When Images Hurt the Soul

The Connection between Sexual Images and Sexual Abuse

In this internet age, one might think that concern for visual depictions of sexual violence is a relatively new concern. But one would be wrong. In Canto XII of his Purgatorio, the Renaissance poet Dante describes his own obsessive looking at the torment of souls around him as a form of dangerous ogling that preoccupies and disorders his mind. His gaze is quickly diverted by other wiser heads, but not before he looks at the path under his feet and sees men and women who have literally been turned into flattened images paving the roads and arteries of the underworld.

Surely no better metaphor for the internet could be found. Dante’s suggestion here – that immoral images are directly connected to licentious actions committed against others – may well apply to modern social media platforms. Many forms of digital media, both those that bring healthy connection and those that convey inappropriate images, are disproving the myth that online sexual images have no connection to sexual abuse.

The Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation (CESE) works together with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) to fight sexual exploitation by exposing its connection to online pornography.  CESE’s online summit in November 2022  offered a wealth of resources (outlined below) that explain the harms of pornography. CESE’s message: to end sexual exploitation we must inform ourselves and our kids about online pornography.

The Incredible Shrinking Brain

A German study revealed exactly how the harmful connection between viewing sexual images and sexual exploitation occurs. Adults who view pornography are actually shrinking the part of the brain that controls motivation, which makes it harder for the brain to learn new things. Where healthy brains respond to intimacy in a variety of ways, even modest porn users have brains that are markedly less capable of being motivated by normal human intimacy. Pornography “teaches” the brain to seek more extreme versions of the same sexual stimulus to get the same response—a dopamine blast—like the brain of any substance abuser. According to the lead researcher, the effect of this behavior is that over time spent using porn, the brain connections between decision-making and reward get shorter. This means that adults who use online porn are more hardened to sexual violence, and more likely to sexually exploit others.

 Other research elucidates the link between shortened reward circuits and addiction. Dopamine, the brain chemical that fuels pleasure-seeking behavior makes both porn users and drug addicts more sensitive to sights, sounds, and other experiences associated with their habit. When cues are present, the brain releases dopamine that can cause a person to seek out porn even after they have tried to quit.

It’s not hard to see how the developing brains of teenagers and children are affected by exposure to pornography. When reward circuits are shortened, it becomes far harder to teach self-control, to develop the capacity to delay rewards, and most importantly, to feel compassion for other human beings.

Training for Sexual Violence

Founded in 1962 as an anti-porn organization called “Morality in Media,” the NCOSE is a policy and law center dedicated to breaking cycles of sexual abuse by informing the public, especially parents, about the connections between online sexual images and all forms of sexual exploitation.

Dr. John Foubert, an expert witness and trainer to law enforcement dealing with pornography cases, has worked with NCOSE for 25 years. On his website, he uses social science research to expose the connection between viewing pornography and factors that contribute to sexual assault and exploitation. Adolescents who view online pornography are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors, to perpetrate sexual assault or be victims of sexual assault, and to have anxiety or depression.

And finally, children are particularly likely to mimic what they see in pornography. The more they view it, the more they attempt to perform the violent acts they see. Foubert’s argument is that porn exposure means exposure to graphic images that are not only sexual, but that also model sexual violence. Children who see it are more likely to imitate it by trying it out on other children.

A Two-Way Street

A key takeaway from the CESE summit is bidirectionality. Online images do not substitute for real-life sexual partners; they are designed to groom and recruit them. In-person sexual transactions—such as human trafficking—increase when large numbers of people are spending more time online. According to NCOSE’s breakdown of the Trafficking in Persons Report, the Covid-19 lockdowns that put many students in online classrooms also made them vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Traffickers can track a young person through their consistent time spent online each day, even if that time is not spent on sites containing sexual content.

Another conference participant, The Avery Center, showed spikes in use of platforms offering pornographic contentnm such as OnlyFans corresponding to Covid-19 lockdowns. Not surprisingly, the same research showed that digital content from that site feeds in-person sexual transactions.

Parental Love Helps Builds Emotional Resilience

But the good news is that there is a direct relationship between parent awareness and the prevention of child sexual exploitation.

Kristen A. Jenson of Defend Young Minds says that parents can protect their children from porn and other forms of exploitation by helping them cultivate a mind that rejects porn. Her advice comes with the reassuring message that the foundation of all protection against online sexual imagery is the love between parent and child. This powerful bond helps a child overcome pornography in two ways. First, it provides real-life feelings of intimacy and belonging. These train children’s brains to react positively to family intimacy, making it less likely they will seek out sexual imagery online. Secondly, it helps children feel secure, which in turn may reduce their vulnerability to online images or predators.

In Be Smarter than Your Dopamine, she explains that the prefrontal cortex is the “thinking brain,” or mind, that helps us resist the short-term reward jolts of dopamine that accompany pornography use. Even young children who see pornography will experience dopamine physiologically, whether they liked the picture or not. Jenson recommends parents stop the dopamine cycle by telling children to “look away” and second, to “tell a trusted adult” if someone shows them a bad picture. Teaching children the difference between “good pictures” and pictures designed to distort their neural reactions, i.e., “bad pictures” is key.

Training for Reality

The Internet has made it clear that pornography is not “just pictures.” It is imagery of real humans abusing other humans, recorded as graphically as possible. The higher reality is that what we allow our eyes to feed on will have a direct effect on what we decide to do with our bodies, and those decisions have consequences on our souls as well. But knowing that a great deal of sexual exploitation can occur through internet images should not cause parents to ban their children from using digital media. Rather, parents should prepare their children to use digital media wisely.

NCOSE recommends being proactive on two fronts: first, get to know your child and his or her individual situations in which online predators could exploit them – loneliness is a big factor in this regard. Second, talk with your child about their internet use. Teach methods of brain defense and train children in risk evaluation. Take heart in knowing that your parental love and authority are the best defenses against crimes being committed against children through the internet.

is a once and future homeschooling mother who currently lives in Germany. She has enjoyed teaching both in the home and in various community colleges in the midwestern United States, while engaged in foster-to-adopt ministries with her husband. Currently she writes about issues relevant to reproduction and motherhood from home.

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