The Seven Deadly Sins in a Digital Age: 1. Lust

The Seven Deadly Sins in a Digital Age: 1. Lust

When the subject of "Lust in a digital age" comes up, our minds are likely to jump immediately to the suffocating epidemic of internet pornography that is sweeping our country--indeed, the world. Although it is still rarely openly discussed, most of us are probably dimly aware of the statistics, which are terrifying, and the anecdotes, which are more terrifying still. More than two-thirds of men now report watching porn on at least a weekly basis, and many report full-blown addictive behaviors, watching porn daily, for hours on end, and seeking out ever more perverse and degrading videos. The disturbing stories of young teenagers already hooked on hard-core porn, and the rising epidemic of young men reporting an inability to make love with real women, has finally shaken clinical psychologists out of their complacency to recognize porn addiction as a pervasive and terrifying reality.  And since the phenomenon is extremely new (as we will discuss below)--scarcely a decade old--we can only assume that the worst is yet to come, as a rising generation of teenagers nourished on a diet of porn enter adulthood and bring their dysfunctional relationships with them. 

The most common symptom of this debilitating epidemic, though, is not what we might have expected. Influenced by the chilling story of Ted Bundy, many have assumed that the proliferation of pornography in our digital age would create more rapists and sexual predators, as men, having learned to objectify women, seek to act out their dark fantasies.  In fact, however, statistics show a 60% plunge in rates of sexual violence over the last couple decades. It would appear that the chief symptom of pornography addiction is not hyperactive sexual behavior toward real women, but a crippling inability to engage with real women altogether; the prototypical victim of the pornography culture is not a crazed rapist roving the streets with a knife, but perhaps even more sinister, sits slack-jawed and impotent in a dark room, staring at a screen--like the sluggard of Proverbs too lazy to lift real food to his mouth.  
The response to the rising tide of digital pornography neatly illustrates our paralysis in thinking about technology that I discussed in last week's introduction. In the broader culture, saturated in the sexual revolution and free self-expression, many have blithely dismissed any concern about the issue as puritanical, and have even tried to champion pornography as a form of sexual liberation for men and women, or at least to normalize it.  With sexuality taken as a given, and an always-healthy given, the idea that new technologies could fundamentally alter and warp it has been till recently dismissed by psychologists as paranoia.

But the Church has been little better, where the problem has long been the proverbial elephant in the room.  An elephant it surely is, and it is certainly in the room: 50% of Christian men and 20% of Christian women report being addicted to pornography, and more and more pastors have been laid low by the scourge, throwing their churches into crisis. And yet the problem has long been hushed up; sermons would never mention it, counseling sessions would skirt gingerly around the issue, books on marriage and sexual purity would give it little more than a perfunctory mention. When the issue is raised, whether as part of general teaching or in response to revelations of particular sins, the response is almost always naïve and unhelpful, the platitudinous moralism that either recoils in shock and seeks to shame the sinner into submission, or that blandly repeats injunctives to "stop loving yourself and start loving God," and attributes any failure to do so to a lack of willpower.

Such application of the will - using the reason to govern the lower passions, in the older Christian anthropology - could be fairly effective when succumbing to lust generally required considerable patience and premeditation. Recognizing that this desire "more than anything else work[s] the greatest havoc in a man's mind" (Aquinas, ST IIaIIae Q. 153 a. 1 ad 1), traditional societies sought to build barriers against it, chiefly in the form of social mores that censured fornication and adultery. Indulging lust thus often required planning out a seduction or secret rendezvous; as for pornographic materials, technological limitations meant they were mild compared to today's temptations, as well as being difficult to access. 

Even through most of the 20th century, accessing porn still generally required determination, delayed gratification, secrecy, and expense. Since lust is a vice that craves instant gratification and often burns out when it is denied, self-governance, though never easy, was often achievable. In the last twenty years, and even more in the last ten with the advent of high-speed internet, all that has changed. Loosening social mores have lessened the stigma attached to lust, but more importantly, technology means that, as psychologist Anthony Jack writes, "Anyone . . . can, if they choose, access more sexually arousing content in a few hours than the most obsessive and wealthy collector of a few decades ago could have amassed in a lifetime," and that in complete privacy and instantaneously on a whim. With the advent of smartphones, tablets, and God help us, Apple Watches and Google Glasses, the omnipresence and conveniency of temptation continues to multiply.

The fact is that although lust is as old as Adam and Eve, the challenges it poses for us in our digital age are so great, and so new, that our old ways of thinking about the problem feel woefully out of date. Indeed, it may be that our chief problem with porn is not even Lust at all, as traditionally defined. 

Aquinas, for instance, naturally enough defines this vice as having to do with "desires for the pleasures of touch" (ST IIaIIae Q. 155 a. 2), with the desire for sexual pleasure being paramount among such desires. Although of course he recognized the truth in Christ's statement that "he who looks on a woman lustfully commits adultery with her in his heart," still he, with most of his era, understood such lustful gazing primarily in relation to lustful possessing and physical gratification. But as we have seen, the common profile of today's porn user is that he is drawn further and further away from actual physical sexuality; true, porn use may be accompanied by masturbation, but its chief pleasure is the mental stimulation, and above all the stimulation of ever new and different images.  

In this, it more nearly fits the profile of a distinct though closely related vice - perhaps the vice of the digital age - what Aquinas calls the vice of curiosity. This, he says, following Augustine, is the "lust of the eyes" which is mentioned in John 2:16, alongside, but distinct from, the "lust of the flesh."  Such "curiosity" for knowledge of sensible things justifies itself as a quest for knowledge, which is good or at the very least neutral, but it becomes a vice, says Aquinas, when it "is not directed to something useful, but turns man away from some useful consideration," or when it "is directed to something harmful, as looking on a woman is directed to lust" (ST IIaIIae Q. 167 a. 2 resp.). We might protest that these are very different sins indeed, but in fact Aquinas's perceptive classification here offers valuable insight for the nature of lust in our digital age.

I will have much more to say about this vice of "curiosity" in next week's post on Gluttony, a vice closely allied to Lust both in the classical moral tradition and in its contemporary digital manifestation. Suffice to say for now that the "curiosity" that sends the bored or weary mind browsing for pornography is often little different from the impulse that has already sent the same mind back to Facebook ten times a day to look for new notifications, or rushing to your inbox every time you hear a chime.  In its digital form, pornography has united the age-old human desire for sex with our age-old propensity to seek diversion in the new and different, and offered almost unlimited and effortless "satisfaction" of both impulses. 

All of this shows why the marriage of pornography (with its root in the classical vice of lust) and the internet (the apotheosis of the old vice of curiosity, the lust of the eyes) has been so singularly destructive, a dark spiral that once entered can seem almost impossible to escape.  

But what on earth are we to do about it? I will not pretend here to try to give enough advice for those trapped in the webs of online pornography; excellent resources exist here, here, here, and here that can provide fuller direction. But one thing should be obvious from what I have just argued, and will be made much clearer in next week's post: the root problem here is not one limited to compulsive porn users. On the contrary, it is nearly universal, especially among those of us who have grown up using computers, the internet, and now smartphones. Once alerted to this insatiable stimulation-seeking, you may start to find it everywhere in your behavior with respect to digital devices, and see just how thoroughly it can corrode your learning and your relationships - whether it's the compulsive smartphone-checking when you should be talking to your kids, or the mindless link-browsing when you have a stack of great books you've been meaning to read on your desk.  

Despite the novelty of our challenge, though, older wisdom still has much to offer. Consider Aquinas's at first somewhat puzzling distinction between the virtues of Temperance and Continence, both of them opposed to lust. The latter is better than nothing, he says, but only halfway to true virtue. Continence, says Aquinas, consists in "reason standing firm in opposition to the passions" (ST IIaIIae 155 a. 1 resp.), whereas temperance achieves a state in which "vehement passions contrary to reason do not arise in the sensitive appetite." 

Contemporary neuroscience has confirmed Aquinas's instinct here: since the reward circuits of the brain are habit-forming, lustful passions are much more likely to arise out of well-worn mental grooves, in which the passion has been rewarded repeatedly. When we think in terms of continence, we focus on trying to resist the temptation when it appears, and hopefully succeed more often than not; when we think in terms of temperance, we focus on trying to rewire our brains so that the temptation does not arise. And this requires a much more holistic awareness of the interrelated ways in which we reward lust and "curiosity" in our increasingly digital lives. The achievement of true temperance comes not by willpower alone - just loving God more - nor by a change of outward circumstances alone - abandoning all stimulating technologies. Rather, it requires a patient, disciplined, and ever-vigilant coordination of heart, mind, and body in the quest to identify and uproot the wickedness in our hearts. 

Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at