Few of us can imagine or understand the depravity of Ariel Castro’s heart. Castro is the Cleveland man who recently was arrested for kidnapping, raping, and imprisoning three women for over a decade. He impregnated the women he held captive and beat one of them until she miscarried. Ariel Castro is obviously sick, obviously broken, obviously enslaved by the forces of chaos and evil in a way that few of us have ever witnessed.
Ariel Castro belongs in prison. Last week, he was sentenced to serve more than one thousand years. But despite the depths of his depravity, when Castro stood shackled in a Cleveland courtroom, he confessed a common American problem. “I believe I am addicted to porn,” he said, “to the point where I am impulsive, and I just don’t realize that what I am doing is wrong.”
Pastors everywhere have heard those words before. Probably many times. Pornographic addiction is powerful, destructive, and all too typical. Ariel Castro’s addiction is no excuse for his actions, but it points to a deep and sobering reality: Free, anonymous, and ubiquitous access to pornography is quietly transforming American men and American culture.
The sociological data is difficult to dismiss. Pornography use is a factor in 56 percent of divorce cases and is correlated with sexual assault. Mary Ann Layden of the University of Pennsylvania School of Psychiatry wrote of one study that found that:
All types of pornography (soft core, hard core, violent, and rape) are correlated with using verbal coercion, drugs, and alcohol to sexually coerce women. The likelihood of forcing a woman sexually was correlated with the use of hard core, violent, and rape pornography. The likelihood of raping a woman was correlated with the use of all types of pornography, including soft-core pornography.
It is increasingly unreasonable to argue that pornography use is ever harmless or victimless.
But pornography is a $10 billion industry in the United States. That figure conceals the real problem: Free pornography, supported by ad revenues, has increased exponentially. Experts estimate that nearly 90 percent of pornography accessed online is free. A far better metric than revenue is internet search data. Analysis of Google data suggests that 12 percent of all internet searches are for pornography, and, on mobile devices, 20 percent of searches are for pornographic material.
Pornography destroys families. It destroys the soul. Pornography robs us of the freedom to have subjective relationships—in a mind addicted to pornography, personal subjectivity is replaced by a dehumanizing, objectifying, abusive kind of relationality.
In late July, British prime minister David Cameron announced policies dramatically restricting access to pornography in Great Britain. Unless Britons chose otherwise, pornography will be filtered on all networks by default. Video depicting rape will be illegal. Online video will be subject to the same age regulation as its hardcopy counterpart.
David Cameron’s measures may have irked privacy advocates. But to anyone who wants to deter sexual violence and abuse, the policies are only a starting place. Filtering regulations will deter some pornography seekers, but what is also needed is more active parenting. Parents should question whether mobile devices—essentially small, free, X-rated theaters—should be given to their teenagers. Monitoring, accountability, and parenting are important steps.
But freedom from sin comes through grace. Lust begins with loneliness—with the pervasive detachment which has become a hallmark of modernity. Lust begins with a yearning for love. If we want to combat the social consequences of pornography, we must begin with a commitment to love.
Christians have something unique to offer in the fight against pornography: an understanding of the human person, of the Christian community, and of grace.
St. Benedict of Norcia counseled that monks should sleep in dormitories of twenty to thirty, with young and old interspersed evenly. Benedict was a pragmatist and recognized the accountability such a plan would entail. But he also recognized that temptation is more easily addressed in a community—that the best combatant against the temptations of the flesh is the security of Christian fraternity. Benedict understood that authentic subjectivity undermined, supplanted, and replaced objectification—and that interpersonal subjectivity was a necessary component of the Christian life.
Christian community is also the context in which the virtues of modesty, temperance, and chastity can be proposed and modeled with credibility. To propose an alternative to pornography’s temptation, we must model the freedom of the ordered life. In short, if we want to combat the ubiquity of pornography, families need to be families, and communities must be communities.
Ariel Castro will sit lonely in prison for the rest of his life. He’ll reflect on the addiction that, he says, weighs heavily on his mind. At the same time, lonely young women and men across America will search for pornography—seeking to replace loneliness with the fantasy of human connection. Christians have something far richer to offer: the freedom of fraternity, accountability, and beauty that abides in the Body of Christ.
James D. Conley, STL, serves as the Roman Catholic bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska.