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ss nucleus - winter 1997,  Pornography - bad communication about sex

Pornography - bad communication about sex

'His addiction to pornography destroyed our marriage.'

'My three year old daughter was raped and violated in every way you can imagine by a twelve year old boy addicted to pornography.'

'My addiction has lasted for 25 years, and has robbed me of my self worth.'[1]

These dramatic comments have all been made by people touched in some way by the huge world-wide pornography industry. Of course, these are very serious and perhaps unusual examples. Yet pornography is not unusual - it is widely available in shops close to where you live or from the Internet right in your home. Many of the patients you meet will have been affected in some way by pornography. Indeed, none of us are entirely immune from the effects of this kind of material on our society.

What is pornography?

Definitions abound but the one that is simplest in my view is 'that which exploits and dehumanises sex, so that human beings are treated as things and women in particular as sex objects'.[2]

The focus of this definition is the distortion of something -'sex' - and somebody - 'human beings and women in particular' - which are of themselves good. Indeed, as Christians we would recognise that both our sexual identity and sexual relationships were created by God for good purposes. Pornography seeks to misrepresent God's creation, reducing humans to no more than animals and the sex act to something which is merely and exclusively physical.

If an alien arrived on planet earth and was greeted with an array of pornographic material, the evidence might suggest to them some interesting conclusions: that physical appearance was everything - vital statistics really were vital; that naked women were a product just like cars or computers, to be bought and sold; that personality was irrelevant, pushed aside by an overwhelming desire to take one's clothes off and copulate.

The challenge for us as Christians is not just to point out what is wrong with pornography and the impact it may have; we must be sure that we understand what is right about sex and what fulfilling relationships can be about. This is increasingly so as sex becomes separated from marriage and adultery proliferates, undermining commitment and contributing to a 40% divorce rate. We need to assert that sex as God intended for the humans he created is about fun, commitment and caring. It is about a man and a woman exploring the depths of their personalities and physical bodies (and a relationship where inevitable problems and dysfunctions can be overcome). While this is a wholly Christian message, it does not need to be conveyed in religious language.[3]

I have laboured this point because too often I have met those with a knee-jerk reaction to pornography, whose instinctive distaste comes across as a prudish, restrictive, kill-joy attitude. If pornography is bad communication about sex, then we need to learn both within the church and in the consulting room what good communication about sex means.

The extent of the problem

'[Men] invent ways of doing evil.'(Romans 1:30) Pornography is found in many different media and gives vent to every conceivable fetish. People talk of 'soft' and 'hard' (or soft core and hard core) pornography. These are not legal terms, merely conventions to express the different ends of a spectrum that stretches from page three of The Sun to extremely violent or bizarre material. Of course, the visual portrayal of nudity, genitalia and the sex act is not of itself necessarily pornographic. If it were, gynaecology text books would be somewhat devoid of illustration! The issue is the intent of the presentation - is it dehumanising, and intended for titillation only?[4]

Commercial pornography seems to be constantly in the vanguard of exploiting new avenues of distribution. When video recorders became popular in the 1970s, pornographic films shifted quickly from 16mm film to video cassette. The mid 1980s' liberalisation of telephone services saw the establishment of 'adult' telephone message and chatline services producing huge revenues for the phone companies. The 1990s' wonder media, the Internet, provides the easiest access yet to pornographic material. Pictures can wing their way around the world as attached files in a matter of minutes. A friend of mine was somewhat disbelieving that you could find pornography easily on the Internet - a quick search had him numbed by what was available.

What impact does pornography have?

Pornography has both a general impact on society and a specific impact on some individuals. The wide availability of pornography in our society and its consumption by men contribute to a general lowering of the attitude towards women and a belief that they are always sexually available. It also promotes the idea of casual sex without love as a nirvana of constant and complete sexual satisfaction.

But for some pornography becomes a way of life. Dr Victor Cline, a psychiatrist at the University of Utah working with sex offenders, has described a four part progression in the impact of pornography. Users become addicted; some will then seek harder and more bizarre material. Offenders then become desensitised to the material they are viewing and find it hard to distinguish between what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Sadly, some then lose satisfaction from viewing material and want to act out the violent acts they have witnessed.

Ted Bundy was a serial killer who raped and murdered at least 30 women in the USA - his use of pornography almost perfectly mirrors the Cline model. In the UK, Robert Black who was given ten life sentences in 1994 for the murder of eight children, described how he graduated from 'the ordinary stuff' (hard core pornography) to child pornography: 'It didn't seem to matter how many magazines I had - I was always willing to buy more'.[5]

A practical response

We are all likely to come across pornography in our local communities or when we shop or travel. We may also encounter individuals struggling with pornography addiction (or perhaps unaware of its impact) in a professional or pastoral context. Our faith demands a caring, loving and yet firm response to these challenges.

If we become concerned about pornography in our local shops or through our use of the Internet, we need to guard against an instinctive response. The problem will still be there tomorrow and next week, so it is wise to think and plan about whether to do anything. It is also a good idea to seek help from friends facing similar issues and advice from organisations like CARE.[6] It is important to count the cost: ask questions like 'If my newsagent doesn't change his policy on the magazines on sale, am I willing to move to another newsagent?'

But there is also a place for an immediate response to problems we encounter, where the opportunity will pass if we do not act. For example, if you are staying at a hotel and discover they offer a range of so called 'adult movies', why not make your feelings known as you pay your bill, or complete a customer satisfaction survey?

Helping those who are struggling with pornography addiction is a much longer term commitment. Unlike alcohol or drug addiction there are few specialist or self-help groups available. But the principles of help are similar. I have suggested elsewhere[7] five steps to freedom for Christians who are addicted to pornography. Recognise the deceit, be honest about the extent of the problem, repent, agree to be accountable and implement a strategy of avoidance.

For those in clinical situations dealing with sexual or psychiatric illness in some way associated with relationship dysfunction, it may be pertinent to include questions about the use of pornography during consultations. It may only be an indicator of a certain kind of lifestyle, but it may help isolate one factor in what are often complex situations.

Child pornography

While pornography involving adults is distasteful, and in my view often harmful and always less than God intended, child pornography is on a different plane of evil - it is a visual portrayal of child abuse. Few of us will ever have to see such material or its consequences. I once was given a brief overview of child pornography by the Paedophilia Unit at Scotland Yard, and was devastated by what I saw. The look of blank horror on an eight year old girl's face as she was abused is etched on my memory.

Those specialising in child abuse know that the trade in child pornography is closely linked with the abuse itself. Only last year a Durham priest was convicted of exchanging child pornography via the Internet and of abusing and photographing boys. This is an issue for the specialists. But we should beware of thinking that somehow child abuse and child pornography are not found in the Church. Sadly they are and we are often the worst people at dealing with the resulting chaos. A recent book by Patrick Parkinson helpfully exposes the extent of the problem and what can be done about it.[8]

A message of hope

Pornography is a depressing subject. It trivialises and debases one of God's special gifts. Yet we need not be depressed - seeing through Satan's lies is half the battle. The other half is to affirm God's goodness and the true meaning of beauty (which goes far beyond mere physical attractiveness), to communicate effectively about sexual matters and to campaign for what is right and good.

  1. Williams N and Wilson-Thomas C, Laid Bare - A Path through the Pornography Maze, Hodder & Stoughton, 1996 £6.99 ISBN 0-340-64317-X Drawn up by the Longford Committee, 1972
  2. Stammers T, The Family Guide to Sex and Intimacy, Hodder & Stoughton, 1994.
  3. Williams N, False Images - Telling the Truth about Pornography, Kingsway, 1991, Ch2. £5.99 ISBN 0-86-65-954-2
  4. Wyre R and Tate T, The Murder of Childhood, Penguin, 1995.
  5. Christian Action, Research and Education (CARE) can be contacted at 53 Romney Street, London. SW1P 3RF Tel 0171 233 045. Nigel's two books are available through CARE on request.
  6. See ref 4, chapter 9.
  7. Parkinson P.Child Sexual Abuse and the Church. Hodder & Stoughton, 1997.
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