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Pornography: What’s the Harm?

Caitlin Bootsma - published on 03/25/13

The $13 billion industry destroys the lives of numerous men, women and children

If you don't think you’ve ever seen the ill-effects caused by pornography – if you think that it is a personal habit that doesn’t effect anyone else – you have only to open a news site or observe those around you to see the destruction left in its wake. Whether its the sexual trafficking of 100,000 U.S. children annually, the consistently high divorce rate or the startling popularity of the erotic novel FiftyShadesofGrey, pornography use has damaged individuals and marriages as well as exploited the vulnerable.

Damages Individuals

The Ten Commandments aren’t arbitrary; there is a reason we are told not to covet our neighbor’s wife. The use of pornography is harmful because it is contrary to God’s plan for our sexuality and our happiness. The Catechism says that pornography “offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other.” Because pornography has as its aim the satisfaction of lust through the objectification of others, it is an activity that isolates the user, cutting him off from making a true “gift of self” to others.

The first victims of pornography are the people who use it. The average age a male is first exposed to pornography is 11 (Internet Filter Review). 53 percent of boys and 28 percent of girls (12 to 15) reported use of sexually explicit content, including depictions of genitals and genital contact (Brown, J. & L'Engle, K. 2009, Communications Research; 967 youth from 14 public schools in SE USA). In other words, the use of pornography is most often not a ‘mature’ decision made by adults, but rather a practice that ensnares people at an early age, infiltrating men and women’s understanding of sexual intimacy and almost always leading to regular, even daily, masturbation.

Our brains are not wired to receive images like this (often for hours a week) and not be affected. The Journal of Adolescent Health conducted a study several years ago that demonstrates that sustained use of pornography as a teenager leads to an exaggerated sense of sexuality in society, an acceptance of the idea that promiscuity is normal, devaluing abstinence, skepticism about the role of love in sexual intimacy and a belief that marriage is confining (2008). The study goes on to show that in users aged 18 to 26, there is a marked increase in sexual partners, casual sex, substance abuse and extra-marital affairs.

Sexual addiction is a stark reality for many men and women that can arise from use of pornography. Pornography addiction is just as serious as alcohol or drug addiction and can lead to obsessive, insatiable pornography viewing, leading the user to explore more and more explicit and perverse material. Pornography addiction can also lead to loss of sleep and productivity, a decline in relationship satisfaction and job performance and even to criminal activity (such as child pornography, abuse, etc.). Sexaholics Anonymous, a 12-step program for those suffering from sexual addiction, states: “Many of us came to Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) driven to total despair by our destructive sexual thoughts and behaviors. Within the meeting rooms of SA we discovered, to our surprise, that lust was the driving force behind our acting out. Sexual lust is an inordinate thought or feeling that drives us to use ourselves, others, or things for self-centered destructive purposes.”

For many men and women, what began as a guilty pleasure has transformed into a vice that has eaten away at their personal life, their marriage and their professional life.

Erodes Marriages

Pope Bl. John Paul II calls the intimacy shared between couples a “mutual gift of self” – a confirmation of the covenant made in their wedding vows (Letter to Families, 1994). When one spouse uses pornography, he/she chooses selfish sexual satisfaction over conjugal love. While some believe that pornography use can “spice up” a marriage, it is clear that pornography degrades what is meant to be the union not only of the flesh, but of two people, body and soul.

Dr. Patrick Fagan, Ph.D., conducted a study published for the Family Research Council which notes that men who use pornography are consistently less satisfied by sexual relations with their wives, and that wives notice this disturbing difference in behavior. In fact, most spouses view pornography use as a kind of infidelity. Furthermore, Fagan found that pornography use often is a gateway to infidelity and divorce. This is confirmed by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, who note that 56 percent of divorce cases involve one spouse having “an obsessive interest in pornographic websites.”

Exploits Victims

It is impossible to discuss the effects of pornography without talking about the thousands and thousands of victims sexually exploited by this industry. Even when grown women are willing ‘actresses’, the users are supporting the objectification and degradation of women for profit. Of course, young women don’t often pursue this career freely (who dreams of being in porn films?), but rather were sexually exploited in return for drugs, shelter or much-needed money.

Dr. Fagan’s study finds that men who use pornography not only grow increasingly bored and seek out more and more perverse forms of it, but also become more tolerant of sexual aggression and even rape. All too often, this can lead to the consumption of child pornography and, therefore, the sexual exploitation of minors. In 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. noted that there has been a “historic rise in the distribution of child pornography, in the number of images being shared online, and in the level of violence associated with child exploitation and sexual abuse crimes” (National Strategy Conference on Combating Child Exploitation).

There is Hope for Purity

The widespread availability of pornography makes it easy to lose hope that anyone can overcome this ever-present temptation. However, with the help of God’s grace and a few other tools, it is possible to live a life of purity.

First and foremost, frequent confession for those who struggle with lust is essential. In addition to addressing our constant need for God’s mercy and forgiveness, it is also an opportunity to break a cyclical sin (that is, those who indulge in pornography often feel guilty and then assuage that guilt by looking at it again). A regular prayer life, as well, is important to living a life of virtue. All too often, men and women depend on their own strength to overcome lust and fail. One should particularly rely on prayer in moments of temptation or weakness.

Along with an active prayer life, there are many simple ways of avoiding the temptation of pornography. Perhaps the single greatest tool is an internet filter, which will make pornographic sites inaccessible (good filter systems include Safe Eyes, Covenant Eyes, and K9 Web Protection). Additionally, putting your computer in a public place and setting a internet curfew at night can make it easier to avoid times of temptation. You may also consider taping a prayer card to your computer, staying in hotels that do not show pornography on their televisions, and making a conscious effort to avoid movies and magazines that contain salacious images.

If you are unable to stop viewing pornography on your own, you may be struggling with sexual addiction. If your pornography use has negative effects on your personal and even professional life, it is important to seek healing. These addictions often stem from wounds from the past, and those suffering from them should seek out psychological counseling from a professional who is in line with the Church’s views on sexuality. If such competent counseling is not available where you are, groups like Sexaholics Anonymous seek to provide support for men and women who wish to be “sexually sober.”

It is easy to think that pornography is a habit that you can quit at anytime. Yet, as we’ve seen above, it is an addictive behavior that can have serious consequences on the user, in marriages, on families and in our greater culture. It is important to ask for help if you need it, whether that be from a filter system, a friend to whom you can be accountable, a support group or a psychologist. While it may be embarrassing to admit this struggle to someone else, it is much more damaging to allow it to continue.

Pornography is not only opposed to Catholic moral teaching – it is a grave evil done to all of those involved in it. It is easy to think that images on a screen will not hurt anyone; in fact, most of society will tell you just that. Yet the truth is that there are countless victims of pornography: the teenager who was exposed and became addicted at a young age; the young mother who has lost her husband to the endless enticement of pornography; the children of some divorced parents; young girls who are exploited for money and the perverse sexual satisfaction of others. Pornography is an evil distortion of something that should be unitive and fruitful: the sexual intimacy designed by God as an expression of marital love.

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