Is the Internet a Portal to Hell?: Inner Space, Superstition and Cybersex
Issue #74, December 2005
Christian organizations, censorship advocates, moral crusaders and other fans of "family values" regularly express a profoundly superstitious terror of the power of the Internet to wreak havoc in our lives, to turn us all into perverts and porn fiends, child-abusers and serial killers. In the conservative media, the Internet is conceived as the gateway to a monstrous otherworld, and the corresponding assumption that pixels on a screen can cause rape and murder is rarely called into question. Many women, and perhaps even more men, seem especially terrified by the power of pornography to sexually arouse the viewer, thereby forming a potent threat to all those lies that are perpetuated in the name of the family.
To many people, what's most frightening about the Internet is its capacity for anonymity, an anxiety confirmed by frequent news stories about "expert advice" offered on the web by doctors and lawyers who turns out to be eight year old supergeeks, teenage hackers who single-handedly bring down huge corporations. These anxieties feed into the media's depiction of the Internet as the new "out there" of American culture, the home of all those evil people -- psychopaths, suicide bombers, Islamic terrorists, and other assorted sickos -- who are responsible for the horrors that occur on a daily basis in modern society, or so many seem to believe.
What some see as the democratic capacity of the Internet is regarded by others with superstitious terror. Without seeing what people look like, without knowing their race, age, gender, or identity, with only their words to go by, we have none of the usual cues by which we make sense of one another. To gullible young children, it's often said, every cyberpal is a new buddy, every chat room full of their new best friends. And for wary, cautious adults, who've learned not to trust even their closest neighbors, on the Internet, everyone's got a hidden agenda, whether it's to sell you drugs, steal your identity, or sucker you into looking at porn.
Warnings about the magnetic power of the net, whether their context is that of Christian morality or the "clinical objectivity" of therapeutics, share certain unquestioned assumptions. First is the assumption that, because of its capacity to "draw you in," the Internet is far more menacing than traditional forms of media, like film or television. It's often described as having its own powers of agency; it can entrap you in a subtle, almost magical way, sucking you in unwittingly, without your consent, almost without your knowledge, until next thing you know, you can't stop: you're an "addict." According to Patrick Carnes, David Delmonico, and Elizabeth Griffin (in their book In the Shadows of the Net):
The internet and cybersex ... are like the Sirens' call, a seemingly innocent and harmless beckoning to enter a portal that distorts time, perceptions, and values. Cybersex can override your inner voice and begin to collapse your boundaries, just as the reefs crushed the sailor's ships as they followed the Sirens' call. Cybersex is capable of casting a spell under which you no longer think about what you are doing and distractions fall away as you slip deeper and deeper into the cyber-world.
Second is the assumption that, once it is “out there,” cybersex can have an impact on people who never even go near a computer (that is, “the innocent”). Significantly, a lot of the rhetoric warning against the dangers of the Internet resembles the 1950s discourse of moral hygiene, especially in its allusions to viruses, infections and contamination; it also has much in common with Christian rhetoric about AIDS. In the most anxiety-laden of these warnings, cyberporn is described as having the capacity not only to pollute those who access it, but actually to seep out of your computer terminal, desecrating and defiling your home:
Just as with cigarette smoking, the signs and evidence are all around us. Rape, incest, child sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, venereal disease, crime rates, glazed-over fathers and husbands, aloof wives and mothers. And like second-hand smoke, ingesting pornography doesn't harm just the viewer, it damages all those within the viewer's sphere of influence... You and your children are being exposed to dangerous content... It is necessary to preserve your integrity and health...it is necessary to filter the internet you and your family use in order to preserve a strong and pure environment for your household.
--E.L. Bynum, Plains Baptist Challenger, September 2004 (http://www.tbaptist.com)
Third is the assumption that cyberporn is worse than the worst kind of street drugs because it has the unprecedented power to permanently "burn" horrible images "into the brain cells" so they can never be deleted. Or so says Mary Anne Layden, co-director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Cognitive Therapy, who, in a U.S. Senate hearing on the effects of internet porn, called it the "most concerning thing to psychological health that I know of existing today." She added, "Pornography addicts have a more difficult time recovering from their addiction than cocaine addicts, since coke users can get the drug out of their system, but pornographic images stay in the brain forever" (http://www.wiredsafety.org/askparry/special_reports/spr1/). According to family-values campaigner Dr Judith Reisman, pornography "reflexively and mechanically" restructures your brain, turning you into a virtual porno-zombie. Porn, she says, is an "erototoxin", producing an addictive "drug cocktail" of testosterone, oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin with a measurable organic effect on the brain." "Involuntary cellular change takes place even during sleep," she claims, "resisting informed consent" (http://www.guardian.co.uk/life/farout/story/0,13028,1527638,00.html). Riesman's polemic confirms what many Christian conservatives have long suspected:
What happens to the images that we see with our human eyes? Psychologists believe that the sexual images we see can actually be burned into our minds. The hormone epinephrine is released in the brain when a person is emotionally aroused. This causes a chemical reaction that actually burns the picture permanently into your memory....
Fourth, and most perplexing -- because furthest from ordinary, observable patterns of human behavior -- is the assumption that an "addiction" to cyberporn leads the victim (usually assumed to be male) to become "sicker and sicker" as he works his way through a veritable smorgasbord of sexual depravity -- hetero, homo, S&M, bondage, golden showers, bestiality, until finally, the former hard-working, church-going husband achieves his final transformation into the ultimate manifestation of human evil: the pedophile.
Porn and cybersex addicts have acquired a tolerance to perverse and obscene material, material that would leave most sick to their stomachs... they've got to take a "harder drug" to get the same high. In too many cases, this "harder drug" is the addict acting out what they've seen in porn, with real people -- often innocent women, teens and children....It's as if he might go crazy without another session. The withdrawal pains may drive an addict to find porn or sexual arousal any way and anywhere he can.
In his coda to The Gutenberg Elegies:The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age -- a lament for the demise of the printed word -- author Sven Birkets compares the Internet to the Devil himself, "sleek and confident," a "sorcerer of the binary order" who offers to replace the struggle of earthly existence with "a vivid, pleasant dream." All he wants in return is mankind's soul. Birkets is being ironic here; he doesn't literally believe the Internet to be a manifestation of Satanic powers. But as it turns out, there are those who believe, quite literally, that the Internet is a portal to Hell.
Why the Internet is surrounded by so much fear and mystification, especially among those who use it least? Why is the computer terminal -- a chunk of glass and metal -- considered to be more dangerous, more corrupting, more powerful than traditional forms of media, "ordinary" pornography, even illegal drugs? After all, the Internet, in its physical manifestation, is nothing more than pixels on a screen, a piece of silicon etched with symbols, no more capable of inflicting damage, one might imagine, than a wall carved with hieroglyphics, or a sheet of music. What is it about the Internet that has caused it to be endowed with these magical powers, these terrifying capacties to restructure our brains while we sleep, to contaminate our homes and corrupt our children as we sit mesmerised, helpless before our noxious screens?
I can't help being reminded here of people's anxieties about the Freudian unconscious, in its popularized form -- a bottomless pit of incestuous mayhem. As it turns out, these two metaphorical structures -- the internet and the unconscious -- share important similarities. Unlike other manifestations of popular culture (television or movies, for example), which are often considered by the psychoanalytically inclined to reveal the unconscious of a nation, a culture or a generation, what appears on your computer screen is summoned up by you alone, in response to your own individual prompts. Just as repressed sexual urges tend to find their own outlet in erotic dreams and nocturnal emissions, those whose sexuality is repressed in the service of a higher ideal, such as God, marriage, or the Family, are those most gripped by the fear of being "seduced" by "torrents of filth" unleashed by the internet. In general, those who find netporn most threatening are not young children themselves -- who are more curious than frightened by it -- but their parents. Of course, their rationale is that children need protecting, that they're too innocent to know what they're dealing with. Interestingly, however, many anti-internet evangelists realize that a lot of parents buy computers not for themselves but for their children -- and when the children "accidentally" unleash the Pandora's Box of pornography, it's their parents who find themselves suddenly "drawn in":
Most [parents] are not even remotely prepared for the dangers posed by the dark side of the Internet. Like cattle heading down the trail to be slaughtered they buy computers, get hooked up the Internet, and then along with the rest of their family members jump right in.
Another superstition about the unconscious centers on its scary tendency to betray its or owner by slips of the tongue. Similarly, according to those who fear it, the easiest way for the internet to seduce the innocent is by "misinterpreting" a word or phrase normally considered inoffensive, and suddenly releasing a "flood of filth" on to the screen. "In the perverted world of cyberporn," we are informed, innocent phrases have "all kinds of sexual connotations"; "common words like "dog,' "boy" and "girl" unleash sexual content." Warnings about the "dark side of the net" often take the form of anecdotes describing vulnerable people being led astray by a misplaced word, phrase or typo: the mother who, wanting to take her children to the "Wet and Wild" Water Park, typed the words into a search engine, with shocking results; the little girl whose search for "Barbie" led her into a web of vice.
It's as though the internet, with its filthy and lascivious mind, has the dirty habit of finding sexual connotations and double entendres in the most innocent of expressions. In this, it reminds me of the "ghostly voice" of the hypnotist's dummy, or the parrot which -- in the convention of the dirty joke -- "accidentally" reveals the secrets of its owner, usually hinting at lascivious desires, or a sordid past. What's frightening about this to many people is that, as in every surface-depth paradigm, the hidden thing -- the "dark side" -- is presumed to have more truth, more value, than what's on the surface, obvious to all. Still, those who subscribe to the surface-depth paradigm also take it for granted that a person's "real self" will only be revealed when they appear "in the flesh", as opposed to in the form of text messages and e-mail.
We're always being warned about people meeting weaselly strangers on the Internet who turn out to be "not who they seem", a distinction that assumes the online personality to be a fake veneer of lies smoothing over the "real", flawed, fleshly self. Why do we make this assumption? It might be worth considering how our online personality says as much about us as our physical body, which, after all, is the result of a random genetic pattern beyond our control, and subject to all kinds of racial, sexual and cultural prejudices, however unintentional. Many people prefer to keep their relationships online for precisely this reason -- that they can be who they "really are", rather than being judged by their age, gender, race and other markers of identity.
Those who buy into anxieties about netporn overlook the fact that there are plenty of self-aware, discriminating consumers, both male and female, who choose to access porn on the internet for a variety of reasons -- because it offers alternative images to the generic models of mainstream porn, for example, or that it allows them a space to connect and swap images with others who share their orientation or interests. For those who enjoy alternative porn, the internet provides space for an enormous range of erotic possibilities, allowing individuals to investigate different communities without prejudice or judgment, without fear of ridicule or public humiliation. Among these communities – such as indienudes.com, vegporn.com and suicidegirls.com, there is no discussion of seduction or addiction, no anxiety about "torrents of filth". In order for us to be shocked, after all, something that was previously hidden to us has to be involuntarily exposed, and those who are comfortable with sexual images will not be disturbed by them, just as surgeons are seldom made faint by the sight of blood.
Ironically, it appears that those who are most terrified by the power of cybersex also seem to be those who most tempted to use it. Even though it is almost impossible, compared to five or six years ago, to "accidentally" stumble across a porn site, there is still a thriving business in filtering software among the Christian community. One of the most interesting of these is a system called "Covenant Eyes," after a line from the Book of Job, "I have made a Covenant with Mine Eyes; why then should I Think upon a Maid?", usually translated as "I have promised myself not to look lustfully at a girl". Covenant Eyes is not a filter, but software that installs on your PC in order to log your web surfing, stores the data on your server, and then, every month, generates a report to the "accountability partner" of your choice -- who, the site suggests, could be your wife, your minister, or anyone else who wants you to behave yourself. The site includes testimony from Christian ex-porn fiends who’ve been helped by the product: "I can use my computer without temptation and guilt." "It no longer encourages or appeals to my darker side.” “Covenant Eyes program has really helped to bring me "out of the shadows.’” “...Disarms my ability to sneak around.” The very existence of a system like Covenant Eyes suggests that those most frightened of netporn are the very people who, without the help of this virtual chastity belt, may find it the most difficult to resist.
Interestingly, the line from Job is being used against the grain of its original context. In the Bible, Job has no need to look lustfully at women because he has made a covenant with his own eyes -- not because he fears the censorious eyes of his tut-tutting neighbors -- "that God may know mine integrity" (31.6). Unafraid of temptation, Job knows his own mind, and stands by what he believes to be right despite the opinions of others: "Did I fear a great multitude, or did the contempt of families terrify me?", he rhetorically declaims (31.34). Covenant Eyes appears to be marketed on the premise that social or family nagging exerts a far greater influence on most Christians than the fear of disappointing God.
With its logo of a big eyeball gazing sternly down on you, it also seems to be marketed on the premise that you're being “'watched” while online, whether by God, your “accountability partner,” or your disapproving superego. Unless you're a child, of course, in which case the big eye can only belong to an “internet predator”, one of those depraved brutes that lurk in the corners of the web, sniffing out helpless children, infiltrating their families, their homes, their very bedrooms, luring the gullible moppets online then abducting them to his filthy trailer where they are raped, tortured and killed -- and the footage sold online at his website, BigBadWolf.com.
The fear that "internet predators" are watching our children is, of course, part of a wider cultural anxiety about the "loss of privacy" the internet is supposed to have brought about – an anxiety that Covenant Eyes implcitly plays into -- presumably through its capacity for tracking net traffic and for accessing court documents. It's true that consumer activity is often tracked through the Internet, in the same way it's tracked through grocery store loyalty cards -- for reasons no more sinister than more focused marketing, though some may find this sinister enough. And court records have always been accessible to anyone who wants to see them, just bothersome to obtain.
Nevertheless, if the Christian media is anything to go by, many people seem to believe that the internet is a kind of menacing hi-tech panopticon through which "predators" can infiltrate our homes, and trace our private habits, and rob us of our privacy in unprecedented ways. This delusion evaporates with the briefest glimpse backwards. As author Joanthan Franzen points out in a recent essay on the concept of privacy called “Imperial Bedroom”, as recently as the early years of the 20th century, the average westerner lived in small town conditions of almost constant surveillance. Not only was every purchase, every appearance, every activity noticed, but it was noticed by people who knew you, and who also knew your parents, spouse, siblings, and children:
You couldn't so much as walk down the street without having your movements tracked and analysed by neighbors. You probably grew up sleeping in the same bed as your brother and sisters, and maybe your parents as well. Compared to this, our lives now are super anonymous, and we live with a striking degree of anonymity. In some ways, in fact, the internet is the triumph of privacy. The networked world as a threat to privacy? It's the ugly spectacle of a privacy triumphant (50)
"The social changes which have followed the Internet explosion," writes computer expert John Ives in Bad Subjects #37, "themselves quite abrupt, have led to stories which suggest near-apocalyptic scenarios in which innocent users find themselves at the mercy of forces beyond their control." Ives explains how people's fear of the Internet's power to disrupt community stability and organization is typified by anxieties about computer viruses that are capable of physically eating their way through your hard drive, or making your computer screen literally explode. In fact, however, what we call "technology" is fundamentally no more than an extension of the relationship between human beings, and to think of it in any other way is to engender the kind of mystification, passivity, and scapegoating typical of most media panics. It's this kind of discourse – the discourse of moral panic and social blame -- that allows the Christian right to defuse the Internet's democratic potential by colonizing it as a competing spiritual force with its own evil agency: just another temptation to be vanquished, just another portal to Hell.
Mikita Brottman is a Professor of Liberal Arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. She writes about various manifestations of the pathological and apocalyptic in contemporary culture. Her latest book is High Theory, Low Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).