The Scourge of Pornography: Provoking Violence and Debasing Human Sexuality
“The ease with which children gain access to pornographic images on the Internet resembles a rape of the consciences of these minors. I think that the psychological and spiritual consequences of this invasion of pornography for a whole generation of children and young people have not yet been measured. Doctors are beginning to sound the alarm, since they so often encounter young people who are disturbed by increasingly violent images or are prisoners of addiction to pornography. Who will tell them that all these images do not depict the truth about sexuality? Who will tell them that sexuality is made up of self-gift and sensitivity and not of violence and humiliation? Once again, the Church is on the front lines in defending the truth and dignity of sexuality. In this area as in many others, she becomes the guardian and protectress of what is most human in man.”
─ Cardinal Robert Sarah, The Day is Now Far Spent, p. 174.
One of the strangest ideas to have taken hold in recent decades is the idea that watching hardcore pornography is just a form of “harmless” entertainment.
As I have pointed out in the past, most people seem intuitively to understand that many of the things we watch or read can have a powerful impact on our political identity, moral worldview, and everyday behavior. And yet, many of these same people will argue that pornography is “just” fantasy, and has no meaningful impact upon ourselves or others.
However, to those who actually have to deal with those who are most directly impacted by the effects of pornography, especially hardcore pornography, this line of reasoning is not just laughable, it’s dangerously delusional.
Be warned that these articles include some graphic, disturbing content and are not appropriate for young viewers. While my discussion below is more sanitized, the reality is that the subject matter is inherently deeply disturbing. However, given the statistics on porn consumption in our culture, there is simply no excuse for parents, in particular, not to educate themselves on the brutal social reality that many young people are navigating right now.
Holly Bourne’s Hard Truths
In her articles, Bourne recounts how, when she first landed the counseling job, she was told by her employers that most people don’t last more than two years in the job. “There’s no shame in quitting,” she remembers her trainer telling her. “This type of work really takes its toll on a person.”
Bourne says she was surprised by this warning. However, eager to help young people navigate the tricky waters of relationships, she eagerly dove into the work. Two years later, she handed in her resignation. At that point she was, she recounts, “a shell of the person I was before.”
The thing that broke her, she writes, is the sheer volume of questions or comments she received—largely from young girls—recounting the degrading, painful, violent, and often outright-criminal sexual experiences to which they had been subjected. Often, she said, what the girls were describing was clearly a rape—and yet, the girls seemed unaware of this fact.
I had known from my training that sexual violence would come up, but I never expected the onslaught. On a bad shift, at least half the messages would involve sexual violence.
What was especially upsetting was these girls rarely realized they had just described a rape to me—they just saw non-consensual, degrading and painful sex as a ‘normal’ part of their lives.
A Disturbing Cultural Bellwether
Although I won’t go into details about many of the questions Bourne received, which are too graphic to recount here, it is worth mentioning one particular trend that she mentions, and that is increasingly making inroads into popular culture and conversation. This is the trend of “choking” during sexual encounters.
Frankly, it is surreal that I even have to discuss something that seems so self-evidently perverse and antithetical to anything remotely resembling a healthy sexuality. And yet, recent studies show that this utterly degrading, and once radically-fringe sexual practice, has become so normal that many young women have come to expect this behavior from their sexual partners. As horrifying as it may be, the topic needs to be addressed.
As one recent study put it in chillingly clinical language, “Being choked or strangled during partnered sex is an emerging sexual behavior, prevalent among young adult women.” One recent poll found that nearly half of young people believe that girls expect violence during sex. Another headline in The Guardian newspaper states bluntly:
Another article in The Insider (which I won’t link to, due to graphic content) recounts the real-life stories of numerous women who, thinking that they were engaging in a loving act with their partners, instead suddenly found the men’s hands arounds their necks, choking them. A researcher quoted in the article said, “Many of the young people we’ve interviewed just don’t see choking as that big of a deal.”
That may be one of the most distressing sentences I’ve ever read. And yet, the facts bear out the claim. One recent survey of undergraduate women found that one in three had been choked the last time they had intercourse. One in three!
Meanwhile, this phenomenon has found its way even into pop culture. A recent, widely-hyped HBO television show starring A-list actors included graphic scenes depicting the main characters engaged in choking.
A ‘Public Health Emergency’
Anyone not immersed in pornographic culture is likely to respond to the above articles with disbelief. Granted, there have always been people with perverse and dangerous appetites. However, they were supposed to be an extreme minority. How is it possible that our young people can view such behaviors as normal?
The answer, of course, is obvious. As Bourne recounts, the boyfriends of the abused girls she spoke with were universally steeped in hardcore pornography. A reality that is all too commonplace to under-30s, but a source of shock and horror to older generations, is that an enormous quantity of online pornography features overt violence, typically directed at women.
In fact, one study by a French government watchdog group found that as much as 90% of online pornography features either verbal or physical violence directed at women. The report by the group said that in millions of videos, “women, caricatured with the worst sexist and racist stereotypes, are humiliated, objectified, dehumanised, assaulted, tortured, subjected to treatment that is contrary both to human dignity and French law.”
The report added: “The women are real, the sexual acts and the violence is real, the suffering is often perfectly visible and at the same time eroticised.”
To Bourne, it was clear that the boyfriends who assault their girlfriends, sometimes engaging in outright rape, were simply re-enacting the scenarios that they have seen played out hundreds, if not thousands of times, for their “entertainment.” As she concludes: “I believe the widespread consumption of hardcore pornography is now a public health emergency.”
Return to Sanity
In light of the above, it’s hard to resist saying, “I told you so” to all those who for decades defended the rise of pornography as “harmless.”
Amid this morass of abused, lost girls, and boys transformed by forces far more powerful than they imagined into devouring monsters, the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality and marriage have all the appearance of a beautiful, bountiful island in the midst of a shark-infested sea.
It is true, of course, that the Church has always warned about the profound moral dangers of pornography. The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to pornography as a “grave offense,” warning that pornography debases every single person involved into “an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others.”
However, as Cardinal Robert Sarah suggests in the quotation at the beginning of this article, this absolute prohibition on pornography is simply the natural corollary of the Church’s rich, positive vision of conjugal love. While the Church has been mocked for decades now for insisting that sexuality can only be morally expressed within the life-long union of a man and a woman open to life—i.e., marriage—the rapid degeneration of our culture’s sexual mores, to the point of the widespread acceptance and defense of sexual violence, is proof positive that the Church has always been on the right track.
What the Church always understood, is that sexuality is among the most powerful forces in the world. When used in a moral way, in conformity with God’s original vision, sexuality has the power to unite a husband and wife in a bond of love that is so complete that Christ Himself referred to this pair as becoming “one flesh.” Even more importantly, is that this one-fleshness is an inherently self-transcending, creative force, which reaches fruition in the conception of children, who are received as pure gift, and upon whom husband and wife can in turn bestow the love that they have nurtured in their own relationship. And so, love passes on from husband and wife to the next generation, and in turn to the next, etc.
Time to Wake Up
When sexuality is removed from this context, however, and treated instead as a plaything, a source of entertainment and everyday pleasure, then we see it turn in on its users. Sexual pleasure itself becomes debased beyond recognition, a fleeting experience that, at best, gives no lasting satisfaction, and instead leaves an individual feeling confused, used and degraded. However, as the statistics cited above suggest, at worst sexuality becomes a breeding ground of random, unexpected, devouring violence and rape.
As the testimony of Bourne, and so many untold thousands of women, attest, my warnings are not evidence of a “moral panic.” This is a legitimate moral crisis. This is an urgent public health emergency. Thanks to ubiquitous consumption of pornography, often by children so young that they have absolutely no ability to contextualize what they are seeing, real women, and real men, are suffering.
It is time for people to wake up. Pornography has always been a source of grave moral and physical harm. But the current situation is unlike anything the world has ever seen. Pornography has been industrialized and mainstreamed. And the porn companies have learned how to draw their users ever deeper into addiction by increasing the intensity of the experience through progressively more extreme depictions of violence and exploitation.
Porn is destroying entire generations of young people. It is robbing them, often before they reach the age of reason, of the very capacity to conceive of or to express sexuality in anything other than terms of mutual exploitation. Love, marriage, commitment, self-gift, children: these things are entirely absent from many young people’s relational aspirations. It is no wonder, in light of the violence to which they are being routinely subjected, that so many women are simply exiting the dating scene altogether, permanently foregoing marriage and relationships, having too often been traumatized by men trained to view women solely as objects to be consumed.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.