How prevalent is pornography in our society?
In this series of podcasts, I’ve been talking a lot about the relationship between image and ultimate Reality, and about how the icon manifests to our senses a deeper, fuller, ultimate Reality that it is all too easy for us not to bring to conscious awareness. By manifesting that fuller Reality to us, the icon permits us to enter into relationship and communion with that fullness… a fullness of which the world available to our physical senses — though it can often seem more real to us — is actually just a shadow.
The scourge of pornography use in our society is also itself an image — an image that manifests certain unpalatable realities of our culture and relationships. For that reason, I think it’s important for us to have some idea of this scourge, how it is manifest in our society, and what effects it is having on those who come into contact with it, whether directly through their own use or indirectly through relationships with other people. So today, I want to consider some of the data we have available on pornography use and its pervasiveness into every part of our society.
When we start to look at the data from available studies on pornography, one of the first things we’re faced with is the question: what is pornography? What counts as porn? Where is the dividing line between art and porn? Between nude images and porn? Obviously, the answer to this question will affect all the available data and statistics.
Comparing pornography — which I’ve characterized as “demonic iconography” — with our understanding of holy iconography, I think we will have a different definition of pornography from most of those who take part in the studies and surveys that give us the data I’ll be referring to in this podcast, and this will need to be taken into account in interpreting that data.
A holy icon is an image that truly reflects Reality, and that participates in the Reality it portrays, manifesting it to us and inviting us into communion with the archetype — with the person portrayed in the icon, and ultimately with the final archetype, which is God himself. Because of this, an icon is worthy of veneration, and this is what makes it a holy icon.
A pornographic image is a parody of the icon, a demonic twisting of the goodness of the image for an evil purpose. Whereas the holy icon reflects Reality, the pornographic image distorts and twists Reality — photoshops Reality, we might say. It puts a seductive mask over Reality. Whereas the holy icon participates in the Reality it portrays, the pornographic image, having already twisted the Reality it portrays, cannot truly relate to it. And whereas the holy icon draws us into communion, the pornographic image parodies communion with a misuse of sexuality, making a sexual experience something for individual pleasure rather than for building a true communion of love.
But society in general cannot answer the question this way, and so comes up with various supposedly “objective” ways of defining what pornography is, looking at it not in personal terms, but in objectifying terms… that is, our society in general uses the same method of objectifying pornography that pornography uses in order to objectify persons.
So what does society say porn is? There is an interesting survey done for the internet service “Covenant Eyes” — a service which helps to block access to internet pornography and encourage ways of dealing with temptations to use it. They look at how people define what counts as pornography, using object categories such as “it portrays the naked body” and “it portrays sexual acts”, and subject categories like “you pay for a sexual image”. Interestingly, only 40% of teens and young adults thought that it even counted as porn if you got a sexual image without paying for it.
So, given the proviso that we don’t necessarily share the definition of pornography that people are using in these studies — and being aware that the common definition is likely to be looser than ours in most cases, though stricter in some — let’s turn to a quick glance of a small selection of the available data. If you want to find out more about any of the data sources and surveys I mention in today’s podcast, references are available on the Finding the Freedom to Live website.
A 2014 poll found that 43 percent of men and 9 percent of women reported using pornography within the past week — and among people in their twenties, the figures were around 50 percent for men and 20 percent for women. Another 2014 survey carried out by a Protestant ministry to help men with pornography addiction found that in the general population in the US 64% of men and 30% of women looked at pornography at least once a month, and in those who identified themselves as Christian, the numbers for women were about half those for the population in general, while the number for Christian men was about the same as for the population in general.
Studies have shown that 40% of boys aged 11-16 actively look online for pornography, and almost two-thirds of those look at least weekly. A full 92% of boys will have been exposed to pornography one way or another by the age of 16.
A recent study found that 10% of 12-13 year-olds were already afraid that they might be addicted to internet porn and 20% of the same age group thought that watching porn is part of normal behaviour. Another 20% had seen sexual imagery online that had shocked or upset them. 12% had even made or taken part in a sexually explicit video.
One boy under 15 who used pornography reflected: “I would like to get married in the future but I’m scared it might never happen if I carry on thinking about girls the way I do.”
One common way teens and even children come into contact with pornography is because the internet is the widely accepted choice for answers to questions. Once children start to have questions about sex and relationships, the internet is an obvious source of answers, especially if they are embarrassed to talk to parents or other adults about these things.
The result of this is that for many, pornography becomes their sex education, or at least a very major part of it, and of course in this context sex is not only not integrated into relationship, it’s often specifically opposed to it. So boys copy what they see, and expect the girls in their life to enjoy what they have seen the female porn stars apparently enjoy on screen.
And we know that it’s relatively easy to stumble on to pornography on the internet. It is estimated that 12% of all websites are pornographic. And if you consider that the vast majority of pornographic content is video or at least photographic, expressing the figure in terms of data rather than sites, the amount of internet traffic that’s pornographic has been estimated to be more like 30%.
It’s also worth noting that the most popular day for pornographic traffic on the internet is Sunday.
While I don’t want to scapegoat the internet for all of the sexualization of society. It is hard to overestimate the effect it has had in making pornography such a universal problem. And even though there are technical options, such as filters, there is no completely reliable method of blocking pornography totally — especially because schools, libraries and other places may not block pornography sites, and particularly because many people, even children, now have unrestricted internet access on personal hand-held devices.
The really significant difference the internet has made to pornography apart from increasing availability in general so drastically is to the content itself. Sometimes, when we talk about pornography, people think about racy seaside postcards and nude models. But this pornography of the early- and mid-20th century is so mild as not to count as pornography at all in the internet age. In fact, if you look at how young people define the word, “pornography”, almost all of this old-style imagery would not qualify. Even what were considered “hard-core” videos in the 1980s are now only “soft-core” porn, as the mainstream has moved on into increasingly aggressive and violent alternatives. And all of these are available at the click of a mouse or the tap of a finger, in total privacy.
A recent concern has been the growing phenomenon of so-called “hentai” porn. This is Japanese-style cartoons and animations picturing the most extreme violent and transgressive sexuality imaginable. It’s not ok just because it doesn’t portray real people — we’ve discussed the dangers of fantasy — and as it consists of cartoons, there is all the more danger of its falling into the attention of children.
And if talking about the content, the availability and the statistics is not shocking enough, the anecdotal evidence of pornography’s effect in real relationships can be worse. For example, there was a case a few years ago in the UK where a 12-year-old boy had raped and assaulted his younger sister, replicating what he had seen in internet pornography. The judge warned that the internet is “not a benign babysitter”.
The things girls and young women are saying about what they find is expected of them by porn-educated boys are by turns sickening and heartbreaking. Many of these quotes are too explicit for me to include here, but we can get an idea of what young people are experiencing perhaps from a couple of milder, but no less heartbreaking quotations: One young woman said, “What he wanted was a nightmare compared to my dreams I had always had of relationships and intimacy.” And a teenager dating a polite, church-going boy, said “It was like I was dating two different people. There was the sweet, awkward guy and then there was the sarcastic jerk who treated me like nothing more than an object.”.
In fact, many young women are finding that in the modern world, as the journalist Naomi Wolf put it, “real naked women are just bad porn.”
So this is the world we live in: the world, the flesh, and the devil. But despite all this bad news, there are also signs of hope. I have met young people who, far from having been corrupted by living in the world where all the things I have talked about are happening… young people who have found in Christ the ability to stand, to see the distortion and despair around them for what it is, and to value purity all the more. People who see the pain and despair in those bound by the pornographic images that have infected their minds and thoughts, but who continue to love and desire to help those in distress, who have gained the strength to stand against the temptations through loving Christ more.
As Christ himself said, despite the evils of the world, “in me you may have peace. In the world you have distress, but rejoice! I have overcome the world.” (Jn. 16:33)
I’m ready to conclude this series on pornography, but there are a couple of appendices I want to add, highlighting a couple of things that I have mentioned, but not discussed in detail. So next week I will conclude the main part of the series, talking about repentance, image and communion, and then I will add a couple more episodes as appendices: one on strategies for strugglers, and a second on how to talk to children about pornography so that they are prepared for the world they will encounter.
Because of the difficulty of obtaining accurate information on pornography use and because there is no generally agreed upon definition of what constitutes pornography, all available statistics on the subject should be treated with caution. The statistics quoted in this podcast are believed to be broadly in line with those from the large number of studies that we’ve seen. The specific figures used here come from the following sources (note: there is sexually explicit discussion in some of these linked articles):
- The Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture: Relationships in America Survey, 2014
- Proven Men 2014 Survey
- Canadian MediaSmarts leaflet
- A study in Sydney, Australia quoted at Australian Women’s Weekly
- A study by the UK charity NSPCC ChildLine
- Online MBA infographic
- Extremetech article: “Just how big are porn sites?”