On the YouTube channel “Lutheran Satire,” there’s a video entitled, “A Christian and a Feminist Almost Agree on Stuff.” In it, two sock puppets discuss the cultural breakdown of sexuality and marriage and how pornography plagues both.
“Pornography harms women,” says the feminist sock puppet.
“Totally agree,” says the Christian puppet. “Pornography demeans women, and it also corrupts men by making them think of women as nothing but sexual objects.”
“Therefore,” interrupts the feminist sock puppet, “women should empower themselves by taking control of the porn industry and producing their own sexually explicit material.”
To which the Christian puppet responds, “That is not the solution I had in mind.”
Pornography and sexually suggestive material of any kind objectifies women, training consumers that female bodies are things to be leered at, to be lusted after, rather than persons to be loved and valued.
Those Lutheran sock puppets came to mind last week after Sports Illustrated announced the covers of its annual swimsuit issue. Of course, there’s never been any point to the swimsuit edition other than to objectify women to the publication’s largely male readership. It has nothing at all to do with sports. It has nothing at all to do with even marketing swimsuits.
It has been, instead, for decades now, the most visible example of everything that Christians and feminists and other protectors of women have decried about our objectifying culture: selling skin, airbrushed and impossible beauty standards, sexual provocation, etc., etc., etc.
This year’s cover model does not represent the typical, unreachable standards of thinness that porn and photoshop have imposed on women. However, she is still posed provocatively in a barely there swimsuit, as objectified as any other cover model has ever been.
There seems to be some confusion. The problem here is not that all women should be objectified for their bodies. It’s that no one should be objectified at all. Valuing a human being made in God’s image by changing standards of outward appearance is always wrong. But we don’t atone for a sin by committing it against everyone.
Now, I know it sounds a bit quaint in 2022 to object to swimsuit covers, but at the heart of even the mildly suggestive material in our culture is a lie that has long consumed our culture, the same one that is at the heart of the always accessible and ever darker online pornography world. That lie is that people are things to be used and therefore can be abstracted from their bodies for our gratification or titillation.
This lie can never be made true, even when people consent to it. As Christine Emba pointed out recently in The Washington Post, it is possible for a woman to objectify herself, and therefore consent to things that are actually terrible for her. Consent, Emba concludes, is not a sufficient sexual ethic by itself. We need to talk about a much more important value: love, which she defines, taking a cue from St. Thomas Aquinas, as “willing the good of the other.”
There is no sense in which reducing a woman to her body and putting her on display for millions is willing her good. No person—man or woman—is merely a body. Christians have always insisted, and must continue to insist against things like prostitution, polygamy, slavery, and pornography. Because human beings are bearers of God’s image, they must always be taken seriously, body and soul.
If there is a problem with displaying scantily clad women as objects for the eager eyes of sports fans—and there is—if we recognize the connection this ritual has with far darker corners of our culture especially online—and it does—the answer is to stop. Certainly, the answer is not more of the same. We have to treat women as whole people.