Pornography and Sexual Violence

The issue of pornography has undergone a dramatic change over the past two decades, one that shifts the definition, increases the complexity, and requires a new level of discussion. The use of violent, aggressive themes accompanying sexually explicit material has continued to increase. Cable television, the Internet, and other new technology have made sexually aggressive media widely available, particularly to children and youth. Pornography is frequently relied upon as a source of information about sexuality. The church needs to lead society in articulating an ethic that affirms God's good gift of human sexuality and that protects the vulnerable from sexual violence and coercion. For this task, we stand on solid ground, from Scripture and from our Social Principles:

"So God created humankind in God's own image, in the image of God was the human created; male and female God created them. . . . And God saw everything that was made, and behold, it was very good" (Genesis 1:27, 31, RSV-AILL).

"We recognize that sexuality is God's good gift to all persons. We believe persons may be fully human only when that gift is acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the church, and society. . . . we recognize that God challenges us to find responsible, committed and loving forms of expression. . . . We reject all sexual expressions that damage or destroy the humanity God has given us as birthright. . . . We deplore all forms of the commercialization and exploitation of sex, with their consequent cheapening and degradation of human personality. . . . We recognize the continuing need for full, positive, and factual sex education opportunities for children, youth and adults . . . " (from The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church, 161G).

Common understandings of pornography no longer serve us well. Some of us may believe pornography is a social evil because it is sexual, while others may defend pornography as a universal right to freedom of expression because it is sexual. Yet the truth is that pornography is not about sexuality; it is about violence, degradation, exploitation, and coercion.

While there is not widespread agreement on definitions, the following are suggested as the basis for dialogue:

Pornography is sexually explicit material that portrays violence, abuse, coercion, domination, humiliation, or degradation for the purpose of arousal. In addition, any sexually explicit material that depicts children is pornographic.

The impact of pornography on behavior is difficult to measure. While there is little evidence that consuming pornography causes an individual to commit a specific act of sexual aggression, several studies suggest that such consumption may predispose an individual to sexual offenses, and that it supports and encourages sexual offenders to continue and escalate their violent and abusive behavior. Few dispute the fact that a society that supports multibillion dollar industries promoting sexual violence as entertainment and portraying the abuse and torture of women and children in a sexual context is a society in trouble.

Pornography is inextricably linked to the oppression of women. Its appeal will continue as long as sexual arousal is stimulated by images of power and domination of one person over another, most often male over female. Pornography is also fundamentally linked to racism; women of color are invariably portrayed in the most violent and degrading ways. The destructive power of pornography lies in its ability to ensure that attitudes toward sexuality will continue to be influenced by images that negate human dignity, equality, and mutuality. Pornography contributes to alienation in human relationships and distorts the sexual integrity of both women and men.

The explosion of the Internet in recent years has made access easier for providers and consumers of pornography, and especially for adults who sexually abuse children. There is mounting evidence that pedophiles routinely use the Internet to lure children into their hands. A staggering number of chat rooms promote rape, incest, sex with children, child prostitution, and other criminal and violent behaviors.

Pornographic materials are being transmitted in cyberspace on a global scale, permitting access by both adults and children. Disclaimers warning of graphic materials on these sites have not prevented children from viewing them. Most sites offer free "previews" of graphic, obscene, and violent images and are linked to other sites. According to the United States Commission on Pornography, 12- to 17-year-old adolescents are among the largest consumers of pornography.

Those portrayed in Internet pornographic images are typically women, especially women of color. Female bodies are treated as objects and commodities, and female body parts are dismembered and magnified for pornographic effect and cyber-sexual consumption. The global nature of the Internet and its lack of regulation enables such materials that may be legal in one country to be accessed in a country where they may be illegal. National boundaries are easily crossed, and there is no international code of conduct to monitor pornographic material.

Care should be taken that children and youth are protected from pornographic materials. The supervision and love of Christian parents and other caring adults, supported by the extended church family, are the primary source of sex education. A comprehensive approach to sex education offers an additional basis for countering pornography. Children, youth, and adults need opportunities to discuss sexuality and learn from quality sex education materials in families, churches and schools. An alternative message to pornography, contained in carefully prepared age-appropriate sex education materials that are both factual and explicit and portray caring, mutually consenting relationships between married adults, is needed. Materials should be measured by the intentions expressed and the goals served, not by the degree of explicitness of sexual imagery. If we fail to provide such materials, accompanied by parental and adult supervision, we risk reliance of children and youth on pornography as the primary source of information about sexuality.

The temptation to embrace easy answers must be resisted. Government censorship is not an effective tool to deal with pornography. To acknowledge pornography as harmful is not to sanction every possible legal remedy. Censorship carries an inherent risk that it will be used to limit sex education materials and erotica simply because they are sexually explicit. Yet to honor the right to freedom of speech is not to authorize expression of all ideas by any means possible. We know that the exercise of freedom must take place within a framework of social responsibility, with particular regard for the vulnerability of children and youth. A corporate decision not to allow pornography, such as by an online provider, is not censorship; it is corporate responsibility.

The United Methodist Church is already on record naming sexual violence and abuse as sins and pledging to work for their eradication ("Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse," The Book of Resolutions 2000) and stating that "children must be protected from economic, physical and sexual exploitation and abuse" (The Social Principles, 162C).

Understanding pornography to portray violence, abuse and humiliation in a sexual setting, and understanding any sexually explicit depiction of children to be pornographic, we affirm that The United Methodist Church is opposed to pornography. We further affirm our commitment to quality sex education and our resistance to censorship. We call upon The United Methodist Church, its general agencies, annual conferences and local churches, to:

(1) educate congregations about the issue of pornography;

(2) seek strategies, other than government censorship, to reduce the proliferation of pornography;

(3) work to break the link between sex and violence;

(4) monitor and limit access by children and youth to pornography and sexually explicit material;

(5) participate in efforts to ban child pornography and protect child victims;

(6) promote the use of United Methodist and other quality sex education materials that help children and youth gain an understanding of and respect for mutually affirming sexuality;

(7) provide educational sessions for parents on minimizing the risk to children from Internet usage. Encourage parents to establish rules for teenagers and children; encourage parents to utilize screening technology;

(8) call for social responsibility in all media, including the Internet and in all public libraries, and work with local, national, and international groups that advocate for global media monitoring of images of women, men and children; and

(9) participate in ecumenical and/or community efforts that study and address the issue of pornography.


See Social Principles, 161H.

From The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2004. Copyright 2004 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.

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