Pornography is unrealistic. It’s a statement many might view as common because it’s been said so frequently. But the raw data on pornography use in the United States reveals new ways that this is true. Each year, Pornhub, the world’s largest pornography site, puts out a report. This “Year in Review” includes details of which countries watch pornography the most (United States), which holiday sees the most drastic drop in visiting the site (New Year’s Eve), and which day is the most likely for people to log in (between 1-2 a.m. on Sunday morning).
This past year, the data revealed that once again pornography is not meant to give us reality, but to feed us an illusion. The most searched for terms of 2021 in the U.S. included a form of Japanese pornographic anime known for its unrealistic depictions of body parts and the term “lesbian.” Think about that for a moment. Men are the most likely candidates to view pornography, and they have opted overwhelmingly for sexual acts that are impossible for them to ever actually participate in.
What pornography reveals about people
So, if it is not the real thing that people are after, what does this reveal? We do not desire real sex between two people, bringing with it all the vulnerability and responsibility that it entails, but a sea of sexual licentiousness, where individuals can seek their own pleasure through the use of another individual (real or imagined). If the pill gave us sex without pregnancy, then the widespread adoption of internet pornography has given us sexuality without people.
In a culture awash in sexuality (but not true sex) as this, the novelty and strangeness of the act becomes more enticing than actual intercourse. This is similar to the conversation between two characters in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where one encourages his friend to go to the “Feelies” (a movie experience where viewers can “feel” the movie), with these words: “I hear the new one at the Alhambra is first-rate. There’s a love scene on a bearskin rug; they say it’s marvelous. Every hair of the bear reproduced. The most amazing tactual effects.”
When describing a sexual scene, the most alluring part of it is that you can “feel” the bearskin rug, not that there is bare skin shown on the screen. In the same way, when sexuality is so freely available, it is the other stuff that draws our attention. No longer is it enough to see the “bland” pornography, we now must gravitate toward that which is impossible: cartoons where the laws of physics and biology don’t constrain; scenarios that could never involve us. The allure of the strange and novel is what is exciting, not the beauty of a sexual union between partners who know each other (and only each other) intimately in the bond of marriage between a man and a woman.
Technology and the use of pornography
Technology is not entirely to blame. Pornography use existed long before smartphones and the internet. But it is impossible to dismiss the ways that technology is reshaping our minds and sense of the physical world. Ironically, this particular moment has the striking fact that sexual content is more available online, even as rates of teen sexual activity are declining.
According to sociologist Jean Twenge, iGen (or Gen Z) is less likely to have engaged in physical sexual activity than their predecessors. However, before we celebrate, the teens and young adults are no less likely to have engaged in sexual activity, it is just mediated through digital devices: sending nude photos or engaging in illicit texting with significant others. If sex is only about the individual’s physical pleasure, then one can receive that with a smartphone and Snapchat, physical presence not required.
This is the contradiction of our time: a culture so flooded in sexuality and committed to pleasure, yet so starved for true sex and physical intimacy. The destroying of the barriers around sexuality did not actually bring us together, but in fact drove us further apart. Whereas a healthy view of sex involves two people in the context of marriage vulnerable before one another, pornography mediated through a screen requires nothing of an individual. The focus is bent inward, only on the person and what he or she might desire.The other person ceases to be human, becoming only a tool for sexual gratification.
In some instances, the person is only a means for my economic profit. In the early days of the COVID pandemic, when many people were laid off from their jobs and confined to their homes in lockdowns, some turned to the internet and camshows (online shows where viewers pay to watch individuals engage in sexual acts) as a means of closing the economic gap. One popular site reported over 60,000 new “producers” in the first two weeks of March. Another promised to let out-of-work McDonalds workers keep 90% of their profits (a profit margin not given to most other “performers”).
The disastrous effects of pornography use
Whether for individual sexual fulfillment or economic exploitation, what is required is not a person but an object. A tool. An image on the screen. To use another person in this way mars their status as one who has been made in the image of God, but it also sears our own consciences. Only a deformed conscience can treat another individual as an object rather than a person. And the prolonged practice of doing so brings unimaginable relational and personal destruction because we focus only on our own gratification. And, scientifically, that repeated use has a damaging effect on our lives.
Sociologist Samuel Perry, who has studied pornography use among conservative Christians, found that those who engage in repeated use were more likely to back away from their faith. The turn inward toward self-pleasure is not compatible with the command to self-denial (Mark 8:34). These Christians did not hold contradictory beliefs in their head—“I believe pornography use is bad” and “There is nothing wrong with my use of pornography”—but rather opted to downplay the former belief that sex outside of marriage is detrimental. This trajectory reveals one of the most troubling aspects of our culture. Not that we would only engage in illicit sexual behavior, but we can come to believe that it is good for us.
As Christians, we must understand the reality of pornography and state clearly the dangers it poses, both to those who produce and consume it. We must condemn its predatory, exploitative, and criminal activity. And we must call the world back to a view of sexuality built on physical, committed, and mutual intimacy in the context of God-designed marriage rather than personal self-gratification.