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As more businesses are opening up this month, Christians, sadly, need to pay attention to one industry that never closed and may even have expanded this year. The Economist last month headlined one story, “Pornography is booming during the covid-19 lockdowns.”
Even before this latest surge, Wheaton College senior Peter Biles observed in Plough Quarterly: “While it’s often not talked about openly, particularly at a religious campus such as Wheaton, porn addiction is poisoning relationships across the board. … In my own life and in the lives of some of the people dearest to me, I’ve seen the pain and distortion it can cause. … Addictions and coping mechanisms, engaged in to evoke the illusion of security and intimacy, increase the isolation.” How bad is it? The title of Samuel Perry’s Addicted to Lust: Pornography in the Lives of Conservative Protestants (Oxford, 2019) tells the 21st-century story: Porn now beckons Christians and non-Christians.
An evangelical’s fall into temptation, Perry says, “can lead to guilt and shame that makes you feel crappy about yourself, that you are immoral, that you’re violating something that’s deeply held and sacred.” That’s not all bad—a sense of sin can push us toward Christ—but some evangelicals react the other way. Perry writes, “After looking at pornography for a long enough time, they started to back away from their faith … less likely to pray, less likely to attend church, less likely to feel like God is playing an important part in their lives.”
Evangelical porn users in their 20s are less likely to go to church, and maybe also less likely to marry and have children. But the knee bone connects to the thigh bone. The unmarried are more often the unchurched, who more often are the unsaved. Satan smiles.
Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Harvard, 2013) shows how slavery was “absolutely fundamental to the social and moral order of Roman life,” and “the flesh trade was a major institution.” Almost all women in ancient Rome were either slaves or treated like slaves, required to engage in any sexual action their masters or husbands demanded, whenever they demanded it. This was all public knowledge.
Christianity transformed the Roman Empire: Wives were to obey their husbands and slaves their masters, yes, but husbands were to love their wives and slaves became beloved brothers in the Lord. Some historians try to scoff and sneer, but From Shame to Sin shows how the change was real: “Few periods of premodern history have witnessed such brisk and consequential ideological change. Sex was at the center of it all.”
But modern history witnessed ideological backsliding, as many Southern Christians defended slavery—and “the peculiar institution” had not only economic but sexual ramifications. Some masters turned slaves into personal prostitutes. Permanent ownership of sex slaves ended in 1865, and Southerners then joined Northerners in short-term rental of slaves known as prostitutes or longer rental of slaves known as mistresses.
Matt Fradd’s The Porn Myth (Ignatius, 2017) undercuts all the usual porn apologetics or minimizations. To be anti-porn is not to be anti-sex, since porn often becomes a substitute for real sex. Porn is addictive, it does not reduce rape and sexual violence, and it’s more than fantasy: It changes lives.
As C.S. Lewis might say, it’s sad to see people playing in a mud puddle instead of going on holiday to the seashore. Now it’s easy to wallow in mud, and even pretend that it doesn’t leave us dirty. But brain studies on porn users show the effects. Among the most injured are the latter-day slaves known as porn performers. After a half-century of women’s liberation, most are women.
But hope remains, as Elisabeth Elliot reminded us in lectures that make up Suffering Is Never for Nothing (B&H, 2019). This short book offers bracing wisdom from someone who experienced much suffering. Elliot noted with understated prose, “There have been some hard things in my life, [but] if I thank God for this very thing which is killing me, I can begin dimly and faintly to see it as a gift.”