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Fifty Shades of Porn

In case you haven’t heard, the most popular books on the planet right now are the Fifty Shades of Grey series by E.L. James. Not because they contain fine literature, but because they contain explicit sex scenes with characters engaging in sadomasochistic bondage. Given our culture, it’s no surprise the books are flying off the shelves and onto Nooks and Kindles at lightening speed. What is surprising, however, is that so many Christians are openly reading and even promoting these books to friends and family.

Well, why not? Fifty years ago, pornography was considered immoral at worst, unseemly at best, but clearly something in contrast to Christian values of fidelity, chastity, and self-control. But today, it’s not even morally neutral, but something people actually recommend to improve a relationship or marriage. The prevailing attitude is that in moderation, it’s harmless. And as an occasionally-used tool, it can actually bring a couple closer and enhance their sex life.

I might buy this, except I’m no stranger to porn and its consequences. I was first exposed to it at the tender age of five, when an adult male babysitter showed me scenes from the film he was watching. At 10, I was cleaning another family’s basement and found an issue of Playgirl. The explicit images shocked and disturbed me, but I still squirreled it away for later viewing. At 12, I found the porn channels on our satellite dish and watched every time my parents ran errands without me. I even stole sexually-explicit paperbacks from my aunt, which were just as effective in piquing my interest and libido as films. (Which is how I know Shades of Grey is just gussied up smut.)

But this was all child’s play compared to the porn I encountered at 17. My 30-year-old boyfriend, Dan, had amassed a large and varied pornography collection. His insistence that porn was just another tool to spice things up in the bedroom is almost certainly why it became a part of every sexual relationship I had after that. It helped that men were impressed I was so “cool” about it. It even seemed normal to use pornography during the first few years of my marriage.

I don’t think these experiences are unusual among my peers and young people today. Most people have adopted Dan’s progressive attitude about pornography–that it’s a harmless diversion that can ultimately lead to better sex and thus, stronger relationships. Except it isn’t true. Experience, statistics, and science tell us a very different story about porn.

Porn changes the brain. And not in a good way.

Research shows that pornography use causes the same kind of brain damage as substance abuse. Like opiates and other drugs, porn triggers the release of dopamine, a vital neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. The massive dopamine release then greatly reinforces your body’s memory of the experience, spurring you to want to do it again (and again). This is why it’s so easy to become addicted to porn, because just like with drugs, our brain then wires our body to desire that extreme sexual high.

The dopamine released with porn use also causes your brain to process the images (real or imagined) in such a way that they’re stored in long-term memory and replayed repeatedly in your mind. As anyone who has regularly viewed porn can attest: these images are burned into your brain forever. I can still vividly recall scenes in books and movies from nearly 30 years ago. Many of these scenes were grossly immoral and I would love to purge them from my memory, but the brain damage is, unfortunately, permanent. No one tells you that when you watch a porno, you’re going to have to watch it forever, whether you want to or not.

The other thing they don’t tell you is that just like someone who takes drugs, you’re going to need more and more porn over time to get the same fix. Dan had been using porn for 15 years and the tame stuff just didn’t do it for him anymore. Near the end of our relationship, I discovered he possessed videos that featured bizarre fetishes, beastiality, incest, and sadomasochism. What people are using today is not your father’s Playboy stash, researchers say. It’s hardcore, scary, and it seriously warps you.

Porn harms men.

Men are wired to be stimulated visually, which typically makes them more prone to concupiscence (a fancy word for lust). To sustain a healthy, give-and-take relationship with a flesh-and-blood woman, a man must learn self-control, self-giving, and self-sacrifice. He must treat the woman as a person with dignity, not just a thing to be used for his sexual pleasure.

But the message of pornography undermines those goals and as we’ve shown, those messages send down deep roots into a person’s psyche. In porn, men and women are not rich, complex persons with hopes, dreams, and emotional needs, but things that use other things for personal pleasure. Sexual desire is portrayed as an animalistic, uncontrollable urge that you have a right to indulge. There is no expectation of fidelity or consequences for being unfaithful; monogamy is a joke.

It should be no surprise then, that men who imbibe a steady diet of pornography have problems maintaining a healthy relationship with a woman. Men see plastic, sex-crazed women in pornos, then get disappointed when their girlfriends and wives don’t look or act that way. (And nothing turns a woman on like knowing her guy got turned on by another woman.)

A significant number of men are also plagued by anxiety that they don’t measure up–literally or performance-wise–to the men they see in pornos. One study found that less than half of all men (45%) felt they were adequately endowed. As one man put it, “I wasn’t able to perform unless I thought I was the biggest. In my mind, I couldn’t see why a girl would want to be with me if she could have someone bigger.”

Porn hurts women.

Few people realize that that nearly 30% of sex addicts are women, with some studies showing that one out of six women–including Christian women–struggle with an addiction to pornography. Not that you have to be addicted to be damaged by porn. A recent study confirmed what women have known for years: that pornography leaves women feeling dismissed, unloved, inadequate, and betrayed.

Porn destroys marriages.

Patrick Fagan, director of the Center for Research on Marriage and Religion, calls pornography a “quiet family killer.” A good description when you consider that a spouse’s porn addition is a factor in 56% of divorces today. Divorce attorneys have confirmed this stat: at a 2003 meeting of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, two-thirds of the 350 lawyers said porn had contributed to more than half the divorces they’d worked.

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But all that’s neither here nor there, Shades of Grey fans will say. Erotic fiction isn’t porn. It doesn’t involve real people, so it’s not harmful like visual pornography is.

When I was a newly converted and spiritually immature Catholic, I used those same excuses to justify reading porn instead of watching it. But then I realized I read the stories for the same reason I’d watched the movies: to get sexually aroused. I just used my imagination instead of a television, but the end result was the same. Pornography, whether it’s tucked away in the back room of a video store or between the pages of a bestselling novel, has only one purpose: to incite lust. Christians especially should remember what Jesus said about that: “I say unto you, that every one that looks on a woman with lust has committed adultery already with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).

When we use our sexuality as God intended–in an act of mutual self-giving with our spouse–we get good outcomes. We bond with our spouse, we bring new life into the world, we forge strong marriages and families. But pornography turns what should be a most profound exchange of love into a solitary, selfish grasping for pleasure. It fosters sexual anxiety, damages our ability to have healthy relationships, and destroys marriages and families. Lust–and thus, porn–is sinful, folks. And we need to stop pretending there’s anything gray about that.