The stepping-stones that span the recent history of communication lead from the telegraph to the radio to the telephone to the television to the computer screen to the cell phone. What began as tedious and prolonged experimentation with sound waves in the late 19th century has led to quick and instant communication in the 21st. Yet, when the stepping-stones of the Technological Revolution crisscross the fault lines of the Sexual Revolution, they lead right to a dead end — or, in many instances, to a treacherous cliff where many march right over and plunge downward. Headfirst. With both feet.
The intersection of the Technological Revolution and Sexual Revolution has given some of our most ancient appetites a brand new outlet: cybersex and Internet pornography. Many faithful Christians, many well-meaning people of good will, find themselves isolated in the painful pattern of using Internet pornography.1
It is about 11:15 p.m. on Tuesday evening. Tom and Nancy have been married 11 years and have two school age children. They have lived in the same house for nine years and are doing fairly well. The children have been asleep for two-and-a-half hours. Nancy and Tom are in bed, propped up on pillows, concluding their nightly ritual of reading before falling asleep. Nancy regularly turns the pages of her novel. If Nancy were watching she would see that Tom has not turned a page in over 10 minutes. She might think that his mind is miles away, at the office, as he concentrates on unfinished business from work. But really, his mind is only yards away, down the stairs, in the den, at the computer. All he has been able to think of during the morning at the office, in afternoon meetings, in traffic on the way home, through dinner, and while helping the kids with their homework is that screen glowing to life. When could he be alone to get online?
Tom experienced pornography during high school. He had first seen it as older teammates, snickering and joking, passed it along in the locker room. He had struggled with attachment to viewing pornographic magazines from time to time, but pornography had never before preoccupied him like this. Ever since the pop-up adds and spam e-mail enticed him to follow the links, he hasn’t been able to find a way back. Day after day, pornography is only a click away.
Driving to work he thinks of new things to search for, curious words to type into the search engine. From pictures to stories, from chat rooms to streaming videos, the supply is seemingly endless. He tells himself that tonight will be the last time. He tells himself he will do this just one more time, and only for 15 minutes. Last time he logged in, he surfed from porn site to porn site for four hours. He rationalizes that tonight will actually be an improvement; he will stay on for only 15 minutes. He further rationalizes: “At least I am not out with a prostitute.”
He glances over. Nancy’s novel has fallen from her hands. At some point she turned over. She is fast asleep. Tom slips from under the covers. Lightly steps around to the bedroom door and turns out the light. Closes the door behind him as he moves into the hallway and to the steps. By now he knows his way in the dark. He moves down the steps, stepping over the fifth one, which creaks. He moves into the foyer and to the den. He turns on the low voltage desk light and clicks the computer on. His heart is racing; his eyes are wide. He sees only the screen. For the next four hours he searches and clicks, falling deeply into the seductive world of Internet pornography.
About 3 a.m., Nancy awakens. Tom is not there. She looks to the master bath — darkness fills the space beyond the open door. She slips from the bed, dons her robe, opens the door and goes into the hallway. The children’s doors are closed. She descends the steps, and detects a faint trace of light coming from the den. She enters. Tom is sound asleep in the chair at the desk.
Working again, she thinks. Do his colleagues work this intensely, until three in the morning? She moves to rouse him gently with one hand, and the other moves to bring the screen back so she can log off the computer. As he stirs, she glances at the screen.
How do you think Nancy feels? Used? Guilty? Traumatized? Betrayed? Rejected? Violated? Suspicious? She thinks: “We’re married; what were you looking for?”
The victim is cornered, if not caught, almost before he can turn away. Due to the highly visual nature of the masculine sexual drive, men are particularly at risk before sexually explicit images on the computer screen — considerable risk.
A moment of curiosity and loneliness leads a husband to type his fantasy description into a search engine to see what emerges. A “recreational” or regular user of pornographic magazines goes to a site online where there is no final page. A young man visits an “adult” website, blog or Internet forum he has heard others talk about at the bar.
Accident, curiosity, loneliness, fantasy, apparent recreation, or hearsay: each of these circumstances can provide the glimpse that introduces the rush and paves the way to a labyrinth that promises satisfaction, but delivers dangerous frustration and sin. Even the most devoted family man and virtuous churchgoer is at risk before Internet pornography. The instant images, along with the apparent secrecy and seemingly easy entrée, gain quick access to a man’s most persistent drives and appetites. Regardless of his talents, gifts, skills or potential, the cunning trap of Internet pornography easily outwits the clever and overwhelms the naïve.
The Prevalence of Internet Pornography
Tom and Nancy find themselves, their marriage and their family in the grip of an insidious phenomenon. Pornography is a 12-to-15-billion- dollar industry in United States. Sex represents the third largest economic sector on the Internet.2 The first is buying computers themselves, and the second is buying software. The third most searched for word on Internet search engines is “sex.” The first two are “and” and “the.”3 There are over four million pornographic websites. The majority of e-porn access and traffic takes place between the hours of 9-5 on weekdays.4
The Nature of Pornography
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that
Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials.5
The Catechism highlights that pornography is an offense against both human dignity and chastity. The teaching of the Catechism is founded on the human person created in the image and likeness of God (Gn 1:26-27), and the call to chastity as expressed in the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery” (Ex 20:14; Dt 5:18), as fulfilled in the teaching of Jesus in the Beatitudes, in particular, the sixth Beatitude, “Blessed are the pure of heart” (Mt 5:8). Further in the same Sermon on the Mount, Jesus locates the heart as the center of morality: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:28). The Church teaches that we reach successful integration of the sexual appetite through the virtue of temperance.
All offenses against human dignity and chastity are a result of the effects of Original Sin and personal sin (Rom 5:12; Gn 3). In particular, as regards human sexuality, the temptation is to reduce, possess, and control the other: “Your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you” (Gn 3:16).
In his fallen state, man experiences the uproar and disorder of the appetites, which often and frequently war against that which is true and good. This is true in a particular way of the sensual appetite, and the pursuit of pleasures of the body. The United States Catholic Bishops have taught that “producing, marketing, or indulging in pornography” constitute “actions which involve grave matter” and are “serious violations of the law of love of God and of neighbor.”6
Conventional and Internet
Pornography may be described according to at least two general forms: conventional and Internet. Conventional pornography consists of a depiction of some type: photography, film, drawings, pictures, narrative or story as found in magazines, books, and videos. A magazine always has a last page. A video always has a last frame. Such formats are limited. Internet pornography has virtually no final frame or last page.
The seeming inexhaustibility of online content adds to the obsessional feature the alluring, but ultimately false, expectation that one will eventually find the perfect image. Pornographic activity on the Internet consists of downloading, retrieving, sending, trading, buying, selling, receiving or storing sexually explicit photographs, film, conduct, videos, streaming videos, instant messages, entering sexually explicit chat rooms, arranging to meet in person for sexual acts with contacts originally “met” online, masturbating while online, and trading sexually explicit pictures and text through cellular phones, an activity known as “sexting.” Such activities are often preceded by a type of explicit electronic flirtatious behaviors including types of role-playing and creating a fictitious online personality.
Three factors, in particular, account for the susceptibility of persons to Internet pornography: accessibility, financial affordability, and perceived anonymity.7 The Internet is accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Persons who previously could avoid pornography by simply not visiting the magazine rack of the local store, now find that the images are a click away on the family computer. Persons who previously would never have taken risks attendant with purchasing or keeping conventional pornography, now believe there is little or no risk of discovery.
They mistakenly believe that when they log off or delete their history of visited websites that the evidence goes away and the trail vanishes. They feel that the computer screen is a filter that prevents discovery of their identity and protects their privacy. This is commonly known as dissociative anonymity.8 They have the sensation that they are eavesdropping or wearing a cloak of invisibility as they visit pornographic websites and converse online. They fail to understand that forensic computer analysts can access deleted histories and cleaned computer drives.
The one who sins against chastity necessarily turns in on the self, and is isolated from the other. Thus the user is caught in disordered self-love, rather than authentic love. Pope John Paul II indicates that sins against chastity have at least nine progressive effects on the person.9
Turned in on self in this way, (1) the deepest voice of conscience is suffocated. When conscience is stifled, (2) restlessness results and (3) the inner man is reduced to silence. His activities, therefore, focus more and more on (4) the satisfaction of the senses. This serves (5) to inflame his desire all the more and (6) occupy his will. The pursuit of pleasure becomes the priority, while conscience and the voice of reason grow more and more distant. Our needs can appear to be so intense that they seem to overcome common sense.
The self then begins to be consumed in the volley between pride, excuses and pleasure. Yet the pleasure brings no authentic relief. (7) The internal resources of the person grow more and more blunted, including the ability to be reflective. What began as attempts under the guise of recreation or entertainment have so distorted the meaning of the inherent capacities of life and love that the (8) self is worn out and (9) the person is exhausted. In this pattern, human sexuality is reduced to being the satisfaction and alleviation of one’s own personal erotic need. It is understood as a demand, a requirement and an entitlement rather than as a gift.
Our troublesome patterns arise from our pain. And our pain comes from the hurts of life, our wounds. We often pretend we have no wounds. We cover them up with the latest fashions. We cover our wounds with our performance, results, substances and activities.
Cybersex is a sensation-based activity. The pain that drives preoccupation with Internet pornography emerges from the ongoing need to assuage long-lasting wounds. When we become aware of our wounds, we want our life fixed. But wounds and pain cannot be solved by a quick fix. The quicker the fix, the longer the pain.
Life cannot be fixed. Life can only be healed. Losses and wounds are healed through grieving, and grieving takes time. We often spend a great deal of energy attempting to fix ourselves rather than be ourselves.
The Turn to Healing
One cannot conquer Internet pornography simply through the determination of an iron will, the insistence of clenched teeth and the resolve of white knuckled grit alone. Where do persons who struggle with pornography turn? Where does Tom turn?
The grace of God helps us to pick the lock on our own prison cells. Imprisoned by our pain, we doubt that happiness is possible until all our intangible needs are met. We lock ourselves into a perfect idea of personal happiness in which all our needs our met as soon as possible: we think that this is the only way to be happy. This worldview is healed as we begin to believe that real happiness is not found in the satisfaction of our cravings, but in the authentic gift of self out of a desire for the beauty of true goodness.
The Second Vatican Council teaches that man can find himself only by a sincere gift of self.10 The world does not know what to do with a gift. If you cannot buy it, deserve it, earn it, count it, win it, own it, control it, measure it, weaken it, advertise it or make money from it, the world does not know what to do with it. Happiness is our calling to discover the meaning of existence as a relation of love, as a true gift of self, even in the midst of our frailty, trials and disappointments.11
The sexual appetite is not insurmountable or so unwieldy that it cannot be integrated. Temperance is the virtue that helps the Christian to live the gift of self as the call to holiness so as to integrate the instinct for pleasure. Temperance is not a prudish denial of sexuality, but a deep and wonderful acknowledgement of its true meaning. Temperance flourishes through the grace of God received through the Sacraments, especially Sunday Mass and the Sacrament of Penance.
The mercy of God shows us that we are adopted sons and daughters of God. The Sacrament of Penance has nothing to do with self-shaming and beating oneself up. Guilt is different from shame. Shame is about who I am as a person, and it is never healthy. Guilt is about what I do, and guilt can be very healthy. Guilt is not a guilt trip. Guilt is a signal, a summons to relevant accountability and willingness to take responsibility for one’s painful behavior.
God’s grace is also active through our prayer, the reading of Scripture, in the engagement of a Twelve-Step Program, self-knowledge regarding healthy outlets, learning to managing stress, dealing with demands of perfectionistic lifestyles, and responsible renewal in one’s daily life.
Inner work in a safe place with a seasoned spiritual director or prudent counselor can help us to restructure our ways of thinking and feeling. Inner work means allowing our excessive neediness, denial and rationalization to be dismantled and replaced with the new growth of attentiveness and accountability. Other measures of healing include installing blocking and safety systems on computers, faithfulness to weekly — perhaps daily — systems of accountability.
Wounds arise when, at one point in our history, love is turned into fear. The greatest and rarest of all alchemy is to transform fear back into love. When tempted to click on vice, we must tap instead into virtue. The only path away from the sins associated with virtual reality is real virtue. Above all, we must turn back to the face: the face of Jesus Christ. This turn consists of the transformation from fear into love — into the gift: the gift of self. TP
1 What follows immediately is a fictitious account. The names and circumstances are not based on any actual situation and have no relation or basis in fact or history, but are presented as an example of the manner in which the phenomenon of Internet pornography can occur almost undetected.
2 See Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., David L. Delmonico, Ph.D., Elizabeth Griffin, M.A., with Joseph Moriarity, In the Shadows of the Net: Breaking Free of Compulsive Online Sexual Behavior (Minnesota: Hazelden, 2001) 7.
3 See Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., David L. Delmonico, Ph.D., Elizabeth Griffin, M.A., with Joseph Moriarity, In the Shadows of the Net: Breaking Free of Compulsive Online Sexual Behavior (Minnesota: Hazelden, 2001) 6.
4 See Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., David L. Delmonico, Ph.D., Elizabeth Griffin, M.A., with Joseph Moriarity, In the Shadows of the Net: Breaking Free of Compulsive Online Sexual Behavior (Minnesota: Hazelden, 2001) 6.
5 CCC, No. 2354.
6 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper: On Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist, (December 2006), 4.
7 See A. Cooper, et al. “Cyber Sex Users and Abusers and Compulsives: New Findings and Implications” in Cybersex: The Dark Side of the Net a special issue of the journal Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, ed. Al Cooper (New York: Routledge, 2000) 6; see also, Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., David L. Delmonico, Ph.D., Elizabeth Griffin, M.A., with Joseph Moriarity, In the Shadows of the Net: Breaking Free of Compulsive Online Sexual Behavior (Minnesota: Hazelden, 2001) 12-14.
8 See J. Suler, “The Online Disinhibition Effect,” CyberPsychology and Behavior 7 (2004): 321-326.
9 See John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, ed. Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006) 282-284.
10 Gaudium et Spes, 24.
11 For a discussion on the true nature of happiness, see Jean Daniélou, S.J., The Scandal of Truth (London: Burns and Oates, 1962) 44-47.
Father Bransfield, STD, is a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and currently serves as Assistant General Secretary at the USCCB. He is the author of The Human Person: According to John Paul II (2010, Pauline Books and Media).