Pornography offers a warped view of love and sex. When young people carry those expectations into real relationships, they cause real harm.
Advertisements tell me every day that my body is not beautiful: my pixie cut means my hair doesn’t cascade in sculpted waves. My chest is much smaller than average (or at least the average advertisement). I consider my legs the worst feature of my body. Advertising has left me unsatisfied with my reflection in the mirror and struggling to not give in to constant comparison with the photo-shopped women. The media tells me these artificial women are reality, and it is a constant effort to remind myself that they aren’t.
What advertising does for our feelings about their bodies, porn does for young people’s sense of sexuality: it messes with their sense of reality.
Love as an expression of truth
After I started dating and met my boyfriend, I began to wonder if he looked at me differently because of the images that are all around us in today’s world. Would he be disappointed that I didn’t look perfect like all the women in advertisements, or worse, the women in pornography? And I worried about consequences beyond just appearances: What if living in today’s culture would lead him to expect more physical intimacy than I wanted in our dating relationship?
Throughout my relationship and now engagement, I’ve learned that true love focuses on the other person, rather than our own individual needs. Yet pornography encourages viewers to manipulate others for the purpose of meeting their own sexual desires—even if that means ignoring the desires of their partner.
Saint John Paul the Great outlined the authentic love that all humans are created for in writings on Theology of the Body. The Pope writes, “Our expressions of love have to be subject to the demands of truth.” Catholic author Christopher West says, “Brace yourself! If we take in what the Holy Father is saying in his Theology of the Body, we will never view ourselves, view others, view the Church, the Sacraments, grace, God, heaven, marriage, the celibate vocation … we will never view the world the same way again.” Here are four characteristics of a healthy relationship, based on Saint John Paul the Great’s characteristics of a love that is free, total, faithful and fruitful—as well as the ways that pornography destroys the relationship you deserve.
1. A healthy relationship is selfless
This week, my boyfriend took time out of his schedule to finish a project for me simply because he knew it was causing me a lot of stress. A healthy relationship exists when you invest in the health and wholeness of the other person, putting their needs before your own.
|Pornography destroys relationships because it encourages us to look at people as a sum of their parts, and often values the physical body over someone’s mind, heart and soul.”|
Pornography, on the other hand, tells us that the point of a relationship is our pleasure. The goal of pornography is seeking pleasure and fulfillment out of another human being. And when someone becomes entrenched in what pornography emphasizes, it can affect their relationships with those they love the most. Romantic relationships that are affected by pornography suffer because one can become stuck in the mentality that people exist as a means to a pleasurable end—the opposite of the selfless attitude necessary for a healthy relationship.
2. A healthy relationship values the whole person
When my boyfriend asked me to be in a relationship with him, he was asking for a relationship with my entire self. He accepted my quirky hatred of fish and my tendency to drink five cups of coffee a day. This is because a healthy relationship takes all of the quirks, mistakes, successes, and shortcomings of two people and values them all. When one of us falls, the other is there to encourage. When one of us celebrates a victory, the other is there, jumping up and down in excitement.
MORE TO READ: Preparing for lasting intimacy in marriage
Yet pornography destroys relationships because it encourages us to look at people as a sum of their parts, and often values the physical body over someone’s mind, heart and soul. In a 2009 study, Princeton psycholgists found that, after viewing images of scantily clad women, people are more likely to use first-person action verbs (“I move,” “I grab,” “I control”) versus third person verbs (“she moves,” “she grabs,” “she controls”). Meanwhile, fully clothed women in images were described with third-person verbs and were thought to be in control of their situation and actions. Pornography dehumanizes and objectifies human beings, reducing them down to the pleasure that they can provide.
3. A healthy relationship is built on trust
Vulnerability and openness are part of solid relationships. But if trust is absent, openness can be hard to come by.
Dave Willis, founder of Stronger Marriages, writes on the different steps of trust in a relationship. He says that ultimately, trust should lead to a level of vulnerability and a sense of comfort with the other person. He wrote, “When you truly trust someone, you’ll know it because you’ll feel completely safe and comfortable with them. They’ve earned your trust and you’ve freely given it. You don’t doubt their actions or motives. You choose to believe the best in them, because they’ve consistently shown you the best in themselves.”
Yet pornography encourages us to lie to one another. This could be lying about if and when pornography is used in the relationship, or in one’s past. It could be lies about how pornography is supposedly victim-less, something that doesn’t really hurt anyone. Or perhaps the lies center on the idea that pornography improves the sexual chemistry of the couple. Regardless of the lie, pornography encourages dishonesty between the couple, destroying the most important aspect of a healthy relationship—honest communication.
|My husband has done a great job overcoming his struggles with masturbation and porn, but honestly, I still have insecurities in the back of mind.”|
Susan* recently discovered that her new husband views pornography. “I had known Mark for three years [by the time she found out]. He always treated me with so much respect and love, and I have never heard him say a single degrading thing about women. He is the most selfless person I know. He has a great relationship with God, and I see how he actively seeks to deepen that. A man that wonderful surely would not look at porn.” And yet, he was.
I asked Susan how her relationship had been damaged. She responded, “The biggest issue was a huge damage in trust. Mark and I had broken up for a few months a year earlier, and it took a while to restore that trust, and this revelation felt like it knocked down all the trust we had worked to restore. I felt terrible about myself. I simultaneously felt hideous, unworthy, and to blame. My husband has done a great job overcoming his struggles with masturbation and porn, but honestly, I still have insecurities in the back of mind.”
4. A healthy relationship is faithful & exclusive
For a relationship to be happy and healthy, a couple should be faithful to each other. This means seeing one’s mind, heart, soul and body as an exclusive gift to the other person, a gift truly fulfilled later in marriage. This does not mean that the couple is under the illusion that each person is perfect. A healthy relationship is not made up of two perfect people, but rather two people who refuse to give up on each other, despite their flaws.
Pornography lies and says love and sex can be perfect. Pornographic images are always available and do not require sacrificial love. In 2005, researchers in Sweden found that people who view pornography regularly are more likely to start having sex sooner and with more partners than those who do not view pornography. Those who view pornography are also more likely to engage in riskier sex, which increases their odds of developing a sexually transmitted disease.
|Viewing pornography is essentially cheating on your significant other. But it is also cheating yourself.”|
For a heart daunted by the reality of human relationships, pornography allows an escape—all while stealing away the opportunity to develop an authentic intimacy with another human being. Pornography says that the two of us are not enough to satisfy. It lies, saying that the messiness of human relationships is too hard and it is easier to retreat to clickable pixels who offer sex on demand.
Viewing pornography is essentially cheating on your significant other. But it is also cheating yourself out of an authentic, human interaction that stretches you to be a better version of yourself. Pornography offers a never ending source of lovers—none of them really love you.
In a letter, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover; no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself. … After all, almost the main work of life is to come out of our selves, out of the little dark prison we are all born in … The danger is that of coming to love the prison.”
The effect on young women—and men
At the core of pornography lies a selfish desire. Yet a healthy relationship calls us to sacrificial, crucifixion-type love. Pornography encourages us to think only about what is pleasurable and accessible. Sacrificial love calls us out of ourselves and out of our comfort zones.
When asked if she thought that pornography harmed dating relationships, Susan replied, “I absolutely believe pornography harms not only women but also men in today’s world … It objectifies women. It destroys intimacy. It shakes trust. We have become complacent with it; we think porn is no big deal and that just perpetuates the damage.”
Stacy, a young woman who has struggled with porn addiction herself, told me, “I believe that pornography is warping women’s dating experiences in today’s world. Specifically for women, I believe that sexual sin sets us up for failure if we are not healed of our past with sexual sin. Pornography warps our brains by making us quickly dismissive of men who do not give us sexual or physical gratification, just as we do as we click the “next” button when we look at pornography … Pornography expects perfection, and no matter how good our men are, they can never fulfill the screen as long as we are still wounded.”
For the good of our relationships, we have to choose between pornography and authentic love. They cannot exist together. Pornography, rooted in lust, leads to a dead end relationship. Authentic love, grounded in self-sacrifice leads to the adventure of a lifetime.
*All names have been changed
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