I first saw naked women in pornography magazines by flashlight in an underground fort I had built with my brother and friends in an empty field beside a train track in Tracy, California. We had raided the fort that another group of boys had dug, found copies of Playboy and Hustler and hurried back to our fort. I was nine years old and had very little idea what naked women looked like. I had never seen naked women before. It was hard to get pornography back then – much harder than it is now, when images of naked girls are scattered all over the internet.
I remember the instantaneous physiological reaction. No, not that one. I remember feeling confused, guilty — so guilty that I felt sick to my stomach — and thrilled by the images of naked women and couples having sex in ways I had never imagined before. Several years would pass before I would see images like that again, and yet these particular pornographic images were seared into my mind.
Every male in the human species has a photographic memory when it comes to naked women and naked girls.
Some women struggle with pornography as well (and God bless them in their struggles), but I strongly suspect that many have no idea of the extraordinary power that pictures of naked women command over the mind and imagination of boys, young men, and even mature men. It was not the last time I would see pornography, or naked women when I shouldn’t, or the supposedly more acceptable men’s magazines that show women scantily clad in provocative poses. Whether they’re pornographic images in magazines or on the internet, scenes in movies, or stolen glances, their imprint sinks deep into the male mind, shapes its patterns of thought, and remains there for years, even decades. You cannot unsee them, and they easily become your silent betrayers, secret saboteurs of relationships, in ways you cannot understand and certainly cannot control when you are young.
These things came to mind when I read an essay from former British “lad’s mag” editor Martin Daubney (I link to a story about the article, not to the article itself, which includes a couple mag covers). The magazine he steered was topless but not completely nude, yet it pushed the boundaries relentlessly. When a competitor outgunned them in the “nipple count” for a single magazine, Daubney and company dreamed up a “We Love Boobs” feature that would show 100 bare chests along with one hundred artful names for that portion of the female anatomy. It was a game played by young men who thought of it as “harmless fun,” and who were well compensated for their efforts. The success of their magazine required they deliver what the reader wanted — “more birds, less words.” And if the party poopers attacked him, Daubney writes, “I attacked back, harder.”
The trouble was, the more we gave them, the more they demanded — and the racier we had to become in order to satiate their desires. But it was the arrival of mass broadband internet in the mid-Noughties, fuelling a massive and uncontrolled access to hardcore porn, that changed everything.
Now young boys — for there were, and still are, no effective age restrictions on access to online porn — were spared the expense and embarrassment of even buying a magazine.
Worse, they could do it without their parents ever knowing.
Loaded’s sales plummeted, so we turned up the volume even further in a desperate bid to stay alive. Smiling, end-of-the-pier-style pictures were replaced with oiled torsos and fake lesbian orgies.
Daubney won high profile debates over the acceptability of soft-care porn “by quoting scores of carefully-selected global government reports and PhD papers that ‘proved’ porn wasn’t harmful.” Defending the indefensible is not terribly difficult when most everyone wants (in the flesh) to agree with you.
When Naked Women Become Naked Girls
In 2009, however, Daubney had a son. His life became a contradiction, “nipples by day and nappies by night.” He began to appreciate that the girls whose lurid photographs he blasted across the world were beloved daughters, sisters, mothers. These were girls who had once taken their first steps, who had cuddled teddy bears at night. And sons like his would read his magazine and it would direct them onward to harder pornography, material available on the internet that’s incredibly vile and demeaning and often violent. He could not imagine telling his son what he did for work. When an opportunity presented itself, he quit. And now he hopes to make amends by confessing his wrong and working to make pornography more difficult for children to obtain. Why are shopkeepers held accountable if they sell a porn mag to a fifteen-year-old but a ten-year-old can download thousands of the most obscene images and videos imaginable and the internet service provider is not required to many any effort whatsoever to prevent it?
I empathize with Daubney. I never edited a magazine like his; I’ve never even subscribed to one. But images of naked women, or nearly naked women, or young women frolicking in bikinis on the beach, are blast in our direction through television and movies and magazines, not to mention real life. I have sinned in this area more times than I can count.
But something changed when I became a father. When I was nine years old, the women I saw in those magazines were women. They seemed very distant. Older, more mature, in control (I presumed) of their own destinies. I gave no thought to the lives they had lived. I gave no thought to their feelings. I gave no thought to them. Now, if I see pictures of a Hollywood starlet on the beach, or a sex scene in a movie, the young ladies are almost always younger. They’re girls, not unlike my own little girl. Someone rocked them to sleep, like I do for my daughter. Someone comforted them when they were afraid of the monster or the spider or the thunder. They have histories, they have dreams, and they have souls.
Lessons For our Sons and Daughters–and For Us
- I have no doubt that men’s magazines (even the US versions, which do not show breasts) serve as a “gateway drug” to harder pornography. Let’s not kid ourselves. You’re not reading it for the articles. And it is pornography, even if it’s not completely explicit. So let’s steer away from these, and steer our sons away from them. There are few things more powerful in this world than the power of the naked female form. And that power endures. If I know that a nude scene is about to appear in a movie, the attraction to watch is still extremely strong. There may be such a person out there, but I’ve never met a man who said, “You know, I’ve seen so many naked women by now, I really don’t want to see any more.” You never get to the bottom of this desire. You never say “I’ve had enough” — but you may say “I’d like to try something else.” Even men who have the most beautiful wives in the world will want to see other women naked, because the drive is for variety. Not better, but different. The drive for variety will lead, almost inexorably, from soft core to hard core and on to the more specialized and disgusting forms. Then comes the desire to live those fantasies out. Nip it in the bud.
- As Daubney confesses, most pornography is demeaning to women in one way or another. You can tell from the language men use that the attraction sometimes is precisely to seeing women demeaned into animals or into objects. Men who are angry that women don’t respond to them, angry with that one girl who always refused their advances, angry with their female bosses or colleagues, men who just want to punish and dominate and objectify. These are not the kinds of impulses we want to honor.
- If ISP’s knew they would be held accountable for failing to take reasonable efforts to prevent children from accessing pornography (even allowing that those efforts will not always be successful), they would develop more effective solutions. People who press for solutions, or who want bookstore owners to cover up pornographic images on the bookshelves, are not being prudes. They’re being wise. They understand the power those images can wield over young men in particular, but over all of us in general.
If you’re a Christian with an addiction to pornography, you can find some resources here. Even if you’re not Christian: I’m convinced that most sin is addictive, and that there is a truly glorious freedom for the sons and daughters of God in Christ. There is hope, and there is power, in the gospel.