Imagine there was a popular food additive that researchers discovered decreased male sexual libido and performance by 50 percent. Young men would avoid it like the plague. Or imagine a supplement that made young men feel like they were getting stronger when they took it, but was actually weakening them.
If the manufacturers were making a lot of money off the product with false promises to “build muscle mass” and “increase performance,” there would likely be widespread calls to ban it or regulate it to “keep our young people safe from these unscrupulous capitalists making money preying on, and perverting, their desires for something noble and good.”
Given all this, it’s hard to understand the widespread devil-may-care attitude today about pornography. Study after study shows that when young men view internet pornography – a very big problem, as any priest who hears confessions will tell you – it decreases their interest in real sex with a real woman.
Actual sex cannot be controlled the same way as virtual sex; it does not allow switching between alternate images quickly to increase levels of stimulation; and thus, after time, it rarely results in the same levels of chemical stimulants in the brain. Thus we find disturbing increases in sexless marriages that seems to correspond with the increase in the viewing of pornography.
Don’t good parents try to prepare their sons and daughters precisely for that loving, conjugal relationship they hope they will find in their future? Just as they feed them healthy vegetables rather than letting them eat chocolate-covered sugar bombs and make them share their toys with their friends, so they will become healthy, well-adjusted, kind, caring adults, so too parents do everything they can to nourish the healthy sexual development of their children rather than allowing them a diet of beguiling fake nourishment that will enfeeble them.
Parents don’t keep their kids away from pornography because they think sex is evil; they keep their kids away from pornography because they want them to have healthy, joyful sex with someone they love deeply and are committed to for life rather than settling on the sad, meaningless, joyless thing people call sex today.
So who are the real “sex-haters”? The people who want to prepare young people to have lasting, meaningful sex with a real spouse? Or those who want to addict them to a life of paying for endless streams of meaningless virtual sex?
And there’s a related problem rarely associated with the first, but which produces similar, troubling attitudes towards women and sex.
Allow me to take one step back. The biological reality is that young men and women become capable of reproducing the species at roughly thirteen or fourteen years of age for young women, and several years later for young men. And they are often fitted out with all the hormones to cause them to want to do just that. Thus, wise cultures keep children child-like and innocent up to the age of twelve or thirteen, and at that point, they make them undergo some ritual of adulthood (bar mitzvah, for example) after which they spend all their time with adults preparing for adulthood. Because wise cultures understand that once young people are biologically adult, you must in fairly short order make them socially ready for adulthood or suffer the consequences.
In modern developed countries, we suffer the consequences. Because we take entry into a social class as seriously as did the Victorians, and because access to the upper classes is taken to be through education (or at least time spent at a prestigious educational institution), we make young people wait. It was hard enough in the mid-twentieth century to get them to wait until they were finished with high school. But now we insist they wait until they are finished with college (which merely extends adolescence), then graduate school, then residency or first job. Get your career first, then family. . .maybe.
The problem is, no one really expects young people to wait – not for sex, at least. For marriage, absolutely. One must find just the “right” spouse, one’s “soul mate” who will help foster all one’s self-creating potential. But wait, years and years, for sex – until thirty? For some, perhaps most, it’s simply unimaginable. And here’s the thing: perhaps they’re on to something. Perhaps only a foolish culture would expect young humans to have all the potential and all the hormonal energy, and then not actualize it.
And so we have the disturbing existence of “hook-up culture.” But equally disturbing, one finds among certain conservative Christian males the reappearance of that old Victorian distinction between girls you have sex with and girls you marry. Young Catholic men will break up with young women whom they find too sexually alluring. They may dabble in sex so they can be more “experienced.” But since they know that fornication is wrong, they conclude that they should stop doing it (which they are right about) and then conclude that they could never marry a woman “like her” because a good Christian man would not lust after a good Christian woman.
Why they think this is the woman’s fault escapes me, but either way, they often break things off, leaving themselves lonelier and no less confused.
What is needed? May I suggest a cultural adjustment, one that emphasizes the importance of the domestic life of the family to human flourishing as much as we now emphasize a person’s career; one that once again understands “dating” as “courtship” on the way to marriage and not “test driving” different models to find one that fits; and one that understands that the modern creation of “adolescence,” a period in which young people have all the freedoms of adulthood and none of the responsibilities, has been a disaster.
When young people become biologically capable of reproducing the species, you either make them socially adult and capable of actualizing their potential or you suffer the dire consequences.
*Image: Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife  by Jan van Eyck, 1434 [National Gallery London]
You may also enjoy:
Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s The Priest’s Role in Marriage Preparation 
Eduardo Echeverria’s Marriage in Light of Creation, Fall, and Redemption 
Brad Miner’s Satan Loves Porn