The Social & Cultural Poverty of Pornography: When the New Narcotic Shapes Society

By Morgan Bennett
November 11, 2014

“I think if you were Satan and you were settin' around tryin' to think up somethin' that would just bring the human race to its knees what you would probably come up with is narcotics.”1

A narcotic’s ability to addict and cause compulsive behavior is only part of its tragedy; the key to a narcotic’s dehumanizing power is its ability to addict a human being to a substance that damages him.  The dilapidation is holistic, savaging the person in an interdependent manner that often simultaneously breaks down the physical, mental, emotional, and relational health of the individual.

While chemical narcotics can certainly boast of human wreckage, a “new narcotic” can boast all the more. It not only has the power to addict a person to a damaging substance, but it is created by exploiting, torturing, and sometimes enslaving real human beings2 while simultaneously forming pathways in the subconscious mind that silently shape not only individual choices and beliefs,3 but the sexual and relational cultural ideas and choices of an entire society. Now that is a narcotic to “bring the human race to its knees.” Today’s internet pornography is that perfect-storm-of-a-narcotic.

The narcotic nature of internet pornography is well established4: Though the addicting power of internet pornography is periodically challenged,5 this reality is experientially acknowledged by many,6 and published research is continuing to acknowledge and explore this characteristic of internet pornography.7

More Than Mere Addiction

While the consequences of pornography addiction are tragic and, in the aggregate, devastating to society,8 and while it is important to continue to explore and raise awareness about the neurological effects of internet pornography—such as pornography’s ability to silently “rewire” the human brain9—it is equally important not to limit the internet-pornography conversation to addiction and brain effects. To do so is to perceive only one element of the complex and interrelated fallout of internet pornography. The societal implications of today’s internet pornography go much broader and deeper than mere addiction.

This widespread implication is evidenced in a statement made by Brigitte Lank, a psychologist and founder of the Lank Institute for Sexual Addiction and Recovery in San Rafael, California, who explained that the issue of internet pornography consumption goes beyond the issue of mere addiction in treatment: The treatment goal for substance addiction is merely “abstinence,” whereas the treatment goal for sexual addiction is “healthy sexuality”—a much more complex goal, to be sure.10 Properly conceptualizing the effect that internet pornography can have on individuals requires acknowledging that internet pornography consumption is “an intimacy disorder as well as an addiction.”11

This observation is crucial, as it exposes a characteristic of pornography with vast, long-lasting implications for our society as a whole. The impact of pornography is not limited to problems of compulsive behavior or erectile dysfunction,12 or even to increases in violence, decreases in productivity, or the fueling of human trafficking.13 Internet pornography’s impact is even more pervasive than these social harms because it affects broad cultural ideas and influences human choices, which, in the aggregate, shape our social environment. Still, the most critical point about pornography’s impact on society is that the cultural ideas and choices that pornography influence are related to the most basic and crucial elements of society: human relationships and sexual choices. The social institutions of marriage and the family unit are the prime targets of a sexual narcotic, and the destabilization of these essential units of community results in a deep social poverty.

So even those who do not view pornography are negatively affected by pornography in very real ways merely because they live in a society in which pornography is widely consumed. Internet pornography has the power to “bring the human race to its knees” because it harms not only the individual consumer, but it harms the very social fabric of a people.

The Family Unit

Internet pornography directly undermines the most crucial institution of a free society,14 the family unit.15

Families and their ‘practices’ (what goes on inside them) are highly significant to local national and supranational governments because, however constituted, they are the microecology in which emotional and material needs are met for the majority of people. Families are essential for social cohesion, the socialization of children, and individual well-being; they are the base from which children and adults can learn, work, and contribute to society.16

Monogamous marriage not only provides the best environment for the upbringing of emotionally healthy, responsible future citizens, but it also promotes political freedom.17 Internet pornography weakens existing marriages by dissolving bonds of trust and respect and by incentivizing adultery and divorce.

“Internet pornography consumption is viewed as a threat to the relationship,”18 and a partner’s consumption of internet pornography is an “increasingly common” cause of divorce and break-ups.19 One study found that “the negative relationship between pornography use and marital well-being has, if anything, grown strong over time, during a period in which pornography has become both more explicit and more easily available.”20 Internet pornography is toxic to marriage.21

Internet pornography also impedes the creation of new, healthy marriages by disincentivizing monogamy,22 distorting relational expectations,23 and undermining trust from the outset. Individuals who desire a committed, monogamous relationship inherently sense the risk of entering into a relationship with someone who views pornography: A person who watches individuals engage in explicit, often deviant, sex acts is already participating in non-monogamous activity from the outset of the relationship. Further, the ideas fostered and normalized in the majority of internet pornography (like misogyny, violence, selfishness, and objectification) undermine trust because they are opposed to the values that support a monogamous romantic relationship (like unconditional love, selflessness, mutual respect, kindness, and valuing persons as subjects).

Viewing pornography is “related to greater gender role conflict, more avoidant and anxious attachment styles, poorer relationship quality, and less sexual satisfaction.”24 A recent study found that a partner’s pornography use positively predicted women’s “relationship anxiety” and other negative effects on women.25 Men who regularly view pornography have reported a “decreased interest in ‘real’ sex” and thus in “real” women.26 Such intimacy problems result in various facets of social poverty that we observe today, like the destabilization of our youth27—which impacts the moral fiber and emotional health of America’s future generations—and the “epidemic” of isolation, loneliness, and suicide.28

This sampling of recent research shows that today’s internet pornography not only affects the individual consumer, but creates powerful incentive structures within society. These incentives structures should be further explored, since a correct understanding of such structures created by a social problem is crucial to forming an effective solution, or at least a balm, for that issue.

Social Poverty, Science, and the Human Experience

When it comes to many social issues, science can only go so far.  When we see human suffering, addiction, poverty, and isolation, most of us probably do not instinctively seek out scientific research. Most of us consider the human experience. We may reflect on the emotional and psychological impact an individual’s life experiences have had on him, or recognize a person’s lack of a support system and community. Often we recognize that the problem is not limited to failed policies or ineffective social programs; we can perceive that many of the problems of societal poverty exist because someone, a relationship, has failed an individual.

The “human experience” of any social problem is an essential part of a holistic discussion about that social issue. The human experience of internet pornography is interrelated with an individual’s entire personal history and can be complex—internet pornography can be experienced as simultaneously “just another facet of every day life” and a “complete brutalization of the human psyche.”29 But that complexity suggests that there is great value in setting the science aside for a moment and listening to human voices tell their stories about their own encounters with internet pornography.30

Science should wait and consider the voice of a woman explaining that she does not want to be in a relationship with a man who looks at pictures of naked women, much less a man who watches real people engage in real sex acts and who craves the horrors of sex-for-pay, sex as entertainment, and sex trafficking, as well as the objectification and exploitation inherent in hardcore internet pornography. While research is important, we should give just as much dignity to the human stories of how pornography is hurting us; how it is breaking hearts, leaving many lonely, and destroying hope.

More and more, we are hearing the stories of those who are pushing back against today’s internet pornography and the world it is creating.  In The Post-Porn Wave, Janey Stephenson tells stories of “[t]oday’s twenty-somethings” who are “our lab rats: the first generation to go through puberty with unlimited access to online porn.”31 Stephenson concluded that though many of these young adults watched hardcore internet pornography for years, “there is a growing number of young people” who are rejecting pornography and “who are willing to talk about how uncomfortable they are with both the content and impact of porn.”32

Ran Gavrieli, another young adult, gave a TED Talk explaining why he decided to stop viewing pornography:

Before porn, I used to fantasise about a scenario in which I would meet a woman, what I would say to her and what she would say to me. But porn conquered my mind. I lost my ability to imagine. […] I found myself closing my eyes trying to masturbate, trying desperately to think about something human and not making it, because my mind was bombarded with all those images of women being violated.33

The story of the NoFap community testifies to the human spirit’s ability, even in the midst of addiction, to reject the perverse and distorted, and choose—or, rather, fight hard for—the good. NoFap is an online community of men and women who want to gain control over their sexual activity for various reasons and in various ways, but includes a significant amount of “porn addicts” seeking recovery.34 The vast majority of NoFap members are “guys, mostly in our 20s.”35 NoFap provides resources on “the relationship between porn and the human brain,” and NoFap members (“fapstronauts”) warmly welcome new members, congratulate each other on victories, and listen to each other’s frustrations.36

Such stories of recovery are encouraging, but countless stories about internet pornography are horrific and remind us that, for some, internet pornography is not just an addiction or an obstacle to their love life, but something that has utterly destroyed lives.37 These stories force us to look upon suffering and can turn mere policy questions into meaningful reflections on the human experience.

When considering intimate personal relationships, isolation, and emotional poverty, the human experience speaks with authority. Listening to human stories and reflecting on our own personal experiences should supplement, and at times even trump, scientific research. Such an approach would not only provide a more holistic picture of internet pornography’s impact on society, but may also infuse compassion and connection into this often isolating and emotionally painful issue.

The Dawning Reality

Many aspects of internet pornography’s “fallout” are unrelated to addiction or brain rewiring: the ubiquity and normalization of internet pornography impacts all of our lives, regardless of our exposure to the actual content.  The widespread consumption of, and accessibility to, internet pornography is resulting in social poverty.  Internet pornography is creating a culture in which people are less connected to each other and yet more preoccupied with sex; it is creating a society in which we will do horrific things for an orgasm.38

“The acts of private parties – indeed, sometimes even the apparently private acts of private parties – can and do have public consequences; . . . where [pornography] flourishes, [pornography] damages a community’s moral ecology.”39 But there is hope: Research is exploring and confirming pornography’s myriad of harms, and human experience is spreading the news of pornography’s lies and destructive wake.

The stories of the young adults who are rejecting pornography is evidence that—even in the face of a powerful narcotic that has the potency to alter cultural ideals about foundational aspects of society—a culture can be changed. Researchers say that influencing a culture requires “changing [the individuals’] perception of what everyone else thinks.”40 For example, “a culture of respect and kindness isn’t necessarily made up of angels—just people who have come to believe that that’s what everyone else thinks is the right way to act.”41 When people speak up about their experiences with pornography, others realize that they are not alone, and this is at least a step toward steering ourselves out of the social poverty of pornography.

As new research is published and as more people tell their stories, we are sure to see, more and more, that internet pornography “bring[s] the human race to its knees.” But perhaps we are already starting to hear another side of the story, one that sounds more and more like a roar.

“The truth is like a lion; you don’t have to defend it.  Let it loose; it will defend itself.”42