Culture, Essays

How to Talk to Young People about the Dangers of Pornography

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As pornography becomes increasingly pervasive, the distinct divide between sacred image and profane picture is threatened; increasingly erotic images have less and less shock value. The previously middle ground between the two poles has been hijacked by “soft-core” pornography, which according to society, should no longer offend.[1] The day-to-day life of the modern person is fraught with pornographic images, as sacred or beautiful images, along with neutral images, are pushed out of the mind. What effect does this change in vision’s scenery cause in the human person, especially in the young child and adolescent? How can today’s parents, educators, and catechists properly form young children so that they might not fall prey to pornography? Theologians from Christianity’s beginnings have expressed the power found in viewing both icons and idols, and have much to say to today’s modern situation.

A Christian understanding of idols, icons, images, and the transformative power of vision can uncover new tools for catechizing on pornography by closely examining the unique role that vision plays in the formation of the human self. What humans choose to look at influences their outlook on the world, how they relate to God and others, and even how their brains are wired. By examining the first five centuries of Christianity through charting the evolution of Christian art, surveying the power of vision and its unique ability to form humans’ entire beings, and noting the correlations between modern science and theological reflection, a program will begin to emerge that may aid parents, educators, and catechists not only in initiating a conversation about pornography, but also in fostering an environment where children not only are surrounded by good and beautiful images, but also personally learn to control and filter what they behold.

Scope and Definitions

While an examination of how pornography is harmful to the brain and the formation of one’s understanding of one’s self and of the world will follow, there will not be a discussion of if pornography is sinful. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was clear in their 2015 pastoral response to pornography, “Create in Me A Clean Heart,” that producing or using pornography is gravely wrong, and is a mortal sin if it is committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. Additionally, this essay should not be seen as a guide for combating an already existing addiction to pornography. Instead, it will offer different tools and suggestions for the initial discussion about pornography with children, as well as reflect on the need to cultivate an environment that teaches children how to be mindful of what they are viewing.

In order to commence, the definitions of pornography, idol, and icon should be clarified. There is difficulty in describing pornography, or at least in drawing a hard line on the slippery slope between pornography and morally neutral nude images. It is important, however, to define pornography, to concretize it so that it is not an elusive entity that cannot be battled. Therefore, pornography will be defined here as visual, audio, or written displays of the naked body or actions of a sexual nature, in which the displays depict degrading or violent sexual behavior, which can be real or simulated.[2] Additionally, pornography can be known by its mass production or deliberate sharing for pleasure or profit, with or without the consent of the subject (cf. CCC §2354). It is intended to arouse the viewer, using the subject not as a person with dignity, but as a thing or sex object. It exploits and dehumanizes sex, stripping it from its reality.[3]

In its narrowest sense, an idol is an image or representation of a pagan god to be worshipped. The medium used to create the image does not matter; the key is that the image of the god is worshipped. Yet, both Athanasius and Tertullian warned that idolatry is not limited to worship of images of other gods, but that the understanding of idol should be broadened to include any thing that distracts the soul toward earthly pleasures and away from divine things. All things that humans mistakenly take for having intrinsic value and that they honor more than God can be an idol, including pornography.[4] As Dr. Robin Jensen writes, Athanasius believed that “humans who indulge their lusts come to find their gods in material things and, as they fall lower and lower, come to set up idols made of ordinary and lifeless material . . . dragging them even further into the mud of their vile passions.”[5]

Icon, on the other hand, was a term adopted early on to refer to a Christian religious portrait or scene.[6] Icons differ from the narrow definition of idols first mentioned, in that they portray images that do deserve honor or reverence. In the conversation on pornography, it is helpful to define the term more broadly to refer to any image that is good, true, and beautiful. The danger in icons is knowing what deserves honor or what the “true image” is that is represented. If one rightly chooses to view the honorable icon over the idol, the religious image rewards the viewer by reminding them of a higher truth.[7]

These definitions will help in navigating the following examination of art and image in early Christianity, as well as the transformative power of vision.

Art and Image in Early Christianity

Early Christianity’s struggle with idolatry bears striking resemblance to today’s fight with pornography. The development of Christian art and images also informs the conversation about how to catechize on pornography. By examining the three stages in the development of Christian art—the absence of Christian art, the development of narrative art, and the appearance of portraits and icons—the unique challenges of idols and the power of images will begin to be revealed.

There is little to no evidence of Christian art existing before 220AD. For the first two centuries, it appears that Christians did not create or possess art or images of their own, although they were surrounded by pagan images and religious artwork. So while one cannot speak about Christian art from this time, there can be a discussion about the Christian response to non-Christian art, specifically, their reaction to pagan idols.

Images and idols of Greek and Roman gods were pervasive. Greco-Roman cults lacked sacred texts or dogmatic statements, and therefore depended on images, rituals, and public spectacles, such as processions, offerings, and sacrifices.[8] Christians regularly came into close contact with open shrines or pagan images.[9] Because it was impossible to always avoid these images, instructions were given about what to do if one had contact with an idol. Tertullian recommends spitting or blowing on smoking altars, and notes the distinct advantage that the imprisoned have, because they can easily avoid seeing more idols. Cyprian warns Christians to not even glace at idols, or one could be guilty of apostasy, and would require tears of penitence, or a literal cleansing of the eyes to repair the damage.[10] If the image portrayed a sexual scene, Clement declared that the eyes committed fornication.[11] These instructions and reactions seem extreme, if the idols of the pagan gods are empty and hold no power. Yet, the instructions were meant to protect Christians from what was seen as a real and ever-present danger. Why was viewing images of gods that did not even exist seem so harmful?

A number of treatises were written between 140 and 180AD which addressed the dangers of images and idols.[12] Three principal reasons were given for the rejection of images and idols. First, images of the gods were to be rejected because they portrayed false gods and led to idolatry. Tertullian wrote that idolatry is “the principal crime of the human race, the highest guilt charged upon the world.”[13] Because Christian artwork was absent, and all images encountered were created by the Greeks and Romans, images often pointed to explicit idols, or referenced scenes from the gods.[14] Second, artwork and images could be deceptive. Clement notes that the image is inferior to the likeness it represents, but could be confused for that reality. Humans have the tendency to misunderstand the image and fail to distinguish between representation and reality.[15] They easily misunderstand the difference between idol and icon, between what deserves honor and what does not. Finally, art is seductive. Philo noticed how powerful images can be, stating that art had the ability to cast a spell on the spectator which “may ravish the unstable soul.”[16] Tertullian despised the real emotions that art invoked, because the spectators “are saddened by another’s sorrow,” and “gladdened by another’s joy . . . whatever they desire on the one hand, or detest on the other, is entirely foreign to themselves. So love with them is a useless thing, and hatred is unjust.”[17]

Pornography today mirrors all three historical concerns from early Christianity. Viewing pornography leads to an idolatrous turning toward earthly pleasures and away from divine things. Pornography is also deceptive. What is being portrayed is not the reality of sex. Viewers, especially younger viewers, often mistake what they are seeing as what sex is or should be like. Finally, pornography is seductive, creating emotions and desires that are not connected to real life, but rather buy into a fantasy. There are plenty of early warnings against visual art, particularly idols. Christians, however, are not actually anti-image.

In the late third century, Christian art began to flourish, beginning with the utilization of symbols, such as doves, fish, anchors, and shepherds, which are predominately found in the underground Christian catacombs outside of Rome.[18] By the fourth century, narrative scenes from the Bible began to appear, overwhelmingly from the Old Testament.[19] The scenes began appearing in the catacombs, and were soon carved into sarcophagi. There is evidence that fourth century churches featured narrative art on their walls.[20] After Constantine, the situation changed rapidly, and churches began to be filled with biblical narratives and symbolic iconography.

What positives did early Christians see in having new art and images that were their own? Gregory the Great wrote a letter in the late sixth century to a fellow bishop who had been breaking images in churches, stating that icons are to be valued because they “raised the viewer’s sensibility beyond the sensible objects and toward the Divine.”[21] Appropriate images can raise the mind to God, instead of distracting it from God like idols do. Gregory also noted that images give the people knowledge of biblical stories and the lives of the saints. Holy images from the beginning have also been used for devotion and prayer, and can comfort or be a sign of hope, as the catacombs bear witness.[22] The images in the catacombs of Jonah, the Good Shepherd, the three men in the fiery furnace, and Noah, all express themes of death and resurrection, allowing those who mourned at the tombs to put their hope in a God who is in the habit of rescuing his people.

As Christian art developed, it also became an aid in Christian worship and theological expression, reflecting the dogmatic developments happening at the time. Portraits of Jesus, Mary, and the saints, as well as traditional icons as we know them, did not begin developing until the end of the fourth century. These portraits differ from earlier symbols or narrative images in that they intend to present an image of a human or divine person for the purpose of contemplation.[23] Truth and transformation are to be found by gazing at such images. The evolution of portraits and icons could be loosely tied to the evolution of Christian thinking and writing—these developments in art were happening side by side with the ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries. More dogmatic images of Christ’s Passion and enthronement appeared, as well as images that portrayed both Christ’s divine and human natures.

Christians did not appear to make their own art for the first two centuries, and actively worked to avoid pagan images and idols so that they would not be harmed by what they were viewing. They were not against all images, though, and as Christian art developed, it began to be used to teach about the faith, express devotion, and raise the viewer’s mind and heart toward God.

The Power of Vision and Images

Paul Hommes, Transfiguration Icon; Photo: Jim Forrest; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

Despite the positive advancements in early Christian art and the general acceptance of religious images (barring the later iconoclast controversy), it is still important to recognize the difference between idol and icon. The development of religious art did not erase the danger of idols—both idols and icons can catch one’s attention and lead to a real transformation of mind, body, and soul. However, one leads the Christian to a desired transformation, and the other does not.

This transformation is made possible because of the unique influence of vision and images. David Freedberg began his book on the power of images by stating: “People are sexually aroused by pictures and sculptures; they break pictures and sculptures; they mutilate them, kiss them, cry before them, and go on journeys to them; they are calmed by them, stirred by them, and incited to revolt . . . They have always responded in these ways; they still do.”[24] Undoubtedly, images hold some sort of power over humans. This power will be examined by first uncovering the uniqueness of the sense of sight.

In book ten of On the Making of Man, Gregory of Nyssa wrote that humans come into intellectual contact with being through interactions with concrete things. Humans come to know reality through the senses.[25] Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting allow humans to perceive and to know, and the senses act as mediators between the material world and the mind. Theodore the Studite ranks sight above all the other senses. Seeing is most analogous to knowing, the other senses depend on sight, and seeing the Lord is our ultimate desire.[26] Theodore is not alone in elevating vision. Philo, John of Damascus, Augustine, Basil, and many others ‘see’ sight as best. Vision gives humanity clear and detailed information, and it does so instantaneously.

The eyes are naturally drawn to the beautiful, but also to the ugly, the curious, or the grotesque. If humans are attracted or even curious about what the eyes see, the image may capture the mind’s attention for long periods of time, or prompt a return to the image, over and over, whether it is through a physical return or just in memories, which Augustine noted can be particularly potent.[27] Pornography is powerful partially because vision is powerful. When individuals consciously spend time with an image, there is a reaction that occurs. It may be a subtle reaction or forceful, positive or negative, as Jenson states:

But no matter how we respond, we are slightly or significantly different for having had the viewing—for having paid attention. Maybe only a single atom of our consciousness has shifted, maybe a landslide has taken place in our souls. We may not be aware of much impact, or we may recognize that this was a significant moment. Still, something happens.[28]

Vision is also unique in the fact that it is spatially and temporally limited. Because the eyes cannot see everything simultaneously, the mind has a choice in what is seen.[29] This is important. Humans have the ability to choose—to see or to not see, to guard their eyes or to indulge.

The brain is flexible and plastic, and what humans view has the ability to change it.

The eyes continuously take in the world that surrounds them. As persons view an image or item, their brains actively interpret what they are seeing. In order for their brains to do so, they must create meaning and categories that fit the perceived image into their understanding of reality. Individual perceptions of the world are affected by what the eyes choose to view. The mind then positions ‘the self’ within the newly created perception of the world by “negotiating the relation between the self and the things that surround it.”[30] As the senses interact with the world, the idea of selfhood, of other than the world, is created in the mind.

Augustine sees reciprocity between the self and visual images:

The soul forms images of sensible things ‘out of its own substance,’ but the result is that the mind itself is formed by the very images it formulates and carries.[31]

The sense of self now influences how the mind sees. Augustine sensed a danger, since the perception of the self is not always properly formed.

Since the mind is conformed to the objects of its vision, if it should dwell disproportionately on physical objects it will become in some sense like those objects . . . if it persists in loving physical objects in the wrong manner, one begins to see oneself and think of oneself in terms of these objects.[32]

What is chosen to view intimately affects this ongoing cycle of viewing, perceiving reality, and knowing the self. This was the danger of idols in early Christianity, and is the danger with pornography today.

In book six of his Confessions, Augustine describes the transformative power of vision through a story about his friend, Alypius, who was against the violence of the gladiatorial games, but attended one day against his will. His friend had no desire to see the cruel and deadly shows, and so sat with his eyes closed. Curiosity eventually overtook him, and he opened his eyes, “supposing himself strong enough to despise whatever he saw and to conquer it . . . He was struck in the soul by a wound graver than the gladiator in his body.”[33] Alypius lost awareness of himself and was consumed by the images before him. Augustine explains that he exited the amphitheater a different man than he entered, transformed by what he had seen. Here, Augustine warns about the “subconscious influence of visual objects.”[34] Despite the man’s best intentions, he is overwhelmed and caught unaware. Curiosity can be dangerous, according to Augustine. Powerful images, such as the violent ones that he witnessed, the idols from early Christianity, and the pornography viewed today, have the ability to gravely wound or deform the soul, affecting the formation of one’s mind and body.

When a particularly strong image or series of images grab hold of the senses, mind, or imagination, the person desires to participate in it. The individual is carried away by the image, moved to act differently because of it.[35] The image awakens a desire to imitate what he or she is captivated by, whether is it a conscious impersonation or not.[36] For Augustine, the person is then gradually moved to become what was observed. Unfortunately, today, adolescents are learning to imitate what they view in pornography.

Every conscious act of viewing has the potential to draw the seer toward beauty and the divine, or to pull him or her away from the divine, into the self, just as Gregory the Great stated above. The result of viewing, according to Augustine, can be positive or negative; an image attracts the viewer one direction or another.[37] It can result in instruction and healing, or delusion and harm. A good visual image, such as an icon or a beautiful work of art, will bring the viewer to an awareness of God, while a bad visual image, like pornography, will close the individual off from God. A good image will form the person so that he or she might grow strong and healthy, in mind, body, and spirit. A bad image, as examined below, has the potential to harm the brain, but also hurts the soul. Icons and idols cause contrasting reactions and lead to opposite transformations.

Images have the potential to form humans, either positively or negatively. What then, defines a “good” image? For Balthasar, the three transcendentals—truth, goodness, and beauty—interrelate and should not be separated. Beauty is what attracts those who encounter it, drawing the eye in; it is the closest to the senses.[38] To take beauty away undermines the attractiveness of the good and the true—faith and religion without beauty leave humans with “a drought in our own souls.”[39] Beauty, on the other hand, is not authentic if it is not also good and true—beauty on its own cannot save. A good image then, is one that is beautiful, but also communicates what is good and true. Only if all three work together can the image transform human perceptions by working as a vehicle of God’s revelation and grace. Aesthetic theology examines how the beautiful, in conversation with truth and goodness, can awaken the senses to the knowledge of God.

Pornography and the Brain: A Scientific Examination

The Church, for many centuries, has spoken intelligently about icons, idols, and the power of images. Modern scientific research has recently also begun examining the transformative power of pornography. What does it have to say about pornography’s physical effects on the brain?

Studies on the brain in the last two decades have revealed the neuroplasticity, or changeability, of the brain. The brain is a map of neurons, which operate under the use-it-or-lose-it principle,[40] constantly creating new pathways and discarding unused ones based on experiences.[41] Approximately 80–85% of our perception, learning, cognition, and activities are mediated through vision, so what the eyes land on greatly affects the experiences, and therefore the way that the brain wires itself. When a person uses pornography, the brain is flooded with the pleasure chemical dopamine and other neurological chemicals. Frequent pornography use overwhelms the brain, so it gets rid of some of the dopamine receptors, resulting in the user reaching a tolerance level, and subsequently having to increase the pornography usage to reach the previous high. This results in a pornography addiction.

The pornography talk should not be anti-sexual. It is not a time to create a fear of sex or shame of the human body.

Frequent pornography use can actually shrink the brain’s frontal lobes, which affects logical problem solving, decision-making, and setting limits. The more a person views these images, the more severe the damage to the brain.[42] Dopamine is not only a pleasure chemical, but it is also a reinforcement chemical.[43] The brain builds new neurological pathways when dopamine is released, so it can more easily remember to do again what just brought it pleasure. The more pornography is viewed, the more pronounced these pathways become. “When this chemical learning process happens with healthy behaviors it helps us live well, but when it happens with secretive and unhealthy behaviors it has the opposite effect.”[44] This can result in changed behaviors. Because the user becomes desensitized and develops a tolerance to certain images, many pornography users find themselves getting aroused by things that used to disgust them or that they find morally wrong. They may become preoccupied with acquiring and viewing new pornography, because they have trained their brain to do so, and they let the images dominate their thoughts. As they view these images over and over, their brains begin to accept the behaviors they see as normal, and they desire to imitate what they see.

Various theologians, as covered earlier, described many attributes of idols that are harmful. This theological understanding of how bad images can draw persons away from God is justified by recent scientific observation with respect to pornographic images. William Struthers, a doctor of biopsychology and an expert on neuroscience at Wheaton College, illustrates this connection:

There are many psychological, social, professional, and spiritual side effects of regular pornography use. They may include increased callousness toward women, decreased satisfaction with sexual relationships, diminished attitude of love toward existing partners, dissatisfaction with one’s own body, an inability to control sexual arousal, shame about one’s own sexuality, feeling separated from God, an increase in deviant sexual fantasies, irritability, a preoccupation with acquiring additional sexually explicit material, increased interpersonal conflict, paranoia about being caught as well as lack of inhibition in other aspects of their life, such as alcohol and drug use or gambling.[45]

Thus, there are indeed cognitive consequences to viewing harmful images, just as many theologians have warned. The brain is flexible and plastic, and what humans view has the ability to change it. Fortunately, because the brain is flexible, these negative affects can be reversed, although studies have shown that it takes on average a year and a half after quitting pornography to heal from just the damage done to the dopamine receptors.[46]

Pastoral Project

The above examinations of early Christian art, a theological appreciation of the power of vision, and biomedical research can aid educators, parents, and catechists in reaching children before they are seduced by pornography. Educators, parents, and catechists should evaluate where the children in their care are in their mental and physical development, realistically examine the obstacles before those children, and then respect their intellects and wills enough to have frank and open dialogue about good and bad images with them. Guidelines for this conversation will be covered below; however, it should be stated at the outset that one conversation is not enough. The concluding step in the process is to facilitate an environment where children will behold good images and then choose to reject bad images independently, and intimately understand the reasons why to do so.

Children should first be spoken to about pornography between the ages of eight and ten. In fact, it is imperative to have this conversation at that age, because the average child is first exposed to real, explicit pornography at age eleven, although it is not uncommon for a six- or seven-year-old to stumble upon it, either through a few wrong turns on a phone or computer, or through exposure to materials in their own homes.

Sofia Cavalletti knew the importance of preparing children for what is to come. In The Religious Potential of the Child, she wrote:

Before the older child begins to question himself whether this or that action is good or bad, we should have provided him with a “yardstick” with which he can give his own response when the time comes; we should give the older child a reference point to orient himself in the new horizon that is opening before him. The yardstick must already be prepared by the time he needs it. The adult’s hurried intervention in the moment when the moral crisis is already in action is undoubtedly detrimental. The older child will either rebel against an inopportune intrusion, or he will become accustomed to using someone else’s yardstick; then morality will not be the child’s own listening to the voice of the Spirit, but rather obedience to an external law.[47]

Prohibiting pornography after the child has already frequently been exposed will not be as effective as equipping the child with the yardstick and tools to say no to pornography before coming in contact with it.

Another reason to speak with eight-to-ten-year-olds is because puberty is happening sooner: the average age for males is 11½ and for females is 10 ½, although it may come earlier for some.[48] Many children are first exposed to pornography when searching for answers to questions about their changing bodies. If they do not have the information on puberty and sexuality they need before that time comes, and if they do not feel comfortable talking to an adult, many end up searching for answers on the Internet, where pornography or sexually explicit behavior is modeled as normal. Parents, educators, and catechists must provide the answers preemptively to avoid children searching for them in the wrong places.

It may be assumed that an eight-to-ten-year-old is not capable of having this conversation, but in actuality, it is an appropriate age developmentally speaking. Childhood is a formative time, and many attitudes and behaviors begin to take shape.[49] A child’s brain is designed to imitate what it sees, so a conversation during this age, before the confusion after first exposure and of puberty, can allow the ideas and action plan provided by trusted adults to take root and grow, so that these are already forming when the child first needs the tools to reject pornography. “Porn-proofing” is a term used by the book Good Pictures Bad Pictures to define the process of empowering children by teaching them what pornography is, why it is harmful to their brains, and how they can minimize its impact once they have been exposed.[50] This information is relayed to them by a conversation with a trusted adult. The porn-proofing conversation is both necessary for children and daunting for adults. General “do’s and “don’ts” for speaking with children and young adolescents about pornography may be helpful.

Children must be shown how to distinguish between idols and icons—those images that lift them up to God, and those that turn them away from him.

First and foremost, the adult should remain calm. The more calm and at ease the adult is, the more comfortable the child will be, and the more receptive to what is relayed. Any discomfort and awkwardness displayed by the adult will be mirrored by the child and may discourage future openness. Second, children have very strong radars indicating levels of sincerity and authenticity, so honesty in what is shared and how it is shared is imperative.[51] Adults that dodge particular questions out of fear or lack of knowledge, or who do not have their own healthy handle on pornography, will not succeed in fooling the child.

Parents, catechists, and educators should encourage questions and validate children’s concerns. Children are not always comfortable asking adults questions about sexuality, and instead direct their questions to their peers, who often do not have reliable information. Since they may be reluctant to ask questions, it is important that the adult given them adequate information on pornography.[52] This does not mean divulging inappropriate details on the nature of sex or the subject matter of pornography. Instead, give enough information so that they can form a real understanding about the topic without being scandalized. This includes speaking about the beauty of the human body and the intention God has for human sexuality. Emphasize the sacred nature of the body and the joy of proper sexual relationships. The pornography talk should not be anti-sexual. It is not a time to create a fear of sex or shame of the human body. Whether the adolescent is currently going through puberty, or whether the child has not yet begun, it is important to assure them that puberty is natural and perfectly normal. Clearly contrast this statement by clarifying that pornography is not natural or normal, and that it tricks the brain into thinking that it is good, when in reality it is not. Speak to children about the images they view in commercials and movies. The images appear to show real-life situations, but they are actually distorted images of reality.[53]

Additionally, during this conversation, adults should remember that ministering to young people does not require perfection, or the expectation that they will say everything flawlessly.[54] Parents, catechists, and educators should go gently with themselves. This topic is too important not to discuss, so adults should not let the fear of the conversation stop them from initiating it. It is still worth noting, however, some negatives that should be avoided. Adults must not dominate the conversation, belittle the child’s voice, ignore questions, or be too critical when the child is talking. If the child is shut down at the time of the initial conversation, he or she will not feel open to discussing this topic later, especially if it becomes a serious, personal problem. Instead, the child must be given room to speak. Adults additionally must not lose their composure during the initial conversation, lashing out in fear or anger, especially if the child admits to having already seen pornography. The Porn Trap shares one young man’s experience of telling his mother that two adults had shown him pornography:

Brad had many questions for her about what he had just seen, but instead of remaining calm and providing information, she “just flipped” and ran down to the playground in search of the hippies [who had shown him] . . . Brad never had the opportunity to ask any questions or receive any answer regarding pornography . . . Her reaction at the time scared Brad and confused him even more about the incident . . . making him feel bad about his curiosity, guilty and ashamed for what had happened, and afraid to ever mention anything about pornography to her again . . . The communication lanes were closed. Brad had already learned to keep his (future) porn use secret and, when confronted, to lie.[55]

Additionally, shame should not be used initially as a preventative tool with a developing child. Similarly, avoid threatening statements like, “If I ever catch you with that, I’ll . . .” Threats and prohibitions will not overcome the natural sense of curiosity and rebellion that children and adolescents have.[56]

Ostriches look silly standing with their heads in the sand. Many parents look equally silly hurling anathemas at a book or a magazine or a film which they pretend their child won’t look at because they don’t want him to, while all they are really succeeding in doing is getting him to look at it secretly.[57]

As previously mentioned, Good Pictures Bad Pictures is a book for porn-proofing children. It is intended to be read by children and adults together, leaving room for discussions and questions. The book distinguishes between good pictures and bad pictures like pornography, which is defined as pictures, videos, or cartoons of people with little or no clothes on, designed to arouse sexual feelings. The book explains that pornography can hurt the brain, but people are drawn to it because it acts like a magnet, tricking the brain into wanting to see more. The book generally covers addiction, and then distinguishes between the feeling brain, which is responsible for emotions and survival instincts, and the thinking brain, which learns right from wrong and self-control. It then explains the goodness of attraction, but how pornography tricks the person into thinking that he or she cannot control his or her cravings. The book finishes by introducing a game plan for any time someone may stumble across pornography. The book encourages open discussion, truthfulness, and the need to cultivate good practices.

A strength of the book is that it recognizes that a child will come across pornography and it offers an action plan for when it happens, called the CAN DO plan.[58] First, the child (or adult) should close his or her eyes and turn away. The longer a person looks, the stronger the memory becomes. Second, alert a trusting adult. Keeping pornography a secret will bother the child more than telling someone. If the child is uncomfortable directly saying that he or she saw pornography, a note can be left or a code word can be used. Third, name it when it is seen. Say, “that’s pornography” out loud. Naming it helps the thinking brain to reject it. Fourth, the child (or adult) should distract him or herself by doing something positive, interesting, and/or physical. Train the thinking brain to focus on something different. Finally, the child should order the thinking brain to be the boss. This interrupts the feeling brain from persuading the individual to view more pornography. Through practice, the thinking brain can be strengthened and learn to control wandering thoughts.

The initial conversation on porn-proofing offered by Good Pictures Bad Pictures is vital, but by itself is ultimately not enough to keep children safe in a pornified world. Concerned parents, catechists, and educators often recognize the dangers and pervasiveness of pornography, and therefore desire to censor everything so that the child will be safe, preserved. Full censorship, however, is neither practical nor effective. Moderate censorship, surely, is needed, especially for young children and in the world of social media, but what will be more enriching and ultimately transforming is to teach children and adolescents to filter the images they see themselves, steering them toward a growth in “independence of judgment, independence of taste, and independence of action.”[59] Children must be shown how to distinguish between idols and icons—those images that lift them up to God, and those that turn them away from him. They must be given the yardstick, and then shown how to use it. This consists in not only teaching what images might be harmful, as covered above, but also in presenting them with a beautiful alternative, both in what is modeled by the adults around them, and by what the adults materially surround the children with. Porn-proofing is not a one-time conversation, but a conversion that must be guided.

The practice of recognizing and choosing good images over bad is learned in the course of everyday life. It consists both of careful and intentional instruction, but also is found in the regular, routine living of day-to-day existence. It is modeled by adults, who quietly demonstrate and guide children by themselves rejecting images that are harmful, and by constantly vocalizing and conversing about why they do so. Negative pictures and videos within adults’ control can be removed and explained, although they cannot expect to eliminate a whole category of negative images and leave behind a void that is not then filled with any art. Instead, children must be flooded with an abundance of good and beautiful art, holy images, instruction on why it is good, beautiful, or holy, and time for contemplation and silence so that the child can cultivate a disposition of wonder and awe in order to combat the fast-paced, overwhelming, and shallow alternative that is constantly flashed before them. This may be through introductions to praying with icons and writing icons, visio divina, frequent museum and church trips, Eucharistic adoration, home altars, exposure to material devotions such as the Rosary, etc.

Further treatment of how parents, educators, and catechists can guide the formation of a child’s vision is needed. A proposed direction is to examine the “Circle of Grace” curriculum, created by the Archdiocese of Omaha for those “responsible for creating safe environments for children,”[60] to evaluate if it could be adapted or altered to include more explicit instruction on pornography by identifying appropriate visual boundaries in addition to the physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual boundaries that “Circle of Grace” already covers. Its K–12 implementation already has a framework in place for the continued formation of a child.

Conclusion

Like the early Christians, children can benefit from symbols, narrative images, and icons that lift them up to God, educate them, inspire prayer and devotion, or express theological ideas. Because children are in a unique developmental stage where they imitate what they see, images of holy men and women, as well as beautiful art that draws them up to God has a powerful effect on them. The proper images can assist in the healthy formation of the child, if they are trained to analyze, evaluate, and intentionally view these images. If they are formed so that they can identify for themselves the difference between good and bad images, and have the desire to choose the good, then they will learn to successfully navigate a pornified world with eyes that are only searching for God.

Featured Photo: perhapstoopink; CC-BY-ND-2.0.

[1] The USCCB’s pastoral letter on pornography, “Create in Me a Clean Heart,” strongly states that there is no difference between “hard-core” and “soft-core” pornography—both are morally sinful.

[2] Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Statement on Pornography” in The Churches Speak On: Pornography, Official Statements from Religious Bodies and Ecumenical Organizations, ed. J. Gordon Melton (Detroit, MI: Gale Research Inc., 1989), 23.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Robin Margaret Jensen, Face to Face Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 9.

[5] Ibid., 15.

[6] Leslie Brubaker, Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm, (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2012), 3.

[7] Jensen, Face to Face, 10.

[8] Robin M. Jensen, The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and the Christian Community (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 65, 67.

[9] Jensen, Face to Face, 14.

[10] Ibid., 14.

[11] Robin M. Jensen, “Nudity in Early Christian Art” in Text, Image, and Christians in the Graeco-Roman World: A Festschrift in Honor of David Lee Balch, ed. Aliou Cissé Niang and Carolyn Osiek (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 305.

[12] Moshe Barasch, Icon: Studies in the History of an Idea (New York: New York University Press, 1992), 96.

[13] Ibid., 111.

[14] Jensen, The Substance of Things Seen, 68.

[15] Jensen, Face to Face, 10.

[16] Barasch, Icon: Studies, 120.

[17] Ibid.,120.

[18] Jensen, Face to Face, 1.

[19] Old Testament images outnumber the New Testament images eight to one.

[20] Jensen, The Substance of Things Seen, 69.

[21] Jensen, Face to Face, 21.

[22] Jim Forest, Praying with Icons (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008), 5.

[23] Jensen, Face to Face, 26.

[24] David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), 1.

[25] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, trans. H.A. Wilson in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 5., ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893). Rev. and ed. for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

[26] Barasch, Icon: Studies, 277.

[27] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, trans. Philip Burton (New York: Random House, Inc., 2001), X.30, 41.

[28] Jensen, Face to Face, 3.

[29] Julia Thomas, ed. Readers in Cultural Criticism: Reading Images (Great Britain: Palgrave, 2001), 3–4.

[30] Ibid., 2.

[31] Matthew Drever, Image, Identity, and the Forming of the Augustinian Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 87.

[32] Ibid., 87.

[33] Augustine, Confessions, VI, 8.

[34] Drever, Augustinian Soul, 89.

[35] Barasch, Icon: Studies, 3.

[36] Jensen, Substance of Things, 8.

[37] Drever, Augustinian Soul, 90.

[38] Nichols, Key to Balthasar, 25.

[39] John W. DeGruchy, Christianity, Art and Transformation, Theological Aesthetics in the Struggle for Justice, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 71.

[40] Mary Eberstadt and Mary Anne Layden, The Social Costs of Pornography: A Statement of Findings and Recommendations (Princeton, NJ: Witherspoon Institute, Inc., 2010), 19.

[41] Fight the New Drug, “Porn Changes the Brain” (Accessed March 25, 2016).

[42] Ibid.

[43] William Struthers, Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 101.

[44] Fight the New Drug, “Porn Affects Your Behavior” (Accessed March 25, 2016).

[45] Struthers, Pornography Hijacks, 72.

[46] Wendy Maltz and Larry Maltz, The Porn Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography, (New York: Harper, 2010), 20.

[47] Sofia Cavalletti, The Religious Potential of the Child: Experiencing Scripture and Liturgy with Young Children, trans. Patricia M. Coulter and Julie M. Coulter (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1992), 152.

[48] Males as early as age nine; females as early as age seven.

[49] Maltz, The Porn Trap, 25.

[50] Kristen A. Jenson and Gail Poyner, Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today’s Young Kids (Richland, WA: Glencove Press, 2015), ix.

[51] Gail A. Caissy, Early Adolescence: Understanding the 10 to 15 Year Old, (New York: Plenum Press, 1994), 23.

[52] Ibid., 23.

[53] Ibid., 189.

[54] Charles M. Shelton, Pastoral Counseling with Adolescents and Young Adults (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1995), 13.

[55] Maltz and Maltz, The Porn Trap, 31.

[56] Clayton C. Barbeau, Art, Obscenity, and Your Children: A Helpful Discussion of Morality and the Arts for Parents and Teachers (St. Meinrad, IN: Abbey Press, 1967), 153.

[57] Barbeau, Art, Obscenity, and Your Children, 155.

[58] CAN DO: Close, Alert, Name, Distract, Order. See Jenson & Poyner, Good Pictures, 41.

[59] Barbeau, Art, Obscenity, and Your Children, 13–14.

[60] Archdiocese of Omaha, “Circle of Grace” (Accessed April 6, 2016).

China Weil

China Weil is a theology teacher at Providence Catholic High School in New Lenox, IL.