This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8
In a blog post from 2009 titled ‘Sex in Movies,’ I remarked that one of the dangers in watching sex scenes on programs is that it tends to unconsciously orient viewers to find righteousness strange and to find sexual compromise normal. Put another way, exposure to erotic stimuli on the screen can desensitize the viewer, causing important barriers to be lowered in the process.
So much so good, but what about programs that show erotic scenes that aren’t immoral and unrighteous, such as when it involves married couples? It is true that most programs are not interested in showing sex among married couples because Hollywood assumes that marriage renders sex less exciting, but it is still a legitimate question to ask.
To answer the question, I’d like you to do a little thought experiment.
Would it be wrong to sneak into the bedroom of a husband and wife you know and watch them having sex, or even to watch them undress as they get ready to have sex?
Of course that would be wrong.
Now let’s modify the question a little. If a couple you know gave you permission to come into their house and watch them have sex, or even to watch lesser forms of erotic contact, would it still be wrong for you to view it?
Again, I am assuming that most Christians would agree with me that this too would be wrong. (If you don’t think this would be wrong, then you need to review some of the scriptures I brought up in part 1 of this series.)
Now let’s modify the question still further. If the same couple made a video of themselves having sex, or even just undressing each other, and then sent you the video, would it be wrong for you to watch either all or some of it? Again, I am assuming that most Christians would have no hesitation saying that the only acceptable thing to do would be to throw the video in the trash.
You can probably guess where I’m heading with this thought experiment, which has one further modification. Suppose the same couple were videoed having sex or being naked in an erotic context, but it occurred within a movie? Would that be wrong to watch?
I would argue that this would too would be wrong for the same reasons, but suddenly I find myself in a minority, because millions of American Christians are completely comfortable viewing such content, for they do it all the time when they sit down to watch television and movies. Indeed, the only difference between the sexual content that is routine in movies, on the one hand, and the final stage of my thought experiment, on the other, is that the actors are not married and we do not know them. But if anything, the fact that they are not married merely adds another layer of wrongness to the activity.
In short, if it’s wrong to watch people having sexual contact in the real world, then it is equally wrong to watch the same actions on television or in a movie.
Research Warns About Sex on Television
Let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about children. Unfortunately, many Christian parents are incredibly naïve when it comes to what they let their children see. Some parents even allow their children to have unmonitored internet access in their own bedrooms, through which they can watch unrestricted television programs when the parents are asleep.
You don’t have to be a Christian to recognize that this is unhelpful to children. Recent studies conducted by secular researchers has found that children are damaged by viewing sexual content at an early age. One study, carried out by Dr Hernan Delgado and reported about in The Telegraph, found “that for every hour the youngest group of children watched adult programmes over the two sample days, their chances of having sex during early adolescence increased by 33 percent.”
The team of researchers came to this conclusion after tracking 754 girls and boys. They found that those who “watched grown up shows” were “more likely to have sex earlier when compared to those who watched less adult-targeted material.”
Dr David Bickham, the co-author of the study, commented, “Children learn from media, and when they watch media with sexual references and innuendos, our research suggests they are more likely to engage in sexual activity earlier in life.”
Another study conducted earlier this year found that children who watch films with a high sexual content are more likely to lose their virginity at an earlier age and to go through multiple sexual partners. This study was published in Psychological Science, the peer-reviewed journal of the Association for Psychological Science. It involved six-years of research of more than 1,228 teens. Writing about the study in The Daily Mail, Daniel Martin commented, “The results indicated that exposure to sexual content in movies at an early age is likely to influence adolescents’ sexual behaviour.”
Don’t Desensitize your Kids
As parents this should concern us. Of course, I am assuming that most Christian parents will not let their children watch programs with inappropriate adult content. However, based on what I said at the beginning of this article, I would go even further and suggest that we should also avoid letting our children see programs with any displays of sexuality or nudity even if such displays are not immoral within the context of the narrative.
One reason for this (in addition, of course, to the arguments presented at the beginning of this article) goes back to a point I made in my Salvo feature, ‘Sex & the Kiddies: The Sexualization of Children & How Advertising & Entertainment Change Their Brains.’ In this article I pointed out that when children lose their natural shyness and embarrassment concerning sexual matters (as they inevitably will if they are exposed to sex on the screen) the result is that they can become more comfortable exposing erotically important parts of their bodies. This can lead the children to grow up into teenagers who refuse to acknowledge the erotic implications of revealing attire or nudity, so that the sexually important parts of their bodies are treated as if they are merely common. This is a situation I have run into before when counseling parents and teenagers.
Another way to make the same point would be to say that visual exposure to sexual content on the screen has a desensitizing effect, since it subtly encourages youth to treat sexuality as something trivial, benign, and commonplace. As I wrote in ‘Sex & the Kiddies’,
“The result is that our brains are being changed to think of sexuality in completely disenchanted terms. In earlier generations, when this area of life was considered ‘holy ground,’ the veil of shyness that properly attended sexual things preserved the sense that our sexuality, though on one level purely functional, is also a matter of great significance, calling for reverence, respect, and privacy.”
Privacy is the key, and that is why I suggested earlier that the same canons of privacy we are prepared to honor when it comes to sex in the real world, should also be honored when it comes to sex on the screen.
None of this means that we shouldn’t let our children watch movies that show kissing, displays of romantic love or even people in bed together. Every parent will have to draw the line for themselves, but a good rule of thumb that I use is this: all displays of love that my wife and I would be uncomfortable doing with our children around are probably also things our children shouldn’t be watching people in movies do.
Personal Challenge: Do you know parents who allow their children to have a TV, or a computer with internet access, in their bedroom? If you do consider sharing this article, and the earlier article in this same series, with them.