Jessica Harris was 13 years old when her online research for a school project returned a handful of harmless science videos and one website that changed the course of her life: a link to hardcore pornography.
Harris was shocked, but curious.
“It was like watching a train wreck,” she says. “You know it’s bad, but you can’t look away.” The next time she went online, Harris knew how to find the site again, even though what she had seen was vile. “It was a war of emotions,” she says.
Harris lost the war.
For the next few years, Harris tucked into hardcore pornography nearly every day, often for hours at a time. She says it became an escape, a way of coping with life, and that it made her feel wanted.
The high-school student with a 4.0 grade-point average kept up her bookwork—and stayed involved in her local church—despite losing sleep and becoming obsessed with her next opportunity to go online.
“I was making sure that I was the model student and the model Christian girl and the model daughter—whatever I needed to be to keep people from guessing something was wrong.”
Harris longed to stop. She says she’d wake up in the morning and think, “Not today.” But her resolve was short-lived. “My feet walked to it,” she says. “It was like the air I breathed. I had to have it.”
Harris wasn’t alone.
Not all pornography users feel conflicted about their habits, but the numbers of men and women accessing porn online are staggering: In 2016, the largest pornography website in the world reported that users streamed some 4.6 billion hours of porn from its website alone.
Estimates indicate pornography is a nearly $100 billion global industry. An estimated $10 billion to $12 billion comes from the United States.
Statistics vary widely, but a 2016 study by the Barna Group found 51 percent of males ages 13 and over use porn at least once a month. Seventy percent of youth pastors said at least one teen had sought their help because of porn use in the last 12 months. Twenty-one percent of youth pastors admitted they currently struggle with pornography themselves.
But porn use isn’t just a man’s problem, and it’s especially insidious among young women: The Barna study found 33 percent of women ages 13 to 24 seek out porn at least once a month.
That’s a crucial demographic churches sometimes miss. Harris notes that while pastors and church leaders have become more comfortable addressing the problem of pornography among men, they often fail to realize or mention that women struggle as well.
It’s a dynamic that can leave many women feeling isolated and unable to ask for help.
The internet makes pornography available on the small devices most U.S. adults and young people carry in their pockets.
Harris, 32, has found freedom from pornography and now helps others battling it. She says she sometimes tells pastors: “You’re fighting for your men, and that’s great. But you’re being flanked.” Women are languishing too.
As porn users languish, a few slivers of light seep through the cracks of an otherwise dark pit. Some secular groups are starting to acknowledge the destruction pornography wreaks on individuals and families, and four states have declared pornography use a public health crisis.
Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions promised last year to enforce existing obscenity laws, though he hasn’t launched a public effort so far.
Whatever the legal action, churches have an opportunity to help the swelling numbers of adults and young people sinking in a pit of sexual sin. Recovery begins with trusting in Christ and pursuing Christian discipleship as central to battling any sin, says Harris: “It’s not enough to just take away the porn.”
IN The 1970s AND ’80s, some lawmakers and activists still hoped to take away the porn, or at least keep it out of mainstream American life.
In 1973, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling established a three-prong test to determine if certain material qualifies as obscenity—a category not protected by the U.S. Constitution. The test includes: Given community standards, does the material appeal to prurient interest? Does it depict sexual conduct in a patently offensive way? Does it lack artistic value?
Federal law makes it a crime to produce or transport obscene material for sale or distribution, including by means of computers.
That means much of the pornography available online could qualify as illegal. But unless prosecutors target specific purveyors to make a case for proving obscenity, the dissemination of porn goes unchallenged. The exception: if it involves children. Federal statutes outlaw child pornography.
These days, most prosecutors concentrate their efforts against porn deemed harmful—particularly the exploitation of children. The rest largely goes unchecked.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful.
In the 1980s, under President Ronald Reagan, U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese published a report concluding what seems obvious: Porn is degrading, especially to women and children, and it promotes “a desensitized attitude toward the sexual abuse of women.”
Still, Playboy magazine flourished and Hugh Hefner enjoyed fame, even as Meese’s department indicted several dozen defendants on obscenity charges during the late 1980s. By the early 1990s, interest in such prosecutions waned under President Bill Clinton, even as his own sexual sins took center stage.
Meanwhile, a major new development arose in the form of the World Wide Web. It would eventually make pornography available on the small devices most U.S. adults and young people would carry in their pockets.
Attorney General John Ashcroft vowed to enforce obscenity laws, but he had another massive and unexpected challenge to face: the 9/11 attacks. The next attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, established a task force on obscenity in 2005, but during President Barack Obama’s tenure, Attorney General Eric Holder disbanded the task force.
During his confirmation hearings last year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he would vigorously enforce obscenity laws, but it’s unclear how or when he might undertake enforcement efforts beyond dealing with the overwhelming problem of child pornography.
Sessions also faces an awkward dynamic: While President Donald Trump during his campaign signed a pledge primarily focused on combating child pornography, he also once appeared on the cover of Playboy. Trump has publicly described his past sexual exploits, and once treated contestants on his reality show The Apprentice to an evening at Hefner’s infamous Playboy Mansion.
In mid-January The Wall Street Journal reported an attorney for Trump had paid a porn actress $130,000 a month before the 2016 election to keep quiet about a purported sexual encounter with Trump in 2006.
The attorney told the newspaper that Trump strongly denied any sexual encounter took place with the actress known as Stormy Daniels. Representatives for the actress also denied the encounter, although In Touch magazine published a 2011 interview with Daniels in which she apparently described the incident. In January, the actress kicked off a dancing tour at a South Carolina strip club.
That could make fighting obscenity awkward for the GOP administration, but Patrick Trueman of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation thinks Trump won’t stand in the way if Sessions tries to enforce the law more broadly.
Trueman—who worked for Meese during the Reagan administration—says it’s important to underscore the harmful effects of pornography, including the damage it does to marriage and families, and how it fuels activities like sex trafficking.
He says leaving pornography unchecked has led to the desensitization that Meese warned about in the 1980s, and that the abuse women are describing in the #MeToo movement has its roots in “this pornographic culture that says I have permission to exploit you because I’m a male.”
Some feminists agree. Gail Dines, a professor of sociology at Wheelock College, says beyond the questions of morality, scholars have shown porn can increase sexual aggression in males who watch it, and that the material itself promotes violence: In a study of some of the most-watched porn, researchers found 88 percent of the scenes contained physical aggression or violence—almost always toward women.
A secular group called Fight the New Drug includes on its website interviews with former porn actresses who describe violence perpetrated against them by actors and directors, including being slapped, punched, and stomped.
The website also links to studies showing how pornography affects the human brain like a drug, leading frequent users to need more extreme porn to achieve the same outcome.
It’s all a frightening form of sex education for porn users, and it partly explains why more women are watching hardcore pornography: As men watch violent, degrading porn and develop expectations for sexual encounters, some women watch the porn to find out what men expect.
Adam Savage, one of the hosts of the popular science show MythBusters, recently told a radio audience how he explained pornography to his twin sons: “The thing you have to understand, bud, is the internet hates women.”
Savage said he explained the dangers to his sons so they won’t perpetuate the problems: “I want him thinking, when he talks to women, ‘I’m one of the good ones.’”