Here we go.
Back in August, I discussed a provocative assignment on which my reporter friend, World magazine staffer J.C. Derrick, was working.
World's editors had developed a working hypothesis that pornography is increasingly providing artificial sexual satisfaction for young men in both the church and our broader culture, and that such artificial titillation is contributing to the phenomenon of delayed marriage - or indeed, no marriage - in North America. Derrick's job was to see if it was true.
His findings are in an article called "Fleeting Images," and it represents a delicate search for answers by not only Derrick, but Angela Lu, another writer at World. Obviously, the piece includes situations and terminology that some evangelical readers might find objectionable, but none of it is presented with a view towards trivializing the topic in any way. Indeed, as Derrick and Lu point out in their story, part of the problem, particularly when it comes to our evangelical response to pornography, is that we like to pretend it's too offensive a subject for our pious sensibilities to ever contemplate.
But, truth be told, that's a lie. Perhaps we're uncomfortable talking about it because it's become such a common part of our private lives, and we know it shouldn't be. Perhaps the "pious" pass when it comes to addressing the subject from the pulpit, a Sunday School class lectern, a small group meeting, or an accountability group has simply become a safe way for us to ignore it, and let it fester. Why? Because, even though we know it's wrong, still, in our sexually confused and distorted world, porn does what it's supposed to do. It fills a void.
Which, really, is another lie, isn't it? Yes, pornography can be a marginally effective substitute, but it's still inferior in every way. Plus, pornography doesn't so much fill a void as much as it diverts our attention from fixing real problems with our sexuality and interpersonal relationships.
Compounding the problem is the unGodly emphasis we evangelicals place upon sex. Many of us have been taught by our culture that sexual activity is a primary component of our very identity. That it is a basic standard for cultivating our personality and achieving fulfillment, happiness, affirmation, pleasure, and even validity as a human being. One of the reasons why the push for gay marriage is so strong involves society's infatuation with the idea of sex being intrinsic to our personhood.
God, meanwhile, never elevates sexual activity to such significance, and His purposes for sex stand in stark contrast to those of our culture. So if we rely on our sexual activity for anything outside of God's prescriptions for it - after all, sex can be rewarding (so I'm told), but in its proper context - we're never going to be as content with it as we would have been had we followed God's intentions for it all along.
Derrick and Lu write with all of this as a baseline from which they can explore pornography's impact on delayed marriage. So it will likely baffle unsaved readers with its assumption that sexual activity with anybody other that one's heterosexual spouse is wrong. You still don't need to be born-again to agree that pornography itself is wrong. Plenty of unsaved people advocate against pornography, because it objectifies individuals, denies the roles personality and intellect play in intercourse, and serves as a gateway to even worse anti-social behavior like the sexual abuse of children. But only religious hard-liners in faiths such as Christianity and Judaism view sex as strictly a right - and indeed, a "rite" - exclusively for a heterosexual couple.
Taking that holy view of sex, contrasting it with various studies showing that people are increasingly delaying marriage, and throwing the unprecedented accessibility of pornography into the mix, wouldn't it seem obvious that both men and women are relying more and more on artificial sexual experiences to either help them cope with the delay of - or even seek to delay - marital sex?
Unfortunately for Derrick and Lu, there really aren't any studies out there that have been done on this angle of human sexuality. Not only is getting people to admit they consume pornography difficult, but scientific studies incorporate both a test group, and a control group, with the control group, in this case, needing to refrain from any and all artificial sexual stimulus. Do you realize how nearly impossible it is for people to do that in our day and age?
Some of the dearth of data on this subject is due to the many ways in which consumers can find pornographic content online. Traditionally, magazines and then videos were the sole resources available, but now that most of the smut industry has moved online, it's a brand-new ballgame in terms of access and even price points, which today, start at zero. Free. Explicit
Internet pornography can be readily found without charge on non-password-protected websites for Craigslist, many
European news agencies, some American celebrity sites, and untold
numbers of private blogs. I spend most weekdays online, researching various topics about which I plan to write, and I've been amazed
where I come across objectionable content these days without looking for it.
Derrick and Lu address scientific studies which indicate that the more you're exposed to pornography, the more dulled your senses become to it, and the farther away from wholesome, God-designed sexual experiences you move. I wouldn't doubt that even though I'm a virgin, I'm enough a product of my culture and have been exposed - both willingly, yes, I admit it, and innocently - to so much sexually deviant imagery throughout my lifetime that a gap exists between what should stimulate me and what actually does.
And pornography isn't even simply a question of morality. Or even a mental dulling of one's senses. Derrick and Lu found evidence that erectile dysfunction is a growing problem among both men and boys because of excessive masturbation to pornography. You'd think people would at least be open to talking about this unfortunate side effect publicly, at least considering the number of Viagra commercials airing on television, but then again, to pharmaceutical companies, perhaps pornography is good for business.
Still, although they write, "porn is wreaking havoc within the church..." Derrick and Lu really can't prove that it is. And you know what? Not being
able to provide scientific facts is, in and of itself, part of the
story, isn't it?
Ultimately, the value in this article isn't whether or not they've been able to categorically point to pornography as a reason for why so many Americans are delaying marriage. Yes, it can safely be assumed to be one of the many reasons, along with a lack of good-paying jobs for young adults, housing prices in much of the country that make even starter homes prohibitively expensive, and companies demanding more and more time and energy from their college recruits than ever before. But Derrick and Lu have found - by the very lack of evidence - that pornography remains an undesirable pastime. People genuinely don't want to talk about their personal experiences with it, even to data collectors. Ironically, contrary to its promise, pornography overwhelmingly remains indicative of weakness, instead of success. Despite its ubiquity in our society today, it remains a social stigma, at least for the time being. And it's still hard to extrapolate a reliance upon artificial sexual stimuli into a solid foundation for a meaningful marital relationship.
All of this means that it's something the evangelical church cannot ignore. Yet, how do we increase a constructive discussion about it without weakening its social stigma? Make more people aware of how many evangelicals struggle with something like porn, and we could end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy as the sheer numbers of porn's closet addicts validate its popularity.
So, what's the cure? At least, apart from a transformational working of the Holy
Spirit? Derrick and Lu don't get into answers, but they do provide personal interviews and
professional advice they gleaned during their search. Having real
people tell you their real lessons from how pornography damaged them may
sound anecdotal, but if you're serious about dealing with this issue
even in your own life, wise people usually heed words of warning from
somebody who's already gone down the same path.
Do you see where that leaves us? Not
with a scientifically-proven remediation method, or a self-help 12-step process, or even an un-Viagra pill. We're "left" with the working of the Holy Spirit, and how God Himself can heal what we've corrupted.
Maybe not the quick fix we'd like for, well, what we thought was a quick fix. But just as we can over-estimate the anticipated effects of pornography, we almost always under-estimate what God can do.