WASHINGTON — While many Americans are coping with the fear and uncertainty of the global coronavirus pandemic, the pornography industry has responded by providing free access to content — an offer that has drawn harsh criticism from leaders of the fight against sexual exploitation.

Global porn consumption rates have gone up significantly with most people confined to their homes. While the Church teaches that pornography is a “grave offense” that “does grave injury to the dignity of its participants,” experts are also cautioning that porn consumption could exacerbate mental-health issues during the pandemic.

Many have also come forward to highlight the industry’s disturbing links to sex trafficking.

Eleanor Gaetan is the director of government relations at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), a nonpartisan nonprofit that was co-founded by Jesuit Father Morton Hill and other faith leaders in 1962 to combat all forms of sexual exploitation, including pornography.

Regarding the offer of free premium content by Pornhub, the leading online purveyor of pornography, Gaetan told the Register that the website has a “long history of pretending to be a helpful community actor.” However, she said it is offering “a demonic deal” because the website “is featuring videos of child sexual-abuse material” and is also “a place where videos of sex-trafficking victims can be found.”

Gaetan referenced a recent case in which Florida authorities found a 15-year-old girl who had been missing for nearly a year after images of her appeared on Pornhub and similar websites. “Pornhub is a bad actor, and what is it doing when it’s offering premium service?” she said. “It’s trying to lure people into temptation; it’s trying to lure people into what is effectively an addiction.”

 

Push to Enforce Obscenity Laws

NCOSE, along with Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council and others opposed to pornography sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr in February asking for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to enforce obscenity laws against the pornography industry. The letter said, “mounting medical evidence finds extensive neurological and physical harm is caused by exposure to the lewd graphic obscenity openly available to anyone who can type a few words in a search bar — or scroll and click through Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok.”

The letter cited studies finding that “most adversely impacted are developing minds: Increased pornography use is linked to decreased gray matter and reduced functional connectivity in the brain. Further, 45 peer-reviewed studies demonstrate strong evidence that pornography leads to compulsive sexual behavior, which means, the more you view the more you want to see, despite negative consequences.”

In December, Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, also wrote Attorney General Barr asking for clarification on the DOJ’s enforcement of obscenity laws and if they could be used to regulate online pornography.

“There has been a dramatic rise in illegal pornography production and distribution,” wrote George, a Catholic who served as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom from 2013 to 2016. “Hotels, cable and TV companies, and internet pornography distributors regularly sell pornography featuring horrific themes such as the rape of teenagers, incest, sexual assault, sex trafficking and slavery, suffocation, bondage, and even cartoon pornography targeted at minor children. Racism and misogyny are rampant. A 13-year-old with a smartphone now has unlimited access to his own personal theater of sexual horrors.”

 

Secular Voices

The effects of viewing explicit sexual content are such that many Hollywood celebrities, including Lord of the Rings star Orlando Bloom and How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor, have recently spoken out about its mental-health dangers. Brooklyn Nine-Nine star Terry Crews has called for a smut-free quarantine on social media, saying that pornography is “when you are using an image or images of other people, human beings, and treating them like your personal objects, where you’ve basically stripped the humanity out of the human beings, where human beings become body parts.”

Crews talked about being exposed to pornography at a young age and struggling with addiction. “So many people have now confused sex with love,” Crews said. “Love has a concern for the other person.”

Keri Casey is the editorial director at Fight the New Drug, which describes itself as a “non-religious and non-legislative organization that exists to provide individuals the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding pornography by raising awareness on its harmful effects using only science, facts and personal accounts.”

Casey told the Register that “when you’re looking at this situation concerning COVID-19, you have to consider how the porn industry is already pushing on an open door. People are already home. They’re already lonely and isolated, and they’re already spending all of their waking hours on their internet-connected devices.”

“We’ve seen popular porn sites taking advantage of this situation and capitalizing off of that increased isolation, loneliness and boredom that people are facing because of social distancing,” Casey said. “However they want to market this opportunistic mentality that they have, the reality is that anxiety, depression and low self-esteem are further fueled by porn consumption.”

 

Ties to Sex Trafficking

“It might be surprising for people to hear that nonconsensual porn is not uncommon,” Casey added. “Not all porn contains sex-trafficked individuals, but absolutely some does, and we’re seeing increased reports about how this content is available on free and popular porn sites.”

She said that they’ve heard from sex-trafficking survivors who say that the uptick in pornography consumption in the pandemic is “re-traumatizing because they know that more eyes than ever are concentrated on porn sites right now and possibly consuming the content that was uploaded of them without their consent.”

Casey also pointed out that “one of the leading factors to make someone vulnerable to human trafficking is financial need, and that’s the perfect storm right now, because there are so many people across the world who’ve been laid off from their jobs or can’t get paid because they’re not essential personnel.”

“This financial crisis is very likely to increase the likelihood of the sex-trafficking industry growing in the following weeks,” she warned. “We’ve already seen facets of the porn industry preying on people with lower-earning jobs specifically because of COVID-19. One camming site, for example, recently announced that they’re offering employees of a very famous worldwide fast-food chain restaurant the opportunity to sell explicit photos and images of themselves to help them make rent next month.”

“This is just one very public example of sexually exploitative companies taking advantage of people who are in financially desperate situations,” she said, “but we know that it’s happening behind the scenes, much more than the average person might realize.”

She pointed out that the kidnapped 15-year-old Florida girl whose images were found on Pornhub had her images uploaded by an account that was “verified” on the site, emphasizing “their verification system is very, very weak.”

Casey said her group has been following investigations into Pornhub’s verification system, and “what we’re seeing from those investigations is that there is little to no prevention whatsoever of exploitative content being uploaded on the site, and the reporting system of these sites leaves something to be desired for victims and survivors everywhere.”

“We’ve heard so many stories that sex-trafficking survivors, sexual-abuse survivors, non-consensual porn survivors of all kinds have repeatedly reported this content to Pornhub and been met with either inaction or silence,” she said. Their group recently posted an article outlining the bare minimum sexually explicit websites could do to prevent this sort of sexual exploitation.

“What other industry would be allowed to do what the porn industry is doing?” Casey wondered. “You hear about a few exploitative videos on YouTube and people absolutely riot, and yet there are exploitative videos uploaded every single day to porn sites, and until now they’ve been able to evade scrutiny.”

 

A Message to Men

Matt Fradd, a Catholic author and speaker who has written extensively about the harms of pornography, told the Register that there are “46 neuroscience-based studies that support the addiction model when it comes to pornography. There are over 70 studies that show a correlation between porn use and sexual dissatisfaction so I like to say that if you’d like to remain sexually frustrated, pornography’s the way to go.”

Fradd’s journey to speaking out on the issue began, he said, when “a couple of years into my marriage I began to discover a significant degree of healing, I think, within a year of being free of it [pornography] and had never experienced anything like that.”

He said that about 10 years ago, “people were asking me to give chastity talks and I said, ‘No, I’d rather give a talk on pornography,’ and they were like ‘Oh, no,’ whereas over the last six years, I cannot keep up with the demand to speak on pornography at high schools and colleges. It’s like something shifted, and we decided it was worth us all addressing.”

Fradd talked about people he knows who were sex-industry workers, saying “the story that women tell if you listen to them once they get out of the industry is drearily predictable.”

“It almost always involves some serious form of abuse or neglect when she was young, her unsuccessfully trying to process the trauma brought on by those things, and then she’s either preyed upon directly by the sex industry or feels she has no other choice,” he said.

“This is evident in the stories of people like Jenna Jameson,” he continued. “In her book How to Make Love Like a Pornstar, she talked about what it was like being gang-raped in high school and how she lied about that very fact on the Howard Stern program because she didn’t want people to think she got into the industry because she was a victim. Belle Knox, she was a student at Duke University, and it came to light that she was doing porn to make money; she was making headlines saying how liberating she thought it was, and then she just quietly left the industry and said she’s a rape victim and she used to cut herself just trying to process things.”

Fradd said that his message to men is that “it’s a manly thing to treat a woman who’s forgotten her dignity with dignity nonetheless, and simply saying ‘Well, she’s okay with it’ is not a good enough answer.”

He has launched a 21-day detox from porn course called “Strive21,” with more than 14,000 men participating. He plans to develop a similar course soon for women who struggle with porn addiction. His 2017 book The Porn Myth contains nonreligious, scientific arguments against consumption of sexually explicit material, and proceeds from the sale of the book go to help sex-trafficking survivors.

 

The Spiritual Toll

Jim O’Day is the executive director of Integrity Restored, a Catholic group that aims to “help restore the integrity of individuals, spouses and families that have been affected by pornography and pornography addiction.” O’Day told the Register that in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, “at some point in the future we’re going to be faced with people who have become so habitualized to using pornography as their self-soothing mechanism that we’re going to have a bigger society of addicts than we currently do today.”

O’Day said, “People tend to self-isolate and disconnect and not be in full relationship with people around them socially when they’re fully addicted to porn.” He said in terms of the spiritual toll, “the biggest thing that we hear happen is that people don’t believe that God loves them anymore or people believe that their sin is so great that God can’t forgive it. It’s this disconnecting from our Father and from his mercy that, to me, is one of the most concerning things. What we always tell people is that ‘God loves you, and God forgives you; and we can’t understand his mercy, but we can accept it.’”

Integrity Restored is planning to launch an online coaching program in the beginning of May that is geared toward “those who are struggling, those who are affected by somebody struggling, and those who are in a position of care.”

“We also have a ton of other resources: We have blogs; we have ebooks that people can download,” O’Day added. “More and more people are going to be struggling with this. The average age of exposure in the U.S. is 10 years old, so this is the ‘new normal’ for us as a society. As a Church, we’ve got to start talking about it, and we have to take it out of the realm of just a moral failing and understand that it is an addiction like alcoholism or drug abuse and get these people the help they need with love.”

“If we’re not in the midst of the struggle ourselves, we absolutely know and love someone who is,” he emphasized. “The numbers are just that big now.”

Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.