A Christian Engagement of Raunch Culture

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

Part 2: Sexualised Salvation

The idea that Raunch Culture frees sexuality from all unnecessary constraints and moral frameworks must itself be challenged. Yet what Naomi Wolf terms 'the beauty myth' – the modern cultural assumption that a woman's value is proportionate to how much she conforms to standards of 'beauty' which, despite their cultural fluidity, are presented as absolute – in fact presents itself as a new religion. To be found sexually desirable is the new redemption, and it is attainable through cosmetic surgery, dieting, the self-denial of any pursuits beyond that of 'beauty', and suppressing one's emotional and moral instincts and reproductive capacity.

Rather than scrutinising one's soul, women are encouraged to navel-gaze in the most literal sense. The new liturgical year is defined by periods of 'fasting' after Christmas and before summer to atone for seceding to one's cravings. Here we see the contradictory view of the body held within contemporary culture: sexual urges are to be met immediately, but the body's reliance on food is to be repudiated. Redemption is never permanent: the anti-aging and diet industry's profits depend on their products' failure. 'Evil' – now conceptualised as bodily imperfections – is never triumphed over, but can at best be avoided: "the woman who dies thinnest, with the fewest wrinkles, wins", as Wolf writes.[19] The beauty myth, then, offers the heavy burden of religion, with none of the comfort, love, or salvation of God.

Thus, just as Raunch Culture is obsessed with sex and yet has a low view of its power and purpose, so its preoccupation with the physical masks a low regard for the body – one far lower than the Bible holds, despite the popular confusion of Christianity with asceticism. Like any consumable in today's society, the Raunch Culture woman has built-in obsolescence. She is asked to aim for 'sexiness' or 'hotness' – qualities that are transient, superficial, but also inherently degrading. For a crucial criterion for 'hotness' is proof that a woman is actively seeking approval, projecting an eagerness that suggests any attention she receives for her appearance will be well-received.

Biblical beauty may last a lifetime; Raunch Culture's allure is far more ephemeral

Her body thus only appears desirable when it becomes a canvas for that need for validation – made most tangible by plastic surgery. Preying on insecurities, redefining beauty and 'deformity', the cosmetic surgery industry has increased in value by £3billion since 2005.[20] Permanent physical sensation is in fact sacrificed in the most popular procedure, breast augmentation, for women to become more attractive sexual objects – so much for a high opinion of pleasure. The body itself is merely putty to be manipulated in order to mark out a new hierarchy among humanity. Surely far more empowering than this assumption that there is an essential 'self' apart from the body that can be brought out by expensive surgery is a worldview that values the human as a psychophysical unity, regardless of its specific appearance.

Biblical beauty, principally a way of relating to God and to others, may last a lifetime, increasing as does one's holiness and capacity to be emotionally intimate; Raunch Culture's allure is far more ephemeral. The scarcity of this 'resource' is what makes interaction in hook-up culture inherently competitive. In contrast, when adhering to God's commands brings abundant flourishing, power is not a zero-sum game; marriage is instead to be an example of what Jesus taught His disciples:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. (Matthew 20:26)

Because God's love for us is everlasting, because His acceptance of us predates ours of Him, Christians need not literally sell themselves short (Psalm 139; Jeremiah 1:15, 31:3; Matthew 6:31-33; Romans 8:35-39; 2 Timothy 1:7; 1 John 4:10). They need not act out of low self-worth or insecurity, because they can have confidence of their worth in Christ.

Integrating Sex

To persuade already sexual beings of their need to purchase their sexuality as defined by Raunch Culture – beauty products, cosmetic surgery, sex toys, and special underwear are all imperative – it propagates the myth that sexiness needs to be something divorced from the everyday experience of being ourselves.[21] Otherworldly and illicit, it is therefore threatened by the predictability and routine of married life. Life itself is an impediment to 'sexiness'; for the message of airbrushing is that a woman's value decreases with age.[22] Here lies a contradiction: the 'naturalness' of sex is why, it is argued, there should be no restraints on its practice, yet the natural body is found lacking and contemporary Western media encourages females to perceive their bodies as a 'project'.[23] But sexuality is intrinsic to our humanity, not a capitalist product. It is also much broader than sexual activity: it is the all-encompassing energy inside us that drives us out into the world in a creative, life-giving way. It moves us toward unity and consummation with that which is beyond us.[24]

sexuality is intrinsic to our humanity, not a capitalist product

So while advertising may prey on our anxieties that we aren't 'getting any', and encourages us to buy products to fill the lack, the sense of want is actually eased by giving. Love, sex and marriage to be true to their design, or, as Lauren Winner puts it "to partake in their transcendent mission of revealing God's grace", must embrace the fact that 'the spiritual' encompasses all of life.[25] If sex is not allowed to be ordinary, it becomes a performance, rather than an authentic meeting of a couple's strengths and foibles. Sex is not at its best when rendered thrilling by the chase or the instability of the relationship. Marriage is the means by which two people support each other on life's adventures; if the woman feels obliged to encompass all that is adventurous within her body, the relationship will buckle under the pressure.[26]

Serving versus Servicing

In a very real sense, at the heart of sex in Raunch Culture is not mutual attraction, let alone love, but power. Women seek validation in proving their ability to arouse a man, while men seek to discover how far they can push women into a chauvinistic fantasy world in order to prove their willingness to acquiesce. Power, thus conceptualised, is a finite resource, and competing for it constitutes a zero-sum game. Women can only gain the upper hand by initiating the 'mating ritual', even if they cannot reshape how men use their sexual power, namely by demanding it be the corollary of a lifelong, monogamous relationship. Embedded in Raunch Culture is the voluntary subjection of women to the service of men's pleasure in a thoroughly transactional exchange: the woman presents herself as an object in order to feel desired (female desire itself is confused with the sense of being wanted while male desire is understood to precede contact with women).[27] The man is thus reduced to a machine – condensed into a predictable generator of outputs in response to the input the woman provides.

This sort of sexual activity makes relationship not merely undesirable but unfeasible. By contrast, scripture asks us to trust fully in God, and in doing so, we can be released from the greed and power-games which prevent us from truly knowing others. Quite simply, we need this alternative because we are inherently relational beings. Being made in the image of a God who is Himself perfect communion between the three persons of the Trinity, we cannot escape this truth. Any attempt to live as if people were consumables only, rather than community, condemns us to live in a poor simulation of reality.

at the heart of sex in Raunch Culture is power

A false, but common, view of the Bible holds that women are therein commanded to meet every whim of their husband, and to be weak and submissive. But in the Song of Songs, the paradisal model is of mutual strength and respect. The Shulamite is strong and assertive: only she makes dramatic, self-assured statements about her beauty and character: "I am black and beautiful" (Song 1:5); "I am the [glorious, beautiful] rose of Sharon, the [single, special] lily / lotus of the valleys" (2:1, Richard Davidson's translation).[28] Only she commands the elements: "Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden" (4:16). And only the woman is described using military images, despite their otherwise exclusive association with men.[29] Similarly, the wild beasts – lion and leopard – are employed solely with reference to the woman (4:8) thus subverting stereotypical associations of women with the domestic sphere.[30] Furthermore, the Shulamite's confidence and power does not come at her lover's expense. For a major facet in the Song's theology of sexuality is the highlighting of egalitarianism and reciprocity between the lovers: as Phipps asserts, "Nowhere in ancient literature can such rapturous mutuality be paralleled".[31]

The keynote of egalitarianism is struck in Song 2:16: "My beloved is mine and I am his", with similar refrains in 6:3 and 7:11. The woman, like the man, is portrayed as a person of capability, independence, and self-reliance. She, like the man, is gainfully employed (1:6-7; 6:11; 8:11-12). The woman is just as active in the lovemaking as the man: she brings him to the love chamber (3:4) just as he brings her (1:4; 2:4). She sexually arouses him (8:5) just as he has aroused her (2:3-4; 5:2-5). Both use similar language to praise the beauty of the other (for instance, eyes like doves [1:15; 4:1; 5:12], "beautiful, … truly lovely" [1:16; 7:2], lips dripping honey / myrrh [4:11; 5:13] and whole matching sections with extended praise of the other's beauty [4:1-16; 6:4-10; 7:2-10]). Thus Daniel Grossberg rightly concludes:

In all of Canticles there is hardly a thought, idea or deed that is not attributed to both the male and the female. Almost all expressions (spoken both inwardly, outwardly, and acted) are shared by the two lovers in the Song of Songs.... Sexism and gender stereotyping, so prevalent in ancient (and modern) literature is totally lacking in Canticles. Instead, undifferentiated, shared roles and positions are the rule. Harmony, not domination, is the hallmark of the Song of Songs.... In Canticles, neither one of the couples is subordinate; neither is minor. The Song revolves around them both equally.[32]

Despite the public displays of (near-)nudity of women who participate in Raunch Culture, they are not in reality overconfident but thoroughly insecure. For the assumption is that, as a whole, a mind and a body, they could not expect men to commit to them. Instead, it is only by setting themselves up as a duality – a body first, and publicly, and only a mind second (easily dulled through the consumption of alcohol) and privately – that they can feel wanted. An ONS survey from 2012 shows that 42% of marriages in the UK end in divorce.[33] In such a situation, deep emotions and vulnerability are cautioned against: protection from disappointment is sought by separating sex from relationship. In a very real sense, therefore, Raunch Culture does not testify to a generation surrendering completely to its feelings and desires, but a generation numb to its deepest yearnings, and using 'casual sex' as a means of distraction. For as long as women's emotional engagement in a relationship is seen as superfluous 'baggage', one of the ways in which they fall short of the pornographic fantasy, they will deny themselves the hope of a longer term commitment.[34]

The difference with the Shulamite is stark: her power is not a pre-emptive defence against being denied a long-term commitment as the Song shows the man able and willing to protect and provide for them both. This context of trust is crucial for the flourishing of marital sexuality. The Song pictures the woman leaning upon, and resting under the protecting shadow of her lover:

As an apple tree among the trees of the wood,
   so is my beloved among young men,
With great delight I sat in his shadow,
   and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
(Song 2:3)

Francis Landry catches the intent of the imagery:

The apple-tree symbolizes the lover, the male sexual function in the poem: erect and delectable, it is a powerful erotic metaphor. It provides the nourishment and shelter, traditional male roles – the protective lover, man the provider.[35]

The male-protector motif continues as the Shulamite's friends ask: "Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?" (8:2). By highlighting both the woman's initiative and the protecting, providing role of the man, the Song paints a balanced portrait of full mutuality and egalitarianism. Sexuality is not just the sex act; it involves the whole inseparable human being: physical, sensual, emotional, and spiritual. Thus the true nakedness achieved in the lovers' relationship – weakly imitated in the exhibitionism of Raunch Culture – depends on the security of a committed lifelong relationship characterised by mutual sacrifice and service.[36]

Continue to Part 3: Beyond the Honeymoon


[19] Wolf, The Beauty Myth, p.129.
[20] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-25986840.
[21] Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, p.186.
[22] Wolf, The Beauty Myth, p.83. One Clarins advert told women "Even the most innocent expressions – including squinting, blinking and smiling – take a toll", cited in Wolf, The Beauty Myth, p.96.
[23] M.G. Durham, The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It, London: Gerald Duckworth & Co, 2009, p.63; J.J. Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, New York: Random House, 1997.
[24] Paula Rinehart, Sex and the Soul of a Woman: The Reality of Love and Romance in an Age of Casual Sex, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010, p.151.
[25] Lauren F. Winner, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity, Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006, p.96.
[26] John Eldredge, Wild at Heart, Nashville, TN: Nelson, 2001, p.16.
[27] Wolf, The Beauty Myth, p.157.
[28] The use of the -at ending of šôšannâ in this verse (contrasted with the masculine plural in other occurrences in the Song) denotes singularity. Bruce K. Waltke and Michael P. O'Connar, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990, p.105. The woman is a singular, special lily out of all the others in the valleys. Bloch and Bloch point out the two flowers mentioned in Song 2:1, 'rose' and 'lily' are those mentioned in the prophecies of Israel's restoration to her former glory (Isaiah 35:1-2; Hosea 14:6-8) and the mention of Sharon probably links with "the majesty of Carmel and Sharon" in Isaiah 35:2. They conclude: "Seen in this light, 2:1 is an expression of a young woman's proud awareness of her blossoming beauty. The Shulamite is not presenting herself  either modestly or coyly – as a common ordinary flower of the field… Quite the contrary, she is identifying herself with the two flowers that are the very epitome of blossoming in the symbolism of the Bible." Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch, The Song of Songs: The World's First Great Love Poem, New York: Random House, 1995, pp.148-49.
[29] Carole Meyers, 'Gender Imagery in the Song of Songs', The Hebrew Annual Review, Vol.10, 1986, pp.209-223 (pp.212-215). The imagery of military architecture include the military tower, armoury, and shields (Song 4:4); the military tower, outpost "tower of Lebanon", pools of Heshbon (probably for military purposes), and defensive gate of Bathrabbim (all in 7:5); and the towers and wall with "a battlement" or "buttresses" or "turrets" (again in a military context, 8:9-10).
[30] Ibid., p.216.
[31] William E. Phipps, Genesis and Gender: Biblical Myths of Sexuality and Their Cultural Impact, Westport, CT: Praeger, 1989, p.94. Also see Leonard Swídler, Biblical Affirmations of Woman, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1979, p.92; David M. Carr, The Erotic Word: Sexuality, Spirituality, and the Bible, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003, p.134; Alicia Ostriker, 'A Holy of Holies: The Song of Songs as Countertext', in The Song of Songs, ed. Athalya Brenner and Carole R. Fontaine, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000, pp.49-50.
[32] Daniel Grossberg, 'Two Kinds of Sexual Relations in the Hebrew Bible', HS 34,1994, pp.12, 15.
[33] Donna Freitas, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled and Confused About Intimacy, New York: Basic Books, 2013, pp.49-67; http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/taxonomy/index.html?nscl=Divorces.
[34] Rinehart, Sex and the Soul of a Woman, p.29.
[35] Francis Landy, 'Song of Songs and the Garden of Eden', Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol.98, No.4, 1979, pp. 513-528 (p.526).
[36] Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, p.192.

Continue to Part 3: Beyond the Honeymoon

© 2016 Florence Gildea

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