“Women are the major beneficiaries of getting rid of the hypocritical old notions about sex,” said pornographer Hugh Hefner. Though, he added, “One of the unintended by-products of the women’s movement is the association of the erotic impulse with wanting to hurt somebody.” To put it more precisely, an unintended—but entirely predictable—consequence of the sexual revolution Hefner spearheaded was that it hurt exponentially more than it ostensibly helped. Even the ancients—both East and West—knew that the unchecked proliferation of lustful passions was a recipe for social and political catastrophe.
Apparently, our current generation needs to learn that lesson all over again. Pop singer Billie Eilish recently admitted that porn is a “disgrace” that “really destroyed” her brain. Eilish divulged that she started watching porn when she was 11 years old (which, alarmingly, is the average age at which American children are exposed to it). She also described how violent and abusive porn normalized such behaviors in her first sexual encounters. She’s not alone in finding porn to be more of a prison than a panacea—Russell Brand, John Mayer, Charlie Sheen, Tiger Woods, and Chris Rock are among the many celebrities who have suffered from porn addiction.
The detrimental effects of pornography are legion. Dawn Hawkins, CEO of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, discusses in a December 28 Newsweek piece the large body of research on the harm porn causes to developing brains, how it normalizes sexual violence and exploitation, and how it profits those who exploit the vulnerable. The Washington Post in 2019 interviewed a woman who was persuaded to do about a dozen porn shoots in 2014 for $12,000. Now, says the woman, “no amount of money would make it worth it…. I don’t think it’s an industry that should be respected.” Porn is also responsible for an increasing number of divorces.
The scientific data showing the correlation between porn and addiction, abuse, and divorce are widely publicized, and the anecdotal evidence of exploitation continues to pile up—many porn stars acknowledge they experienced sexual trauma in their youth. Yet too many Americans are hoodwinked into thinking that opposition to porn is primarily the province of puritanical busybodies. They tend to view pornography as a free-speech and individual-liberties issue—don’t legislate what people do in the privacy of their homes (or iPhones)! How wrong and short-sighted. Porn addiction and exploitation is a public health crisis affecting millions of Americans, and concern for what unfettered lust can do to a culture and body politic are far from limited to those who adhere to Christian morality.
Archytas the Tarentine, an ancient Greek philosopher and statesman and a contemporary of Plato, warned that “the greatest curse, the heaviest plague” afflicted upon man from nature was sexual pleasure, especially when “strong inordinate desires are raised and set in motion for obtaining it.” When lust is unrestrained, Archytas observed, “men betrayed their country; for this have states and governments been plunged in ruin; for this have treacherous correspondences been held with public enemies.” In other words, lust leads people to forget their duties to their neighbors and fellow citizens, instead allow themselves to be consumed by the desires of the flesh.
When subsumed by lustful desires, humanity’s capacity for virtue narrows. Where lust prevails, says Archtyas, “temperance can have no place; nor under the dominion of pleasure, can virtue possibly subsist.” This is why the ancients viewed lust as a vice—a behavior that becomes increasingly habituated in an individual and undermines that person’s capacity to exercise good behaviors (virtues) like temperance, prudence, fortitude, and justice. Virtues (and vices) are a bit like muscles: the more they are exercised, the stronger they become. And lust, according to Archytas, was the most detestable of the vices for its ability to extinguish “all the brighter faculties of the soul, and all the powers and light of the understanding.”
The Roman orator and statesman Cicero cites the example of Lucius Flaminius as an embodiment of this blinkered behavior. When acting as consul and commanding the army in Gaul, Lucius Flaminius agreed to execute a man simply to please his paramour. Reflecting on this, Cicero quotes the Greek tragedian Sophocles, who referred to lust as a “tyranny” that engendered addiction in its subject. “In short,” Cicero writes, “there is no mischief so horrid, no villany so execrable, that this [lust] will not prompt to perpetrate.”
And, of course, the ancient Hebrews also understood the power of lust to wreck society and government. Whether or not one believes in the historical veracity of the Old Testament, the story of King David and Bathsheba is instructive on this point. Presaging the voyeurism inherent in pornography, David espies the beautiful (and married) Bathsheba while she is bathing. David not only coerces her into committing adultery, but connives to have her dutiful and loyal husband Uriah the Hittite murdered when he discovers she is pregnant. Many of the familial and political calamities that plague the remainder of David’s reign are directly traceable to these misdeeds.
Yet recognizing the consequences of sexual indulgence is not unique to the ancient West. Sixth-century Chinese philosopher Confucius leveled similar condemnations against lust. “Let there be no depravity in your thoughts,” Confucius teaches in the Analects, offering lust as an example of depravity that vitiates virtue. “Cheng is lustful, so how can he be unyielding?” asks Confucius. In other words, Confucius argues that a man defined by lust is incapable of exhibiting moral strength. When a gentleman is young, Confucius teaches, he must singularly guard himself against lust because of its potential to throw his life off course.
More than 2,000 years ago, wise men from Greece to China had seen and heard enough to know that lust was one of the most destructive passions of the human condition. As Confucius observed, “I have never come across anyone who admires virtue as much as he admires sexual attraction.” In other words, Confucius would not be surprised to learn that today, millions of people every day choose to use the internet not to better themselves or promote human flourishing but instead to watch others do base and despicable things to one another.
Prostitution may be the world’s oldest profession, and porn is harlotry in another form. We should nevertheless be wary of customs and laws that make porn easier to consume than in any other period in history—after all, the smart phone is a veritable red-light district in your pocket. The wisest men of the ancient world knew lust’s power to destroy not only individuals, but entire societies. As they could tell you, no recourse to religious doctrine is necessary to absorb that lesson.
Casey Chalk writes about religion and culture issues for The American Conservative and is a contributing editor for the New Oxford Review. He is the author of The Persecuted: True Stories of Courageous Christians Living Their Faith in Muslim Lands (Sophia Institute Press).