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Pornography and Prayer
How online porn may be providing the wings on which our prayers take flight

On 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.

On the Internet, in particular, pornography appears to be triumphant, while prayer struggles to find its way. Such first impressions are false and misleading.

Furthermore, 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.

First, 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."

To 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 ($14.8 billion)."

Still, 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."

Thus, 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 ...

If the 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!"

Then, 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.

Still, 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.

The 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.

Today 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.

Imagine, 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.

And 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.

Developed 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 for good."

Even pornography can provide the wings upon which our prayers are likely to take flight.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2015).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2017).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.
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