Sexual fantasizing means entertaining mental images of sexual activities or sexual objects.
Is it sinful to be involved in sexual fantasies?
Jesus seems to speak about sexual fantasies in the following text (Matthew 5,27-30):
“You have heard how it was said: ‘You shall not commit adultery’.
But I say to you: whosoever (a) looks at a woman (b) in order to lust after her has already (c) committed adultery with her in his heart.
If your right eye has caused you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one member than to have your whole body thrown into hell.
And if your right hand should cause you to sin, cut if off and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one member than to have your whole body go to hell.”
This is traditionally understood as: a person who looks at a naked person or who fantasizes about making love to another person has committed a sin equivalent to adultery. However is this correct?
What does Jesus say?
- ‘Who looks at a woman’.
The Bible brings out in a number of its stories that looking at a woman lustfully frequently leads to acts of adultery. One example is David who watched Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, taking a bath and who subsequently committed adultery with her and then had Uriah killed to cover up his deed (2 Samuel 11,2-27). Another is that of the two lecherous elders who saw Susannah bathe and who wanted to force her to have sex with them (Daniel 13,15-22). Jesus is talking about looking aimed at adultery.
- ‘in order to lust after her’.
This refers to the tenth commandment: “You shall not lust after your neighbour’s house, your neighbour’s wife, or his slave, male or female, or his donkey or anything that is his” (Exodus 20,17). The Hebrew word for ‘lusting after’ (chamad) means a desiring that includes the intention to take and appropriate a property. This again links the ‘looking’ to the act of adultery which was considered stealing a wife from the husband.
- ‘has already committed adultery with her in his heart’. This is the point of Jesus’ statement. Jewish judicial practice in Jesus’ time defined adultery purely in the external act which had to be attested to by witnesses. In line with all the other statements in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares that not just the external act, but the interior intention to commit an act of adultery is sinful.
Mt 5,27-30 does not refer to sexual fantasising in a general kind of way. He was teaching the importance of what happens in our heart. The sin of adultery lies in the intention of committing adultery rather than in the external act. Most fantasizing does not intend adultery.
When interpreting Scripture we have to pay attention to the scope intended by the original author not to the literal sounds of the words. (See our sister website here on interpreting scripture.)
Otherwise we would also have to take the words of ‘tearing out an eye’ or ‘hacking off your hand’ literally! Or other scriptural passages that require women to wear a veil in church ( 1 Corinthians 11,2-16), which ban part-wool part-cotton clothing (Deuteronomy 22,11), the eating of pork, shrimp, and hamburgers (Leviticus 11,1-12), or which regulate slavery (Ephesians 6,5-9).
So how to judge sexual fantasies?
Moralists and mental health professionals have concluded that sexual fantasies in themselves can be normal and healthy. Usually they are not harmful.
- Fantasies, such as imagining having intercourse with a person, often arise spontaneously.
- Sexual attraction to other people is natural and, to a degree, an automatic and unavoidable response. If no actual intercourse is intended, they do not involve sin.
Then what about ‘pornography’?
Sexual fantasizing is often aided by the use of pornography, i.e. by looking at naked pictures of men or women, or at couples engaged in the sexual act. This is more common among men than among women because men are more readily sexually aroused by visual means.
There are forms of pornography that should be rejected.
- All forms of pornography that involves or presupposes violence, rape, paedofilia, and so on should obviously not be tolerated.
- Pornography that encourages sexual gratification for its own sake could be harmful in the long run and should be avoided.
However, there may be justification for the looking at pictures of naked men and women and sexual imagery in a number of cases. I mention a few examples:
- Research in western societies has shown that the use of ‘pornography’ is often found among teenagers and adolescents who go through a phase of discovering sex.
This is partly due to the lack of adequate sexual education which at times forces youngsters to obtain necessary information from all kinds of sources. The youngsters in question may be using the material in a responsible fashion.
- Looking at sex images is also frequently found among middle-aged and older persons, more often among men than women, who compensate for the lack of active sex in their lives.
The reasons may be a sense of past sexual loss because of a restricted, Puritan childhood, or an attempt to cope with present sexual loss. Studies have shown that this periodic turning to pornographic material only very, very rarely leads to violence against other persons. Neither does it usually imply a ‘degrading of women by men’ as is all too readily asserted by some feminists. It should be judged according to a person’s own conscience, within the specific circumstances the person finds himself/herself in.
- Sexual images of pornographic media are at times an aid to stimulating healthy sexual activity within a loving relationship.
In some persons the sexual impulse needs to be wakened or boosted for it to function normally in sexual intercourse. Psychotherapists may recommend the use of ‘pornographic’ images in stead of drugs, or people themselves may feel it helps them free themselves from their inhibitions.
- Naturism is a perfectly wholesome spiritual and physical practice for Catholics to be involved in. It promotes the seeing of naked people and having dealings with naked people as a normal thing.
Some naturists, just like anyone else, may at times (rarely) indulge in indecent acts, but the impression that many people have that naturists are sexually less sensitive or responsible than others is entirely unfounded. Most naturists follow a high ethical and sexual code. Moreover, there is nothing wrong in celebrating the beauty of the naked body.
- Presenting nakedness and sexual intimacy is a natural component of art.
In our time this applies not only to paintings and sculpture but drama and film. If we truly believe in the goodness of the human body and its essential role in human relationships, it is unavoidable that a full expression of that reality includes explicit scenes. Films that include such scenes should not, on that account, be judged as ‘pornographic’ in the pejorative sense of the term. If films describe life, they will also of necessity describe sex.