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COLUMN

Porn Is Not Free

The High Social & Personal Costs of Pornography

by Regis Nicoll

Porn is big business. With annual revenues exceeding $13 billion in the United States and $97 billion worldwide, the porn industry is bigger than Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Apple, Netflix, and EarthLink combined. Clearly, the appetite for smut is voracious.

But is that a bad thing? Many would argue no.

According to a 2003 survey by the Barna Group, 38 percent of adults believe that there is nothing morally wrong with viewing sexually explicit material. What's more, a 2005 Harris poll showed that 23 percent believe that there should be no restrictions on porn or its access, despite its increasingly graphic content and under-age subjects.

Sadly, 28 percent of "born again" Christians also believe that there is nothing wrong with viewing porn, Matthew 5:28 notwithstanding ("But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart"). But even sadder is the finding by World magazine that nearly 50 percent of Christians and 37 percent of their pastors admit to having a problem with pornography themselves.

Underlying all this is the notion, commonly held by many, that pornography is a private affair between a free-market supplier and a consumer. It is supposed that, in contrast to other forms of sexual vice, such as prostitution, adultery, or rape, the negative consequences of pornography—if any—are experienced only by the user. Granted, they say, porn may not be wholesome, but from a societal perspective, it is of little to no concern. As for all the hand-wringing by religious and conservative groups, it is overwrought and misplaced.

Standing against this notion is the overwhelming evidence of the destructive nature of smut, not only for users but also for their families and for society.

Porn's Addictiveness

Studies have shown that sexually stimulating images leave an imprint on the brain that triggers spontaneous biochemical responses that, in turn, create increasingly intense cravings for more such images. For example, in a 2004 US Senate hearing, Dr. Mary Anne Layden, of the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Psychiatry, testified that the brain scans of adults viewing pornography were similar to those of cocaine users. If the craving for porn is not consciously resisted early on, it eventually leads to a physiological dependence that influences the viewer's behaviors and habits. In short, porn is addictive—and internet porn is like crack cocaine.

Nevertheless, lured by their availability, affordability, and anonymity, 40 million American adults regularly frequent cybersex sites. According to the National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, there are 18 to 24 million admitted sex addicts in the United States, 70 percent of whom "report having a problem with online sexual behavior."

Many describe their addiction as a "living hell." As their physiological tolerance for sexually explicit material builds up, users are driven to view more and more deviant images to achieve the same levels of sensual satisfaction. They find themselves, as C. S. Lewis once put it, with "an ever-increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure."

The habitual consumer can spend hours searching the net for the special image he hopes will deliver his fix for the day—and his searches may extend beyond his free time and home computer into the workplace. A Nielsen Online survey found that 25 percent of employees with internet access visit sexually explicit sites from the office, despite the risk of disciplinary action, up to and including termination, if they are discovered. And such behaviors are not limited to low-level workers in non-critical positions.

According to an April 2010 report by the inspector general of the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), 31 top SEC officials were discovered to have been accessing porn from their office computers during the fall of 2008—while the financial market was going up in flames. Later, in the spring of 2010, as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continued unabated, the Associated Press reported that government officials responsible for overseeing off-shore drilling activities were caught downloading pornography at work, among other unethical activities.

Impact on Users

In the workplace, porn addiction results in lost productivity and job negligence that can have harmful if not disastrous effects. In the home, it results, paradoxically and tragically, in intimacy disorders.

As the addict's desire for erotic images waxes, his capacity for arousal by the "real thing" wanes. Online medical forums are filled with posts from men distressed over the fact that they have lost their libido for the women in their lives after a prolonged plunge into porn. One man wrote:

Since I got high-speed internet, I started looking at a lot more porn and my sex drive and performance has slowly decreased. Now it's becoming a real problem. I just don't get as excited as I used to about sex and I seem to lose interest after a few minutes.

I have often wondered about the frenetic marketing of male sexual enhancement drugs, which began on television a decade or so ago. As a red-blooded, middle-aged male, I had a hard time imagining a customer base sufficient for all that product—until, that is, I read entry after entry from porn-fed guys who are aroused by a photo but experience erectile dysfunction (ED) with a person. This man's experience is typical:

It is scary how little awareness there is on the net that ED caused by too much porn is a very real problem. . . . I truly believe it's all about desensitization. Although my heart and soul are in my wife, she just can't physically arouse me.

Low libido and fear of failure cause many "porned" men to become sexually indifferent to their wives, and even irritated to the point of shunning their romantic advances.

Impact on Spouses

As porn usage has increasingly caused men to objectify women as assemblages of breasts, thighs, and derrieres put together for their gratification, women have also begun to objectify themselves in kind. In an effort to compete with the Photoshopped, silicon-filled model on the screen, they try various means to mimic her look: Botoxed lips, breast implants, bikini tans, Brazilian waxes.

Female self-objectification is reflected in what has rapidly become one of the most popular graduation gifts for girls: breast "augmentation," despite the price tag of $4,000 and up. It is no coincidence that the demands for male performance drugs and female body enhancements have closely followed the explosion of internet porn.

Sometimes a woman will visit her husband's favorite websites in hopes of learning what pleases him. But in the end, she always loses to the computerized vixen, and is brokenhearted. As one addict dolefully reflects, "She can't compete; no girl can ever compete with the endless sexual visual fiction porn offers."

Porn thus puts enormous stress on relationships, particularly marriage. Wives of users commonly express feelings of betrayal, mistrust, and low self-esteem. Often those feelings lead to clinical depression, which, even when treated, leaves lingering psychological and emotional scars.

As mistrust and hurt build up, many women decide to end their marriage in divorce. How many? Two-thirds of the lawyers attending the 2003 meeting of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers said that cyber porn was involved in half of the cases they represented. Considering that the negative consequences of divorce are experienced primarily by women and children, it is clear that, contrary to the libertarian cant, pornography is a serious social malady. And the same can be said of the porn industry itself.

Industry Workers

According to former porn star Shelley Lubben, the popular image of the porn actress as a pampered star in a glamorous industry of consenting adults who are well-paid to act out their nymphomaniac urges for the camera couldn't be further off the mark. Now a Christian advocate for those caught up in an industry that damages them physically, emotionally, and spiritually, Lubben says that while porn actresses may "feel like stars" at first, they eventually have to "turn themselves off emotionally," and that many "get into drugs to numb themselves." Physically, they get their bodies "ripped," and contract such diseases as HPV and herpes.

And that's for the "voluntary" workers in the business; what of the involuntary ones? A significant number of the subjects in both film and cyber porn are victims of international human trafficking. The US State Department reports that there are over 12 million modern-day slaves, nearly 1.5 million of whom are forced into the commercial sex trade. And that includes the youngest victims of our insatiable demand for smut: children.

Child Pornography

As mentioned earlier, habitual consumption leads to physiological tolerance, which creates a craving for increasingly twisted and shocking images. The escalation in deviance often leads to child porn.

The US Department of Justice estimates that there are up to 100,000 pedophiles around the globe who keep the internet populated with over one million pornographic images of children—subjects who are neither adults nor consenting, by any reasonable definition. They are victims, experiencing the same kinds of physical and psychological effects as other sexually abused children, but with a difference.

Added to the memories of the abuse itself are the degrading images that remain "out there," hidden in desk drawers or electronic files, but that, with the click of a mouse, can reappear at any moment, anywhere, to re-traumatize the victim.

Men, women, and families. Christians and non-Christians. Laity and clergy. Adults and children. Workers, the workplace, and the industry: There is no segment of society that has not been touched by the corrosive tentacles of pornography, at a financial cost that is staggering. As for the human cost, no dollar figure can be assigned.


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