What happens internally when you hear the word pornography? For just a moment, pay attention to the feeling that rises up when you sit with that word. Statistically, for men – and for a growing proportion of women – the first feelings are guilt and shame. But perhaps you feel disgust, sadness, hurt or defeat – all depending on the way you’ve been impacted by porn.
Sitting with these feelings helps us break the temptation to think that the problem of porn is out there somewhere in the world. With mobile devices on your desk or in your pocket, porn addiction is in here. It’s in your church, your school and likely in your house. We don’t like to talk about porn. I get it. Simply thinking about it makes me uncomfortable, too. But maybe if we break the silence on the issue, we can break its power over us and over our relationships.
As a therapist, I come at this issue from a particular angle. For this article, I will simply highlight what I refer to as the five “A’s” of pornography. My hope is that if we pay attention to the issues around pornography it will give us insight into effective ways to treat the addiction.
So here we go.
We currently find ourselves in a cultural moment with unprecedented access to satisfy our sexual interests, curiosity and cravings. As with all technology, smartphones and wifi are not neutral inventions: they can be used for the benefit and flourishing of the human experience, or, alternatively, for personal gain, exploitation and perversion. Since the introduction of high-speed internet, we can stream porn at high quality and quantity, which creates new issues unknown to previous generations. For example, porn-induced erectile dysfunction is a growing problem in men under 40. As viewers become desensitized to the kind of porn that was once stimulating, they seek new levels of excitement to activate their sexual arousal. Eventually, real-life sexual experiences fail to measure up, and arousal plummets.
When it comes to online porn, if you can name it (and even if you can’t!), you can find it. I’ll spare you the details.
For the most part, you could sustain a porn addiction without spending a dollar, as the internet is saturated with free porn from both professionals and amateurs. Companies offer free porn to spark curiosity and interest in their material, then offer premium material at an affordable rate for when the brain becomes accustomed to and dissatisfied with the levels of feel-good dopamine it has been receiving. However, porn becomes much less affordable when the hidden expenses are taken into account, like the effects on your spiritual life, marriage, sense of integrity and self-image, for example. On the surface, porn appears to be cheap and harmless, but my clients will tell you the untold stories and true cost exacted by regular porn use.
To everyone else – other than the ever-watchful eye of internet cookies, web traffic trackers and corporations interested in your data – most porn use flies under the radar. The hidden nature of porn use makes it easy to maintain a double life of sorts, and it becomes easy to convince oneself that, “I’m not really hurting anyone.” Eventually we find ourselves holding a secret that’s too heavy to carry alone. An essential part of managing a porn addiction, then, is finding a trustworthy person to break the secrecy with, establish accountability and practise confession and receiving grace.
Sometimes, though certainly not always, there is a link between trauma and overly sexualized behaviour, where early childhood exposure to sexual abuse triggers a sense of interest and curiosity in sex and/or sexual functioning. If that’s the case, it’s essential to process this pain and affliction. More often, however, is that porn addiction grows out of some other pain or source of discomfort that could be caused by any variety of situations (eg., workplace stress, bullying, loss of job, marital tension, a low grade on a test, etc.). Porn, like all other addictions, often becomes a way of coping with unwanted situations or “negative” emotions. So it’s important to identify the affliction – the pain – that precedes porn use and to find alternative ways to cope with challenging or painful situations that led to porn use in the first place.
Shame and guilt are powerful human emotions, and consequently some of the most debilitating. Brené Brown has a helpful way of distinguishing between shame and guilt. Guilt, she says, is an internal voice that says, “I’ve done something wrong” (referring to a behavioural orientation), whereas shame is the internal voice that says, “there’s something deeply wrong or broken with me” (referring to a fundamental view of self). Chronic porn use makes it hard to tell the difference between guilt and shame because they are often experienced together. Our behaviour becomes entirely wrapped up in who we are, to the point where it becomes hard to see yourself apart from the things you do. This is the insidious nature of porn. It corrodes our identity and sense of self as we lose the capacity to distinguish between shame and guilt. When we feel guilt and shame, we isolate ourselves from others and we feel that our projected self to the outside world is nothing but a facade. “If people only knew the real me,” we say to ourselves, “they wouldn’t really want me as a friend/lover/parent/elder/pastor, etc.” In therapy, I’m often tracking and dealing with these negative emotions that prevent us from risking openness, transparency and vulnerability with others.
As alluded to above, the use of porn is often triggered by negative or uncomfortable emotions, and it’s important to begin paying attention to these subtle feelings immediately experienced beforehand. What are the top three triggers? Stress, loneliness and boredom. As we face the realities of the coronavirus we are at an elevated risk of all three triggers. We are currently witnessing a spike in anxiety (stress), social distancing and isolation (loneliness), and the absence of regular routines, work and a sense of purpose (boredom). In times like these, emotional awareness becomes more necessary than ever when fighting the urges to cope by using porn.
As we consider the effects of guilt and shame, we can begin to imagine the impact that these emotions have on our closest relationships. Porn addiction often prevents us from deep emotional attachment with others, including our intimate relationships. When we feel unloveable, unforgivable or unwanted, we tend to shut down and prevent others from seeing who we really are. When we fear rejection from a spouse or friend, we take great protective measures to make sure he or she can’t see the filth we feel on the inside. When fearful of rejection or feeling inadequate in our close relationships, it’s easy to either hide our vulnerable self from others through emotional or physical withdrawal, or to numb the fear through, circuitously, more porn use, adrenaline-seeking behaviours, workaholism or substance abuse. However, safe and secure relationships offer a place to process painful human emotions (fear, shame, guilt, loneliness, sadness), and they offer a context to experience love, grace and forgiveness. Some of the most powerful client stories I’ve been a part of have involved some level of rediscovery of vulnerability in their intimate relationships, and the healing power of safe and secure relationships.
Grace and love
In closing, porn can work like a cancer in our souls and in our relationships. It takes the good parts of sexuality – the good and universal human desires for love, attention, affection, acceptance, safety, security, wholeness, pleasure and delight – and deforms its creational function by reducing it to a simple erotic act. In porn, the sex act becomes the pinnacle of sexuality at the detriment to the nuance of human sexuality. It takes something inherently vulnerable and intimate that exposes the most sensitive and protected parts of the body, and makes it unsafe, public and cheap.
Perhaps it’s worth closing by naming the antidote to shame and guilt: grace and love. Isn’t this our Story? While we were still sinners, God loved. God forgave. God redeemed. He dealt with our sin, transformed our identity, and invites us into an ongoing life of discipleship. For grace to be extended, we need to break the silence around pornography. And to break the
silence, we need to know that
grace will be extended. I wonder how this would change our
relationships, families, churches and communities?