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Ban Porn Now

January 3rd, 2024 | 10 min read

By Joshua Heavin

Before the advent of the internet, the average man might see a handful of naked women across the course of his lifetime. Today, on digital screens that men carry around in their pockets and backpacks — accessible at all times, in virtually all places — men can scroll through hundreds of pornographic images and videos in a matter of minutes. How does that affect a man, and a society? What are the civilizational ramifications of millions of men routinely doing so?

Ubiquitous pornography does not simply lead to privatized vice, but also destabilizes human culture and civilization to such a degree that the state should seek to degrade and destroy it as a menace to society. Such a proposal will likely find opponents among libertarian republicans and centrist liberals for whom individual autonomy is the highest political good. But opposition to pornography should command overwhelming support from religious conservatives on the right and opponents of misogyny from the most progressive portions of the left.

In terms of bare physiology, pornography re-shapes and re-wires the circuity of the brain and limbic systems; it distorts the brain’s faculties for decision making, concentration, and the pleasure one otherwise experiences in life. Dawn Hawkins, Executive Director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, well summarizes how pornography affects the brain, and often draws its users into seeking the thrill of novelty in ever more extreme forms of pornography:

In 2018, the World Health Organization concluded, “The research is clear that pornography use is harmful to the brain. In fact, there are 39 neurological studies consistent with 280+ Internet addiction brain studies, supporting the premise that Internet pornography use can cause addiction-related brain changes. A 2014 study found that increased pornography use is linked to decreased brain matter in the areas of motivation and decision-making, impaired impulse control, and desensitization to sexual reward. Further, a 2015 study from Cambridge found that pornography use can drive novelty-seeking, so users need more and more extreme content over time in order to achieve the same level of arousal. This is a hallmark of addiction.

Pornography use is not exclusively a male phenomenon, but porn is disproportionately used by men, and we are thus warranted in exploring its relationship to men in particular. Drastic measures must be taken immediately to reduce or mitigate the worst potential ramifications of these society destabilizing and civilization corroding forces that most men are ill-equipped to contend against. To be concrete, any state interested in ordering the common life of its people towards goods such as human flourishing must take drastic and immediate measures to reduce and prevent the harms that pornography wreaks upon not only individual lives but society more broadly.

Why call for the state to do something about pornography? Libertarians argue that pornography’s existence does not necessarily infringe upon another’s property or rights, and if it is immoral, then it should be one more consumer option that market forces can either promote or crush. State suppression of pornography undermines freedom of speech, they argue. Others might demur that if a person thinks pornography is destructive or immoral, then one should simply opt out of it, but no state intervention is necessary because no one is forcing anyone to use pornography regularly.

To the credit of such a concern, failures of personal moral responsibility should not be blamed on others, and indeed any attempt to correct them by means of public policy inevitably will both not work perfectly and have negative, unintended consequences. But making public arguments about how pornography is a powerful, solely detrimental force to society that imperils civilization is not to argue for a world free from temptation or individual responsibility for moral choices. On the day pornography is outlawed there will be no shortage of further opportunities for sin, and personal moral responsibility is integral to any well-lived life, and of irreducible importance for any man wishing to overcome pornography. There are better and worse resources for individuals wishing to extract themselves from and overcome the matrix of pornography; to consider only one example, Matthew Loftus offers sage counsel. But the extent of pornography’s harmful effects far transcend its individual users. Rowan Williams’ recent meditation on Christmas begins with a a concise explanation of how interconnected all of life is:

We exist in a complex network for the sharing of life, an immeasurable symphony of patterns of activity, each activating and enlarging every other. The basic form of the sin from which we need to be delivered is the myth of self-sufficiency. The diabolical urge that destroys our well-being again and again is the temptation to think of ourselves as somehow able to set our own agenda in isolation, and the greatest and most toxic paradox that results is that we become isolated from our own selves. We don’t and can’t know what we are as participants in the symphonic whole, and so we block off or screen out the life we need to receive, refusing to share the life we need to give. We live shrunken, hectic, short-term lives, stuck in futile conflicts and vacuous rivalries. We refine our skill at identifying other human lives, as well as the entire nonhuman environment, as competitors for space, forces that will, left to themselves, diminish rather than enrich us. We need to be healed from this habitual screening-out.

If Williams is right, then surely widespread pornography consumption is a quintessential example of the myth of self-sufficiency. Pornography forms its users towards a disordered sexuality that terminates on self-pleasure by means of objectifying others, rather than ordering ourselves and our sexuality toward the good of new life. It also falsely assumes that what happens in one’s bedroom is somehow completely and absolutely isolatable from broader society.

What kind of citizens does pornography train for society? Pornography, analogous to illicit drugs, is an extremely powerful and destructive force that consumes its consumers, wreaking harm at a society-reshaping level. It is often addictive, even if its destruction is more subtle than opioid and fentanyl deaths. As Matthew Lee Anderson has argued, pornography makes us less human and less humane. Pornography always trains its users to have a distorted view of the self, the body, and reduces the worth of other people to potential objects of exploitation for personal gratification. Why is it that so many men, who do not want to consume pornography, feel unable to quit doing so? What are the consequences of the widespread proliferation of pornography use for societal rates of marriage, human reproduction, and formation of families? Why must children see inappropriate billboards on main thoroughfares for so-called “adult” stores and pornographic nightclubs? Why is it that objectionable content pervades television and social media, even in content and ads targeted for children?

Even if you refuse to give your own child a smart phone, their peers with smart phones in 6th grade and younger are in some instances effectively learning sex education by means of pornography that depicts rape and violent humiliation of women. Is that a good world we want to live in, which promotes human flourishing? No — no, it is not. To more fully appreciate why novel, contemporary forms of pornography pose a societal and civilization threat, we need to appreciate at least three dynamics that represent genuinely new developments in recent decades.

First, technological innovations make contemporary forms of pornography more accessible, appealing, and addictive than was even remotely imaginable prior to the twenty-first century. Though some form of pornography has existed since ancient cave dwellings, the advent of pornography on personal digital screens is an alien life form. A few decades ago, plastic surgery exaggerated the portions of a woman’s body that men find attractive; today, through digital technology, no surgery is even needed through the use of body filters, airbrushing, and simple photo editing apps anyone can use.

Today you can also have an ongoing hyper-real, almost-relationship with a quasi-girlfriend/quasi-prostitute for hire on sites like OnlyFans, without any of the risk, responsibility, or drawbacks that attend an actual relationship with a real woman. Without entering into the nuanced debates of precisely how men and women are similar and different with respect to visual sexual stimuli, it should be uncontroversial to note that most men experience sexual arousal from visual stimuli. Arguably, this makes men especially vulnerable to exploitation through digital pornography. While some men cultivate the character requisite to resist and/or overcome the dragon of pornography, many, or perhaps most, do not. What is the state’s obligation towards such men — to champion the individual liberty of men willfully pouring poison into their eyes, or to jam up the poison factory?

Second, many liberals and conservatives, for different reasons, fail to identify pornography for what it really is: a common enemy that must be contained and degraded, if it cannot be utterly vanquished. Progressives such as Bernadette Barton in The Pornification of America, rightly criticize “raunch culture” in its many contemporary forms that pervade popular culture as dehumanizing and misogynistic. Yet, she subtly defines “pornography” only as a violent, dehumanizing form of sexual content, while advocating for “erotica” as a body positive, potentially liberating force for good for both men and women — nevermind that “erotica” necessarily trains its users into the art of objectifying another person’s body for one’s own personal gratification. Mainline pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber has similarly made oxymoronic calls for “ethically sourced porn.”

Differently, across the distorted image of the fun-house mirror, conservative Dennis Prager argues that lust does not break the commandment against adultery — nevermind there is also a word against coveting your neighbor’s wife in the 10th commandment — and Prager believes a husband might profitably use pornography, so long as it does not replace or interfere too much with his relationship with his wife. More recently, conservative Tucker Carlson sympathetically interviewed Andrew Tate. In nihilistic double-speak, Tate laments the decline of masculine virtue and tragedy of porn addiction, when real men are lessened by masturbating to fantasies of real people having sex. The problem, of course, is that Tate himself forces women to produce pornography. That is not conjecture or hearsay. We need not, at this point, even concern ourselves with verifying whether Tate’s accusers of human trafficking are telling the truth. Listen to Tate himself brag about forcing women into servitude. Consider his course that trains men to groom women and debase them. He brags about how to force women to produce pornography on OnlyFans. Both mainstream liberals and conservatives are thus failing men and boys in our time by surrendering in the war against a dark force that is more than the sum of its individual conspirators, but more like an emergent power that parasitically hollows out the bodies and souls of its hosts.

Third, though it has never been easy to become a man, it is arguably more confusing than ever to define manhood. I am highly suspicious of claims that we live in “unprecedented times”; there is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9). But anxiety about gender essentialism, and feminist attacks on the patriarchy, have left many men unsure what masculinity fundamentally is or should be, or wondering if masculinity itself is perhaps a bad thing that should be shunned. As Christine Emba helpfully describes, “Past models of masculinity feel unreachable or socially unacceptable; new ones have yet to crystallize. What are men for in the modern world? What do they look like? Where do they fit?” Emba notes that progressive advocates of feminism, anti-patriarchy, and transgender ideology have little sympathy for the confusion many young men find themselves in, dismissing their struggles altogether. She notes how Jordan Peterson’s advocacy for young men helps many by calling them to a life structured by rules, but troublingly, on the far right, figures such as BAP or Tate offer the shallow consolation of Nietzschean nihilism and a summons to assert dominance over others as a path to a meaningful life for men. What does all of that have to do with pornography? Many men, whether young or old, married or single, popular or unpopular, have a confused sense of themselves as men or of what the goal should be that they are striving towards as men. Amidst the chaos of modern life, pornography supplies an easy outlet; it provides a delusion of control, importance, belonging, and self-validation.

Though the modern world has better amenities than pre-modernity, it routinely does not foster human flourishing, and has left many men feeling pointless, adrift, rootless, chronically-stressed, and with little opportunity to demonstrate honor or valor in any meaningful sense. Though pornography use is by no means solely to blame for declining birth rates in the modern world, surely it has sedated at least some men who might otherwise overcome their sense of inadequacy or complacency to learn skills that are useful to others, find a mate, and assume the mantle of identity, belonging, and responsibility historically cultivated when men became husbands and fathers. For men who feel adrift at sea in liquid modernity’s confusion about masculinity, and for a society in search for a vision of what it means to be a man, pornography throws out a rope. It pulls us all down into the menacing and shadowy abyss, rather than onto solid ground.

In lieu of state action, the church has a unique opportunity to nevertheless forge men of character; it takes a community to form virtue in any person, and the Christian life is described in the New Testament in metaphors ranging from the battle ground to the household to a beacon, bride, body, refuge, pillar, and buttress of truth. Perhaps from forebearers such as
Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity, we need to recapture a humane vision of men and women as created in the image of God, as well as recover the beatific vision as the goal of the Christian life, that the pure in heart are called “blessed” for they shall see God, even if at present that means deprivation and self-denial, being co-crucified with Christ that we might share in his divine life (Gal 2:20, 6:14).

Such is not a life for the faint of heart; it is a hard way, a narrow way. It is not a broad way, unlike Andrew Tate’s self-described “ultra luxurious” lifestyle he affords by preying on the weak and by duping the naive and undisciplined. Instead, the way of Christian faith, hope, and love makes men wrought with the virtues of fortitude, temperance, justice, and prudence — forging hardened men like John the Baptizer. John lived not in a mansion in soft clothing, but cried out in the wilderness to get out of the way because God’s reign was coming; he did not have his finger in the air to see which way the wind was blowing, but defied the powers of this age and lost his head because he told the truth.

Any society interested in reproducing itself, conserving the best of what has gone before and improving itself where possible, must avail ourselves of means of reducing the harm to men, women, and society caused by pornography. Debates about how to define pornography, and anxieties about censorship and free speech, invariably will attend any such effort, and appropriately so. But in 1964 Supreme Court Justice
Potter Stewart defined obscenity as “I know it when I see it.” At the rate of rapid, ever-accelerating social change fostered by digital technology, few can still know it, even as we see it all around us.

Joshua Heavin

Joshua Heavin (PhD, Aberdeen) is a curate and deacon at an Anglican church in the Dallas area, and an adjunct professor in the School of Christian Thought at Houston Christian University, and at West Texas A&M University.