It's well-known that in ancient Rome hundreds of thousands of people would to pile into the stacked layers of stone seating in the Colosseum to watch gladiators fight to their death, cheering on as the warriors met a bloody and often drawn-out end.
However, while being a “gladiator” in modern Rome has mostly become a way pick up extra cash in photo-ops with tourists, there are some who argue that the gruesome nature of the ancient battles, in which people would essentially celebrate and take pleasure in the pain of others, hasn't gone away, but has rather taken on a new, less obvious form in the digital world: pornography.
When it comes to internet pornography, Dr. Donald Hilton Jr. of the University of Texas Health Science Center said we as a society have to learn to ask the “uncomfortable questions about our culture, why we're so easily voyeuristic to watch people being harmed.”
While pornography has always been a problem, the new widespread access offered through the digital world has led to a culture that enjoys “watching women being hurt on screen,” he told CNA.
Hilton recalled that in a tour of the Colosseum, his guide explained that throughout the centuries of its of operation, the structure “had up to several hundred thousand animals and gladiators dying in the colosseum with people watching them and enjoying watching their pain.”
Now “I think we have a neon colosseum, a colosseum of screens where far more, now, are watching people being harmed. And people are enjoying it,” he said, adding that in his opinion, “we're no better than the ancient Romans in that.”
“In fact, in some way I think we're worse, because at least they did it openly, but we hide behind our screens at night and do it, and tell ourselves it's okay.”
Hilton spoke as part of a four-day conference on protecting children in a digitally connected and global society. Titled “Child Dignity in the Digital World,” the conference is being held in Rome Oct. 3-6 and is organized by the Pontifical Gregorian University's Center for Child Protection.
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin opened the conference as a keynote speaker. Other participants in the congress include social scientists, civic leaders, and religious representatives. Discussion points include prevention of abuse, pornography, the responsibility of internet providers and the media, and ethical governance.
Several leading personalities participating argued that given the easy access children have to the internet, they are increasingly falling prey to an industry that, without the proper protections, can ultimately leave them vulnerable, becoming victims to a wide variety of abuses.
On day two of the conference, Hilton was part of a panel of experts exploring the dangers of internet pornography and its impact on children, specifically the link between pornography and violence, and the effects of porn use on the human brain, particularly among youth.
A celebrated neuroscientist and world-renown surgeon, Hilton examined the scientific changes in the human brain when viewing pornography.
Essentially, he said human beings have “two brains,” one being the cortex, which he called our “thinking brain,” and the other being the brain stem, referred to by Hilton as our “wanting brain.” So while the brain might tell us to do something because it feels good, the cortex will tell us to slow down and think about the consequences.
Between the two is the “reward center” of the brain, he said, explaining that while it is intended to help motivate us, the reward center can be “hijacked and diverted” from this purpose if we take in “powerful rewards indiscriminately.”
In this case, the reward center can “reset the pleasure thermostat of the brain,” and a “new normal” is established, which can quickly become addiction, Hilton said, explaining that the brain structure is impacted by learning, and that “addictive learning sculpts the brain in a very damaging way.”
Referring to a recent study done by medical personnel, he said addictions to food and sex have now been put on par with substance abuse, because the same changes are found in brain studies “and the behaviors are almost identical.”
Children and young adults are particularly at risk from this, he said, because for one, the frontal-lobe control center of the brain don't fully mature until the person is in their mid-20s. However, most exposure to pornography happens at a young age, leaving children particularly vulnerable to changes in the brain structure.
He said children are also more at risk because the chemicals for processing rewards and addictions are more potent brains that are not yet mature, so “an immature breaking system is essentially paired with an accelerated reward-seeking drive.” He also cited problems with brains systems that identify observers with the “motivational state” of those performing in the program, which in pornography is often linked to violence.
In his comments to CNA, Hilton said porn access at a young age is particularly concerning because since the brain of a child or teenager is not yet developed, it makes a strong imprint and “sets their template” in way that essentially sculpts the brain to prefer what they watch over reality.
Quoting American author, feminist, and political adviser Naomi Wolf, he said “pornified” boys are increasingly led to a mentality that “real women are just bad porn.”
Hilton said that in order to help counter the online porn industry, the issue has to be addressed in a new way. Whereas in the past it has primarily been relegated to the moral realm, he said the issue is wider, and that it's important to bring the issue up in public settings “without mentioning religion.”
“Can we talk about exploitation not only of youth who are viewing pornography, but of young female performers that are being used up so quickly and exploited by a very powerful industry? Can we leave the religion out of it and talk about it from a public health perspective?” he said.
“This is a vast industry, the internet is a vast industry,” he said, adding that if any other industry had the same amount of disease, emotional health issues, and drug abuse involved, “they would cry out and there would be outrage.
However, “with porn, as long as they take their clothes off and put a camera there, you can do anything you want,” he said, comparing porn to “filmed prostitution.”
“Can we really say that porn is good and that people should view it if the people that make it are being harmed? Is it an ethical product then?” he asked, and noted that according to one study paper, 88 percent of the scenes in the 250 most popular porn movies show aggression toward women.
So when looking at the concrete numbers, “if it's not ethical to produce it, is it ethical to watch it? What is the price someone is paying to film that?”
Also speaking at the conference was Dr. Mary Anne Layden, a psychotherapist and Director of Education for the University of Pennsylvania, who addressed the link between violence and pornography.
In her speech, she presented various research studies linking the use of pornography to increased aggression toward women. In youth particularly, various studies have proved that exposure to porn at a young age increases the likelihood youth will be promiscuous at an earlier age, and are more prone to partner abuse as they get older.
Porn use also and the misconceived belief that if access is so common, it isn't harmful, and that women who are treated violently in porn films actually like it, she said.
In comments to CNA after her speech, Layden said pornography is especially dangerous for children because “everything children see is educational,” and since porn is typically the only imagery kids have when it comes to sex, they learn about it from “this toxic form.”
“Now their brains are absorbing this and they are getting these messages, and then they very quickly start to act on that,” she said, explaining that they “will likely start having sex earlier, they will likely think all relationships are sexual, they'll start to try and get their partner to try and act out things they've seen in pornography.”
Pornography also leads to misconceptions about the human body and what constitutes abuse, she said, explaining that many young adults have come into her clinic complaining that their bodies “don't work” because things don't happen like they do in movies.
While numerous research studies have proven that performers in pornography films don't enjoy what they do on-set, many people still believe the opposite, Layden said, because they don't see the suffering the performers endure.
What most people don't know, she said is that “on those porn sets there is a doctor, on every porn set,” and “he will give you any drug you can name – he will give you Percocet, he will give you Xanex, he will give you heroine, he will give you anything to get you to go through that scene, take that torture and smile while they're doing it.”
She said that when children first come into contact with pornography their initial reaction is that “there's something scary” about it, and even something violent, but that very quickly they start to learn from what they see that “violence is a sex act,” and this notion becomes more normal as they get older.
In terms of protecting children from harmful images, Layden stressed the importance of educating parents on the risks and finding the right software to block problematic content from popping up.
Unfortunately, she said around only 20 percent of parents have actually put protective software on their children's devices and activated it.
But if parents are looking for a good company, she said “Covenant Eyes” has programs that work very effectively through blocks and accountability software that will send a list of their child's search history to them at the end of the week.
While it might not be possible bring the porn access to zero, it is possible to reduce it, Layden said.
“The fact that we can't reduce it to zero doesn't make us stop anything else,” she said, naming youth smokers and cancer patients as examples. And concrete ways to reduce exposure is to put filters on computers in libraries and at schools, as well as personal devices children own, and to not let them put their computers in their bedrooms.
She also stressed the need to get legislators and governments involved, explaining that pornography sites have finally been legally required to check the age of someone trying to access their web-pages.
“That won't stop the damage that's done to adult men,” she said, explaining that pornography first of all does damage to those who use it, “but it will stop with the most vulnerable, which is the children.”
Perpetrators of pornography must also be held accountable, Layden said, because the industry ultimately makes money by “hurting children.”
“This is an absolute scandal, these are child abuse perpetrators, these pornographic websites,” she said, explaining that they ought to be treated as perpetrators and put in jail, because “if you actually enforce law against obscenity, you can actually take all of their profits.”
Doing this would also “send the message to culture that if we're putting them in jail, this must be a bad thing,” she said. “The permission-giving beliefs that say everyone is doing it, it must be fine, is just one of the biggest damages, and we can start the sending the message that it's not okay.”
“We've got to stop saying 'boys will be boys,'” and instead begin educating families more effectively on what healthy sexuality entails, she said, because pornography “hurts everyone involved; men, women, children, performers...it hurts everybody that comes close to it.”