How online porn may be providing the wings on which our prayers
the surface it would seem that they have nothing whatsoever in common. Prayer
and pornography. In fact, one might take them as belonging on opposite sides of
a great cultural divide, across which there cannot even transpire a civil conversation,
let alone cooperation. Moreover, those of us who care about the health and vitality
of faith communities often see ourselves as occupying a vulnerable, defensive
position with respect to the steadily advancing inroads of secular culture, much
of it hostile to our deeply cherished values and beliefs. In many people’s minds
nothing better symbolizes the decadence and dangers of a materialistic culture
than the business of pornography.
the Internet, in particular, pornography appears to be triumphant, while prayer
struggles to find its way. Such first impressions are false and misleading.
for both individuals and faith communities committed to the life of prayer, not
only does the Internet offer an entirely new range of possibilities, but the practice
of prayer in particular will flourish in this new medium, thanks in no small part
to technological innovations financed and implemented by the pornographers themselves.
however, its important to place the porn business in perspective. According to
a 1998 report from Forrester Research, Inc., online pornography drew revenue of
$750 million to $1 billion worldwide in 1998. In a recent article by Wall Street
Journal writer, John Buskin, Mark Tiarra, president of the industry group, United
Adult Sites, estimates that there are close of 200,000 porn sites on the Web.
Of these, he estimates "there are perhaps 15 to 20 players in this business who
see revenues in excess of $12 million per year."
be sure, online pornography is big. But not as big as one might guess from the
number of unsolicited emails you may be receiving. Forbes magazine assembled all
the statistics and placed the porn business in context: "The [porn] industry
is tiny next to broadcast television ($32.3 billion in 1999 revenue, according
to Veronis Suhler), cable television ($45.5 billion), the newspaper business ($27.5
billion), Hollywood ($31 billion), even to professional and educational publishing
in the anxious search for profits, the pornography profiteers were quicker to
seize the opportunities for Internet commerce than others, including those who
hope to "monetize" religion. Many of the early religious sites on the
Net were sponsored by not-for-profit groups, individuals, churches or denominations.
Hence one cannot judge the relative importance of pornography versus prayer on
the Net by counting revenue earned by various content providers. According to
Robert Nyland, co-founder of Beliefnet.com, "The market for religious books and
music, holistic health products and religious travel amounts to more than $40
billion." In relative terms the prayer providers have a potential market far larger
than that of the pornographers, and while the market for porn is arguably over-saturated,
the commercial opportunities for spirituality related content have yet to be fully
exploited. Says one well placed observer of the online market: "This is one of
the few remaining sectors that is not owned by a significant player."
even if we measure them side-by-side by the same standards, as competing businesses,
prayer has no reason whatsoever to be on the defensive. And there's more
pornographers were the first to seize the opportunities of the Net, they were
also the first to encounter both the strengths and the limits of the new technology.
In this context, the experience of the pornographers is instructive. While production
costs are low, production quality is seriously limited by the technology. Obviously,
what the porn masters want more than anything else is greater bandwidth and a
bigger pipeline for their streaming video. To make virtual sex more compelling
they will need to broadcast better moving pictures and sound than is possible
today. With this in mind leaders in the pornography business are working around
the clock, often in concert with other content providers, to move the technology
forward. Bill Asher, president of the adult-film company, Vivid on Demand, sees
the potential for pornography being the engine that pushes other content providers
forward in developing the technology. Gloats Asher: "The Web infused new
cash up and down the industry. It created a lot of opportunity that didn’t exist
before. Expect total (porn) sales to increase dramatically–it wouldn’t be unusual
to see the business 20 times as big as it is today." Similarly, David Marchlack,
president of the Internet Entertainment Group (which brought us Voyeurdorm – 55
Hidden Cameras, 7 Women, 1 House, 24 Hours, 7 Days a Week, All Year Round!) says
it all: "We’re ready for the broadband!"
in a curious aside, John Buskin who covered this unfolding story for the Wall
Street Journal writes: "Last year CandidCam made $10 million. (After visiting
Mr. Marshlack’s adult sites, you can atone. He also maintains a site called liveprayer.com.)"
What do "liveprayer" and "liveporn" have in common? To find
out I visited both Voyeurdorm and liveprayer. Perhaps not surprisingly, I could
find nothing directly connecting one site to the other. The only direct connection
appears to be that Marshlack is making every effort to diversify his business
by providing web hosting services to mainstream ebusiness. What this means, in
effect, is that his company will serve any business willing to pay, whether it
is providing pornography or prayer.
in this market everyone has a common objective of increasing bandwidth and at
the moment lots of investment capital is being deployed to make this happen.
reason I am optimistic about the consequence of the gold rush for a bigger pipeline
is that I see those of us who are concerned about the quality of prayer on the
net have as much to gain from the improved technology as anyone.
the most common criticism of efforts to bring religion online is that you cannot
duplicate on the Net the experience of worship that you can find in the most vital
religious communities. In chat rooms one cannot actually hear the voices of those
one is conversing with. In virtual sanctuaries one cannot hear the music or the
words of others praying along with you. Online worship is largely limited to text
that appears on the screen. It is disembodied. A crucial element of the experience
one derives from being part of a real religious community has to do with the physical
presence of other human beings ... speaking, singing, praying together. The validity
of the sacraments depends in large degree on being physically present with other
people. It is precisely this shortcoming of online worship that will be remedied
by the new technology.
if you will, going online and finding yourself in the presence of others. These
are people you have come to know very well: the expressions of their faces, the
sound of their voices, the fervor of their singing, the warmth of their welcome
when you enter the room immediately lift your spirits and make you feel quite
at home. You feel as vitally connected with these people whom you have grown to
know and love as you do to any of the others you relate to regularly at work,
or even in a church. This, your online sanctuary, is a place where you feel as
free to express your deepest feelings as anywhere on earth. This, your virtual
church, is, very certainly, is a place of prayer.
as this happens to more and more people, we may look back and realize that one
of the most remarkable consequences of online pornography was an explosion of
possibilities for online prayer.
for purely commercial motives, streaming media and virtual reality may be precisely
the tools that allow us to build sanctuaries in cyberspace that are every bit
as real as the great cathedrals of the past or the local houses of worship in
which many of us learned how to pray in the first place. Thus, in this most secular
of cultures, in this most technological age, the venerable words of the apostle
Paul will be validated once again: "We know that in everything God works
pornography can provide the wings upon which our prayers are likely to take flight.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.