Pornland and Purity Culture: A Tale of Two Impossible Demands

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.

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15 Comments

  1. It’s too late now for remedies or containment. The World is in free-fall through a dark dark abyss. The Brits are planning to implement an emergency “ban” on porn, but I’m sure the mass’s will engineer a hack. Considering the links I provided, I have a huge problem with blaming men for the rampant epidemic of sexual promiscuity we are witnessing today. There should be no question here that women are playing a huge role in this, and if your intellectually honest, you will have to agree.
    The subversive influence of Hollywood on culture and morality cannot be overstated. …we ain’t seen nothing yet.

    MARANATHA

    1. I don’t doubt that women have a share of the blame when it comes to the ubiquity of porn, but I think it’s a much smaller one than men. The imbalances in power and appetite (historically down to the present) have always been dominant factors when it comes to the many and varied ways that sex and people are exploited.

  2. Much smaller? ..Not where I live it isn’t. Women are enticing and provoking men to either turn to porn and masterbation in leui of getting what they SEE or worse, rape.
    Human beings,men and women alike, are enticed to lust and covet by what they SEE. Interestingly, Church is now among the most sexually charged environments, with weddings and funerals being a close 2nd and 3rd. why? you ask, it’s because of the sexy/provocative manor with which women are presenting themselves by their dress. Surely to God no one reading this blog will dispute this fact,…on second thought, yeah they might, given the current state of christianity.
    There are only 2 things that I admire of Islam: Their habit of prayer and the modesty with which the females conduct themselves in dress.
    What happened with christianity to make us ALL turn from wholesome values so irreverently ??

    1. We live in a highly sexualized culture, no doubt, and both men and women inhabit and contribute to this reality in all kinds of unhealthy ways. I maintain that it is the appetites of men that are the driving force behind much of what is toxic in the sexual landscape. Not the only force, but certainly the dominant one. The ABC article I cited makes this point pretty powerfully, in my view.

  3. Thanks, Ryan. Could you do a follow up blog on how Christian/the church can open up conversations about porn? Back in 2006, I was involved in producing “Close to Home” series of pastoral care pamphlets on topics that we typically don’t want to talk about in church (mental health issues, addictions, abuse, etc.). These would be set out in church foyers or even bathrooms for people to pick up as a starting point for getting the help they needed. By far the best seller was the one on pornography. That says something about pervasiveness of the problem. But since its publication, the lure and availability of porn has only increased, and I’m not sure churches have gotten very far in helping people navigate a healthy response, even if it is along the lines of option B in your piece. Anyway, I’d love to see a follow-up piece sometime.

    1. It doesn’t surprise me to hear that the one on pornography was the best seller. I wish I had some luminous insight into how the church can or should open up conversations about this, but I’m not sure that I do. I think that, like most difficult and painful conversations, they have to start small, at the interpersonal level, and they have to chip away at the shame and/or pride that are always lurking beneath the surface. How, specifically, to do that on an institutional level is a much bigger and more complicated question that would certainly involve broader themes of sexuality, identity, covenant, even economics (and more, probably!).

      I can’t promise a follow up piece, but I will certainly keep thinking about this.

  4. I’ll tell ya, I know I should”nt be, but I’m absolutely shocked by the lack of response to this blog post. It goes to show you how pervasive sexual dysfunction is within the Body of Christ.

    You can measure the dysfunction in a person by the secrets they keep.

    My sexual dysfunction began just before puberty when I discovered my fathers hidden “True Detective” magazines and became sexually aroused by the pictures of scantily clad women in provocative poses, this is when I first discovered masterbation, which quickly led to a compulsive disorder and a life-long struggle to this day to be free of it. So if I sound overly angry and condemning about the way women are showing/flaunting themselves in public view these days, well, now you know why.

    I challenge everyone reading this to muster the courage to “tell on your disease”. If not here then elsewhere. (James 5:16)

    1. I can appreciate your struggles in this area, Mike. They are obviously very real and they are more common than most of us would prefer to admit.

      I would, however, be cautious over-interpreting silence when it comes to this blog post or others like it. A comment section of a blog post is a very limited forum and it certainly isn’t necessarily the place for deep confession or the baring of souls. I have learned over twelve years of writing online that measuring/evaluating the resonance of a piece of writing by views or comments or any of the other more obvious metrics of engagement is unwise and tells very little of the story.

      1. I stand corrected.
        I’m apologize if I’m an embarrassment to this Blog and it’s readers or put anyone on the spot here with the distasteful Truth.

      2. No need to apologize, Mike. As I said, your struggles are obviously very real and your explanation of them adds weight and context to your comments. I thank you for sharing.

        I just wanted to register the truth that I have come to know (often from private correspondence with readers) that there can be an awful lot going on behind online silence and it’s important not to read too much into it.

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