A friend and I have been having a very interesting discussion this morning about a New Yorker article published yesterday called “A Sociologist of Religion on Protestants, Porn, and the “Purity Industrial Complex.” It’s a clunky title for what is a fascinating examination of how internet porn is affecting conservative Christians (who tend to have strong moral convictions in this area). In short, it’s leading to depression and unhappiness, it’s disrupting marriages, and it’s destabilizing communities. But is all of this because of the nature of porn itself, and the way it has been thoroughly normalized and made easily accessible in our culture? Or is it the impossible moral demands that these Christian communities make on their adherents?
The sociologist interviewed in the article would lean, it seems, toward the latter. The main factor is the repressive and restrictive moral culture of conservative Christianity. Statistics show that conservative Christians access porn at roughly the same rate as everyone else, yet the effect that it has on them is markedly different:
[Y]ou have this fascinating paradox of a group of people who hate pornography morally. They want to eradicate it from the world. And yet, statistically, they will view it slightly less often than your average American. And so you have this paradoxical situation of a group of people who collectively hate it, and yet, as individuals, they semi-regularly watch it. Especially the men. What are the consequences of that kind of incongruence in their lives?
The incongruence, it turns out, is devastating psychologically, relationally, and spiritually. It puts conservative Christians in the unenviable position of either having to stubbornly cling to their antiquated values and constantly feel like they’re moral failures (and unfaithful Christians) or modify/abandon their values. Both are well-traveled roads, although the latter is probably getting heavier traffic these days.
What to do? The friend I was talking with about this has been beaten by the big stick of evangelical sexual purity and so they were a bit more inclined to go with option B. I, on the other hand, have no analogous experience and would be less inclined to jettison moral norms when it comes to porn. Our experience, as always, shapes what and how we see.
I read this article alongside an article that another friend passed along recently called “Growing Up in Pornland: Girls Have Had It with Porn Conditioned Boys.” This piece is more specific to teenagers and young adults. And, as the father of kids growing up in this sexually confused and confusing culture, I obviously have a (grim) personal interest in titles like this. The article is three years old and comes out of Australia, but I think it’s true across the West. And things have probably, if anything, gotten worse over the past three years.
The sexual landscape that the article describes is truly depressing. Paragraph after chilling paragraph, statistic after alarming statistic, interview after heartbreaking interview with young women, assumption after degrading assumption from young men. The article could, in some ways, be summed up in one appalling and utterly unsurprising sentence:
Growing up in a pornified landscape, girls learn that they are service stations for male gratification and pleasure.
Well, yes. What would we expect, I wonder, given our dogmatic commitments to the orthodoxies of unrestrained individual freedom, unbridled capitalism, and a slavish devotion to unshackling ourselves from moral norms and the institutions that have historically promoted them? The idea of a fifteen year-old-girl having to describe as a “fetish” her desire for a guy to make eye contact with her in order to get taken seriously or another girl feeling like sex is the necessary payment for the privilege of getting a boy to sit on a couch and watch a movie with her, not to mention the sexual violence and dehumanization that is being thoroughly normalized by the porn being consumed by young boys is… ominous? disturbing? unnerving? terrifying? Words fail, sometimes.
Even more troubling, if this article is to be believed, is that it is not adults, who in theory should have more mature and healthy views about sex, who are sounding the alarm bells, but young girls themselves. They know that something is desperately wrong with their experience growing up in pornland. They know, intuitively, that it should not be like this. They hunger for a view of sex that is connected to intimacy, connection, commitment, kindness. and care. What they get is a bunch of young men whose brains have been thoroughly addled by porn and the assumption that it is they who must adapt to male desire rather than male desire that must be disciplined, restrained, and re-trained.
So, yes, I think that Christian churches have historically been guilty of giving people impossible demands when it comes to porn and sexuality, and then piling on shame and guilt once people inevitably transgress. I think that we have (and continue) to set ourselves up to do nothing but fail. And we have been remarkably graceless along the way, which is a damnable indictment indeed. I have no doubt that Christiain “purity culture” has done great harm and left people mired in shame and despair. I have seen it, and it is an ugly thing.
But I also think that when it comes to our increasingly casual attitudes toward porn, we may not fully appreciate the monster that has been unleashed. I’m thinking about preteen girls trying to negotiate the impossible world that we have bequeathed to them. I’m thinking about adolescent boys who feel powerless to resist the lure of easy pornography or, worse, who are happily marinating in the toxic swill. I’m thinking about the freedom with which we have imprisoned our young and how they might ever be liberated. When it comes to cultural norms around porn, there’s more than one way to make an impossible demand.