“And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire” – Matthew 18:9
Readers of Catholic Insight need no introduction to the problem of the pornography epidemic going on in the world. Nonprofits like Enough is Enough and Fight the New Drug have already brought all the information and statistics one could possibly need, and there is increasingly more research being published in the fields of neuroscience and psychiatry exposing the harmful effects of pornography on the brain. For those who are seeking freedom, they don’t need another statistic, they need support. Most people who access pornography in their lifetimes will primarily do so through the internet, even if their first exposure was through another medium such as a magazine. This is exacerbated by the seeming ubiquity of high-speed internet and its necessity for those working from home during lockdowns; it can seem like a hopeless struggle against temptations the size of which our ancestors could not begin to imagine. There is hope though, and it is possible to effectively filter your internet connection to not just eliminate all images and videos of hardcore and softcore pornography, but also approximate occasions which would incline one towards viewing these media.
In my years of researching and testing different internet filters I’ve noticed that almost without exception they all work off the same fundamental pattern of either DNS or hostname blocking. In laymen’s terms this means identifying a bad website by its name or address on the internet and blocking a device from visiting a website if it shares that identity. In theory that sounds great: simply block bad websites and allow good ones. A few decades ago, in the infancy of the internet this might have been a viable solution, but a few things have changed since then. During the first two years of the World Wide Web’s existence, you could keep a list of all websites on a single sheet of paper. Since then, the number of websites on the World Wide Web has grown to more than one billion with an average estimated quarter-million new sites being created each day. When dealing with such large figures, even conservative estimates about the actual percentage of these sites containing adult content translates to an unwinnable game of whack-a-mole for the filters. However, this is not the biggest flaw with hostname blocking as a method of internet filtering.
No matter how many billions of websites the internet holds, the lion’s share of web traffic (not counting search queries on Google) will continue to be driven to the same handful of social media sites: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, which together pull over 70 billion monthly visitors. It’s doubtful you’ll find a web filter blocking any of these sites (a good one will at least enforce the restricted mode YouTube provides), but for Catholics who are seeking purity of heart, are these sites innocuous enough to leave alone?
YouTube, which pulls the most traffic of the four, describes its policy on nudity and sexual content as prohibitive towards “explicit content meant to be sexually gratifying” and further, “videos containing fetish content will be removed or age restricted.” This begs the question what is done with explicit content that, by their censors, is deemed not to be sexually gratifying? In my testing, I found the native filter, YouTube’s restricted mode, to be rather effective at preventing this sort of content from appearing; however I have also encountered nudity on the homepage of YouTube when visiting the site from a new laptop for the first time. This is likely attributable to a theme we will see recurring with each of these platforms as we go through their respective policies: they lay out the rules while struggling to police their massive userbases.
Facebook and Instagram, owned by the same parent company and operating under the same policy for user-shared content containing “adult nudity and sexual activity”, at a glance seem to be quite restrictive and sympathetic to members of their community who “may be sensitive to this kind of content”, but then a few sentences later state they make allowances for sharing content which contains nudity “as a form of protest, to raise awareness about a cause, or for educational or medical reasons.” Ironically, perhaps the most famous example of nudity in the form of protest on the platform is female models and celebrities protesting the policy itself, which does not make allowances for the exposure of female nipples except in strictly medical contexts. Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Naomi Campbell, Kendall Jenner, and Chrissy Teigen are just a few celebrities who have tested the limits of the censors by posting their nude photos. Various other women have attempted to subvert the policy by decorating their nude forms with paint or glitter and claimed it as protected under the platform’s policy towards naked art.
However, the platform’s biggest problem from a conservative perspective seems to be not with what isn’t allowed but rather with what is. More and more amateur models, both male and female, are discovering financial success and celebrity stemming from roots on Instagram. Especially during the COVID lockdowns, many “influencers”, as they are called, have turned even more to their online image as their source of revenue. This stems from the phenomenon called the “Kendall Jenner effect”, named after the most successful female model in the world who also started her career on the platform. The formula is a simple one: get as many followers as possible in order to have more influencing power in the eyes of sponsors. The shortest road to more followers, as it turns out, is to expose as much skin as possible by posting lots of swimsuit photos and tight clothes that leave nothing to the imagination.
Twitter is worst offender of the four, being the only one which explicitly allows pornography. One adult performer told the Independent that “Twitter is the best way to promote [herself]”. Likewise, other popular sites on the internet such as reddit.com, which is trafficked by 1.6 billion visitors each month, have been classified as “mixed content sites” by the DNS filtering service CleanBrowsing because the only degree of separation between the site’s aggregated news, memes, and user discussions, and the mountain of softcore and hardcore pornography the site hosts, is an age gate page asking the user to confirm that they are the age of majority and consent to viewing adult content. Reddit, despite being one of the twenty most trafficked sites on the internet and being primarily known for its news aggregation, hosts so much pornography within its user-created subcommunities (called subreddits) that it has become a microcosm of the World Wide Web itself and presents the same whack-a-mole problem for DNS blockers. For this reason, CleanBrowsing’s family filter simply blocks mixed content sites like Reddit indiscriminately of its parts.
There has been a digital and cultural shift over the past decade which has converged on social media. The World Wide Web doesn’t seem so wide anymore as any feeling of a separation of spaces has ostensibly disappeared with social media becoming the new agora. One need not visit a website dedicated to sports news and journalism to discover the result of the previous night’s match because the information he is seeking will be posted repeatedly with photos and videos on one or more platforms he frequents, likely accompanied by a variety of memes and reaction gifs from the community. The same holds just as true for various other interests, and therein lies the snare. One may be reasonably confident that he will not encounter ‘adult content’ on a sports journalism website because the content is curated and posted by a small handful of professionals, but the same confidence cannot be granted to his social media feed which, each time he refreshes his browser, is a new and random amalgamation of a thousand voices whose morals and motivations may be as far apart as the circuits and semiconductors that connect them.
If the internet filters don’t work against social media and the questionable content that abounds there, what option does that leave us? Two years ago, I was reading some mundane article on Fox News when the page I was on automatically loaded a video to another story in the corner of my laptop’s screen. The breaking news was that female celebrity #942 had taken her clothes off for a photoshoot and it was necessary that everyone stop what they were doing to look at it. I closed my laptop and did what I always do when encountering a trigger: take a long walk with my dog. While we were out, I pondered what I should have done differently to avoid what had happened, and I couldn’t see what that was, short of taking the nuclear option and quitting the internet completely. I thought about how the internet was once entirely composed of only text and remembered an article I had read on web browsers that still exist today, such as Lynx, which allow one to browse the modern web in this fashion. I lamented the fact that these technologies were attractive options that had no way of enforcing them in the way an internet filter would, when it occurred to me that I had not actually researched if such a filter existed. It just seemed too far-fetched an idea to think anyone would be providing an internet filter that stripped the internet of all images and videos, and too good to be true for that matter because in my estimation I was the only one crazy enough to desire it.
After awkwardly articulating a query into Google, I discovered a website called Pluckeye (pronounced like ‘plucky’). The site featured a stylized logo, the letter P designed to look like an eye with an accent mark poking it from above, and an image filling most of the screen showing a man wearing dark glasses (suggesting he is blind) holding his arms out in a gesture of thanksgiving towards the sky.
Jon Wilkes, founder of Single Eye Software, LLC—the developer behind Pluckeye—is a self-described Christian and founding member of Builders, “an alliance of Christian tech companies working together to fight porn.” After studying computer science and spending a decade working in the software industry, Jon began full time work on Pluckeye in 2015 and has since released versions of the filtering software on Windows, macOS, Linux, and Android. Subscription pricing operates on a sliding scale model, so users are asked to pay according to their ability in order to make the software available to everyone, even for free to those who need it. His mission is to “provide a software tool for everyone ready to get porn out of their lives,” and states the name of the software “is inspired by Matthew 5 and also by the word pluck: courage and determination in the face of adversity.”
Pluckeye (which at the time of writing is in the process of rebranding as the more phonetic Plucky) is a filter which differs from traditional filters in perhaps many specific ways but most notably in one general way: whereas a traditional filter works from the angle of an unfiltered internet and starts from there blocking bad sites, Pluckeye works backwards by disabling images and videos by default on every website and leaves it to the user to allow these features on trusted websites. This method might come across as extreme, perhaps even too much so to be of practical use, but if one’s hope is to limit (even eliminate) exposure not only to adult content but also triggers that inhibit his ability to change unwanted behaviours or compulsions, it may be impractical to think one can safely use the internet without such measures.
As mentioned, Pluckeye works out of the box by blocking all images and videos on the internet. For many users this may be perfectly sufficient, and no further effort will be necessary. However, Pluckeye is a highly customizable and powerful tool which offers as much in return as the amount of thought and effort the user is willing to put into their configuration of it. One of the shortcomings of most other filters I’ve tested is that they are primarily useful for people (typically parents or system administrators of companies) setting the filter up for other people (typically children or company employees). This essentially means that if you are able to setup the filter, you are usually able to disable or circumvent the filter. This creates a sort of Catch-22 for a certain demographic of adults who want to filter their own usage; you need to be smart enough to set it up, but also not smart enough to know how to un-set it up. The word addict is probably misapplied to many individuals by pathologizing their bad habits with overly stimulating and novel technologies which are inherently difficult to regulate one’s use of in the first place, but at the same time it very concisely paints a ballpark-accurate image of individuals who are seeking help with self-control issues which feel like they have become impossible for them to struggle alone with anymore.
In that sense, Pluckeye stands out as a filter which is made for addicts, and the core mechanic which makes it work is the delay system. Because compulsive behaviours are driven by intense short-term desires which conflict with meaningful long-term desires, individuals who struggle with self-control issues often relapse into behaviours they are trying to change. Internet pornography is especially difficult for most people with this dilemma because of its endless novelty and ability as a hyper stimulant to cause unnaturally high levels of dopamine secretion in the brain, as well as its effect on eroding the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain which regulates impulse control, leading to a seemingly unbreakable cycle. The delay system is designed around this understanding and works so that the user only allows what he wants in the long term rather than the short term. Each user decides the length of their delay after the initial set up stage and can continue to lengthen it or shorten it as they gain a deeper sense of their own needs. Once set, any decisions to allow more (such as allowing a new website to display images and videos) will only take effect once they have passed the delay cycle the user has specified.
While Pluckeye’s filtering shines as a boon for self-helpers, it is no less useful for families who are willing to take the time to set it up by following the instructions in the online manual and seeking the help of community members at the online forum where needed. One such example may look like a family computer shared by a father, mother, teenage son, and young daughter. Assuming each family member has their own account on this shared computer, Pluckeye can be installed by one of the parents and then rules can be set for each other family member’s account which are specific to the person’s needs.
As it is self-control software as much as it is a filter, Pluckeye is also a viable option for individuals who may want to quit browsing the web completely and keep their computer around for specific needs such as work and communication only. It is also possible to create schedules in which Pluckeye will automatically manage your computer with different rules depending on the time or days of the week, so one might take advantage of this possibility by letting Pluckeye block internet access outside of work hours to spend more time with family and avoid the temptation to use the computer alone late at night, or sanctify the Lord’s day by freeing up distractions caused by internet use.
The internet is one of the greatest tools mankind has to expand knowledge, creativity and spirituality, but pornography and rubbish on social media robs us of those things, even physically eroding our brains. If you’re as tired of this as I am, then let’s become blind together. Let’s not allow just any image or video into our homes and our lives through our computer screens, but only the ones which have received our approval. Before Playboy became completely supplanted, one would hear the expression from flippant men, ‘I only read it for the articles.’ I am hopeful that the men of my generation will one day sincerely say the same of the internet.
(The author is not affiliated with any of the products or services mentioned herein and did not receive compensation for writing about them).
November is the month in which all men, religious and secular, are invited to challenge themselves to be free from pornography for one month.