He’s a husband and a father. He goes to Mass every Sunday. But what started off as a peek at a magazine escalated into an out-of-control diet of pornography.
Viewing pornography creates “a chemical reaction in the brain,” says Jason Kidd, director of the Portland archdiocesan Marriage and Family Life Office. “In order to achieve the high, you need increasingly large quantities for your brain to get the same response.”
The porn-burdened father who confided in Kidd is not a rare case. “I get phone calls from spouses, from concerned mothers, from young males,” Kidd says. “We know pornography is a problem, but not everyone realizes how big.”
The Archdiocese of Portland, through a joint effort of the marriage and family life ministry and the Office of Child and Youth Protection, is developing plans to help.
“There is no quick fix,” acknowledges Kidd. “But we must do something.”
About 1 in 5 Americans uses porn weekly or more, according to “The Porn Phenomenon: The Impact of Pornography in the Digital Age,” a 2016 report by Barna Group, a California-based research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture. A survey published in the journal "Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking" shows approximately 93 percent of boys and 62 percent of girls are exposed to pornography before the age of 18.
It’s an epidemic, observes Cathy Shannon, director of the Child and Youth Protection Office. “It was time for us to really take on this topic.”
With support from Archbishop Alexander Sample and input from a committee recently formed to address pornography, the archdiocese will confront porn use in a number of ways. Foremost, it will be the focus of this year’s safe environment training — a program administered by the child protection office and required annually for all church volunteers and employees. The training will have a web-based component and address the dangers of pornography, including its effect on the brain, and ways to protect children and help youths make wise choices online.
Shannon plans to work with Covenant Eyes, an internet filtering and accountability software company, to link to the archdiocese’s online training network established by Praesidium. Through its programming, Praesidium helps more than 1,000 organizations protect minors from sexual abuse.
Kidd says another goal is to provide in-depth education for local church leaders, such as pastors, principals and youth ministers. “We also hope to come up with strategies to help people through porn addiction,” says Kidd. “We want to convey that there’s hope, that you can get through this.”
Ryan Foley, vice president of business development for Covenant Eyes, acknowledges pornography is an eternal vice within human behavior. But the internet and smartphones make it far easier to access and thus more rampant. Porn is now in our pockets, says Foley, a Catholic.
Covenant Eyes works with several dioceses and along with its software offers conferences and parish workshops. The filtering component typically is used for youths to prevent inadvertent exposure. The accountability feature allows a subscriber to have an “accountability partner” — a spouse, spiritual director or friend — who is notified if a user searches for porn.
“It’s a philosophy that aligns with the church,” says Foley. “We connect accountability with a real relationship. And your free will is intact.”
In Oregon, a state where strip clubs are as common as spectacular views and microbreweries, pornography is viewed as harmless or even a positive sexual outlet; Portland boasts the highest number of strip clubs per capita in the United States, according to Priceonomics, a San Francisco company that complies and assesses data.
Yet church teaching on human sexuality, a number of studies and scientific research refute such perspectives.
This spring, Foley gave a presentation on the scope and harm of pornography to church administrators in Portland, including Archbishop Sample.
Foley says one of pornography’s chief victims are young women, who become objects of consumption as “young men grow up with a ‘pornified’ mind.” Porn also wounds marriages and children’s mental health. Viewing sexually explicit acts “might be a first trauma for a child,” says Foley.
He also points out there are links between pornography and sex trafficking. The secular nonprofit Fight the New Drug found some porn is created by filming or photographing prostitutes, who may be victims of human trafficking controlled my pimps.
And for consumers of porn, there are studies to support what they have experienced — that viewing sexually explicit images is addictive. (It should be noted that the American Psychological Association currently does not classify pornography addiction as a diagnosable disorder.)
A 2014 study published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Psychiatry showed that when people viewed X-rated images it caused a surge in dopamine (a neurotransmitter often associated with pleasurable feelings). Some scientists believe repeated dopamine surges mean the brain becomes desensitized to the images and more are needed for the same “hit.”
Kidd says he prays the archdiocese’s new efforts encourage people to confront the painful ripple effects of pornography. “No one wants to talk about it because it’s a bit awkward,” he says. But he wants the faithful to move beyond the stigma of the sin.
“In the past, the only time we dealt with the pornography problem was in the confessional, in therapy and the annulment process,” says Foley, noting that priests and seminarians also struggle with porn. “As a church, we were not dealing with it directly but addressing it downstream.” He is heartened that the Archdiocese of Portland and a number of dioceses now are tackling the issue head-on.
The U.S. bishops were a key voice in the recent trend. In 2015, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral statement on pornography, entitled “Create in Me a Clean Heart,” highlighting porn’s negative effects on society and offering hope and healing to those struggling.
“We have to get past shame and guilt, past the place of, ‘I don’t want to reveal my brokenness and sinfulness,’” Kidd says. “Pornography is like any other sin; it’s not good for you because it separates you from God and other people.”
Kidd hopes the church can take a leading role in extending a hand to the hurting. “We all struggle and fall, that’s why we need the church and our Lord. Ultimately, he brings freedom.”