By / Aug 27

Amid the cultural upheaval of COVID-19 and what has turned out to be one of the most eventful years in modern history, a dehumanizing and predatory perversion of technology has been spreading in the darkness of our communities: pornography. While the out-of-sight nature of pornography makes it is easier to shrug off its insidiousness, especially given the social unrest of the moment, the rise in predatory marketing plans and expanded pornography use should not be left alone because of the monumental human dignity implications.

As the coronavirus lockdowns went into effect throughout the world in March, Pornhub, the world’s largest online pornography provider, announced that they were providing users in Italy free access and subscriber privileges due to the nation’s outbreak and isolation. The company has also provided similar access to users in other nations such as Spain and France. In light of the free and open access to this pornographic content, Pornhub self-reported on their official blog that daily usage increased by 38-61% throughout these European countries, which led them to also claim that “people all over Europe were happy to have distractions while quarantined at home.” According to the company’s June analytics report, “worldwide traffic to Pornhub continues to be much higher than it was before the Coronavirus pandemic spread worldwide.”

The company also demonstrates how people are also searching for virus-related pornography. According to Pornhub’s report, there have “been more than 18.5 million searches containing Corona, 1.5 million containing Covid and 11.8 million containing Quarantine. More than 1250 coronavirus themed videos have been uploaded to Pornhub, with many being viewed over 1 million times.”

None of this should come as a surprise because the pornography industry is well-suited for a worldwide pandmeic. As the Economist reports, the industry “has already largely moved online; and its consumers often voluntarily self-isolate.” This pandemic has not created a pornography problem in our communities and homes, but it has esacerbated a deep and disturbing trend of separating sexual desire from relational wholeness and marital fidelity.

The problem of porn

Statistics can only take us so far in understanding the deceptive nature of pornography and how it is ruining so many lives throughout our world. At the heart of pornography use is not just young men and women who are unable to control their sexual desires or openly reject God’s good design for our sexuality. The core of the problem is an acceptance of a worldview and morality that isolates our sexuality from our whole person. This deep division of body and mind from flesh and desires contributes to the growing trend of the normalization of pornography and the perversion of human sexuality.

The unbridled mantra of our day is that the real you is your deepest desires and emotions, cut off from the embodied nature of humanity. As Nancy Pearcey states in her book Love Thy Body, “sexual intercourse, the most intimate of bodily experiences, has been disconnected from personal relations” (emphasis original). This bifurcation of humanity has led to countless perversions and abuses of fellow image-bearers, most evidently seen in the rise of the sexual revolution and the corresponding rise of pornography worldwide.

As the culture around us continues to buy into the lie of the sexual revolution, the Church has a call to proclaim the goodness of the created order and the redemption found in Jesus Christ.

When we separate what it means to be an embodied soul, the use of pornography becomes commonplace because it allows for the sexual high outside of any relational context and reduces humanity down to what writer Melinda Selmys describes as a “wet machine,” which could also be understood as a soulless body or organic machine. The real you—the disembodied ghost— controls this machine in order to pursue pleasure in any way you see fit, regardless of the cost to yourself or others.

Alongside this division of body and soul, another dehumanizing effect of pornography is the objectification the person on the other side of the screen (or even headset, in light of the explosive growth of VR porn in the last few years). One of the ways this manifests itself is in the faceless nature of pornography and the obession over the body. God designed the face to play a major role in how we see each other as individuals and subjects, worthy of respect and honor, and made in his image (Gen. 1:26-28). As the late philosopher Roger Scruton describes in The Face of God,

“The underlying tendency of erotic images in our time is to present the body as the focus and meaning of desire, the place where it all occurs, in the momentary spasm of sensual pleasure of which the soul is at best a spectator, and no part of the game. In pornography the face has no role to play, other than to be subjected to the empire of the body. Kisses are of no significance, and eyes look nowhere since they are searching for nothing beyond present pleasure. All of this amounts to a marginalization, indeed a kind of desecration, of the human face.” (107)

Scruton goes on to show that this desecration of the face leads to a “canceling out of the subject,” rendering sex—especially in a pornographic culture—“not as a relation between subjects but a relation between objects.” Through the use of pornography, we naturally objectify the other because we are not concerned with them as a fellow human but rather as an instrument that leads to our sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure becomes the primary goal of the user rather than a deep and intimate connection with another image-bearer as a whole person. 

Predatory porn

The dehumanizing effects of pornography affect those on both sides of the screen. Not only is the viewer dehumanizing themselves by separating the goodness of sexual intercourse from its proper context, but there is also a victim who is portrayed and treated as nothing but a simple object of desire. These victims often see sexual acts as the only way to provide for themselves or even as a way to attain fulfilment or freedom.

During this pandemic, some people are turning to various pornographic websites like IsMyGirl to earn extra income. This particular site offers predatory promises by signing up to become a model. According to a March press release, the company opened up lucrative “opportunities” for furloughed or out-of-work McDonald’s employees. The popular pornography platform stated, “in an effort to help McDonald’s employees, and to make sure they can continue to provide for themselves and their families, we want to help provide them with a legitimate option.”

This “legitimate” option is nothing less than asking others to sell their bodies in order to make ends meet during these extraordinary times. But as the culture around us continues to buy into the lie of the sexual revolution, the Church has a call to proclaim the goodness of the created order and the redemption found in Jesus Christ.

While it may be tempting to overlook those stuck in cycles of pornography use or even the industry itself, Christians have the mandate to speak out against the predatory practices of the entire pornographic industry. Part of this mandate will mean that some believers will need to address and seek help for their own pornography addictions. For others, it will mean speaking out against these dehumanizing atrocities in order to expose the lies and predation of the porngraphic industry. 

The Christan moral witness proclaims that sex is not designed for a temporary high, online exploit, or even a late-night addiction. We are more than just machines. We are people created in God’s image. We are embodied souls who are offered redemption by the God who took on flesh himself in order to save us from ourselves. And our hope in the midst of this porn pandemic is that what is hidden will come to light in the fullness of time. As the church, we must be ready to proclaim the forgiveness found in the light of Jesus Christ while working to welcome, defend, and care for the vulnerable among us. 

By / Oct 24

We were unprepared for the fast rise of our digital life. We don’t understand, and maybe don’t recognize, the way our world has changed. And it’s not over. Driverless cars, geriatric-care robots, and augmented reality are some of the technology that could shape our world—and its people—next. 

Sherry Turkle, a clinician psychologist and professor at MIT, has spent her career researching how technology is used and how it is changing us. Turkle’s career, spanning the whole digital age, began just before personal computers were in homes. In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, she examines how technology promises us more connections while severing them at the same time. She shares stories from her 40 years of research, leading her readers to draw their own conclusions about their relationships with technology. And those conclusions should make one extremely uncomfortable. 

Alone Together is “about how we are changed as technology offers us substitutes for connecting with each other face-to-face” (11). Turkle examines these changes through our current networked life “with its promise to give us more control over human relationships, and tomorrow’s story of sociable robots, which promise relationships where we will be in control, even if that means not being in relationships at all” (17). 

Part one: How we interact with robots

In part one, “The Robotic Moment: In Solitude, New Intimacies,” Turkle considers how people interact with robots and how it starts in the playroom with children’s sociable toys like Furby, My Real Baby, and Tamagotchi. She explains how these toys are different from a computer: 

“For decades computers have used us to think with them; these days computers and robots, deemed sociable, affective, and relational, ask us to feel for them and with them” (39). But this isn’t just child’s play. She continues “Roboticists hope we can use their inventions to practice our relationship skills. But . . . more than harmless amusements, they are powerful because they invite our attachment. And such attachments change our way of being in the world” (79). 

Story after story from Turkle’s research makes one see how easily people are duped into believing that these sociable robots have feelings and can care for humans the way humans begin to care for them. That experience leads to a lot of people “getting comfortable with the idea that a robot’s companionship is even close to a replacement for a person” (65). Turkle moves from the playroom to observe how adults interact with robots. In her research, people choose robots over human interaction because robots won’t suffer from impatience, frustration, and apathy. They can simulate listening, care, and affection. While robots may ease loneliness, what do they do to us? Turkle finds that “we seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things” (xiv).

We are called to love one another; we can’t do that if we avoid relationships with one another.

The line between the robotic and human is rapidly blurring. We are beginning to believe that the inanimate have life. We are no longer honest about machines’ indifference toward us because “what robots offer meets our human vulnerabilities. We can interact with robots in full knowledge of their limitations, comforted nonetheless by what must be unrequited love” (133). Turkle’s warnings should cause anyone to consider technology’s role in our lives, but for the Christian, the implications are even greater than her extensive research shows. No technological development can replace the image of God each human bears. We are called to love one another; we can’t do that if we avoid relationships with one another. 

Part two: Connected, yet isolated

In part two, “Networked: In Intimacy, New Solitudes,” Turkle observes how online platforms designed for connection are creating more isolation than ever. Networks allow people to maintain (or start) relationships when distance would have previously prohibited it. When my family lived overseas, we thanked God daily for the technology that allowed us to video call our relatives on a different continent. But go to any restaurant now, and you’ll observe people who are sitting together ignoring each other, choosing to focus on their mobile device rather than make conversation with the people in front of them. Professionals feel like they can’t—and maybe don’t want to—disconnect from their work even while on vacation.

Turkle’s research covers a wide variety of platforms, some of which are already outdated in the short time since publication. Despite some the datedness of her research, her findings can be applied to newer mediums because these platforms often still offer connection without commitment. In thinking of online platforms as “communities,” we have lost the meaning of the word: “to give among each other” (238). People find it less work to engage with the virtual world than with real people whom one can’t control or click away. Too often, “the ties we form through the internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy” (280).

Alone Together is a fascinating read that forces the reader to consider one’s interactions with not only technology but with real, concrete people. I left the book wanting to increase face-to-face interactions and decrease online interactions with others. I want my family to prioritize relationships with people. Nonetheless, the book also left me with more questions than answers. Her practical suggestions at the end are helpful but limited. But maybe that’s the point: we’re best off if we feel the tension of how technology is changing us. We don’t have all the answers, and we need to continue wrestling with this new and present reality.

By / Jun 1

A few months ago, three men with unique perspectives gathered in Birmingham, Ala., at Beeson Divinity School for a discussion sponsored by ERLC and The Gospel Coalition. Robert Smith, Jr, Russell Moore and Jason Cook sat down for an important conversation on racial reconciliation and the gospel.