[Pornography] should be denounced as a permanent attack on the dignity of men and women. It is not only a matter of protecting children — an urgent task of the authorities and all of us — but also of declaring pornography a threat to public health. ― Pope Francis
Early in 2020, during the first COVID lockdowns, a number of porn companies came up with the diabolical idea of taking the opportunity to lure some of the hundreds of millions of lonely, bored people to take a look at their poisonous wares. They offered “free” subscriptions to their platforms, suggesting that in so doing they were doing a generous favor to the world.
Of course, they knew full well that what they were doing was implementing the tried-and-true business plan of the neighborhood drug dealer. That is, they were offering vulnerable people a “free” first hit of a highly addictive substance. And they knew, just like the drug dealer, that while some people would take the free hit and never come back, others would be hooked so quickly that they would soon pay for another, then another, and another.
Apparently, the porn company’s devious plan worked perfectly. According to new data from the UK’s Addiction Treatment Group (UKAT), the number of people seeking help for pornography addiction in the UK increased by nearly 250% in 2021. According to the organization, more than 36,000 people sought help for their porn addiction in 2021, in comparison with 10,500 in 2020.
The increase is so massive that the organization says that it can’t keep up with the demand for help.
The Grave Evil of Pornography
Unfortunately, the pandemic and lockdowns were the perfect storm for explosions in all sorts of addictions. Human beings are, as Aristotle put it, “political animals.” That is to say, we are a species that fundamentally needs to live in community. Or as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation” (no. 1879).
When so many people found themselves alone in a highly stressful global situation, some naturally looked for ways to escape. In the past two years, deaths due to overdoses from opioids have soared in many parts of the world. We are also dealing with the serious health consequences of growing alcohol addiction, and other physical dependencies, including on junk food. However, as this new poll shows, we are also dealing with an epidemic of spiritual death.
The Catholic Church is clear that pornography is a grave intrinsic evil. Pornography is so dehumanizing that it harms every single person who is involved in it – producers, participants, and viewers alike. Even ten seconds of deliberate pornography use is ten seconds too much, inevitably causing spiritual harm.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, 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. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials. (no. 2354)
While the modern world considers this teaching hopelessly “old fashioned,” arbitrary, and anti-sex, in reality it is based upon a profound understanding of the dignity of the human person, and a deep belief in the goodness of the body and sexuality.
As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Familiaris consortio, “Sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses, is by no means something purely biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such” (no. 11). In sexual union, the husband and wife renew their marriage vows, and express a form of love that is so deep that the Church has said that it is an image of the love that Christ has for his Church.
In wrenching sexuality out of this context and treating it as a purely biological function of humans, a source of “pleasure” without meaning, pornography profoundly debases human sexuality. Whereas sexual union was designed by God to be a means of expressing self-sacrificial love for another person (“[T]he truly human performance of these acts fosters the self-giving they signify and enriches the spouses in joy and gratitude,” states the Catechism, no. 2362), pornography trains its users to use other people as mere objects of pleasure.
As the United States’ Catholic Bishops note in their pastoral letter Create in Me a Clean Heart, the use of pornography is a “grave sin” against chastity. “Regardless of the relationship between the parties, looking at another person with lust—as only a sexual object to enjoy, control, and use—is a sin. It is a disordered view of the person, because it is ordered toward use, as of a thing, rather than love, which pertains to persons. This is why pornography can never be justified, even within marriage.”
Holding the Porn Companies Accountable
It is a blight on our civilization, that at a time when the whole world was adjusting to the arrival of a new virus that was killing many and disrupting life as we knew it, porn companies were permitted to advertise their products on social media and elsewhere. More than anything, what we needed then was prayer and fasting, and a renewal of family life.
A few years ago, Bishop Paul S. Loverde of the Diocese of Arlington published a pastoral letter about the problem of pornography. In that letter, the bishop described the pornography industry as a “criminal enterprise” which “is a crime against the helpless and the disaffected on whom it preys and an affront to a civilized populace.”
The bishop went on to note that it is perfectly legitimate to demand that legislators hold porn companies to account, and to significantly restrict their ability to spread their wares. “Citizens should unite to demand laws that place reasonable restrictions on the depiction of the human body and human intimacy,” wrote the bishop. “Where the pornographic mentality has invaded even mainstream media … citizens must demand that public officials whose service is to regulate such media take immediate and effective action.”
A few years ago, the UK very nearly put in place robust protections that would have prevented minors from being able to access pornography online. The plan called for pornographic websites to verify the age of users using methods that could not easily be bypassed. Unfortunately, that plan was abandoned in 2019, after critics raised privacy concerns. One wonders how many children and teens might have been spared having their innocence taken away, or falling into outright addiction, had those measures been in place in the UK during the pandemic.
The good news is that it appears as if there are still efforts underway in the UK to resurrect the age-verification process. Hopefully other jurisdictions – including the U.S. – will take note and follow suit.
Too often, unfortunately, even self-professed “conservatives” oppose efforts to restrict pornography under erroneous ideas of “freedom of speech” or “first amendment” rights. In reality, of course, creating and promoting grotesquely obscene material is not a matter of “free speech,” as previous generations well understood.
As Bishop Loverde put it, “Protecting a multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise which destroys the lives of both those depicted in pornography and those intended as audience through the excuse of protecting free speech is not service, but complicity.” The pornography industry is fundamentally a predatory industry, treating the bodies and persons of its performers, and the desires of its users, as mere “resources” to pad their bottom line. As such, it has no “right” to operate.
“The continued toleration of this insidious toxic poison that hides itself under the guise of freedom of speech and freedom of conscience is contributing to the debasement of our culture and the victimization of our own children,” wrote Bishop Loverde. It is time for a real anti-porn movement that demands that legislators remove this poison from our society.
Helping Addicts Out of the Abyss
While pornography itself is a very great evil, individual porn users are often victims of an extraordinarily powerful porn industry that knows exactly how to use human psychology to hook people on their product. While individual porn users must acknowledge their own personal moral responsibility as a first step to regaining sexual sanity, it is also true that much of the blame for the explosion in addiction must be placed at the feet of the pornographers and the legislators who let them operate with impunity.
Studies have found that pornography can be just as addictive as certain hard drugs, like cocaine. Like cocaine, pornography use floods the brain with the neurochemical dopamine, which is responsible for feelings of well-being. In our current age, the average age of exposure to pornography is 11 years old. In many cases, those who first encounter pornography are simply unequipped with the emotional and psychological maturity to know how to resist something that has been painstakingly designed by adults to hijack their brains.
The content creators, marketers, and programmers at the multi-billion dollar porn conglomerates have access to data flowing in from hundreds of millions of users of their websites. They have mastered the art of creating “content,” and marketing it to users, in such a way that the vulnerable are drawn in deeper and deeper.
Here is an instance in which righteous anger is perfectly justified. Indeed, for many porn users, recognizing that they are being treated as little more than lab rats, being manipulated by porn companies that are deliberately monetizing their appetites and their miseries for financial gain, can be the beginning of the road to recovery. Yes, the porn companies are using the most sophisticated technologies ever known to man to hijack our most fundamental desires. But each of us is a child of God, possessing free will. With the help of God’s grace, every porn addict has it within his or her power to reject the manipulative forces trying to destroy his or her heart and mind.
As many psychologists have rightly pointed out, for many porn addicts, the root of the problem is often not simply a desire for sexual pleasure. Certainly, that is part of the problem. But often, the out-of-control desire for sex is a manifestation of something even deeper that is not being dealt with: boredom, purposelessness, depression, anxiety, fear of the future, inadequacy, and, ultimately, a lack of the sort of spiritual fulfillment that can only come of orienting one’s heart and soul towards the only Good that can satisfy our every longing: God.
“The first thing I say to clients is that this is not always about sex, this is about learning how to deal with emotions in a way that is less destructive,” said UKAT Director Simon Stephens in responding to the new study. “Availability of this material that allows people to create a stimulus that creates dopamine in the brain, one of the effects of that is to suppress feelings.”
For many porn addicts, as with other addicts, recovery begins with admitting that there is a problem. For many, that can and should involve seeking professional help. A trained psychologist or addiction counsellor can show you how to begin to deal with the underlying psychological issues including the trauma of early exposure to porn, and teach you how put in place the accountability structures that will enable healing to take place.
For every porn addict, it is absolutely critical to realize that leaving a porn addiction behind requires undergoing a conversion of heart. This requires heartfelt repentance, a surrendering of one’s addiction to God, and renewed efforts to seek in a rightful relationship with God what you have been illicitly seeking in a disordered relationship with pornography. It requires, as well, recognizing that pornography use is wrong in part because it is incommensurate with your great dignity as a child of God, made in His image and likeness.
As Matt Fradd, an anti-porn activist, writes in a preface to the most recent edition of Bishop Loverde’s pastoral letter, the ubiquity of porn in our culture is a great evil and an enormous challenge, but also potentially an opportunity. “Scripture promises that ‘where sin increased, grace abounded all the more’ (Rom. 5:20),” writes Fradd.
So we have here not just a struggle, but an opportunity to tap into a massive outpouring of God’s grace. Think about it. Every person, every Christian, every saint who lived before the Internet lacked one gift that we have: the ability to choose Christ by rejecting, day after day, this uniquely modern and anonymous sin of porn. So let your heart not be troubled but grateful—for God’s inexhaustible mercy, for the powerful help we get from the Church’s sacraments and teachers like Bishop Loverde, and for this almost unprecedented chance to grow in virtue by striving to walk the path of purity.
God’s mercy infinitely exceeds our sins. If you or a family member are trapped in pornography, it is critical that you seek help, today. Open your heart to a trusted friend or family member. Develop a recovery plan, including an accountability structure that ensures that you cannot slide back into old patterns of behavior without someone knowing. And pray every day for the grace of chastity. God will hear your prayers. He will heal your heart.