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Pornography’s grip on innocent eyes

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Emily was 10 years old when she first saw pornography. Her parents had talked to her about sex, but she still had questions. So, she did what anyone from her generation would do — she Googled them. 

The family’s computer was tucked away in a bedroom. If the computer had any child filters, they weren’t very good, said Emily, now a 23-year-old who lives in Fairfax and whose last name is being withheld due to the sensitive nature of the topic. “(My parents) worried about (pornography) for my brothers, but I’m the oldest and I’m a girl so I think they were kind of like, ‘Oh, we don’t need to worry about it yet,’ ” she said. “I was able to easily — very easily — access the videos as a 10-year-old on my parents’ computer.” All she had to do was click a button saying she was 18 or older, and she was on. 

One day, her dad walked into the computer room and found her looking at pornography. She describes it as an “Adam and Eve” moment. “I made a run for it,” she said. “I ran down the street and I kept running and I hid in a bush. It felt like hours, but it was probably 20 minutes. I thought, ‘I've been caught, I'm exposed.’ I was terrified. Eventually, I came back home, and then I was hiding in a closet.”

Finally, her dad found her and brought her into her parents’ bedroom to talk. “He didn’t yell at me or berate me,” she said. “He talked about sexuality as it’s created, and the reason that pornography is wrong and offensive is that it takes this very good gift the Lord has given us and twists it. It makes people into objects. It doesn’t acknowledge their worth and value as people. 

“I felt a lot of the father’s love there,” said Emily. “But of course, that wasn’t the last time I looked at (porn).”

As a child, Emily would finish her schoolwork and run around her neighborhood barefoot playing with her friends. “I think the freest time in my life was literally at this age where I looked for pornography,” she said. “(That’s when) the seed of shame was planted.” 

Emily’s story is not uncommon. “Over the last 10 years with the rise of cell phones, it is very, very easy for kids — not just boys but girls as well — to go (find pornography),” said Joe, a longtime diocesan youth minister whose name has been changed. “There was something with having the computer and making sure no one was around — in that time of fighting and wrestling with that, reason could sometimes come through and say, ‘This isn’t worth it.’ Now, that buffer is not built-in anymore, so there’s very little to stop a kid from flicking on their phone and going right in.”

Viewers of pornography tune into a fantasy that often has a big impact on their personal reality — from their perception of what sex is, to what their own bodies are supposed to look like, to how women should be treated. Watching pornography is shown to rewire the pleasure systems of the brain so that users crave more pornography and more hardcore scenes. Studies cited in a 2016 review compiled by the diocesan Office for Child Protection and Victim Assistance show that violence against women is commonplace in today’s pornography. Furthermore, according to the review, use of internet pornography “predicted greater sexual preoccupancy, greater sexual uncertainty and greater sexual dissatisfaction.” 

Recently, Eric Szatkowski, a retired special agent with the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Crimes Against Children Task Force, spoke at Holy Trinity Church in Gainesville about the dangers of the internet, especially as it’s used by sexual predators. “Any way you look at it, pornography is just an awful thing that children and adults need to stay away from,” he said. “I think exposure to pornography also opens the door to sexual exploitation because it does reduce inhibitions. When you look at these images or videos, you start normalizing it in your own head. You think, ‘Look, other people are doing this, it’s really not bad.’ ”

Joe believes pornography has impacted the modern dating culture as well. “I’ve had girls that have come to me in the past to say, ‘You know, I liked this guy and the first thing he wanted was just to have sex,” said Joe. “With pornographic content, the storylines they come up with (portray people having sex very quickly after meeting). It completely distorts the understanding of approaching a girl or a guy and what that should look like.” 

It also complicates dating for young women who are uncomfortable with having sex, says Joe. “I feel so bad for girls. They recognize what they get in guys is not good, so they either compromise or they say, ‘I’m not going to settle.’ But they really don’t find anyone that is worthy (to date) until way into college. There’s a certain level of disappointment that I see in girls, which can lead to self-esteem issues and things like that.” 

Emily was raised to know pornography and masturbation were wrong, but she still struggled throughout middle and high school. “I did all of the Catholic stuff as a teenager. I did the conferences, I went to youth group, but no one ever talks about it,” Emily paused. “I should say, they talk about it for the guys. In the girls talk it’s, ‘You’re a beautiful princess angel of the Lord.’ So I’m over here thinking I'm completely alone. As I come to find out, probably 40 to 50 percent of the other girls are also feeling the same way.”

With so much shame surrounding this issue, it can be difficult for parishes and parents to address it. “I don’t see a lot of youth ministry programs really focusing on it,” said Joe. “Anytime you do a presentation on pornography, nobody wants to show up because they don’t want to be labeled as a person watching porn. But I think we need to incorporate it as part of our sexuality formation.” Kevin Bohli, executive director of Youth, Campus, and young Adult Ministries, said some schools and churches use Theology of the Body for Teens, which covers pornography. 

The teens who watch pornography are too scared and ashamed to tell their parents, according to Joe, so he hopes parents can direct their children to a trusted adult confidant, in addition to letting their child know they support them unconditionally. 

“St. John Paul II said the problem with pornography is that it doesn’t show enough, meaning that all you see is the physical act of two people. You don’t see the love that’s supposed to be there between the man and the woman,” said Joe. “A kid that starts watching porn at 13 or some as early as 11, by the time they’re out of high school, they’ve developed this habit for wanting the cheap imitation and truly missing out on the beautiful reality of what they’re called to have.”

In college at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Emily began a ministry for women who struggle with pornography and masturbation, a group that continues today. “I have not found a single person today who has not been affected by pornography, whether it be a family member, a spouse or more likely themselves. You’re not alone — I wish that someone had told me,” she said. “It breaks my heart because girls get so stuck in the cycle of it and they can’t reach out for help. You see yourself as so dirty, but the Lord wants you.”

In Emily’s fight against sexual sin, remembering God’s love has made all the difference, she said. “I do grieve my childhood and my innocence, but I don’t grieve the fact it's something I fell into because the Lord uses our wounds in ways that we could never have imagined,” said Emily. “The most tender, painful, embarrassing, festering part of my soul for a good portion of my life is now the biggest place of redemption.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019