[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on November 18, 2013.]
The Internet is the most formidable and invasive drug dealer in the United States. So says Morgan Bennett in a recent edition of Public Discourse, published by the Witherspoon Institute. Although the United States has nearly 2 million cocaine users and an additional 2 million heroin users (with 600,000 to 800,000 of them considered “hardcore” addicts), it claims more than 40 million regular users of online pornography.
In the article, Bennett begins by noting the growing body of research which proves that internet pornography is a narcotic, having just as potent an effect as cocaine or heroin. He cites Dr. Jeffrey Satinover, a former Fellow in Psychiatry at Yale, who writes,
With the advent of the computer, the delivery system for this addictive stimulus [internet pornography] has become nearly resistance-free. It is as though we have devised a form of heroin 100 times more powerful than before, usable in the privacy of one’s own home and injected directly to the brain through the eyes. It’s now available in unlimited supply via a self-replicating distribution network, glorified as art and protected by the Constitution.
The evaluations by Satinover and Bennett illustrate a moral concern that pastors and theologians have been noting for years.
The porn industry has experienced explosive growth over recent decades due to the rise of the internet and its pervasive availability. Bennett points to three major reasons that internet pornography is different, and deadlier, compared to earlier forms: (1) affordability, since there is a large volume of content available online for free; (2) accessibility; (3) anonymity. This has made access to a very powerful and addicting commodity incredibly easy and externally undetectable, but it can have severe consequences for individuals, families, and churches.
Bennett reviews several scientific sources about the effects of exposure to pornography. Bennett writes, “the same parts of the brain react to both illegal substances and sexual arousal. Dopamine, the chemical triggered by sexual arousal and orgasm is also the chemical that triggers addiction pathways in the brain.”
Continuing, Bennett provides a helpful explanation of the dangers of habitual exposure to pornography:
Think of the brain as a forest where trails are worn down by hikers who walk along the same path over and over again, day after day. The exposure to pornographic images creates similar neural pathways that, over time, become more and more “well-paved” as they are repeatedly traveled with each exposure to pornography. Those neurological pathways eventually become the trail in the brain’s forest by which sexual interactions are routed. Thus, a pornography user has “unknowingly created a neurological circuit” that makes his or her default perspective toward sexual matters ruled by the norms and expectations of pornography.
God designed humans to live within the patterns he created. When humans sin by transgressing the laws of God––laws which are consistent with God’s very nature––the natural world is designed to provide negative reinforcement; sin breaks God’s intended shalom (a biblical word designating a state of universal flourishing, peace, and delight) and humans experience the resulting disorder and discomfort. A glutton, for example, will experience obesity and its deleterious health consequences. Or, alternatively, a compulsive overworker often will experience the loss of his family. To sin is to live “against the grain” of the universe.
Bennett notes that pornography has proven less satisfying than physical intimacy. It rewires the brain but at the same time does not evoke exactly the same chemical rewards as intimate sexual relations. Pornography-viewing, like sexual intimacy, does cause the release of dopamines (which are related with pleasure). However, unlike sexual intimacy, it does not release endorphins (which are related to a feeling of satisfaction).
Bennett notes, “This lack of satisfaction, combined with the brain’s competitive plasticity, causes the brain to require more and more novel and extreme images to get the same chemical result as before.” In other words, “Tolerance in pornography’s case requires not necessarily greater quantities of pornography but more novel pornographic content.” There is a spiral effect of increasing desire and decreasing return which can lead to accelerated and increasingly harmful patterns of sexual sin.
Another major problem with pornography is its permanent consequences. Bennett writes, “While substances can be metabolized out of the body, pornographic images cannot be metabolized out of the brain because pornographic images are stored in the brain’s memory.” It may be possible to rewire the brain after habitual pornography use and the images may fade somewhat overtime, but there are permanent consequences to pornography that may negatively affect an individual’s relationships permanently.
The scientific evidence presented in Bennett’s article is consonant with biblical teaching on the consequences of sin in general and of sexual sin in particular. Following Cornelius Plantinga’s exposition of the biblical teaching, we note that sin is (a) a perversion: it takes a wonderful thing such as sex and twists it toward an entirely wrong end; (b) a pollution: it defiles a person’s marriage (present or future) by introducing alien intruders into their bed and onto their computer screen; (c) a disintegration: it divides a person’s heart between two masters, and divides their marriage; (d) a parasite: evil isn’t even its own entity. It is a blood-sucking parasite that lives off of the good things God created such as marriage; (e) a masquerade: it presents itself to a person as beautiful, but in reality it is ugly. Sin wears makeup that disguises its hideous nature. It must wear makeup, otherwise a person would never be attracted to its reality; (f) a folly: it is not only wrong but monumentally dumb; (g) an addiction: it is a spiral of death that will eventually siphon from a person’s life everything that is precious and good; and (h) a progression: it will not stop.
For a person caught in the deadly cycle of sexual sin, Scripture urges us to pray that they will come to their senses and allow Christ to break them free from their shackles and the many-faceted horror of their sin. It urges us to speak the truth about sexual sin, pointing out that porn addicts are wasting their lives by constantly driving around the same cul de sac of sexual stupidity, marital passivity, and spiritual rebellion.
For research and guidance on this very important issue, The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention provides resources which are helpful in dealing with the personal, social, and political ramifications of porn proliferation and addiction.