April 12, 2016
During the past decade or so, we’ve heard a lot about how viewing pornography affects the human brain. That, apparently, is a relatively controversial claim. Time’s Belinda Luscombe references experts who argue both for and against that idea—and all of whom bemoan a lack of research in the area. Neurological effects aside, Luscombe basically concludes that for a generation of men more or less raised on porn, the law of diminishing returns comes heavily into play—and those effects are leading to a generational health crisis.
A growing number of young men are convinced that their [physical, in-person] sexual responses have been sabotaged because their brains were virtually marinated in porn when they were adolescents. Their generation has consumed explicit content in quantities and varieties never before possible, on devices designed to deliver content swiftly and privately, all at an age when their brains were more plastic–more prone to permanent change–than in later life. These young men feel like unwitting guinea pigs in a largely unmonitored decade-long experiment in sexual conditioning. The results of the experiment, they claim, are literally a downer.
So they’re beginning to push back, creating online community groups, smartphone apps and educational videos to help men quit porn. They have started blogs and podcasts and take all the public-speaking gigs they can get. Porn has always faced criticism among the faithful and the feminist. But now, for the first time, some of the most strident alarms are coming from the same demographic as its most enthusiastic customers.
For a generation of men more or less raised on porn, the law of diminishing returns comes heavily into play—and those effects are leading to a generational health crisis.
The men in these online communities and support groups, Luscombe takes pains to reiterate, are not antisex or some kind of emerging asexuals. Just the opposite, in fact. They, at least in theory, like sex, but their addictions to the pornified portrayal of it won’t let them have the real thing. One man told Luscombe, “I just want to enjoy sex again and feel the desire for another person.” Another: “The reason I quit watching porn is to have more sex.” And simply: “Quitting porn is one of the most sex-positive things people can do.”
The Mainstream Backlash
Time’s cover story is reminiscent of a late 2013 article in GQ called “10 Reasons Why You Should Quit Watching Porn.” At least to me, this article came as a little bit of a surprise, given the magazine’s history of love for the conquesting “gentleman.” The article looked at a survey of the Reddit group NoFap (which also figures in prominently to the Time research). GQ warned sexually active men essentially about the same thing the Time piece now warns an entire society about.
In addition to this kind of anecdotal evidence, Luscombe’s article in Time also details some of the statistics surrounding pornography use—she mentions, too, that the academic world seems curiously hesitant to study the phenomenon, which results in relatively scant data. Still, the results she does report are as damning as the testimonies. She cites an “independent Web-tracking company” that counted some 58 million monthly U.S. visitors to adult sites in February 2006. “Ten years later,” Luscombe writes, “the number was 107 million.” She also claims that the website P****** reported 2.4 million visitors per hour in 2015 alone. Around the world, people watched a gargantuan 4,392,486,580 hours of porn on the site. According to the Time article, that represents “twice as long as Homo sapiens has spent on earth.”
All this porn watching adds up to an overwhelmingly consistent claim from the consumers themselves: Porn users are saying that what they wanted from porn—the pleasure and fulfillment of sex—they’ve now lost completely.
As revealing as Luscombe’s article is, it may not even be the most indicting porn data in this week’s issue of Time.
Also in this week’s issue, a small column appears titled “How Porn Is Changing a Generation of Girls” by Peggy Orenstein, the author of a new book, GIRLS & SEX. Her account of the toll of pornography culture on women, particularly young women, might even be more alarming than the cover story. Orenstein writes:
There is some indication that porn has a liberalizing effect: heterosexual male users are more likely than their peers to approve of same-sex marriage. On the other hand, they’re less likely to support affirmative action for women. And porn users are also more likely than their peers to measure their masculinity, social status and self-worth by their ability to score with “hot” women.
Perhaps because it depicts aggression as sexy, porn also seems to desensitize: female porn users are less likely to intervene when seeing another woman being threatened or assaulted and are slower to recognize when they’re in danger themselves.
If we take this issue of Time seriously—and why shouldn’t we?—porn not only robs men of the very thing they want from porn, but it also damages women, the very people it supposedly celebrates.
A Paradoxical Fight
Back in January, the Barna Group published the results of large study on this same pornography culture. The findings confirm and underscore what we’ve known for a while: Porn use is a massive and growing problem, even among Christians. In part, the Barna study reveals that a staggering 57 percent of younger Millennials (ages 18 to 24) seeking out porn at least once or twice a month. Among older Millennials, the number is only slightly better at 43 percent. Gen-Xers and Boomers reported 41 percent and 17 percent respectively.
Perhaps the most dejecting finding of the study is that only half of adults consider viewing porn is wrong (54 percent). In fact, on a list of taboos, respondents said viewing porn ranks number seven on a list of 11. Things like overeating and not recycling ranked higher.
Anyone who has ever struggled with pornography—or helped someone who has—knows the paradoxical nature of it. On the one hand, of course, sexual drive and desires come naturally. On the other hand, these same desires, as the Time piece clearly articulates, can get out of control and lead toward actions that actually make light of sex and hinder sexuality.
A Spiritual Conflict
One of my former professors talks about what he calls “refugees of the sexual revolution.” Well, if these articles are an indication, they’re here. For some, porn culture promised something a browser screen can never deliver, and left them more empty than before. For others, porn culture dictated new norms of beauty and femininity that stripped them of both. And just like refugees from the Middle East, they are looking for a new home. This is where we have to reach out with welcome and a depiction of sex far more compelling than the self-centered digital version.
In their book, God Loves Sex, Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman III and counselor Dan B. Allender explore, you guessed it, sex in biblical and theological perspective. And right from the start, they recognize this tension. They write:
[Sexual] satisfaction is not final; love never fully satisfies as we desire. We desire more than any one relationship can provide, and yet to seek from others what one can’t fully satisfy is to create even more emptiness and sorrow. We are both blessed and cursed by desire. And we are never perfectly faithful to God, our lover, or to ourselves as we wrestle with desire. Only God is faithful in his desire for us.
The Song of Songs invites us to intensify our desire for sex and play. The by-product is to increase our desire for an Edenic sexuality that will only be fully possible in the new heavens and earth.
Allender and Longman fully recognize the lure of self-focused, self-gratifying sexuality. And they recognize that vision never satisfies. So they point to the deeper realities of sex, that “it is an experience in which a person can lose oneself in the other person. In other words, two people becomes ‘one flesh.’ Though described physically, this oneness is felt not just in the body but also in the soul.”
This vision is exactly the opposite of pornography. As Luscombe’s Time cover reports, porn culture offers an accessible, instant kind of sex but in the end leaves you with no sex at all. God offers sex that requires self-sacrifice and covenant, and it brings far more than just sex.