The Pornography Pandemic

This week, Catholic Exchange is highlighting “The Pornography Problem.” Yesterday, we ran a review of “Out of the Darkness,” a documentary about “the adult industry.” Today, check out related pieces It’s Not Erotic Art, It’s Child Abuse,   No Such Thing as Victimless Porn, and Rated R — For “Repulsive.”

In a conversation with a priest in my diocese, I shared my spiritual director’s report that every other confession he hears from men involves the sin of pornography. The pastor’s response was shocking: “Oh, it’s much worse than that!” Since then, this sad reality has been confirmed by many others: The sin of pornography is overwhelming Catholic men.

Pornography is now more popular than baseball. In fact, it has become America’s pastime, and we are awash in it. Porn is on our computers, our smartphones, and our cable or satellite TV. It’s common in our hotels and even in many retail stores and gas stations. For many men — and, increasingly, women — it is part of their daily lives.

Yet, Catholic teaching on the subject is clear. Use of pornography is a “grave offense.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Pornography … offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others” (2354).

In Life of Christ, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen wrote, “The penalty of those who live too close to the flesh is to never understand the spiritual.” Hardcore pornography on the Internet offers an ocean of perversion. It takes the mind where it should never go, loosening its moral moorings and leaving it adrift in a treacherous sea of sin. That is the fate of those who give themselves over to pornography: They find themselves alone with their images and an insatiable appetite for more.

While astounding to many, users of pornography eventually put religion, marriage, family, work and friendships secondary to their desire for pornography. They may want to change, to go back to life as it was before porn, but most will return and descend further. Dr. Mary Anne Layden, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program at the Center for Cognitive Therapy, likens pornography to crack cocaine. In a testimony to the U.S. Senate in November 2004, she noted, “This material is potent, addictive and permanently implanted in the brain.”

Sadly, for the regular consumer of pornography, confession and contrition are normally not sufficient to break from pornography because, like drug abuse, pornography is not just a bad habit — it is often an addiction.

A Desire that Does Not Satisfy

Addiction to pornography is now commonplace among adults and is even a growing problem for children and teenagers. Few who are addicted will get help, and the consequences can be lifelong and severe.

Pornography’s addictive strength is a result of long-term, sometimes lifelong, neuroplastic changes in the brain. Psychiatrist Norman Doidge, author of the best-selling book The Brain That Changes Itself (Penguin, 2007), writes, “Pornography, by offering an endless harem of sexual objects, hyperactivates the appetitive system. Porn viewers develop new maps in their brains, based on the photos and videos they see. Because it is a use-it-or-lose-it brain, when we develop a map area, we long to keep it activated. Just as our muscles become impatient for exercise if we’ve been sitting all day, so too do our senses hunger to be stimulated” (108).

With pornography, in other words, our brain’s pleasure system that excites our desires is activated, but there is no real satisfaction. This explains why users can spend endless hours searching for pornography on the Internet.

Doidge further notes that porn viewers develop tolerances so that they need higher and higher levels of stimulation. Thus, they often move to harder, more deviant pornography. More than a decade ago, Margaret A. Healy, adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Law, and Muireann O’Brian, former head of End Child Pornography, Prostitution and Trafficking (ECPAT), observed a link between adult and child pornography. Since that time, scores of current and former law enforcement authorities have noted that many adult porn consumers will eventually move to child pornography, even if they are not pedophiles and had no interest is such material at first. These findings account, in part, for the prevalence of child pornography in the world today.

Viewing porn changes the user’s attitude toward sex, their spouse and society. He or she uses sexual fantasies to get aroused, tries to get partners to act out pornographic scenes, is more likely to engage in sexual harassment and sexual aggression, and views sex as a casual, non-intimate, recreational privilege. Laydon and other clinical psychologists have reported that, ironically, erectile dysfunction is commonly associated with constant porn use among men. One reason for this is that the constant search for sexual images and often-accompanying masturbation lead to dissatisfaction with one’s spouse. After all, a man’s wife cannot possibly maintain an image that competes with the women in the fantasy world of pornographic videos and images. The regular porn consumer sets himself up for disappointment and the almost-certain disintegration of his marriage.

Marital love is meant to be a total giving of oneself to a lifelong, faithful partner. It is a trusting, selfless giving. By contrast, pornographic sex is selfish, demeaning and mechanical. In his catechesis on the theology of the body, Pope John Paul II emphasized that there is a “moral goodness” in marriage, which is faithfulness. That goodness can be adequately achieved only in the exclusive relationship of both parties. Too many people miss out on that unique goodness of marriage and settle for the temporary, perverted and unfulfilling excitement of pornography.

Protecting Our Children

A father has a duty to keep his children from pornography and a sacred obligation to set an example of purity for his family. What greater authority could a father have about the harms of pornography than the words of Christ?: “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” (Mt 5:28).

If you have become a porn consumer, ask yourself this: Am I the same man who professed fidelity to my wife on my wedding day? Fidelity cannot be maintained if one consumes pornography. Wives of porn consumers feel as though their husbands are committing adultery. Affairs of the mind are every bit as destructive as affairs of the heart.

Divorce lawyers report a high correspondence between pornography consumption and divorces. One 2004 study in Social Science Quarterly titled “Adult Social Bonds and Use of Internet Pornography” revealed that persons having an extramarital affair were more than three times more likely to have accessed Internet porn than those who did not have affairs. Further, those ever having engaged in paid sex were 3.7 times more apt to be using Internet porn than those who had not.

If you have a porn habit, your children may follow. Many pornography addicts report that their first exposure to porn was the discovery of their parent’s porn collection, which started them on a life of sexual confusion and exploitation. A 2006 survey of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children revealed that 79 percent of youth gain unwanted exposure to pornography in the home.

To a child, pornography normalizes sexual harm, according to Dr. Sharon Cooper, a pediatrician at the University of North Carolina. “Research has shown that the prefrontal cortex — the home of good judgment, common sense, impulse control and emotions — is not completely mature until children are 20-22 years of age,” she explained. The introduction of pornography to the brain’s prefrontal cortex is therefore devastating to key areas of a child’s development and may be life-altering. “When a child sees adult pornography … their brains will convince them that they are actually experiencing what they are seeing,” Cooper added. In other words, what a child sees in porn is what they believe is reality.

Some children will actually emulate what they see in pornography and experiment on siblings, relatives and friends. Many studies show that children exposed to pornography initiate sexual activity at an earlier age, have more sex partners; and have multiple partners in a short period of time. A 2001 study in the journal Pediatrics also found that teenage girls exposed to pornographic movies have sex more frequently and have a strong desire to become pregnant.

There Is Help — And Hope

Thankfully, there are organizations, counselors and resources that provide hope for those suffering from the destructive effects of pornography on children, marriages, relationships and society. Many who have been addicted — adults and children alike — have been helped through counseling or online exercises offered by recovery services.

It is critical, however, that each person and each family does a reality check. Ask yourselves whether you and your family are protected from the scourge of pornography. Do you have adequate parental control or filtering software on your home computer? Is the computer in an open area of the home? If you have children, have you talked to them about the spiritual and social cost of pornography? Do you have premium cable or satellite channels on your TV that offer pornography as regular fare?

If you are viewing pornography or indecent material, you are harming your very soul and perhaps those of your children and your spouse. The biblical warning is severe: “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out” (Mk 9:47). At a minimum, make sure that your computer both at home and in the office is filtered and that you have an “accountability partner” — perhaps your wife or a good friend — who has access to your computer and the sites you visit. Finally, get involved in the war on pornography. It is worth the fight for you, your family and your nation.

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  • reclaim

    In addition to the computer and cable check listed above, parents should be aware of what is on their children’s cell phones, ipods/mp3 players, ipads and gaming systems. All of these are internet capable, and make children especially susceptible to sex chat sights, which is a major gateway to other porn material. For those caught in porn and wanting to escape, offers a confidential, science-based online recovery program, including help for the spouse of the addict. A fully Catholic version of RECLAIM will be available later this spring. However, while the current version does not contain specifically “Catholic content”, there is nothing in it that contradicts Church teaching. Thousands have already used it and have recovered or are on their way. JMJ

  • padremarcos

    This is a very informative article. As a pastor, I know that the problem is real and unfortunately growing. It is a dark side to the information technologies.

  • This is one resource for your computer that I’ve found to work better than those that come pre-installed on PCs – Porn Blocker

  • eyeclinic

    Isn’t your spiritual director breaking the seal of the confessional by relating to you the sins that he hears? I may be wrong(and often am!) but I thought that priests were not to divulge information about anything they hear in the confessional.

  • eyeclinic,
    The Church says that the priest cannot reveal identities and divulge specifics of each person’s sins.

    What the spiritual director did here was merely relating the types of sins people confess and which are the common ones. If a priest has such statistics, it’s his responsibility to ensure he undertakes something to lower the incidence of the most committed sin. And sometimes he can’t do it alone and needs to rope in other parishioners to assist ( in conducting certain programs for example).

  • Stan

    I struggled with pornography for 15 years. It is evil and addictive and all-consuming, just as described above, but words do little to describe how insidious it really is. Porn enslaves you, in the deepest sense of the word…deeper maybe even than physical slavery, because porn also enslaves your soul. At least, it did to mine.

    Chesterton said that every man knocking on the door of a brothel is searching for God. Same with porn. For years, I had bought the world’s lie that sex and porn were the object of that deep longing in my heart. Now I know I was really longing for God all that time. Longing for the ultimate joy and peace and happiness that comes not from anything created, but from our Creator.

    The above article makes it sound kind of discouraging…that a porn addiction is all but impossible to overcome. It is right that we cannot overcome a porn addiction on our own (I certainly could not). But I was freed, once I was willing to pay the price.

    After living a life focused ever increasingly on sex and porn for 15 years, I slowly began to form a relationship with God through our excellent parish and some strong Christian friends. Long story short: as I learned and grew in my faith, I soon reach a crossroads. I realized I had to choose: porn (and other sin addictions), or God. I could not have both.

    I didn’t want to go to hell, and I knew in my heart that God loved me and wanted the best for me, and I knew in my heart that porn was wrong. Ultimately I went to confession for the first time in years…and probably the first real confession in my life. I confessed my sins as if my life depended on it. It did, of course. At that moment I was so hungry for our Lord, and I so wanted to be cleansed, simply so I could be united in closer relationship with Him. I truly believe that God gave me a special grace in the sacrament that day, because since that confession I have not had one serious impulse towards porn.

    That was over 10 years ago.

    I don’t doubt that porn is as addictive as crack cocaine. I don’t doubt that it rewires the neurons in your brain, turning you into a porn-seeking machine. Because I lived through that. I had struggled and prayed countless times for many years before that to be free of porn. I always felt guilty after indulging in it, but I always went back.

    But I learned that day that God is more powerful than any addiction. Never, never doubt that our Lord can free you from even that tremendous slavery. Maybe He will free you through a support group. Maybe he will free you through an accountability partner. Maybe he will free you through a Sacrament. But know that He wants you to be free. He wants to love you and be in close relationship with you, because you are his Beloved child. So turn to Him and choose Him with all your heart. Ask Him to free you. And be patient with Him and with yourself. Give your life to Him. Give all your sins to Him. Put Him first as best you can, and KNOW that He will love you and do the rest.

  • SeaGell

    Nothing is mentioned here specifically, but with current sex ed being pandered to our children under the guise of education sponsored by agents such as Planned Parenthood and their ilk, our children are being exposed earlier to this sort of filth.  It is their expressed aim (watch Blood Money) to stimulate children at those early stages to start this vicious cycle even outside the home.  They are relying on the images they show to children to kick start them into a lifetime of sexual addiction and abnormalcy.  So they will all run to PP to get further info, low dose birth control when they want to experiment, and then the payoff when the children finally get pregnant.  Ka-ching and then humanity is degraded in the process.  We need to de-fund these organizations and FIGHT to get them out of schools…they are not a health program….they want our children enslaved!

  • Anonymous

      As an 18 year old guy I have to say at times I feel like the only way to resist sexual temptation is if I put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger. However the best ways for me to combat this feeling are by praying, staying active, exercising, frequent confessions, receiving Holy Communion, and realizing that I’ll never truely become a man until I can consistently resist it. The worse thing I could possibly do would be to dwell on my failure whenever I give into the temptation. At times I seem to forget that to beat the devil and sexual temptations by myself would be impossible but with the grace, patience, and unconditional love of God, I am able to defeat the devil and his glamorous, short lived, hedonistic lies of sexual temptation.

  • MJC

    I cannot download the articles you suggest above in your intro. Appears they are no longer available.