The Gnosticism of sexual sin

In a recent ESPN Magazine article on Donald Sterling, the Clippers owner is quoted as saying—under oath, in a court of law—”When you pay a woman for sex, you are not together with her.  You’re paying her for a few moments to use her body for sex. Is it clear? Is it clear?”

That’s a stunning statement, for a number of reasons.  Most obviously, it’s stunning in its sheer crassness (something which, as Peter Keating shows at length in the piece, is completely characteristic of the man).  More than that, though, it’s stunning for what it reveals about his attitude toward sex—an attitude which I think is characteristic of far more people than just him.  In point of fact, while he puts it far more crassly than most people would, I believe the essentially Gnostic view he reveals here is in fact the default view in our culture.

Consider this in the light of a defense I’ve seen offered more than once of pornography, at least in the soft-core form:  “What’s obscene about a pretty girl taking off her clothes?” I will admit to having some sympathy with the way James P. Hogan framed this in his novel Giant’s Star:

[Victor Hunt] emerged from the kitchen and walked through into the living room, wondering how a world that accepted as normal the nightly spectacle of people discussing their constipation, hemorrhoids, dandruff, and indigestion in front of an audience of a million strangers could possibly find something obscene in the sight of pretty girls taking their clothes off.  “There’s now’t so strange as folk,” his grandmother from Yorkshire would have said, he thought to himself.

That, however, says more about the casual obscenity of much of our advertising than it does about pornography; both objectify the human body, if in different ways and for different reasons.  This defense is rooted in a complete misunderstanding of the issue.  It’s not that there’s anything obscene about the human body; far from it.  The human body is a beautiful thing, one of the most beautiful of God’s creations.  However, a human body is not merely a thing, but rather is an integral part of something even more beautiful:  a human being.  The obscenity is not in the naked body; the obscenity is in the treatment of a human being as merely a naked body, as just an object of desire to be used for one’s gratification rather than as a full person to be respected and honored.

The appeal to this, I think, is that an object can be whatever one wants to imagine it to be; it’s conformable to one’s desires.  Real human beings have wills and desires, integrity and dignity, of their own, and frequently are not conformable to one’s desires.  Real human beings have minds and ideas of their own; objects don’t.  In pornography, human bodies are effectively made available for the wish-fulfillment of others, ready to be used whenever they’re accessed by whomever would use them; they never say “no,” because they’re never sleepy, achy, sick, in a bad mood, or just plain unwilling.

If we understood the spiritual consequences of this, we would take it far more seriously than most people do; but most of us don’t, because we’ve bought the line that our bodies are separate from our spirits, and that most of what we do with our bodies doesn’t really matter spiritually because they’re temporary—they aren’t the real person, and we’re going to leave them behind when we die anyway.  They’re just not that important.  That’s how you get the idea that Donald Sterling expressed, that you can rent out someone’s body for sex and just be using their body, “not together with her” (or him)—which is not only the idea behind his caddish behavior, but is also in its essence the idea behind pornography.

Even people who consider themselves Christians fall into this thinking, and use it to justify departures from biblical sexual morality; the argument that God doesn’t really mean what the Bible says about premarital sex, or homosexuality, or adultery, or whatever, always seems to rest in the end on the presumption that what we do with our bodies really isn’t all that important, and so God can’t really care about it all that much.  That stuff in Scripture must have been a cultural thing, or must have been put in there for some other reason, because God can’t have a good enough reason to tell us not to do what we want to do.  (It’s rather funny, when you stop to think about it, how we never question why such matters shouldn’t be important to God when we obviously think they’re worth fighting over.)

The truth is, though, that our bodies aren’t merely containers for our spirits, but are intimately connected:  we are our bodies just as much as our spirits, and everything that we do with one and everything that affects one affects the other.  When we treat our bodies and the bodies of others as merely things to be used and deployed for our pleasure, it debases us and it debases the people we use.  We can’t do that without consequences.  We need to treat people as people and respect them accordingly, even if they don’t fully respect themselves.


Posted in Culture and society, Religion and theology.


  1. I basically agree with your last paragraph, and some of the other things you've written. What struck me is that what you present as a 'Biblical' view of sexual morality actually goes far beyond the Bible's own presentation of sexual morality, which leaves the door open for all kinds of things we'd consider unconscionable nowadays – and rightly so. Now, I see some of your post-Biblical views (and some of mine) as connected to the Bible, in that one can find themes which point in this direction, but no one could make the argument that the beliefs of first century Christians about sexual morality were anything we'd recognize in modern America.

    The point being, if the Bible is God's intent for sexual morality in its entiretly, we have long since departed from it – and since I think I prefer our sexual morality in most cases to that 1900 years ago, that poses a problem if I'm asked to believe that God's will and intent is infallibly represented in the Bible.

    If, on the other hand, it is fallibly represented in the Bible (as the product of human pens and not God's Pen), then I can see where we got where we are now – respecting women far more, marrying far later, marrying for *love* of all things!, rightly recognizing rape as a crime, and so on, while falling short on other things we may have thrown out with the bathwater…

  2. That would be a book-length argument. It's one which I think I'd like to try to make at some point–if I ever get a biblical theology of sex written, maybe I'll dedicate it to you :)–but probably not in the near future.

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