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The Pornification of American Culture

Looking more closely at the pornification of our culture will help answer a critical question: Who will be the “salt” and “light” of biblical guidance to a culture gone wild?

By Ed Stetzer

The world seemed shocked by the Tiger Woods’ scandal. The media feasted on the stories, rumors, and drama that surrounded Tiger’s life of undisputed infidelity. But who created Tiger Woods? A dysfunctional childhood to American hero worship and things in between contributed to Tiger being Tiger. But one thing is for sure — Tiger’s story is only a symptom of our sex-obsessed, pornified culture.

Pornification Realities

The term pornification is not original with me. New York Times columnist, author, and speaker, Pamela Paul, coined the term. Her 2005 book, Pornified: How Pornography Is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families, caused a stir. Paul observed, “It is easier to get pornography than to avoid it. We have protected the rights of those who wish to live in a pornified culture while altogether ignoring the interests of those who do not.”1 She raised awareness of this cultural current and the corresponding devastation.

William Todd Schultz blogged on the subject for Psychology Today. His article, “The ‘Pornification’ of Human Consciousness,” suggests that the effect of continual exposure to pornography can lead to a wide range of abnormalities. Schultz said: “Porn is … the new universally shared experience. The nation has been ‘pornified.’ It’s everywhere. It’s open 24/7. And chances are good, judging from research into Internet habits, that before or after reading this post, a high percentage of you will visit a porn site. … The point is if you did, you are hardly alone.”2

“Not That There Is Anything Wrong With That”

The issues of human sexuality are impacting evangelical churches. Churches must recognize and address the changing sexual mores of the world. Sex and sexuality outside of marriage have been around for millennia, but the current is moving to new places.

The line, “Not that there is anything wrong with that,” from a 1993 Seinfeld episode, is an example of a new era in our culture. The main character, Jerry, and his friend, George, were trying to not be seen as gay but neither did they want to come across as homophobic. They repeated the line throughout the episode in an effort to make the distinction.

American culture expects and demands acceptance of people’s diverse sexual decisions. We live under pressure to “be conformed” to the world versus “being transformed” (Romans 12:2).

For the book, Lost and Found, we surveyed unchurched young adults to ask "If you were considering visiting or joining a church would knowing that the church did not welcome or affirm homosexual members positively or negatively impact your decision?"

Eighty-three percent of the "always unchurched" young adults ages 20-30 responded "negatively." Even among the most friendly unchurched (often church drop-outs) who were still somewhat open to the church, fifty-two percent said believing a church is not open to homosexuals would negatively impact their decision to attend. Alternative expressions of sexuality are not just normal, they are expected and to be affirmed.

Some porn stars are more than mainstream. They are business people who call the shots on their filming, books, DVDs, and websites. A recent onstage lip-lock between Scarlett Johansson and Sandra Bullock made MTV’s “The Best Girl-on-Girl List.” (Yes, that’s a category.) Pop stars like Lady Gaga (Poker Face, 2008) and Katie Perry (I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It, 2008) blur the line between porn star and pop star. Their songs address issues like oral sex, bisexuality, and lesbianism.

Well-known secular record producer, Mike Stock, says he believes children are being “sexualized” by popular culture: “The music industry has gone too far. It’s not about me being old-fashioned. It’s about keeping values that are important in the modern world. These days you can’t watch modern stars — like Britney Spears or Lady Gaga — with a 2-year-old. Ninety-nine percent of the charts are R ‘n’ B, and 99 percent of that is soft pornography. Kids are being forced to grow up too young.”3

Lawyer and author John W. Whitehead recently observed: “Children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend approximately 30–120 minutes a day watching music videos — 75 percent of which contain sexually suggestive materials; and, with the advent of portable technology, children’s television and music are often unmonitored by parents or guardians. Not only does this accelerate adolescent sexual behavior (girls between the ages of 12–14 are two times more likely to engage in sexual activity after being exposed to sexual imagery), but it increases the likelihood of more sexual partners.”4

Looking more closely at the pornification of our culture will help answer a critical question: What does the world of the people we are trying to reach look like? Most of the Christian community appears overwhelmed or volitionally disengaged that what existed before in secret is now shouted from the rooftops concerning sex.

Because we are overwhelmed about how to address the pornification of our culture — we do nothing. Choosing to disengage, we give a culture — and our own children — the go-ahead to live by the world’s standards. God has given the church all it needs to address sexuality from a biblical perspective. The Scriptures clearly teach God’s plan for sex. Yet we stumble awkwardly past the issues. If the church refuses to address the issues, not only do we become irrelevant, we leave the conversation open to others who feel freer to do so.

Who will be the “salt” and “light” of biblical guidance to a culture gone wild? The church must provide a clear and robust biblical ethic of sexuality. Although it may be uncomfortable for Christians and churches to discuss, these are issues on the hearts of young Americans. Addressing marriage, pornography, and homosexuality in biblical ways will enable a church to engage with its community and thrive in many ways. We must resist the temptation to acquiesce to the culture through silence. The church should hold up the “new alternative lifestyle” (men married to women for life in a sexually pure covenant relationship) and live it out.

Just the Facts

Today we are faced with free, 24/7, private access to sexual images not fit to describe. The Boston Globe online notes: “Not too long ago, pornography was a furtive profession, its products created and consumed in the shadows. But it has steadily elbowed its way into the limelight, with an impact that can be measured not just by the Internet-fed ubiquity of pornography itself but by the way aspects of the porn sensibility now inform movies, music videos, fashion, magazines, and celebrity culture.”5

Of people who use the Internet, 43 percent visit pornographic websites. Some 40 million Americans regularly visit porn sites, with pornographic downloads representing 35 percent of all Internet downloads. Of the 40 million regular visitors, 33 percent are woman, while 70 percent of men ages 18–24 visit porn sites monthly.6 Sex and porn are among the top five most frequently searched terms for children under 18. Only 3 percent of adult websites require verification of age before viewing, and some of those merely say, “Are you over 18? Click here if yes.”7

Phone porn and “sexting” did not create the pornification phenomena, but they do enhance the problem. In a 2009 Harris Survey, 19 percent of teens surveyed have engaged in sexting. Sexting is defined as “sending, receiving, or forwarding sexually suggestive nude photos through text message or e-mail.” Boyfriends and girlfriends received 60 percent of these messages that are sent by mostly teens under the age of 18. Just as troubling is the fact 11 percent of these sexting teens sent pornographic messages to strangers.8

The use and history of the word pornography goes back to the 1850s. The literal meaning of the word comes from the Greek porne or “prostitute” and graphein or “to write.” So the elements of sex, print, and commerce come together to produce a highly addicting and destructive cultural force.

Wendy Erin Foster’s thesis at Texas Tech University observes how the pornification of America has affected schools, producing what she terms “raunch attitudes.” She quotes an interview with Anne, a teen from Head-Royce private high school in Oakland, California, who says about sex: “It’s an ego thing. We talk about it like at lunch on the patio; people think it’s cool. It’s competitive: who can hook up with the most guys and who can have sex … like my friend is having her 18th birthday party and she wants to have strippers there.”9

For years U.S. culture has debated what is deemed “pornographic,” reaching the U.S. Supreme Court on multiple occasions. One case, Jacobellis vs. Ohio (1964), led to an often repeated statement by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. He took the position that a French movie shown in Ohio was not pornographic. He refused to clarify what he considered hardcore pornography and added: “But I know it when I see it and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”10

Although accurate statistics on the sale of pornography are difficult to attain, researchers estimate porn is a $100-billion-a-year business worldwide. In the U.S. alone, people will spend $13.6 billion on porn this year. Technology has created a porn revolution. People of all ages have anonymous access to all types of porn, including 24.6 million pornographic websites, 12 percent of the entire Internet total. Around 25 percent of all Internet searches are porn related (68 million each day), and 35 percent of all downloads are pornographic.11 Each second in the U.S., people spend $3,075 on porn. In that same second, 28,000 Internet viewers are looking at porn. Every 39 minutes an adult sex video is being produced.12 The adult video industry will have 800 million rentals this year. People in the United States are the fourth largest porn purchasers in the world behind China, South Korea, and Japan.13

More than 30 percent of other Internet users have experienced unwanted exposure to pornography through pop-up ads, misdirected links, or e-mails — some of the 2.5 billion pornographic e-mails sent daily. On the extreme end of pornography consumers are those among the 116,000 who search each day for child pornography.14

Jesus and Sexual Deviants

When we watch Jesus in the Gospels, we can ask: What did Jesus do?

Jesus actively engaged the people of His culture, even those considered sexually immoral. Some sexual deviants from the Bible were associated with Jesus: a sinful woman (Luke 7:36–50); the woman at the well (John 4:13–26); and the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3–11).

Our mission must reflect the same as Jesus’ — seeking and saving the lost. People must know us as those who love people toward God and not those who hate people toward the world.

The purpose of Jesus’ life was to release people from the power and penalty of sin. When considering the pornification of the American culture, one can easily become angry with those on the front edge of creating this phenomenon. The Hugh Hefners, movie directors, photographers, investors, and actors all deserve a little angst. Right? Yet, are they completely to blame? The issue we then face is, “Who will love them if Christians decide to hate them?” Instead, we should surprise the people with whom we are angry with the love of Jesus.

Often the best the church offers porn addicts is the command to turn off their computer and modify their behavior. Who will love the porn addict in our pew? Who will disciple them into true spiritual victory? Will churches be willing to put in the long, difficult hours that are sometimes necessary to see deliverance?

The struggle is so much deeper than most churches know or admit. We could rid the world of pornography yet never rid the world of sexual deviance. Pornography will return in some other form. Mankind will figure out another way to act out its spiritual condition. We always do.

Gene McConnell (powertochange.com) tours college campuses communicating the dangers of pornography. McConnell is a recovering porn addict who saw porn for the first time at age 12. The cost of his addiction was great, including his marriage and ministry. In an interview in Charisma magazine, he weighed in on inadequate solutions. “I believe pornography exists because we have a need for it. The reason porn exists is that we live empty lives. The issue is intimacy, our greatest need. Take that as into-me-see — you see my life and see who I am, and you love me. That’s the greatest need, male and female. But it’s also the greatest fear — that if you know the real me, if you see my weaknesses, then you would abandon me.”15

Jesus valued the lost over the social needs of the found. The truth that Jesus was attractive to socially marginalized unbelievers is often overlooked. People are looking for hope. They found it in the person of Jesus but are not finding it in the people of the church. In Luke, we read, “Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him” (Luke 15:1). Notice they were drawn to Him. They could not have possibly believed Jesus hated them. There was something about Him that was attractive. The attractiveness of Jesus needs to be evident in the life of the church in how we live and in what we teach. In regard to human sexuality, our teaching needs to be more attractive and inspiring than anything the world has seen, heard, or put on a DVD.

Jesus offered hope from sexual and spiritual bondage. He came to free people from the power and presence of sin.

Causes or Symptoms?

We debate about causes versus symptoms on the topic of sexual deviance. Picture the causes of a sexually deviant culture as one stream running rapidly through our culture. Causes include dysfunctional families, sexual abuse, and, on the most basic level, the sinful nature of people. Then, picture another stream — the symptoms of a sexually deviant culture. Symptoms might be accessibility to pornography, acceptance of sexual deviance as normal, and an increasing divorce rate. As both streams rise and leave their banks, sex floods the culture. The reality is, we become so overwhelmed by sexual deviance we do not know how to respond; neither can we tell symptoms from causes. Without knowing where to start we either take a blind swipe or disengage to irrelevance.

We swim in a cultural flood of confused sexual roles, ambiguous standards, and sexually charged images. This flood is the pornification of America.

In 2007, CNN reported that 70 percent of Christians admit to struggling with porn daily, according to a nonscientific poll taken by XXXChurch.com (an antiporn website), while Focus on the Family reports that approximately 20 percent of the calls they receive on their pastoral care line are for help with issues such as pornography and compulsive sexual behavior.17

Certainly the church must speak the truth about biblical sexuality through nationally published magazines, books, and other mediums. But local churches need to do the difficult and messy work of understanding their own communities so they can display and explain the gospel.

So, Where Do We Go?

Pamela Paul explained the danger of being uninformed or naïve about the porn devastation: “An entire generation is being kept in the dark about pornography’s effects because previous generations can’t grapple with the new reality. Whether by approaching me (at the risk of peer scorn) after I’ve spoken at a university or via anonymous e-mails, young people continue to pass along an unpopular message: Growing up on porn is terrible.”17

For years the culture has been forced to find an argument to defend their passion for consuming porn in general and selling porn in particular. Somehow they have managed to find and win their argument. Now we must find the new argument. Right now it seems that is not working well for us. The church holds and proclaims the truth of the gospel — and the gospel, and only the gospel, permanently fills the void that porn temporarily occupies.

Be informed and optimistic. Read the numbers and see the devastation to our children, marriages, lives, and culture. But be optimistic about the power of God to give hope and healing.

Imagine thriving churches addressing issues of marriage, pornography, and homosexually. As a church leader, establish your church as a safe place for those who are experiencing the devastation of bad sexual choices and addictions. By understanding and addressing cultural issues like pornography and applying the gospel’s transformational power to this area of lives, believers and churches can be relevant.

ED STETZER, Ph.D., president, LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s missiologist in residence. He lives in Gallatin, Tennessee. He is the author of several books, including Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age and Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and Churches That Reach Them.

Notes:

[Readers may find some of the content on the Websites listed below distasteful. The following sources are provided to substantiate statements made in the article.]

  1. Pamela Paul, Pornified: How Pornography Is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families, (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2006), 253.
  2. William Todd Schultz, http://www.psychologytoday.com/print/4041, (accessed September 21, 2010).
  3. Ben Todd, “Children At Risk From Pop Charts Porn: Top Producer Mike Stock Blasts His Own Industry,” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1301974/Mike-Stock-Pop-charts-porn-putting-children-risk.html, (accessed September 15, 2010).
  4. John W. Whitehead, “Lady Gaga and the Pornification of America,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-w-whitehead/lady-gaga-and-the-pornifi_b_705306.html, (accessed September 21, 2010).
  5. Don Aucoin, “The Pornification of America,” http://www.boston.com/yourlife/articles/2006/01/24/the_pornification_of_america/, (accessed September 21, 2010).
  6. “The Stats on Internet Pornography,” http://gizmodo.com/5552899/finally-some-actual-stats-on-internet-porn, (accessed September 21, 2010).
  7. “The Numbers Behind Pornography,” http://www.onlineeducation.net/porn, (accessed September 21, 2010). The original sources behind these numbers are found at the bottom of this webpage.
  8. HarrisInteractive, Trends & Tudes, “Cox’s New Survey on Cyber-safety Finds Many Teens Going Online Wirelessly Without Limits or Controls,” http://www.harrisinteractive.com/vault/HI_TrendsTudes_2009_v08_i03.pdf, (accessed September 21, 2010).
  9. Levy, A. Female Chauvinist Pigs, quoted in Foster, Wendy Erin. Pornification of America: The Bacherorette Party as Symptom of Raunch Culture, 154. Accessed September 15, 2010.
  10. Jacobellis v. Ohio, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacobellis_v._Ohio, (accessed September 21, 2010).
  11. “The Stats on Internet Pornography,” http://gizmodo.com/5552899/finally-some-actual-stats-on-internet-porn, (accessed September 21, 2010).
  12. “Porn: The Business of Pleasure.” Melissa Lee. A CNBC Original Season 1 Episode 15.15 July 2008
  13. “The Numbers Behind Pornography,” http://www.onlineeducation.net/porn, (accessed September 21, 2010).
  14. “The Stats on Internet Pornography,” http://gizmodo.com/5552899/finally-some-actual-stats-on-internet-porn, (accessed September 21, 2010).
  15. Andy Butcher, “How One Man Unleashed the Porn Plague,” http://www.charismamag.com/index.php/features2/424-faith-and-our-culture/8168-how-one-man-unleashed-the-porn-plague, (accessed September 21, 2010).
  16. “Statistics and information on pornography in the USA,” http://www.blazinggrace.org/cms/bg/pornstats, (accessed September 21, 2010).
  17. Pamela Paul, “The Cost of Growing Up on Porn,” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/05/AR2010030501552.html, (accessed September 21, 2010).

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