Our theme for the month of June is “sex and the church.” To read posts from our first pass at this theme, check out our June 2018 archives.

Earlier this month, I accidentally bought a fair amount of gay porn.

The specifics aren’t necessary to the story; it will suffice to say that I had a bit too much to drink, stayed up a bit too late, and bought a whole bunch of manga on Amazon without reading their reviews. Or synopses.

It wasn’t until the thick yellow packages started appearing on my doormat that I was forced to reckon with what my Tuesday night indulgence had wrought. I spread their contents out on my kitchen counter. Some volumes were slim and contained in a slightly concerning sheet of protective plastic (for when BL comes shrink wrapped, it either means that the paper is too high-quality to risk on the dubious grace of two-day shipping or that the contents cannot be trusted out in the open). Others fanned promiscuously loose pages and basically begged to corrupt innocent passersby, of which I now counted myself a member. Almost all of them bore that modern scarlet letter on their backs, each with several helpful keywords explaining exactly why their contents were for mature audiences only.

Return was not an option.

Doing so would have required either a) figuring out how a post office works, something that I’d avoided learning how to do for twenty-five years and was not about to capitulate to now, mostly because post office workers are up there with TSA agents in the list of government entities who resent your mere existence and presence, or b) walking into my nearest return location—the local Kohl’s, where I’ve bought underwear for all of my life, mind you—handing a foot-tall stack of gay porn to poor Gladys behind the counter, and trusting her bespectacled heart not to give out at the sheer libidinousness of my offering. So I didn’t do any of that.

Even so, there were other options. I could’ve thrown it in one of my apartment complex’s dumpsters, where it is guaranteed not to be the most filthy thing in the general vicinity. I could’ve dumped it in a Goodwill donation bin and then run, like a ding-dong ditch with an extra emphasis on the dong. I could’ve left it on a park bench in a brown paper bag with a note that read “free to a loving home (18+ only).”

But I didn’t do any of that. Instead I read it. All of it.

You will of course have figured out that I didn’t do so just to avoid being chewed out by a postal worker for not knowing if you can reuse delivery boxes or in an effort to preserve the life of a septuagenarian retail employee. I can’t even blame the thriftiness that is supposedly unshakable in my Dutch blood. I spent several evenings reading erotic comics because I was curious, and I wanted to, and hell, they were already in my house anyway.

I won’t pretend like I arrived some sort of revelation about myself, the nature of commercialized sex, or sex in general when I’d finished the stack. I didn’t feel dirty, or shameful, like I’d always been taught that I would, and I didn’t feel horny, like I’d always been taught that I would but by different people. Both reactions were unsurprising. As a woman, I was late to the scene, and as a hopelessly asexual person, the scene did nothing for me. 

Except this: I enjoyed reading them.

I enjoyed the corny love stories they told, the delicate line art, and in one exceptional case, the inventive creature design. Most of all, I enjoyed reading the notes that the artists had written in the backs of the books, always obscured behind a (pseudo)mononym and cautiously thanking their families and editors for supporting them, even so. After making my way through pages of exquisitely detailed and astonishingly creative acts of degeneracy (among them the kind that makes you sit back and go, “am I on some sort of list, now?”) and then being faced with the creator’s little notes, doodly self-portraits, and painstaking character design processes, I wasn’t disgusted. I wasn’t turned on. I was charmed.

That porn could be charming is maybe the more surprising takeaway from my jaunt into gay erotic manga. I’ve long been told that I should hate porn, and much of the time and in many contexts, I do. This is one of the occupational hazards of being a public librarian, one of the only jobs in the world where you will ever have to approach a stranger in your workplace and say, “I’m sorry to bother you, sir, but you’re not allowed to watch porn in here.”

I believe that most porn is unethical, even if I’m still ambiguous as to its morality in general. I believe that most porn is sexist and sexist porn can lead young men to have a skewed perspective of women and consent. I believe that violent porn does the same. I believe that porn companies profit from the sexual assault of minors and the revenge fantasies of petty and evil men. I believe that you can be sex-positive and not think that all consensual sex is a necessarily a good thing.

But I also believe that reading that stack of gay porn was, in many ways, edifying. (The good ones, at least. Let’s not pretend there weren’t some stinkers in that pile.) And I can’t quite explain why.

That might be where this story ended, as a humorous anecdote that fizzled into a shrugging revelation, except that all that took place in June of 2022 and those of us with even a passing affiliation with the Christian Reformed Church have had good reason to think about sex this month.

I apologize for pulling the ol’ bait-and-switch on you, but, as the last two years of conversations with my parents have definitively proven, almost all discussions within a CRC space will eventually turn to the Human Sexuality Report, whether it began as a talk about sex, church, or the unreliability of the transmission in your late-aughts Ford Focus.

This seems unlikely to change anytime soon, mostly because practical applications—what any of this actually means—are still pretty light on the ground, even if Synod’s concurrent decision to “admonish and censure” Neland Avenue CRC for “[refusing] to discipline an officebearer living in public sin” is undeniably portentous (and dumb, in case my opinion on that wasn’t clear). In general, the HSR is pretty clear that gay is bad, even if no one really seems to know what “having confessional status” means at this point.

But the HSR also devotes a fair number of pages to porn; about twenty, which I imagine most people skipped over in their anticipation to get to juicier sections further down (a sin I too was guilty of on my first read). And here it is revealed that porn is also bad, a conclusion that I have far fewer qualms with, that the use of pornography falls under the exceptionally broad definition of “unchastity,” and so the condemnation thereof also “already has confessional status” (again, whatever that means).

The HSR defines pornography as “the portrayal of sexual activity with the design of producing sexual arousal” (or at least notes that “many dictionaries” do, which is kind of a weird hedge but whatever) and concedes that “artistic expressions or depictions of nudity are not necessarily pornographic.” It then spends its remaining pages discussing the harms of “internet pornography,” where “actual people engage in sexual activity with actual other people.”

The question, then: Where does that leave me and my stack of erotic BL manga? It is okay because what I like about it is the “artistic expression,” even if that expression involves more than mere nudity? Because I’m not aroused by it, even if it is portrayed “with the design of producing sexual arousal?” Does it make a difference that it’s drawings, that there are no “actual people” involved? The act of gay sex might be sinful, but is viewing a fictional depiction of it also sinful? And if so, is that true of all sin, or just the sexy stuff? Or only if you’re getting off to it?

Maybe all these rhetorical questions are just a bad faith attempt to understand the intent and conclusions of the HSR, but I really would like to know if my immortal soul in danger because of my gay vampire porn. (Because that would be an embarrassing reason to go to hell.)

After reading and rereading the HSR and the various responses to it I’ve managed to track down online, the answer seems to be, “It might be.”

The ironic conclusion to all of this is that they’re right. It might be damning to disagree with the HSR, whatever the intent of its authors, depending on how it all shakes out. When the CRC finally does push me clear of its pearly gates, it won’t be because I’ve discovered an affection for x-rated comics. But it will be, at least in part, because I believe that queer people should get married if we want to. We should have sex if we want to. And because they have made that belief incompatible with their God, I will go, and it will be unlikely that I end up in any corner of their faith at all.

(But I will be taking my gay porn with me.)

3 Comments

  1. Matt Koster

    ️‍*rainbow flag emoji*

    Reply
  2. Lucas

    what did you READ!? Gay vampires!? Inventive creature design!? I need titles!!

    Reply
  3. Geneva

    For anyone looking to explore ethical sources of porn, this friendly neighborhood ace recommends Dipsea! It’s an app with a great collection of sexy stories/scenarios, written and performed well by professional voice actors, with many stories centering queer characters and women/femme pleasure.

    Reply

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