Fleeting images

Culture | Addiction to porn is keeping many Christian men from a mature relationship with Christ and a marriage relationship with a woman

Issue: "Rethinking the death penalty," Oct. 19, 2013

Richard grew up in a conservative Christian home and encountered pornography when a 10th-grade classmate slipped a photo into his math book. He remembers the picture as “repulsive” but “very intriguing. I knew it was wrong.” Later in college he turned to internet pornography after breaking up with his longtime girlfriend.

Richard (we’re using only first names to preserve privacy), now a youth pastor in his mid-30s, cites his 15-year addiction to pornography as the prime reason he’s still single: “It has kept me from healthy relationships with women [and] drastically affected my maturity in Christ.” He’s not alone: In only one generation the average marriage age in the United States today jumped from the early 20s to 29 for men and 27 for women. 

Many analysts have described how increased cohabitation, mounting college debt, and a greater focus on higher education and careers contribute to the higher marriage age. The largely ignored factor is internet pornography, but our extensive interviewing shows porn is leaving relationships stillborn or destroyed.

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Internet porn is causing physical and moral damage to people inside and out of the church, affecting their relationships with God and each other. Yet even as porn seeps into more and more lives, churches still shrink back from engaging the issue. That must change.

From ancient Rome to China, archeologists have found paintings, pottery, and sculptures depicting sexual acts that date back thousands of years. But the internet has been for porn what the printing press was for books, providing users with endless images on their computers and smartphones in complete privacy. A full-blown addiction that took nine to 12 months to develop 30 years ago now happens in three or four weeks. 

Web users entered almost 1.5 billion searches for internet porn in the first eight months of 2013—averaging five for every person living in the United States. And it’s not only men visiting these sites: Women make up one-third of the traffic (see sidebar below).

It’s difficult to conduct sound research on pornography addictions—in part because researchers can’t find candidates to form control groups of people who don’t use porn—but mainstream studies agree it rewires the brain and changes behavior. Porn accompanied by masturbation overexposes the brain to pleasure chemicals including dopamine and serotonin. The brain builds a tolerance to the high amount of chemicals, and the user requires more and more stimulus to get the same rush.

In a 2008 study, Brigham Young University professor Jason Carroll also found acceptance of pornography was significantly correlated with desires for later marriage and lower levels of child-centeredness. If men are locked in their rooms surfing the Web, they’re not out interacting with women. When they do interact with women, they’re more likely to look at them as objects and have unrealistic standards of physical beauty.

Porn addiction isn’t only a moral problem: Scores of men, even teenagers, are developing erectile dysfunction from excessive porn use and masturbation. Tens of thousands of men are turning to online support groups like NoFap on Reddit.com to overcome porn and masturbation for nonreligious reasons.

Things don’t look that different in the church: While nobody knows the exact number of Christian men struggling with porn, a 2000 Focus on the Family/Zogby poll found born-again Christians were only slightly less likely to use pornography than the general public (18 percent compared to 21 percent). And with 87 percent of men between 18 and 26 using pornography, according to the 2008 BYU study, the number of Christian men struggling today has likely increased as well.

Jim Denison, former pastor of the 10,000-member Park Cities Baptist church in Dallas, said he took an anonymous survey of 300 men at a 6:30 a.m. Bible study and found 70 percent were struggling with porn. “This is not the peripheral member who comes occasionally,” he said. “These are the committee members, the staff members, and the deacons.”

Richard, who is also a seminary student, explained the entrapment as a series of small decisions: One evening he’s doing homework after watching a movie. He takes a break and decides to google pictures of that cute actress in the movie. Then his mind wanders to what she looks like in a bikini—and with one click he can see it. “At that point, the snowball is way too big” to stop, Richard said, and leads to pornography and masturbation: “You walk away saying I shouldn’t have done that, but you also walk away feeling physically satisfied.” 

Richard said the hardest part is porn’s effects on his relationships with God, other people, and potential spouses. “You carry around shame constantly from your sin,” he said. “There’s no reprieve. … It really owns you.” He said sexual temptation is not something men can simply resist, which is why he physically walks away when temptation hits: “There’s a reason Paul tells us to flee from sexual immorality.”


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