In our culture, sexual morality hinges entirely on consent. If you don’t have it, sex is bad. If you do have it, anything goes. Biblically, sexual morality hinges on whether the relationship mirrors God’s relationship with his people (Eph. 5:25-32). (This is not surprising since we’ve been emphasizing that biblical morality, in general, is about mirroring the heart of God.) Thus, the characteristic most emphasized in sexual relationships is faithfulness (e.g. Mal. 2:13-16).
There are several aspects to human beings—physical, emotional, intellectual, volitional (the ability to make deliberate choices), and spiritual—and we can grow closer to someone on any of those levels. A biblical sexual ethic hinges on volitional closeness—faithfulness—an unconditional commitment to each other.
If this commitment is there, then the spiritual union that takes place in sex (1 Cor. 6:16) can integrate our physical, emotional, and intellectual selves to invite shalom. (We could call this “holistic sex.”) If not, these aspects are integrated dysfunctionally, setting them up to be torn apart violently and painfully. (The word “unite” in 1 Cor. 6:16 is literally derived from the word for glue).
Sex can either be the place where every aspect of our humanity is most integrated or the place where they are most torn apart.
As interesting as that is, Jesus is not trying to lay out a full sexual ethic in Matthew 5:27-32. Like Matthew 5:22-26, he’s drawing another spectrum to show how people can try to keep the letter of the law but miss its heart. On one end of the spectrum, we have adultery. Sure, adultery is bad. Even our culture agrees on that. “Cheaters” are not regarded highly. The other end of the spectrum is “looking.” Our culture is very ambiguous about “looking.”
We could specifically call this “looking with intent.” The construction Jesus uses in Matthew 5:28 is exactly the same as in 6:1. There, you do your righteousness in front of people so that people will see. That’s the purpose, the intent. In 5:28, someone “looks at a woman for the purpose of desiring her.” (This discussion is not really gender specific. Women can do this, too. But we’ll stick with the pronouns because this tends to be a characteristically male problem.)
So if Jesus is talking about looking with the intent of “desiring,” this isn’t just noticing a pretty lady.
You can look at something beautiful—say a sunset—without wanting to possess it, own it, consume it. That’s because we are wired to admire something like that, but that’s it. Not so with women. We also have some fundamental wiring very much concerned with mating. In fact, you can often clearly feel that switch flipping. You have a dump of relevant hormones and you go into “consume” mode.
As we mentioned before, the part of your brain concerned with mating is primal and way faster than the part that makes conscious decisions.
So that means that this initial “looking” (and any resulting hormone dump) happens with no intent whatsoever. Which means that it’s not what Jesus is talking about. There’s nothing wrong with it. As I told my boys when it was time to start talking about such things, “It’s okay for women to be pretty, and it’s okay for women to be interesting. That’s how God made us.”
What happens next is what matters.
It doesn’t take that long for us to be consciously aware of what’s happening. At that point, you can either dial it down or look away. If you look again knowing full well the reaction you’re going to have, don’t kid yourself. You’re looking because that’s the reaction you’re going to have. Admit it to yourself or not, you are looking with intent. You are looking so that you go into “consume” mode.
That’s not okay, because you consume things, not people. This is, pretty much by definition, objectification. First it sees women primarily (if not entirely) in terms of the physical. Yes, our bodies are part of us, and they do say something about who we are. But the most important stuff is stuff you don’t see—a person’s thoughts and emotions, their history and attitudes, their hopes, fears, and dreams. To ignore all of that is to treat them as less than fully human.
Second, it instrumentalizes them. Rather than dignifying people as an end in themselves, it treats them as a means. It sees them mostly in terms of what they can do for you. Who cares what the repercussions are for them?
This is what puts “looking with intent” on the same spectrum as adultery.
This spectrum is the spectrum of objectification. The core sin of unfaithfulness involves breaking a commitment. This can be justified only by reducing both wife and mistress to what they can do for you. The wife isn’t doing it for you. The mistress is. These women aren’t considered as ends in themselves. They are means. They are objectified.
Now, if you’re just concerned about the letter of the law, you can weasel out of this by just divorcing one woman to marry the other. But this is also objectifying. The short paragraph on divorce (5:31-32) continues the language of “adultery” from the first paragraph (5:27-30), and the introductory connectives—”It has been said”—are far weaker than any of the other paragraphs here at the end of chapter 5. This is still the same discussion.
It is particularly objectifying to swap your wife out for a newer model. It is instrumentalizing because, in the culture of Jesus’ day, a man usually looks for a divorce because his wife isn’t giving him any kids. So her value doesn’t come from who she is, but from what she can produce.
What happens to the divorced woman in 5:32 is a little hard to translate. It’s a passive form of the verb “to commit adultery.” Perhaps we could translate the whole phrase, “He makes her to be adulterated.” Now, if she committed sexual immorality, she adulterated herself. Fair enough. But here, through no fault of her own, she gets to carry that stigma out into the world. In that culture, particularly, she will be viewed as damaged goods. The husband doesn’t care, because he’s concerned with what these women can or can’t do for him.
That’s objectifying, and it is not the heart of God.
“Too right!” says our culture, “How dare he treat her like that!” But this is where our culture tries to have its cake and eat it, too. The “Me too” movement tried very hard to (1) raise awareness of how pervasive the plague of objectification is and (2) create a cultural consensus that this is not okay. But why does our culture think this is not okay? For the same reason it might consider any sexual act not okay: consent. The women being harassed, assaulted, or otherwise objectified are not giving consent. So it’s not that objectification itself is bad, but that non-consensual objectification is bad.
But consensual sex workers know that they are being objectified. They signed on for that (at least in the best case scenario). So, by splitting things down the line of consent, our culture wants to safeguard the consent and dignity of women (as in the “Me too” movement) and casually commoditize sex in, say, the porn industry (the most blatant example of “looking with intent”). But there are two problems with this.
First, when you interact with porn, you carve neural pathways.
You establish a “default” response to a type of stimulus (say, women). Given the amount of dopamine (the feel-good chemical) involved, you carve very deep neural pathways. Your conscious mind may want to set some boundaries on when you go down those pathways, but your unconscious mind doesn’t get that memo. You are very powerfully establishing your “default” mode. Anyone who thinks this isn’t going to come out in undesirable ways isn’t dealing in reality. You taught your brain to objectify. That’s what it’s going to do.
Second, interacting with pornography is, itself, a sexual experience.
As a sexual experience, it is about as non-holistic as it gets. There is no human connection there. You don’t know what led that lady to chose the adult entertainment industry. You don’t know what being in that industry is like for her. In fact, aside from her physical appearance, everything else you know about her is almost certainly made up. You don’t know anything about her. Because that’s not the point. Her value is not in who she is as a person, but in what she can do for you. And the sexual experience isn’t even trying to be holistic. It’s entirely physical with just enough fake emotional connection that our emotional brain will buy it.
Whether it’s consensual or not, objectifying women feeds into a very non-holistic view of sex. And if you listen close enough, you can catch our culture bemoaning the inadequacy of non-holistic sex. In its honest moments, our culture recognizes that holistic sex is the best sex. It’s weird to see the psychological literature and the most knuckle-scraping corners of the “man-o-sphere” on the same page: consuming porn makes actual sex worse. Beyond that, the experts agree: the best sex is in long-term, committed relationships. This is a good indicator that, when we make sex non-holistic, we are breaking something.
Here’s the problem: If holistic sex integrates the different aspects of our humanity, and non-holistic sex fractures them, then non-holistic sex, pretty much by definition, makes us less than human.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus cries out that the heart of God is to not objectify our sister. Why? Because in dehumanizing her, we dehumanize us all.
If holistic sex integrates the different aspects of our humanity, and non-holistic sex fractures them, then non-holistic sex, pretty much by definition, makes us less than human.