I was having a casual chat with a youth whom I work with, when he revealed in honesty, “Brian, I just went for confession, but I cannot. I wank every day. Really, porn is life!”
There were sniggers around, then a younger youth, “Yah, I watch also. How ah?”
Access to pornography is ubiquitous today, in comparison to the days before the internet, when pornography and sensual imagery were to be found only in the secret back alleys of selected salacious printed publications and inserted between pages of guerrilla novella, found in dodgy bookstands by the corner or the library. Pornography has become so widespread today, that even primary school children are discussing it during recess. With the crossover of certain key actors from the pornographic industry to the sports industry as commentators and presenters, there has also been increasing normalisation of its use.
The Catholic Church is very clear on where it stands with regard to the use of pornography. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials.” (CCC 2523)
Pornography is a grave offense against God and His gifts to men and women. God created men and women “in His image” to share in His divine life. Rather than respecting and cherishing this image of God, pornography promotes a harmful and destructive anthropology (view of the human person). It teaches people to use others as “objects”-in this case, a means of selfish, lustful gratification. In addition, since pornography attacks sexual desire and the conjugal act itself, it wages war on marriage.
As St. John Paul II explains in his Letter to Families:
In the conjugal act, husband and wife are called to confirm in a responsible way the mutual gift of self which they have made to each other in the marriage covenant…the mutual gift of husband and wife…is in itself a mutual communion of love and of life. The intimate truth of this gift must always be safeguarded.… The person can never be considered a means to an end; above all never a means of pleasure. The person is and must be nothing other than the end of every act. Only then does the action correspond to the true dignity of the person. (John Paul II, Letter to Families, no. 12)
According to the American Psychiatric Association, the reason why pornography is highly addictive, stems from how when these individuals are engrossed in certain internet activities like video gaming or pornography, certain pathways in their brains are triggered in the same direct and intense way that a drug addict’s brain is affected by a particular substance. The participation in pornography prompts a neurological response that influences feelings of pleasure and reward, and the result, in the extreme, is manifested as addictive behaviour. (American Psychiatric Association (APA) Internet Gaming Disorder.)
Some internet activities, because of their power to deliver unending stimulation (and activation of the reward system), are thought to constitute supernormal stimuli (Hilton DL Jr, Pornography Addiction), which helps to explain why users whose brains manifest addiction-related changes get caught in their pathological pursuit. Nobel prize winning scientist Nikolaas Tinbergen in the Study of Instinct posited the idea of “supernormal stimuli”, a phenomenon wherein artificial stimuli can be created that will override an evolutionarily developed genetic response. To illustrate this phenomenon, Tinbergen created artificial bird eggs that were larger and more colourful than actual bird eggs. Surprisingly, the mother birds chose to sit on the more vibrant artificial eggs and abandon their own naturally laid eggs.
Similarly, Tinbergen created artificial butterflies with larger and more colourful wings, and male butterflies repeatedly tried to mate with these artificial butterflies in lieu of actual female butterflies. Evolutionary Psychologist Dierdre Barrett took up this concept in her recent book Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose . “Animals encounter supernormal stimuli mostly when experimenters build them. We humans can produce our own.” (p. 4). Barrett’s examples range from candy to pornography and highly salted or unnaturally sweetened junk food to highly engaging interactive video game playing. Pornography is highly stimulating. It recruits our natural reward system, but potentially activates it at higher levels than the levels of activation our ancestors typically encountered as our brains evolved, making it liable to switch into an addictive mode (Toates F, How Sexual Desire Works)
However, the attempt to combat lust has been oversimplified and over-generalised. It is not so simple as to say, “Avoid this situation, pray more,” for human sexuality is complex. People struggling with chastity and pornography need tangible solutions and strategies that go beyond, looking away from attractive people and taking drastic measures to be accountable. The inability to remain chaste results in shame, frustration, and anger, which further lead people to re-digging the old wells of pornographic gratification and further exacerbating the vicious cycles of guilt and shame. The complexity of these issues stem from how we treat what is seen on the surface, but fail to excavate deeper to understand the root causes as to why there is a particular search for a particular type of gratification. Divinely, there is a need to ask God, to help us understand our lust.
According to mental health counsellor, Jay Stringer, our sexual struggles are not random or capricious. They begin in the formative years, take root in the formative and developing emotional states and sexual soil of our childhoods, and attack and flourish in the unaddressed dynamics of our present life. The type of pleasure we pursue can be predicted by the major themes and relationships which have marked our life.
Each of us, according to Stringer, has a particular “arousal cocktail”. This is a “mixture of thoughts, images, stories, and fantasies that influence the pornographic content we find arousing. When we find ourselves depressed, angry, bored, or lonely, we will often seek out a particular type of pornography apropos to our situation. If we want to outgrow our need for pornography, we need to gain a sense of what it symbolises for us.”
Case Study: Kevin* (Name changed to protect client’s identity)
Kevin’s struggles with pornography and masturbation would escalate during bouts of depression or loneliness, or when he felt dissatisfaction with his job or that he was a burden or useless. His search would depict men as hyper-masculine and overtly muscular, engaging with women who were highly feminine, almost doll-like anime archetype, docile, quiet, and gentle. He also revealed certain superhero fantasies.
Kevin’s parents had an unhappy marriage, and Kevin often witnessed his parents arguing. His mother was domineering, disapproving, and dismissive and Kevin found himself trying to gain her approval. Kevin’s father was distant and perceived to be useless and weak. His obsession with body dysmorphia was linked to how relatives would often jib him about his weight. He was compared to his father as useless by his mother, and was humiliated publicly as a sissy by his primary school teacher when the team he led as captain of the soccer team lost the match. He would fantasize himself as a superhero who would be able to make things better and save the world. His pornographic desires stemmed from anger at himself, a need for control, and yearning for power to turn the situation around.
Ironically, if we would listen to our sexual broken-ness, we would find ourselves confronting the most honest and vulnerable wounds of our life. Unless these core wounds are addressed, chastity would be next to impossible. This place of broken-ness, is also the place where redemption is unfolding for God is neither surprised or ashamed of our sexual struggles.
By Brian Bartholomew Tan