The Pornography Epidemic

A Comprehensive Catholic Pastoral Response

One of the greatest problems facing the Church and the world today is that of pornography. Studies show the devastating consequences of pornography to the human person, to the marriage, to the family, and to the moral life of society at large. Despite all of the evidence on the dangers of pornography, its use and abuse continues to grow at alarming rates. In this article I will provide statistical evidence to substantiate the claim that pornography is a significant issue facing a large demographic along many lines in the Church today. I will offer a model for pastoral intervention and care that can be applied in a parish setting. I will identify and describe the elements of this model beginning with the initial contact and assessment. This will lead to a proposed plan of pastoral care, and an integrated matrix presentation of professional resources, lay led support groups, and pastoral support by the priest and the faith community.

Clearly one of the most significant issues facing the Church today is pornography. The statistics of pornography in the United States are staggering. Barna reported the following statistics for the year 2016: That people watched 4.6 billion hours of pornography on one website alone. That by age eleven the average child has been exposed to pornographic images on the internet. That 93% of boys and 62% of girls will be exposed to pornography on the internet by their adolescence. That 70% of young adults define pornography by its function not its form and that 90% of young adults either have an encouraging, accepting or neutral attitude on pornography (Porn Phenomena). NCOSE consumer statics report for 2018 indicates: That 64% of young people (age 13–24) seek out pornography weekly or more often; pornography sites receive more traffic than Netflix, Amazon, and twitter combined; 35% of all internet downloads are pornographic, and at least 30% of all internet traffic is pornographic in nature (Fight the New Drug). A. Cooper reports that in a survey of 84 college aged men, 60% reported problems with pornography use (Cooper 5). Whereas, A. Twohig reports that internet addiction disorder indicates rates from 1.5% to 8.2% of Americans (Twohig 253). Understandably, I think many of us associate pornography as being primarily a problem of men, yet studies show that many women struggle with pornography use and addiction. In her book, An Affair of the Mind, Laurie Hall chronicles the experiences of pornography addiction as it applies to women. The present author believes that many women struggling with pornography themselves will benefit from reading this book, understanding that they are not alone.

There are those today who would deny that pornography is a bona fide addiction at all. Yet, there is overwhelming evidence in favor of the position that it is. This evidence is based upon empirical studies drawn from radiographic imaging of the brain while view pornography, related to neuroplasticity, and the chemical activity of specific pleasure centers in the brain. In his book, Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain, William Struthers describes the physiological effects of pornography addiction on the brain: “Responses to pornography flow through the neurological viaducts through which feelings of love, longing, need, and romance are experienced. The neurological circuits are the wires of the system but there are other players as well. Hormones and neurotransmitters provide the ‘“juice”’ within the wiring system” (99). The viewing of pornography triggers chemical and neurophysiological changes in the brain similar to those of love, and the body becomes dependent upon them. In the cycle of dependency upon pornography, the individual’s behavior and eventually his or her whole life changes to accommodate the need for pornography.

Aside from the physiological effects of pornography, there are profound sociological, cognitive, sensory, and relational implications. In his book, Man Interrupted, Philip Zimbardo explains many of these consequences. Zimbardo notes that exposure to pornography results in men relating to their sexual partners as objects, and experiencing difficulty in differentiating real sexual relations from reenacting pornography (29). Additionally, users of pornography experience “less satisfaction in their relationships, and real-life intimacy, and attachment problems” (Zimbardo 29). Because of the internet accessibility of pornography, Zimbardo suggests that many young people are abandoning dating in favor of cyber-sex; that in turn leads to further withdrawal into a world of fantasy and greater social isolation.

Of greatest concern to the priest are the spiritual consequences of exposure to pornography. It is the reduction of the sacredness of human sexuality and the beauty of the intimacy of man and wife to mere autoeroticism. It is psychosexual development that takes place in a moral vacuum, where anything is permissible, and everything is selfish. It is denying the ends of marriage as procreative, unitive, and creative in generating life in concert with God’s plan, to a fantasy experience where spouse and God are deliberately absent. Pornography use significantly contributes to spiritual isolation and alienation from God and community by reinforcing the objectification of persons and relationships. It causes the person to focus inwardly on his or her own needs as opposed to a life centered on Christ and joyful service for the sake of the Kingdom. One can see what the impact of such spiritual and moral formation would be after habitual exposure to pornography.

On the subject of pornography, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

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, vendor, 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 2354)

Many pastors report that the use of pornography is a common concern brought forward for help. It may be broached in marriage counseling or in marriage preparation, or it may be encountered in the sacrament of reconciliation. The person may present with frequent confession of the viewing of pornography with a complacent attitude. Alternatively, he or she may present with considerable distress expressing despair that everything they he or she has tried has failed. For these reasons, it is very important that the priest become well educated about the effects of pornography exposure. Furthermore, it is important that he be well prepared to provide pastoral care by encouraging substantial change in the person’s life and faith experience with respect to pornography. The goal of pastoral care is not merely that the person abstain from the use of pornography, but that he or she experience spiritual and psychological healing on a deep level. This is characterized a healthy integration of the person’s sexuality, healthy relationships, and an ever deepening union with Christ.

According to Wendy Maltz and Larry Maltz in their book The Porn Trap, the most common and effective methods of treatment are: Individual counseling, couples counseling, group counseling, twelve-step recovery groups, faith-based recovery groups, residential treatment programs, and special programs and workshops or a combination of them (166). For this reason, it is suggested that the priest develops a referral list of competent licensed mental health professionals to whom persons affected by pornography use can easily be referred. The present author recommends that these professionals have an approach to the therapeutic process that thoroughly respects and integrates the Catholic faith perspective and the Catholic understanding of the human person and of human sexuality. In addition to professional care, a referral list of faith-based support groups in the area will also be invaluable. The pastor may find the need for a support group so great in his community that he may wish assist in starting one specifically to meet the needs of his parishioners. Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) website provides a wealth of information on how to start and conduct a support group. Because of the nature of the group and what may divulged, and because of safe environment requirements that apply to each parish, such a group should not meet on parish grounds.

Initial Contact

The first encounter with a person seeking assistance with pornography use will be crucial in the course of the person’s recovery. It is vital that the priest approach the person with an attitude of kindness and empathy. Because pornography involves the person’s sexuality, there is always the expectation for the experience of shame and embarrassment. Often, in the present author’s experience, it is precisely shame and embarrassment that keep people from seeking help with their association with pornography. The fear of being judged, shamed, condemned, or simply of not being understood can be powerful deterrents in seeking help. Often, people with pornography addiction will experience despair, because they have exhausted their own attempts to stop, or have spiritualized the problem. Often, in spiritualizing pornography, the person believes that because it is a “sin” to view pornography, the only solution is prayer and penance. Some people have been told in confession and counseling “you just have to stop” or “you have to pray harder” and because they cannot, they feel hopeless and reluctant to seek further help. For a Catholic, the priest may the one and only person an individual with pornography addiction will comfortable approaching, and so it is even more important that the priest is prepared.

In some cases, the person struggling with pornography will approach the sacrament of reconciliation with great frequency but with no plan for change (repentance). At other times, the person will present to the priest after having “hit rock bottom,” either that they have come to the conclusion that his or her life has become so unmanageable or so miserable that they cannot go on as they are. On the other hand, they may have faced legal action, a threat of divorce, or the loss of a job, or some other addiction-confronting event. Often it takes just such an event to allow the person to confront the system of denial they have developed with this addiction, and to see the truth about themselves. In any case, the time to begin change is in this moment, with this energy, and with this high motivation.

In the narrative of the addiction, four common stages may be reported by the individual (Collins 691). The first stage is exposure or experimentation, when the person first encounters pornography. The next step is usually occasional use, at this point, the person has not lost control, but the use of pornography becomes more and more common. In the stage of regular use, pornography becomes more frequent and intense and it now begins to affect activities and commitments of life and relationships. In the fourth stage, Full-blown addiction, there are physiological changes seen in the brain, and the frequency, duration, and intensity of pornography exposure continue to increase. The person now finds that it requires an increasing amount of time viewing pornography to get the ”high” that is desired.

The narrative the individual will also commonly include a description of a cycle of behaviors around viewing pornography. The first is usually something that triggers the behavior; this might include things like hunger, anger, loneliness, tiredness, depression, boredom, stress, and anxiety. This is followed by thinking about pornography; next, the person actually accesses the pornography and uses it as a sexual outlet (accompanied by masturbation). Lastly, the person often experiences feelings of guilt or remorse after the experience. The guilty or remorseful feelings often lead to a sense of defeat or failure, and so the cycle begins again.

Pornography use may be described on a continuum ranging from: Never, to rare, to occasional, to frequent, to habitual, to compulsive, to constant. All of the preceding adjectives are subjective, and so the present author finds it more helpful to frame the use of pornography with the statement “is it out of control?” It is out of control if the person has tried to stop, would like to stop, or should stop and has not been able to. The understanding being that if the use of pornography were under control he or she would simply have discontinued the use of pornography and that would be the end of it. The fact that he or she continues to use pornography despite concern over its use indicates an out of control situation.

According to the research of Metz and Metz, another effective tool in assisting the individual to become motivated to confront the issues they have with pornography, is a simple self-reporting test that can be taken immediately (Metz and Metz 151). Allowing the person to see his or her responses to pornography use behaviors in concrete terms can be very helpful in confronting denial about pornography addiction.

Plan of Pastoral Care

Once it has been determined that the use of pornography is out of control or simply that the person desires help, it is recommended that the priest formulates a plan of pastoral care with the person. The plan should include specific agreed upon goals and time limits. The first goal is to discuss options with the person and to be supportive of his or her seeking further assistance. It is natural that the individual may express considerable reluctance in seeking treatment, and may express any number of objections. He or she may also want to spiritualize the issue completely, insisting on a purely “spiritual” cure. The priest may find it helpful to remind the individual that God is in no way limited in the manner he wishes to bring healing. God may heal by the power of prayer, or through the skills of a physician or therapist, or through medication or surgery, or through a support group. Because God has given us the ability to develop these things for our good and for him to work through them.

Metz and Metz suggest a six action step process in moving forward with recovering from the use of pornography (Metz and Metz 158–84): 1. Tell someone else about the pornography problem. The person has now disclosed to the priest and that has effectively released some of the power that the “secret” of pornography addiction holds. 2. Become involved in a treatment program. It will be an important role for the priest to refer and encourage the person to pursue appropriate therapy. 3. Create a pornography free environment. There are many resources that provide a checklist of how to purify the environment of pornography (174) — the book The Porn Trap contains an excellent one. This has been referred to as “step 0” in addiction circles, and is a very difficult thing for most people to do. Recovery cannot really begin effectively if the person still has ready access to pornography. 4. Establish twenty-four hour support and accountability. The accountability partner or sponsor relationship is a very useful component in the recovery process 5. Care for your physical and emotional health. It will be important for the individual to be alert of replacement addictions. 6. Start healing your sexuality. A person with a pornography addiction will need to learn a wide range of new and healthy skills in expressing his or her sexuality in a spousal and relational way. If the individual is married, the treatment and recovery process will actively involve his or her spouse.

Unless the priest is a licensed mental health professional, with training and competence in the area of pornography addiction, it is the present author’s recommendation that in the person be referred to a licensed mental health professional for assessment and treatment. Because the causes of pornography addiction are manifold and treatment modalities are a matter of professional expertise, the mental health professional will be best able to provide care. Therefore, it is recommended that the priest provide the individual with a printed list of mental health providers from which the individual may freely choose, and a time limit within which to set the first appointment. The role of the priest at this point will be to continue to provide pastoral care to the person and sacramental reconciliation as indicated.

In providing pastoral care, perhaps the most important gifts that the priest can bring to the individual struggling with pornography use or addiction is that of hope and redemption. Often pornography addicts feel hopeless, disgusted, and that they are beyond redemption. Matt Fradd express these feelings in his book Restored: “it is easy to have compassion on the boy who is sexually abused or is exposed to pornography, and to feel nothing but resentment and disgust at the man who is a porn addict” (Fradd 65). It is important to consider that the pornography addiction by its nature reduces the culpability of the act of viewing pornography because it is beyond the addict’s conscious control. That it is a common addiction and it is amenable to treatment, and for that reason, there is realistic hope for recovery. More importantly, that no sin or addiction, no matter how great, is greater than the healing power of the love of God.

Another component in recovery from pornography addiction is a lay led support group. There are many such models available. In the opinion of the present author, the SA (Sexaholics Anonymous) model is the most effective. One important feature for this approach is that abstinence is defined clearly. That is, genital sexuality is to be expressed only between man and wife and this represents sexual sobriety. In other programs, the individual member may determine the parameters for his or her own sobriety, and that can lead to a slippery slope of acting out. The SA approach follows the twelve-step fellowship model, first developed for alcoholics, and it retains the essential features of the original program adapted to sexual addiction.

It begins with the idea that SA is a fellowship of persons with sexual addiction who gather together to support each other as laypersons. As with any twelve-step fellowship, it begins with the realization and the admission that one is powerless to “fix” the addiction alone, that one must rely on powers greater than one’s self for recovery, namely God (the higher power). In the present author’s opinion, the alliance of the mental health professional, the support group, and the spiritual support of the priest and the greater faith community, together, form the best potential for recovery. A key factor in the success of support groups like SA is that the individual no longer experiences the isolation that pornography addiction brings. He or she is a member of a supportive community of people struggling with the same addition with common experiences and goals. In the SA fellowship, the individual admits to the group that he or she is addicted to pornography and learns from the group about acceptance, serenity, and change.

Another key component of the twelve-step fellowship is the sponsor. The sponsor acts as friend, mentor, resource, and accountability partner, journeying with the member toward recovery.

The final element of the plan of pastoral care is the reintegration of the person in the faith community, and community support. Pornography addition has the potential to leave one feeling isolated, alienated and unwelcome by the faith community. Feelings of shame, brokenness, emptiness and unworthiness can lead on to leave the faith community and abandon faith practices altogether. The priest will play a crucial role as the representative of Christ the shepherd in expressing his love and compassion for the person struggling with pornography. It will be important for the priest in the name of the community to convey a sense of welcome and belonging for this individual, and to emphasize the Christian elements of hope, recovery, redemption and reconciliation. Because pornography is sexual in nature the Scripture passage that may prove most effective as a paradigm for pornography addiction is the woman taken in adultery (Jn 7:53—8:11). That Jesus and his Church do not condemn or reject this person, but desire only healing, reconciliation, redemption and peace for him or her. Because of the personal and confidential nature of pornography addiction, how the community is involved in the healing process will have to be judiciously considered. There are however, a number of avenues that a parish can explore to address the issue of pornography use among its members. Some of the approaches may include: Homilies on the topic of pornography use and addition; prayers during the General Intercessions at Mass for those struggling with pornography; an open discussion of marriage and sexuality to include pornography use; providing literature in the vestibule of the church on pornography use and on chastity. Because the priest is the shepherd and represents the community, he will set the tone for whatever reconciliation and reintegration takes place for the individual.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the use of pornography is one of the most serious issues facing the Church and the world today. Because of this, it is recommended that the priest be well prepared to reach out to those who are struggling with pornography, with a pastoral response that is both competent and compassionate. The priest is not expected to be able to diagnose and treat pornography addiction, but he is expected to provide supportive pastoral care to the individual. The diagnosis and treatment of pornography addiction should be relegated to a competent licensed mental health professional. Not every person who uses pornography is addicted to it, but any use of pornography is clearly an offense against God, and is an offence against the dignity of the human person, and therefore comes under the domain of the pastoral care of a soul. As evidenced above, extensive empirical evidence demonstrates the detrimental effects of pornography on the individual, the society, and the Church. Despite the many negative effect of pornography use, there is cause for great hope for recovery, redemption, healing, and peace. As the priest is often on the front line of individuals seeking help with this issue, he must be well prepared and willing in the ability to offer substantial help in the form of initial encounter, referral, and ongoing pastoral care. In the face of the evil of pornography, the priest stands as Christ, as a channel of hope, reconciliation, redemption, and life.

 

Works Consulted and for Further Reading

Collins, Gary. Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007.

Cooper, A., et al. (2000) “Cybersex User, Abuser, and Compulsives.” Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity. 7 (1–2) 5–29.

Gula, Richard. Just Ministry. New York: Paulist, 2010.

Hall, Laurie. An Affair of the Mind. Wheaton: Tyndale, 1996.

Maltz, Wendy and Larry Maltz. The Porn Trap. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.

The Porn Phenomenon. 2016. Barna. 5 February 2016. barna.com.

Struthers, William. Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain. Downers Grove: IVP, 2009.

Twenty Mind Blowing Stats About the Porn Industry and its Underage Consumers. 2019 Fight the New Drug. 30 May 2019. fightthenewdrug.org.

Twohig, M.P., et al. (2009) “Viewing Internet Pornography: For Whom is it Problematic, How and Why?” Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity. 16 (4) 253–66.

Wilson, Gary. Your Brain on Porn: Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction. Richmond: Commonwealth, 2014.

Zimbardo, Philip and Nikita Colombe. Man Interrupted. Newburyport: Conari, 2016.

Fr. William Dillard About Fr. William Dillard

Fr. William Dillard is a priest of the Diocese of San Diego and an Oblate of Mount Angel Abbey. Ordained in 1998, Fr. Dillard has served in parishes in the Diocese of San Diego and the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon. He is currently the Director of Spiritual Formation at Mount Angel Seminary.

Comments

  1. Avatar Denis Jackson says:

    Personally I would prefer a dedicated professional mental health worker to be the Kew worker . I don’t think the clergy can cope with this porn phenomenon, except by giving an addict quick absolution, which in the end is a pointless sticking plaster solution.

  2. Thank you for your study, and conclusions. Pornography is a growing problem, as the culture devolves and God is ever increasingly marginalized. I would like to emphasize one factor that I believe most important.

    You include, in the Metz and Metz process, #5: “Care for your physical and emotional health.” The supernatural must be included; man is more than a natural creation, he has a supernatural vocation. I wonder about the possible correlations of pornography use among members of Catholic parishes, with the presence or absence of:
    1. true devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mother Mary lived and witnessed to in the parish,
    2. true devotion to the pursuit of personal holiness and the perfection of charity lived and witnessed to in the parish.

    For such devotion to take root and grow, I believe we must structure typical parish life to include:
    1. a continuing pervasive atmosphere of awareness in the parish of the crucial need in every Catholic Christian soul for a vibrant, growing, maturing interior life of grace, manifest in ever-developing prayer-communion with God the Holy Trinity within the soul.
    2. a strong, on-going comprehensive process of faith formation offered and promoted in the parish for all, especially for adolescents and most especially for adults.
    3. Over and above the necessary comprehensive faith formation process named above, must be a continuing foundational formation process in prayer and the interior life, helping the members to embrace the life-long process of growing toward our common vocation to holiness, and the perfection of charity.

    Pastors must shepherd the flock toward the supernatural. Where else are we to find the answer to our deepest and absolutely necessary need?

  3. Fr. William, thank you for bringing this issue to light in a powerful way. As a man who was hooked for 12+ years and now work to break men and women of this attachment permanently as the founder of Freedom Coaching (freedom-coaching.net) and the author of “Redeemed Vision: Setting the Blind Free from the Pornified Culture”, what you’re saying about the problem is dead on. This should be talked about from the pulpit by every priest, every Mass, because it is this sin that is the #1 sin confessed in the confessional by far. Sadly, many clergy are involved in the use of these images as well, and I believe this is the reason why we do not hear much from the pulpit.

    In order to actually heal these wounds, it’s critical that in any work with those who have this issue that 1) identity (who are person is as made in the image of God), 2) intimacy (being seen and loved for who a person is and learning ways express healthy intimacy, with God, family, and neighbor), and 3) vision (learning how to see the body as God has created us to see). Any attempt to bring healing to individuals without these 3 elements being intentionally and integrated into the work will not be effective from healing mind, heart & vision. Yet, when these are combined, lasting transformation takes place.

  4. I have ended my 10 year Catholic marriage . My heart’s desire was to marry a good Catholic man. When I met my future husband, I helped him become Catholic. I overlooked his serious flaws and did not use wisdom. I basically ran the stop sign. He was very religious and behind closed door, he fell into porn while I was working. He is 70 years old. We had no children together. Since this was my second failed marriage, and his fourth failed marriage, our Lord led me out of this mockery of a marriage and brought me into a spacious place, away from his lies, addictions, and narcissistic ways! THANK YOU JESUS!! Because my first non religious husband was addicted to porn and affairs, I did it again. I never healed from my first failed marriage. I am 60 years old and seeking an annulment over serious matter. I pray my former, finds true conversion and support. Dr. Sherri Keffer. Her profound and supportive book, Intimate Deception: Healing the Wounds of Sexual Betrayal; is a must read for any woman who has lived with a sex addict and seeks deeper healing from these deep wounds of betrayal. I am in a support group with women who have been sexually betrayed . I thank God for this support group of caring and holy women of God. Please pray my annulment goes thru. THANK YOU ALL! PORN RUINS MARRIAGES… JESUS DELIVER US!!

  5. Avatar Richard Genca says:

    Classroom Sex Education in Catholic Schools is more responsible than any other factor for tempting students into becoming lifelong voyeurs of pornography. In fact, Catholic Sex-Ed is nothing but porn re-packaged for viewing by children. Once Catholic students are not allowed their chastity, modesty and decency because Sex-Ed teachers demand they look at naked bodies, graphic depictions of masturbation, intercourse, sodomy, and contraceptive techniques, how does anyone expect them to refuse consumption of more such sinful material and even worse? Does anyone seriously believe Catholic Sex-Ed classes and the carnal images they implant in the imaginations and memories of young students, doesn’t whet their appetites for pornography? Where in Scripture and Holy Tradition does it say instruct children in classes how to specifically, exactly, commit the sins of the flesh? A Catholic student’s sex education (last month of 8th Grade) is to be individual, private and rudimental, dealing only with reproduction, permitting only outlines of anatomical parts and no photographs or videos of the same. Reticence about sexual matters to be observed at all times in classes no longer run like a raucous “Saturday Nite Live” skit where ”boomer” teachers grossly enjoyed the flustered, embarrassed, humiliated reactions of their very young students to the hard-core visuals they inflicted on them.

    Catholic schools and churches have been declared ”non-essential” and have been too easily closed by bishops since early March. As a consequence of that, many Catholics have grown used to doing without the Church, and giving it the time and money they formerly did. The same questioning attitude of the laity extends to Catholic schools. After the Covid crisis ceases, this decline of interest in Catholic parishes and schools may increase, and turn quite indifferent no matter what reforms are earnestly proposed.

  6. Avatar Glenn M LANHAM says:

    Excellent, I am now 60 days sober due to VERY frequent sacramental attendance, daily SA meetings (mostly by phone but some zoom in the Covid lockdown), daily rosary and mental prayer, and seeing a CATHOLIC Certified Sex Addiction Counseling-trained therapist….the Church at large highly underestimates the scope of this problem right now, and its effect on society…SA is the closest group to Church teaching, although many individuals ignore the sobriety definition (to their own peril)…..
    Integrity Restored is also a good website for assistance…

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