The Porn Phenomenon

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This month, the Barna Group is releasing a major study on pornography. What researchers found—in the culture at large and in the church—may shock you. President David Kinnaman sat down with Citizen recently to talk about it.

Citizen: You did this study at the commissioning of Josh McDowell Ministries. Can you tell us a little bit more about the purposes behind it?

David Kinnaman: Josh McDowell has spent the vast majority of his life attempting to help pastors, youth workers, educators and parents pass on their faith and values to the next generation. But he believes the increasing access to Internet pornography is negatively affecting young people's receptivity to these biblical values by distorting their views of morality and the Christian faith. Convinced that a major study among pastors, youth pastors and churched youth and adults was necessary in order to understand the contours of the crisis and to awaken the Church to the urgency of these trends, Josh McDowell Ministries commissioned Barna to take on the challenge. The goal was to assess the extent to which pornography has permeated Christian families, the Church and our society at large, and to examine its impact.

C: Researching pornography usage, especially in the church, is historically difficult—but you seemed to find people very forthcoming about it. How is this survey different from research you or others have done in the past?

DK: You're exactly right. It is notoriously difficult to conduct research on porn for a number of reasons, one of the more challenging ones being—as you said—a certain reluctance among participants to be forthcoming about pornography use. There is a very real stigma attached to porn use, particularly in the church, where so many caught in its grips are burdened with shame and an incredible fear of being discovered. So to overcome this, we decided to conduct online surveys that provided the anonymity and confidentiality needed to remove barriers to more honest and candid responses, which would not be possible in a phone poll.

Also, at the beginning of each survey, participants were warned of the sensitive nature of the questions and asked to confirm their interest in continuing. And again at the beginning of the section about pornography use, respondents were asked if they wished to continue due to the sensitive nature of the topic. Only 3 percent of respondents dropped out of the survey at this point.

C: Did any of your findings shock or surprise you?

DK: Yes, and no. The hunch we had was that the problem was pervasive—and we weren't wrong—but the sheer extent of the problem surprised us. A few key findings certainly stand out. For instance, the cavalier attitude toward pornography among the younger generations was deeply disturbing (32 percent say viewing porn is "usually or always wrong" compared to 56 percent who say not recycling is "usually or always wrong"). Usage among women also challenged some of our common assumptions about the gendered use of porn (56 percent of women 25 and under seek out porn). And the age at which young people encounter porn was much earlier than we imagined, with 27 percent of young adults ages 25-30 first viewing pornography before puberty.

We were also surprised at the level of normalization porn has achieved so quickly. We are increasingly more tolerant of violent and demeaning pornography, and this is a sobering finding. For example, only 54 percent of people think sexual acts that may be forced or painful are always wrong.

C: The study surveyed responses from 2,770 people—teens, young adults, adults, pastors and youth pastors. Did all the people in the study self-report being pornography users, or did they run the gamut?

DK: Defining pornography "use" was a difficult task, because asking whether people "view" porn is a vague and insufficient measure, particularly when people come across it unintentionally or receive unsolicited porn. So we created a way to triangulate data related to seeing porn and a person's intention to view porn. But when it came to specifically seeking it out, 35 percent of male adults, and 73 percent of female adults say they never seek it out. When it came to teens and young adults, 19 percent of males and 44 percent of females say they never seek it out.

C: You note at the outset that "teens are sensitive to and affected by porn, especially compared to young adults." Tell us a little more about that. How do the two groups differ, and how can this information help parents of teenage children?

DK: Teens are in very formative years, and they are sensitive to, and affected by porn in more dramatic ways than other age groups. This sensitivity among teens and young adults is seen in how they consider more things to be pornographic than older adults. For instance, 47 percent of teens and young adults believe a fully nude show or dance is porn, compared with only 32 percent of adults. The Economist ran a piece about this last year. Because of the ease of access to pornography today, many teens are likely to encounter a significant amount of pornography before they become sexually active—and before their brains finish developing, so the neurological effects on teenagers are cause for deep concern. Also, some sexual tastes are formed around the time of puberty, so ill-timed exposure to sexually explicit material could cause irreversible effects on expectations and beliefs about sex.

This is why it's important for parents to intervene early, and use those sensitive and impressionable years to challenge the story being told about sex through pornography by providing a counter-narrative to porn. We know parents often are reluctant to discuss sexual topics with their children, so today's teens are often left to their own devices to navigate the complex task of developing beliefs about sexuality. Without that counterpoint, even porn stars like Nina Hartley warn us that teens are going to find information wherever they can get it. Parents must acknowledge and engage with the reality of pornography if they are to give their children the critical tools they need to thrive in the Screen Age, what we often call Digital Babylon.

C: The overall social attitude toward pornography usage seems to be that it's more widely accepted than in the past—with those over 50 saying it's usually bad, older adults and teens a bit undecided over whether it's bad or neutral, and young adults most likely to say it's good. What can we predict for the future based on that finding?

DK: As you've noted, social attitudes have shifted dramatically in just one or two generations, and this is certainly cause for concern. Unfortunately, porn is accessible virtually everywhere, and this reality is unlikely to change anytime soon. As long as pornography continues to enjoy moral ambiguity, widespread acceptance and significant demand, its presence and influence will keep expanding in our culture.

But there is hope. For instance, scholar Mary Eberstadt says porn is the new tobacco. Fifty years ago, cigarette smoking was considered morally neutral, but today, as a general rule, it is considered disgusting and wrong. Porn, on the other hand, used to be considered disgusting and wrong, and now is considered morally neutral. But we do believe the cultural tide will eventually shift, and the dangers and consequences of pornography will re-stigmatize both its consumption and production. But much of this depends on the church's response to the issue.

C: You report that very few of the pornography users in the study report feeling much guilt about it, with the exception of teens, practicing Christians and political conservatives. What's the takeaway lesson there?

DK: And pastors. They feel guilt. But you're right, most people don't feel much sense of guilt when they use porn. There are some educators who point out the very real tension that exists for teens. They receive a great deal of mixed messages from, on the one hand, popular culture that encourages and even rewards the pornographic impulse and glorifies the illicit, and on the other, and particularly among church-going teens, a conservative social context in which their superiors expect moral and ethical purity—particularly when it comes to things like abstinence-only education. So this guilt is very likely a result of the ways in which teens are being pulled in opposing directions and the complex array of expectations set before them.

For practicing Christians (29 percent experience guilt, compared to 12 percent of non-practicing Christians) and political conservatives (25 percent experience guilt, compared to 13 percent of liberals), much of the guilt likely flows from a very real behavior/belief dissonance. Both groups tend to be critical of pornography, and when their own pornography use feels disharmonious with their fierce rhetoric and devoted campaign against porn, the guilt can be crippling. Add the element of shame and condemnation leveled against those practicing Christians in the church struggling with sexual sin, and you have a recipe for extraordinary guilt. But it's important to note that although these groups reported the highest levels of guilt, the numbers still represent a minority.

C: The two things I found most surprising were that teens and young adults find "not recycling" to be more immoral than viewing pornography, and that only child pornography and depictions of rape are considered "always wrong" by most Americans. How have we arrived at this place of general acceptance of depictions of teens having sex, demeaning situations, homosexual and group sex, which are less likely to be considered "always wrong"?

DK: We also were shocked at the sheer normalization and widespread acceptance of pornography. As you mentioned, teens and young adults rank not recycling (56 percent) as more immoral than viewing porn (32 percent). We also found that only 79 percent of people believe sexual acts that may be forced or painful are wrong. It comes as no surprise then, that this coincides with a high level of desensitization that feeds the desire to seek out more hardcore or fetishistic porn. American popular culture has also become increasingly sexualized and pornified, where nude images and sexual situations are encountered on a daily basis. This has led pornographers to up the ante and produce more extreme content. In her book, Pornland, Gail Dines introduces us to an entire genre called "gonzo" which is an amateur, hardcore style of pornography in which violence and degradation are commonplace.

Robert Jensen, a popular critic of porn, articulates our problem very well. He says it is a "moral paradox" that you have a civilized society in which porn moves closer to the mainstream at the same time that it becomes more overtly cruel, degrading and racist. This broader question of why we've become more tolerant and accepting of the kinds of explicit content we consume is an infinitely complex question to answer, but the level of anonymity that Internet pornography provides its users makes it easier to live a seemingly normal life while exploring a darker side of sexual desire.

It's also important to note that depictions of teens under the age of 18 having sex would, under law, be considered child porn.

C: What are we to make of the fact that more females and women are now seeking out porn than in the past? Especially younger women and teens?

DK: We did find that more than half of women 25 and under seek out porn (56 percent versus 27 percent among women over 25) and one-third seek it out at least monthly (33 percent versus just 12 percent, respectively). But, it's important to note that we don't actually make the claim that women are seeking it out more so than in the past. There is certainly an increase in the use of porn across the board with the adoption of mobile technology and the proliferation of Internet pornography, but it's hard to say that women are, as a proportion of the population, seeking out more porn. We don't yet have that comparison data. What's more likely is that these findings actually serve to challenge commonplace assumptions about the gendered use of porn.

In The Porn Phenomenon, we talk with Audrey Assad about porn use among women. She believes that because of gender stereotypes that cast women as pure and modest, particularly in the church, women do not feel free to confess or speak publicly about lust, sexual addictions, pornography or masturbation. This in turn perpetuates silence and reinforces the erroneous idea that women do not struggle with things like pornography use, and that it is exclusively a male problem. But we're now seeing that women are speaking up more than they used to about their porn use.

C: You found that 57 percent of pastors and 64 percent of youth pastors admit to struggling with pornography usage at some point—and 14 percent and 21 percent, respectively, were using it at the time of the survey. That's a lot of porn usage among spiritual leaders.

DK: Yes, it is, unfortunately. This just goes to show the extent to which the porn industry has pried its way into our lives. Few are immune to its ubiquity and allure, including pastors—who are human like the rest of us. But as we wage a war against porn, we also have to create communities of grace for those struggling with it. This means dispensing discipline for porn use that is proportionate and consistent with that of other sins. It means abandoning the shaming and condemnation reserved for those who struggle with porn. Sexual sin does not disqualify any pastor, lay leader, friend, husband, wife, brother or sister from the grace and forgiveness of God. Shame does little but drive sin into hiding, where it festers and grows in isolation from community and accountability. The Lord calls us to walk in the light, to confess our sins to fellow believers—but to do that we must create communities absent of shame and judgment, where our brothers and sisters can confess and repent of their sin and be met with love, acceptance and help.

C: You found that youth pastors are twice as likely as senior pastors who struggle with porn to report that it's negatively affected their ministry. Might this be due to the fact that most porn depicts very young and teenage women—the same age as those the youth pastor spends most of his time with?

DK: Yes, we found that 44 percent of youth pastors claimed it was "very true," compared with 18 percent of senior pastors, that their own porn use negatively affected their ministry. But when we add the "somewhat true" answer, which is 31 percent for youth pastors and 46 percent for senior pastors, the numbers even out a little, with a total of 75 percent for youth pastors, and 64 percent for senior pastors.

When it comes to whether this has something to do with how porn depicts very young and teenage women—the same age as those the youth pastor spends most of his time with—that's really hard to say without conducting a more in-depth analysis. Youth pastors are usually younger than senior pastors, so they've come of age in a very different world than that of their predecessors. It's likely that they encountered porn earlier, and were socialized into a more sexualized and pornified world where porn was more accepted, particularly among their peers. That's also a hypothesis, since we didn't examine this specifically, but it makes sense.

C: What are we to make of the fact that most of the people who go to pastors for help with their porn addictions are married men?

DK: As you noted, 59 percent of pastors report that married men seek their help for porn use, compared to only 36 percent who report that single men seek their help. It's important to note that this does not necessarily mean married men are using porn more than single men. It simply means they are seeking help from pastors more than other groups. This is very likely a result of married men feeling a greater sense of responsibility to solve their porn issue, particularly when there is a spouse, or even children in the picture.

But again, we must acknowledge the pervasiveness of the problem, and recognize that as long as porn exists, people will struggle to resist it—be they married, single, male or female. Being involved in a Christian community where it's safe to be struggling is essential. Churches and communities of faith must help those achieve success in this struggle by providing strong leadership, and opportunities for accountability where friends wrestle and pray over this together.

One of the arguments of my new book Good Faith is this: Biblical, grace-filled Christian community is the one place in which refugees of the sexual revolution can be restored. This includes every kind of expression of sexual brokenness, including porn. And the implication is that we need to foster communities of grace and truth where this vision can be realized.

C: You found that despite the fact that everyone seems to agree pornography usage and addiction is a bigger problem in the church now than it was 20 years ago—and society says it's less taboo than it used to be—93 percent of pastors report having no programs in the church to help those who struggle. Why do you think that is?

DK: It's hard to say, but many certainly feel ill equipped to deal with the ubiquity of porn and its use. There is also a certain reluctance to deal with issues like sex and pornography, and this is true for parents, educators and pastors alike. And when you look at the statistics, it's hard to feel like we are making many inroads. Just as we failed to reorient the moral shifts of the sexual revolution, the Christian community has thus far been unable to slow the swift change of moral sensibility regarding pornography. So that can be very discouraging. But this is part of the impetus for this study. The hope is that The Porn Phenomenon will illuminate the need to create better ways of talking about the problem. The church is beginning to take positive steps. Individuals and groups are creating resources that offer help and healing. For example, a group called Covenant Eyes (covenanteyes.com) promotes Internet accountability and filtering services for individuals, families and churches.

C: If you were to re-do this survey in, say, five years, what changes would you hope to find?

DK: Well, we would certainly hope to see the major indicators drop significantly, like the number of people seeking out porn, the percentage of people coming across it, the proportion of people believing it's good for society, etc. We'd also really like to see pastors feel better equipped to deal with the issue, and lower rates of personal porn use among those who have been tasked to lead us. We'd also like to find more people feeling they have someone to talk to about their porn use. And Christian communities have to be more functional hospitals for those "refugees of the sexual age." Again, much of this depends on the church's broader response to the study, but we're very hopeful.

C: Utah legislators are currently considering a bill to limit people's access to online porn, saying it's created a state of emergency due to its effect on children, marital satisfaction and infidelity rates statewide. What are your thoughts on this as a deterrent?

DK: Censorship is important, particularly when it comes to protecting children and young people from porn, but it must always be in conjunction with a healthy and open discourse about porn and sex. Utah is an interesting example because at least one study found that it has the highest reported porn use per capita in America. This was surprising given the high Mormon population. But this is an example of what happens when conservative religious rhetoric emphasizes the dangers of sexual behavior and promotes chastity without a counter-narrative for healthy sexuality, which leads to shame, confusion, mystery, guilt, and as in the case of adolescents, unrealistic expectations about sex and sexuality. And as we're seeing, does little to curb the use of porn.

Sex is a God-created aspect of human life—it's not a dirty word. Rather than treating it as such, we must celebrate and promote God's good intentions for sex. As Jordan Monge said in Christianity Today, "It's human nature to want to be wanted. It's normal for that desire to manifest in a desire for sex. The problem is that there is no good moral outlet for these natural desires before marriage, and our sex-laden society has done a wonderful job of causing most folks, men and women, to stir up and awaken love before it pleases." Censorship can be a Band-Aid, especially if not coupled with good sex education that describes God's intention for sex. Otherwise, we allow healthy sexual desire to become distorted in the dark recesses of isolation and mystery.

For More Information:

Learn more about The Barna Group.

Focus on the Family has a new resource on digital pornography addiction.

Originally published in the April, 2016 issue of Citizen magazine.

© April 2016 Focus on the Family.