Note: I’ve written this essay so that it is NOT explicit, but it DOES contain mature content. If you’re not a college student or older, you shouldn’t read this essay.
“There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ‘em all away from you. That’s never possible.” — Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
“The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.” — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
It happened after practice every Monday during football season. As guys were changing in the locker room, the upperclassmen would start telling stories from Saturday night’s party. Life for many guys in my small Kansas town revolved around three things: football, drinking, and having sex with any girl they could.
The popular guys held court, spinning stories of their latest conquests, boasting about either who or how many girls they’d hooked up with that weekend. After that, it was time to make fun of the guys who didn’t tell stories, either because they’d tried to ‘get laid’ and done something embarrassing, or could only get the “wrong” kind of girl. I was exempt, fortunately, since they knew my dad was a pastor and that I couldn’t come to their parties.
As I’d get ready in front of my locker, I’d overhear who’d done what with whom, recognizing my classmates names. While the stories of what they’d do with different girls were off-putting, coming from a “no sex until marriage” background, I just assumed these things were normal.
the shocking truth
Now, ten-plus years later, as the #MeToo movement has brought sexual violence into the middle of our societal conversation, I’ve realized the brokenness of the things I overheard. As I’ve talked to other guys about their high school and college situations, I’ve realized my locker room experience wasn’t an isolated one.
I’d heard of sexual assault and rape during high school, but assumed only psychopaths did those things, not guys I’d grown up with. The #MeToo movement has destroyed this assumption, showing that sexual crimes aren’t just committed by a few wackos on the fringe, but rather by a wide swath of men, both famous and ordinary. As men, we have to ask why is this the case? Why is male culture so sexually broken?
In the past, sexual violence has only been seen as a women’s issue, with men too willing to shrug their shoulders, blame a few bad apples, and accept our current culture as the status quo. Imagine, though, if a third of men had their retirement savings stolen at least once in their life. How differently men would react to that status quo!
As men, we need to lead the conversation to address the root causes, and not just the effects, of sexual violence. Men, after all, commit the overwhelming percentage of sexual crime in our society. If we truly care about the women around us, we have to ask an uncomfortable question: why do so many young men, from Kansas farm boys to to New York finance bros, commit sexual violence against women?
freshmen sex ed
The class awkwardly giggled, as Mrs McNary, our high school nurse, put a condom on a banana. We were freshmen in high school, in the middle of sex ed, our state-appointed crash course in reproductive anatomy, contraceptives, and STDs. Mrs. McNary spent six Mondays showing us scary pictures, giving us stats, and explaining every contraceptive choice known to humanity. The last day she gave us her motherly “make smart choices” talk, and just like that, twenty-five 14-year-olds were deemed educated about sex.
If we want to understand why so many young men commit sexual violence, we have to explore how young men learn about sex. Officially, teenagers are supposed to learn about sex through sex ed, that American rite of passage at the beginning of adolescence. But while sex ed tells a high school boy about safe sex, no one ever talks to him about healthy sex. This raises the question, where then do young men actually learn about sex? Not just body parts or birth control, but rather what a healthy sexual relationship looks like?
This disconnect creates a gap: on one hand, culture encourages young men, through movies, music, and older peers, to have sex as soon as possible. Yet at the same time, parents either avoid the conversation about sex or assume that what their sons learned in sex ed is sufficient. This information vacuum, combined with a teenager’s natural curiosity, pushes many teenage boys to explore, until he discovers what becomes his real education about sex: pornography.
a new normal
When you read the shocking #MeToo stories from women in high school, college, and beyond, one question stands out: where do guys learn how to act like this? People blame every en vogue -ism, but never mention pornography and it’s role in sexual crime. Why is this?
Both sides don’t like to talk about pornography and its effect on society. Progressives shy away, afraid to talk about sin and have to admit their pursuit of absolute sexual freedom might not be working. Conservatives also shy away from the topic, afraid to talk about sex and have to admit their pursuit of moral purity isn’t going so well. But, if we ever want to understand why so many young men commit sexual crimes, we have to understand how pornography affects them.
While pornography is nothing new, recent technology has exponentially increased its societal impact. The introduction of the VCR in the 1980s first allowed pornography to be viewed at home, a trend that exploded as home computers and the internet became the norm in the 90s. Now, with smartphones firmly entrenched in our lives, pornography is everywhere.
These changes have allowed pornography to rip through high school and college culture. Consider just a few of the statistics:
By age 14, two out of three boys have viewed pornography in the last year.
By age 18, 93% of boys have seen pornography.
By age 18, 70% of boys have watched pornography for more than 30 minutes at least once, and 35% are habitual users, having watched it for at least 30 minutes more than 10 times. (source)
These statistics paint a clear picture; teenage boys across the country are watching more pornography and at younger ages than ever before. Pornography has become the de facto sex education for teenage boys, shaping their beliefs about what normal, healthy, and desired sexual encounters look like.
a sexual miseducation
Despite these statistics, many people downplay pornography’s impact in young men, rationalizing it away as a harmless thrill. They made it through their teens and twenties and didn’t assault anyone, so what’s the problem? But the pornography young men look at today is radically different from previous generations.
As pornography has shifted from pictures to videos, the content has drastically changed. Dr. Norman Doidge, a neuroscientist and author of The Brain That Changes Itself, describes this shift:
“Thirty years ago ‘hardcore’ pornography usually meant the explicit depiction of sexual intercourse. Now hardcore has evolved and is increasingly dominated by sadomasochistic themes...all involving scripts fusing sex with hatred and humiliation.” (source)
In order to keep repeat viewers coming back, the pornography industry has made the content more degrading than ever, playing to a young man’s darkest desires. And while few young men start watching pornography to learn to mistreat women, that’s exactly what it teaches.
Internet pornography makes the man the hero, and normalizes his right to treat women however he wants. A 2010 study about violence in pornography found that men were physically aggressive toward women in 88% of scenes, and verbally aggressive in 48% of scenes (source). Even more shocking, the researchers found that in 95% of the scenes were violence was present, the woman either had no objection or acted like she enjoyed the violence. Young men, having no other knowledge of sex, quickly learn that physical and verbal aggression towards women during sex is normal, healthy, and even enjoyable for them.
what pornography teaches
When young men regularly watch pornography, they spend their formative years soaking up this poisonous narrative. This instills the following beliefs towards sex and women in young men:
Women are objects and subhuman: young men learn that a woman is not an equal human being with thoughts and feelings, but a collection of body parts on a screen that exists for a man’s use.
“Successful” men always get what they want: young men learn that the height of manhood is getting a woman to sleep with you, which causes them to pressure women for sex and to base their self-worth upon her saying yes/giving in.
Men should dominate sexual encounters: Young men learn to think that sex revolves around them and their desires, and that the woman should do everything he wants.
It’s okay to treat women in an aggressive or demeaning way: Young men learn to treat women in dismissive or even violent ways, both because that makes them “feel like a man,” and also because it’s what they think women want.
A woman saying ‘no’ doesn’t mean stop, but rather ‘try harder’: Young men learn that if a woman says no, she’s only kidding or playing hard to get, and actually wants the guy to take more control and try harder.
These are the toxic beliefs that young men absorb through pornography, thinking that this is not only normal, but healthy sexual behavior. And so as young men steep their lives in pornography, we have to ask, what’s this doing to them?
the rewiring of the mind
The harmful effects of pornography, and its factoring in sexual crime, aren’t just from the content, but also from its impact on a young man’s brain. Scientists have recently discovered neuroplasticity of the brain, the idea that the brain isn’t static, but always changing, adapting, and being rewired by its most frequent stimuli.
As a young man watches pornography, his brain releases pleasure chemicals which stimulate the growth of new neural pathways (source). Neural pathways are the mental grooves that the brain uses to create reflexive and habitual action. They give you the ability to develop instinctive behavior, good when you’re learning to shoot a basketball or play a guitar, but bad when you’re watching pornography. When a young man consistently watches pornography, this version of sex embeds itself into his prefrontal cortex, rewriting his subconscious script for how he views both sex and his partner (source).
Pornography doesn’t do this all at once, but little by little, masking its destructive ability. We shouldn’t be surprised, though, since this is what sin always does. Tim Keller, a pastor in New York City, describes the subtle yet deadly nature of sin like this:
“The results of sin are often more like the physical response you have to a debilitating dose of radiation. You don’t suddenly feel pain the moment you are exposed. It isn’t like a bullet or sword tearing into you. You feel quite normal. Only later do you experience symptoms, but by then it is too late. (source)
Pornography, along with hyper-sexualized music, movies, and video games, create a toxic sexual environment for young men that gradually normalizes aggression and violence towards women. Through this, pornography plants sexual landmines beneath the surface of a young man’s life, invisible until they explode.
a sexual crisis
When you look at the impact pornography has in many young men’s lives, it’s almost surprising, sadly, that there isn’t more sexual violence. Fortunately, even as pornography privately affects young men, they are publicly socialized, to varying degrees, to respect and physically protect women. Because of this, many young men do learn to value and treat women well, especially if it’s someone they care about.
This socialization, along with an inherent desire to be seen as a good person, creates a restraining moral wall in a young man’s life, curbing the effects of sin and causing him to suppress any behavior that would tarnish his reputation. Unfortunately, though, this doesn’t remove the inner landmines that pornography has embedded, and only covers them up with moral conformity. This leaves a giant problem, what happens when the conforming forces go away?
what triggers sexual assault?
Most young men who commit sexual violence against women don’t wake up and plan to assault a woman that night. They don’t believe a “good guy” like them is capable of it. But there are two behaviors that break down a young man’s ability to morally conform and allow his subconscious pornography-shaped expectations to play out. When young men commit sexual crimes, it almost always involve one or both of two things: getting drunk or experiencing success.
1. Getting Drunk: Despite our society’s glamorization of binge drinking, nothing besides pornography contribute more to sexual violence than alcohol. Pornography-influenced men and alcohol-fueled parties mix together to create the perfect environment for sexual crime. But why?
Alcohol, as it’s said, doesn’t change a person, it just reveals who they actually are. When a young man gets drunk, the alcohol numbs his conscience and takes away the pressure to morally conform. A drunk guy loses his ability to suppress his subconscious, allowing the pornographic narrative wired into his brain over the years to explode, causing him to act in ways he never thought possible.
This is why so many “good guys” commit sexual crimes. When they’re around their parents and classmates they are good-natured and high achieving, but when they’re drunk, the dark side of their lives comes out. As they reach that crucial moment of choice, they can’t stop, because they’ve already made the wrong choice hundreds of times before.
2. Experiencing Success: A second triggering event for men is success, either professionally, socially, or athletically. Success can warp a young man’s mind, causing him to think he’s above the rules and can do whatever he wants. Success melts away his need to behave, and like alcohol, gives him a feeling of moral freedom that allows him to act on his innermost thoughts.
While this often happens with high-profile celebrities, it also affects young men, specifically athletic and popular types. Since they’re above the rules, they feel free to “be themselves” sexually, which almost always draws on a pornography influenced narrative. Successful men can do whatever they want to a woman in a pornography video, so what should shouldn’t he be the same?
These two triggering events often work in tandem, causing a successful yet drunk young man to both lose all moral constraint and think he’s above the rule. This perfect storm happens so often in today’s culture, and sadly leads to so many sexual crimes against women.
so what do we do?
“How can young men act like this?” many in society are rightfully asking, trying to figure out what needs to change. As the #MeToo movement continues to shed light on the deep sexual brokenness in men, we have to ask, how do we change this? Each side has its suggestions:
Progressives call for increased education and awareness, wanting to teach young men about consent and how to be better bystanders. While these are good things and can help reduce sexual crime, they ultimately seem insufficient, since they still don’t get at the roots of this problem.
Conservatives, if they’re even willing to admit these problems exist, blame loosening sexual mores and call young people to clean up their acts. While not an incorrect diagnosis, this genie has already been let out of its bottle, and simply telling young men to be good people won’t put it back in.
While both of these approaches can help, neither one will ever provide lasting change, because they only address the symptoms and not the source. The answer is counter-intuitive: the reason young men commit so many sexual crimes is because no one believe believes young men could ever commit sexual crimes. Let me explain.
the source of the problem
Growing up, our society encourages young people to have an extraordinary self-confidence about their natural capacity for goodness. Young people are told to see themselves as basically good, and encouraged to follow their desires, find their truth, and above all, to be authentic to their inner selves. Young men become so confident about their inherent goodness, they don’t think pornography, alcohol, and success could ever negatively affect them.
The Bible, however, tells us something different. God warns us to guard ours heart, a metaphor for our deepest desires, thoughts, and beliefs, because its “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.” Jesus always warns people about the darkness of their hearts, saying that “from within, out of the heart of man, comes evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, (and) adultery.”
The heart, and its inherent desire for sin, is why human solutions remain superficial. Every young man naturally loves the darkness, and is drawn to things he knows are wrong and evil. Young men feel this pull towards pornography, alcohol, sex, and maybe most of all, an innate desire for power. No amount of education or moral restraint can change the heart and its fundamental desire for darkness. We need a solution more radical than just more information or more willpower, but what?
the only answer
The Bible’s King David, while caught in his own #MeToo scandal after using his power to coerce Bathsheba into sex, shows us a different path. He cries out to God, asking not just for new behavior, but a new heart:
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
David knows his sexual problems run to the very core of his being, and that he needs a complete heart transfer if he ever wants to truly change. So, how do you get a new heart?
The answer is simple, but not pleasant: you have to give up your self-confidence and self-righteousness before God, admit the darkness in your life, and cry out to Jesus and ask him for a new heart. That’s not what any young man wants to hear, but remember this: Jesus, as the Son of God, didn’t use his strength to manipulate you for his own power or pleasure, but instead used it to live a perfect life and die for your brokenness. When you get that, you’ll no longer see women as objects to use and control, but rather as sisters-in-Christ to serve and love.
As another generation of boys enter into the locker rooms of life and become young men, what message will we give them? Will we feign ignorance and allow them to pursue sexual brokenness through pornography and drunkenness, or will we teach them about the destructive effects of sin, and point them to the renewing grace and love of Jesus Christ? It won’t be easy, but the safety of our friends, sisters, and daughters urges an answer.
Other Resources Used
Journal Abstract: Without Porn…I Wouldn’t Know Half the Things I Know Now
Journal Abstract: Predicting Sexual Aggression: The Role of Pornography
Journal Abstract: Pornography and Attitudes Supporting Violence Against Women
Journal Abstract: Pornography Addiction and Neuroplasticity
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