This week the first readings for Mass are taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. He lays out stark choices for us and does not hesitate to reference our condition to one of slavery. It paints the picture of an individual facing a world a world of pernicious and pervasive temptation. St Paul spent a lot of time in Corinth, which like any “navy town” is not short on all manner of opportunities to make bad choices. I think that he just observed people, the choices they made, the habits that became ingrained in their lives, and simply wrote: “For just as you presented the parts of your bodies as slaves to impurity” (Romans 6:19) from today’s readings. Some folks think St. Paul is being a little melodramatic or overstating the case to make his point. Is he?
Back in my teenage years the possibilities of presenting ourselves to impurity were limited. For example, when I was in high school there was a rumor of someone that you could find behind the gas station across the road from the Catholic high school. For $0.25 he was reported to be willing to show you the Playboy Magazine foldout. Of course no one actually saw him. So even if we ventured into the market of impurity, with a quarter clutched in our hands, the channel of distribution for our misbegotten choices was never available. Does that mean the foldout was never seen? Hardly. From time to time some school mate would purloin a previous issue of Playboy from his dad’s hidden stash. The enterprising adolescent entrepreneur would gladly take your quarter. Quickly enough the dad would discover the crime and that supply channel dried up – and the classmate was grounded.
The market of impurity is very different today. One no longer need venture behind the gas station, technology makes it “one click away.” The temptation and sin of pornography is now available, affordable, and anonymous – not behind the gas station, or at the adult book store, but on any smart phone, tablet or desktop computer. We all have multiple access points to porn. The temptation is technologically and ever present and is reordering the moral compass of individuals and families. I think people’s first response is “Yes, in those families and individuals wherein pornography is present” with the subtle assumption “but not my family or among my children.” Don’t be so sure. The statistics in this area are scary. Did you know average today at which a child is first exposed to graphic pornography? Age 8. The portal? Smart phone or tablet.
Perhaps there is no attack more pervasive or pernicious as pornography – and here is a small sample of scary statistics about the availability, use, and malevolence of pornography and those who traffic in this sin.
- Porn sites receive more monthly internet traffic than Netflix, Amazon, & Twitter combined. (WebRoot)
- One site provided more than 4.6 billion hours of porn. That is a pay-for-service site. Its counterpart “freemium” site hosted 33.5 billion visits in one year. (NCOSE)
- Its use is so widespread that 35% of all internet downloads are porn-related. (WebRoot)
- Porn is a global industry taking in an estimated $97 billion annually, with about $12 billion of that coming from the U.S. (NBC News). The fastest growing segments? Child porn and porn delivery to minors. (NCOSE)
- 64% of young people, ages 13–24, actively seek out pornography weekly or more often. A study of university students found that 93% of boys and 62% of girls had seen Internet pornography during adolescence. (NCOSE)
- 624,000+ child porn traders have been discovered online in the U.S. (Innocent Justice)
Pornography use shapes the lens by which users view, interact, and construct the world. And that is not simply the assertion of moralists or people trying to impose a moral code upon the world. It is something that has been well researched and documented in psychological, sociological, and neuro-scientific arena.
Researchers have shown that pornography shares a number of neuroplastic brain impacts similar to drug and other addictions. They activate the reward system through different means, however, the universal result is a flood of dopamine in the brain’s reward center. The pathways to the center are different but the result is the same. This results in acute positive reinforcement of the behavior that initiated the flood. In this stage, this positive reinforcement results in addictive related learning associations. Neuroplastic changes begin to occur, however, as the continued release of dopamine in the reward center leads to an increase in dynorphin levels. Dynorphin, in turn, decreases the dopaminergic function of the reward system, resulting in an increase in tolerance. Once the dopamine flood has run its course, a kind of withdrawal occurs leading to a decreased sensitivity to previous rewards and an increase in the reward threshold (tolerance), lowering of inhibitions and emotional response. This further progresses to negative reinforcement as the individual continues to engage in the addictive behaviors to avoid the negative affect associated with withdrawal. The neuroplastic effects also impact other brain areas in the prefrontal cortex associated with motivation, self-regulation/self-control, delayed reward discounting and some cognitive functions. And all of this is only amplified in a young child.
What’s all that mean? The continued release of dopamine into the reward system when an individual compulsively and chronically watches Internet pornography stimulates neuroplastic changes that reinforce the experience, build brain maps for sexual excitement against which established brain maps for “natural” sexuality cannot compare (and in fact those existing natural pathways seem to atrophy). There are a lot more changes in your brain that could be mentioned, but its enough.
In C.S. Lewis’ classic book The Screwtape Letters, a senior demon named Screwtape is trying to advise his nephew Wormwood on the best ways tempt people to their downfall. Wormwood is young and eager, more interested in the one-and-done tempting. But Uncle Screwtape counsels, “… the safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” The Screwtape Letters were written in 1942. I wonder what C.S. Lewis’ character Uncle Screwtape would advise his nephew today. Probably, just to offer free cell phones and internet access.
Was St. Paul just being melodramatic? I think not.