In those periodic moments where public discourse centers on the topic of pornography, it is always put in terms of the individual. There is abundant science behind pornography consumption, showing its effects on the brain and one’s reproductive health as well as its addictiveness. Many critics will also point out how constant stimulation of pornographic content warps a person’s view of sex and other people. To appeal to the broadest audiences, the language is always kept secular and clinical with little reference to the morality of it.
When morality does enter the conversation, it is usually in reference to the producers of pornography. They are exploiting and objectifying the people involved (mostly women). And, in many cases, they will abuse and coerce minors as well, even drawing criticism from writers for The New York Times.
Those who defend pornography as merely showing an activity between consenting adults need to understand that these are people who sell their bodies and dignity for money and followers. In most cases, they are vulnerable to predators who take advantage of their low self-esteem, their financial desperation, and their naivety. Consequently, many porn actors will struggle with addiction, abusive relationships, and suicide.
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However, besides acknowledging the harm that pornography inflicts on the individuals involved, few people consider pornography’s effect on the community. Although a few have likened pornography to other vices like alcoholism or drug abuse, this analogy is somewhat misleading for two reasons. First, watching pornography is far more widespread, with nearly 80% of Americans consuming it monthly. If this same percentage held for alcohol or drug addictions, a significant portion of the population would be dead.
Second, unlike alcoholism and drug abuse, pornography addiction is not immediately visible. Whereas an alcoholic or drug addict will start showing the signs of their habit, with their bodies deteriorating and their vigor diminishing, watching pornography doesn’t leave an obvious mark on the user. Many will take this fact as evidence that pornography doesn’t harm anyone, except those who grow up in sexually repressive households and develop guilt complexes.
Nevertheless, pornography does leave a mark on the user, and this can be seen in the developed world. It has effectively sterilized whole generations of men who now lack the initiative to marry and have children. It has also emasculated men in general, who are less inclined to build and achieve. Demographically, this spells disaster as many countries now have birthrates below replacement level, leading to fewer workers and more elderly people. Culturally, this also spells disaster as it directly leads to a decadent, uncreative society of selfish adults who live and find meaning in the present moment and nothing else.
This is because pornography destroys human drive. Compared to pulling out one’s phone and watching titillating videos, taking a person out and having a conversation is difficult and uninteresting. Compared to the easy pleasure of pornography, the lasting pleasure of a happy marriage or even a job well-done is relatively pointless. Compared to the stress-free satisfaction of virtual sex, the hard-won satisfaction of raising children and building a business is unrealistic. As Rousseau points out in the last book of Emile (and as the show Futurama humorously illustrates in one of its episodes), so much personal and civilizational achievement is built on men’s natural drive to impress women.
This is the main problem with lust. Although it is associated with uncontrolled passions and aggression, lust often has more in common with the inactivity and mediocrity of slothfulness than the fiery destructiveness of wrath or pride. Shakespeare makes this point in “Sonnet 129”: “Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame is lust in action.” St. Augustine also attests to this dulling effect of lust in his Confessions. Even after he resolved his intellectual objections with Christianity, it was only after he renounced his lust that he could finally take action and convert.
As Marc Barnes explains in a brilliant essay on the topic, much of the world today has been converted to pornography. And while the majority of men languish in their lust, women have overtaken them in all avenues of life—in school, business, politics, and (when applicable) the home. While this could be considered a triumph of feminism, it could also be seen as a triumph of pornography. Women seem to have risen as much as men have fallen. While this development might lead some women to gloat and some men to gripe, most men and women are simply lamenting the challenge of finding an equal match with the opposite sex.
It’s no coincidence that the two exemplars of pornified cultures happen to be the two countries that are currently experiencing population decline: Japan and Germany. Once industrial and technological powerhouses, these two countries are now in the twilight years of prosperity. Both embraced unrestricted pornography and virtual sex, and now, far from the militant and energetic societies they were a century ago, they are nations of passive “herbivores.” Many of the women have given up on finding a spouse since so many of the men have forfeited their masculinity and prefer intimacy with artificial women.
When this problem of depopulation comes up though, few if any demographers mention the presence and influence of pornography. Rather, they will analyze economic factors like urbanization and secularization that have made marriage and children less practical. Therefore, when they make proposals to counteract low birthrates, it always involves subsidizing parenthood in some form. Hungary has recently enacted such policies with success, earning the approval of many conservatives. For their part, progressives usually favor bringing in more immigrants to make up for population loss.
Yet a much easier solution would be to ban pornography from the internet altogether. Some conservatives made this very suggestion, arguing that the easy access to pornography on the internet is a societal ill that should be eliminated for the common good. Libertarians immediately rejected this idea on the grounds of freedom and the attempt to “legislate morality.” The debate quickly turned into the idea of whether conservatives should prioritize the common good or freedom. As for banning pornography, this idea went nowhere and was eventually dropped.
Seeing that enforcing a ban on pornography will never happen—indeed, the government would be more likely to ban criticism of porn, deeming it hateful misinformation—it falls upon normal people to do this themselves. This is an area where the Church needs to play a much more active role by regularly preaching against pornography, recognizing that its pernicious influence on the soul is directly tied to the formation of families and achieving moral excellence. And, more importantly, parents need to place strict limits on their devices, if not limit the use of the internet altogether, doing all they can to eliminate the temptation for themselves and for their children.
Of course, removing access to pornography will not immediately result in a renewed, vibrant home and community, but it does serve in laying the groundwork. For too long, this problem has been left unaddressed, and it has sapped the drive of so many men entering adulthood. If they start taking action now, they may not recover that earlier innocence, but they will recover that energy. In turn, they can channel that energy into having families of their own and hopefully preserve the innocence of their own children.