A Christian Engagement of Raunch Culture

The Collins online dictionary defines 'Raunch Culture' as:

A culture which promotes overtly sexual representations of women, as through the acceptance of pornography, stripping, nudity in advertising, etc, esp when this is encouraged by women

This is the first part of three in which Florence Gildea considers the background and consequences to Raunch Culture and offers an alternative Christian view.

Part 1: What is 'Raunch Culture'?

In a consumer culture, being wanted is everything. In a world without God, the approval of other human beings is supreme. In a world where we are merely highly evolved mammals, sex is just a bodily function, and fellow humans are ripe for exploitation in order to satisfy those urges. And in a world where sex is separated from reproduction, thanks to reliable contraception, sex is also the best asset a woman has to sell, the quickest way she can feel valued. The result of these cultural trends is what Ariel Levy terms 'Raunch Culture': the highly sexualized culture in Britain and the U.S.A in which women are encouraged to objectify their bodies proudly and provocatively and embody personas traditionally associated with soft porn in their dress and demeanour.[1] Thereby they are promised empowerment: by manipulating their physical appearance and internalising the objectifying male gaze, it is presumed that the limitations of womanhood can be escaped.

In a consumer culture, being wanted is everything

But Levy recognises, from a secular perspective, that Raunch Culture is a path to 'oppression' not 'liberation'. This essay will concur: mutual objectification can only ever be destructive because it is to deny the fullness of humanity which God has bestowed upon us as His image-bearers. But I will argue that the most coherent and satisfying framework for sexuality is that laid out in the Bible, with particular focus on the beautiful love story within the Song of Songs. Therein we learn that God's good gift of sex was intended for, and thus most fulfilling in, monogamous, heterosexual marriages.[2] Though accustomed to self-consciousness about their sexual ethics, I hope to show that Christians can feel emboldened to share God's view of sexuality as a balm to the brokenness from which Raunch Culture emerges and which it, in turn, reinforces.

We must recognise first that Raunch Culture belongs within a hedonistic naturalistic worldview, as this partly explains its dehumanising consequences. According to this worldview, the purpose of life is sought in the accumulation of physical pleasures; since there is nothing special, nothing spiritual, about humankind, there is no reason for resisting our biological urges.[3] In fact, to restrain sexual urges is seen as harmful; embracing one's 'animal' nature is to be free and authentic.[4] Evidence of psychological damage wrought by casual sex is attributed to unnecessary neuroses rather than the activity itself: what has been hurting those – particularly women – who have left intact the connection between sex and emotional commitment is their own neediness.[5]

This, however is to deny the fact that values can and do shape our desires. Unlike animals, we are capable of weighing different moral options and delaying immediate gratification for longer term goals. In minimising these capacities, male responsibility is negated, and any desire in either men or women for a more committed relationship is disparaged as a hang-over from 'traditional' morality. The answer, Raunch Culture tells women, is not to ask more of men but to seek equality in the lowest common denominator: the crass lewdness of which we are all capable as fallen creatures.

The Cheap Freedom and Power of Raunch Culture

Raunch Culture, then, does not offer true freedom since it is premised on the belief that people cannot transcend the physical dimensions of their existence, and that the intuitive impression that we have a self that exceeds our biological make-up, and can make undetermined choices, is an illusion. The Bible's picture of freedom, by contrast, is more profound. As Paul wrote to the Corinthian church:

'I have the right to do anything', you say – but not everything is beneficial. 'I have the right to do anything' – but I will not be mastered by anything. (1 Corinthians 6:12).

We are physical and spiritual creatures. Freedom is not being able to have or do whatever we crave; freedom is being content to choose contrary to our cravings. Freedom from our sinful natures means the ability to discern that our hunger for relational intimacy goes deeper than biological sensations, and to seek the satisfaction of our soul's hunger in God rather than sex.

Biblical sexuality is often disparaged as misogynistic... But Raunch Culture has a far lower view of women

Biblical sexuality is often misinterpreted and disparaged as misogynistic. But before rising to rebut such objections, it can be noted that Raunch Culture has a far lower view of women. Given that it reduces equality to sameness rather than assigning equal value to genuine difference between and among the sexes, it follows that there is nothing worth glorying in and protecting about womanhood. Since men are the culturally, socially and economically dominant power, Raunch Culture's solution to female oppression is "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em". Caricatures are not overturned: they collide. Women are encouraged to act out both male and female sexual stereotypes. They should demonstrate, on one hand, 'masculine' flippancy towards sexual relationships and objectify female bodies. But they should also be 'worth' objectifying, expressing their sexuality by stripping or dancing provocatively. The woman both imitates and services the male sexual desire – the idea of having her own, independent sexuality is not entertained.

This does not subvert the historical – and unbiblical – assumption that women have less value than men: it simply allows individual women to be 'the loophole', to feel empowered as an honorary man. But if one is the exception that proves the rule, and the rule is that women are inferior, the cultural inequality remains. Consequently, one's own self-evaluation and relationships between women are eroded for the sake of sexual interaction, with all the damage this entails for true community.

This approach, furthermore, limits each gender to a series of roles focused around sexual activity, and thereby reduces the dynamic multifaceted purpose of the relationship between them. By contrast, Genesis 1:27 makes clear that there is real difference, and sexual correspondence, between men and women:

God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God He created them;
male and female He created them.

Humans are the only creatures specifically signified as male and female, thus the writer of Genesis clearly seeks to show that our sexual difference is crucial to our image-bearing, and for what it means to be human. Notably, however, he does not define specific gender roles or expound the nature of femininity and masculinity. As a result, the biblical model allows for greater freedom in the expression of individual uniqueness than does Raunch Culture. The latter relies on reductionist definitions of gender based upon physicality and stereotypes of what men find sexually attractive in women, and the false assumption that all men want is sexual stimulation.

Similarly, while it is commonly assumed that biblical sexuality is unconcerned with pleasure, the contrary can be easily demonstrated. As we shall see in studying the Song of Songs, scripture makes clear that God intends for sex to be pleasurable as well as fruitful, and that as the designer of sexual activity, His guidelines are best able to tell us how sex can be used in a beautiful, respectful and safe way.

Although Raunch Culture is obsessed with sex, it actually has a very restrictive view of sexuality

Although Raunch Culture is obsessed with sex, it actually has a very restrictive view of sexuality. Sexuality, for ease of commercialisation, has become an activity with a very specific look, rather than an innate state of being for all humans. It seems commonly assumed that female sexuality is fully represented in the Playboy Bunny, and consequently, for women to be sexual creatures, they must be, what Levy calls "lusty, busty, exhibitionists".[6] Raunch Culture, therefore, does not increase our awareness of the possibilities and mysteries of sexuality: it endlessly broadcasts one particular for sexiness.[7] This, then, prompts women to be self-critical and self-conscious about their physical appearance in front of men – accustomed to the pornographic ideal – which serves as a strong anaphrodisiac.[8] One is reminded of what C.S. Lewis writes about sin:

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.[9]

It is not simply the case that we 'fool about' with sex as a good gift and forget the Giver; we do not even accept the gift in its entirety. Thus a culture supposedly centred upon sexual liberation cannot even recognise difference among forms of sexual expression and asks participants to literally buy their way into the acceptable norm.

The Richness of Intimacy

Sex, in God's design, is never mechanical or transactional, as if between objects or commodities, but between embodied souls.[10] The visual is the sense monopolized by sexualised advertising and pornography – they are at a disadvantage with regard to the other senses: humans can smell, taste, touch, and sound far better than the image. So for people to become dependable, sexually insecure consumers, they have to be redirected from these other, more sensual senses.

Thus it is a telling indicator of the richness of biblical sexuality that the Song of Songs presents attraction as involving all of the five senses. Given that the Song presents the couple as married before they engage in sexual intercourse, its implicit message is that humans are fully alive to recognise beauty when they are obeying God's Word with regards to our sexuality. The love described between Solomon and his bride is sweet to the taste, like the fruit of the apple tree (2:3; cf. 4:16; 5:1, 13). Fragrant are the smells of the vineyards (2:13), the perfumes of myrrh and frankincense (3:6), the scent of Lebanon (4:11), and the beds of spices (5:13; 6:2). The lovers' embraces confirm the delights of touch (1:2; 2:3-6; 4:10, 11; cf. 5:1; 7:6-9; 8:1, 3) and the sound of the lover thrills the heart (5:2).

Today, real naked women are just bad porn”

- Naomi Wolf

Scripture and experience of the increasing violence in mainstream pornography show that being controlled by lust robs us of our attentiveness to beauty at all the levels described in the Song. Paul writes: "Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed" (Ephesians 4:19).[11] Lust always wants more, it never plateaus, and thereby it makes intimacy – genuine interpersonal connection – impossible. Because in wanting more from a person, one is immediately showing contempt for their current state.

Scientific research supports this biblical principle: feminist author Naomi Wolf reports that pornography deadens male libido in relation to real women, leading men to see fewer and fewer women as 'porn-worthy'. "For the first time in human history, the images' power and allure have supplanted that of real naked women. Today, real naked women are just bad porn." The effect on relationships is the post-fall alienation between men and women magnified:

young men and women … know they are lonely together, even when conjoined, and that [pornographic] imagery is a big part of that loneliness… [T]hey don't know … how to find each other again erotically, face-to-face.[12]

Scripture fully anticipates that humans cannot achieve togetherness without God, especially when pursuing their own independent sexual desires. For true pleasure is not merely a heightened aesthetic experience: it is experienced in its fullness in relationship with other human joys like that of commitment, security, fidelity and the deep reassurance that one is living within God's will.[13]

Notably, although the Song of Songs is replete with imagery, Richard Davidson argues convincingly that not all are to be taken as literalistic descriptions alone, and given their metaphorical nature, their content or particularity is not fixed.[14] Consequently, every woman can aspire to be beautiful like the Shulamite. Conversely, modern mass media surrounds us with concrete images, leaving us no resort to imagination. Airbrushed, falsely representative, fragmented photographs present beauty as virtually unattainable, and denies it its transcendent quality.

Raunch Culture, despite its exhibitionism, seems to fear true nakedness

What is so attractive to the lovers in the Song goes beyond merely physical appearance and sensations. The military tower / fortress imagery describing the woman, for instance, (4:4; 7:5, 8:10) signifies not only aesthetic beauty and strength but "insurmountability, inaccessibility, pride, purity, and virginity ... the proud inaccessibility of a pure maiden."[15] The dove imagery (1:15; 2:14; 4:1; 5:1, 5:12; 6:9) in some passages of the Song may refer primarily to the colour or shape of the eye, but in others seems to move beyond this to connote spiritual qualities of "innocence, moral purity, and blamelessness".[16] The woman's whole being – including her physical beauty and moral integrity – is declared flawless and perfect (4:7; 5:2; 6:9) as she presents a pattern of simple devotedness, chastity, unaffected modesty, and frank prudence.[17] Furthermore, when the woman says: "your name is perfume poured out" (1:3), Carr explains that she refers to "the attractiveness of the whole personality of the lover" as "name" in this context "is used in the broader sense for the true being of the person".[18] Thus we see that a fulfilling sexual relationship is not evaluative of performance but happens in the context in which each partner admires holiness in the other.

This is the reverse of Raunch Culture, in which others' weaknesses – their desires and need for affection – are exploited. Such a predatory approach is impossible for Solomon and the Shulamite who declare themselves not merely lovers but also "friends" (5:16). Hence they know true nakedness – to be seen and loved exactly as one is, without pretension or self-consciousness – which Raunch Culture, despite its exhibitionism, seems to fear.

Continue to Part 2: Sexualised Salvation


[1] Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, New York: Free Press, 2005.
[2] Richard M. Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007, pp.15-50; Daniel R. Heimbach, True Sexual Morality: Recovering Biblical Standards for a Culture in Crisis, Wheaton IL: Crossway Books, 2004, pp.219-325; Dennis P. Hollinger, The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009, pp.182-386.
[3] Hollinger, The Meaning of Sex, pp.73-84.
[4] This view was first propounded by Alfred Kinsey in a 1935 lecture at Indiana University. James H. Jones, Alfred C. Kinsey: A Life, New York: W.W. Norton, 2005, pp.441-445.
[5] Wendy Shalit, A Return to Modesty, New York: Atria Books, 2014, pp.12, 25, 56.
[6] Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, p.186.
[7] Ibid., p.33.
[8] Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women, New York: Harper Collins, 1990, pp.149-153.
[9] C.S. Lewis, 'The Weight of Glory', The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, ed. W. Hooper. New York: Simon and Schuster, pp.25-26.
[10] Heimbach, True Sexual Morality, p.13.
[11] According to Jane Caputi, who calls the modern period the 'Age of Sex Crime', film portrayals based on sex abusers became common during the late 1970s and 1980s. That decade perfected the 'first person' or 'subjective camera' shot that encourages identification with the killer or rapist. In 1981, American film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert denounced 'women in danger' films as an antifeminist backlash; a few years later, they praised one because it lets "us" really know "how it feels to abuse women". Jane Caputi, The Age of Sex Crime; Gail Dines, Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality. As slasher filmmaker Herschel Gordon Lewis said, "I mutilated women in our pictures because I felt it was better box office." Quoted in Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth, p.79.
[12] Naomi Wolf, 'The Porn Myth', New York Magazine, 20 Oct. 2003. Available at: http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/trends/n_9437/.
[13] Hollinger, The Meaning of Sex, p.176.
[14] Davidson, Flame of Yahweh, pp.583-85.
[15] Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, New York: W.W. Norton, 1970, p.78. Cf. Othmar Keel, Song of Songs Commentary, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994, p.147: "The simile 'your neck is like a tower' describes the beloved as a proud, unconquered city." See also Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1993, p.191: "Applied to walls and towers, this language connotes impregnability."
[16] Boman, Hebrew Thought, p.79.
[17] F. Delitzsch, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, Vol.3, p.5.
[18] G. Lloyd Carr, The Song of Solomon, Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009, p.74; Cf. S. Craig Glickman, A Song for Lovers, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1976, p.30.

Continue to Part 2: Sexualised Salvation

© 2016 Florence Gildea

This article is reproduced here by the kind permission of the author.