The Erotic in LDS Lit
Part V: Can there be a “Moral Pornography”?


(Reminder: Next week is the final part of this series. In that part I intend to reply to the comments and questions left in the comments section or sent to me through other means. If you've been itching to say something, please do.)


If you fear, fear not. If you fear not, fear.
---J. Reuben Clark


In this episode, we need to redefine our terms, specifically pornography.

I'm now defining it as something that persistently and continuously displays explicitly sexual actions for the purpose of arousing sexual feelings. I hope that after our previous discussions, we can agree that sex itself is not evil.

So now the question becomes is it possible that art existing solely to appeal to the prurient interest could also be moral? As genitals can be used for holiness or sin, so genitalious art?

My gut reaction is an emphatic NO!, pornography (as just defined) is EVIL!, but as I consider why I feel this way, I have to recognize these:
    1. Most pornographic art depicts unholy sex -- barroom encounters, threesomes, adultery, handymen.

    2. Most pornography is sold to people whose intentions are far from holy by people whose intentions are far from holy.

    3. Most pornography is designed to take people out of themselves and into a world where sex with just about anything is the natural and necessary way. It's all about compulsion and a lack of control over self.

    4. Most pornography utterly fails to recognize the greatness of human souls. Instead, people are reduced to meat-rubbing machines: the characters, the producers, the consumers.

    5. Most pornography is utterly fails to present sexuality as having consequences.
All of those things are awful, make no mistake, but they are not inherent in the definition I just proposed: something that persistently and continuously deals with explicitly sexual actions for the purpose of arousing sexual feelings.

Let's go through those five terribles again:
    1. Pornography (as defined) could depict holy, virtuous sex within a marriage.

    2. Pornography (as defined) could exist without the need of evil people. In fact, if created as in #1, it might even make such people uncomfortable.

    3. Pornography (as defined) could still allow for sexual responsibility and keep the consumer within the bounds of his or her real world.

    4. Pornography (as defined) could recognize the greatness of the human soul. Sex is a gift of God to such souls. Let's not forget that Adam knew Eve, and it was good.

    5. Pornography (as defined) could allow for the existence of consequence, whether it focused on said consequences or not.
Now for my next questions: Even if, theoretically, pornography could meet the above criteria, could it in fact then be moral? Is such a moral pornography even possible? If so, should it be attempted?

Before I take a stab at these questions, I want to quote that Jorgensen guy who starred in Part II: "I suggest that any [immoral] 'pornographic event' may involve three elements: a [immoral] porn author, a [immoral] porn text, and a [immoral] porn reader. In fact, it seems to me that the [immoral] porn event seldom requires all three, though it always requires one: just a [immoral] porn reader." In other words, even if we do find room for a moral pornography, it could still be used to evil effect. (Which will beg the question, should one even attempt a moral pornography [if possible]; but one thing at a time, people. One thing at a time.)

So, from now on, pornography is just about sex, without moral judgment. If we want to talk about immoral pornographies, we can refer to them as obscenity, that we may have a distinction.

I view pornography as a sex act. A sex act between brains (that often leads to sex acts of the body). In my understanding of doctrine, sex acts, to be moral, are to be confined to married couples, two people, shared between them. Ergo, a moral pornography would be confined to a married couple, two people, and shared between them.
    Scene: the bedroom

    Cast: man and wife

    Action: taking turns writing an explicit tale about themselves in a notebook as they lounge on the bed (or reading one they had previously written)

    Result: horniness

    Nonresult: anyone else ever reading that notebook
I think this scene represents a moral pornography. Similarly, I wouldn't see anything wrong with a couple filming themselves for their own enjoyment later. (I think it's crazy just because you never know what could happen to such footage, given enough time, but I don't think there would be anything wrong with it. Two married people and no one else were involved in production or later enjoyment thereof. This is a moral pornography.

So I'm going to say yes: a moral pornography is possible. If written by a married couple about themselves and never passing outside their possession, then yes: definitely moral. The sex act or pornography is being kept within the bounds set by God Almighty and is no less legal than any other two-person sexual activity a couple might choose to pursue.

Well that was easy.

So let's make it more difficult and enter a gray area: are there other pornographies that could be moral?

As mentioned above, most pornography is fantasy-based. Consequence-free sex with impossibly lovely people who are impossibly capable of . . . who knows. Crazy sex stuff, no doubt.

If such pornography were shared between a couple, the result, I suspect, would likely not result in their brains sharing a sexual experience, even if their bodies did. More likely would be their brains floating off to sex with the impossible person. This I would call adultery and decidedly unholy.

You'll remember that in my example above, the couple was writing pornography with themselves as the characters. What if they wrote about some other couple's "holy sex"? The rest of my scenario remains the same, but now, instead of Dick and Tracy writing about Dick and Tracy, they're writing about the made-up Jim and Dandy. Jim and Dandy are also married and have a righteous sexual relationship. They're not real. Are we still within the bounds of a moral pornography?

I'm not going to say from here on out whether a scenario is representative of a moral pornography or not. I will describe a circumstance and you can decide for yourself.

Dick and Tracy buy a book of pornography about a married couple. The story has been personalized (like those kids' books), so although someone else wrote the story, it is about Dick and Tracy, and they read and enjoy together titillating stories about themselves: the beach sex they never had, et cetera.

Dick and Tracy buy a book that is endlessly explicit as it explores a fictional LDS couple's sex life. The fictional couple never does anything inappropriate for an LDS couple to do, but the book was written by a third party and it is that third party's imagination that is arousing the brains of Dick and Tracy.

Dick and Tracy buy a book with short fictional tales of explicit sexuality between married couples for the express purpose of making it easier for them (Dick and Tracy) to have more frequent sex with each other.

Dick and Tracy read more traditional pornography for the purpose of providing them with sexual scenarios to enact.

Okay, that's enough.

I will argue that my original example of a moral pornography is moral. Couples can do whatever they want in the bedroom, so long as it stays between them. My other examples I'm less certain of because they do involve other people, namely the creator of the text their reading and the fictional characters they're reading about. This does not mean I am rejecting the morality of such uses, but I'm skeptical and uncertain.

I've spent a lot of time arguing for sexual inclusion in literature, even LDS literature. But reading something for the sole purpose of sexual arousal is no longer what Levi Peterson called healthy: ". . . treating the broad range of experience . . . in viewing clearly the full spectrum of human act and emotion . . . [including sex]." Pornography necessarily avoids the full spectrum--it's focus is sex. And even if it's an honest and true depiction of holy sex, it's still totally focused on that one aspect of life. But then--no one suggests a book totally focused on charity or kindness or growing your investment portfolio is necessarily evil or "pornographic" (or obscene). And I'm not sure a text focused entirely on sex is necessarily bad either. The books I mentioned in Part IV are a completely focused on sex as any fictional work, but I heartily recommended them.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks is worried about "promotional literature of illicit sexual relations." I want to be clear that when I hypothesize about a moral pornography, I am explicitly rejected that kind of pornography. I think it is evil and dangerous and should be diligently avoided.

In the same talk, Elder Oaks quoted Jacob's speech on sexual morality:
    In the second chapter of the book that bears his name, Jacob condemns men for their “whoredoms” (Jacob 2:23, 28). He told them they had “broken the hearts of [their] tender wives, and lost the confidence of [their] children, because of [their] bad examples before them” (Jacob 2:35).

    What were these grossly wicked “whoredoms”? No doubt some men were already guilty of evil acts. But the main focus of Jacob’s great sermon was not with evil acts completed, but with evil acts contemplated.

    Jacob began his sermon by telling the men that “as yet, [they had] been obedient unto the word of the Lord” (Jacob 2:4). However, he then told them he knew their thoughts, that they were “beginning to labor in sin, which sin appeareth very abominable … unto God” (Jacob 2:5). “I must testify unto you concerning the wickedness of your hearts” (Jacob 2:6), he added. Jacob was speaking as Jesus spoke when He said, “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt. 5:28; see also 3 Ne. 12:28; D&C 59:6; D&C 63:16).
If a moral pornography is possible, then, it will be, as all things, recognized by its fruits. If a pornographic work draws a husband and wife closer together sexually, morally, spiritually, physically, intellectually, then it is moral. If if fails, if it brings unholy sexual desires into their sacred space, if it pulls them apart, if it causes them to grow apart, then it is evil.

Which brings us to the third of my original questions: If a moral pornography is theoretically possible, would it then be okay to attempt it?

In terms of our Definitely Moral scenario, knock yourself out. Just make sure you don't leave it at the bus stop.

In terms of our other Possibly Moral scenarios, I don't know. Would it be moral for me to write a graphically sexual tale (of a married couple who treat each other with love and respect, of course) marketed specifically for married couples and no one else? I know such a tale could be turned to immorality by some. I know some unrighteous men may use it to manipulate their wives (and vice versa). But if my intentions were pure...?

Remember the idea that sex, like temple ceremonies, is not secret but sacred? Would it be appropriate for a writer to add his sexual knowledge (no matter how holily obtained) to the bedroom of another? If a writer wrote a short story that would only be appropriate to read while in a Celestial Room, would that be okay? I'm not going to write it!

I don't have a final answer to this question. I will say that a moral pornography seems to be theoretically possible. I will also say that pursuit thereof might be unsafe.

But see, this is a reason I love being Mormon. As Joseph Smith said, "I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves."

Among these correct principles is this:
    Sex is an important part of human existence.

    Sex is for the use and pleasure of married couples.
And so forth. I don't want to belabor any points or answer any questions I don't have answers to. In next week's post (the final one in this series) I will address the questions and comments which have been left in all five posts this far. If you missed one, click the lds-eros tag at the bottom of this post and catch up.

Otherwise, I'm leaving you with a song I dearly love and which is entirely about holy sex: this virtuous married love I've been talking about from the beginning. "Cradle of Love" (written by Paul Kelly and sung by Kelly Willis) is a beautiful example of what can be done when we include the erotic as we sculpt a literature of life.



  1. best post of the series, theric!

  2. A few things:

    1. In Elder Holland's talk/book Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments, he opens with "The topic of human intimacy is as sacred as any I know. In discussing it, the subject can quickly slide from the sacred into the merely sensational. It would be better not to address the topic at all than to damage it with casualness or carelessness."

    2. The church defines pornography as "...any material depicting or describing the human body or sexual conduct in a way that arouses sexual feelings."

    Also, "Pornography refers to explicit depictions of sexual activity in written or pictorial form in an exploitive style. The purpose of these presentations is erotic arousal for commercial gain."

    3. While I don't necessarily disagree your scenario of "moral pornography" with the couple taping themselves for their own watching, I believe that could be used inappropriately, even by that couple. What if the wife's out of town and the husband watches it and masturbates? Does the masturbation then become a moral act because the arousal came from watching him and his wife? I don't believe so. Plus, it could very, very easily change hands accidentally, thus turning into immoral porn for the new viewer. While that wasn't the original intention, it very well could be a viable outcome.

    4. There are so many people who struggle with an addiction to porn I think it best to never go into erotically explicit detail (in writing or viewing). There's a difference between an anatomy text book description of sex (fine for educational purposes) and a novel type description. Novels are meant to suck you in and make you feel a part of the story. Even if it is a truthful and honest and moral account of sexual interaction between husband and wife, if it is explicit and goes into detail that is meant to suck the reader in and vicariously experience those same feelings, it is not appropriate for a reader (in my opinion) and is obscene porn.

  3. I always forget to have the comments emailed to me, so this comment is for that purpose...

  4. The definition you've used is convenient for the argument you want to make, but it doesn't really describe porn as the world knows it. Maybe erotica? although that word is so broad in its scope that it's kind of dangerous in a discussion like this.

    I have two problems with porn. I think (disclaimer: my opinion only) that 'moral' sex should be private and inherently a shared experience. Visual porn using real people is neither of these things. Not only is the sex clearly not private, but also the medium creates a barrier between the person offering stimulation and the person receiving it. I think this barrier is one reason it's so easy to objectify people in porn. The person on the screen has no awareness of the response, no input or connection in any real sense.

    The second definition given of porn in the comments (the first is ridiculously broad) contains a key phrase: in an exploitative style. Porn is always exploitative and for that reason I propose that it can never be moral.

    Having said that, I have no issue with most of the husband/wife scenarios you described, including the video. Actually I think the notebook idea is awesome and could really assist a couple in creating a truly shared erotic experience. I also have no issue with a couple reading a fictional erotic account written by a third party. In fact, in a community where people (rightly) don't reveal intimate details of their sex life, it can be hard for people to find someone to talk to, ask questions of or get ideas from. We're all sexual novices at some point and open communication on the subject may become easier if sex can sometimes be explored by an indirect means.

    Lastly, and it's a smidge off-topic, but I'd like to respectfully register my disagreement with part of celia's comment. I think it's entirely appropriate for a husband to masturbate when his wife's out of town (and use their self-made video, too, as long as she's cool with that). Better for either spouse to do that than to let the sexual frustration build until they are lending power to temptations that wouldn't normally make them even take a second glance. Also a good (common sense) compromise in marriages between people with very different levels of sexual appetite.

  5. .

    Thanks for the comments so far (and I hope there will be more). I'm using what you've said to draft next week's post now. You've all sent my thoughts in new directions.

  6. .

    Hoo, golly. Let me through out a huge apology to everyone who suffered through the innumerable typos here in Part V. I am appalled and ashamed.

  7. .


    That's "throw" out.

    (Man, I suck.)

  8. .


    No entendre intended.

  9. The definition of pornography as "any material depicting or describing the human body or sexual conduct in a way that arouses sexual feelings" is absurd. Luckily, the people promulgating it don't really mean it, like posting a speed limit of 55 but not handing out tickets to anybody going less than 80.

    On the other hand, this is a definition that fundamentalists--the Taliban, for example--would embrace. It is exactly their rationale. If you don't want the female figure to arouse, drape her in a burka. Seriously. A swimsuit that covers a woman's midriff instead of exposing it doesn't magically flip a switch in the male brain.

    If she's hot in a bikini, she'll be just as hot in a one-piece. Or an evening gown. Or jeans. Hollywood has known for a century that simply having a gorgeous woman walk into frame will make every man in the audience stand at attention.

    This line of argumentation suffers an additional cognitive disconnect when applied to the rest of the physical senses and pleasures. Cooking shows make us salivate. Action and horror flicks make our hearts race. Love stories manipulate our emotions shamelessly. Sex is fine as long as we can paper over the fact that it's sex.

    A rollercoaster has no socially redeeming value. And they've been known to kill people.

    We can even stipulate that the material in question is drawn or painted or sculpted, so nobody's being "exploited." (Does anybody really know what that means in this context?) The objectification and virtualization of physical response in every other realm of human experience is so acceptable that BYU proudly teaches classes about it.

    In any case, hypotheticals notwithstanding, without concrete reference points (here are two: Jean-Claude Brisseau's "Secret Things" and Torajiro Kishi's erotic manga, "Maka Maka"), the resulting discussions will turn into attempts to guess what's in somebody else's head when the word "porn" is mentioned.

    And because no one should feel compelled to read, watch or do something for purposes of argument or to be "cool" or whatever, the discussion becomes abstracted to the point of pointlessness.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. *LOL*@your last few comments (th). Also, after rereading my comment I need to clarify a couple of things. Re the not private/not shared explanation, I meant that the on-screen act is not private (though the off-screen act might be), and the off-screen act can't be shared with the person on-screen (even if it is shared with someone else off-screen).

    And to answer eugene's question, I would define porn as exploitative in the sense that the sex (both the production and filming, and also often in the story depicted) is not intended to be a meaningful sexual experience with any relevance to the relationship of the people having sex, but rather makes use of its participants in a selfish or unethical way.

  12. The standard morality tale is about people doing bad things and then getting their comeuppance. "Secret Things" fits the formula perfectly. It just happens to be very explicit. Unless we are to use explicitness itself as the final measure (which I reject, with caveats), then I think it would be better to define "meaningfulness" in terms of the moral intent of the artist.

    This leaves other questions on the table. If we ask about the "good" the artist intended, can the artist intend good but not achieve it? What counts as a "good"? As a society, we accept "love conquers all" and "the hero defeats his foes" as moral goods, even in the most stale and hackneyed of contexts. Being entertained--by good music, food, art--is a moral good.

    The beauty of the human form is a moral good (BYU makes its models wear unitards, but same dif). Perhaps that is the test I would apply: Can beauty be found there? I would argue there is beauty in the final scene of "Secret Things," despite all the terrible exploitation leading up to it. We have beheld real moral growth in a fictional character, and that is beautiful.

  13. The problem always lies in the definitions. Granted I haven't watched 'Secret Things' but it doesn't sound like porn. It sounds like arthouse. Now I definitely prefer the 'less is more' approach to sex scenes (skillful filmmakers can do so much more (by provoking the human imagination) with implied sex rather than graphic detail) but there's definitely a difference between a sex scene in a movie where that act is part of the story or important to character development and a porn movie where the sex IS the story and the character development.

    I'll concede that the depiction of exploitation doesn't always equal porn (which wasn't really my original point, but I can see how it reads that way). Even so, there's definitely a line I don't think any filmmaker should cross in what they show on film, and calling it 'art' doesn't automatically render it okay. When the sex/nudity becomes gratuitious or too explicit, I think they've crossed the line into porn.

    Where exactly that line should be drawn? Well now we're back to definitions...

  14. *Please read this as though I'm discussing, not arguing. My husband tells me I often sound argumentative when I write, even if I don't intend to be.*

    Chosha, thanks for disagreeing respectfully. I appreciate that. I am a very opinionated person, but I accept and expect that others will see things differently than I do. That's life.

    Eugene, I really believe they meant what they said in the first definition I linked. However, I guess I interpret it differently than the Taliban scenario.

    Here's what I take it to mean:
    1. The church teaches us that we ought to be modest in dress, action, and word so we don't deliberately arouse others (besides our spouse of course).

    This does not mean we have to dress in a burqa or in super old-fashioned clothing that comes up to our neck and down to our ankles. To say a woman must do such a thing is to say that man has absolutely no control over himself, his thoughts, or his penis.

    To quote Elder Holland again, "I have heard all my life that it is the young woman who has to assume the responsibility for controlling the limits of intimacy in courtship because a young man cannot...What kind of man is he, what priesthood or power or strength or self-control does this man have, that lets him develop in society, grow to the age of mature accountability...yet he does not have the mental capacity or the moral will to say, "I will not do that thing"?

    2. The second thing I get from that broad definition of porn is that it doesn't have to be naked women in magazines or in a film to be considered pornography.

    People can be aroused by less. Now, I'm not saying that every time a person is aroused by something they see, read, or hear it is pornographic and necessary to repent. However, I believe that no matter the subject matter, if you continually dwell on and go back to something for the sake of arousal (even if it's a magazine with people modeling lingerie or a book like Between Husband and Wife), it is pornography and should be avoided.

    Maybe if the definition read "in a way that intentionally arouses sexual feelings" it would be less controversial. I guess that's how I read it. If you are intentionally trying to arouse sexual feelings by your dress, your writings, your actions, etc. you are creating pornography? Thinking out loud here and it's getting long, so I'm going to stop now.

  15. I forgot to say that outside the traditional exploitative and blatant porn, there are some things that could be pornographic to some and not to others. We each have to really look at our hearts, thoughts, actions, and feelings and take responsibility for them. That, is partially why I think the first definition I linked is so broad.

  16. I also have no issue with a couple reading a fictional erotic account written by a third party.

    What about the third party who writes it?

    I think it's entirely appropriate for a husband to masturbate when his wife's out of town (and use their self-made video, too, as long as she's cool with that). Better for either spouse to do that than to let the sexual frustration build until they are lending power to temptations that wouldn't normally make them even take a second glance.

    I agree and would like to add a second side effect: Contention/disintegration within the marriage relationship even without the possibility of one party going outside the marriage for relief. It may not occur to either spouse to go looking elsewhere, but tempers may flare and create varying levels of contention, which is no more helpful.

    The definition of pornography as "any material depicting or describing the human body or sexual conduct in a way that arouses sexual feelings" is absurd.

    Well, Eugene, is there any other way to define it? You might be right, but it's about the closest you can come without going the Potter Stewart route ("I know it when I see it"). I'm not arguing that it's absurd (because it is); I'm only pointing out that there's no better way to say it.

    Cooking shows make us salivate.

    Food porn.

    Action and horror flicks make our hearts race.

    Chase and gore porn.

    Love stories manipulate our emotions shamelessly.

    Lifetime Movie Channel.

    Notice how society has begun to define those things we do to excess as "porn," e.g., "Television shows and other media that portray characters as having excessive amounts of spare time" = time porn. I saw on a blog the other day describing Martha Stewart-ish magazines as decorator porn. Interesting, no?

    Because to me, the linguistic construct (i.e., the logical conclusion of the use of the word") reveals the word's undefinability.

    I can think of a book I'd define as "morality porn," but that's a little off track...

  17. Revised version: "Any material depicting or describing the human body or sexual conduct in a way that really, really, really arouses sexual feelings." Because, especially for teenage boys, everything arouses sexual feelings.

  18. Because, especially for teenage boys, everything arouses sexual feelings.

    Even Lifetime movies. (Or the underwear section in a Sears catalog.)

  19. mojo: I'm sure it fits someone's definition of porn, but I don't view written erotica in the same way as I do visual material (photographic or video) where real people perform sexual acts or strike porn poses (not ye tasteful nude). I see the latter as exploitative (even with consent) and the former (if fictional) not.

    Plus th happened to specify in most cases that the stories were depicting marital sex, and in a way that didn't sound like the fantasy-based, consequence-free sex he had described earlier.

    Or the underwear section in a Sears catalog.

    Or the jeans section. Or 'home hardware' (it's all in the name... ^_~) Or any page with a person on it.

  20. What about manga (and anime)? I've read manga that I would definitely categorize as "porn." And manga that is just as explicit yet I would definitely categorize as "erotica." If I had to come up with a simple way to separate the two, it would be whether the writer exhibited a respect for her characters (as thinly drawn as they might be) and a respect for her audience. In porn, the contempt for both is obvious. Also, porn is BORING (but that goes back to taking the audience for granted).

  21. consequence-free sex

    In porn, the contempt for both is obvious.

    You know, I think between the two, those might actually be the most succinct and applicable definitions I've ever seen.

    I won't go with the fantasy part of the definition because IMO, all fiction (and narrative nonfiction) has an element of fantasy. It needs to, to exist.

  22. .

    [Edit: few minor code additions: interlink and 'name']

  23. We've had a great sex life since night one of the honeymoon, but after baby #2, I found myself in a bit of a slump when it came to motivation/desire. I will be forever grateful to Diana Gabaldon's historical/time travel romance novel "Outlander" for getting me going again. I can honestly say a book that some would term "immoral" was a blessing to us.

  24. Luisa: That's interesting. Made me think about how immorality really needs a certain level of intent. Of course some would say that the book, looked at objectively, is immoral (like just the fact that someone wrote that content for someone else to read) but I don't know. If fiction can connect us to the shared human experience, why shouldn't there be fiction that taps into that very elemental aspect of us.

    Not really making an argument for any side here. Just pondering.

  25. .

    I am too. The reason I haven't answered the question in the title is that I still haven't decided. I waffle.