The Pervasive Taboo: Pornography
Dr. Peter Bouteneff · August 24, 2009
Dr. Bouteneff describes the ways in which pornography dehumanizes men and women.
Hello, and welcome. My last two episodes on ecumenism and anti-ecumenism were very interesting, and, in some ways, fun for me to do. I really appreciate the feedback I got, and especially one of the e-mail conversations I was able to have afterwards that was very constructive and interesting. Fr. John, thank you; you know who you are.
I want also to make one correction. In making a rather dramatic point in the second of the two podcasts, I used Sr. Benedicta Ward as an example, and I mentioned that she had very recently died. Last night I learned that, in fact, she has not died. Reports of her death are greatly exaggerated, as they say, although not too greatly exaggerated, because she is apparently not doing well at all. So please adjust your prayers to “May God have mercy upon her and keep her” instead of “May her memory be eternal” at this point. Thanks for your understanding about that, and I apologize. I believed I had completely reliable information.
Today, I wanted to turn to another issue entirely, and basically return to some of the intended main focus of this podcast, namely, issues pertaining to living life in God’s image. I hope, in that context, to devote several episodes of this podcast to speaking about human personhood and gender, the meaning of being made male and female, how this can be an expression of the divine image. To speak also of the phenomenon of sexuality and also sexual orientation, including same-sex orientation, all of these issues that people are talking more and more about, and thinking more and more about, and I hope to address them here in the coming months.
Today, though, perhaps following on another “running theme” of this podcast, which is the theme of humanizing people and dehumanizing people, I would like to talk about the phenomenon of pornography, because, no matter who you are, no matter what your walk of life is, it is likely that pornography, in some way, affects your life, whether you actually view it or not.
And this is partly because the scale of the industry, the pornography business, is that big, that even if you’ve never actually come across a pornographic image, it is pretty inevitable that one or more of your daily activities is somehow touched by the porn industry, whether it’s the cable company you use to watch TV, the hotel that you stay at which makes pornography available on demand, the internet that we all use—all of these areas of our lives are profoundly affected by the titanic business of pornography. The whole communications industry, including information technology, is just enmeshed in the porn industry. Or at least one could say the porn industry has made substantial inroads into these dimensions of our lives. So that’s already something to think about, just to bring that into light, because it’s a fact that is often hidden, and yet we would want to expose it and know what to do about it.
Furthermore, on top of that, it is possible that you, or someone you know, is struggling with some kind of relationship, you could say, a compulsive or even addictive relationship, to pornography. Of course, people’s tendencies [are] to be very private about such things, and so we often don’t know about it, and if the person is ourselves, it’s quite easy to be in denial that this is a real problem.
So for all these reasons, I think it’s good to be thinking about this issue, and talking about it rather frankly. That is what I am going to seek to do today, in part theologically, because that is what I’m supposed to be doing in these podcasts, and in part statistically, just to share information, and in part, sheerly practically, to try to reflect on these things.
As we continue I would like to just say a couple of things: First, thank you to the people who have helped me compile these ideas that I’ll be sharing with you today, as well as the practical information that I’ll be sharing with you today, partly by sharing with me their own struggles. I am grateful for that.
And the other is, obviously, please use your discretion when you’re listening to this episode of this podcast, or talking with others about it, because I’ll be talking very frankly about things that might make some of us feel awkward. I’m convinced that frankness is really the only way in such a discussion, even if it can be, at times, embarrassing, both for you and for me.
Allow me to share with you some statistics. Whenever somebody cites statistics, you have to give the disclaimer that statistics aren’t always 100% reliable, and they aren’t always perfect indicators of reality. I forget who it was that said that statistics are the greatest liar, or something like that. Statistics can mislead, and yet, statistics also can point us toward certain trends in a very reliable way, and I think the statistics I am going to share here can be taken, albeit, perhaps with some grain of salt, as indicative of something like reality.
Some of these are old statistics, a few years old. For instance, the first one: As of July 2003—that’s quite old now—there were 260 million pages of pornography online, which is an increase of 1800% since 1998. That’s a five-year difference from 1998 to 2003, in which you have an 1800% increase of just the existence of pornography on the internet. Here, too, the statistics of how much internet traffic is pornography are notoriously difficult to track, but between 7% and 13% of the several billion pages that are indexed by Google are pornography.
Another statistic of interest: Nearly one in every five video rentals is a pornographic movie.
Another statistic to place the pornography industry into context with the sports industry: This statistic says that the porn industry brings in more money in one year than every NBA, NFL, and Major League Baseball team combined. Basketball, football, and baseball combined—porn brings in more than that.
That is partly just to say, it’s big, and it’s pervasive, and it’s everywhere, but also what I want to do is point to a very huge irony. On the one hand, pornography is evidently something that’s taboo. It’s under the table, it’s private, and it’s something that people are ashamed of. That’s something I will get to in a moment—something that people are ashamed of.
But on the other hand, it isn’t. Especially with such statistics, if they are accurate, it would seem as if almost everyone is doing it, or involved in it, and that at that same time, it feels like nobody is doing it, nobody is involved in it. Nobody we know, right?
Similarly, if pornography is as pervasive as the statistics say, it would indicate that people must think pornography is perfectly okay, that it’s harmless to engage in. And yet, on the other hand, a large number of people actually don’t seem to think it is okay, or they want to keep it, in any case, certainly very private, which explains why nearly all web browsers on our computers have a “private browsing” setting that keeps certain sites from your browsing history.
On that score, here’s a couple of other interesting statistics that pertain exactly to this situation: In one survey of adolescents—and this is quite alarming—87% of young men and 31% of young women reported using pornography. Almost nine out of ten guys, and almost three out of ten young women, girls, report using pornography. But roughly two-thirds of young men and women believe that viewing pornography is acceptable. Actually, two-thirds of young men and one-half of young women believe that viewing it is acceptable. It’s alarming to know how many believe it to be acceptable, but what I am trying to point to is that there’s a huge difference between the number of people who do it, and the number of people who actually feel okay about it.
That begins to tell us that there’s a lot of shame; a lot of shame, a lot of bad feeling. A lot of people are doing something that they feel crappy about, and it makes them feel worse about themselves.
All these statistics conspire to this evident fact that (1) a vast number of people actually use pornography, and (2) a vast number of those people are ashamed by it. That’s a pretty bizarre situation. We have a mammoth industry that’s provoking immense shame on a massive scale. Lord, have mercy. Indeed: Lord, have mercy. It’s messed up.
One question that this raises is: Why is pornography’s hold on us so powerful? Another question is: Is it so bad, indeed?—I’ll deal with that one later. First, the question of why it is such a powerful thing, and why is it so difficult for so many people to resist. Getting a little ahead of myself, I will say that it’s a particular temptation for people of religious belief. Other statistics say that when religiously or spiritually oriented conventions check into a hotel, on-demand porn use is on the rise. There’s actually a blip, rising. People who are spiritually attuned also, in many cases—obviously it is not a complete rule, but in many cases—they have a greater temptation to pornography. Very interesting.
Why is its hold on us so powerful? Its power is undeniable. Evidently, and clearly, sex makes us feel good—indeed, very good—and special, and in some way, also powerful. And sadly, it can bring this kind of pleasure and this kind of experience, in some way, [to] some extent, outside its proper context, its proper context being a life-long, monogamous, married relationship.
In fact, pornography promises a greater pleasure, at least short-term pleasure, precisely because it is free of the complexities of real human relationships. It leaves just one person—namely, you—in control of how it’s going to go and when you’re going to indulge in it. That’s definitely not the case when you are talking about mutually consensual sexual relations in a marriage, which is an immensely complex matrix of circumstances, considerations, mood-matching, you name it. Right? A lot simpler when you decide this on your own.
At its root, the pleasure and power I’m talking about is reducible to a chemical thing. For men, mostly, but also for a certain percentage of women, the viewing of sex acts, or of nudity, raises the dopamine level in the brain. It’s just the level of a chemical that inspires a certain kind of a feeling, and you don’t even have to be engaged in sex to experience that pleasure. Seeing it brings the pleasure—seeing the images.
I have used that word now: “images.” That word is now in play. I can’t but be struck—neither can you—by the irony that, on the one hand, here’s us human beings in the image of God, or “icons” of God, and there are also holy icons, holy images that we venerate and that are so dear to us, and then, juxtapose that with these other de-humanizing images—and de-humanizing is also un-deifying images—that bring out unbelievably powerful feelings in people, feelings of pleasure.
And the thing is, we are meant to experience eros. We are erotic beings by nature. It’s a good thing. Erotic love is something that’s part of human nature, part of the divine image. We’re talking not only about the kind of sanctified erotic love within a monogamous marriage, but also what the Fathers talk about as eros for God: a divine longing, like “a deer panting for the waters,” or like “a deer in heat,” as in the Song of Songs. And the one is the image of the other. The erotic love that we experience with each other on earth is an image of the erotic love that we have for God and God has for us.
It’s really very profound, theological, deep, and what’s tragic is that there is this powerful urge to enact all of this in a way that’s so desperately far from its intended context and its intended goal. The intended goal is this joyous union of persons with each other and persons with God, not the deeply alienating and inward-turned pleasure that comes from watching people engage in acts that are, themselves, totally bereft of genuine love.
To ramp this up one more notch, the subject comes to its conclusion when users of pornography want to bring this misdirected pleasure of viewing to its logical climax, as it were, through self-abuse, also known as masturbation, which is part and parcel of a lot of porn viewing. I told you I’d be frank and graphic here, so you’ve been warned.
People often raise the question as a matter of self-justification and rationalization, but sometimes as a very honest question. We can ask ourselves, “Is pornography really that harmful in the end? And self-abuse? Isn’t it the ‘victimless crime’? Nobody we know is actually getting hurt when we engage in it, right?” That’s a question that’s very often asked.
I would say here are some reasons why it is, indeed, a crime and a sin. Some of these, you could say, are self-evident, but they are all worth really reflecting on and telling ourselves, as part of an answer to that very understandable question: “Now, how bad is this really? I am not actually hurting somebody, as if raping them or something. I am really hurting only myself, right?”
Well, it’s already a good step to say that you are hurting yourself when you do it, hence the word “self-abuse.” But there are some other reasons why this is really a problem, and one is, indeed, de-personalization, de-humanization, of yourself. If being a person involves communion with the other, this is the supremely anti-communion act. Enough said about that; we’ve got a lot more to cover, and the way it depersonalizes the self is something we can all just meditate on.
Also, we would have to consider the de-personalization of the people involved in the porn industry. By partaking of that industry, and by paying it money, by supporting it, by being complicit in it, we are being complicit in the objectification of persons and of body parts. That’s what the porn industry is, just by definition; it’s the objectification: making persons and their body parts into objects. Nobody cares how they actually feel about each other. Love is not part of the equation. De-personalization of people involved in the industry.
A third element of why this is all such a real problem is that it involves a purely fantasy life. It’s not reality; it’s fantasy. There are enough dimensions of our life, and specifically, people in the Church’s life, that are double. We have a kind of a “church side” to us, a side that prays, tries to present ourselves before God as a kind of pious person, all the more pious because we call ourselves “sinners” and we go to church with our families, and this is all nice.
And then we have this little compartment of our lives. “This is for me; I’m going to indulge in this.” And it involves a double life. In fact, I really would like to do a whole podcast episode on the problem of the “double life,” as opposed to the “integrated life” where you know who you are at every moment of every day. Porn feeds into the, in a way, schizophrenic nature of our inner life.
Finally, as a part of the first one that I mentioned, namely, the de-personalization of the self, it fosters—potentially, abusive relationships and sexual attitudes—but it certainly fosters a distancing between actual couples. The more I were to indulge in pornography, the more distant I would be from the people that I’m actually close to, including the person that I’m close to sexually, namely, my wife.
There are different ways to be affected, as it were, by the temptation towards pornography, and you could give names to them, I suppose. One would be periodic, one would be compulsive, and one would be addictive, and I really don’t have any statistics as to whether there is any such thing as a purely periodic use, or whether it’s all addictive, or whether it’s compulsive. These are sometimes hazy categories, but one thing that I would want to emphasize is that there is such a thing as a chemical addiction to pornography. It’s a chemical addiction to the elevated dopamine levels in the brain that sex brings on in some people. An addiction is an actual condition that also has things that you can do about it.
And I would re-emphasize here that it’s an addiction, like other addictions, like an addiction to alcohol, also, that affects religious and spiritual people, and especially religious and spiritual leaders, in a very particular way, statistics show, as well as other caregivers, people in the psychiatric industry, for example. [It’s] very interesting that people who feel drawn to the life of pastoral care, or psychiatric care, are themselves persons who are—in some ways, not across the board, not as a matter of rule—more susceptible to addictions. That’s something that we do well to know, and we do well also to arm ourselves with resources that would help us to do something about it, for ourselves, and for our loved ones, or people who are under our care in any way.
What to do about all of this? One thing that is of interest—concerning with how I began the podcast, which is to alert ourselves to the magnitude and the pervasiveness of the porn industry—is to find ways to raise appropriate protests and boycotts. You can check the internet as to how this can be done: letter-writing campaigns, for example, to hotels, to stop providing this. Unfortunately, it is a great money-maker for hotels, but the fact that they make it so available results in the corruption of a lot of people. Things like that. Shop for cable services who do not make this service available. That’s one level of action that we can take.
I’d [like] to spend more time on the question of what to do if you are concerned about somebody you know or about yourself in relation to pornography. I would say at the very first: don’t do it. That is easy enough to say: “Don’t view pornography.” It would be one place to start, although that’s not as easy as it sounds for some people. But I think it is a place to start: “Don’t do it.”
If you, or the person you are concerned about, find it extremely difficult not to do it, the first step, obviously, is recognition of that fact, recognition that you’re suffering from something like a compulsion. That first step can be a very difficult one, because your brain doesn’t want you to do that. It doesn’t want you to change. That first step, namely, the realization and admission that you have a problem, is very, very difficult.
Secondly, here, as with any such issue, it’s really important to understand that it’s not your fault if you have this problem. It wasn’t your choice to become compulsive in this way; it’s not your fault. You still have decisions you are responsible [for making]—and here I don’t know whether to use the second person, the first person plural, the third person, but I’m just going to say “you,” though it’s not necessarily you, it could be somebody you know, etc.—[but it’s] not your fault.
[Third], it doesn’t make you into a terrible person. It’s not the end of the world; it’s not the end of your Christian life or your career. But you are suffering from something; you have a problem, and you need help—divine help and human help—to overcome it.
Also, it’s very important to acknowledge that, chances are, if this is a real struggle for you and if you’ve admitted it, and it’s not one of those things where you can say, “Oh, I can stop anytime I really want”—if you have admitted that it’s really a struggle for you, and that it’s difficult, chances are that this will be a part of your life, on and off, for the rest of your life—chances are. That is certainly the way it works with alcohol addiction, which is why somebody doesn’t does not call [himself] a “cured” alcoholic, but a “recovering” alcoholic.
Another vital component to all this is that you can’t keep this to yourself. You make it worse if you do. Speak about it with a trusted person. In the ideal, there should be at least one person who knows pretty much everything about you, sin-wise. That’s a very healthy spiritual state, to have someone who really knows all about you, including the crap, if you’ll excuse me.
Specifically regarding pornography, you need to tell someone, and preferably, the person whom you have as a spiritual guide, a spiritual father or mother, and, ideally—eventually at least—in the context of confession. The idea here is not to let this fester, not to let it spiral inward, [not] to let it simply reside within your inner spirals of virtue and sin and shame and all that. And as shameful as it is to confess this kind of thing, it has to come out. It has to come out. If you’re worried about talking about this with a priest, you ought to know that your priest has probably heard very similar problems confessed by other people, by a great number of other people, if that priest has heard any confessions at all, so it is not going to blow him away.
Again, there’s different levels of compulsion, and I’ve talked about addiction. Addiction is a reality when it comes to sex, and that can be expressed in a lot of different ways, including use of pornography, and it’s not impossible that you, or someone you know, is, in fact, suffering from an addition. It is called “sex addiction.”
If and when the person is ready, they can be referred to a local 12-step program. These are enormously helpful, instrumental in healing, a lifeline for persons suffering all kinds of addictions and compulsions. They’re spiritually based; they’re endorsed by a great many Orthodox Christians. In this context—and I’m grateful for all the people who’ve helped me out with this podcast, and have made suggestions, and have shared their information with me—in this context, I would put in a plug for one—there are several 12-step groups that deal with sex, and I’d put in a plug for one of them, which is Sexaholics Anonymous, or SA. It really is the one that adheres to the Orthodox tradition of sexuality and what’s acceptable and what isn’t. And if you want me to get really practical, here’s the phone number: 866-424-8777. All right, am I practical enough for you? (laughter) I’m getting very specific, very practical and all that. It is not necessarily the case that you or anybody you know need this, but if it’s the case, and part of this podcast is really just a way to raise awareness of the issue, then that’s certainly a vital place to go.
And I would just say that, both within and also outside, such groups, 12-step groups, there are many practical things that can be done to deal with, control, the compulsion—things that involve knowing yourself, knowing what leads to or sets off such urges, feelings of anger, or feelings of insecurity, etc. Of course, it should go without saying that the main helper or healer in all of this is God, himself. But God also works with us through some real empirical, tested methods. It’s our task to seek these out, to know of their existence, refer people [to] experienced counselors, or support groups, such as 12-step programs.
In all this, I think it’s just important to be aware of the magnitude of the problem, which is tied to the enormous magnitude of the industry, and therefore to the enormous pervasiveness and availability of pornography in our lives and the lives of our kids—that is another one—and to recognize this as a real spiritual threat to life lived in God’s image, and in striving for divine likeness.
To end on a note of hope, here’s something interesting. Again, statistics are notoriously difficult to be certain of, but there are indicators that porn traffic on the internet is actually on the decline, and several people link this to the rise of social networking sites, especially Facebook, for example. Facebook itself is open to possible abuse, and you could argue also that it’s superficial, etc., etc., but the point is that the more that people actually make contact with each other—in however superficial a way, just touching base with each other, touching in with each other, knowing that the other exists—the less people will feel this very isolated and isolating need to turn to the internet for pornography.
There’s a lot that can be said, and should be said, and I hope to help say it at some point, about the implications for the internet for the divine ideal of communion and interpersonal communion. There’s a lot of potential there. But this is a part of it: social networking and its link to the decline of porn traffic is a very hopeful sign.
I hope today’s session has been an occasion to reflect on a huge, though often hidden, part of people’s lives, to help bring it into the open, and “expose it to the light,” as St. Paul says, and in so doing, expose it to God’s healing work. Thanks for listening.