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Orwell was right: pornography has become the opium of the Masses

Nineteen Eighty-Four is scarily prescient about porn’s impact on society

By on Friday, 1 February 2013

The Playboy logo is pictured in Los Angeles (AP)

The Playboy logo is pictured in Los Angeles (AP)

Recently there has been a flurry of comment about pornography, all of it taking roughly the same point of view, which is quite remarkable, considering the usually irremediable plurality of opinion on more or less everything in our society. But here they all are, people as diverse as our own Francis Phillips and the Labour MP Diane Abbott, along with Allison Pearson at the Telegraph. They are all making the same point: pornography is morally corrosive, a bad thing, and an especially bad thing for girls, who have to live with its effects on boys.

That this is a serious problem, no one should doubt. Of course, there has always been porn. There was even porn of sorts in ancient Greece and Rome. However, today’s situation is different. Porn is now everywhere, and readily available at the touch of a computer keyboard. You do not, as in the past, have to pay for it. And by a process of osmosis, porn seeps out of its own sphere and into the mainstream. People like Jeff Koons and Ilona Staller are the harbingers of things to come. It is not hysterical to talk of a pornified society.

This brings me to the real point I want to make, which concerns the prescience of George Orwell and his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. You may remember that the Ministry of Truth, which is charged with pumping out lies, has novel-writing machines to turn out the equivalent of penny dreadfuls for the masses, as well as “Pornosec”, the pornography section, which produces porn for the proletariat (“the proles”). Pornosec is overseen by party members who are enrolled in the Junior Anti-Sex League.

Orwell has a point here. The first is that pornography is a sort of opium for the masses. It keeps them politically quiet. Winston Smith’s hope that the proles will one day rise against the tyranny of the Party is a vain one, because the proles are not interested in politics, but are stupefied by a diet of porn and bad fiction. Porn in short saps your strength, and turns you into what we would nowadays call a couch potato. (Orwell did not live to see the modern television age: if he had, can you imagine what he would have made of it?)

The second point is the concept of the Junior Anti-Sex League. The Party opposes sexual relations, encouraging its keenest adherents to forgo relationships and instead have children via artificial insemination (“artsem”); this is because a sexual relationship happens in the private sphere away from the prying eyes of the Party, and is something the Party cannot easily control. To be a member of the League and to work in Pornosec is not contradictory. People who denigrate the value of sexual relations will be at home with porn production. Because porn in the end is not about relationships at all. Indeed, porn signifies the end of all relationships and their replacement with something quite different, namely masturbation. That is what we mean by the commodification of sex that porn brings about: this is the product at which this whole vast industry is aimed.

Porn is, of course, morally wrong; but it is philosophically wrong too: it represents a perversion of reality, and that is extremely serious. To enter the world of porn is to go through a particular type of looking-glass, to be in a world where nothing is in fact as it is. Because we are in the world, we all need to embrace reality – porn represents an attempt to seduce us into an anti-reality.

The chief aspect of porn that contradicts reality is the way it exposes the private to public view, in the process perverting it. It creates what some writers have called “Pornotopia”. But the world is not like that. In reality, sex acts are private and not spoken about because they are in a true sense incommunicable. The feelings that may be shared and communicated by a couple cannot be shared by anyone else. To drag sex into the open is to destroy its meaning. Sexual relations are not a performance, and porn stars are not lovers. Porn represents not a caricature of love and sex, but a destruction of its meaning. And if we destroy the meaning of sex and love, then we damage our humanity and we damage our society.

George Orwell would, I think, be amazed by us. We are rushing into the sort of slavery that we should most want to avoid. We are proving one of the slogan’s of Big Brother’s English Socialism (“Ingsoc“): Freedom is Slavery.

  • EH

    Thank you for this – it would be wonderful if the second to last paragraph could be read and reflected on by all.
    The most worrying thing about pornography etc. etc. is that, as you have spoken about, it shuts one off from real life, real relationships and saps one’s energy for real living that Christ speaks of in John 10:10

  • Caroline Farrow

    Fantastic stuff Fr. Of course we have other parallels in terms of the burgeoning IVF industry, which seeks to circumvent the messy and erratic process of natural conception. Porn is every bit as damaging to men as it is women, as it prevents men from forming secure romantic attachments. The very nature of it means that men flit from woman to woman (or to man), they become hyper-critical, easily bored and always looking for that perfect woman, just one click away. As soon as they have satisfied themselves with one image, they then go looking for the next. If at any point an image bores them, they move on, which is translated into real-life relationships, not to mention anxieties in terms of “performance”, not measuring up to what they’ve seen by some male star on screen.Porn creates unrealistic expectations of women, their appearance, their availability and desire for sex which is 24/7 in porn land as well distorting and encouraging appetites for niche and dangerous sexual practices. Porn addiction is an increasing problem for all sexes. This article written by a man for the Guardian, 10 years ago, highlights some of the issues. I should imagine things are worse now.We must push back against this perfidious view of sex and porn that pervades our culture and subverts our desires, which should be directed to wholesome and good ends.

  • Leodelo2

    This is an important insight. Porn is destructive of human relationships and the fruitfulness of sexuality. It is denigrating to women and disordering for men. Here is a personal reflection from a friend on the latter point:

  • CullenD

    Orwell was far more concerned about the hypocrisy of the party/ruling classes. Julia, who was more promiscuous than Winston dreamed possible, was a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League.

    One of the most important chapters of the book involves Winston’s use of a prole prostitute. 

    I won’t try to argue against the article, I agree with most of it, but using selective parts of Orwell’s 1984 just lessens the validity of ALS’s argument. To ignore the larger issues, of a book ,which we could learn from, to simply focus on “pornsec”, well perhaps that is an Orwellian lesson in itself.

  • Joseph Shaw

    Porn is bad for girls because it is bad for boys. Boys and men addicted to porn find it difficult to form relationships, let alone avoid sin. Let’s not forget that everyone is a victim here: except those trying to make money out of it.

  • Laurence England

    Porn + Cannabis + TV = Politically sleeping nation

  • CullenD

     “novel-writing machines to turn out the equivalent of penny dreadfuls for the masses, as well as “Pornosec”, the pornography section,”
    Just as in a more important scene where Winston looks out a window at a prole singing a song that was written by a machine. He sees the beauty in the expression of a fat old woman, singing a song that was written by a machine, but is given life by her existence.

    His objection is to mass production, not the the value of what is produced.   

  • OldMeena

    I imagine we have all read this Orwell novel and would agree that the world it paints of an autocratic slave-state is a horrifying one. But in the real word, Communist, Fascist and Islamic autocratic states that have existed (and still exist) have not attempted to create a pornographic opiate with which to stupefy their populations. On the contrary they have been very “straight-laced” about sexual matters – and have even taken a view of homosexuality not dissimilar to that of the RC Church.  

    But to come to your views about pornography:  
    Porn (I dislike that short form. It’s ugly) is very much a part of reality. When you suggest it isn’t, you must have in mind a metaphysical reality, which is a reality as it should (in your view) exist.
    You say: “The chief aspect of porn that contradicts reality is the way it exposes the private to public view”.  But you seem to contradict this by rightly pointing out pornographic acts between a couple are not the same as sex acts between a loving couple, where deep friendship and selfless love exists.  The latter cannot be destroyed by pornography; it is indestructible.
    I think the Old Testament somewhere says (I paraphrase): “…death itself is not as strong as love…. nor is the grave as cruel as love lost or rejected …. for love a man would give up everything he has in the world, and think nothing of his loss”.

    You write: “…porn in the end is not about relationships at all.”  Of course this is true. It is for some damaged people a feeble substitute and one which contains none of the precious elements of real love. But private (real) love-making can be spoken about (and is) in music, verse and prose.

    You mention some of the current high-profile moralists: “They are all making the same point: pornography is morally corrosive, a bad thing, and an especially bad thing for girls, who have to live with its effects on boys.”
    Yes, they are. They are all repeating what might be called a current “urban myth”. I have tried to explain this earlier on the website – I don’t think anyone here is interested. Mea culpa in large measure – I’m not a particularly “literate” person, in the sense of using prose to best advantage.
    I would say to parents and others: don’t swallow all you read and even take what your children tell you (perhaps especially 13 to 16 year old girls) with a big pinch of salt. Some of them might not like being sent to boarding school.

  • OldMeena

    You have cause and effect the wrong way around.

    People who find it difficult or impossible to form proper relationships can become addicted to pornography.

    The difficulty to form proper relationships can be due to several things – single sex schools can often be a cause, as can a fear of sex and failure to see the opposite sex as people.

    As the “Big Book for Girls” says (I paraphrase): “Some of your best friends will be boys. Boys, like girls, are people; and therefore very complicated”.

  • OldMeena

    You have cause and effect the wrong way around.
    People who find it difficult or impossible to form proper relationships can become addicted to pornography.
    The difficulty to form proper relationships can be due to several things – single sex schools can often be a cause, as can a fear of sex and failure to see the opposite sex as people.
    As the “Big Book for Girls” says (I paraphrase): “Some of your best friends will be boys. Boys, like girls, are people; and therefore very complicated”.

  • Acleron

    In much of what you have written, ‘religion’ substitutes for ‘pornography’ and increases the factual content.

    You don’t like pornography because you would rather be in control of what people do in their own privacy. Now that would be honest to state and could be debated. But of course there is no honest debate in this area you could win, so we have the usual opinions expressed as facts.

    Have you any solid evidence for any degradation of society? If you have, it would have been useful to see it.

  • OldMeena

    duplicated, so removed by author

  • OldMeena

    “Oh, this age!  How tasteless and ill-bred it is.”

    – Gaius Valerius Catullus

  • andHarry

     ‘..Islamic autocratic states that have existed (and still exist) have not
    attempted to create a pornographic opiate with which to stupefy their

    They are the carriers, and protectors, of the most powerful pornographic opiate known; the Heaven pictured in the Quran. It appeals to the male sex drive; to virile young men.

  • Tom Dawkes

    This piece reminded me not of Orwell’ 1984 and other writings, but rather of a short story by Arthur C Clarke, which I read in a collection of his published in the 1960s”Tales of Ten Worlds”. “I remember Babylon” is a 1st-person narrative, describing how the launch of space satellites would allow the transmission to TVs of material beyond the control of any government.  The technology described is of its time, but the techniques are essentially the same. 
    By a considerable irony, I see from my “Collected Stories” of Arthur C Clarke that the story was published in Playboy March 1960.

  • OldMeena

    Well, that’s autocratic religion for you isn’t it?

    Christianity’s long held habit of reducing women to lower status has too assisted in their crude sexualisation which has been a bonus for the porn industry. Catholicism stresses male values, importance and dominance from God the Father (and Son – the sexual status of the Holy Spirit is, so far as I know, not stated – but it cannot be female), through the Holy Father and all the dominant hierarchy to the Father in the parish church and elsewhere.  The keeping of females off the altar (sometimes, I’ve heard, they get away with it) and out of the pulpit will be achieved again by the NU reactionaries in the Vatican – reflecting the Abrahamic religions’ view that they might be unclean. 

    Whether Islam “cleans them up” for Heaven, I don’t know. For Catholics, their original sin has been cleaned away with Baptism, but whether their “curse of Eve” still afflicts them in Heaven I, again, don’t know.

  • OldMeena


  • OldMeena

    “By a considerable irony”
    Tom Dawkes wouldn’t be a nom de plume for John Major?

    The BBC (in truth the government) would only be concerned if you lacked a TV licence.

  • LEngland

    Cannot  agree  with  your  3rd  para  from  end.  Let  us  defy  convention  and  say  that  pornography  affects  both  genders  equally,  however  uncomfortable  that  might  make  you  feel.

  • PornTRUTH

    Ever wonder why there is so much sexual misconduct in our
    society? Just like Big Tobacco, the pornography industry doesn’t want the
    public to know the dangers and effects of their product. You have been told
    that watching porn is normal, harmless and that everybody does it. You have
    been lied to. Find out the TRUTH. Then make your choice.

  • John_Seven

    But, the Catholic Church awarded Rupert Murdoch one of its highest honours!!!

  • OldMeena

    In the 3rd from end paragraph above I am quoting from the article.

    I agree that pornography affects girls directly as well as boys. Most people including the article writer do not appreciate this.

  • JabbaPapa

    You like pornography because it debases the four cardinal Virtues – prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

  • Jeffocks

    Porn traffic on the internet is not as dominant as I once thought.  A huge amount of porn is ‘stored’ on the internet (and it is huge because movie files, unlike text, takes up a lot of memory space, this distorts the statistics); however, this is not the same as how much of this stuff is actually routinely trafficked.  We have to know exactly what is being trafficked on the internet as the large servers need to plan what is being carried and what demand will be and where. Using this data we can say that porn constitutes about 4% of actual internet traffic.  I used to think it was 80% but I was wrong, the large figures you will see relate to storage.

    I am much more concerned with the ‘sexualization’ of culture than the pornification of the internet.  The former is something that many teachers in primary schools have noticed, and this isn’t to do with porn on the internet, but the domination of all social media with sex and sexuality.  Many children now seem to think this is what defines adulthood, what constitutes being human and what life’s main purpose is.  The circulation of insidious sexualised messages in all media has come to dominate public life from street culture to celebrity politics.

  • andHarry

    ‘Christianity’s long held habit of reducing women to lower status’

    True. An unChristian extension of the marital relationship to all female lives.

  • Jeffocks

     Yes, I am ashamed about this.

  • OldMeena


  • OldMeena

    You make an excellent point about the high capacity needs of video files – many of them HD.If your figures are correct – with 96% of internet traffic NOT being pornography – it certainly has direct implications for the scare-mongering moralists: they should focus more on the perils of sugar. It is THEY, and not our young people, who are obsessed with porn (probably for their own broader political and religious purposes – or through ignorance)
    Sex, of course, is everywhere. People, and not only men, normally think of sex every day. You find it emphasised in dress, the very appearance of the human face…….. . We are moving into another area of discussion here.But most sexualised messages are not “insidious”.

  • Jeffocks

    By ‘insidious’ I am referring to the gradual incursion of such things as teenage clothes styles for much younger children, the practice of ‘sexting’ : sexual content on mobile phone texts; the lyrics of songs downloaded by young children etc. I think this has produced a ‘sexualised culture’  for much younger children.  And we have the phenomenon of teen and pre-teen pregnancy. This has been an insidious trend in the UK…I don’t want to be a prude, but I’d like to think children could have childhoods. You are right, sex is everywhere, and everyone seems to be obsessing about it in one way or another, including the church! Public space has become hypersexualised in a way it wasn’t when I was growing up- in the past it was there, but not ‘everywhere’.

  • OldMeena

    I think much of what you say is concerned simply with fashion and the shock of new and different fashions, and matters which are aspects of social convention or/and the norms of the previous (or earlier) generation(s). Some fundamentalist Catholic writers have considered the wearing of trousers by women to be the ultimate horror.

    The pregnancies of young girls must, in the earlier years of our species, have been quite normal – it is, evolutionary, the reason why they are so attractive to the male. I understand well the problems that this can cause today, but that is only because of how our present society views the matter. Physically speaking, the young of the ages you mention are ideally suited to pregnancy in a way that older women are not.  I have wondered often in past years why the RC Church (and others) have never attempted to apply their “natural law” idea here.


  • Jeffocks

     Well, yes, conventions do change as do fashions, and shock may be a consequence. I’m interested in these changes insofar as they impact on the way people view themselves, their values and sense of self worth.  I don’t think it’s a matter of ‘mere’ fashion if young people are subjected to a public space that has become saturated with monolithic themes of celeb culture and their antics in a way unprecedented in history.

    I would have to disagree about your view of evolution on two grounds: firstly, we don’t want to commit the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ in which what ‘is’ the case ‘ought’ to be the case.  Simply because in former epochs teens of ‘our species’ became pregnant doesn’t entail that this should in some way shape moral law! And secondly, it would be presumptuous of us to suggest that pre-historic liaisons occurred ‘naturally’ outside any life within social and or religious conventions.  I am not aware that the Catholic church prescribes a universal understanding of the age boundaries of childhood and adulthood anyway. But thank you for your engagement – I suspect we are now off thread!

  • CullenD

    Firstly, one of your last (other thread) comments forced me to rethink. I, as a non-parent, advised limiting any exposure to sexual images. You were far more realistic in explaining how young people should be educated, not shielded. I quickly understood that your advice was far more sensible and realistic. So kudos there, you won on an net thread!

    On this comment I agree from the start. Little more than a century ago we would have expected to meet 15 year old boys fighting wars and 15 year old girls married to older men.

    Thankfully we have, mostly, aimed for a better, extended, learning period. We try to allow the intellect to catch up with the body. It’s a modern social idea to wait for mental maturity before engaging in physically possible actions.

    Above all it must be noted that this is not an idea pioneered by any religion, in fact most fought against it. The fact that we fail often, and somehow religions are acting as if it was something they always thought, never detracts from how we are right in the attempt.

    It’s unrealistic to think that all 15 year olds, who for 1000′s of years were involved in “sex and violence”, could suddenly be immune to such thoughts, or curiosity, after 5 or 6 generations of a new social condition.

  • CullenD

    I hope the people who moderate the comments allow me some leeway here…

    Pornography in modern terms is mostly an aid to masturbation. In some cases it’s used by couples for educational. enjoyment or voyeuristic reasons. For a tiny minority it’s a gateway to actual acts that our Western society judges (rightly) to be wrong. 

    So the problem, (in catholic terms), in most cases, is masturbation, rather than the medium which leads to arousal. But it is impossible to stop images which are found to sexually arouse certain people. 

    You can mass produce porn, or you can limit women to burkas. It will not change the fact that humans like sex. Those who are alone will masturbate, those in relationships may have sex but repression of women encourages predators.   

  • Agnosticon

    I think it’s always tempting to hunt round for anyone ‘high profile’ who happens to agree with us if our cause is flagging, and so I worry that mentioning Diane Abbott is simply just a sign of desperation.

    She’s had a rant recently on the issue, but we have to be very careful indeed in thinking she’s got any coherent understanding of the whole picture which is required for seeing this issue clearly as part of something far bigger.

    It’s not simply a ‘single issue’ for Catholics, and her views in relation to other aspects of sexuality and understanding of the human person in light of that bigger context make me think it’s just part of her usual self-promotion propaganda machine and her desire for the adulation of the Mary Whitehouse/blue rinse brigade as she’s been slipping out of the limelight recently…

    I wouldn’t entrust my eggs to that Abbott’s basket.

  • gabriel_syme

    They are all making the same point: pornography is morally corrosive, a bad thing, and an especially bad thing for girls, who have to live with its effects on boys.

    I fully agree with the article and about the negative influence of pornography.

    However I think articles should be more balanced when discussing effects, especially on girls / women.

    It is not true that women are innocent by-standers in all of this; much moreso than men, women benefit from the porn industry through fame and riches.  It is female “actresses” who become globaly recognised names and earn millions from films, merchandise, fan clubs etc.  Few, if any, men benefit from pornography in the same way. 

    Sure, I bet most studios are male-owned, but for the most part simply taking part is considered reward enough for male “actors”, which is why their wages are a pittance in comparison.

    I think shining a light on the actions and motivations of women massively benefitting from porn would be a useful exercise.

    Ironically, feminism largely lauds these women, for their “success” and so bizarrely can interpret pornography as a vehicle for female advancement.  Feminism is a very mixed up business.

  • Jo

    Absolutely SPOT ON! But depressing. Question is: How do we change it?

  • LH

    Also, just to mention that pornography addiction is not limited to men. There are plenty of women who struggle with it too – Matt Fradd’s excellent Catholic website addresses this issue. It is often unspoken because of the shame surrounding it and women need help and support to bring their struggle into the light for healing. A lady called Jessica Harris has a very powerful testimony of her addiction and subsequent healing.

  • Magash

     You have it the wrong way around.
    The very phrase “fear of sex” betrays you. Since in a correctly ordered world view sex is reserved as the most intimate act encased in the marital relationship, rather than a recreational activity, “fear of sex” does not occur. It is only when sex is seen as something apart from a sacrificial act conformed toward the other participant, that fear becomes a factor.
    Boys are not like girls. They are like boys. They are complicated, but they are also different, and while boys and girls can be “just friends” their relationship will never be the same as the friendship between two boys or between two girls.