The Catholic Bishops of the United States have issued a pastoral letter on pornography. The following excerpt (Section V) looks at the effects of pornography on men, women, children and youth, marriage and parenting. The statement says pornography is a personal sin and “an industry of sin,” its pervasiveness leading to negative effects on people and society.
A Closer Look at the Effects of Pornography
“Thoroughly wash away my guilt; and from my sin cleanse me.” (Ps 51:4)
All men and women are created in the image of God and are called to love God and others. Pornography use damages the ability of men and women to become who they are called to be. It makes it more difficult for them to be in self-giving, mutually respectful relationships with each other. It attacks a man’s call to love and protect women and to sacrifice for them, and it undermines a woman’s capacity to love and cherish another human being as a gift and to be received as a gift. Here, we take a closer look at the costly toll of pornography on men, women, young people and children, with a special emphasis on marriage and family life.
Men are particularly susceptible to pornography because the male brain is strongly drawn to sexual images, a kind of “visual magnetism” aggressively exploited by the pornography industry. There are a variety of reasons why a man might view pornography, from “recreation” to seeking comfort for emotional wounds (e.g., low self-esteem, feeling unlovable) to a desire for a sense of power. The effects of pornography on those who view it are becoming better documented and more understood. They include physiological, financial, emotional, mental, and spiritual effects (see below for more information). Those who use pornography can often experience a deep sense of shame and an erosion of self-worth. Men in particular can develop a narcissistic self-identity and an inflated sense of “machismo.” Viewing pornography can distort one’s view of sexuality, marriage, and the opposite sex, and can cause confusion about one’s own sexual identity and inclinations, (a confusion exacerbated by viewing same-sex pornography). Spiritually, like any sin, using pornography damages one’s relationship with God. Users often believe falsely that God could never love them, and they may despair of his mercy and healing.
Pornography is not just a men’s issue. Women use pornography for similar reasons as men, and experience similar effects. While it is not uncommon for women to view compulsively the same extreme visual content as men, they have traditionally tended to gravitate toward forms of pornography that promise relational connection and romance, such as erotic literature or inappropriate social media interactions and video chats. Women face the added challenges of the faulty assertion that using pornography is liberating for them, and the false societal perception that only men use pornography or struggle with pornography addiction, which can cause a deep sense of shame and isolation.
Both science and personal testimonies confirm that many people who start by occasionally viewing pornography later become compulsive viewers who feel trapped in a cycle of fantasy, ritual, acting out, and despair. Viewing pornography, usually combined with masturbation, directly affects the brain’s reward pathways and has been noted to have a similar effect on the brain as cocaine does on a person with a drug addiction or as alcohol on a person with an alcohol addiction. After using pornography, the person craves more and over time seeks out a higher number of and/or more extreme images to get the same “high.” A person addicted to pornography may become obsessed with viewing pornography, may take increased risks to view it (such as accessing it at work), may continue viewing it despite adverse consequences to self and others, and may feel out of control or helpless to stop. He or she may also deny that a problem exists. While pornography addiction can happen via free online content, compulsive pornography users may spend large amounts of money on “exclusive” online content, go to strip clubs, or solicit prostitution. The moral culpability of an addicted person may be lessened depending on the circumstances, but the situation is particularly grave. Addictions are very hard to overcome, and help is needed to regain one’s freedom. We invite the many good men and women who suffer from addiction to pornography to trust in the Lord’s mercy and seek appropriate help, support, and resources. (See Appendix.)
Children and youth
Young people born in the digital age have grown up immersed in media and the Internet, and many times are savvier at navigating this world than their parents. Since it is estimated that the average age of first exposure to pornography is eleven, many children exposed to pornography are even younger. Almost all young males and over half of young females see pornography before age eighteen, often accidentally, such as finding a family member’s “stash” or happening upon a pornographic website through a pop-up ad or typo. Other times a child may search online for a term he or she heard and did not understand, or intentionally search for online pornography out of curiosity. Sex education curriculums may treat pornography as neutral or even good, in some cases even using it as a “teaching tool.” Children and teens experience pressure from peers and even family members to look at pornography. More and more, young people produce their own pornography, in the form of sexual photographs or videos shared with peers. “Sexting” is associated with other risky sexual behaviors,83 charges of child pornography, and tragically has even led to suicide when the image is shared with unintended recipients.
Being exposed to pornography can be traumatic for children and youth. Seeing it steals their innocence and gives them a distorted image of sexuality, relationships, and men and women, which may then affect their behavior. It can also make them more vulnerable to being sexually abused, since their understanding of appropriate behavior can be damaged. A child who is exposed to pornography may experience a mixture of pleasure, pain, disgust, guilt, and curiosity. Without a trusted parent or other adult with whom to talk through these feelings, a child may disengage from family relationships and return to viewing pornography to try to understand his or her feelings. Children and teens who view pornography in effect receive an education about sexuality from what they are viewing. They are more likely to be more accepting of premarital sex, to view women as sex objects, and to overestimate the prevalence of certain degrading sexual practices. They also tend to engage in sexual activity earlier than their peers and are more likely to participate in risky sexual behavior, which puts them at greater risk of getting pregnant as a teenager (or impregnating someone) or contracting an STI. They are at increased risk of sexual addiction later in life. For girls, an over-sexualized society in general and pornography in particular can contribute to low self-esteem, eating disorders, and depression. Data indicates that children repeatedly exposed to pornography are more likely to sexually harass or molest other children, imitating the behavior they have seen.
Tragically, children and youth are also victimized by being forced or coerced into participating in the production of child pornography. Child pornography is illegal, abusive, and a form of human trafficking because of a child’s inability to consent. There are many reasons why a child might become a victim of child pornography, including extreme poverty, deplorable neglect by his or her parents or guardians, or manipulation by child pornographers. Children and youth exploited in this way face serious side effects and need plentiful resources for emotional, psychological, and physical healing. Most of all, they need to know that the abuse was not their fault or choice, no matter how their abusers deceived them.
Marriage and future marriages
Using or creating pornography within marriage is always wrong and can never be justified. It violates marital chastity and the dignity of the spouses. Pornography use within marriage severely damages the spouses’ trust and intimacy both because of the pornography use itself and because of the deception and lies usually involved in one spouse hiding his or her behavior from the other. It has been identified by divorce lawyers as a major factor in over half of divorces. Spouses who discover their husband’s or wife’s pornography use will often feel betrayed, and many experience a sense of trauma akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. Data also indicates that husbands and wives who use pornography are more likely to have an extramarital affair. Contrary to the common idea that pornography can be an aid to marital intimacy, pornography use tends to decrease sexual satisfaction and interest in sex and can lead to impotence in men. One spouse might also feel degraded by the other’s requests for demeaning forms of sexual activity common in pornography. In contrast, God’s plan for marriage and chastity within marriage brings real happiness and intimacy to couples; the Church wants this for all husbands and wives!
For single men and women, viewing pornography can make it more difficult to discern and embrace a vocation, whether to marriage, priesthood, or consecrated life. It can damage the ability to enter and maintain a self-giving relationship of mutual trust and respect, in part because it trains viewers to use another person for their own physical pleasure. Pornography increases isolation and can discourage young adults from undertaking the work of a relationship in the first place, because it promises “satisfaction” from an undemanding source. Undoubtedly, pornography fuels the hook-up culture by promoting sexual encounters without relationship. A young man must take risks to win the heart of a woman; he faces no such risks by viewing images on the computer. Because of the shame and feelings of unworthiness that come with pornography use, some young adults may not feel they “deserve” a real, healthy relationship.
Parenting and the family
In his 2014 Lenten message, Pope Francis noted, “How much pain is caused in families because one of their members—often a young person—is in thrall to alcohol, drugs, gambling or pornography!” Parents today face increasing challenges in protecting their children’s innocence. Pornography can enter the home through a variety of doors. The most obvious is media and technology, which includes not only computers, tablets, and mobile phones but also video games connected to the Internet. Many parents feel ill-equipped to understand the various devices their children use, let alone monitor them or install parental controls or filters. Another challenge parents face is the occasion of events such as campouts or sleepovers, where children could be exposed to pornography by peers or even other adults, while their parents are not present.
The use of pornography by anyone in the home deprives the home of its role as a safe haven and has negative effects throughout a family’s life and across generations. Parents struggling with pornography addiction waste time watching pornography, and they may inflict financial burdens on the family through their compulsion. Fatherhood is gravely impacted because a son will look to his father as a model, and a daughter will look to her father to understand how a man should treat a woman. Lastly, given pornography’s strong correlation with divorce, many children suffer the effects of their parents’ divorce as “collateral damage” to pornography use.
Excerpted from, Create in Me A Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography. For the full document, including footnotes and references, as well as updates, go to the USCCB website.