CREATE IN ME A CLEAN HEART, A Closer Look at the Effects of Pornography




{ This post is another in the series of posts that I am posting here on consisting of the serialization of the document CREATE IN ME A CLEAN HEART issued last November by the bishops of the United States in an effort to stop the plague of pornography afflicting our society}


V. A Closer Look at the Effects of Pornography

“Thoroughly wash away my guilt; and from my sin cleanse me.” (Ps 51:4)

All men and women are created in the image of God and are called to love God and others. Pornography use damages the ability of men and women to become who they are called to be. It makes it more difficult for them to be in self-giving, mutually respectful relationships with each other. It attacks a man’s call to love and protect women and to sacrifice for them, and it undermines a woman’s capacity to love and cherish another human being as a gift and to be received as a gift. Here, we take a closer look at the costly toll of pornography on men, women, young people and children, with a special emphasis on marriage and family life.


Men are particularly susceptible to pornography because the male brain is strongly drawn to sexual images, a kind of “visual magnetism”66 aggressively exploited by the pornography industry. There are a variety of reasons why a man might view pornography, from “recreation” to seeking comfort for emotional wounds (e.g., low self-esteem, feeling unlovable)67 to a desire for a sense of power. The effects of pornography on those who view it are becoming better documented and more understood. They include physiological, financial, emotional, mental,68 and spiritual effects (see below for more information). Those who use pornography can often


experience a deep sense of shame and an erosion of self-worth. Men in particular can develop a narcissistic self-identity69 and an inflated sense of “machismo.” Viewing pornography can distort one’s view of sexuality, marriage,70 and the opposite sex, and can cause confusion about one’s own sexual identity and inclinations, (a confusion exacerbated by viewing same-sex pornography). Spiritually, like any sin, using pornography damages one’s relationship with God. Users often believe falsely that God could never love them, and they may despair of his mercy and healing.


Pornography is not just a men’s issue. Women use pornography for similar reasons as men, and experience similar effects.71 While it is not uncommon for women to view compulsively the same extreme visual content as men, they have traditionally tended to gravitate toward forms of pornography that promise relational connection and romance, such as erotic literature or inappropriate social media interactions and video chats.72 Women face the added challenges of the faulty assertion that using pornography is liberating for them, and the false societal perception that only men use pornography or struggle with pornography addiction, which can cause a deep sense of shame and isolation.


Both science and personal testimonies confirm that many people who start by occasionally viewing pornography later become compulsive viewers who feel trapped in a cycle of fantasy, ritual, acting out, and despair.73 Viewing pornography, usually combined with masturbation, directly affects the brain’s reward pathways and has been noted to have a similar effect on the brain as cocaine does on a person with a drug addiction or as alcohol on a person with an alcohol addiction.74 After using pornography, the person craves more and over time seeks out a higher number of and/or more extreme images to get the same “high.” A person addicted to pornography may become obsessed with viewing pornography, may take increased risks to view it (such as accessing it at work), may continue viewing it despite adverse consequences to self and others, and may feel out of control or helpless to stop.75 He or she may also deny that a problem exists. While pornography addiction can happen via free online content, compulsive pornography users may spend large amounts of money on “exclusive” online content, go to strip clubs, or solicit prostitution.76 The moral culpability of an addicted person may be lessened depending on the circumstances, but the situation is particularly grave.77 Addictions are very hard to overcome, and help is needed to regain one’s freedom. We invite the many good men and women who suffer from addiction to pornography to trust in the Lord’s mercy and seek appropriate help, support, and resources. (See Appendix.)


Children and youth

Young people born in the digital age have grown up immersed in media and the Internet, and many times are savvier at navigating this world than their parents.78 Since it is estimated that the average age of first exposure to pornography is eleven,79 many children exposed to pornography are even younger. Almost all young males and over half of young females see pornography before age eighteen, often accidentally, such as finding a family member’s “stash” or happening upon a pornographic website through a pop-up ad or typo. 80 Other times a child may search online for a term he or she heard and did not understand, or intentionally search for online pornography out of curiosity. Sex education curriculums may treat pornography as neutral or even good, in some cases even using it as a “teaching tool.”81 Children and teens experience pressure from peers and even family members to look at pornography. More and more, young people produce their own pornography, in the form of sexual photographs or videos shared with peers.82 “Sexting” is associated with other risky sexual behaviors,83 charges of child pornography,84 and tragically has even led to suicide when the image is shared with unintended recipients.85

Being exposed to pornography can be traumatic for children and youth. Seeing it steals their innocence and gives them a distorted image of sexuality, relationships, and men and women, which may then affect their behavior. It can also make them more vulnerable to being sexually abused, since their understanding of appropriate behavior can be damaged.86 A child who is exposed to pornography may experience a mixture of pleasure, pain, disgust, guilt, and curiosity. Without a trusted parent or other adult with whom to talk through these feelings, a child may disengage from family relationships and return to viewing pornography to try to understand his or her feelings. Children and teens who view pornography in effect receive an education about sexuality from what they are viewing. They are more likely to be more accepting of premarital sex,87 to view women as sex objects,88 and to overestimate the prevalence of certain degrading sexual practices.89 They also tend to engage in sexual activity earlier than their peers90 and are more likely to participate in risky sexual behavior,91 which puts them at greater risk of getting pregnant as a teenager (or impregnating someone) or contracting an STI. They are at increased risk of sexual addiction later in life.92 For girls, an over-sexualized society in general and pornography in particular can contribute to low self-esteem, eating disorders, and depression.93 Data indicates that children repeatedly exposed to pornography are more likely to sexually harass or molest other children, imitating the behavior they have seen.


Tragically, children and youth are also victimized by being forced or coerced into participating in the production of child pornography. Child pornography is illegal,95 abusive, and a form of human trafficking because of a child’s inability to consent.96 There are many reasons why a child might become a victim of child pornography, including extreme poverty, deplorable neglect by his or her parents or guardians, or manipulation by child pornographers.97 Children and youth exploited in this way face serious side effects and need plentiful resources for emotional, psychological, and physical healing. Most of all, they need to know that the abuse was not their fault or choice, no matter how their abusers deceived them.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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