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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.
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.”
By extension, a problem afflicting so many men affects just as many women. Lindsey Wagstaffe, 21, said several men who have pursued her admitted to struggling with pornography. They usually raise the issue at the start of the relationship, and her first reaction is compassion.
But personally, the questions haunt her: “Will my husband compare my body and actions with other women’s bodies and actions whenever we’re intimate?” “If my future husband found me more beautiful, would that help him stop fantasizing about having sex with women who aren’t his wife?” And the biggest question: “Am I only an ‘it’ to this man … that possesses a body to be used?”
Some girlfriends are stuck in a difficult place: not committed in marriage, but still in love. Wagstaffe said porn has kept many of her friends in their 20s and 30s single, as they haven’t been pursued by godly men. She believes it’s important to look at the underlying causes of the addiction—often spiritual immaturity: “I would definitely, absolutely marry a man who has a history with pornography and is currently experiencing more regular victory over it. But I haven’t considered it wise to pursue unity with someone who is currently in the grip of an addiction.”
John Piper agrees: Wagstaffe asked him if a boyfriend’s porn addiction should be a deal-breaker—Piper’s response became one of his most popular podcasts ever. He noted four problems with porn: It is unloving to the women pictured, adulterous, destructive to man’s capacity to love real women, and destructive to a man’s soul and his capacity to see God.
Piper said if a man can’t control his lust, women should see that as a deal-breaker: “An overall satisfying relationship with Jesus means that Jesus is precious enough so that we value Him above [porn]. … A man who says I embrace all that destruction … is saying something that a woman who is about to marry him better hear loud and clear.”
Denison, who leads the Denison Forum on Culture and Truth, said women should anticipate men having a problem with pornography and not be afraid to bring it up if the man doesn’t do so first—which Denison said men should do before engagement: “Don’t ignore it or think they’ll outgrow it or think it will go away with marriage.”
Andy, a 29-year-old professional athlete who was first exposed to porn at age 10, had already been in recovery for several years when he married his wife in 2011. He was clean for the first two years of marriage, then relapsed in March of this year and struggled for months. On his 60th day of sobriety he said, “I have to surrender my thoughts and feelings to God on a moment-by-moment basis. There have been times I’ve gotten on my knees [to pray] in the middle of the day, because I feel like I’m under attack.”
Andy said he is transparent with his wife but doesn’t tell her about every lustful thought. That’s why he stays plugged in to his support group of men: “No woman will ever understand what a guy goes through—sex addict or not. … It’s too much of a burden to put on my wife.” He hadn’t had sex with his wife in months—he’s earning back her trust—but considers himself lucky: “I’d rather be married and working through this than going through a divorce.”
Tens of thousands of men are turning to online support groups like NoFap on Reddit.com to overcome porn.
While porn is wreaking havoc within the church, Christians have done little to address the issue. Among pastors who broach the subject, most only give it a passing reference, and virtually all direct comments to men—leaving out women and children, whose porn usage is on the rise. Daniel Weiss of Brushfire Foundation, an organization that promotes a positive view of sexuality, said, “We have a situation where the whole world is talking about it, but the church and young people are looking for answers outside the church.”
In the absence of the church and proactive parenting, many children look to the internet to understand sexuality. The result: The average addict is exposed to porn between the ages of 10 and 12, and teens use porn more than any other age group. Ninety percent of all boys and 60 percent of all girls will see pornography before they turn 18—including large amounts of deviant behavior, such as bestiality, group sex, and child porn.
Churches often expect one-time fixes through prayer or confession, but addicts get frustrated and start doubting God when they end up slipping back to pornography. “When we only talk about it from the moral view, we are doing listeners a terrible disservice,” said David Zailer, a former porn and drug addict who now heads Operation Integrity, a porn recovery organization that started in California: “They already know it’s wrong. The problem is people will stop but generally go back to it because they’re stuck in isolation.”
Operation Integrity and other groups treat porn users like drug and alcohol addicts, combining counseling and education with weekly meetings where men can find encouragement. They are expanding but not as fast as pornography, Zailer said, yet more churches are recognizing the problem: “You have recovery programs in churches where people speak to the reality of addiction not just in past but current tense … people who have grown up living in addiction have found freedom.”
Richard’s church doesn’t offer a porn recovery program, but with the help of accountability partners, he’s making progress in his battle against pornography: He’s been clean for three months. While his pastor and mentors think he’s ready to pursue marriage, Richard is waiting: “I will not move forward until I feel like I can. … Ultimately, I’m a man and I need to be walking with God in such a way I can make that decision.”
One woman’s struggle
Christine Reyes started watching porn at the age of 8 after finding a hidden stash of her stepfather’s VHS tapes. She didn’t understand it but knew it was forbidden. Her stepfather would often tell the children to leave the room as he watched porn with his friends—her mom would leave voluntarily. As her family situation predictably worsened, Reyes continued turning to pornography for comfort and escape.
Now 26, Reyes said she had never spoken out about her addiction prior to speaking with WORLD. But she is hardly an anomaly: The 2008 BYU study found 31 percent of women between 18 and 26 use pornography. Reyes said she watched porn with classmates and babysitters as early as second grade. By the time she was in her teens, she was watching porn two to four hours a day—and it molded her perceptions about sexuality.
“Watching porn made it OK to have same-sex attractions, it made it OK to be experimental, it made it OK to have no boundaries,” Reyes said. “It was almost like my validation. … ‘If I do X,Y, and Z, I’ll have a satisfied relationship.’” While she watched porn with her boyfriends to be “one of the guys,” it crushed her self-esteem knowing she would never be as satisfying as the women on the screen.
Five years ago a co-worker explained the gospel to Reyes, and she professed Christ. But old habits persisted even as she started reading the Bible and going to church, where no one talked about porn use. Reuniting with her unbelieving boyfriend led to more promiscuity: Every time she decided to abstain from sex, she feared her boyfriend would leave her, so she went back to sleeping with him.
Eventually they moved in together, with Reyes hoping it would bring them closer together and lead to marriage. As a compromise to abstain from sex, they started watching porn together.
“I thought if I can’t have sex now that I’m a Christian, [porn] will be my release,” she said. “I kept thinking this will keep me pure. It really didn’t. It just motivates you to have sex or watch more porn.”
She knew what she was doing displeased God, yet she didn’t want to let her boyfriend go. “Porn became the thing that I was using to show I’m really [hurt] that we’re living together and you won’t marry me.” She finally realized she had to break off the relationship. She did, and repented. She’s been porn free for a year and a half now, but it hasn’t been easy: Reyes is careful with the movies she watches and is continually in prayer because even public displays of affection can trigger desires to watch porn.
She urges churches to create safe spaces for people to discuss their struggles: “Women who struggle don’t want to be judged. They wonder ‘Where do you go from here? What can you do?’”