No area of life has been spared the effects of the recent explosion in mass media and e-communication. Pornography is no exception and the increasing accessibility and pervasiveness of the pornographic image has contributed to the normalisation of ever more explicit and unusual material.
At its core, pornography fundamentally misrepresents sex, sexuality and human beings. Six years ago, CARE contributed an article to Nucleus on this topic and, although the dynamics of the problem have undoubtedly changed, our basic message remains the same. Christians ought to be meeting these new problems with old answers, approaching the issues with a biblical view of human sexuality and the sacredness of sexual life. Our analysis of the problem of pornography should be informed by the 'falleness' of human nature. We must also look to the hope of redemption for those struggling with addiction, and to the security and hope of people victimised by the industry.
Pornography: what is it?
Literally, pornography means writing about the porne - Greek for a female slave or, in some contexts, a prostitute. Pornography has been with us as long as prostitution, and the two bear comparison as they both trade on sex and sexuality. Both also constitute worrying abuses of individuals.
If there is a difference, it is that prostitution is an act and pornography the communication of an act. The literal translation indicates communication through literature, but if there is one key point in the history of pornography, it is the transition from the written word to the image. Today, there is hardly any pornographic material produced that does not rely on visual stimulation; how quaint would it now sound to refer to Lady Chatterley's Lover as pornographic?
Regardless of the means by which it is communicated, pornography has also always been: 'that which exploits and dehumanises sex, so that human beings are treated as things and women in particular as sex objects'. We ought to be aware that this definition takes us much further than the newsagent's top shelf - we can follow it to advertising billboards, tabloid newspapers, TV screens, music videos and the 'lifestyle' magazine. Some of it is amusing, some of it titillating, some can only be called depraved, but all of it is pornography, sex in the market place.
What's the problem?
If this second definition is not enough to make us concerned about the problem of pornography, we should take a few moments to consider the evidence of the consequences of its use.
Firstly, pornography is addictive, or at the very least can induce behaviour that bears comparison with addiction. The evidence for this is both anecdotal and scientific. The testimony of those suffering from addiction is particularly striking: many report an increasing need for more and different pornography, graduating from the 'harmless fun' of soft core material to the 'deadening' effect of other, more novel, hardcore images.
Research has noted that ready boredom is associated with regular use of pornography. Studies tend to note an initial excitatory response, then a gradual increase in non-reaction, described by the subject as boredom. This disinterest cannot be remedied by new material of the same kind, so the subject must search out more explicit material and may eventually graduate onto more graphic images to achieve the same sexual satisfaction.
Once hooked, the behaviour of the addict is much like that of any other - a neglect of relationships, social responsibilities and work life, and a denial that there is any problem. Many addicts never seek help, but exist on a continual diet of pornography of all kinds; others are prompted to call for help by the threat of relationship breakdown with a partner. Medical professionals refer to three 'A's as key factors contributing to the habit: affordability, accessibility and anonymity. All three facets are exacerbated by widespread use of the internet.
Secondly, as well as being bad communication about sex, pornography also represents bad communication about human beings - particularly women. The phrase 'sex object' may be clichéd but, nonetheless, bears some relationship to reality. Zillman and Weaver rightly note that sexual access has never been egalitarian in nature but, on the contrary, men can tend toward 'sexual callousness' with regard to women. Evidence shows that this is worsened by the habitual use of pornography and, by implication, exposure to increasingly sexual messages in the wider media. They write:
Exposure to pornography influences the perception of women in sexual terms, making them appear more permissive and promiscuous than they actually are; greater presumed sexual permissiveness and promiscuity then mediates callous disposition toward the sexual victimisation of women, as well as leniency toward the perpetrators of callous and coercive sex against them.
Pornography, then, is not just bad communication about the sexuality of individuals but also encourages an aggressive attitude towards women, simply because they are characterised as open to sexual conquest. As Decca Aitkenhead argued in a recent article for the Observer, it's not that all users of porn abuse women (though it is hard to avoid thinking that there is a distinct correlation), but it does trespass on the mind in a more subtle way, affecting how men view women - as inferiors or objects, indiscriminately open to sexual use by men. Crucially, it even changes the way women view themselves: experiments show that women become less sympathetic to victims of sexual violence after prolonged exposure to pornography. Like similar experiments with men, the subjects were more likely to think that the victim somehow encouraged the attack. This is even more worrying given the amount of rape-based material that is produced in the 'industry', where authenticity is said to be highly valued. The social and relational consequences of the increased use of such material are almost too terrifying to contemplate.
To sum up, any survey of the effects of long term exposure to pornography demonstrates that it has marked effects: a diminished excitatory response after repeated exposure to the same material, complemented by graduation to more explicit and unusual images in order to elevate the experience; an altered perception of sexuality including a reduced preference for marriage and child rearing; a willingness to seek pre/extramarital sexual intercourse and nonexclusive sexual relationships; a diminished propensity to moral condemnation of sexual improprieties; a likelihood to adopt false beliefs about the health benefits associated with unrestrained sexual activity coupled with equally false beliefs of health risks associated with sexual abstinence; discontent with the appearance and activity of sexual partners; insensitivity toward victims of sexual violence (including the trivialisation of sexual abuse of children) and an increased propensity to consider forced sexual acts legitimate. Of course, this is not to say that casual users of pornography will all behave in such a way, but it certainly gives credence to our definition and should give cause for concern as the use of pornography becomes more widespread.
So what's new?
If, as we have argued, pornography is as it always has been, why should it be seen as such a problem?
Aside from the social consequences, there has been an explosion in accessibility because of both the internet and developments in other media. It is increasingly easy for those who use pornography to access material and increasingly difficult for those who would seek to avoid it, as anyone with an email address will confirm. In terms of our three key factors (affordability, accessibility and anonymity) these developments are at risk of creating a massive increase in the problems associated with habitual use of pornography, just as we have witnessed a massive jump in the use of pornography itself.
Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but the number of pornography sites on the internet is estimated to be around seven million (this number is constantly being revised upward) and reports suggest that the amount of revenue generated by the 'cyberporn' industry could be around £70 million per annum. If we believe that that the use of such sites is limited to a minority, we are probably deluding ourselves - more than a quarter of all internet traffic goes to porn sites and of the UK's ten million registered internet users more than a third log on to view such material. 70% of this is done between the hours of 9am and 5pm or, in other words, at work. A relatively high number of large firms are now choosing to close off web access in an attempt to prevent employees misusing both their own time and company resources. It is even thought that a staggering nine out of ten children with internet access have seen pornography online.
Another concern is that the growth of internet porn has contributed to the 'normalisation' of certain materials. Indeed, as in any other market-driven environment, customers continuously demand greater quantity and variety: in the case of pornography, this leaves material that may have previously been thought of as highly distasteful considered mild. This month's edition of Loaded would certainly have raised a few eyebrows even a decade ago. As taboo after taboo is wilfully dismantled in both content and quantity, have we stopped to ask if they served any purpose? The author Bel Mooney, in a recent lecture at Bath University, noted that nearly all societies have religiously enshrined limits on behaviour and communication and that the 'intellectual/liberal consensus…that anything goes in the name of artistic freedom, is morally culpable - contributing as it does…to the exploitation, degradation and destruction of men, women and children'. While the attention of the authorities is focused on the horrific issues of child pornography, the production and use of adult material is perhaps achieving a sense of cultural acceptance. Indeed, there is a certain laddish kudos associated with the procurement of pornography of all kinds.
Up until now, I have chosen to ignore the criminality of some of the pornography exhibited on the internet, but it should not be the least of our concerns - indeed, it should be the first. I could not hope to introduce you here to the breadth or depth of depravity present in the industry. It is difficult to avoid use of the word evil and it may be that we can only understand such wrongdoing in the context of a spiritual dimension. Ignorance and indifference, however, should be named unacceptable:
I see no sign that the movers and shakers of this generation…have any real understanding of what pornography is, and what it does. I would sit with them and point out how in that image - accessed by me free of charge on the net - a real woman is being forced to perform fellatio, on the side of her face a large contusion caused by a fist or weapon. And in that one a woman is being held by two men and 'fisted' up to the elbow, with an expression of such pain and horror on her face that it cannot possibly be faked. Oh, and here is a close-up of a real vagina being penetrated by a bottle… Is that real blood, or is it ketchup? It's hard to tell on the screen…
I will spare further description, but hope that you are not left with the impression that this is, by any means, pornography in its worst excess.
Biblical sexual ethics
We can see from Genesis that although Adam was created alone, God made it clear that this was not desirable. He was created to exist, like God, in community. This demonstrates a profound truth about human beings: we need to engage in human relationships. We should not generalise, but it is fair to say that users of pornography can lack fulfilling relationships, or that their habit stems from a difficult time in a past or present relationship: anything from sexual abuse in childhood to a divorce. Interestingly, the growth in casual use of pornography has been largely amongst young single men.
Pornography is harmful, therefore, because it allows for the sexual act and appetite outside of the bounds of faithful relationship with another human being. The testimony of Scripture is that sex is powerful - so powerful that Genesis describes it as capable of making 'one flesh'. This aspect of creation is so remarkable that Paul even used it as an analogy for Christ's relationship with the church. Yet without the context of a giving, respectful relationship where the good of the other is the objective of our own behaviour then sexual acts become destructive, directionless and self-serving. Voltaire famously said that, 'God created sex, priests created marriage'. He could not have been more wrong.
The irony, as any pornography addict who has acknowledged his problem can tell you, is that in turning sex to our own selfish ends we eventually cheat ourselves of the union and joy that it can offer. The biblical model of sexuality asks for relationships that are so much more than the advancement of sensual pleasure but are, instead, radically constructive. It is in marriage that we mirror an aspect of the image of God. It also enables us to provide the setting into which children should be conceived and nurtured and where we will understand something of God's parenthood.
In general, therefore, the Bible offers a conceptual framework in which we can understand the proper way to approach human sexuality. This framework is strongly critical of the production and consumption of pornography. It also provides a completely different analysis of the idea of 'freedom' and how we might properly realise this in society.
Broadly speaking, pornography is dealt with under the Obscene Publications Act 1959. This makes it an offence to publish, whether for gain or not, any article whose effect is to 'deprave and corrupt' those likely to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it. In theory, what is illegal in print or in video is illegal on the internet, although the upcoming Sexual Offences Bill will introduce more specific regulations on, for instance, 'grooming' offences. It is generally accepted that the Obscene Publications Act is far too vague and, in any case, is very rarely enforced. Commentators are generally pessimistic about the potential of statute to have any effect on what can be accessed on the internet.
The attention of the authorities is focused, perhaps rightly, upon the exploitation of and abuse of children in pornography. Given the nature of such material and the difficulties involved in securing convictions, it is not difficult to see why law enforcement agencies can't see the wood for the trees. Nevertheless, it is important not to feel phased and outflanked by technological developments: an internet address is, in essence as well as in name, an address traceable as any other. Information is indeed held in a physical location.
There is room for toying at the margins but what is really needed is recognition of the size of the problem and the levels of exploitation involved as well as a wholesale review of legislation, taking into account the development of new media technologies. This is a tall order, but one that the government (and other bodies such as the EU) should be increasingly embarrassed about shirking.
This is perhaps the problem that will be most pressing to individual Christians, who may encounter addictive use of pornography as well as individuals abused and damaged in the production of such material. It will also prove the most difficult problem to solve. On the other hand, a Christian witness and counselling has a better chance than many, offering first the context of forgiveness and healing through which treatment can be mediated and then a better understanding of how our sexuality functions. Perhaps our first task is to highlight the risks involved in the use of pornography - risks that have been largely ignored. We must also be aware that this may be a problem present in our own church congregations.
Finally, we must ask what our role is as Christians seeking to relate to society as a whole. As we have noted, our culture and others are becoming increasingly sexualised; this has impacted on the attitudes of the church and its members to an unrecognised extent. We have become complicit with this media-driven and impoverished understanding of sex and sexuality and, often in the name of cultural relevance, have become as ready to absorb these messages as anyone else. We should remember that the Bible offers the only right approach to sex and sexuality: even if we are unable to convince others of it we must be prepared to model it in the most counter-cultural of ways. Before we even begin to talk about human sexuality, we can see that we are created beings - wonderful because we are created in God's image, not because we are the means to another's sexual or sensual ends.
By necessity, our response must be a three-pronged approach: we must first deal with the issue of widening accessibility - the primary dynamic during this internet revolution. Secondly, we should seek to help damaged individuals (both addicts and victims) restore their lives. Thirdly, we need to look to the wider sexualisation of society and seek to advocate and model attractive alternatives as Christian individuals and communities. It is clear that we must draw on the biblical tradition of sexual ethics and the value of the created individual.
As Christians, we must recognise that our only alternative is, in the words of Gandhi, to be 'the change we wish to see in the world', modelling the fulfilling life God intends for all humans. It means more than abstaining from sex outside marriage - it means rejecting the individuals, businesses, societal norms and cultural habits that would exploit and dehumanise men and women and their sexuality. We finish where we started, with so much more than top shelf magazines or 'sex shops' but with MTV, Loaded, the Sun and television commercials. We must go beyond saying, like Donald Soper, 'In short, pornography is sinful'; we must live as if it were as well.
CARE's aim is to declare Christian truth and demonstrate Christ's compassion. The organisation undertakes this by providing radical caring initiatives and by acting as a think tank on matters of public policy. More information can be found at care.org.uk