Half of all Christian men use Internet pornography. Some claim it’s the reason men are leaving churches in their droves. And yet, we’re not talking about it. So just how did it become the silent menace to the church?
This is an article about Internet pornography use among Christians – including pastors. So right now, there’s a chance you might be feeling a tiny pang of discomfort beginning to well in your stomach.
If research is to be believed, just over a third of you will be having that reaction right now. According to a 2007 survey by website ChristaNet.com, around 50 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women – all of them Christians – admitted to an ‘addiction’ to Internet-based pornography. In separate research by American ministry xxxchurch, 37 per cent of pastors said that porn addiction was a daily struggle for them.
Most of the research in this area is from the US, so it is difficult to ascertain just how big an issue it is in the UK.
“But let’s be realistic,” says David Partington, general secretary of Isaac International, a Christian network which looks at issues of substance misuse and addiction, “If the numbers are only half what they are in the US, we are still facing an extremely significant problem here in the UK.”
What this is not about
Due to the huge scope of the subject, there are several things which this article will not address in detail:
Masturbation: Most pornography consumption is accompanied by masturbation. This article will not attempt to get into detail around the rights and wrongs of masturbation per se. However, that act is implied when we refer to the ‘use’ of pornography.
Child pornography: The US Department of Justice suggests that more than one million pornographic images of children exist on the Internet at any given time, and, harrowingly, it is a multi-million dollar industry of its own. However, none of the statistics used in this article have been correlated in any way with those for child pornography use, and in no way is such a correlation implied.
Other forms of pornography: Porn has been around in many forms for many years. However, the growth of the Internet has caused an explosion in access to hardcore pornography, accessible with no age or content regulation. This is the primary way in which pornography is accessed, but it is not the only way. It may be supported by – or lead to – the use of magazines or DVDs.
The scale of the problem
The recent Broadway smash Avenue Q – a puppet-based look at the struggles of modern life – contains a song called ‘The Internet is for porn’. In it, one of the characters contests that the primary purpose of the Net is for the distribution of pornographic material. While it’s meant as a joke in that context, the figures suggest some truth in it: according to the US Justice Department, in 1998 there were 28,000 X-rated websites; within just three years this number increased to 280,000. At the last count, there were 4.2 million. And according to Microsoft, 60 per cent of all website visits are ‘sexual in nature’.
“It’s so readily available,” says Partington. “You don’t have to reach to the top shelf in a newsagent anymore to access this material. You don’t even have to go looking for it, it comes looking for you, in the privacy of your own home.”
Internet pornography is largely unregulated and almost totally uncensored. Many people who do not use adult material may presume that the pornography accessed online by Christians, pastors, and young people (on average, by age 11 remember) is as explicit as that contained on a newsagent’s top shelf. It isn’t. The majority of Internet pornography is ‘hardcore’ in nature, and could therefore not legally be shown in a magazine, or on television. Most Internet pornography involves the physical degradation, and often outright humiliation of a subject, in most cases female. Videos involve oral, full penetrative and anal intercourse, sometimes apparently forced, usually without a condom. In the context of ‘straight’ sex scenes, lesbian and bisexual behaviour are commonplace.
‘Porn is the wallpaper of our lives now,’ claims author Naomi Wolf, writing in the New Yorker magazine , ‘It has breached the dike that separated a marginal, adult, private pursuit from the mainstream public arena. The whole world, post-Internet, has become pornographised. Young men and women are being taught what sex is, how it looks, what its etiquette and expectations are, by pornographic training.’
So porn is pervasive in the culture, it is used widely among Christians, and yet it is barely acknowledged in churches.
“We find it difficult to talk about sex and sexual issues in church anyway,” says Partington. “I think we have a problemtalking about sex, and therefore we don’t create an environment where these things can be acknowledged and understood.”
Has the Church’s elevation of sexual sin contributed to its silence on the subject of Internet pornography? “We all have the perception that sexual sin is worse than others,” he says. “That’s not the truth of course, but it’s in our psyche, it’s there. So the shame is greater, and we don’t talk about it.”
What’s the impact?
Pornography and sex: The use of pornography by one partner, especially hardcore pornography, can have a seriously negative impact on a couple’s sex life – even if it remains undiscovered. Pornography warps our expectations of healthy sexual activity, away from a loving, equal, biblical ideal, and into line with the ethics of the hardcore sex scene. As Wolf writes, pornography ‘has lowered [people’s] sense of their own sexual value and their actual sexual value.’
“It distorts your expectations and your desires for normal, God-given sex,” says Partington. “Sooner or later that is going to affect sexual relationships. If you are looking at these carefullychosen women with perfect bodies who will do anything, it will distort your perception of how the woman in your life will respond.”
The effects on sexual intimacy are progressively disastrous, according to Tony Tufnell, a counsellor accredited by the Association of Christian Counsellors. “The individual is increasingly caught up in his fantasies. Sex cannot seem as exciting with one’s partner, with the mind full of compliant but fantasy images.”
Eventually, he says, the male tends to be reluctant to engage in live sex at all. “His needs, he feels, are met my viewing his porn and acting out (masturbating) over it.”
Pornography and relationships: So porn affects not only the actual act of sexual intercourse and the way people are able to relate to their partners sexually, but also relationally.
If an addiction is discovered by a husband or wife, the consequences can be catastrophic. “The effects if the partner finds out about his habits bring a new dimension to the relationship, with the female likely to feel betrayed, a sense of not being good enough for him, and a sense of disgust at his behaviour,” says Tufnell. “Separation, and in extreme cases divorce, are the outcomes in many cases.”
Pornography and trafficking: There are significant and worrying links between pornography, prostitution and human trafficking. A huge number of prostitutes, in the UK and abroad, are trafficked women, forced into sexual slavery by gangs, often far from home. Interviews with 854 women involved in prostitution, in nine countries, revealed that almost half of them had had pornographic films made of them while they were in prostitution (source: Pornography: Driving the demand in international sex trafficking, David E Guinn and Julie DiCaro Eds). Joining the dots, that means many of the women involved in pornography are victims of the sex slave trade. Consider then the hypocrisy of the activist Christian who vows to help ‘Stop the Traffik’, then returns to his PC in secret to help fuel it. By viewing pornography, we’re not only engaging in lust; we could also be participating in human rights abuses.
The body of research also suggests that, perhaps contrary to perceptions, pornography exposure increases the likelihood that a person will visit a prostitute. A report by Rape Crisis Scotland found a statistically significant association between punters’ pornography use and the frequency of their use of women in prostitution. A recent BBC News report discovered that men who sleep with prostitutes say they ‘led up to it using pornography on various websites.’ Again, a link with trafficking is then clear. American sex abuse expert Dr Mary Anne Layden testified before the US Senate about her experiences in Pennsylvania, “The connection to sex trafficking is that increased use of pornography leads to increased demand for prostitution,” she said. “When demand outstripped supply of local prostitutes, women and children were brought in from overseas, often against their will.”’
Pornography and violence: Significant links have been drawn between hardcore pornography use and sexual violence. A large amount of web-based porn content depicts violent sexual acts, such as simulated rape, or subjects being bound, gagged and humiliated. In a recent trial, musician Graham Coutts was jailed for life for murdering teacher Jane Longhurst with a pair of tights to fulfil a sexual fantasy. At London’s Old Bailey, the court was told that Coutts was obsessed with violent pornography viewed on the Internet. Speaking after the conviction, Professor Clare McGlynn of Durham University’s department of law claimed that “the prevalence of extreme pornography sustains a culture in which rape and sexual violence are normalised and legitimated; in which a woman’s ‘no’ is not taken seriously, as evidenced by the low conviction rate for rape.”
McGlynn is supportive of new UK government legislation designed to ban extreme pornographic material by making its possession illegal, but is concerned that it does not go far enough. It isn’t clear whether the relevant Bill will cover rape websites, which are prolifically available online, and as McGlynn points out, “these websites appear to do nothing less than legitimate and encourage gaining sexual arousal from forced sex.”
Pornography and spirituality: “It is here that the greatest damage is likely to be done for the sincere Christian who takes his faith seriously,” says Tufnell. “The guilt and shame are enormous. He is increasingly aware of his separation from God. Pornography becomes his god, and continued indulgence is his worship.”
Partington and Tufnell both think that using pornography affects spirituality so negatively that it causes men to leave the church. “It is the biggest threat to Christian manhood in this day and age. I am absolutely convinced of that,” says Partington. “The spirit of God lives within us, it tells us what is right and what is wrong. You become aware of the conflict between that and what you are doing, and you can’t live with it. Then of course there’s shame. Yourdevotional life goes into neutral and eventually, many men quietly leave the Church. They don’t talk about why, they just go.”
Pornography and ministry: Brandon Piety is the production manager of xxxchurch.com, the US ministry which leads the way in the Church’s response not only to pornography addiction, but also the adult movie industry. He is convinced that a pornography addiction can have a significant influence on Christian ministry. “If a pastor or youth pastor is struggling with pornography and it is not addressed you will no doubt see effects of this on their ministry. All too often as leaders we compartmentalise our lives and the very things we preach against, we fall victim to. God has called all of you to his service. Not part of you. Your time and energy that you are spending in porn or another struggle must be used elsewhere. Many times we do not understand how much time and energy our struggles are taking away from our ministry.”
What goes on, on a spiritual level, when perhaps a third of our Christian leaders are suffering from an addiction to pornography? How well are those leaders equipped to counsel, minister, speak truth into people’s lives? And is the real reason why the church is so often so bad at talking about healthy sexuality that many of its leaders aren’t living out a healthy sexuality themselves? It certainly seems a compelling reason for why masturbation is so seldom discussed when it’s a key question for many teenagers.
We’re hugely grateful to the Christian youth worker who has been prepared to share the details of his struggle in this area. In the box opposite, you’ll be able to read his story of how his pornography addiction started, grew and was eventually addressed. Importantly, his story doesn’t end in some kind of ‘cure’ – only with progress and an awareness that he could fall again at any time. Below, we begin to unpack some practical strategies to combat an addiction or serious struggle with pornography. But as with all addictions, it’s about trying our best, taking each day one at a time, and being prepared to pick ourselves up when we fall. So if you struggle with Internet pornography, this represents a great chance to change.
Talk to God first: If you’ve lived with this for a while, you’ve been here before, but the first step is to go here again. Brandon Piety says: “Go before God and confess where you are at with this struggle. You have to admit you have a problem and furthermore speak to God about this problem. Often with our secrets we do not approach God because of the shame and guilt cycle. Or maybe we do approach God but it is the emotional aftermath of messing up yet again. Go before God and pray through confession and ask him to heal your heart and mind.”
Get accountable: Admitting your problem to another person is the most vital and also the most dangerous step. If you are in a salaried ministry position you risk your job if you tell your supervisor. Most youth workers would assume that if his or her pastor knew they had a sexual addiction, they’d be fired, not counselled. Piety recognises this problem: “In leadership there isan effect of being on top and not having anyone to go to about your struggles. I would encourage everyone to be accountable to a mentor and a spouse, or close friend.” Key to this process then is choosing the right accountability partner.
“You cannot do this on your own,” Piety continues. “Put your pride at being a ministry leader aside and go before someone and be completely transparent, open and honest. The Bible says that those who conceal their sin will not prosper and it speaks clearly of carrying each other’s burdens.”
Talking and confessing only goes so far however – perhaps the most practical move we can make in this area is to use accountability software. Available free from Piety’s site, and in various other forms (see Resources box), this is a program which you and your accountability partner install on your computers, which then keeps watch on your online activity. If you look at a pornographic website, your registered friend will find out; if you try to disable the software, your friend gets to know straight away. It’s a simple but effective deterrent, and gives permission to your friend to continue talking with you about the issue.
Clean it up: Now, while you’re thinking clearly, move on to practical steps that will help you when you’re struggling. Cancel or lock out TV channels that cause you to struggle. Change your laptop password to your wife’s name, or even ‘No porn today’! Allow your wife or a friend to regularly look at your Internet history, and commit to always keeping at least two weeks’ history on your computer. Change the settings on your mobile phone so that adult content is password protected – and get someone else to enter a password!
Make a plan: Brandon suggests that “you will continue to struggle in the same areas unless you make a game plan to deal with your struggle.” A game plan is essentially a list of rules you set for yourself that protects you from looking at pornography, and from triggers to porn use. Typically this might include having a rule which means you don’t meet alone with a non-family member of the opposite sex, a decision to avoid 18-cert movies, a commitment to an accountability partner and a decision to cancel satellite or cable TV. This is context specific – you may need to address totally different areas, and the best idea is to work the list out with your accountability partner.
Pornography is no less intoxicating than alcohol, and as any alcoholic will tell you, addiction is never beaten. Yet we can make progress against what the statistics suggest is an epidemic in the Church. By recognising the issue and bringing it into the light, we can commit together to take the long and difficult journey toward lessening, and even reversing, pornography’s impact. For the sake of those close to us, those we minister to, ourselves, the men and women involved in this industry, and our God, it is an area and a journey we can no longer ignore.
PORN CREEP:The process by which Western culture becomes more and more accepting of pornography is sometimes termed ‘Porn creep’. Pornography has become increasingly normalised in popular culture over the course of the last century (a stricter view would be that culture has been pornographised), to the point that for many members of the younger generations it has lost any shock value, and is no longer termed bad, dirty or wrong. Examples include couples recording sexual experiences and posting them on Internet sites, the appearances of porn stars in music videos and feature films, and frequent references to pornography in television sitcoms, stand-up routines, and advertising. One major impact on women is the now mainstream fashion of Brazilian waxing, to remove almost all pubic hair, as is common in porn films. The growth of cosmetic surgery has also been significantly influenced by the surgically enhanced bodies of adult film stars.
WEBSITES: www.freeinchrist.truepath.com – This site includes stepby- step help, links to sites that have accountability software, testimonies and other helpful resources
www.blazinggrace.org – statistics, articles and support.
www.xxxchurch.com – a whole ministry to support those struggling with pornography addiction, probably the best site around for help and support. Make sure you visit the resources section at www.xxxchurch.com/gethelp/parents/resources.html for links to PDF documents and other resources
www.x3watch.com/X3 – accountability software. The free version works on PCs and Macs and records possible objectionable web pages and when they were visited. You can have two accountability partners and they will receive a report once every fortnight. The other option is the X3 Pro service, which is a pay for service at $19.95, and is for PCs only. With this, your accountability partners will receive full detailed log reports each week. Both are easy to install and use, and your accountability partner will be alerted if you remove them from your list
www.integrity.com/filtering.html – software that will allow you to block sexual content online. The downside however is that it is quite expensive www.covenanteyes.com – accountability software that works on a PC and Mac, available for $7.99 a month
www.accountable2you.com – accountability software with options such as filtering software and the option to monitor your whole computer. Unfortunately not available for Macs or Linux. You have to install the software using Internet explorer – after that it will work in any web browser
The Silent War: Ministering to those trapped in the deception of pornography by Henry J Rogers (New Leaf Press 2000). A writer’s own story of addiction and how God helped him overcome it. Includes steps on how to get out of, and help others avoid, pornography’s grip
Living free (CARE publications 2008). A practical booklet, aiming to help someone break free from pornography addiction
Porn again Christian by Mark Driscoll (e-book, download from relit.org). The sometimes controversial church leader tackles the subject head-on
The Christian handbook of abuse, addiction difficult behaviour by Brendan Geary Jocelyn Bryan Eds. (Kevin Mayhew, 2008). Includes helpful section on sexual and pornographic addiction