The Internet’s increasing ubiquity has led to many good things, but it has had at least one negative side-effect: It has never been easier to access pornography, and massive amounts of it. But how much porn is actually being accessed? Last year, ExtremeTech ran a piece on some of the largest porn sites, to see how much traffic they generate, and the numbers they uncovered were simply staggering. One such site served over 100 million page views a day, which translated into 950 terabytes of data (most of it video) every single day… and this was only the second biggest porn site in the world. (To give you some sense of how much that is, consider this: Back in 1993, the total traffic for the entire Internet was a measly 100 terabytes.)
So clearly, lots of people are accessing and viewing lots and lots of porn — and it doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to think that demand isn’t going to slow down any time soon. The obvious question then becomes, what are the effects of this much porn being consumed? Last year, Your Brain On Porn’s Gary Wilson gave a TED presentation that discussed the neurological effects of consuming porn, which include desensitization and numbed pleasure responses and erosion of willpower (similar to what you find with other types of addiction).
However, a more personal and disturbing account of porn’s effects can be found in a recent Salon piece titled, tellingly enough, “Did porn warp me forever?”. The author, who goes by the nom de plume Isaac Abel, doesn’t hide any details, and as such, the piece’s more graphic portions can be hard to read. Abel and his friends discovered porn before adolescence, and began actively downloading and trading CDs of porn back and forth. He would sneak into his family’s computer room in the middle of the night to watch what he could. Even though he had a vague feeling that what he was watching was wrong, the thrill of finding new porn was too powerful.
What he found, however, was that he constantly had to find kinkier porn in order to maintain the same thrill, the same rush of excitement.
With a teenage sex drive only inhibited by a vague shame, I quickly fell down a “kink spiral.” After all, we’re talking about reaching climax — when the overriding thought is often just “more!” The unknown, the unseen, was sexy to me, and I pursued novelty with vigor.
I found myself rapidly desensitized to online images. If a threesome was kinky last week, then I’d need something wilder this week. To reach climax, I had to find that same toxic mix of shame and lust.
By my sophomore year in high school I felt torn. Even though I was fairly certain that most guys my age were regular porn watchers, I felt ashamed about the type of porn that I was watching (not something that even the son of psychotherapists was eager to share with friends).
And even though he felt shame, he wasn’t quite sure why.
For one thing, I wasn’t hurting anybody. And for another, these sites put that pornography up there! They must be doing that because people want to watch it, right? I didn’t dream it up. I just clicked through the categories of what was there by popular demand. So it was normal, right? Did that make it OK?
His porn habit eventually began to impact relationships with real women, even to the point where actual sex was boring.
I starting seeing a young woman regularly, and some confluence of alcohol, weed, no condom, and the trust, comfort, and affection I felt with her allowed me to start enjoying sex — to an extent. I wouldn’t acknowledge it, but the majority of nights I had “good sex” I was intoxicated. And, what’s worse, I was fantasizing about porn during sex.
It was a dissociative, alienating, almost inhuman task to close my eyes while having sex with someone I really cared about and imagine having sex with someone else or recall a deviant video from the archives of my youth that I was ashamed of even then.
Abel’s piece, due to all its forthrightness and bluntness, can be a difficult read. (And sometimes, a bit hard to believe… but not by much.) At the same time, however, it’s rather refreshing to see someone be this honest about the inner conflict and shame that he’s experiencing as a result of porn, especially given how often porn is joked about or paraded around in our culture. Unfortunately, Abel’s answers to his porn problems are never satisfactory, his conflict never resolved.
I’m trying to reprogram myself — unlearn my socialized sexuality. But that’s left me very confused. I mean, what am I really trying to do? Discover my “natural” sexual attraction? Sexiness is always constructed — it used to be normatively hot to be fat and pale! What’s really the alternative to the socialized, porn-inspired sexiness that I’m seeking?
I think in the end, I just want to feel good about feeling good — to dislodge disgrace, guilt and addictive perversity from the part of my brain that controls arousal. I think kinky sex is wonderful; it acknowledges how shame, domination and weirdness truly pervade sexuality. But, I want to be able to explore kink — not be resigned to it. I’m grateful for my generation’s embrace of sexual liberation, but this feels more like a cage.
He just wants “to feel good about feeling good”. He wants “to be able to explore kink” but “not be resigned to it”. But therein lies the problem. He continues to define sexual pleasure in incredibly personal, individualistic terms. Ultimately, it’s about how he feels — be it guilt or pleasure, shame or ecstasy.
Back in my youth group days, my friends and I would often read 1 Corinthians 7:5 and say, “See, God really wants us to have sex.” We were in high school, our hormones running wild, and receiving often-conflicting messages from the Church with regards to anything sex-related. As such, any Biblical justification for having sex seemed like a small victory, a sign that we didn’t have to feel guilty about these urges of ours and that once we got married — natch — we could finally have all the sex we wanted. Because the Bible said so.
In a sense, we weren’t all that dissimilar from Abel, though porn was much less of a factor in those days. (Or maybe it was for my friends. Sadly, I don’t recall ever having a single discussion about porn and its effects during my entire youth group experience.) What we missed, however, was the preceding verse, which says “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”
At its core, sexuality — as envisioned and laid out in the Bible — is an act of sharing and sacrifice. It is about giving yourself, in the deepest and most intimate of ways, to another person. It is not about objectifying someone for what they can do for (or to) you. It is not simply about ensuring that you “feel good about feeling good”.
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel good, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting to “dislodge disgrace, guilt and addictive perversity” from our hearts and minds. But time and again, it seems like Abel is only intent on seeing sexual exploration and gratification as a primarily individualized experience. It is about what he can get out of it.
As Abel’s piece reveals, porn — like any addiction — can leave great damage in its wake. But in order for that damage to be healed, there must first be a realization of brokenness and the need for forgiveness, followed by a stepping outside of oneself and the seeking of correction, counseling, and accountability from trusted advisors. Finally, there must be a realization that sexual endeavors are not about how much pleasure one can amass for oneself. Rather, true sexuality is about surrendering and committing, fully and entirely, to someone else, and placing sexual pleasure squarely in the context of intimacy with, and commitment to, another human soul.
Make no mistake, this is difficult. Our selfish hearts always want to place our own pleasure and desires first, without the exposure, responsibility, and sacrifice that true intimacy entails. But that path only leads to the sort of loneliness, shame, doubt, and confusion that Abel details so thoroughly in his article.