Let me begin by trying to summarize my views on digital technology and spiritual formation.
I believe that the Internet is the most immersive intellectual habitat that exists in the world today, and consequently that its nature and function are directly responsible for how the emerging (and future) generation of adults understand themselves, each other, and the world.
I believe that there is a profound asymmetry between the Internet and many other modern technologies. Following Nicholas Carr, I’m convinced that the Web (especially social media) is an intellectual technology that trains our minds how to think and our emotions how to respond.
I believe that one of the most important things that Christians in developed, technopolistic cultures can do for their spiritual development is to interrogate the way the Internet mediates their experience of God’s truth and God’s world, and push back on these dysfunctional effects as much as possible.
So right there in three brief points, I’ve laid out where my philosophy on technology and spirituality is right now. It’s all in the book, and much of it is on these newsletter pages.
Here’s the point I want to make presently: If these three beliefs are true, then it follows that Internet pornography is one of the most powerful, most formative, and most influential artifacts of modern societies today. And I’m convinced something else follows: Christians who are concerned about the physical, intellectual, and spiritual well-being of their neighbors, inside the church and outside, ought to be vigorously supportive of laws that suppress, restrict, and eliminate access to online porn.
Two things put me here. One is my personal story, some of which I have shared publicly but will talk about briefly more. The other is Christian theology and a realistic, theologically-informed philosophy of the Web, both of which I believe seriously contradict the libertarian case against banning porn and equating it with protected speech.
First, my personal story. I was probably 11 or so when I first used the Internet to access sexually suggestive pages. This occurred with a relative’s computer (though I was alone and solely responsible for what I searched). If my adolescent wanderings had stopped at what I saw that night, then I probably wouldn’t be writing this post. It was lustful, but not “explicit.” The explicit content, though, would come, as the filtering capabilities of PCs were not widely known or even smartly constructed back in those days. By the time I was an upperclassmen in high school, online porn had become a regular and increasingly intense part of my life. And here’s something I want to emphasize: I do not recall at any point accessing this content through the “dark web” or utilizing illegal or even shady file-sharing sites. I got to the content through major search engines and “legitimate” websites. There was nothing difficult about my search for videos and images that ate at my soul and mind year after year. It was as easy to get to as email.
The effects of this addiction grew steadily. For reasons I’m sure readers will understand, I don’t want to spell this story out in too much detail. Suffice to say that I was effectively programming my brain to see girls as avatars of pleasure, even the girls I knew and counted as friends in real life. My relationships with some of them took a dark, horribly self-centered turn. My grades in college plummeted. My motivation bottomed out. I have no doubt that had this trajectory continued, I would have made an absolute shipwreck out of mine and probably someone else’s life.
“But God.” Jesus Christ intervened directly in my life, and I tell some of that in this Desiring God post. The point of sharing some of my personal experience int his post is to reinforce to you how confident I am in online porn’s ability to consume a life, to turn relationships septic, destroy good things and prevent other good things from ever happening. It’s true that not everyone who gets exposed to online porn develops an addiction. It’s true that not everyone who partakes occasionally becomes an emotional shell of themselves. But those things are true for a lot of people.
If online porn is really that powerful of a consumable, then you would expect to see some kind of meaningful cultural transformation take place about the same time that the Internet becomes omnipresent. This effects would be most severe among the addicted, of course, but given the scope and availability of porn, it would make sense to see broad social change, generational differences in behavior and attitudes, in direct response to its ubiquity.
Jean Twenge’s new book Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents—and What They Mean for America’s Future offers, I believe, two glimpses of exactly that kind of cultural transformation. Here are two charts that show results of her research.
The above chart reveals what sociologists have called a “sex recession” among the younger generations. For reasons that most writers still say are “unclear,” the Millennial generation seems to have kicked off a heavy decline in sexual activity, a decline that has nearly doubled the rate of twentysomething men who aren’t having sex.
Here’s the second chart:
This chart reveals that at the exact same time there’s been a significant decline in overall sexual activity, there’s been a significant increase in young adults who’ve had a same-sex encounter.
Now let’s ask a question: What could be true of a generation that would cause it both to 1) have a lot fewer sexual encounters than generations before it, but also 2) be much more willing than previous generations to experiment? I think I have one plausible answer. On page 369, Twenge writes (almost as an afterthought), “Gen Z boys are exposed to pornography beginning at extremely young ages: 9 on average, according to some estimates.” Twenge is not talking about risque, PG-13 stuff. She’s talking about 9 year olds who have iPhones, and whose only roadblock to hardcore pornography is a pop up window that says “You’re 18, right?” Could it be that a sex recession and a blurring of the lines between male and female are consistent consequences of young people who have experienced a pornographic staging of the human body since before puberty? Given all this porn, why have sex, and why not have it with whomever?
I don’t know how convincing this argument is for most people. I think the political machinations of “sex positivity” keep people like Jean Twenge and Abigail Shrier from saying what seems quite plausible: that porn is actively and aggressively reshaping American society, that it is redefining Gen-Z’s sense of pleasure and identity, and that it is becoming the way a plurality of people first encounter sexuality. I can only offer these connecting phenomena and my own personal experience. People who doubt the power of online pornography may not be just underestimating its moral nature. They are probably misjudging the power of the Internet itself to mediate our lives, to condition our values and calibrate our identities. The question is, if the Web is as powerful as we are starting to think, how could the Web’s chief export not be more powerful than we guess?
Now, let’s land this plane. I don’t think Christians can accept the libertarian argument for keeping online porn legal and widely accessible. Existing laws have failed. There has been a generational calamity, and we who know it are accountable for what we do with this information. Here’s what I wrote in 2021:
For decades, media moguls and sex researchers insisted that maintaining a robust market of pornographic content for willing adults was compatible with protecting children from being harmed or victimized. From plastic bags over magazines, to cordoned-off sections of the video store, to FCC-mandated time slots, the narrative was the same: Adult-only desires can and should be fulfilled.
The Internet utterly destroyed this compromise, and the smartphone delivered the coup d’etat. Extreme forms of pornography are now viewed regularly by 12- and 13-year-olds. Teens are participants, not merely viewers. Sociologists are coy about wondering if the “sex recession” might have something to do with the triumph of online porn, but the lesson from the Japanese demographic crisis, particularly when it comes to young men, seems clear enough. Why would anyone risk rejection, awkwardness, pregnancy, or disease to have sex when limitless masturbatory fantasy is so free and easy? So much for adults only.
So the “adults only” compromise has failed. What now? I believe the time has come for Christians to articulate a case for, and work toward, legal restrictions on online pornography. I believe the lawmakers of Utah are barking up the right tree. If the age verification technology we currently have is either unable to effectively restrict access, or if the current alternatives are too invasive (uploading drivers license info, etc.), then we should not give porn companies the benefit of the doubt. Laws should recognize that the Internet is much like a public utility and its contents are, for most practical purposes, public broadcasts, and treat it accordingly. Restrict, go after it, run it out of town. And do not accept the argument that this content is protected speech.
I believe it’s time to take the Internet seriously as a formative medium. It’s not a computer hobbyist’s private world. It’s the spiritual and epistemological landscape of most of our country. There’s no benefit to allowing it to be dominated by pornography. It has been weighed in the balance and found wanting, by many, including me. It’s time we did something about that.
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Sad to say that not only has use of pornography devastated our society, but it has also infected the Christian Church. Also, as I sadly found out from my own experience, many churches are not prepared to deal with the problem of pornography as well as the rest of its sinful manifestations.
Exactly right. It's unconscionable that we've allowed children to grow up in this porn-saturated environment, because we were afraid to infringe on adults' unlimited access to sexual pleasure.