuine interest in another, time, and the giving of oneself. The reward is awesome – a close companion who loves you for you, emotional security, and a very satisfying sex life. Ask any couple with 50+ years of loving marriage under their belt and they’ll tell you that it is worth it.
I am convinced that the vast majority of people in the world are looking for intimacy. They know it has something to do with sex, and that’s why sex is so prevalent. The problem is that, like with anything that takes effort, people naturally look for the shortcuts. Erotica has become one of those shortcuts. The problem with Erotica is that it takes those three important principles and it turns them on their heads.
- Erotica detaches sex from intimacy. While the setup of the story might involve intimacy, once you get to the graphic sexual details, you’ve broken the intimacy. Think about it this way: Imagine you and your spouse are engaging in sexual activity, and suddenly you notice someone sitting in the chair right there in the room with you. Is the moment still intimate? No, it’s embarrassing, awkward, and frightening. Sex wasn’t meant to take place with an audience. You gain no intimacy from the experience.
- Erotica uses sex apart from God’s plan for it. One of the big draws of most Erotica is its illicit nature. It often involves characters who are not married, and usually the encounter has some forbidden aspect. 50 Shades of Grey is no exception. Some argue that the forbidden relationship is painted in a negative light, but then that raises the question – why go into detail about the sex? Furthermore, by being so graphic about the sex, Erotica fills the reader’s head with sexual images, feelings, and fantasies apart from the marriage relationship. In a sense, you are engaging sexually with someone or something other than your spouse.
- Erotica offers a shortcut around the effort of intimacy. The sexual feelings Erotica offers may seem like intimacy, and this is why people turn to them. The problem is that by offering a quick and easy way to get those feelings, it actually cuts away all the things that make true intimacy. When all you have to do is read a story, you don’t have to communicate with anyone, be forgiving and understanding, open or vulnerable, or invest yourself in another person. So you have the temporary feelings of intimacy without any of the long term results.
By turning those principles on their heads, Erotica actually poses these three big dangers.
- It distorts a person’s understanding of true intimacy. The temporary, counterfeit feelings of intimacy that Erotica offers can feel very genuine at the time. Given long-term exposure, it becomes the misconception that those feelings are intimacy. This makes it difficult for to experience true intimacy, because you no longer know what it looks like.
- It causes dissatisfaction and opens the door to infidelity. Erotica is fantasy. The characters are (usually) fictional, the setting is fictional, and the sex is fictional. Reality will never match up to this fantasy. When you wrap yourself up in Erotica, you run the risk of becoming disenchanted with reality when it consistently doesn’t match up. For far too many people, rather than rejecting the fantasy, they reject reality and think they can find some match to the fantasy somewhere else. Some end up crossing the line into infidelity when they find someone they think will match their fantasy, and families are shattered.
- It separates you from your Savior. Whenever we use a blessing of God in a way that is not his design and not his will, we are sinning. Sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2). When we continue in sin, we are essentially saying to Jesus, “My sin matters more to me than your salvation,” and that rejection is dangerous.
This is why God warns against such things in his Word:
- “Let us behave decently… not in sexual immorality” (Romans 13:13).
- “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18).
- “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality” (Ephesians 5:3).
- “I will not look with approval on anything that is vile” (Psalm 101:3)
God created sex for good, but when it is abused, it becomes a destructive force – destructive for your emotional and sexual health, destructive for your family, and destructive for your soul. God knows this, and warns against it. Because he loves us.
I don’t think I need to say any more to the point that Erotica is not spiritually healthy. But what about those arguments that it has value in helping a married couple enhance their sex life? What about the argument that it is no different from Song of Songs?
There is a difference between books that offer guidance and instruction in how to have a more sexually fulfilling marriage and books that offer unrealistic fantasy and eroticism. There is also a difference between the highly sensual, highly symbolic, but not all that descriptive language of Song of Songs and the often coarse, pornographic language of Erotica. Some books are clearly designed to encourage and guide couples into deeper intimacy with each other, and some are clearly designed to draw the reader’s focus to someone or something else.
I think it is good for a couple to find ways to spice up their sex life. Honestly, I have known plenty of Christian couples – my wife and I include – who found themselves at a point where they loved each other and wanted to fulfill each other, but life’s pressures and distractions made sex more a chore than a joy. For my own part, I found that there was no shortage of discrete resources from Christians who handled the issue with respect, compassion, and a solid Biblical approach.
I believe this all comes back to intimacy. We all want to feel that deep connection with someone else, to have a partner in life we can count on. God blesses marriage as a means by which we can experience deep connection with another human being, but even that doesn’t always satisfy, because we are human. There is a deeper intimacy, the intimacy to which marriage points, and that is the intimacy that Jesus wants with each of us.
With Jesus we are completely vulnerable. We’re completely open and cannot hide. And we are loved. Completely and unconditionally loved. Forgiven for all that we are and all that we are not. He gave of himself completely, and has spent all eternity crafting a plan to know and save and be with you. That’s the beauty of the intimacy of Christ – the effort is already done.
If you’re in a place where Erotica has become a part of your life, and whether it is because you’re looking for deeper intimacy or just bawdy entertainment, turn to Jesus. See that intimacy with him is so much better. If you’re still not sure that Erotica is a bad thing, I urge you to spend time diving into the Gospel. Get to know Jesus better, and see if it still looks so attractive to you. I think you’ll discover that what you find in him is infinitely more satisfying.
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Getting help with sexual issues or looking for advice for enhancing that part of your marriage can be scary. It’s hard to know what is good and what isn’t, and it is easy to float into dangerous waters when searching for resources online. Here are some good resources that have been a blessing to many couples:
- Sheet Music by Kevin Leman: Dr. Leman is a fabulous writer. He’s funny, he easy to read, and he’s incredibly practical. I’ve enjoyed all of his books. In this one he addresses many of the issues that married couples tend to face in their sexual relationship, but does so in a way that is so easy to read and grasp.
- The Song of Solomon: Yeah, reading the Bible is kind of a no-brainer here, but specifically the Song makes it evident that God is no prude. It is a good encouragement to be romantic.
- The Marriage Bed: A website put together by a Christian couple seeking to help other Christian couples develop deeper sexual intimacy and overcome the many obstacles sin puts in the way. It contains dozens of helpful articles, tastefully written and (mostly) Biblically based.
- For Women Only and For Men Only by Jeff and Shaunti Feldhaun: While these books aren’t primarily about sex, they shed light on a lot of the issues between men and women, most of which do contribute in some way to the sexual relationship.
- Mars and Venus in the Bedroom by John Gray: All of the books in John Gray’s landmark series are worth reading. While they generalize a lot about the nature of men and women, for many couples the things he says hold true. This one addresses the differences between men and women in the bedroom.
- The Gift of Sex by Cliff and Joyce Penner: The authors are Christian and the book addresses sexuality from a Biblical perspective. It is a bit more clinical than others, which can be both good and bad. If couples are trying to address issues relating to physical or psychological issues, this one might be especially useful.
- Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage: This is a video series presented by a pastor about how men’s and women’s brains operate differently, and how it impacts everything from dealing with stress to how we approach sex. Funny, insightful, and just plain entertaining, it’s well worth watching. Pro-tip: you can find most, if not all of it, on YouTube.
- Covenant Spice: There is nothing wrong with a husband and wife acquiring products to assist their sexual relationship, especially when trying to overcome specific challenges. But it is hard to get those products without being exposed to all kinds of shameful advertising. The folks at Covenant Spice are Christians who wanted to help other Christians by offering an online shop without the smutty ads and images. They ship stuff in discreet packaging and are very respectful of the intimacy that exists in marriage.
- Hot, Holy and Humorous: This is a blog run by a Christian woman who wants to encourage other women (and men too) in god-pleasing sexual intimacy. I have often found her stuff to be some of the best written available online.