During both World Wars, the U.S. government supplied tobacco to our troops. By 1964, 46 percent of adults in this nation smoked—including inside public buildings, during commercial flights, and on televised advertisements. That year, with the help of Surgeon General Luther L. Terry’s book, Smoking and Health, the winds of change began to blow in fresher air.
In 1965 Congress required manufacturers to post health warnings on cigarette packs. In 1969 Congress outlawed tobacco advertising on television and radio. In 1989 smoking was banned on all domestic flights. In 2000 California banned smoking in public places, including bars and restaurants. Twenty-six states have since followed suit, including Minnesota which established an indoor smoking ban in 2007.
Today less than 20 percent of adults in the U.S. smoke. Over the last half century, scientific research, governmental regulation, and public information campaigns have combined to alter our society’s perspective on smoking. While tobacco usage remains legal, what once was widely regarded as a harmless pleasure is now deemed an addictive health hazard.
The Witherspoon Institute
The Witherspoon Institute (TWI) recently proclaimed that what the U.S. has done with tobacco must now be done with Internet pornography. TWI first met in December 2008 at Princeton, NJ. Its participants published The Social Costs of Pornography: A Statement of Findings and Recommendations, a brief summary of The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers, edited by James R. Stoner, Jr., and Donna M. Hughes. It is vital to note that the signatories represent “every major shade of religious belief … from atheism and agnosticism to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Both the left and the right in American politics are represented, including social conservatism and contemporary feminism.” The signatories also supply a wide range of professional expertise in “economics, medicine, psychiatry, psychology, philosophy, sociality, journalism, and law” (p. 10).
TWI’s report claims to be the “first multifaceted, multidisciplinary, scholarly exploration in the internet age” seeking to “estimate the social costs of pornography” (p. 7). The signatories draw two conclusions. First, Internet pornography is as destructive socially as tobacco is physically. Second, the citizenry of the U.S. is as ignorant of this danger as we were of the ill-effects of tobacco prior to 1964.
“The received opinion on pornography in our day,” TWI asserts, is that “the consumption of pornographic imagery amounts to victimless personal entertainment.” This popular belief “is falsified by a growing, multidimensional, empirical record of pornography’s harms” (p. 9). TWI further asserts that “research and data suggest that the habitual use of pornography—and especially of Internet pornography—can have a range of damaging effects on human beings of all ages and both sexes, affecting their happiness, their productivity, their relationships with one another, and their functioning in society” (p. 10).
Pornography is no new phenomenon, as ancient Greek vase imagery and the volcanic preservation of the ancient resort city of Pompeii reveal (p. 8). Nor is concern over pornography’s ill-effects a groundbreaking development. The Surgeon General’s report in 1987 concluded that pornography stimulates “attitudes and behavior that lead to gravely negative consequences for individuals and for society,” impairing “the mental, emotional, and physical health of children and adults” (p. 8). What is new with the emergence of the Internet, and what has thus exponentially increased porn’s debilitating influence, is its ubiquity, ease of access, immediacy, realism, and hard-core nature (p. 17-19).
Internet porn in particular
In the first place, TWI’s report concludes that Internet pornography damages the brain. Our brains are equipped with two pleasure-producing systems: one excitement based, the other satisfaction based (p. 19). The neurochemistry of appetitive-based pleasure is largely dopamine related and produces heightened tension (“I’m really hungry and can’t wait to eat”). The neurochemistry of relief-based pleasure hinges on the release of endorphins which provide euphoric bliss when an appetite is satisfied (“Wow, that was a great meal”). Viewing pornography “hyper-activates the appetitive system” with dopamine, creating a new map area in the brain. The brain (a “use-it-or-lose-it” organ) naturally hungers to stimulate this newly mapped area. The click of a mouse on a porn site over-excites the brain with dopamine which directly contributes to visual desensitization.
For porn users, such desensitization quickly results in an ever-increasing thirst for an ever-dissipating pleasure. In the realm of anticipatory pleasure, this leads to addiction. In the realm of satisfaction-based pleasure, this leads to sexual release which naturally brings the world of pornographic fantasy crashing headlong into the reality of social relationships.
In the second place, TWI’s report concludes that Internet pornography spawns debilitating social dysfunction. TWI concludes that pornographic stimulation siphons away one’s capacity for relational intimacy (p. 20-23) and decreases one’s capacity to experience sexual satisfaction with a real person (p. 38). Habitual pornographic stimulation, TWI’s research shows, replaces reality with fantasy and directly contributes to wide range of debilitating social maladies such as disrespect (particularly of women), the animalization of the sex act, relational brutality stemming from rape-like sexual fantasies, and self-gratification replacing intimacy between sexual partners. In a word, pornography destroys “the capacity for loving sexual relations” (p. 42), spawning widespread depression (p. 25, 38). The researchers conclude that the destructive influence upon the social fabric of our nation renders Internet pornography “one of the great social diseases” of our times (p. 43).
Every relational joy in healthy sex is assaulted when a person views pornography. Respect, patience, tenderness, gentleness, closeness, honesty, spiritual oneness, self-control, finding pleasure in, and bringing pleasure to, one’s partner as an expression of intimacy—all of this is fundamentally undermined by porn. Porn hardens one’s heart toward others. And this debilitating influence has a trickle-down effect on a myriad of other relationships, particularly in the way males view females.
Change is possible
We have arrived at this juncture in our nation’s history by ignoring God’s creative design for our pleasure, and by spurning his loving counsel for our good and for his glory. God created sex. He designed the human body and mind to find inexpressible pleasure in sexual relations. He did not give us the capacity of this pleasure to glut self-centered interests. Indeed his counsel preserves us against using sex in such a way as to ruin relational health and prosperity. But as a society, we have spurned his counsel (Gen. 2:24-25, Exod. 20:14, Matt. 5:27-28, 1 Thess. 4:3-7). We should repent. But if only in the lesser light of the reasoned and studied declarations of TWI, do we intend to keep smoking this deliciously euphoric but deadly weed, or will we act to encourage winds of change to blow in fresher air?
Over the past half century, such winds blew in a new perspective on tobacco. In 1964 the majority of adult men smoked. Today that figure is nearing 20%. Battling on the new frontier of online pornography, TWI estimates that adult men in the U.S. view “pornography online more than they look at any other subject.” The TWI’s research indicates that “66% of 18-34-year-old men visit a pornographic site every month” (p. 10) and that “every second, there are approximately 28,258 internet users viewing pornography” (p. 14).
This obsession is eating away at the foundations of our culture’s moral and social stability. Due to Internet pornography’s realism, immediacy, and privacy, “nothing in the long history of erotica compares with” its addictive powers “and our moral intuitions are struggling to catch up” (p. 14, 17-19). Scientific research, governmental regulation, and public information campaigns combined to alter our society’s perspective on tobacco. The time has come to apply these same strategies to awaken America to the reality that the use of pornography is far from a harmless, victimless pleasure.
May God grant this nation the common grace to perceive porn’s suffocating affects and the will power to labor at clearing the air of this toxic cloud that hangs so ominously over our future. And may God’s people take the lead, not only through political activism, but on the force of their faithfulness to the God who called them out of darkness and into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9).
Originally written for publication in a local newspaper. - Ed.