The modern world of pornography is a force to be reckoned with: Porn consumption has never been higher in the history of the internet age, with content that is more graphic and violent than ever before.
Porn draws almost 40 million daily users (70 percent men and 30 percent women), comprising almost 40 percent of all internet traffic. According to statistics reported in The Witherspoon Institute’s 2010 report, The Social Costs of Pornography: A Statement of Findings and Recommendations, 66 percent of men ages 18 to 34 visit a porn site every month, and it is estimated that between 40 and 50 percent of regular internet porn users ultimately develop signs of sexual addiction. More men than women view porn (at least at this point in time): A 2007 survey of American college students showed that 70 percent of the women in the sample had never looked at porn, compared to just 14 percent of their male peers. Accordingly, the porn industry is huge: 4 billion dollars a year is spent on video pornography, more than that on football, baseball, and basketball combined. To put it simply, our culture is oversexed; our culture has become “pornified,” as writer Pamela Paul put it in 2005. What does this mean, and why should we care?
Although religious arguments against pornography abound, increasingly more critiques of the interpersonal wreckage of pornography are coming from secular voices in public discourse. “For most of human history,” feminist Naoimi Wolf wrote in 2003, “the erotic images have been reflections of, or celebrations of, or substitutes for, real naked women. For the first time in human history, the images’ power and allure have supplanted that of real naked women. Today, real naked women are just bad porn” (my emphasis). Indeed, porn may be determined problematic according to arguments that appeal not only to morality but also to our basic biology.
Dubbed “the new narcotic,” pornography is very much a physical matter, rooted in the biological complexity of our sexual structure, according to neuroscientist William Struthers in his 2009 book Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain. Porn sacrifices relationships with real women for the allure of an image of a woman on a screen, a pattern akin to what Struthers calls “a consumption of sexual poison that becomes part of the fabric of the mind.” These effects are exacerbated by the response of the specifically male neurological makeup to porn’s pervasive objectification of the female body.
From a biological perspective, viewing porn fundamentally changes the way that we see each other: The brain picks up sexually relevant cues, triggering arousal and a series of events that deepen neurological pathways of habit formation. Each time an unhealthy sexual pattern is repeated, this pathway is neurologically (and emotionally) eroded into a trough. So when an adolescent male uses porn, he begins to set in place a neurological habit that creates a strong neural association between the images, arousal, and sexual release. When activated simultaneously over and over, this constellation of environmental stimuli reinforces a neurological groove that makes viewing porn pleasurable in a biological sense.
Furthermore, the male brain on porn increasingly generates testosterone in order to heighten sexual desire. If porn is viewed often enough, the brain can be thought of as always in a “ready” state to interpret just about anything as a trigger for sexual fantasizing (whether it’s explicit porn or a girl in class whose skirt is a bit on the short side). These neurobiological findings of porn have dizzyingly high social costs for men in particular, including: lower attraction of females to male porn users, real-life sexual incompetence and dissatisfaction, increased rates of depression, desensitization to violence, and habituation to increasingly extreme forms of porn.
Underlying these costs is the broader argument that porn prevents the formation of masculinity and healthy sexual identity in adolescent males, the most impressionable users of pornography. The dangers of porn are only amplified by increasing cultural confusion about what “being a man” really means (cf. any tongue-in-cheek BuzzFeed listicle), as well as a worrying lack of male role models through broken family structures and modern technological isolation from wider communities. This leaves the young adult male essentially alone in his attempt to construct a model of authentic masculinity. The sense of the masculine grows as it is challenged, but without frequent and instructive challenges (ideally, from fathers or father-figures) it runs the risk of becoming at best, stagnant, at worst, warped. The most pernicious form of this warped masculinity comes in the temptation of pornography, which Struthers says “hijacks a man’s mental world” and impedes his progress toward becoming the best man he can be. As a result, we have today a generational arrested development of young males who remain in the emotional stages of boyhood.
Moreover, our culture has repeatedly diminished a crucial aspect of manhood by misconstruing it as “feminine”: that is, the male need for intimacy. Based on a relational anthropology of the person, we ought to examine how this misunderstood aspect of the masculine makeup contributes to the way in which young men relate to one another, and in so doing, form their own sense of masculine identity with which they present themselves to the world.
Erik Erikson, a 20th-century developmental psychologist known for his theory on psychosocial development, provides a helpful structure for the adolescent search for identity in his 1968 work Identity: Youth and Crisis. In the search for a sense of continuity, Erikson says, adolescents must “install lasting idols and ideals as guardians of a final identity.” In order to combat the uncertainty of this stage, the adolescent “looks most fervently for men and ideas to have faith in, which also means men and ideas in whose service it would seem worthwhile to prove oneself trustworthy.” Thus Eriksonian personality theory posits that the primary struggle facing an adolescent is that between identity and role confusion. Indeed, successful development of identity in adolescence sets the stage for the next crucial battle in young adulthood between intimacy and isolation.
If no appealing examples of positive identity are offered to the adolescent, then the choice of a negative identity becomes attractive. Such an identity, Erikson asserts, is “perversely based on all those identifications and roles which, at critical stages of development, had been presented to them as most undesirable or dangerous and yet also as most real.” This concept of negative identity, I believe, encompasses the identity gained through the experience of viewing porn, for each entry into the world of porn further cements the idea in the male adolescent’s brain that this is the real world, and that the women in these pictures and videos are real women. The fleeting sense of novelty and control during this experience draws him back for more until these virtual escapes form an intrinsic part of reality and identity for the adolescent. After all, as embodied beings, our thoughts translate to actions, which, when repeated often enough, become the habits by which we understand ourselves and form the identities we present to others.
Erikson’s discussion of the difficulty in adolescence of creating and preserving identity rings truer today, perhaps, than when he first wrote it, considering the current lack of a healthy cultural and social support system for the modern male teen or young adult. The necessary difficulties of navigating relationships with his female peers at school, for example, just may not be worth the trouble when he has constant, free and anonymous access to the objectified women in porn. As he compares the obligations of real-world relationships to the “freedom” from accountability in the virtual realm (all the while battling the insecure sense of identity in adolescence) it should hardly be surprising that he prefers the online world of fantasy. After all, he’s the one in control, right? He may be alone, but at least he calls the shots with each effortless click. Erikson even goes so far as to say that the “youth who is not sure of his identity throws himself into acts of intimacy which are ‘promiscuous’ without true fusion or real self-abandon.” What’s missing here is an opportunity for the young man to be vulnerable in the real world with real women.
Erikson’s work urges us to consider the full trajectory of adolescence and how modern pornography is toxic to the process therein of healthy identity development, especially for young males. The robust ideological commitments that society should present to youth in the form of continued traditions are today either absent or rendered meaningless in an individualistic and emotivist culture. Navigating the consequent vacuum through the isolating world of porn has severe implications for the adolescent male, whose isolation spurs withdrawal from the social interactions and commitments needed to develop his relationally masculine identity. We must call for a renewed culture that will mitigate the struggles of youth by offering instead an account of “the good life” as it relates to the person conceived as rational, volitional, emotional, and ultimately relational.
Such a conception of human nature and culture is reflected in Covenant Eyes, an internet accountability software company that began in 2000 based on the concept that behavioral change related to viewing online porn comes through relational accountability rather than the superficial use of technological filters. Instead of using a “filter mentality” that simply blocks access to porn sites, Covenant Eyes holds its customers accountable for their online histories by setting them up with “accountability partners,” often family members or close friends, who have access to their online activities. Accountability without filtering, according to this logic, allows us to choose virtue freely of our own accord—striking the root of the problem—whereas filtering without accountability is simply a “prison of safety,” a flimsy Band-Aid solution that is hardly sustainable. Companies like Covenant Eyes help to renew our culture and our place in it because they operate on an anthropology of the person that respects the autonomy of the individual within the broader context of relationships with our family, friends, and communities. Initiatives like these can effectively help those troubled by porn, especially young adolescent males who crave both freedom and relationships with others.
I’d like to expand on the arguments I’ve sketched above in a final reflection. We do live in a “pornified” culture that at our every turn pressures us to choose such instant pleasures of the modern age. In gratifying these temptations we run the risk of warping the alignment of our will with what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful. It does not follow from this fact that we are passive products of our society, and thus excused from the choices we make. Rather, we form ourselves through our own choices, which impact both ourselves and the communities of which we are a part. Wrong action is never private, simply because we are not private beings, but relational creatures whose happiness is contingent on the happiness of those around us. Although to some extent we are all products of the culture in which we live, we are, each of us, individually accountable for the choices we make. And here enters the blessing of being human: Although we may choose incorrectly, we are never so far removed from our human agency (aided by grace) that we cannot still choose the light shining in the darkness.
Editor's note: This article first appeared on the Irish Rover on April 4 and was adapted from Ratiu's presentation for a panel on pornography at the 2014 Edith Stein Conference at the University of Notre Dame. It is reprinted with permission.