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Sex on the Silver Screen: What Would a Victorian Christian Say?

A Victorian Perspective

Regular readers of this site will know that for some time I’ve been writing articles under the banner of “Sex on the Silver Screen.” These articles grapple with the morality of scenes of nudity and sexuality in film and television. While there has been a long association between sex and the silver screen, only in recent times has it become almost a foregone conclusion that a new film or television series will display it. Meanwhile, more and more Christians are content to watch it.

While researching an unrelated project, I came across an interesting passage from a book written in the Victoria era. This author was grappling with a similar issue, though in a different context. After all, his work was published in the 1880s, a decade before the moving picture was invented. His concern was not nudity or sexuality in film, but nudity and sexuality in fine art—in paintings and statues. Even then, his context was not entertainment, but home decoration, of all things. He was concerned for parents who would decorate their homes with statues or paintings that might prove a temptation to children. Some of his counsel is quaint but some is surprisingly relevant. Read on and see.

The whole question of what is modest and pure in art is one that few Christian moralists have had the courage to meet. It is the custom to characterize as “prudish” any criticism based upon ethical grounds, or any judgment of a picture or a statue which considers its moral influence. But as Christians, we are bound to look at everything from a moral point of view. A painting may rank very high as a work of art, both in conception and execution, and yet its influence be toward impurity. If this is the case, it is not fit to hang on the wall of any home! In the adornment of our homes, so far as works of art are concerned, Christian people cannot properly overlook this principle.

Even in the 1880s, nudity and scenes of sexuality were a matter of concern and debate. And even then, people who believed it was wrong to display such things were considered prudish.

The religion of Christ is chaste, and condemns everything in which lurks even the faintest suggestion of impurity.

The display of undraped [naked] figures on canvas must necessarily exert a harmful influence, especially upon the minds of the young. The religion of Christ is chaste, and condemns everything in which lurks even the faintest suggestion of impurity. Whatever, then, may be the merits of pictures or statuary as works of art, true Christian refinement must fix its standard along the line of perfect purity. The same principles that we apply to books, to speech, and to behavior we must apply unflinchingly to the selection of pictures for the walls of our home!

I know that this principle is denied. People tell us that it is only a prurient imagination that sees impurity on canvas or in marble. They call it prudery and quote the motto, “Evil to him who evil thinks,” or the Scripture aphorism, “Unto the pure all things are pure.” They taunt us, too, with ignorance of high and true art, and begin to chatter learnedly about nature. The ability to be shocked, they say, by any representation of simple nature is an evidence of an evil imagination. Such things have been said so often, and modesty has been so much laughed at, that pure and delicate-souled people do not dare to seem to be shocked; they think they ought to be able to look at anything in art.

These arguments sound similar to the ones we hear today when considering nudity and sex in movies. We are told that a pure mind can look sinlessly upon otherwise impure scenes. A mark of Christian maturity is that it can look at nudity and sexuality without temptation and without harm. I’ve heard these arguments a hundred times since beginning to write on the subject.

nothing which would be indecent in actual life can be proper in art.

Ignoring utterly the charge of prurience and over-delicacy, pleading for the utmost purity in the influence of the homes in which our children are growing up, I must reassert the principle, that nothing which would be indecent in actual life can be proper in art. No sophistry can make anything else out of the laws of perfect purity which religion inculcates. The least indelicacy or wantonness in any picture or statue in a home cannot but exert a subtle influence for evil over the minds and hearts of the children! We admit this principle in reference to all other things. We believe that every shadow and every beauty of the mother’s character, prints its image on the child’s soul—that the songs sung over the cradle hide themselves away in the nooks and crannies of the tender life, to sing themselves out again in the long years to come. We believe the same of every other influence, and must we not of pictures and statuary as well?

Here he turns to the necessity of guarding our children from seeing images that they are too young and too immature to handle. Yet his arguments are equally applicable to adults. After all, “nothing which would be indecent in actual life can be proper in art.” That is true no matter our age.

A godly man said that when quite young, an evil picture was shown to him on the street. He saw it only once and for a moment, but he had never been able to forget it, and it had left a trail of stain all along his years!

I plead for most earnest consideration of this whole question of the morals of home-decoration. A dew-drop on a leaf in the morning mirrors the whole sky above it, whether it be blue and clear or whether it be covered with clouds. In like manner the life of a child mirrors and absorbs into itself whatever overhangs it in the home—beauty and purity, or blemish and stain!

Here, then, is an argument from a whole different era. We need to translate it from statuary to screen and from decoration to diversion. But both translations are easily made. The point is worth considering.

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