I am old enough to remember the sexual revolution and its dubious promises that once moral restraints on sexual behavior were removed, a new golden era would dawn in which everyone would live happily, carefree and satisfied.
It didn’t turn out that way. Today I deal with the destruction that revolution caused and try to bring healing to men damaged by it.
I mentor young men, and I see how the mainstreaming of pornography has hijacked their journey from adolescence to adulthood.
Growing up is a difficult process, fraught with all sorts of emotional turmoil that tempt young men to look toward pornography for relief. Once the seeking of relief becomes habitual — and this can happen quickly — the necessary experiences that boys require to become men are often thwarted. Tension is resolved not by learning how to master the problems of life, but by ever deeper retreat into sexual fantasies.
Today this affects more of our young men than we can count. In my experience, the consumption of pornography is nearly universal among young men, and the effects are never neutral. Researchers indicate that only 3 percent of boys and 17 percent of girls have never seen pornography. The internet now makes it available anytime and anywhere. First exposure most often occurs during adolescence, when the brain is still forming and very impressionable by graphic images.
It’s difficult to calculate in hard numbers how profitable the porn industry is. Before the internet, access to pornography was controlled, by locating distribution in seedy neighborhoods; under those limitations the price could be kept high, leading to substantial profits. Since expansion into the internet, access to porn is as close as the click of a mouse, and content is increasingly free. In the last 30 years, American porn studios have declined from 200 to 20, and direct worldwide revenue has dropped from between an estimated $40 billion and $50 billion to about three quarters of that.
Free access also means that porn has gone mainstream and become a commodity. The only accurate measurement we have of porn consumption is internet click rates or Google searches. Profits are decreasing while porn is proliferating. Mindgeek, one of the world’s biggest online purveyors of pornography, reports that it serves more than 100 million visitors a day, who consume 1.5 terabytes of pornography per second — enough to download 150 feature films.
In earlier generations, viewing pornography was seen as shameful. That’s why porn shops were located in the unsavory parts of town. Pornographers were met with scorn. Today, all that might seem quaint, even ignorant — but it concealed a wisdom that we are only now beginning to rediscover. One reason for those earlier restrictions was the fear that porn would “corrupt youth.” This was laughed off as archaic, rigid, even unhealthy. We are finding out the hard way that our elders were right.
Young men ask me what I think of porn, and I mince no words. Porn comes from the depths of hell, and is calculated to destroy the characters of young men before they even have a chance to grow into a healthy sense of who they are and what they can become. Once your mind becomes pornified, I tell them, two things gradually happen: You lose any higher sense of self, and your relationships become distorted.
The vast majority of pornography users are men, but women are also injured by the epidemic. Wives report feeling betrayed when their husbands use porn — much like actual adultery. Women enter marriage seeking respect, companionship, partnership, honesty and romantic love. The world of pornography consists of exploitation, voyeurism, objectification and detachment. Counselors report that porn use increasingly contributes to divorce.
A coarsening of the heart fosters a coarsening of the culture. When more and more young men are conditioned to approach sex as casually as drinking a glass of water, young women are pressured to join in and many do. Porn is a driver of this shift. Where it will lead as the “hookup” generation gets older is anyone’s guess. But the collapse of sexual mores doesn’t bode well for the stability of society in the long run.
We don’t need a library of psychological studies to confirm these kinds of elementary truths. Generations before us intuitively understood them. That’s why they restricted pornography to places where only the chronically addicted would seek it out. Today we blindly lead our children to a pit of destruction, believing our ignorance of the wisdom practiced in earlier generations is somehow virtuous.
How does pornography harm our young people? (Warning: frank language ahead.) The road from adolescence to adulthood is an arduous one filled with many kinds of emotional upsets. A young man can find relief in masturbation, but most soon learn that such comfort is fleeting and does not resolve the problems that need attention — or at least that is the way it used to be.
Porn has become so pervasive that it is now increasingly difficult to escape the escapist pattern of behavior. Pornography is a sexual stimulant used to compel masturbation. Initially, young men use it to flee what appear to be insurmountable emotional pressures. As the behavior continues, it becomes a compulsive habit that retards maturation.
It works a lot like drug use. Give me a young man who has a problem with drugs and wants to get clean, and the first question I ask is when he began using drugs. That tells me when maturation stopped and where to locate the problems that led to the drug use. Only when those problems are dealt with can the flourishing begin that young men yearn for.
These days, I ask: When did you first start using porn?
How does healing occur? The truth is that young men long to become stable and mature. Once they begin grappling with the hold pornography and its attendant behaviors have over their lives, something remarkable occurs. They start to experience what a healthier interior life (heart, soul and mind) feels like, and they want more of that feeling.
I tell young men that the journey of self-discovery is the most exhilarating adventure a man can undertake. This journey never ends. I also tell them to resist all false promises that can imprison the soul. The lies are like a cupful of sand given to a thirsty man. Choose the water.
We begin this journey together, but eager young men learn fast. All most need is a road map, encouragement and accountability.
Sexuality is closely tied to creativity. Flourishing first occurs when the young man morally reorients himself so that his creativity can be expressed in ways that conform to his native gifts and talents. This requires a counselor or spiritual director like me who can discern what the gifts are and guide the young man toward them.
Often the young man lacks confidence because the porn habit prevented him from experiencing the testings that otherwise would have forged it. Nevertheless, once the creativity that was previously dissipated in porn connects with success, the logic of moral self-control becomes self-evident.
Not all young men succeed. Once I was contacted by a young man who longed to serve in the Coast Guard. He needed to finish college first. He could have succeeded, but in the end he was unwilling to undergo the struggle to overcome the habituation that was holding him back.
Had he been born a generation earlier, he might have avoided the conflict altogether.
Pornography is a problem few people want to face, mainly because we don’t know how to deal with it. The Republican Party correctly called it a “public health crisis” in its 2016 platform. Defenders of porn cite First Amendment protections to fight off restrictions on porn distribution.
But porn is much more than speech. And it is not the kind of “idea” the First Amendment was established to protect. We don’t give cigarettes and alcohol to minors. Why do we stand idly by while the merchants of porn ply them with their toxins?
Young men grow up. But if the porn cycle is not broken — and in many cases it isn’t — they grow up to be man-boys. Then the pathology infects families and children.
This poisoned fruit of the sexual revolution may be with us for generations.