Let’s begin with what should be an obvious point: There is no exclusive, causative correlation between viewing pornography and poor mental health. Meaning there are many individuals who do not view pornography and have mental health struggles. Further, it would be entirely inappropriate to work backward from a mental health struggle to deduce that it is caused by the viewing of pornography.
The question this post poses—how does viewing pornography impact someone’s mental health?—is a contributive question, not a causative one. We want to consider, does the habit of viewing pornography add to or detract from the quality of someone’s mental health?
A second clarification is also needed. This post is not trying to make a moral argument (implying that pornography is wrong because it has a negative impact on mental health). Wrongness is determined by whether an action aligns with God’s character and design. That is a more important, but separate, issue from the question of this article. An action can be immoral and have no negative mental health effects. As far as we know, taking the Lord’s name in vain (violating the third of the Ten Commandments; Exodus 20:7) does not have any negative mental health effects.
An intended benefit from this reflection is the realization that God’s abstain for lust-based entertainment (Matthew 5:27-30) is an act of love; a means of protection intended to promote our flourishing, not a means of punishment to deprive us from something good. Too often the view we have of God as we think about pornography is as Him being against us and our joy instead of for us and our flourishing.
Now to the title of this post: What are six ways that pornography affects our mental health? Each of the effects below is a common “side effect,” if you will, of viewing pornography that has a negative influence on mental health. The degree of impact each point has on a given individual will vary from person to person for a variety of reasons.
No one feels as if viewing pornography is noble. Yes, there are teenagers who believe viewing pornography is “grown up” and may brag about it, or older individuals who view it as “necessary” or “common” and downplay the unrest in their soul. But no one feels like they have done a “virtuous-honoring thing” when they finish viewing pornography.
The result is a sense of guilt—an innate sense that what was done was bad. Guilt is produces a decline in mental health and the physiological changes from guilt in the brain can be neurologically demonstrated.
For a highly habituated activity like viewing pornography the options are clear: (a) turn off or dull the conscience to remove the sense of guilt, or (b) abstain from the guilt-provoking activity. The first option only further contributes to other choices that would further deteriorate mental health.
2. Social Distance/Shame
The first point has to do with a sense of distance in our relationship with God. This point emphasizes the impact on our social relationships.
A common experience of viewing pornography is carrying a secret. Secrets create distance. We are left wondering “what would you think of me if you knew.” The result is that even our closest friendships begin to feel superficial or fake.
The depth and quality of our friendships are a significant factor in our mental health. Activities that lower the quality or number of our friendships have a negative influence on our mental health.
3. Crude-Depersonalizing Socialization
People (i.e., actors or models) in pornography are not people to the viewer; they are a collection of features or objects of satisfaction. In a pornographic world people are not heard, assisted and loved. People are evaluated, ranked and consumed. When hours are spent immersed in this world, these values begin to seep in.
The logic is pretty clear, “If that is what I’m doing with everyone else, it must be what everyone else is doing with me. If I don’t rank, I don’t matter. I must associate with people who rank higher than I do, in order to improve my rank. Life is a sport and there are far more losers than winners.”
The result is that it becomes increasingly difficult to see individuals as people with innate value. Instead, people are a collection of assets (height, weight, complexion, humor, power, etc…) each of which can be added together to determine their value. Living under this pressure and/or treating people this way has negative impact on one’s mental health.
4. Avoiding Unpleasant Emotions
One of the primary motives for viewing pornography is to reduce or relieve stress. A passive approach to stress management results in an under-developed capacity for managing unpleasant emotions. The less equipped we are to withstand unpleasant emotions, the more overwhelming each experience of anxiety, depression or other distress becomes.
Add to this the idyllic narratives that are pervasive in pornographic material (the viewer always identifying with the central, pursued character) and the person who regularly views pornography is further conditioned to believe that the day-to-day, normal conflict in life and relationships are unbearable.
One important measure of mental health is our capacity to be resilient in the midst of unpleasant emotions or circumstances. Pornography detracts from this capacity both by serving as an escape from healthily processing unpleasant emotions and reinforcing the belief that these stresses should not exist.