Hidden Dangers of Pornography
There’s an old saying that goes, “You are what you eat.” The idea is simple: what you put into your body through your mouth is what becomes your body. A body fed on fast-food and potato chips is a body that, unsurprisingly, is one that will show signs of obesity and clogged arteries.
As true as the saying is, however, it is much truer to say, as the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “You are what you think all day long.”
While our bodies are important, even more central are our minds. While not every thought defines us, it is simply a truism to say that the sum total of the thoughts is, in some important way, who we are.
This is why it strikes me as supremely strange that we live in a world in which people will obsess about their diet, but scarcely give a moment’s consideration to what they put into their minds. Even worse, they will even react angrily if you suggest that they should be even more careful about what they feed their minds with than what they eat.
This is the sort of person who, if you muse about whether playing hours of violent video games is healthy for children, will inevitably retort that they’re “just” video games. So long as the child is doing well in school, or isn’t exhibiting violent behavior, then it’s “harmless” entertainment. They’ll say the same thing about movies, music, TV, etc. You can’t “judge” anyone else’s tastes, they will tell us. If listening to rappers glorifying rape, murder, and drugs is the sort of thing you happen to like, then that just shows that everybody has different preferences.
Similarly, if you happen to like watching pornography in your spare time, even pornography that is violent, racist, or misogynistic, then there’s nobody who can judge that, because, after all, it’s “just” entertainment. So long as you don’t engage in violent, racist, or misogynistic behavior in your “real” life, then nobody has the right to criticize you. Your private thoughts are nobody else’s business.
Porn is Ruining Everything
This is, obviously, utter nonsense.
In the first place, almost none of these people would argue that if you spend all day consuming triple chocolate cheesecake, that this is “just” eating food. Our choices have consequences. And in the second place, none of these people are consistent. Most of them, for instance, would react in horror to the idea that spending all day reading only newspapers or watching only news channels whose politics they disagree with is “just” reading newspapers or watching TV. They know very well that feeding your mind on a particular political perspective will change your mind in key ways.
When push comes to shove, everybody understands that immersing yourself in certain thoughts or images can have a profound impact on what you think, and ultimately, who you are. It’s just that some people don’t want to have to face the fact that things they enjoy might not be good for them.
Even more difficult for them to face, is the idea that the things they enjoy might well be destroying civilization as we know it.
In last week’s column, I mentioned a recent article by Michael Warren Davis, entitled, “How Porn Explains Everything.” It might just as well have been titled, “How Porn Ruins Everything.”
In the article, Davis makes the provocative suggestion that one reason why men, in particular, are very rarely to be seen participating in the protest movement against the madness of the transgender ideologues, is because many of those men are hooked on pornography featuring transgender porn stars.
Ultimately, it is nearly impossible to measure the extent to which this is true. However, as Davis points out, what most certainly is true is that transgender pornography has become increasingly popular. In fact, according to the world’s top porn website, “transgender” has become one of the top three most-searched terms on the site. Given the hundreds of millions of people who regularly visit the site, this is a staggering statistic.
Given statistics showing that a strong majority of adult men watch pornography at least once a month, as does a growing percentage of women, it isn’t unreasonable to suspect that one reason for the changing social attitudes on sexuality is that an enormous number of men and women are becoming desensitized to things that would have once horrified them, because those things have come to play a big part in their sexual fantasies.
Indeed, research has consistently shown that people who use a lot of pornography gradually begin viewing more and more extreme material. In time, they are spending hours a week deriving pleasure from types of pornography that would have horrified them not so long ago. When these same people are subsequently faced with a decision to oppose, say, teaching children about graphic or transgressive sexual practices, or passing legislation protecting true marriage, they are going to have a much harder time mustering the moral outrage that the situation deserves.
Learning to Enjoy the Prison
The early 20th century Christian author C.S. Lewis knew all too well the truth of the statement that “you are what you think.”
In a famous passage in a letter in which he described his own struggles with unchastity, Lewis critiqued the practice of masturbation in terms that relate directly to the modern porn pandemic. As Lewis notes, the practice of masturbation is typically accompanied by imaginative fantasies. However, a man who does this, he argued, is keeping “a harem of imaginary brides.” He continues:
And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself . . .. And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination.
Lewis concludes with a stark warning. “[T]he main work of life is to come out of ourselves, out of the little, dark prison we are all born in.” “Masturbation is to be avoided,” he concludes, “as all things are to be avoided which retard this process. The danger is that of coming to love the prison.”
What Lewis is saying is that when a man regularly takes refuge in sexual fantasies, it begins to change who he is. Instead of becoming a man who is capable of receiving another person as she is, he becomes accustomed to viewing women as objects, whose job is to satisfy his desires. The repeated practice of pursuing his own satisfactions in his imagination, in other words, is not simply a “private” affair that is “just” entertainment: it has profound implication for who he is as a human being.
In the end, what began in the privacy of his mind, inevitably spills over into his relationships with real individuals in the world. The reason so many porn apologists miss this fact is that they have set the bar so abysmally low. So far as they are concerned, if a user of violent, rape-glorifying pornography doesn’t become a violent rapist in the “real” world, then that just goes to show that porn doesn’t have any real-world consequences. It’s “just” entertainment.
But, of course, the point of life isn’t simply to avoid becoming a violent rapist. It is to become the fullest, most developed version of oneself. That is, it is to become a man or woman of virtue: not merely someone who is “harmless,” but rather a positive force for good in the world; a powerhouse of joy, courage, faithfulness, humility, charity, chastity, and so on and so forth. In this sense, any arguments that porn is “harmless” completely miss the point. Anything that gets in the way of a person’s development in virtue is far from “harmless.”
Even if viewing porn does not turn a man into a violent monster, at a bare minimum it conditions him to accept mediocrity. It teaches him to place his own pursuit of pleasure on a pedestal. It tells him that an acceptable use of his time is to “consume” other human beings. It trains his brain to think of women not as persons to be known, but as objects to be leered at. It reshapes his expectations around sex and physical beauty in myriad ways of which the viewer is no doubt entirely unconscious.
Indeed, I suspect that if we could find a way to know and visually depict all the million ways that pornography pushes a person down a path of radical selfishness, infecting his relationships with the subtle poison of self-seeking, silently eating away at the tight bonds that unite one person to another, and ultimately to God, that it would be a matter of moments before we would pass a worldwide ban on pornography.
A Better Way
There is, however, one further point worth making. Let us imagine, for a moment, that there exists a frequent user of hard-core pornography, who has somehow managed to keep his fantasy life entirely separate from his “real” life. He is in a happy marriage, in which he treats his wife and children with love and respect. He has good friendships, is a hard-working, successful employee, and pursues various hobbies that bring him satisfaction. And yet, for all that, he consistently spends a few hours watching pornography every week.
To be clear: I think the hypothetical situation is truly preposterous. I don’t see any way that spending hours with one of the most potent sources of addiction ever devised can fail to change him in profound, and ultimately destructive ways. And yet, let’s still imagine this situation. The question is: is his life better because he watches hardcore pornography? Is his mind a more pleasant place to inhabit? Is his life more filled with joy, peace, kindness, goodness?
This is what so many apologists of grotesque and dehumanizing forms of “entertainment” utterly fail to engage with. As already hinted at above, the point of living life isn’t simply to get through to the other end while causing the least amount of harm. Here is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, describing the lofty purpose of human life:
God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life. (no. 1)
One has to wonder: does hardcore pornography, involving the consumption of other human beings for selfish pleasure, have anything to do with this lofty vision for human life? Is there any sense in which consuming pornography prepares one mentally and spiritually for union with the divine?
The question hardly needs to be asked: even at its most “harmless,” the use of pornography always feeds the ever-voracious snakes of our limitless passions, jam-packing our minds with an encyclopedia of titillating images that will inevitably come back to haunt us and stand in the way of our attempts to pursue a life of heroic virtue. Multiply this enervating effect by the billions of people on the planet who are regularly using pornography, and what you get is a devasting picture of the cumulative effects of smut.
I suspect that Davis is on to something when he argues that porn “explains everything”: that so much of the radical liberalization of our culture on sexual matters can be traced back to the industrialized exploitation and encouragement of lust. Ultimately, the way back to sanity is for each one of us to make the decision to reject this most-ubiquitous vice of our age. Choose chastity. Choose holiness. Choose a healthy mind and soul.
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing email@example.com.