With the registering of Playboy.com on the Nasdaq exchange this past March, cyberporn gained a new level of respectability. News commentary pointed out that the decision to give commercial legitimacy to an enterprise based on soft-core online pornography may open the way to public acceptance of the more hardcore varieties. The question is, will purveyors of exploitative and demeaning sex increasingly pollute our economy?
Some people have argued that Playboy and its philosophy are so mild and vapid that they are hardly worth worrying about. After all, Playboy Enterprises has been listed with the New York Stock Exchange since 1971, and the world is still functioning, more or less.
Others point out that although we haven't yet reached cosmic collapse, pornography already governs our culture in ways that are both powerful and insidious. From TV sitcoms to shampoo ads, sexual titillation has proved to be a sure draw.
In fact, the statistics on web pornography are scary. U.S. News & World Report recently noted that some 15 to 20 million surfers visit cyberspace porn sites each month; in 1998, $1 billion was spent on access to such sites, a figure expected to triple during the next three years; and studies made by two leading American universities concluded that at least 200,000 Americans use online porn in a compulsive way that has negative consequences for their real-life relationships. The magazine also mordantly notes the fate of the Child Online Protection Act, which sought to restrict minors from accessing websites containing "harmful material." It was overturned on grounds of "free speech," although an appeal is pending.
On the whole, the churches have maintained an eerie silence on this whole issue. To raise questions seems either petty, puritanically prudish, or politically incorrect. We've come to the point where we are ashamed to raise our voices against the shameful exploitation of the human person by (literally) stripping more or less willing women, men, and children of any shred of dignity or personal integrity. In today's America, the profit motive seems to justify any degree of self-degradation, including cyber-prostitution. If the recent article published in the Romanian print version of Playboy magazine is any indication, we're in for hard times ahead. Purporting to be a satire, that article described ways a man can beat a woman without leaving telltale marks. The ensuing stir was so great, it seemed that the company might pull its magazine off the market once and for all. But when I left Romania in late May, another edition was already in the kiosks.
A strange and fascinating country, America. So much talent, energy, generosity, and imagination; so much basic goodness among its most "average" citizens. We lead the world in Nobel Prizes, technology, medicine, space exploration, and charitable donations. Yet we don't seem to care enough about our children to protect them from the violence inherent in pornography. We justify it by appealing to "the American way" that protects anti-social extremes in the name of individual rights and free speech. In the end, this country may well go down the tubes because of specious, self-serving interpretations of the First and Second Amendments.
No need to get hyper or melodramatic, though. Do I truly think Nasdaq's embrace of Playboy.com will cause more rape, incest, or pedophilia? No, not really.
But I am reminded of a story I heard once. I have no idea if it's true, but it makes the point.
Years ago, it seems, Lake Erie was so polluted that scientists were convinced all life in it had died. Then one day, somebody discovered that way down in the murky depths there lived some kind of carp. The fish hadn't died off. It had just mutated to the point that it could live on--in fact, it had to live on--the filth and toxic waste that had accumulated in the bottom sludge. And the scientists concluded that maybe that's what we're doing to ourselves. We probably won't blow ourselves to smithereens with nuclear weapons. More likely, we'll become like that carp: mutated to conform to the polluted atmosphere around us, able to consume nothing more nourishing for the body or soul than the toxic wastes that we have gradually allowed to accumulate at nearly every level of our social life.
With typical American ingenuity and dedication, we pretty well cleaned up Lake Erie. We can do it in other areas of social malaise as well, if we have the foresight, the determination, and the wisdom to do so. Indeed, we owe it to ourselves, just as we owe it to our children. Above all, we owe it to the One who invests our life--and every human life--with boundless dignity, worth, and love.
The Very Reverend John Breck is a professor of biblical interpretation and ethics at the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris. This article is reprinted with permission of the author.