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Grey Matter: 50 Shades, pornography and the shaping of our brains

Fifty Shades of Grey hits UK cinemas this Valentine’s day. Six years on from writing a major feature on porn and the UK Church for Premier Christianity, Martin Saunders explores the growing impact of sexually explicit content on modern culture.

Porn, and the way it is shaping our individual and collective cultural mindset, has moved on dramatically since I last wrote on the subject for this title six years ago. Sexually explicit material is no longer on the fringes of our culture; it’s in the mainstream.  

Yet while the ‘dirty secret’ about porn is well and truly out, Christians still haven’t made much of a dent in the problem. In fact, porn use is rife among Christians and Christian leaders. In putting this article together I conducted a simple online survey of British Christians (see the box for more details) and, even knowing what we do about the prolificacy of porn, the results make for surprising reading.  

The survey suggests that more than half of Christian men and around a fifth of Christian women in the UK are using porn on a regular or semi-regular basis. Pornography isn’t just something unpleasant going on in the world; it’s right at the heart of our churches.  

Why, when the Church has apparently woken up to its porn problem, is its use even more prolific than we perhaps imagined? What has enabled this? Is it time to respond in ways other than the existing, and seemingly flawed ones? To answer these questions, let’s take a step back and look at how society’s relationship with adult material has shifted in recent years.

THE LINES BETWEEN PORNOGRAPHIC AND MAINSTREAM CULTURE HAVE BECOME INCREASINGLY BLURRY

BLURRED LINES  

The lines between pornographic and mainstream culture have become increasingly blurry; a slow creep in a more ‘liberated’ direction seems to have reached a tipping point. When poorly written publishing phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey (Random House) made the transition from Kindle to paperback in 2012, pre-existing shame barriers simply disappeared. People were happy to discuss how much they enjoyed the sexually explicit book. They were proud to sit and read a copy on the train. Without any announcement, the boundaries of acceptability had shifted. I recently noticed a dad reading a copy as he sat poolside at our children’s swimming lesson.  

Of course, erotic literature, just like risqué art house cinema, is nothing new. What is interesting is how this material is now viewed: not as something to be kept hidden, or at least to be enjoyed in private, but as culturally mainstream as The X Factor and James Bond. Just before Christmas, British porn star Brooklyn Blue even released an innuendo-based festive single, which received plenty of lighthearted media coverage, if not critical acclaim. Porn is no longer viewed as a dirty, secret habit. It is considered a bit of fun as long as it’s kept out of the hands of children.  

REWIRED BY PORN  

Needless to say, it isn’t kept out of their hands. Statistics – and the experience of youth workers – suggests that children and young people are accessing pornography from an early age and then consistently through their teenage years. An ICM/BBC3 survey conducted last April revealed that one in four young people had viewed online porn by the age of 12, with around 7% saying they were under ten when they were first exposed to it.  

Baroness Kidron’s 2013 documentary film InRealLife, in which she interviews several teenage porn users, offers a chilling insight into the entrenched depth of their engagement with porn and what it’s doing to their views of relationships, women and the world. The film suggests that their brains are actually being rewired through pornography use.  

The Fifty Shades of Grey film is based on the bestselling erotic novel by EL James

As a result, the boys in the film echo the claims of youth specialists, who say that pornographic behaviours are being normalised in the way many teenagers now conduct their relationships. Jason Royce, director of Christian youth project Romance Academy, says the sexual expectations among young men and women are often defined by what they see on screen.  

‘Lads see what happens in porn and expect to be able to act out those things with girls,’ he says. ‘Girls often believe that this is also how they should behave, even though these behaviours are often deeply misogynistic and even dehumanising for them.’  

Adult material consumption is on the rise in popular culture, seemingly for every age group. And a new market for its consumption is being ‘groomed’ before our eyes.  

BRAINS ARE BEING REWIRED THROUGH PORNOGRAPHY USE

MORE RESTRICTION, MORE PROTEST  

The pornographers aren’t having it all their own way, however. New government legislation proposed within its Audiovisual Media Services regulation (2014) has outlawed the filming and distribution of various ‘hard-core’ sexual practices, most notably those involving physical restraint. In December, the British porn industry led a suitably crass demonstration outside Parliament to protest against the new rules, which have become law.  

Meanwhile, lobby groups on the other side of the argument are firmly pushing for more. Christian group Safer Media, working with Premier and others, has successfully campaigned for more responsible Internet filtering from Internet service providers (although this doesn’t apply to most mobile media, the platform through which the majority of pornography is accessed), while Christian Tory MP Claire Perry has led the charge within Parliament to address underage exposure to adult material.  

Pornography is a difficult issue for the politically nuanced to get right. On the one hand, its regulation could be deemed to limit freedoms and can smack of Daily Mail-style moral panic. On the other, an increasing body of evidence suggests that porn is having a dangerous and as yet unquantified effect on the brains of those who use it.  

THE IMPACT: DULLING AND EROSION  

If that last claim sounds wild, let me introduce Dr William Struthers, a neuroscientist-slash-theologian specialising in the scientific impact of adult material on the human brain, and a professor at Wheaton College, Chicago.  

His book, Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain (IVP) was one of the first academically backed works to suggest that pornography could have a damaging effect on consumers. I asked him to explain in simple terms (not always easy for a scientist) what that actually looks like.  

He says: ‘Repeated exposure to sexualised material, and not just graphic porn, will change our standards of what is acceptable sexually and morally. This is known as the “exposure effect” in psychology.  

‘[As a result]…the generation that has been raised on porn is becoming less able to enjoy sexual intimacy, connectedness and the empowerment that comes in healthy sexual relationships, especially in the context of marriage.’  

Struthers believes our brains are being dulled by pornography, and that our relational abilities are being damaged and eroded as a result. So porn is potentially doing us neurological damage. Even if you want to lay to one side the very valid concerns about the porn industry’s links with human trafficking, or the connections between hard-core pornography use and sexual violence, there’s a strong argument that this is, in fact, a public health issue.  

A SHIFT IN CHRISTIAN ENGAGEMENT  

Not only does the Church need to get its own house in order, it also needs to find ways to speak with grace and compassion about porn, sex and relationships. Sexual violence isn’t compatible with the kingdom of God, and media-induced neurological damage probably doesn’t have a place in it either. I’d like to suggest a few steps we could meaningfully take in the right direction:  

1) Recognise the nature of the issue  

Firstly, a reality check – if one is still needed – for anyone who thinks the Church doesn’t have an issue with porn. My December 2014 survey (something of a straw poll, but sufficiently quantitative to hold some weight) suggested that around 55% of Christian men view Internet porn more than once a month, with a further 20% admitting that they succumb to temptation every so often. That’s 75% of Christian men engaging with pornography on, let’s say, a monthly basis. Among women the figure was much, much lower. Just 15% said they viewed porn online more than once a month, with a further 20% visiting porn sites occasionally.  

However, within those stats there are some interesting details. Only 5% of men said they looked at Internet porn on a daily basis, but a disproportionate 42% said they would describe their behaviour as ‘compulsive or an addiction’. If these men are truly suffering from an addiction, shouldn’t these two percentages be closer together? Is it possible that Christian men who have heard warnings from the Church about porn addiction and feel ashamed of their own occasional use mistakenly believe they are suffering from an addiction they can’t control? By calling them addicts, we have given them a mental excuse to concede defeat. Is that right in the majority of cases? Or can we actually call them higher, to train themselves to steer clear of porn? Of course, there are true addicts, but correctly labelling the issue for the majority could be a simple but key step in changing those statistics. 

WHAT THE RESPONDENTS SAID  

I would rather get help for being a crack addict than a porn addict. It seems to have a worse stigma and feels worse.

I am married so this isn’t just an issue for those that are single.

Before my conversion I watched a large amount of pornography, and believe that and promiscuity have damaged me and my views of healthy sexual relationships.

Churches just need to talk about this more often, and straight up ask men individually: “Do you look at porn?” You’ll get much better results in winning the war on porn with that.

It’s killing me.

2) Rethink accountability  

My 2009 research highlighted that, after prayer, the main strategy for tackling porn was ‘accountability’, either in the form of face-to-face meetings or via computer software, which monitored Internet use and sent reports of any indiscreet online behaviour to a trusted friend. Struthers thinks this approach is deeply flawed. In many cases, he says, accountability groups ‘become an exercise in either shaming or “sin reminiscing”’.

He says: ‘As a result of the extended period of time that can elapse between meetings, and the nature of confessing something that is embarrassing, these kinds of groups often dissolve because of a lack of efficacy. In contrast, some groups easily fall into a permissive, locker room atmosphere. It becomes more about telling stories about how the week went [reminiscing] and an attitude that lacks the calling to a higher standard.’  

Struthers is not entirely cynical about their worth, but he says that ‘accountability groups that are lazily structured and have no purpose other than confession without instruction are useless’. So, if the approach is accountability it needs to be oriented around building groups of men and women with integrity, not a continual focus on a uniting ‘sin’.  

Alongside this, and bearing in mind that we may be mislabelling casual porn use as ‘addiction’, it is perhaps time to re-embrace the most countercultural gift: self-discipline. This might seem a deeply unremarkable idea, but it’s a firmly biblical one; the fruit of the Spirit that is best suited to helping us conquer temptation (Galatians 5:23). A commitment to prayer and personal discipline is the strongest weapon available to anyone wanting to fight the temptation to use pornography.  

3) Interrupt the porn conversation

Even if we want to flee from the evils of porn, we have a problem. We’re called to be part of a world that is saturated with sexualised materials, and to meet and love the people who live in it. It’s not our job to judge people who think pornography is healthy, but there are ways that a compassionate Christian voice can and should be expressed to the contrary.  

The Church has already been heavily involved in campaigning to ensure children and young people have a better chance at avoiding repeated pornography exposure. We can also play a key role in modelling healthy relationships that don’t use pornography as a guidebook. There is also a part for the Church to play in reaching out to the UK’s adult industries, just as XXXchurch does in the US.  

Encouragingly, Struthers believes the future isn’t quite as dark as we might imagine. ‘I see the culture waking up to the reality that pornography has saturated it with a litany of broken promises,’ he declares. ‘The false presentation of ecstasy, intimacy and power presented in porn are finally being seen as hollow.’  

He might be right, but at this moment porn is everywhere. This month, the release of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie is another leap forward for pornography in the mainstream. Could the Church respond with self-awareness, intelligence and compassion?

To read Martin’s February 2009 Premier Christianity feature on porn, entitled ‘Gagged and Bound’, click here 

The UK Church and pornography: a survey

As part of the research for this article, I compiled a simple anonymous survey. It asked respondents to identify as being UK-based and to clarify whether they defined themselves as practising Christians. It is not a statistically perfect piece of research, but with more than 500 responses collated it is surely indicative. Here are just some of the results:

30% Church leaders who access porn on the Internet more than once a month

42% Christian men who say they have a ‘porn addiction’

90% Christians who believe the Church does not adequately support those who struggle with pornography use

75% Christian men who view pornography on a monthly or less regular basis

10% Christian men who say they have paid for sex

 



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