Fighting Pornography on Catholic College Campuses

Summary

Pornography is gravely sinful and commodifies the human person; it deeply harms students and impacts every aspect of their lives. Catholic colleges should strive to prevent pornography use on campus, form students in an authentic understanding of human sexuality, and provide opportunities for healing. Based on the recommendations of varied experts, this paper explores the impact of pornography on students and suggests resources and tactics to support students and limit pornography use on Catholic college campuses.

Introduction

Helping students avoid pornography and developing the virtues that are necessary for lifelong freedom from this pernicious obstacle to the moral life, intellectual growth, mental health, and social and spiritual maturity should be a major concern for Catholic educators today, especially staff who deal directly with forming and counseling college students. 

Secular colleges may be embarrassed to tackle the problem of pornography, because it is so widespread and pervasive among young people today, but Catholic colleges ought to recognize pornography as a serious threat not only to the wellbeing of their students but also to the success of their mission. The Catholic college does not artificially divorce pastoral concerns from the work of education. To the contrary, faithful Catholic education emphasizes the importance of morality to the intellectual life, admitting of all truth including religious and moral, striving for the integral formation of students as humans created for union with God, developing their capacity for loving communion with others, and forming students to fulfill their vocations in service to God and man.

For all these reasons, the faithful Catholic college will make fighting pornography on campus a priority and apply adequate resources to address the problem.[1] It would be a huge missed opportunity—and maybe even a dereliction of duty—not to make a sincere effort to help students in this arena.[2]

This paper explores the impact of pornography on students at Catholic colleges and suggests some resources and tactics to support students and limit pornography on Catholic college campuses. For students in college—who are often living alone for the first time and may be lonely—there are new challenges that arise to resisting pornography. Catholic colleges should adopt a multi-faceted approach to meet the needs of students on campus.

To mitigate pornography use, Catholic colleges can install a filter on the campus wireless or wired network to block obscene material. They can also implement media policies and other chastity-related policies to prohibit sexually explicit materials on campus and reinforce a culture of chastity. Initiatives to help students form strong friendships can help prevent isolation.

Catholic colleges can offer orientation programs, campus speakers, and homilies on the dangers of pornography and a proper understanding of human sexuality. Staff members in campus ministry and student life should especially be formed to address these topics.

Finally, Catholic colleges should prioritize healing opportunities for students who are afflicted by pornography addiction, including convenient access to the sacraments and devotions, accountability services, support and therapy groups, spiritual direction, and counseling. All of these should be conducted in line with Church teaching on human sexuality.

The following considerations and recommendations are compiled from the best resources and conversations with varied experts, but nothing herein should be considered professional medical, psychological, theological, or legal advice. It is important for Catholic educators to consult with experts before deciding on policy and pastoral care. A list of resources, including subject matter experts and published material, is appended at the end.

Clear and Present Danger

Easy access to internet pornography is one of the most rampant scourges facing our culture today. The advent of the smartphone and high-definition digital video streaming platforms, the rise of targeted online advertising, increased levels of sexual permissiveness in society, and a largely unregulated internet have made the ubiquity of pornography a fact of life.

Today, it is more difficult than ever before to avoid accidental exposure to pornography on an unfiltered internet browser, and it is easier than ever to intentionally tap into an ever-expanding library of illicit content. We have now entered an era in which many students entering college have been exposed to hard-core pornographic material on the internet before their age was in the double digits.[3] It is reasonable to assume that by the age they leave for college, most young men and, to a lesser but still frightening degree, many young women have been wounded by the evil of pornography.

Pornography is condemned by the Church as a grave sin that “offends against chastity” and “does grave injury to the dignity of its participants.”[4] The commodification of the human person is the ultimate depersonalization. The person becomes property; an object of abuse, profit, and violence. The pornography industry perpetuates numerous horrible injustices, including human trafficking and sexual exploitation.[5]

This is reason enough to prevent access to pornography on Catholic campuses, but colleges should be especially concerned about pornography’s damage to the consumer—in this case, the student. Its consumption has lasting physiological effects, reducing impulse control, hijacking the brain’s reward system, and fueling desire for increasingly perverted or shocking acts.[6] It is also connected to increasing permissiveness of and proclivity toward sexual violence.[7] Pornography is corrosive to relationships, communities, and society, and it undermines both married and consecrated vocations after college.[8]

Moreover, pornography is highly addictive to the consumer. Research has suggested a possible connection between the pleasure-inducing hormone dopamine and pornography use, and brain scans indicate brain reactions to pornography that are similar to cocaine addiction.[9] Scholars believe that “emotionally arousing images imprint and alter the brain, triggering an instant, involuntary, but lasting, biochemical memory trail.”[10]

Of particular concern to educators, habitual use of pornography has been linked to poor academic performance, and the psychological consequences of addictive behavior can be a serious obstacle to liberal education and growth in virtue. Pornography can affect the student’s ability to see reality as it is and may lessen the student’s desire for spiritual goods, a habitual inclination that may have been developed over years of childhood formation and education. Pornography consumption stokes the fire of a unique combination of vices—including unchastity, acedia, and curiositas—each of which are direct impediments to education. It is worthwhile to explore each of these in detail.

Unchastity

Because it “perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other,” pornography clearly feeds into the vice of unchastity, which strikes at the core of our moral life.[11] This has important implications for all educational institutions pursuing integral formation. Due to its intense energy and connection to the end of human nature as loving self-gift, the sexual dimension of the person is bound up with the entire moral life. This in turn is inseparable (though distinguishable) from our intellectual life. In short, educators who lead students to the truth should consider the virtue of chastity a valuable prerequisite.[12]

Summarizing St. Thomas Aquinas, the 20th century German philosopher Josef Pieper describes the effects of unchastity in this way:

Unchastity most effectively falsifies and corrupts the virtue of prudence. All that conflicts with the virtue of prudence stems for the most part from unchastity; unchastity begets a blindness of spirit which practically excludes all understanding of the goods of the spirit; unchastity splits the power of decision; conversely, the virtue of chastity more than any other makes man capable and ready for contemplation. All these propositions of St. Thomas do not refer to isolated effects and consequences…. This blindness is of the essence of unchastity itself, which is by its very nature destructive.[13]

Although it is not of itself a sufficient preparation for higher intellectual formation, it is certainly important that the sexual dimension of the person be integrated and channeled for the “eye” of the intellect to be able to perceive truth clearly. The “essence of the moral person” is to be “open to the truth of real things” and to live accordingly.[14] Only those who possess the clear vision afforded by a pure heart are able to really see the beauty around them and attain true freedom.[15] As a species of temperance, chastity contributes to “both the realization of actual good and the actual movement of man toward his goal” by “preserving and defending order in man himself.”[16]

Often the viewing of pornography is accompanied by the sin of masturbation. This combination is more than a doubling of the number of sexual sins, especially when it takes root as a habit during periods of sexual development. The person who claims to know that human sexuality is for self-gift and not personal gratification but has only ever experienced that reality as one of personal gratification has experienced a traumatic interruption in the healthy development of his or her implicit understanding of the function and purpose of his or her own sexuality. Forgiveness and healing are always possible, but the wounding effects of sin can still be substantial.[17]

Acedia

Pornography also is closely connected with acedia, one of the seven deadly sins. More than mere laziness, as might be connoted by its typical English translation as “sloth,” acedia consists of a deep sorrow regarding spiritual goods.[18] Acedia can function as a cause of pornography use, which initiates a vicious cycle that expands the dark cloud of acedia even further. The contemporary era is steeped in acedia, because it “turns against any remnant of or witness to the transcendent dignity of human persons and to their calling to friendship with God.”[19] Pornography acts as a powerful catalyst for this cycle of spiritual apathy. “The vast numbers of persons who, unbeknownst to themselves, are indulging in acedia, despair of and eventually come to resent the very dignity of the human person that pornography treats with contempt.”[20]

St. Thomas quotes St. Gregory in identifying the “daughters” of acedia, which include “malice, spite, faint-heartedness, despair, sluggishness in regard to the commandments, wandering of the mind after unlawful things.”[21] Pornography is powerfully addictive and often accompanied by a deep sense of shame. It can be so difficult to resist, that users who wish to change their behavior can quickly despair of any progress. Despair and isolation set up the conditions for another lapse, and the cycle continues. With a damaged appetite for spiritual goods, the pornography user may find himself or herself lacking willpower and zeal.

Curiositas

The “wandering of the mind after unlawful things” includes the vice of curiositas, the inordinate desire for knowledge, including sense knowledge. St. John identifies one of the temptations of the world to be concupiscence of the eyes (1 John 2:16)—illicit sight-seeing. The desire to know and experience sensible things is itself good, until it becomes disordered. One source of disorder that makes the act sinful, according to St. Thomas, is “when the knowledge of sensible things is directed to something harmful, as looking on a woman is directed to lust.”[22]

Lack of discipline and the feeding of the vice of curiositas make it more difficult to build up the opposing virtue of studiositas. Studiositas or studiousness is the virtue by which man controls his appetite for knowledge and applies his mind with diligence to a particular mental object, especially when it is difficult. It has broader application than merely the act of studying, but it is a critical virtue for excelling in the role of a student.

Paul Griffiths observes that the curious person’s disordered appetite for knowledge and the studious person’s rightly ordered appetite for knowledge result in very different relationships with what is knowable: “The curious inhabit a world of objects, which can be sequestered and possessed; the studious inhabit a world of gifts, given things, which can be known by participation, but which, because of their very natures, can never be possessed.”[23] This contrast is found in the effects of pornography on the person and his or her relationships with others. An unhealthy curiosity strengthened by habitual pornography consumption undermines the relationship one has with knowable things, whether it be the truth of the person or the truth presented in class. Curiositas leads to a desire to possess another person as an object.

Challenges in College

Today’s Catholic college student is likely affected by pornography in some way, and many will have an ongoing relationship with it. Some may struggle with deeply ingrained sexual addictions, while others may simply want to break a dirty habit. Still others may have left pornography use in the past but are not yet made whole. The remaining students may never have encountered it directly, but they surely know of peers who have. Nearly all have grown up in a culture that has assaulted the student’s perception of his or her sexual identity and left lasting wounds.

Fr. Mike Schmitz, chaplain of the Newman Catholic Campus Ministry at the University of Minnesota Duluth, says going off to college immediately presents new challenges.[24] For those who already struggle with pornography, the new college environment suddenly makes it harder to resist. First, there are typically few restrictions compared to living at home with a family, which requires additional personal discipline. Second, even with classes and required activities, a student often has far more free time than before and is not held accountable for it. Finally, the student typically arrives with no preexisting relationships on campus, so it can be easy to feel isolated and lonely. These challenges present a danger not only to students who are already struggling with pornography, but also those who may not have had much prior temptation.

Addressing the varied needs of the student body will take a multifaceted approach. It is important to remember a few things at the outset:

Pornography’s effects vary from person to person, but everyone can benefit from the Church’s message of chastity and love.

Making an effort to address pornography directly will have positive effects on the entire campus community. Perhaps it is only a small number of students who will need a lot of help (although the statistics should lead us to err on the side of caution). The benefits of reversing the cultural trend on pornography, however, are not limited only to those who “recover.” Pornography damages the entire community, not just those who view it regularly, and restoring integrity in the next generation will require facing it as a community.

Pornography affects both men and women, and it affects each sex differently.

While men have borne the brunt of this cultural scourge for decades and efforts to fight pornography have been directed primarily toward men, the data is showing that a significant number of women are regularly viewing pornography as well.[25] Clearly, pornography is not just a “men’s problem.” This presents two challenges. First, pornography affects women’s lives differently, so it may not be helpful to simply hand them existing resources designed for men. Second, the plethora of resources and testimonials that are directed to men can make a woman looking for help feel even more isolated. Recovery and healing may take different pathways for men and women.

Both college-aged men and women may find themselves in relationships with students addicted to pornography. They may be faced with distressful decisions about how or whether to continue dating or get married and how to show support while also setting boundaries. These students may need significant emotional support for the pain these relationships cause.

Christian charity requires sensitivity toward those struggling with this temptation by those who are not.

Pornography is a difficult topic. It can also be a very difficult habit to overcome. It can be easy for those who are not dealing with pornography addiction themselves to avoid thinking about its dangers and effects. It is also easy to reduce it to merely a dirty habit proceeding from lust, a “personal problem,” one that can be eradicated by force of will and (in a Catholic setting) frequent confession. The Christian life is lived in community. People today suffer from an intense individualism that can reinforce cultural diseases like pornography and allow the devil to “sift [us] like wheat” (Luke 22:31). It will take courage and sensitivity among all faithful Catholics to properly address today’s challenges.

Restoring and protecting the whole person is the goal, and a strong and intentional response to pornography should not be allowed to become myopic.

A strong institutional response to pornography as a particular issue cannot replace a pastoral approach for each individual that addresses pornography in the context of the whole person. Catholic educators provide resources for healing and growth out of love for the student and strive to maintain a balance. Care is taken to inspire, aid, and equip students without feeding scrupulosity or narrowing their gaze. On the other hand, many are tempted to ignore or minimize its negative effects on the person and society. These opposing reactions to pornography—inordinately focusing on it to the detriment of other issues, and trying to downplay it as a passing phase, a harmless indulgence, or merely a private problem—are rooted in the same impulse to compartmentalize the human person.

Extra attention to pornography on campus should always be situated in the broader context of growth in virtue and holiness. Fighting pornography and promoting chastity is not the summit of moral formation but a necessary component of a true interior freedom that allows a student to pursue his or her vocation. Today’s challenges in the realm of chastity and sexual integration are profound and require a strong, courageous response. While attempting to strike a balance in order to serve the entire person, it is good to err on the side of doing more rather than less.[26]

Helping adults combat and heal from pornography is no less important than protecting minors.

Pope Francis advises transcending legal distinctions of adulthood to adequately address the evils of pornography:

We rightly insist on the gravity of these problems for minors. But we can also underestimate or overlook the extent that they are also problems for adults. Determining the age of minority and majority is important for legal systems, but it is insufficient for dealing with other issues. The spread of ever more extreme pornography and other improper uses of the net not only causes disorders, dependencies and grave harm among adults, but also has a real impact on the way we view love and relations between the sexes. We would be seriously deluding ourselves were we to think that a society where an abnormal consumption of internet sex is rampant among adults could be capable of effectively protecting minors.[27]

A college providing programs for minors should take additional measures to protect them from accidental exposure on the campus network. However, the moral evil of pornography and its effects on the person and society do not change once a student turns 18. Neither does a student with newfound personal liberty suddenly acquire a proportionate level of virtue to fight the onslaught of pornography alone. Catholic colleges have a unique opportunity to address these issues head-on rather than hide behind false notions of autonomy and independence.

One of the fundamental lies about pornography is that it is merely “adult entertainment,” as if that renders it harmless, mature, or freely chosen. Slavery to sin undermines any sort of external freedom that our secular culture claims we possess, and it should be considered an obstacle to student success by Catholic educators. “There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just.”[28]

Preventing Pornography Use on Campus

Catholic colleges should strive to reduce pornography consumption or prevent it altogether. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and taking steps to reduce access to pornography will complement other programs for formation, recovery, and healing.

Implementing multiple preventative strategies at once can help create an environment that communicates a baseline expectation of chastity and makes it easier to be chaste than to not. This is especially helpful for those who are already struggling with temptation. Care for the individuals suffering the wounds of pornography use should be a guiding concern for the community and, in charity, ought to override particular liberties of those who are not struggling in this way.

Explicitly prohibiting the possession or use of pornography in a student code of conduct can be a helpful first step—as long as it is enforced—but there are other tactics to help prevent pornography consumption on campus.

Network filters and university IT resources

A filter on a campus computer network—whether wired or wireless—is a common-sense layer of protection, and it communicates an important message that the institution takes seriously a culture of chastity. A college IT team should be able to implement a campus-wide solution. Recent technological advances have made options available that are inexpensive and sophisticated. Even though pornography is more easily accessed on a student’s smartphone with an independent cellular data network, a campus network filter can be an effective barrier in some circumstances, and more importantly, it signals the institution’s commitment to not be complicit in the evils of pornography use.[29]

Consider adding language to IT user policies, declaring that the institution’s resources may not be used to access or transmit sexually explicit or exploitative material. Note that viewing, distributing or owning child pornography is illegal. Even with a filter in place, this can be another way to communicate an expectation of chastity and prevent accidental exposure. Such policies should be clear, specific, and enforceable.

Media policies

Students should generally be prohibited from displaying films, plays, art, etc. containing sexually explicit material. In addition to preventing near occasions of sin, a general prohibition of this sort communicates a more comprehensive and consistent vision for moral development. Much of what may not be labeled as pornography per se or caught by network filters can still be offensive to chastity and degrading to both the viewer and the actor. The arts form a person’s moral imagination and are thus never wholly neutral or “harmless fun.” The goal is not merely to remove morally offensive media from campus, but ultimately to replace it with what is truly beautiful and in accordance with truth and goodness.

Catholic college leaders might also reflect on the pervasiveness of detached communication (such as texting) and internet use, especially as it relates to student isolation. Efforts that promote a culture of presence and responsible detachment from technology would likely improve interpersonal communication, build community, support chastity, and reduce pornography use.

Relationships and student activities

Since isolation is both a cause of pornography use as well as a challenge that may be new to college students, initiatives to combat it specifically can be a helpful preventive measure. Encouraging strong, healthy friendships is worth the effort for its own sake, as human beings are made for community. In the context of a society wrecked by pornography use, it is even more important to seek creative ways to help students enter into meaningful relationships.

Robust, healthy relationships will not necessarily prevent or heal pornography on their own, but they are important to lasting change. Many of the strategies for formation and healing that are detailed below require a firm rooting in existing relationships to succeed. Pornography is not just a personal problem; the culture will only be healed in community.

Some colleges have developed “household” programs for their students. Most notable among these is Franciscan University of Steubenville; two-thirds of its students participate in a household before graduation. Households at Franciscan are groups of three or more students of the same sex, organized under a pledge expressing a common commitment to a particular spiritual identity. For many students, the fraternity experienced in the household provides a strong foundation for community life in college and often extends past graduation.

Other chastity-related policies

Amanda Graf, vice president of student affairs at Christendom College, recommends taking action to “prevent the downward slide” in campus culture by targeting the conditions that would allow a permissiveness toward pornography to creep in. For many people, pornography consumption is often part of a vicious cycle as both a cause and an effect of isolation or depression. Likewise, actions that offend against the dignity of the person can desensitize one to the evil of pornography.

Residence life staff can enforce “violations of the objectification of people” in residence halls, such as swimsuit posters or rude images or remarks.[30] Similarly, clothing containing degrading imagery or slogans ought to be prohibited in modesty regulations.

When considering strategies to prevent pornography use, it is helpful to step back from the most direct solutions to consider the bigger picture. Our habits are mutually reinforcing, and recognition of this fact can help us put a person’s struggles back into the context of the whole person. This context opens up additional opportunities for preventative measures.[31]

Ensure that all policies related to chastity are coherent and consistent. Thinking through the Church’s teachings on the nature of the human person as male and female and the implications of a proper anthropology can provide a unifying principle that help chastity-related policies work together for the benefit of the student and the community. It is important to clearly identify this unifying principle and consider how policies can be mutually reinforcing.

Explain policies to the college community. In the busy-ness of the school year, it is easy for students and even staff to lose sight of the positive vision that provides the foundation for these policies. They need to know that chastity is neither repressive nor unattainable. The goal is not merely students who can live porn-free, but rather students who embrace the Church’s vision for authentic freedom in Christ.

Forming Staff and Students

Perversions of the natural human inclination to seek love and sexual fulfillment need to be countered with the healing message of Jesus Christ’s redemptive love and man transformed by grace. The gates have been flung open in our culture, and the enemy has already done great damage inside, especially through pornography. Countering the dis-integration wrought by our secular culture will take significant effort but will be well worth it in the long run.

Staff training and peer ministries

Education about the dangers of pornography, confidence in the Church’s message of healing, and pastoral sensitivity are critical for addressing students’ needs. Leaders in the campus community (especially student life and campus ministry staff) should be prepared to discuss the issue of pornography with clarity, charity, and effectiveness. Squeamishness or moral immaturity can be overcome by a responsible enthusiasm born out of confidence in the Church’s teachings. There are many resources available online from Catholic and secular sources that can be used as a starting point for staff discussions, such as:

  • Clean Heart Online (https://cleanheart.online/): created by Covenant Eyes in response to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2015 pastoral letter on pornography.[32]
  • Integrity Restored (https://integrityrestored.com/): created by Catholic counselors and therapists for individuals struggling with pornography addiction.
  • Fight the New Drug (https://fightthenewdrug.org/): An anti-pornography organization that produced Brain, Heart, World, a documentary about the harms of pornography (at https://brainheartworld.org).
  • Blind Eyes Opened (https://blindeyesopened.com/): a documentary film about sex trafficking in the United States and its connection to the pornography industry.
  • Peter Kleponis resources (https://www.peterkleponis.com/resources-for-porn-addiction-recovery/): Dr. Kleponis is a Catholic counselor who has gathered many print and online resources into a helpful directory.

Since pornography ought to be addressed in the wider context of human sexuality and the Church’s positive vision of chastity, a foundational understanding of the Theology of the Body can be helpful for navigating the issue.

Identify clear point persons (ideally one of each sex) in student life or campus ministry departments who can help a student (and other staff members) navigate through the college’s resources and come up with a personal plan. While all student life staff members should be adequately trained in talking about this issue, having a single person who is easily accessible can make it easier for students to avail themselves of the resources made available by the college.

Consider also identifying and equipping peer leaders possessing an interest in restoring authentic community with training and resources to address today’s pressing moral and social challenges. Resident assistants and other formal leaders should be equipped as members of the student life staff, but there are other groups of campus leaders who can be leaven in the campus society. Train peer leaders to identify and address unhealthy behavior, including pornography use, setting appropriate boundaries with the recognition that peers are not experts. Peers who are able to talk realistically and not awkwardly about chastity and the Church’s positive vision for human sexuality can help break down barriers that may be based on personal isolation or a distrust of authority.

Orientation programs

At a Catholic college, the policies, activities, and general culture should convey the strong expectation that students refrain from pornography and immoral sexual activity—an “assumption of chastity”[33]—and the first few weeks on campus are critical for establishing this assumption and cultivating habits for the next four years. College student orientations typically include presentations on student safety (to reduce sexual assault risks, for example), but it is also important to address the deeper moral crisis in our culture. Catholic institutions have the tools to effect a moral transformation that proceeds from the heart of the person and changes the course of one’s life for good. Consider working a strong foundation of chastity and virtuous living into new-student orientation programs and including a section on pornography.

Pornography thrives in the dark and will be rarely discussed by students. Incorporating a robust, sex-specific presentation on pornography into a college’s orientation program can bring it out of the dark and open the cultural conversation on campus. More importantly, it can be a powerful opportunity to set the tone for the students’ college experience. Present the institution’s understanding of human sexuality along with the dangers of pornography, following up with an invitation to take advantage of these next four years to transform one’s capacity for authentic human love.

Speakers and homilies

Education is a critical component of any strategy for changing harmful patterns of behavior or effecting lasting cultural change. Many faithful colleges provide opportunities for students to learn about the dangers and effects of pornography. In addition to the benefits of expert testimony, speakers can reignite the campus conversation and create additional spaces for growth within student relationships. Students often lack the language to open up to their peers about these issues.

Pornography can be addressed from many different angles. The spiritual, social, neurological, and physical aspects of pornography use provide ample material to discuss at events ranging from small group settings to public lectures. It will be important that the speaker is able to get past students’ natural skepticism and awkwardness. Sophisticated and well-informed presentations crafted for a mature audience can draw students in. Vague “chastity talks” are probably unhelpful, compared to focused, detailed, intellectual presentations.

Homilies at campus Masses are another forum in which the issue can be raised periodically out of pastoral concern. Consider setting a goal for the chaplaincy to preach on the subject at least once a semester.

Chastity and authentic love programs

Some faithful Catholic colleges have moved beyond the occasional pornography or chastity talk and developed more comprehensive programs. Contrary to many secular universities which highlight and encourage sexual deviancy during “sex week,” some Catholic colleges have hosted a series of programs and events promoting authentic love. For example, Benedictine College’s Residence Life staff hosts an annual Real Love Initiative Week “to bring to light the power of relationships and sexuality to either affirm or wound individuals and our society as a whole.”[34]

Devoting a theme week to presenting the Church’s vision for human sexuality and authentic love can provide the space for a more comprehensive and holistic treatment of contemporary and perennial issues. Whether it occurs concentrated in a single week or spread out through the semester, a regular series on human love can benefit every college community. Since pornography is one of the largest obstacles to virtue in today’s society, it ought to have a prominent place in any comprehensive chastity program.

Healing from Damage and Addiction

God often makes use of human agents in His work of healing souls and bodies. Catholic colleges are uniquely positioned to offer a host of effective resources to students who struggle with pornography and desire freedom. For many students, college may be the first time that a truly Catholic approach to recovering from pornography use is close at hand, one which addresses the spiritual dimension of the person in addition to the psychological or physical dimension.

In his apostolic constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae, Pope St. John Paul II reminds us that pastoral ministry is “a constitutive element of a Catholic University itself, both in its structure and in its life.”[35] He continues:

Pastoral ministry is an indispensable means by which Catholic students can, in fulfilment of their baptism, be prepared for active participation in the life of the Church; it can assist in developing and nurturing the value of marriage and family life, fostering vocations to the priesthood and religious life, stimulating the Christian commitment of the laity and imbuing every activity with the spirit of the Gospel.[36]

Part of this preparation consists of the removal of obstacles to growth in virtue and the pursuit of one’s vocation. Pornography disrupts relationships especially within marriage and family life, hampers formation in pursuit of consecrated vocations,[37] and generally harms a person’s ability to pursue spiritual goods and exist as a person-for-others.[38] If students’ potential is to be fully realized, real healing from pornography addiction or the effects of prior use must take place. Colleges can do much to help with the healing process.

Sacraments and devotions

The Sacrament of Confession is a necessary remedy for dealing with habitual sin, and on a Catholic college campus, there ought to be ample time for confessions during the week. Students should be encouraged not to “priest-hop” if they are dealing with a habit, once they have found a priest who takes the habit seriously. Campus ministry staff can ensure that there are information cards present inside the confessional, so that a confessor can easily recommend resources for breaking free of pornography, as well as brief articles by reputable Catholics.

Students struggling with pornography should be encouraged to avail themselves of the grace received in weekly and daily Mass. Frequent Mass attendance diminishes the potential for disconnectedness, drift, and isolation from the Body of Christ.

Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is also a powerful opportunity for students to experience healing. Pornography assaults not only the physical eyes but also the inner eye that disposes us to see through the sacramental veil, and it is helpful for many to have a direct, physical encounter with Christ’s Eucharistic Face. Jesus desires us to be in His presence, and it is important for students to have ample opportunities to make reparation and seek healing.

Consider a devotional event such as a Holy Hour dedicated specifically to making reparation for the evils of pornography and seeking healing for those suffering from its effects. The first recourse on a Catholic college campus should be to God through prayer and fasting. However, since God works through His creation and many struggles with pornography are rooted in human causes, it is not the only recourse.

Accountability

Priests, counselors, chastity speakers—nearly every expert in this arena consistently recommends accountability software like Covenant Eyes for men and women fighting pornography. They do so with good reason. College students suddenly lose structures of accountability that were in place at home, and many find it helpful to intentionally reintroduce accountability into their adult life. For students fighting pornography addiction, internet accountability software may be essential to their healing. Of course, voluntary internet accountability can be new and difficult at first for students, and it requires a strong commitment from both parties that is rooted in love.

Colleges can make subscriptions to services like Covenant Eyes available to students for free and perhaps even require students to install such a service as a condition of using a device on campus networks. Covenant Eyes has group plans that help make it more affordable to institutions or students.[39]

Other programs that can be helpful to point students toward include:

  • The Victory App[40]
  • Strive 21 with Matt Fradd[41]
  • Exodus 90[42]

Support and therapy groups

Some may find a group helpful for accountability, inspiration, and motivation—especially when situated within a strong faith-based community on campus. It is important for these to consist of men or women who are serious about recovery and always moving forward. Support groups are typically led by peers, but a trained counselor who is qualified to deal with matters of spiritual and mental health is a better leader. In a peer-to-peer setting, communication is not protected as privileged under the law, as it would be with a professional or a priest.

Catholic colleges should not make referrals to programs that are not committed to authentic sexual morality, but there may be groups in the local area that are a good fit for a student. For example, Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) is a 12-step-style group with a sobriety definition that is in line with the Catholic understanding of chastity. SA has chapters across the country.[43]

Spiritual direction

Chaplains who are readily available for spiritual direction are well-positioned to help a student work through recovery beyond the confessional. Inviting students to discuss difficult topics like pornography one-on-one is part of a holistic approach that may be needed for those whose struggles are more deeply engrained. Priest chaplains who are well-trained when it comes to dealing with sexual addictions and pornography use can help break down misconceptions of the self that are rooted in shame and help reorient a person’s self-identity as a son or daughter of God.

Counselors and health centers

All mental health staff on campus should be required to know and work within the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. In a staff of multiple counselors, it is important that at least one is trained in sexual issues like pornography addiction. In addition to helping students overcome addiction through regular confession, accountability software and relationships, support group sessions, and a spiritual director, consideration for professional help should be ongoing. This should not be a last resort, but rather a resource throughout the process. Therapy is meant to be used at any time and ideally in conjunction with other resources. It is not meant to be only a last resort for crisis situations.

Addiction is a progressive disease, meaning that it is subtle and evolves slowly. When quality of life has been impacted to the point that an individual recognizes the need for outside support, the impact on thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and relationships is already substantial enough to warrant counseling support. He or she may need professional help to uncover what else could be going on as the porn use continues. Professional assistance throughout the process can facilitate the remedy at an earlier stage.

If a college does not have mental health professionals on staff, there may be local Catholic counselors available to students. They may be able to conduct sessions online or over the phone. Here are some resources:

  • https://integrityrestored.com/finding-a-good-therapist/: Helpful guidelines for finding a counselor who understands Catholic teaching.
  • https://www.catholictherapists.com/: This website identifies local Catholic therapists.
  • https://www.peterkleponis.com/: Dr. Peter Kleponis is an example of a Catholic therapist specializing in sexual addictions who is willing to work with clients online.

The research has shown that addiction and dependence diagnoses are best addressed with a multifaceted approach. Ideally, the approach is a combination of group therapy, an identified peer available for consistent support and accountability, and individual mental health counseling. If the college can make these opportunities accessible in addition to the sacraments, it can be extremely powerful for healing.

Consider one example: Benedictine College developed a committee two years ago consisting of representatives from campus ministry, the counseling center, residence life, and the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. The committee brainstormed a multi-faceted approach to battle pornography use and addiction, including workshops, small groups, presentations, homilies, and individual therapy. This comprehensive approach seems to be having good results, according to College staff.

The partnering of Benedictine College’s campus ministry and counseling center—which includes one male counselor and one female counselor certified and trained in pornography and sex addiction—optimizes the development of programs and effective support resources. For instance, the counseling center collaborates with campus ministry to provide a presentation on pornography to the student body at least once per semester. Attendance and interest have been positive.

Benedictine provides a weekly group meeting for men, jointly led by a male counselor and a priest. The group breaks into smaller groups to facilitate communication and relationship building. After each group meeting, a priest offers confession. The keys to this approach are 1) having a trusted priest involved to give personal invitations to men, 2) positive reputation among students, and 3) peer-to-peer referrals.

Benedictine College has found implementing group programs for women more difficult. Female students tend to prefer individual counseling; however, they have been more receptive to participating in a small-group setting when it is led by a trusted senior woman in leadership, who is supported by a resident director and a counselor.

Conclusion

Pornography has run rampant through our culture, leaving many with lasting wounds. Catholic colleges are entrusted by the Church and parents with a special mission and ought to do everything in their power to turn the tide and to cooperate with grace, in order to be instruments of the lasting healing that our Lord and our Mother desire for the students in their care.

In times of crisis, Catholics have always been able to turn to the Blessed Virgin Mary for help. Consider dedicating anti-pornography efforts to her, confident that she will distribute healing graces to her children. Consecrate the student life team to the Blessed Mother and promote Marian consecration on campus. In addition, look to St. Raphael, the archangel who healed Tobit’s eyes and is associated by tradition with the healing waters of the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-4), as a special protector of students who are in need of healing from pornography.

 

About the Author

Peter Tapsak is a researcher and writer for the Catholic Identity Standards Project of The Cardinal Newman Society.

 

Appendix – Select Resources

Websites

Angelic Warfare Confraternity: https://www.angelicwarfareconfraternity.org/

Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas My House Initiative: https://www.archkck.org/myhouse

Catholic Therapists: https://www.catholictherapists.com/

Chastity Project: https://chastity.com/

Clean Heart Online: https://cleanheart.online/

Covenant Eyes: https://www.covenanteyes.com/

Diocese of Arlington Office of Family Life, Anti-Pornography Resources: https://www.arlingtondiocese.org/find-support/anti-pornography/

Diocese of Lincoln Office of Family Life, Internet Protection & Pornography: https://www.lincolndiocese.org/internet-protection-pornography/home

Exodus 90: https://exodus90.com/

Fight the New Drug: https://fightthenewdrug.org/

Integrity Restored: https://intregrityrestored.com/

Sexaholics Anonymous: https://www.sa.org/

Strive: https://www.strive21.com/

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Create in Me a Clean Heart:  https://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/pornography/index.cfm

Victory App: https://thevictoryapp.com/

Articles

Benedictine College. “Blocking Pornography on Campus” at https://www.thegregorian.org/2019/
blocking-pornography-on-campus (accessed on March 3, 2020).

Carroll, Jason et al. “Generation XXX: Pornography Acceptance and Use Among Emerging Adults.” Journal of Adolescent Research (Vol. 23: 1, 2008) 6-30.

Fagan, Pat. “The Effects of Pornography on Individuals, Marriage, Family and Community” at https://newmansociety.org/effects-pornography-individuals-marriage-family-community/.

Fight the New Drug. “Porn Kills Grades: Research Shows XXX Content’s Effect on Academics” at https://fightthenewdrug.org/study-shows-college-kids-are-struggling-academically-due-to-porn-viewing/ (accessed on June 2, 2020).

Fradd, Matt. “Porn and Relationships” at https://focusoncampus.org/content/porn-and-relationships (accessed on June 10, 2020).

Gobry, Pascal-Emmanuel. “A Science-Based Case for Ending the Porn Epidemic” at https://eppc.org/publications/a-science-based-case-for-ending-the-porn-epidemic/ (accessed on Mar. 5, 2020).

Grondelski, John. “Catholic Colleges and Online Pornography.” Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly (Vol. 31: 2, Summer 2008) 18-21.

Grondelski, John. “Pornography, Masturbation, and the Confessor” at https://www.hprweb.com/
2012/11/pornography-masturbation-and-the-confessor/ (accessed on June 2, 2020).

Hammer, Josh. “Porn is not a Blessing of Liberty” at https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/12/porn-is-not-a-blessing-of-liberty (accessed on June 10, 2020).

Hawkins, Dawn. “It Can’t Wait: Exposing the Connection Between Forms of Sexual Exploitation” at https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/dignity/vol2/iss3/2/ (accessed on June 2, 2020).

Hutter, Reinhard. “Pornography and Acedia” at https://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/04/
pornography-and-acedia (accessed on June 10, 2020).

Kaczor, Christopher. “Strategies for Reducing Binge Drinking and a ‘Hook-Up’ Culture on Campus” at https://newmansociety.org/strategies-reducing-binge-drinking-hook-culture-campus/ (accessed on June 10, 2020).

Lickona, Thomas. “Battling Pornography: The Power of Media Literacy and Character Development” at https://www2.cortland.edu/dotAsset/1f4d0be6-1aa4-48da-917f-c282fc265aef.pdf (accessed on June 10, 2020).

Mosley, Patrina. “Women and Pornography” at https://downloads.frc.org/EF/EF18F20.pdf (accessed on June 10, 2020).

National Center on Sexual Exploitation. “The Links Between Pornography and Sexual Violence” at https://endsexualexploitation.org/wp-content/uploads/NCOSE_Connections2019_PornViolence_toPrint_bleed_8-16.pdf (accessed on June 10, 2020).

Pope Francis. “Address to Participants in the Congress on ‘Child Dignity in the Digital World’” at https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2017/october/documents/papa-francesco_20171006_congresso-childdignity-digitalworld.html (accessed on June 10, 2020).

Reilly, Patrick. “Catholics Should Lead on Banning Porn.” The National Catholic Register at https://www.ncregister.com/blog/reilly/catholics-should-lead-on-banning-porn (accessed on June 10, 2020).

Salomon, Kelly. “‘We Strive to Develop a Sense of Chastity:’ How Catholic Colleges are Fighting Porn” at https://catholicherald.co.uk/we-strive-to-develop-a-sense-of-chastity-how-catholic-colleges-are-fighting-porn/ (accessed on June 10, 2020).

Books 

Fradd, Matt. The Porn Myth: Exposing the Reality Behind the Fantasy of Pornography. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017.

Kleponis, Peter. Integrity Restored: Helping Catholic Families Win the Battle Against Pornography. Steubenville: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2014.

Kleponis, Peter. Integrity Starts Here! A Catholic Approach to Restoring Sexual Integrity. Denver: Outskirts Press, 2016.

Loverde, Bp. Paul. Bought with a Price: Every Man’s Duty to Protect Himself and His Family from a Pornographic Culture. Diocese of Arlington (2014) at https://www.arlingtondiocese.org/
find-support/anti-pornography/.

Pieper, Josef. A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991.

Pieper, Josef. The Four Cardinal Virtues. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003.

Videos/Podcasts

Ascension Presents. “How to Quit Porn” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpGygVwFMtM (accessed on June 2, 2020).

Blind Eyes Opened at https://blindeyesopened.com/.

Covenant Eyes. “Remaining Porn Free in College” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cf-8EIeo13I (accessed on June 2, 2020).

“How Pornography Impacts Vocational Discernment” athttps://faithandmarriage.org/podcast/017-how-pornography-impacts-vocational-discernment-with-fr-sean-kilcawley/ (accessed on June 10, 2020).

Kilcawley, Fr. Sean. YouTube channel. Many helpful videos and talks at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCpmoUcArv9m2pJ9VdbHo_NA.

Experts

Jason Evert, founder, Chastity Project

Dr. Kevin Kilcawley, founder, Integrative Psychology Services

Fr. Sean Kilcawley, Director of the Office of Family Life, Diocese of Lincoln

Dr. Peter Kleponis, Licensed Professional Counselor

Dr. Mary Anne Layden, Psychotherapist and Director of Education at the Center for Cognitive Therapy and Director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program and Director of the Social Action Committee for Women’s Psychological Health, University of Pennsylvania

 

[1] See also John Grondelski, “Catholic Colleges and Online Pornography,” Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Summer 2008) 18-21.

[2] Pope John Paul II explains the importance of pastoral ministry in the context of the Catholic university thus: “Pastoral ministry is that activity of the University which offers the members of the university community an opportunity to integrate religious and moral principles with their academic study and non-academic activities, thus integrating faith with life. It is part of the mission of the Church within the University and is also a constitutive element of a Catholic University itself, both in its structure and in its life. A university community concerned with promoting the Institution’s Catholic character will be conscious of this pastoral dimension and sensitive to the ways in which it can have an influence on all university activities.” Saint John Paul II, Ex corde Ecclesiae (1990) 38.

[3] “What’s the Average Age of a Child’s First Exposure to Porn?” at https://fightthenewdrug.org/real-average-age-of-first-exposure/ (accessed on Mar. 5, 2020).

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993) 2354.

[5] Dawn Hawkins, “It Can’t Wait: Exposing the Connection Between Forms of Sexual Exploitation,” Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and Violence, Vol. 2, No. 3 (2017) at https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/dignity/vol2/iss3/2/ (accessed on June 2, 2020).

[6] Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, “A Science-Based Case for Ending the Porn Epidemic” (December 15, 2019) at https://eppc.org/publications/a-science-based-case-for-ending-the-porn-epidemic/ (accessed on Mar. 5, 2020).

[7] National Center on Sexual Exploitation, “The Links Between Pornography and Sexual Violence” (2019) at https://endsexualexploitation.org/wp-content/uploads/NCOSE_Connections2019_PornViolence_toPrint_bleed_8-16.pdf (accessed on Mar. 5, 2020).

[8] Pat Fagan, “The Effects of Pornography on Individuals, Marriage, Family and Community” (December 2009) at https://newmansociety.org/effects-pornography-individuals-marriage-family-community/ (accessed on June 2, 2020).

[9] MarriPedia, “Neurological Effects of Pornography” at http://marripedia.org/neurological_effects_of_pornography (accessed on Sept. 4, 2020).

[10] Judith A. Reisman, “The Brain Science Behind Pornography Addiction and the Effects of Addiction on Families and Communities” (Testimony before the United States Senate, Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Nov. 18, 2004) at https://oxbowacademy.net/educationalarticles/senate_hearing_porn1/ (accessed on June 2, 2020).

[11] Catechism 2354.

[12] This is difficult for us to understand in an age of relativism and sexual libertinism. Josef Pieper notes: “For us men and women of today… who scarcely regard as sensible the concept of an ascesis of the intellect—for us, the deeply intrinsic connection that links the knowledge of truth to the condition of purity has vanished from our consciousness. Thomas [Aquinas] notes that the firstborn daughter of unchastity is the blindness of spirit.” Josef Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991) 42.

[13] Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003) 159-160.

[14] Pieper (1991) 42-43.

[15] Pieper (1991) 44.

[16] Pieper (2003) 175.

[17] John Grondelski, “Pornography, Masturbation, and the Confessor,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review (November 29, 2012) at https://www.hprweb.com/2012/11/pornography-masturbation-and-the-confessor/ (accessed on June 2, 2020).

[18] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1920) II-II 35:1 at https://www.newadvent.org/summa/3035.htm (accessed on Sept. 15, 2020).

[19] Reinhard Hutter, “Pornography and Acedia,” First Things (April 2012) at https://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/04/pornography-and-acedia (accessed on June 2, 2020).

[20] Reinhard Hutter, “Pornography and Acedia,” First Things (April 2012) at https://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/04/pornography-and-acedia (accessed June 2, 2020).

[21] Aquinas (1920) II-II 35:4.

[22] Aquinas (1920) II-II 167:2.

[23] Paul Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2009) 22, 161.

[24] Covenant Eyes, “Remaining Porn Free in College” YouTube video (November 18, 2014) at

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cf-8EIeo13I (accessed on June 2, 2020); Ascension Presents, “How to Quit Porn” YouTube video (April 1, 2015) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpGygVwFMtM (accessed on June 2, 2020).

[25] Jason S. Carroll, et al. “Generation XXX: Pornography Acceptance and Use Among Emerging Adults,” Journal of Adolescent Research, Volume: 23, Issue: 1 (2008) 6-30.

[26] Aristotle observes that we often obtain the virtuous mean by aiming beyond it, erring on the opposite side of what we tend to naturally: “But we must consider the things towards which we ourselves also are easily carried away; for some of us tend to one thing, some to another; and this will be recognizable from the pleasure and the pain we feel. We must drag ourselves away to the contrary extreme; for we shall get into the intermediate state by drawing well away from error, as people do in straightening sticks that are bent.” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. W.D. Ross, at http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.2.ii.html 2.11 (accessed on Sept. 15, 2020).

[27] Pope Francis, “Address to the Participants in the Congress on ‘Child Dignity in the Digital World’” (October 6, 2017) at https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2017/october/documents/papa-francesco_20171006_congresso-childdignity-digitalworld.html (accessed on June 2, 2020).

[28] Catechism 1733.

[29] John Garvey, “Look at This,” Arlington Catholic Herald (April 24, 2019) at https://www.catholicherald.com/Opinions/Columnists/Look_at_this/ (accessed on Sept. 15, 2020); Martin M. Barillas, “Online Petition Calls on Catholic University of America to Ban Campus Internet Porn” (April 10. 2019) at https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/online-petition-calls-on-catholic-university-of-america-to-ban-campus-internet-porn (accessed on Sept. 15, 2020).

[30] Benedictine College, “Blocking Pornography on Campus” at https://www.thegregorian.org/2019/blocking-pornography-on-campus (accessed Feb. 20, 2020).

[31] See additional ideas regarding chastity-related policies in Christopher Kaczor, “Strategies for Reducing Binge Drinking and a ‘Hook-Up’ Culture on Campus” (The Cardinal Newman Society, 2012) at https://newmansociety.org/strategies-reducing-binge-drinking-hook-culture-campus/ (accessed on Sept. 15, 2020).

[32] See U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Create in Me a Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography” (Nov. 2015) at http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/pornography/index.cfm (accessed Sept. 15, 2020).

[33] This term was coined and the concept shared with the Newman Society by Dr. Patrick Fagan, director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute at The Catholic University of America. Dr. Fagan suggested that the cultural and institutional assumptions about chastity will be clearly picked up by students and they will feel pressure to conform either to a chaste environment or a hook-up environment. If the institutional policies are a “wink and a nod” giving lip-service to chastity, or if student resident assistants condone the hook-up culture, students will be far more likely to engage in that culture even if they would rather remain chaste. A Catholic college has an opportunity and, the Newman Society would argue, a responsibility to create a campus culture where chastity is assumed, valued, and supported.

[34] Benedictine College, “Blocking Pornography on Campus” at https://www.thegregorian.org/2019/blocking-pornography-on-campus (accessed on Mar. 3, 2020).

[35] Saint John Paul II (1990) 38.

[36] Saint John Paul II (1990) 41.

[37] Especially vocations to the priesthood—as Saint John Paul II writes, “Affective maturity, which is the result of an education in true and responsible love, is a significant and decisive factor in the formation of candidates for the priesthood.” We may read into “education” here a removal of those obstacles to true and responsible love caused by pornography. Saint John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992) 43.

[38] For more on how pornography harms vocational discernment, see this interview with Fr. Sean Kilcawley on the Always Hope podcast at https://faithandmarriage.org/podcast/017-how-pornography-impacts-vocational-discernment-with-fr-sean-kilcawley/ (accessed on Sept. 15, 2020).

[39] Covenant Eyes (https://www.covenanteyes.com/) is the industry leader when it comes to internet accountability software. See https://www.covenanteyes.com/catholic-resources/ and https://cleanheart.online/ for additional resources.

[40] See https://thevictoryapp.com/.

[41] See https://www.cardinalstudios.org/strive.

[42] See https://exodus90.com/. This is a rigorous ascetic program designed specifically for men. It was developed by seminarians and crafted with certain neuroscience findings in mind, such as it taking about 90 days of abstinence to break addictions, even though it is not a recovery program per se. It is advisable to consult a counselor and/or spiritual director about the program. While it is not directly an anti-pornography program, many participants in Exodus 90 have found it to be very helpful in cultivating accountability relationships and fighting bad sexual habits.

[43] See https://www.sa.org/.

The Effects of Pornography on Individuals, Marriage, Family and Community

Editor’s Note

This paper is co-published by the Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI) at the Family Research Council in cooperation with the Love and Responsibility Project of The Center for the Study of Catholic Higher Education. 

Catholic colleges and universities have important reasons to discourage and restrict student access to pornography, which “perverts the conjugal act” and is a “grave offense” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Given the massive, deleterious individual, marital, family and social effects of pornography, college leaders should consider ways of increasing the effectiveness and impact of institutional approaches to students’ sexual behavior.

This paper reports ample evidence that pornography distorts a young person’s concept of the nature of conjugal relations and alters both sexual attitudes and behavior.  Pornography engenders greater sexual permissiveness, which in turn leads to a greater risk of out-of-wedlock births and STDs.  Men who view pornography regularly have a higher tolerance for abnormal sexuality—including rape, sexual aggression and sexual promiscuity.  If continued beyond college, the viewing of pornography is a major threat to marriage, to family, to children and to individual happiness.  In undermining marriage it is one of the factors in undermining social stability.

Pornography, as a visual (mis)representation of sexuality, distorts an individual’s concept of sexual relations by objectifying them, which, in turn, alters both sexual attitudes and behavior.  It is a major threat to marriage, to family, to children, and to individual happiness.

Social scientists, clinical psychologists, and biologists have begun to clarify some of the social and psychological effects of pornography, and neurologists are beginning to delineate the biological mechanisms through which pornography produces its powerful effects on people.

Pornography’s power to undermine individual and social functioning is powerful and deep.

  • Effect on the Mind: Pornography significantly distorts attitudes and perceptions about the nature of sexual intercourse.  Men who habitually look at pornography have a higher tolerance for abnormal sexual behaviors, sexual aggression, promiscuity, and even rape.  In addition, men begin to view women and even children as “sex objects,” commodities or instruments for their pleasure, not as persons with their own inherent dignity.
  • Effect on the Body: Pornography is very addictive.  The addictive aspect of pornography has a biological substrate, with dopamine hormone release acting as one of the mechanisms for forming the transmission pathway to pleasure centers of the brain.  Also, the increased sexual permissiveness engendered by pornography increases the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease or of being an unwitting parent in an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
  • Effect on the Heart: Pornography affects people’s emotional lives. Married men who are involved in pornography feel less satisfied with their marital sexual relations and less emotionally attached to their wives. Women married to men with a pornography addiction report feelings of betrayal, mistrust, and anger. Pornographic use may lead to infidelity and even divorce. Adolescents who view pornography feel shame, diminished self-confidence, and sexual uncertainty.

Introduction

The conjugal act—the act of sexual intercourse—brings humanity into existence and sets in motion the next generations of society.  Sexual intercourse, like atomic energy, is a powerful agent for good if channeled well, but for ill if not.  Healthy societies maintain their stability by channeling the sexual energies of young adults into marriage, an institution that legitimizes sexual intercourse, protects the children that are the fruit of intercourse, and channels the giving and receiving of sexual pleasure in a way that builds up rather than tears down society.  Sexual taboos are one set of the normal mechanisms of social control of the sexual appetite.  They are analogous to the control rods of a nuclear reactor plant: they block the sexual from straying off course and into destructive pathways.

One of the biggest tasks of adolescent members of all society is to come to grips with their burgeoning sexuality.  Some have always tested the limits of sexual expression even when strong social controls were in place.  In well-ordered societies, such testing triggers immediate social sanctions from parents, mentors, and community.

In today’s media-saturated society, these sanctions operate in fewer and fewer quarters.  A substantial factor in this shift has been the growth of digital media and the Internet.  This “digital revolution” has led to great strides in productivity, communication, and other desirable ends, but pornographers also have harnessed its power for their profit.  The cost has been a further weakening of the nation’s citizens and families, a development that should be of grave concern to all.  The social sciences demonstrate the appropriateness of this concern.

Two recent reports, one by the American Psychological Association on hyper-sexualized girls, and the other by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy on the pornographic content of phone texting among teenagers, make clear that the digital revolution is being used by younger and younger children to dismantle the barriers that channel sexuality into family life.1

Pornography hurts adults, children, couples, families, and society.  Among adolescents, pornography hinders the development of a healthy sexuality, and among adults, it distorts sexual attitudes and social realities.  In families, pornography use leads to marital dissatisfaction, infidelity, separation, and divorce.  Society at large is not immune to the effect of pornography.  Child sex-offenders, for example, are often involved not only in the viewing, but also in the distribution, of pornography.

Pornography is powerful enough even to overwhelm individuals, couples, and families despite earlier affectionate relationships—whether between the mother and father or between the parents and the child.  But loving family relationships can help mute many of the factors that encourage the use of pornography long before its addictive power takes root in a user’s life.

The effect of regular viewing of pornography on marriage and family is dealt with first, for there its greatest damage to the innocent can be seen.  Then the source of this damage is reviewed: the effects on the individual user, his psyche, and his behavior.  Adolescent usage, patterns, and effects are then delineated, for during this period the habit of viewing pornography is often developed in stages.  Finally the effects of sexually-oriented-businesses on their local environs are reviewed.

The Consequences of Viewing Pornography

Family Consequences

Pornography has significant effects during all stages of family life.  For a child exposed to pornography within a family setting, pornography causes stress and increases the risk for developing negative attitudes about the nature and purpose of human sexuality.  For adolescents who view pornography, their attitudes toward their own and others’ sexuality change, and their sexual expectations and behavior are shaped accordingly.  For adults, pornography has harmful and even destructive effects on marriage.

Impact on Children

The impact of a parent’s use of pornography on young children is varied and disturbing.  Pornography eliminates the warmth of affectionate family life, which is the natural social nutrient for a growing child.  Other losses and traumas related to the use of pornography when a child is young include:

  • encountering pornographic material a parent has acquired;
  • encountering a parent masturbating;
  • overhearing a parent engaged in “phone sex”;
  • witnessing and experiencing stress in the home caused by online sexual activities;
  • increased risk of the children becoming consumers of pornography themselves;
  • witnessing and being involved in parental conflict;
  • exposure to the commodification of human beings, especially women, as “sex objects”;
  • increased risk of parental job loss and financial strain;
  • increased risk of parental separation and divorce;
  • decreased parental time and attention—both from the pornography-addicted parent and from the parent preoccupied with the addicted spouse.2

Also, parents may disclose their struggle with the addiction to pornography to their children, intentionally or unintentionally, thereby distorting their children’s sexual development.3

Impact on Adolescents

Pornography viewing among teenagers disorients them during that developmental phase when they have to learn how to handle their sexuality and when they are most vulnerable to uncertainty about their sexual beliefs and moral values.4  A study of 2,343 adolescents found that sexually explicit Internet material significantly increased their uncertainties about sexuality.5  The study also showed that increased exposure to sexually explicit Internet material increased favorable attitudes toward sexual exploration with others outside of marriage and decreased marital commitment to the other spouse.6  Another study by Todd G. Morrison, professor of psychology at the University of Saskatchewan, and colleagues found that adolescents exposed to high levels of pornography had lower levels of sexual self-esteem.7

A significant relationship also exists between frequent pornography use and feelings of loneliness, including major depression.8 9

Finally, viewing pornography can engender feelings of shame: In a study of high school students, the majority of those who had viewed pornography felt some degree of shame for viewing it.  However, 36 percent of males and 26 percent of females said they were never ashamed of viewing pornography,10 giving some idea of the level of desensitization already reached in society.

High adolescent consumption of pornography also affects behavior.  Male pornography use is linked to significantly increased sexual intercourse with non-romantic friends,11 and is likely a correlate of the so-called “hook-up” culture.

Exposure to pornographic sexual content can be a significant factor in teenage pregnancy.  A three year longitudinal study of teenagers found that frequent exposure to televised sexual content was related to a substantially greater likelihood of teenage pregnancy within the succeeding three years.  This same study also found that the likelihood of teenage pregnancy was two times greater when the quantity of that sexual content exposure, within the viewing episodes, was high rather than low.12

Impact on Marriage

Marital Dissatisfaction

Pornography use undermines marital relations and distresses wives.13  Husbands report loving their spouses less after long periods of looking at (and desiring) women depicted in pornography.14

In many cases, the wives of pornography users also develop deep psychological wounds, commonly reporting feelings of betrayal, loss, mistrust, devastation, and anger in responses to the discovery or disclosure of a partner’s pornographic online sexual activity.15

Wives can begin to feel unattractive or sexually inadequate and may become severely depressed when they realize their husbands view pornography.16  The distress level in wives may be so high as to require clinical treatment for trauma, not mere discomfort.17

Viewers of pornography assign increased importance to sexual relations without emotional involvement,18 and consequently, wives experience decreased intimacy from their husbands.19

The emotional distance fostered by pornography and “cybersex” (interactive computer contact with another regarding pornographic sexual issues) can often be just as damaging to the relationship as real-life infidelity,20 and both men and women tend to put online sexual activity in the same category as having an affair.21  The estrangement between spouses wrought by pornography can have tangible consequences as well: when the viewing of pornography rises to the level of addiction, 40 percent of “sex addicts” lose their spouses, 58 percent suffer considerable financial losses, and about a third lose their jobs.22

In a study on the effects of “cybersex”—a form of sexually explicit interaction between two people on the Internet—researchers found that more than half of those engaged in “cybersex” had lost interest in sexual intercourse, while one-third of their partners had lost interest as well, while in one-fifth of the couples both husband and wife or both partners had a significantly decreased interest in sexual intercourse.  Stated differently, this study showed that only one-third of couples maintained an interest in sexual relations with one another when one partner was engaged in “cybersex.” 23

Prolonged exposure to pornography also fosters dissatisfaction with, and even distate for, a spouse’s affection.24  Cynical attitudes regarding love begin to emerge, and “superior sexual pleasures are thought attainable without affection toward partners.”25  These consequences hold for both men and women who have had prolonged exposure to pornography, with the decline in sexual happiness being primarily due to the growing dissatisfaction with the spouse’s normal sexual behavior.26

Finally, pornography users increasingly see the institution of marriage as sexually confining,27 have diminished belief in the importance of marital faithfulness,28 and have increasing doubts about the value of marriage as an essential social institution and further doubts about its future viability.29  All this naturally diminishes the importance for them of having good family relations in their own families.30

Increased Infidelity

Dolf Zillman of the University of Alabama, in one study of adolescents, shows that the steady use of pornography frequently leads to abandonment of fidelity to their girlfriends.31  Steven Stack of Wayne State University and colleagues later showed that pornography use increased the marital infidelity rate by more than 300 percent.32  Another study found a strong correlation between viewing Internet pornography and sexually permissive behavior.33  Stack’s study found that Internet pornography use is 3.7 times greater among those who procure sexual relations with a prostitute than among those who do not.34

“Cybersex” pornography also leads to much higher levels of infidelity among women.  Women who engaged in “cybersex” had about 40 percent more offline sexual partners than women who did not engage in cybersex.35

Separation and Divorce

Given the research already cited, it is not surprising that addiction to pornography is a contributor to separation and divorce.  In the best study to date (a very rudimentary opportunity study of reports by divorce lawyers on the most salient factors present in the divorce cases they handled), 68 percent of divorce cases involved one party meeting a new paramour over the Internet, 56 percent involved “one party having an obsessive interest in pornographic websites,” 47 percent involved “spending excessive time on the computer,” and 33 percent involved spending excessive time in chat rooms (a commonly sexualized forum).36  Cybersex, which often takes place in these chat rooms, was a major factor in separation and divorce:  In over 22 percent of the couples observed the spouse was no longer living with the “cybersex” addict, and in many of the other cases spouses were seriously considering leaving the marriage or relationship.37

Differences Between Men and Women

Pornography affects both men and women.  However there are significant differences between men and women on the likelihood of using pornography, the types of pornography used, and their feelings about pornography.

Different Rates of Use and Different Types of Use

Men and women use pornography differently.  Men are more than six times as likely to view pornography as females,38 and more likely to spend more time viewing it.

In a study of self-identified female ”cybersex” addicts, women reported that they preferred engaging in “cybersex” within the context of a relationship (via email or chat room) rather than accessing pornographic images.  This preference may contribute to the significant difference one study found in the proportion of women who have real-life sexual encounters with their online companions compared to men.  It found that 80 percent of women who engaged in these online sexual activities also had real-life sexual encounters with their online partners, compared to the much lower proportion of 33 percent for men.39  Also, as stated above, such women are much more likely to have had very high numbers of such sexual encounters and partners.40  However in another study, this time of men who flirted in Internet chat rooms, 78 percent reported they had at least one face-to-face sexual experience with someone they had met through a chat room in the past year.41  Thus, it seems that a very high proportion of both men and women who engage in “cybersex” may go on to have physical sexual encounters with their online partners.

A study of sex-addicted men also found that 43 percent used online sexual activity to engage in sexual activities they would never otherwise perform.42  Similarly, self reports also reveal that the tendency to explore new behaviors in “offline” relationships increases with increased online sexual activity.43

Different Reactions to Different Infidelities

The way men and women view infidelity is very different.  One study, using undergraduates from a large university in Northern Ireland, investigated how men and women perceive online and offline sexual and emotional infidelity.  When forced to decide, men were more upset by sexual infidelity and women by emotional infidelity.  Only 23 percent of women claimed they would be more bothered by sexual infidelity, compared to the 77 percent of women who would be more bothered by emotional infidelity.  Males felt the opposite way.  Eighty-four percent of the men reported they would be more bothered by sexual infidelity, whereas only 16 percent say they would be more bothered by emotional infidelity.44

In a study which examined different types of degrading pornography, featuring themes such as “objectification” and “dominance,” both men and women rated the same three major themes as the most degrading of all, but with different intensities: women rated them as even more degrading than men did.45

Individual Consequences

Pornography changes the habits of the mind, the inner private self.  Its use can easily become habitual, which in turn leads to desensitization, boredom, distorted views of reality, and an objectification of women.  A greater amount of sexual stimuli becomes necessary to arouse habitual users, leading them to pursue more deviant forms of pornography to fulfill their sexual desires.

Desensitization, Habituation, and Boredom

Prolonged use of pornography produces habituation,46 boredom, and sexual dissatisfaction among female and male viewers,47 and is associated with more lenient views of extramarital sexual relations and recreational attitudes toward sex.48  A 2000 study of college freshmen found that the habitual use of pornography led to greater tolerance of sexually explicit material, thus requiring more novel and bizarre material to achieve the same level of arousal or interest.49  For example, habituation may lead to watching “depictions of group sex, sadomasochistic practices, and sexual contact with animals,”50 engaging in anal intercourse,51 and trivializing “nonviolent forms of the sexual abuse of children.”52

The pornography industry adapted to this desire for more bizarre and uncommon images.  An analysis of the content of PlayboyPenthouse, and Hustler from the years 1953 to 1984 revealed 6,004 child images and an additional 14,854 images depicting crime or violence.  Furthermore, nearly two-thirds of the child images were sexual and violent, with most of the images displaying girls between the ages of three and eleven years of age.  Each of these magazines portrayed the scenes involving children as though the child had been unharmed by the sexual scene or even benefited from it.53

Heavy exposure to pornography leads men to judge their mates as sexually less attractive,54 resulting in less satisfaction with their affection, physical appearance, and sexual behavior.55  The need for more intense sexual stimulation brought on by pornography can lead to boredom in normal relationships and a greater likelihood of seeking sexual pleasure outside of marriage.  Repeated exposure to pornography leads the viewer to consider “recreational sexual engagements” as increasingly important,56 and changes the viewer to being very accepting of sexual permissiveness.57

Distorted Perception of Reality

Pornography presents sexual access as relentless, “a sporting event that amounts to innocent fun” with inconsequential effects on emotions, perceptions, and health.58  This is not the case, however.  Pornography leads to distorted perceptions of social reality: an exaggerated perception of the level of sexual activity in the general population,59 an inflated estimate “of the incidence of premarital and extramarital sexual activity, as well as increased assessment of male and female promiscuity,” “an overestimation of almost all sexual activities performed by sexually active adults,”60 and an overestimation of the general prevalence of perversions such as group sex, bestiality, and sadomasochistic activity.61  Thus the beliefs being formed in the mind of the viewer of pornography are far removed from reality.  A case could be made that repeated viewing of pornography induces a mental illness in matters sexual.

These distortions result in an acceptance of three beliefs: (1) sexual relationships are recreational in nature, (2) men are generally sexually driven, and (3) women are sex objects or commodities.62  These are called “permission-giving beliefs” because they result in assumptions that one’s behavior is normal, acceptable, and commonplace, and thus not hurtful to anyone else.63  These beliefs are deepened and reinforced by masturbation while viewing pornography,64 a frequent practice among those who use pornography to deal with stress.65

When male and female viewers do not believe that exposure to pornography has any effect upon their personal views or lives,66 they more readily internalize abnormal sexual attitudes and increase the likelihood that they will engage in perverse sexual behaviors.67

All of these distortions amount to a serious misunderstanding about sexuality and relationships and are a dangerous distortion of the nature of social life.68  Those who perceive pornographic sexual scenes as depicting reality tend to be more accepting of sexual permissiveness than others.69  Prolonged exposure to pornography fosters the belief that sexual inactivity constitutes a health risk.70

Objectification and Degradation of Women

Pornography fosters the idea that the degradation of women is acceptable.  Since males use pornography much more frequently than females,71 exposure to sexual and even semi-sexual material from the Internet, magazines, and television is associated with stronger notions that women are sex objects or sexual commodities.72  Men thus exposed are more likely to describe women in overtly sexual terms, rather than by other personal attributes.73

A study of widely distributed x-rated films by Gloria Cowan and colleagues, professors of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino, determined the range and extent of domination and sexual inequality depicted of women in a random selection of movies in family video rental stores in California.  Physical aggression was present in 73 percent of the films, and rape scenes were present in 51 percent, with the woman as the victim every time.  The films depicted gender-role inequalities as well, typically portraying the men as professionals and the women as school girls, secretaries, or housewives.74  During the sexual scenes, the man usually remained at least partially clothed, whereas the woman was usually naked.75

Pornographic films also degrade women through “rape myth acceptance” scenes, which depict women being raped and ultimately enjoying the experience.  These scenes foster the belief that women really “want” to be raped.  Jeannette Norris of the University of Washington conducted a study in which a group of students read two versions of the same story depicting a woman being raped.  The story, however, had two different endings: one version ended with the woman deeply distressed, the other ended with the woman seeming to enjoy herself.  Even though the two stories were identical in every way except for the woman’s reaction at the end, the students viewed the scenario more positively when the story depicted the woman as enjoying the rape.  They perceived the raped woman as having a greater “desire” to have sex and were thus more accepting of what the man had done.76

Similar results emerge in assessments of college men.  Sarah Murnen of Kenyon College, Ohio found that fraternity members, who displayed many more pornographic pictures of women in their rooms than those from the non-fraternity group, had more positive attitudes toward rape.77

Women tend to view pornography as more degrading of women than men do.  When a sample of students was asked about their feelings toward pornography, 72 percent of the young women but only 23 percent of the young men stated their feelings were negative.  Moreover, when asked if pornography is degrading, almost 90 percent of young women but only 65 percent of young men agreed that pornography is degrading.78

After prolonged exposure to pornography, men especially, but also some women, trivialize rape as a criminal offense.79

Whether they think pornography is degrading or not, women who view pornography regularly unwittingly engage in a form of self degradation: they develop a negative body image about themselves because they do not measure up to the depictions in the pornographic materials.80

Clinical Consequences

Pornography consumption has more than just psychological and familial ramifications.  There are numerous clinical consequences to pornography use, including increased risk for significant physical and mental health problems and a greater likelihood of committing a sex-based crime.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Out-of-Wedlock Pregnancies

Since pornography encourages sexually permissive attitudes and behavior, users of pornography have a higher likelihood of contracting a sexually transmitted disease or fathering an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.  Pornography’s frequent depiction of intercourse without condoms (87 percent of the time) is an invitation for the promiscuous to contract a sexually transmitted disease,81 to have a child out of wedlock and to have multiple sex partners.82  Pornography also promotes sexual compulsiveness, which doubles the likelihood of being infected with a sexually transmitted disease.83

Sexual Addiction

Pornography and “cybersex” are highly addictive and can lead to sexually compulsive behaviors (that decrease a person’s capacity to perform other major tasks in life).  Over 90 percent of therapists surveyed in one study believed that a person could become addicted to “cybersex.”84  In an American survey, 57 percent of frequent viewers used online sexual activity to deal with stress.85  A 2006 Swedish study of regular Internet pornography users found that about six percent were compulsive users and that these compulsives also used much more non-Internet pornography as well.86

Addictive pornography use leads to lower self-esteem and a weakened ability to carry out a meaningful social and work life.  A survey of pornography addicts found that they disliked the “out of control” feeling and the time consumption that their pornography use engendered.  All of the sexual compulsives reported they had felt distressed and experienced impairment in an important aspect of their lives as a result of their addiction.  Almost half of the sexual compulsives said their behavior had significant negative results in their social lives, and a quarter reported negative effects on their job.87  In another survey, sexual compulsives and sexual addicts were 23 times more likely than those without a problem to state that discovering online sexual material was the worst thing that had ever happened in their life.88  No wonder then that severe clinical depression was reported twice as frequently among Internet pornography users compared to non-users.89

Aggression and Abuse

Intense use of pornography is strongly related to sexual aggression,90 and among frequent viewers of pornography, there is a marked increase in sexual callousness, including the “rape myth acceptance” noted above.91

A significant portion of pornography is violent in content.  A study of different pornographic media found violence in almost a quarter of magazine scenes, in more than a quarter of video scenes, and in almost half (over 42 percent) of online pornography.  A second study found that almost half the violent Internet scenes included nonconsensual sex.92

The data suggest “a modest connection between exposure to pornography and subsequent behavioral aggression,”93 though when men consume violent pornography (i.e. depicting rape or torture), they are more likely to commit acts of sexual aggression.94  Dangerously, pornography strongly affects psychotic men, who are more likely to act out their impulses.95

Consumption of nonviolent pornography also increases men’s self-acknowledged willingness to force compliance with their particular sexual desires on reluctant partners.96  And though there are conflicting data on the relative effects of violent versus non-violent pornography,97 there is little doubt that the consumption of pornography leads to a significant increase in “rape myth acceptance,”98 which involves a reduction of sympathy with rape victims and a trivialization of rape as a criminal offense,99 a diminished concern about child sexual abuse, short of the rape of children,100 and an increased preparedness to resort to rape.101

One study at a rape crisis center interviewed 100 sexually abused women to determine if pornography played a role in any past incidences of sexual abuse.  While 58 percent could not say, 28 percent stated that their abuser had in fact used pornography.  Of this 28 percent (women who were aware that their abuser used pornography), 40 percent (or 11 percent of the total group) reported that pornography actually played a role in the abusive incident they experienced.  In some cases the abuser had watched pornography before abusing the woman, in one case he used pornography while committing the abuse, and in yet some other cases he forced his victim to participate in the making of a pornographic film.102

Sex Offenders and Pornography

Pornography viewing and sexual offense are inextricably linked.

One study of convicted Internet sexual offenders reported that they spent more than eleven hours per week viewing pornographic images of children on the Internet.103  Another study compared two groups of offenders: those convicted of Internet collection and distribution of child pornography images, and those who commit real life child sex abuse.  The results showed that a majority of those who were convicted of only Internet-based offenses also had committed real life sexual abuse of children.  Moreover the study also found that real life offenders had committed an average of over thirteen different child sex abuse offenses, irrespective of whether they had formally been convicted of any real life incident.104

A study of sex offenders and non-offenders revealed significant differences in adolescent pornography use as well as current use.  Significant proportions of different types of rapists and molesters had used hard-core pornography (depictions of non-consensual acts) during their adolescence: 33 percent of heterosexual child molesters, 39 percent of homosexual child molesters, and 33 percent of rapists.  The current use of hard core pornography was even greater for these groups: 67 percent of heterosexual child molesters, 67 percent of homosexual child molesters, and 83 percent of rapists, contrasted with 29 percent of non-offending pornography viewers.  About a third of the sex offenders reported using pornography as a deliberate stimulus to commit their sexual offenses.105

Another study examined the beliefs of three groups: real life, “contact-only”child sex offenders, Internet-only child sex offenders, and mixed offenders (contact and Internet).  While all groups were more likely to minimize the gravity of their offense, the Internet-only group was more likely than the contact-only group to think that children could make their own decisions on sexual involvement and to believe that some children wanted, even eagerly wanted, sexual activity with an adult.106

Pornography and New Findings in Neurology

The neurological study of pornography is still in its infancy, but neurophysiology provides insight into pornography’s power to form the cognitive and emotional habits of the user.  As is becoming clear from many different areas of neurological study, repetition of an act establishes new neural pathways, thus facilitating the retention of these behaviors.107

Other research is uncovering the link between dopamine, a hormone that produces feelings of pleasure, and the effect that a pornographic image has.  PET scans (a nuclear medicine three-dimensional imaging technique) of both pornography-addicted adults and non-addicted adults viewing pornography show brain reactions for both groups similar to cocaine addicts looking at images of people taking cocaine.108  Findings such as these have led scholars to posit that “emotionally arousing images imprint and alter the brain, triggering an instant, involuntary, but lasting, biochemical memory trail.”109  A small experimental indication of this type of imprinting occurred in one study where participants saw a board of words that were either sexual or neutral.  All participants retained more sexual words than neutral words, but pornography consumers retained even higher amounts of sexual words.110

Treatment programs for sex offenders and pornography addicts, designed to break patterns of deriving pleasure from viewing pornography, use a technique called “safeguarding.”  “Safeguards” are negative thoughts used to interrupt sexual fantasies.  Whenever patients have sexual fantasies, they are taught to think of a safeguard; for example, they may produce a mental image of bugs crawling on them, a public address system broadcasting their thoughts, or an image of a police officer watching their sexual behavior.  Through this method, participants learn to interrupt their fantasies111 and, it is thought, gradually displace the old neurological pathway with a different and safer one.

Adolescent Exposure to Pornography in the Media

The phenomenal growth of mass media during the late 20th century, and particularly the establishment of the Internet, has vastly increased accessibility to pornography and other sexually-related information.  This creates a major obstacle to the healthy development of sexuality, especially among youth.

Adolescents and Pornography

Though most U.S. parents (78 percent) are worried about their adolescents accessing Internet pornography, not all teenagers readily take to this sexualized culture.  Most start out being ill at ease with any display of pornography: they tend to be upset or embarrassed,112 with reactions ranging from fear to shame to anger to fascination.113 In one survey, about a quarter were “very” upset by this exposure,114 but they tend not to report it.115

Adolescents often come across pornography accidentally on the Internet.  One study found that 70 percent of youth aged 15 to 17 accidentally came across pornography online.116  A study of 1,501 youth aged ten to seventeen examined unwanted exposure incidents more thoroughly: in 26 percent of the cases, respondents reported that when they tried to exit an unwanted site, they were actually brought to an additional sex site.117  The same study showed that out of the total number of unwanted exposure incidents, 44 percent of the time the youth did not disclose the episode to anyone else.118

These initial reactions of disgust, however, rapidly dissipate so that older adolescents tend to use sexually explicit Internet material more often than younger adolescents119 and are twice as likely to report intentional pornography use as are younger adolescents.120  Repeated exposure to pornography eventually wipes out any feelings of shame and disgust and gives way, instead, to unadulterated enjoyment.121

A 2005 survey showed that respondents who reported unintentional exposure to pornography were over 2.5 times as likely to then report intentional exposure as those who did not report any unintentional exposure.122  It seems the unintentional exposure has its effect of bringing them back for more, which of course is one of the fears of parents.

Several factors predict an adolescent’s use of pornography.  Teenagers who watch pornography more frequently tend to be high sensation seekers, less satisfied with their lives, have a fast Internet connection, and have friends who are younger.123  Adolescents are at greater risk for intentionally seeking out sexual material when they have high levels of computer use.  The more time spent on the computer, the more likely these adolescents will search for sexually explicit content.124  Not surprisingly, given all that has already been reported, viewers who masturbate while viewing sexually explicit material assess the material more favorably than those who do not masturbate.125

There is a difference between boys’ and girls’ reasons for seeking pornographic sites, differences that parallel the different patterns of adult male and female use of pornography.  Boys tend to seek pornography initially because they are curious or want sexual arousal, while girls tend first to go to non-pornographic but sexually oriented sites for sexual health or relationship-related information.126  Also, the impacts are different for boys and girls: males report more positive memories of sexually explicit material than females,127 and report “more positive attitudes toward uncommitted sexual exploration” as their use of pornography increases.128  In one study, adolescents who watched the highest level of sexual content on television doubled the likelihood they would initiate intercourse.129

The Protective Role of Parental Involvement

Although U.S. adolescents indicate their preferred source of sexual information is their parents, more than half of them report they have learned about intercourse, pregnancy, and birth control from television, and half of teenage women report they first learned about intercourse from magazines.130

A study of 1,300 eight- to thirteen-year-old girls found that, among those who engaged in “cybersex,” 95 percent of the parents were completely unaware of their children’s involvement.131  Compared to adolescents who do not search for pornography online, adolescents who search for pornography online are about three times as likely to have parents who do not monitor their behavior at all (or very little).  Compared to those who do not seek out pornography, those who seek Internet pornography are three times as likely to give a poor rating of their attachment to their parent.132

Clearly there is a lot that parents can do, but it takes a good family life, lots of communication with the adolescent, and a relationship that permits such communication about such an anxiety-provoking topic.

We move now to matters far outside the family.

The Effect of Sexually Oriented Businesses on Their Surroundings

Sexually oriented businesses (SOBs) – pornography stores and strip clubs – deleteriously affect their surrounding communities.  For instance, SOBs along Garden Grove Boulevard in California contributed to 36 percent of all crime in that area.133  A similar study in Centralia, Washington found that, after an SOB opened, the serious crime rate rose significantly in the vicinity of the SOB’s address.134  Findings such as these generally come from studies commissioned by cities to measure the incidence of the eight serious crimes of the Uniform Crime Reports: homicide, rape, assault, robbery, burglary, theft, auto theft, and arson.135

SOBs have been found to cause more crime than non-sexually oriented nightclubs and bars.  A report from Daytona Beach, Florida found that SOB neighborhoods have 270 percent more total crime than non-SOB control neighborhoods and 180 percent more than non-SOB neighborhoods with “taverns.”136  A study in Adams County, Colorado found that 83 percent of crimes in a neighborhood featuring two adult businesses were connected to those adult businesses.137

SOBs can also act as centers for crime.  In Houston, Texas, more than 517 arrests took place within 12 months at SOBs, 50 at one SOB alone.138

A study of SOBs in Phoenix, Arizona found that the number of sex offenses was 506 percent greater in a neighborhood containing a SOB.139  Sexual deviants are attracted to these areas, intending to pay for sexual pleasures.  The forbidden partners they desire include children, the invalid, and the elderly.140

The transmission of STDs is also commonplace at many SOBs.  Pennsylvania’s attorney general closed several Philadelphia SOBs because patrons created a serious public health risk by regularly engaging in unprotected sexual activity inside the video booths, promoting the spread of HIV, hepatitis B, and other STDs.141  The numbers of incidences may be higher than reported to police (and thus used in these studies) because many victims are reluctant to report crimes committed against them while at SOBs.  This reluctance makes many patrons easy prey for criminals.

SOBs affect property values as well.  The closer a property is to an SOB, the more its value depreciates.  A study of owners of commercial property or their owners from Dallas, Texas found that all concluded that SOBs drastically decrease property value.  Property sales were significantly lower at $1.50 to $7 per square foot in areas in close proximity to SOBs, compared to $10 to $12 per square foot a mile away from SOBs.142

The close proximity of SOBs to neighborhoods leads to a greater exposure of children to pornographic material.143  In Denver, Colorado, an investigation into the adverse secondary effects of SOBs on surrounding neighborhoods found large amounts of litter in these neighborhoods that included pornographic images, sex paraphernalia, used condoms, and used syringes.144

The devaluation of people and property by SOBs has not gone unnoticed by the courts, which have consistently afforded substantial deference to government entities seeking to regulate adverse secondary effects associated with SOBs.  The U.S. Supreme Court has held that a jurisdiction need not conduct its own study, but may rely on relevant studies and evidence produced by other jurisdictions.145  The Court has also recognized that common experience and case law can be relevant factors in support of SOB regulation.146

Conclusion: Pornography in the Context of Modernity’s Social and Sexual Problems

Contemporary society is alarmingly sexualized, and the traditional sexual taboos of a well-functioning society have broken down.  Nearly two-thirds of United States high-school students have had sexual intercourse by grade twelve.147  Of these sexually active high-schoolers, 70 percent of females and 55 percent of males report that they wish they had waited instead.148  These numbers have massive implications for the future of the American family, for of women who have had three sexual partners other than their eventual husband, only 39 percent will be in a stable marriage by their mid-thirties.149  In 2007, 20 percent of U.S. girls in grade 12 already have had sexual intercourse with four or more partners.150  The vast majority of their children will grow up without their fathers present.

As the empirical data make clear, pornography further misshapes this already dysfunctional sexuality, and the consumption of pornography can become a destructive addiction as well.  This sexual malformation not only affects the consumer of pornography, but also weakens those close to him or her.  Habitual consumption of pornography can break down the relational substrates of human life and interaction—family, friends and society.

As such, reinforcing these relationships is the surest guard against such destructive sexual tendencies.

The closer adult men were to their fathers growing up, the fewer non-marital sexual behaviors they engage in and the greater their levels of marital happiness and family satisfaction.151  The proportion of adolescents who rate their fathers as very close to them is highest among those from intact married families (40 percent) and lowest among those from single-parent families (three percent).152

Society benefits when it fosters a healthy sexuality.  Human beings are healthiest and happiest when they are monogamous (only one sexual partner in a lifetime), and that happiness is directly related to monogamy’s long-term stability and exclusivity.153

Healthy relationships yield additional positive sexual outcomes.  Some research indicates that married couples have the most frequent, and Conservative Protestant women have the most enjoyable, sexual relations.154  The supreme and tragic irony is that, while the desire for the highest levels of sexual fulfillment are likely the motive for many adolescents’ first peek into pornography, the attainment of that universal longing is most likely to be had through monogamy and regular participation in religious worship.

These insights, until recently, were common social assumptions and institutionalized patterns.  Until the dawn of the sexual revolution and, later, the digital age, they were reflected in a public opprobrium of pornography.  One 1994 study found that 71 percent favored a total ban on sexually violent movies and 77 percent a total ban on sexually violent magazines.  Only eight percent thought that there should be no restrictions on the former, and only three percent thought there should be no restrictions on the latter.  Concerning merely sexually explicit magazines, less than 10 percent thought there should be no restrictions on the material.155

The cultural censure of disordered sexuality that enables stable family life has faded with the proliferation of Internet pornography.  As a result, the effects of hyper-sexualization permeate society.156  Today’s youth are reaching puberty earlier, engaging in sexual intercourse sooner, while “Emerging Adults” are cohabiting more, having children out of wedlock,and getting married significantly later or not at all.

The key to militating against these damaging patterns and to protecting against the effects of pornography is to foster relationships of affection and attachment in family.  The first and most important relationship is between the father and the mother.  The second is engaged parents who love their children.  In today’s technological society, this means limiting, monitoring, and directing their children’s Internet use.  This, in turn, provides an invaluable shield against Internet pornography, and allows room for a healthy sexuality to unfold in a natural and socially supported way.  In our over-sexualized culture, with a longer pre-marriage period, children need the capacity for abstinence if their sexuality is to be channeled into stable marriage, procreation, and healthy family life for their children.  Strong families remain the best defense against the negative effects of pornography, especially when aided by regular religious worship with all the benefits it brings.157

Finally, the fundamental role of government (including the courts) is to protect innocent citizens, most especially children and adolescents, and to protect the sound functioning of the basic institutions of family, church, school, marketplace, and government.  They are all interdependent.  Pornography, clearly, undermines both marriage and the family, and has a host of ill effects.  It is time for government to reassess its laissez-faire attitude towards the proliferation of pornography, especially on the Internet.

Our present and future families need protection from this insidious enemy of love, affection, and of family and social stability.

 

——

The author acknowledges his debt to Drs. Jill Manning, Stephanie Sargeant-Weaver and James B. Weaver III without whose reviews of the literature, Senate Testimonies and pointers towards the underlying studies he could not have prepared this paper.  Their work suffuses the whole project. These reviews include Jill C. Manning, “The Impact of Internet Pornography on Marriage and the Family: A Review of the Research,” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity 13 (2006): 131-65; Stephanie Sargent-Weaver,  “The Effects of Teens’ Exposure to Sexually Explicit Materials on the Internet: Synthesis of the Research and Implications for Future Research;” and James B. Weaver III, “The Effects of Pornography Addiction on Families and Communities,” presented before the Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Washington, DC (November 18, 2004). Jill Manning’s Senate Testimony, from which more of this paper has been drawn than from any other source, is highly recommended for its comprehensiveness and can be found at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Family/upload/85273_1.pdf (Retrieved Jan 19 2009).