Of Voyeurism and Vicarious Pleasure
This is a photo I took a decade or so ago of my dear wife having sex.
Is it morally wrong for you to enjoy looking at this photo? Is it morally wrong for you to become sexually aroused by looking at my wife in the midst of a sexual encounter with a man she’d just met that day?
The larger question is: Is vicariously enjoying an activity somehow cheap or sordid or even sinful?
Some years ago, when our son was right out of high school, he and his friends spent hours watching each other … play video games. Yes, they went over to each other’s houses just to watch each other play video games. If that wasn’t enough, they also spent hours and hours watching YouTube videos of people they did not know playing video games.
What’s with that?
When I expressed my puzzlement, he pointed out that lots of people enjoy watching others play football, and they never play themselves. I had to concede a good point.
That got me thinking. How much of what we call “entertainment” is nothing but living vicariously through others and/or voyeurism?
Well…… let’s think.
Spectator sports of all kinds are extremely popular. NFL, NBA, NASCAR, PGA, Pro Tennis…….the list would go on and on, to the point that it is nearly universal in men.
Let’s expand our look. Well, movies and TV; why are nearly all TV characters young, beautiful, virile, and own lots of cool expensive toys? Duhh, because many, many people wish they were young, beautiful, virile, and owned lots of cool expensive toys. In the world of TV and movies, houses/apartments are always clean, filled with impeccable decorations and their owners only work when it’s fun and exciting.
Paula worked at Victoria’s Secret for twenty years. What they sell is not so much clothes, but the dream of being a supermodel. Branding, whether it is Victoria’s Secret or Coors Lite is all about tying your ego to an image that isn’t real. It is all just various forms of voyeurism.
And erotica? For many it is all about imagining being that person on the screen. Oh…. but not me, I’m always highbrow and looking at the artistic merit of the photo.
You don’t believe me? OK, perhaps occasionally I laps into vicariously living through the images. LOL.
We humans are curious creatures. Among all animals we alone seem to have an innate and almost inexhaustible ability to derive pleasure from viewing and vicariously living through others. Why? I could theorize that it is some evolutionary trick to help in our survival, and I likely be right. Most likely it is a social skill so that each individual of the clan gets an emotional boost when any one of the clan has a success, thus building group cohesion and improving survival rates of all.
But… that is just a guess. Who knows why, but it seems to be that we all do it.
For professing Christians the moral argument is put forth that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said
"You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
Now as a person who prioritizes the words of Jesus, I must take him at his word. And I do. But I don't take the neo-Puritan's twisted interpretation that this refers to appreciating the beauty of a nude woman or vicariously enjoying watching people make love.
The popular misunderstanding of Jesus' words are not accidental, but a deliberate effort to justify the Augustinian sex-negative position. The false translation of the word "lust" to mean sexual desire leads to the conclusion that Jesus meant that simply appreciating the sexuality of a woman to whom you are not married is spiritual adultery.
But in fact, the Greek word epithumeō is used sixteen times in the New Testament, yet only here is it referring to a woman or sex. Most of the time the word is translated "to covet" and refers to a desire to possess another’s wealth or property. Specifically, in Romans 4:5 it is the word used to cite the commandment "Thou shalt not covet." This is what the hearers of Jesus knew he meant.
Then why is the English word lust used here in nearly all English translations of the New Testament?
To me it is obvious, the translators are making a deliberate attempt to change the meaning of the passage to what they already believe. I won't get into the politics of Bible translation here, but any translation requires a degree of interpretation. Bible translators know people will reject a translation that challenges their preconceived ideas. If we correctly use the word "covet" into this passage it changes the meaning.
"But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman and covets her has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
This statement, of course, is predicated on the cultural norm that all women are property. They are either property of their father or their husband, just as it is in Saudi Arabia to this very day. Having sex with another man's "property" was seen as theft. That is why sex with a prostitute was not called adultery. For a man to put his penis into a prostitute was not stealing another man's womb. In the New Testament, for a man to have sex with a prostitute is called fornication, not adultery, and is a very different issue (which I won't go into today).
So, in this passage, Jesus is saying the same thing as if he had said "If you look at your neighbor’s horse and covet it, you have already stolen it in your heart." He was not saying that one cannot appreciate his neighbor’s horse or that it is sinful for a man to enjoy watching his neighbor’s horse run a race. Rather, he was saying to allow oneself to be consumed with the desire to own his neighbor’s horse becomes a sin. To look at a woman or a horse and appreciate its beauty is not the same thing as scheming to own it.
I hope I haven't condensed this too much so as to lose its clarity. But what I am trying to say is that we all enjoy the vicarious thrill of being part of something solely in our mind. In this, there is nothing wrong. To appreciate an athlete's strong arms or a glamour model's perfectly shaped breasts is not to demean the athlete or model, but to appreciate the beauty of form and function. To watch an amazing catch by a fit young football player or watch young beautiful people achieve an orgasm is in no way objectifying the participants. Instead, to do so is to vicariously become young and beautiful too.
So, next time you feel guilty masturbating to erotic images, remember the vicarious thrill you get from erotica is likely far less life consuming than that of the typical NFL or NBA fan, or even those caught up in American idol or Eurovision. All the talk of “porn addiction” is just more sex-negative garbage to hide the fact that those using that phrase don’t approve of sex for enjoyment alone. You’d never hear the same person speak of NFL addiction or celebrity addiction.
I would suggest that enjoying looking at images of people enjoying sexual pleasure is far less problematic than enjoying violent movies, MMA fighting or American Idol because nearly all of us can have enjoyable sexual pleasure. When we watch people on a screen have sex while we masturbate, we are not just imagining what it would be like to have sexual pleasure but are actually having sexual pleasure while we do. Can the NFL fans say the same?
I’ll take this one step further. Those of us who share our sexual images and/or stories gain pleasure from knowing others might enjoy imagining being in our place. I opened this essay with a photo I took of Paula enjoying sexual intercourse with a man a few years ago. That image preserved that pleasure and allows it to multiply by the act of your enjoyment of seeing a photo I took of her having sex with another man.
Here is a photo I took of another couple having amazingly hot and passionate sex.
While it is true that while I was setting up, photographing and later editing this photo I did not get aroused; I however, can indeed get turned on looking at the final product. Not only can I get aroused looking at this piece of erotica that I created, I get pleasure knowing some of you will be aroused by my photo as well. Thus the pleasure is expanded by having taken the photo and shared the photo. How can multiplying pleasure be a bad thing?
So….don’t be ashamed at enjoying reading about or watching sexual themes. There is no shame in vicarious participation in sex. If we are going to feel shame about what we enjoy watching on our screens, it should be shame for enjoying watching people engage in mental, verbal and physical violence, not positive and mutually pleasurable sexual expression.