“The Internet was completely funded by porn,” said Greg Fitzsimmons at the twenty-third annual adult entertainment industry awards. He was only half-joking. The pornography industry drove or boosted many of the web’s most useful innovations—live chat, streaming video, online payment systems—as well as the popularity of fast connections. The Internet (in the guise of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) is returning the favor by giving the trade its own top-level domain: .XXX.
Ironically, the move is being opposed by an unlikely alliance of pornographers and religious and family organizations. The former thinks it will ghettoize the business while the latter believes it will legitimize the product. No one thinks the change will limit the distribution of content or make it any less accessible.
Although the practical effect will be negligible, the .XXX domain is a potent symbol and cultural marker for our present condition: Technology now allows the unadventurous to explore temptations once reserved for the bold, and to do so with minimal effort and almost no risk of exposure. Where once the curious had to travel to the seedy sections of the city or meet up with shady sleaze peddler, now they can stay safely in their home and just turn on a television or computer.
It’s a banal observation, but it has a radical implication. We become, and our culture becomes with us, more comfortable with pornography as those who normally would be least likely to seek it out find it easier to get.
Consider the pornographic film. To see one in the 1950s required access to projection equipment and an underground distributor of censored material. In the 1960s and 1970s such films could be watched—at least in larger cities— in the relative comfort of a seedy theater with sticky floors and raincoat-suited patrons. By the 1980s the ubiquity of the VCR made it possible to view illicit erotica in the privacy of one’s home.
Each of these improvements in distribution required the user of pornography to make a public effort to obtain it—whether in finding a venue showing a “stag film,” buying a ticket to an X-rated theater, or renting a tape from a local video store. Each included some possibility of being caught.
The advent of cable television, though, brought “adult videos” directly to the family living room. No human contact, and no risk of discovery, was needed. And watch such productions Americans did.
All the nation’s top cable operators, from Time Warner to Comcast to Cablevision, distribute sexually explicit material to their subscribers, as do satellite providers like EchoStar and DirecTV. In 2004, adult programs accounted for $530 million of nearly $2 billion in pay-per-view orders. Of course, none of the companies will say how much they make off the illicit content today.
The material offered on cable and satellite television, however, pales in comparison to what can be found on the Internet—easily, and by anyone. With only a few clicks of the mouse you can indulge the most perverse visual interests, viewing sexually charged or violently graphic photos that would make Caligula blush and the Marquis de Sade nauseous.
And now, with the advent of web-browsing smartphones, you can access such material any time and in any place. The greatest archive of smut in the history of the world fits snugly in your pocket.
Because technology has made it possible to turn every household into a virtual Gomorrah, it is natural to assume that the solution to the problem is also technological. Since each technological innovation in the medium has brought a greater acceptance of the message, it is also reasonable to assume that the primary way to stem the flow of filth is to find a corresponding technological innovation that replaces our inability to act virtuously.
Because we don’t expect people (ourselves as well as others) to have the moral fortitude to stay on the path of righteousness without help, we attempt to build technological guardrails to prevent us from veering off course. But as Quentin Schultze, a professor of communications at Calvin College, notes,
In the cyber-age, we become so enamored with our technical skill at manipulating information that we can lose track of non-instrumental virtues such as moderation, discernment, and humility. We transform the means of technique into the ends of our ever greater efficiency and control. We also naively believe that for most personal and social needs there must be largely technological solutions, such as Web-filtering software designed to protect children from cyber-pornographers.
Pastor-theologian David Wayne agrees with Schultze, and adds that “Before the rise of the technological society, we were protected against immorality by moral and religious instruction, developing character traits, and habits of mind and heart that enabled us to resist the pull of immorality.” But today, “we assume that the solution to immorality is an online filter or giving away the TV, avoiding movies, etc.”
Filters are useful, he writes, but “in assuming that the answer to immorality is a filter we are offering a technological solution to a moral problem.”
Noting that the apostle Paul planted churches in such moral cesspools as Rome, Corinth and Ephesus, it strikes me that the Christians of the first generation had a faith that was assumed to be able to withstand temptation. In my own experience, it seems that Christians today assume we can’t withstand temptation, that none of us has the moral fortitude to do so.
We certainly need technological filters. Children need walls to protect them from material that may inflame their natural curiosity and warp their characters and desires when they are most vulnerable to such malformation. Filters let parents allow their kids more structured freedom until, having developed a robust moral character, they will avoid such things without aid. Adults tempted by pornography may also need such filters to shore up their own fortitude or reestablish trust with a spouse.
But while such technologies can help us avoid the supply of temptation, they have no effect on our demand for it. A heart prone to lust does not require cable TV or a broadband connection to turn temptation into sin; the human imagination is quite adequate to manufacture the temptation.
Technological means may be enough to solve some purely technological problems. For responding effectively to sins and temptations, however, the only adequate technology is a sanctified nature. Nothing can filter out tempting images but our own revulsion to them and our love for something else, or for someone else—and ultimately for Someone else—we would not want to disappoint.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things.