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Sex’ in the dorms

Father Lou DelFra | Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Once on retreat, I asked my 70-year-old spiritual director, a Trappist monk, “When does your sex drive finally calm down?” After a moment’s pause, he answered, “As best I can tell, about a half-hour after you die.”

So much for easy solutions. Growing into sexual maturity is a life-long journey, without many short-cuts.

Many, many students on our campus – male and female – are struggling with the role of pornography in their lives. It is not surprising. Take one of your deepest, most powerful, often seemingly insatiable human drives – your sex drive – and offer it instant, stimulating, no-strings-attached, anonymous, and often free gratification, especially at a time when, biologically, you are at the peak of your sexual lives. Add to this the technological explosion of personal computer products. Throw in the general stress levels with being a student in a competitive environment. Given this set of conditions, what would really be surprising was if pornography use on campus was somehow declining, which as you know, it is not.

So, in the midst of this extraordinarily explosive set of circumstances, I want first to say thank you to the many students who have had the courage, and desire for wholeness, to bring this up, and to share their struggles, and to seek for mature ways to live out their sexual lives. Your witness – even if you have not overcome this temptation but are still struggling with it – is a light illuminating a dark, labyrinthine street. Though it is a confusing and sometimes seemingly overwhelming road, it is one on which our God, who gave us this gift of sexuality, promises to walk closely with us – continually offering us true intimacy and ways to live out our lives with integrity and true joy.

Your struggles have illuminated for me some of the subtly harmful consequences of repeated pornography use – ones that seem barely apparent in any single moment of consumption, but begin to form corrosive patterns over time. I bring them up here in the hope that they may be helpful to others.

Pornography seems to tarnish the way its users relate to other people, including people they really want to love. Because pornography is so immediately stimulating and does not require the interpersonal, longer-term effort that friendship requires, and also because pornography generally requires solitude and anonymity, many students have noticed in themselves a dampened desire to deepen friendships with others. This includes a decreased interest in deepening friendships with other people you actually find yourself attracted to – a fact that reveals how deviously isolating the practice of viewing pornography can be. Not surprisingly, students have also expressed concern that pornography seems to increase their tendency to view other people – again, perhaps most frustratingly, especially people to whom they are attracted – primarily as sexual objects.

Pornography also, over time, leaves its users with an increased sense of loneliness and emptiness – the exact opposite of the fulfillment it promises. As intimate as the act of viewing pornography may feel in the moment – alone, another human being unveiled before you – your deepest self is not duped – the fact remains that no truly human relationship is ever formed. It is all virtual. Perhaps one of the most tempting features of pornography is that no follow-up with your “partner” is needed – a feature that seems extremely convenient at the time, but which actually frustrates our deep human desire for companionship. It probably is also worth reminding ourselves – for the sake of breaking through the fantasy – that, as spontaneous as pornographic acts present themselves, in fact they are almost entirely calculated, non-spontaneous, deliberately filmed and edited products of a $2 billion a year industry that is interested in making money, not fulfilling any human need for relationship. In fact, the industry can hardly make money if it actually succeeds in fulfilling your companionship needs. Its increasing profits – and they are increasing at an amazing rate – are dependent on repeated use.

Perhaps the most pernicious consequence that students have struggled with is that, over time, repeated pornography use threatens to turn sexuality into an enemy. Students who struggle with pornography frequently talk about their sexuality primarily as something they need to overcome. In fact, it is the use of pornography they are so desperate to overcome, but often this slips into a general adversarial relationship with one’s entire sexuality. This is squarely at odds with the life – including the sexual life – that God, who gifted us with our sexuality, intends for us. We are not created to be enemies of the gifts which God has planted deep within us. As Jesus protectively describes the presence of the gift of the Spirit within him against those who believe he is possessed of an evil spirit, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Father Ron Rolheiser, who offers a compelling, positive, and explicitly Christian understanding of sexuality in his book “The Holy Longing,” writes, “For a Christian, sex is something sacred. Hence, it can never be simply a casual, unimportant, neutral thing. If its proper nature is respected, it builds the soul as a sacrament, and it brings God’s physical touch to us. Conversely, though, if its proper nature is not respected, it . . . works at disintegrating the soul.” Each of God’s gifts, including our sexuality, is given for the purpose of building our souls.

Of the set of conditions that students have identified as helping to make pornography such a growing trend on college campuses – its accessibility, its anonymity, its power to stimulate – few are likely to change in the near future, and in fact will likely increase. Two, however, that remain in our control are anonymity and the messages about sexuality that permeate our community. What courageous students have revealed is that honestly sharing their struggles with pornography with another person whom they trust – a priest, minister, mentor, friend – is an incredibly powerful step towards breaking its hold. What a beautiful insight into the power of Christian community – characterized as it is by encouragement, forgiveness, healing, true freedom, true love, real relationship and, infusing it all, the compassion of Christ. He has entered totally into our humanity, in all its complexity, and promises to bring every part of us – including our sexuality – into intimate union with Him.

Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, is the director of Bible Studies in the Office of Campus Ministry. He can be reached at delfra.2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.