“Pornography – What You Need to Know“
Last week, we defined pornography and discussed how prevalent it has become. We were reminded that the Catholic Church has always maintained that pornography is a grave offense. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops writes, “Viewing pornography is not only sinful in itself but can also become an addiction and lead to dangerous sexual behaviors. It has also led to a greater exploitation of children as sexual objects.”1
Although people sometimes try to justify pornography by saying that “there are no victims, so no one is being harmed,” this is not true. Bishop Paul S. Loverde writes, “In this view, there is a ‘free’ choice on the part of consenting adults to meet a ‘need’ and to be compensated for meeting that ‘need’. The illusion inherent in this rationalization is that all the participating parties complete the exchange as the same persons, with no harm done, as when they entered. … This is an illusion.”2 Porn destroys our ability to see one another as unique and beautiful expressions of God’s creation; it negatively impacts the common good as well as society at large. Pornography has a destructive effect on everyone – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
One of porn’s most dangerous effects is that it is addictive. When a man or woman views pornography, a large amount of dopamine is released in their brain. This chemical controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. It produces an emotional high that is further intensified by orgasm. It’s the same kind of high experienced by people who use drugs such as cocaine and heroin. In fact, “[it] can have the same highly addictive effect on the brain as crack cocaine.”3 “Dopamine [also] suppresses serotonin in the brain, which can make a man impulsive and aggressive. This contributes to a man’s susceptibility to addiction (Struthers, 2009).4
Another contributing factor is that people often turn to porn to try to ease the pain of deep emotional wounds. Because porn has the ability to ease emotional pain, this combination of factors – the change in brain chemistry and the (temporary) relief from emotional pain – makes porn highly addictive.5
Exposure to pornography has a particularly devastating impact on young people. Because the adolescent’s brain is under construction and nerve pathways are still forming, teens are even more susceptible to addiction than adults.6 Recent research has shown that “a teen’s brain is at its peak of dopamine production and neuroplasticity, making it highly vulnerable to addiction and rewiring as their brain is not yet finished developing. …Teen brains are the most sensitive to dopamine at around age 15 and react up to four times more strongly to images perceived as exciting.”7 Not only do adolescents become addicted more easily, but they also need less exposure to a high-risk behaviour in order to become addicted.8 An excessive use of porn can result in concentration problems, loss of sleep, stress, fatigue, low motivation, and erectile dysfunction. Doctors now report that porn-related erectile dysfunction is showing up in young men as early as their teens and 20s.
While the physical impact of porn is identical for men and women, our brains are actually very different. “Men are physically wired to be visually stimulated,” explains Dr. Peter Kleponis. “When a man encounters an erotic image, he automatically looks! (Struthers, 2009)”9 Women, on the other hand, are not as visually stimulated as men; they are more relationally stimulated. “The promise of a romantic relationship [is what] gets the dopamine flowing in a woman’s brain. That’s why, along with visual pornography, women can become addicted to erotic literature, chat rooms, instant messaging, social media, video chats, etc.”10 Erotic books, such as the international best seller, Fifty Shades of Gray, have “strongly influenced women’s views of relationships and sex. They romanticize a relationship with a pathological man and normalize dangerous sex. Many women have become more interested in dangerous forms of sex, believing this will improve their relationships and their sexual experiences. It has led women to become more sexually aggressive and to seek out sexually domineering men.”11
On the emotional side, the addictiveness of porn is the same for both men and women. Kleponis writes, “Just as visual images trigger chemical reactions in a man’s brain, the written images and promise of a relationship trigger similar reactions in a woman’s brain. … Both are searching for intimacy and trying to ease the pain of deep emotional wounds.”12
Women, however, are at much greater risk for developing a sexual addiction due to their use of porn.13 “Many men can limit their addictive behaviors to pornography use because they are primarily visually stimulated. Women, however, being more relationally stimulated, will often seek to develop relationships with men online. This is why women prefer chat rooms over men two to one, and it can lead to a series of cyber relationships, extramarital affairs, and anonymous sexual encounters.”14
When young people, including children, are exposed to pornography, their view of relationships and sexuality is profoundly warped. “[Pornography] sends the message that sex is meant for personal pleasure and not an expression of love between a husband and wife. Pornography also promotes the ‘sexual utilitarian philosophy’, a notion that says it is okay to use another person for one’s own sexual pleasure (Fitzgibbons, 2010).” Pornography also introduces young people to many deviant and even dangerous sexual practices. Verbal degradation, bondage, and rape scenes are common in pornography, and many now accept those things as normal because they are presented over and over again.”15
Porn use can cause isolation, loneliness, fear, guilt, shame, and anger. Users may become depressed, experience social anxiety, and develop negative self-perceptions about their physical appearance and sexual functioning. The excessive consumption of porn has been linked to lower self-esteem, lower sexual satisfaction, and poorer relationship quality. “Many addicted persons experience the loss of family, friends, and careers.”16
But the most tragic consequence of pornography use relates to the spiritual life. It is the loss of one’s relationship with God. Pornography is a mortal sin; it damages the man or woman’s “template” for the supernatural. Bishop Loverde writes, “Our Lord has given us the gift of sight with the intention that we ultimately may see Him. The sinful use of this faculty both warps our understanding of it and – worse still – cripples our ability to realize its fulfillment in heaven.”17 The sad fact is that … “Most pornography users know they are doing something wrong and harmful to their relationship with God, yet they choose to use it anyway. This can lead to a deeper loneliness that even pornography cannot ease.”18
Effects on Marriage and Family
Up to this point we have focused on porn’s effects on those who view it. But the harm does not stop there. Porn changes people; no one walks away the same. And the harm is not limited to the viewer. Porn affects their loved ones, their children, their friends, and society at large.19
Bishop Loverde writes, “When one chooses to view pornography, even if at first reluctantly, one becomes the kind of person who is willing to use others as mere objects of pleasure, disregarding their inherent dignity as a man or woman created in God’s image. As the habit of pornography becomes more fixed, the characteristics of a person who debases and objectifies others and wills violence against their dignity become more pronounced. … The young more readily manipulate and abandon friends to meet their temporary and often selfish desires. Spouses begin to gauge their partner on a scale of what they receive from the relationship rather than to self-giving marital fidelity. Young adults approach marriage as merely a non-binding contract that may be abrogated if the benefits of the married state no longer meet their increasingly unrealistic or even perverse desires and expectations.”20
Pornography turns a man or woman’s attention and affection away from his or her spouse. It creates unrealistic and often immoral expectations about their intimate life. It leads to broken trust, damaged communication, increased selfishness, disordered sexuality, decreased sexual satisfaction and performance, and increased loneliness. The sexual problems caused by pornography can be especially damaging to a woman’s self-esteem, who often blames herself for the difficulties.21
When a woman discovers that her husband or boyfriend is viewing pornography, she experiences a deep sense of betrayal and a loss of trust. “Most women don’t see men [who use porn] as trustworthy, mature, and worthy of respect. They see selfishness and immaturity.”22 “To women, using pornography is similar to being in a relationship with those women, and that is tantamount to adultery.”23 When someone we love uses porn, it causes deep wounds that can take a long time to heal. There is a sense of betrayal, anger, pain and sadness, a feeling of being unable to compete, and trauma. At times, it can lead the spouses of addicts into co-dependent behaviour.24
Families suffer, too. Children lose out on valuable time with their father (or mother); time that could be spent with them is now given over to porn. There can be grave financial consequences for the family if the man or woman runs up large debts in order to purchase porn, frequents strip clubs, or engages the services of prostitutes. Many access porn during work hours – and they lose their jobs as a result.
Porn damages a man’s ability to be a good leader, provider, and protector of his family. He can no longer be the role model that his children need him to be. The discovery that their father uses porn may lead sons to be more likely to view porn, and the father may lose the respect of his daughters. The damage caused to marriages and families can be irreversible. “According to the American Association of Matrimonial Attorneys, pornography plays a significant role in 57% of all divorces (Eberstadt & Layden, 2010) and is correlated with a 318% increase in infidelity (Stack, 2004).”25
Hope for the future
Although we may be tempted to think that there is nothing that we can do to combat the scourge of porn, we must not give up hope. Although porn is legal (and likely to remain that way), we can still do everything possible to limit access to porn by means of effective obscenity laws. We can protect our children from accidentally stumbling on it by vigilantly monitoring their media use and using Internet filters such as Covenant Eyes. We can educate our teens about the dangers of pornography and ensure that they have a solid understanding of healthy relationships and sexuality. But if despite all our efforts, some of our loved ones still fall into the trap, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that there is lots of help available for those who struggle with pornography addiction.
If you are someone who suffers a pornography addiction, you need to know that regardless of what you have done, God still loves you. The only sin which will not be forgiven is the one for which you do not ask forgiveness. And as St. Paul reminds us, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
If you are a married couple who is struggling with how to deal with the impact of pornography addiction on your marriage, you need to know that it doesn’t need to end in divorce and the breakup of your family. “God wants healthy marriages and wants to bring healing and restoration to those marriages wounded by pornography.”26 There is no evil that God cannot overcome.
God is always there, always waiting to forgive, always ready to help. All we need to do is to turn to Him and place our brokenness in His hands so that can heal us. “God uses people and the Church as instruments of His healing power. … The sacraments are very important in the healing process. They are a source of God’s grace, healing, and forgiveness.”27 When we go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, receive the Eucharist, seek counselling and support, and make a commitment to do whatever is necessary to eliminate the evil of pornography from our lives, God will bring about a complete healing of our hearts and minds. It is the anticipation of this hope that allows us to say, “Be strong and of good courage, do not fear or be in dread of them: for it is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you” (Deut 31:6).
For those struggling with addiction, I have summarized Dr. Peter Kleponis’ Seven Point Plan for Recovery below. I hope that it will give you a place to start. I have also added a list of resources – for those suffering from addiction, for those who are journeying with them, for all of us who need to become more aware of porn’s devastating impact on our men, women, young people, and children.
– Sharon van der Sloot
Seven Point Plan for Recovery28
by Dr. Peter Kleponis
- Self-Knowledge and Commitment – Admit you have a problem and seek help. Know your weaknesses and triggers. Detox your brain by giving up your use of porn. Commit yourself to doing whatever it takes to recover.
- Purify Your Life – Make the commitment not to use others by lusting after them. Live a chaste life. Eliminate all pornography. Use an Internet accountability service, such as CovenantEyes.com. Block offensive TV programs and networks.
- Support and Accountability – Enlist others as accountability partners; e.g. your spouse, friends, siblings, neighbours, colleagues, support group members, or Catholic men’s groups. Men should have at least one male accountability partner as they will naturally understand a man’s struggle with pornography better than a woman. Call them daily, if necessary. Find a support group, such as Sexaholics Anonymous, My House Recovery Groups, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, and Celebrate Recovery.
- Counselling – Find a good therapist. “Therapy is imperative to the recovery process and is where the addiction is formally diagnosed and a comprehensive recovery program developed.”29
- A Spiritual Plan
- Go to see your priest.
- Seek forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
- Receive the Eucharist frequently. It is exceptionally healing because it is God within us.
- Work with a spiritual director (if possible) who can help you develop a healthy, intimate relationship with God. (Dr. Kleponis recommends Dan Burke’s book, Navigating the Interior Life: Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God (Emmaus Road, 2012) if you would like some suggestions on how to choose a good spiritual director.)
- Take time for daily prayer.
- Meditate on Scripture every day.
- Fasting can help us remember to stay focused on God.
- Use sacramentals – not in a superstitious way, but as tangible reminders of God’s love and care. E.g., bless yourself with holy water, carry a rosary, have a crucifix in every room in your house, wear a scapular, use holy cards in prayers to remind you of God’s love for us. Keep blessed salt and St. Benedict medals near your computer.
- Find a Catholic men’s group or a 12-step support group.
- Develop a deep devotion to our Blessed Mother, Mary (if you struggle with mother wounds), St. Joseph (if you struggle with deep father wounds), or the Holy Family (if you struggle with family wounds).
- Recognize that this is spiritual battle. Don’t give in to Satan’s attacks!
- Education – Educate yourself on and truly understand the dangers of pornography, its addictiveness, and the recovery process. Address your emotional wounds. Study Scripture and the Catholic faith. Learn about healthy relationships and sexuality by reading books such as Pope John Paul II’s The Theology of the Body and Love and Responsibility
- Strive to Grow in Virtue – Choose two virtues each week. Find some way to put those virtues into practice every day.
If you’re not sure whether you are at risk for Internet Pornography Addiction, you may want to check out the Internet Sex Screening Test, a self test developed by Robert L. Delmonico (2000). It can be found accessed online at http://healthymind.com/isst.pdf.
In this article, I relied heavily on information from Bishop Paul S. Loverde’s pastoral letter, Bought With a Price, as well as information from Dr. Peter C. Kleponis’ recently released book, Integrity Restored: Helping Catholic Families Win the Battle Against Pornography (Emmaus Road, 2014). Dr. Kleponis offers an extensive list of resources at the end of his book, which include recommended reading on the pornography epidemic, addiction and recovery, as well as specific references on recovery for women. There is also a section on help for wives, books on authentic manhood, marriage, and healthy sexuality. There is also an extensive list of websites, information on choosing a counsellor, and a list of films.
You might also want to check out the following resources:
- True Freedom: An anti-pornography website sponsored by the Archdiocese of New York that provides resources for overcoming pornography use. The link is: http://nyfamilylife.org/chastity/truefreedom/.
- Priests for Life Canada: Check out their link at http://www.priestsforlifecanada.com/English/The_Facts/pornography.php.
- Integrity Restored Website: http://www.integrityrestored.com, a website created by Dr. Peter Kleponis. It’s dedicated to helping Catholic men break free from pornography addiction. It also offers support for wives and provides information on how to protect your family from pornography and help those who are struggling with addiction.
- Internet Accountability: Software such as Covenant Eyes is available to help families and individuals avoid pornography use. Check out their link at: http://www.covenanteyes.com.
1 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006), 407.
2 Bishop Paul S. Loverde, Bought With a Price (Arlington, DC: Catholic Diocese of Arlington, 2014), 25.
3 Cf. Dr. Peter C. Kleponis, Integrity Restored (Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2014), 15
4 Ibid., 39.
5 Cf. Ibid., 53.
6 An adolescent’s brain does not fully mature until around 23-25 years of age. (cf. American College of Pediatricians, “The Teenage Brain: Under Construction.”)
7 Quote from http://helpyourteennow.com/how-pornography-addiction-affects-the-teenage-brain-infographic/; Internet; accessed 20 November 2014.
8 Cf. Jane Anderson, MD, FCP, American College of Pediatricians, “The Teenage Brain: Under Construction” (March, 2011); available from http://www.acpeds.org/the-college-speaks/position-statements/parenting-issues/the-teenage-brain-under-construction.
9 Kleponis, Integrity Restored, 38.
10 Ibid., 79.
11 Ibid., 81.
12 Ibid., 84-85.
13 Dr. Kleponis distinguishes between pornography addiction and those have a sexual addiction. He writes, “A person who struggles with pornography addiction is one whose addictive sexual activity is limited to the Internet, which includes visual pornography, chat rooms, erotic literature, and social media. A person struggling with sex addiction may participate in these activities, but they will also physically act out sexually, often with people they have met online.” From Integrity Restored, 82.
14 Kleponis, Integrity Restored, 82.
15 Ibid., 12.
16 Ibid., 37.
17 Loverde, Bought With a Price, 21.
18 Kleponis, Integrity Restored, 37.
19 The damage caused by porn can be passed on to future generations – not just through its sociological impact, but also physiologically. According to the American College of Pediatricians, the “rewiring” that occurs in the teenage brains as a result of exposure to pornography can be “passed genetically to the next generation by ‘epigenesis’, the ability of cells to turn genes on and off in response to the environmental influences experienced by those cells.” (Quoted from American College of Pediatricians,“The Teenage Brain – Under Construction.”)
20 Loverde, “Bought With a Price,” 27-28.
21 Cf. Kleponis, Integrity Restored, 97-102.
22 Ibid., 70.
23 Ibid., 96.
24 Cf. Ibid., 102-110.
25 Ibid., 112.
27 Ibid., 192-193.
28 This is a very brief summary of the Integrity Restored Recovery Program, as described by Dr. Peter Kleponis in Chapter 10 of his book, Integrity Restored.
29 Ibid., 221.