We all know the worrying statistics: teenagers in your youth group are regularly accessing internet pornography – through curiosity, boredom or addiction. Neuroscientist Dr William Struthers explores why this cultural epidemic is so damaging, and provides a practical resource to open up the issue with young people.
Have you ever looked at the ingredients in a Yorkie bar? It starts off safely enough but quickly gets worse. The list of ingredients are: sugar (the pulverised, dried kind made from sugar cane reeds); dried whole milk (has anyone ever seen an animal excrete powdered milk?); cocoa butter, cocoa mass (so what is left of the cocoa?); vegetable fat (did they perform liposuction on oversized cabbages?); lactose and protein from whey; whey powder; sunflower lecithin emulsifier and butterfat. Finally there is a warning that the Yorkie bar may contain traces of wheat gluten (given the controlled manner in which it was produced, I would assume that they would be a bit more confident about what was in it). With all of these processed ingredients in this Yorkie
bar, why would anyone consume one? The answer is simple: it tastes delicious.
A second question should be asked as well: is the Yorkie bar good for you? The answer, once again is quite clear: no.
This is why we have the phrase ‘junk food’. Not everything that looks good is actually good for us, or delivers what it promises. It is the same with intimacy: a form of intimacy junk food is being sold, marketed and given away to young people. Today, it is packaged even more attractively and efficiently than in previous years; teenagers are being trained and enabled to produce it themselves. It is the production of sexually explicit material, designed to stimulate sexual arousal and desire in another that leads to the exploitation and treatment of human beings as sexual consumables. In a word it can be defined as: pornography.
We all know that pornography is a huge issue. A single article cannot even begin to cover all of the associated justice issues, developmental repercussions, resulting gender imbalances or the longer-term impact of family and societal breakdown. The damage is extensive, but here is a practical way to begin to explore the issue with the teenagers in your care.
Top ten favourite foods
I call this demonstration: ‘Top ten favourite foods’. Divide the young people into several groups of no more than five or six. Then ask them to come up with a list of their group’s top ten favourite sweets in no particular order. Often these lists end up having things such as Skittles, Yorkie bars, Galaxy, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, Mars and Snickers. A spokesperson for each group then stands up and reads their group’s list to everyone. Then ask them to return to their group and come up with their top ten favourite fruits or vegetables. Give them
another five or ten minutes to come up with their list which they share with the others again. This list may include oranges, apples, strawberries, bananas, pears, and pineapple. Then, ask the group which list they found it easier to come up with. Usually, it is easier to get excited about the list of sweets than the fruit and vegetables.
What’s the difference?
Here is where things get interesting. After completing both lists, ask them to list the differences between the sweets and the fruit and vegetables. Below is a short list of some of the differences between the two lists we have come up with:
• Made from ingredients (natural and unnatural)
• Pure sugar (few other nutrients/ingredients)
• Quickly digested
• Stored as fat
• Always ready to be eaten
• Long shelf-life
• Artificial - has no life beyond itself
Fruit and vegetables
• Comes directly from something alive
• Many nutrients (not artificial)
• Filling (takes time to digest)
• Has a season
• Healthy for the body
• Limited, but varied (i.e. not all pears look alike)
• Contains seeds - has potential for life beyond itself
It is in describing the differences between sweets and healthy foods that we can begin to set the stage for a conversation about sex and pornography. Most of us understand that the human need to eat is experienced as hunger. Hunger is a sign that we need to consume foods that will help us stay alive, be active and stay
healthy. But if we eat foods that don’t really satisfy our body’s needs for things like protein, carbohydrates, calcium, and glucose, we will become unhealthy. Consuming junk food does not provide our body with what it really needs. More often than not, it forces the body to digest and process the junk food which is then stored as fat or causes problems in other parts of the body.
The key is in identifying what the need is and feeding it in a healthy way. With food it is easy to identify; we need a healthy diet of a variety of foods such as whole grains, dairy, meat, fruits and vegetables because our body has a variety of needs. Our body does have a need for glucose (sugar), but eating only sugar will inevitably result in you becoming unhealthy, obese and unable to really enjoy life.
The need for intimacy
Our sexuality is often described as a drive, but what is the need that we are driven to meet? What is the need that is connected to sexuality? The sexual drive is part of the larger human need to connect with others. The sexual drive is a social drive that is properly fed by intimacy; knowing and being known in appropriate ways. Unfortunately, intimacy is a word that our culture has hijacked and made synonymous with erotic sensuality and intercourse. It has been redefined to be entirely about the reproductive sexual organs and the sexual act.
As a result, all intimate relationships are evaluated with a watchful eye so that they do not cross inappropriate boundaries. This is a good thing, because there do need to be boundaries in intimate relationships. Without boundaries, we find people seeking out intimacy in unhealthy ways. Just as our bodies need a variety of foods, so our need for intimacy extends to a variety of relationships and there are appropriate boundaries to be drawn for each of these relationships. These relationships include same-sex and opposite sex friends, older same-sex and opposite sex relationships (i.e. parents and caregivers, aunts and uncles, grandparents), and as they grow older - younger people (i.e. children and young people) with whom they can relationally invest in. Of all of the relationships that we can derive intimacy from, the ‘sexual’ one demands the clearest boundaries. These boundaries are laid out in scripture (see passages at the end), and provide God’s direction and guidance in helping us understand how we can flourish and bear God’s image.
Unhealthy appetites do not satisfy
Like the person who eats nothing but junk food filled with sugar, many young people are not really giving themselves what they truly need. They have even lost the ability to enjoy the natural and healthy forms of intimacy. Like a person who eats nothing but chocolate bars and Skittles, a blueberry loses its sweetness and appeal. The sweet tastes delicious but makes you unhealthy, whereas to the un-spoilt taste-buds, the
blueberry is just-sweet-enough; healthy and good.
When the relational need to connect and to be intimate is fed appropriately, it is life-giving. Our need for intimacy plays itself out in our embodied nature which has a form and function, and is inherently relational. Young people need to develop a right understanding of who they are, what they need, and the best way to meet this need. They look for intimacy in pornography and sex, but they usually find emotional brokenness, disappointment, and isolation. They look to have all of their intimacy needs met in a sexual partner, but
this one person will not be able to provide the broad array of relationships that a healthy and mature person needs. It is not the way God designed us.
Just as we did with the sweet and vegetable comparison, we can draw some comparisons between pornography and healthy, God-given intimacy:
• Instant gratification
• Shameful, dishonouring
• Takes time to develop
• Can be shared with the world
• Brings joy not quick relief
In a world of broken families, neglected or bullied youth, and technologically mediated relationships, is it any wonder why so many youth are being isolated and becoming relationally anorexic? Is it any wonder why so many young people - who are lacking healthy connections with others - retreat into the cheap and easy fix
of pornography to short-circuit one of the body’s most intimate response systems? This gift that is designed to bond fathers and mothers together is now bonding single people to images on a screen.
Is it any wonder why this does not satisfy their need to connect? There is no connection with the performers on the screens; even if they are engaged in cybersex chatting or sexting, they really aren’t truly connecting with another person as much as they are sharing image-mediated representations of the relationship. They are trying to meet that need to connect in a way that further isolates them from those they want to connect with. The pornography that they’re consuming is intimacy junk food, with no real benefit to them. As a result, they crave the thing that makes them sick. In a place of intimacy anorexia, they begin to crave pornography which never truly satisfies them. It only makes their connection with others more difficult. They now see others as sex objects and are preoccupied with a genital type of intimacy. They deprive themselves of other platonic relationships which could enable them to live a more healthy life.
Ingredients and warnings
What if videos from the adult film industry came with a list of ingredients? If so, you might see:
Porn ingredients: Casting basedon a narrow range of physical body types; pharmaceutical and surgicalenhancement of performers; postproduction to create a variety of perspectives which are not normally
viewed during sexual intimacy; editing to create unrealistic expectations about the progression and duration of sexually intimate encounters and the removal of consequences (i.e. potential pregnancy, lifelong emotional changes, STIs).
Similar to the warning on packages of cigarettes; pornography should come with a warning of its own. This might read:
Warning: Consumption of this material is commonly associated with an unsatisfying sex life; the objectification of human beings; sexually permissive attitudes and behaviors; emotional dysfunction and impaired relationships with family and friends.
It is time for the Church to begin to raise its voice in response to the sexual exploitation that is rampant in our culture. It is in the gospel message of Christ, that of forgiveness and redemption, the language of communion and healthy relationships within the family of God, and rightly understanding sexuality as part of our created and creative nature through which we can offer hope to the next generation. When we understand what we truly need, we see that God’s way is the only way that truly satisfies.
Relevant Bible passages
1. Genesis 1:27, 2:1. 24 – sex in God’s plan for humanity.
2. Proverbs 7:6-27; Proverbs 5:20-23 – metaphor for pornography.
3. Isaiah 58:6; Proverbs 31:8-9 – societal issues.
4. Matthew 5:8, I Corinthians 6:16-20 – the impact of sexual impurity.
5. John 4:1-42 – woman at the well.
6. Colossians 3:1-17 – what we are to dwell on?
7. I Thessalonians 4:3-5 - God’s will for us.
8. I John 3:1-10 – habits and relationships.
Further suggestions to modify the favorite foods demonstration:
Start the time off with sweets and fruit available before you begin the demonstration and see which the youth choose. Which do they go after first? Ask them why they chose what they did and how this might translate to sexual decisions.
After the two lists are completed, you can have them combine their lists in such a way to rank all 20 items from favourite to least favourite and see what happens. Where do the items fall in the list?
Get a few different types of chocolate bars and point out their similarities: packaging, size, consistency, etc. How is pornography packaged?
Many young people begin to develop pornography consumption habits where they don’t even see porn as part of a ‘dirty movie’ with a plot – they watch short scenes or fragmented clips with no relational context. How might this be like eating sweets?
How has technology allowed teenagers to become amateur confectionary makers or pornographers? Explore how technology can accelerate their sexual development (i.e. sexting) and what might be healthy ways of
responding to this when others do it. Have some fruit that is not quite ripe and show it to them. This notion of ‘ripening’ can illustrate that the fruit is not yet ready. Many young people think they are ‘ready’ for sexual relationships. While their bodies may be ready, their heart and mind are most likely not.
How might having intimacy needs from other relationships (i.e. a safe parent or caregiver, good relationships with siblings, caring relationships with same and opposite sex friends) diminish the appeal of porn?
How might a celibate person be like a ‘sexual vegetarian’? How does a celibate person alter their diet to make sure their need for protein is satisfied? How might sex be like meat in this example?
DR. WILLIAM M. STRUTHERS is associate professor of psychology at Wheaton College, Illinois. He is also the author of Wired for Intimacy.