“I look at porn most days,” John* tells Dan*, his member care worker.
John is married to Shirley and they have two small children. He and his family are applying to work cross culturally with a sending organisation that has a policy of not sending those with active pornography habits (John may not know this). The usual process for those who access porn at the frequency he is, would be to delay them, so that the applicant can to work on the issue with professionals until they are clear for 2 years.
Dan asks John, “Does Shirley know about your habit?” John replies, “Yes.”
Then Dan asks, “What impact does it have on her?” John replies, “Shirley says it doesn’t bother her.”
What would you say or do?
What’s the problem?
This habit will be effecting John’s relationship with Shirley and with God, as well as the effectiveness of his cross-cultural service, should he proceed as planned. Pornography use often leads to an addiction. Does John’s vulnerability mean the end of his dreams?
The use of pornography is very common both outside and inside the church. Chester (2010: 14) defines pornography as ‘anything we use for sexual titillation, gratification or escape – whether it was intended for that purpose or not’. Experienced addiction clinicians in New Zealand, Harris and Dickinson (2016), write ‘anecdotally, 90% of all white collar men have accessed pornography in the last year’. Donnelley (2014) reports that surveys indicate 76% of men and 36% of women watch pornography in the UK. Covenant Eyes (2020) found that within the Christian community, 64% of men and 15% of women say they watch porn at least once a month.
In society at large, pornography is normalised. Some material that would have been considered pornography a generation ago, is now considered mainstream. Covenant Eyes (2020) found that 90% of teens and 96% of young adults are either ‘encouraging, accepting, or neutral when they talk about porn with their friends’. Merrit (2016) reports that, ‘Teens and young adults say “not recycling” is more immoral than viewing pornography’.
Psychologist Dr Alvin Cooper (2009) argues that pornography use has increased in recent years due to ‘the Triple-A engine’, referring to the anonymity, affordability and accessibility provided by the internet. Cyber access has provided anonymity, such that it is easy for people to keep their pornography habit secret. Previously, while purchasing porn, whether magazines or movies, users had to face shop personnel and there was always the risk of meeting someone they knew. Porn is now more affordable, with much of it free. Just as pokie machines have provided twenty-hour gambling opportunities in recent times, so has the internet increased the accessibility of pornography.
You can’t see me
You won’t know I’m spending on it since it’s part of our normal bill
I can access it anytime I am by myselfHarris & Dickinson (2016)
Is John addicted?
He may be. Pornography use often becomes an addiction. Addiction can be defined as
a psychological and physical inability to stop consuming a chemical, drug, activity, or substance, even though it is causing psychological and physical harm. Some addictions also involve an inability to stop partaking in activities, such as gambling, eating, or working. In these circumstances, a person has a behavioural addiction.Felman (2018)
Addiction is a ‘primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, … and extended amygdala in the same manner as do drugs of abuse’ such as heroin. Addictions have various patterns including an escalating momentum downwards. Harris and Dickinson (2016) argue that as an addict’s habit intensifies, they become committed to an unhealthy form of self soothing and become very protective of their habit. Watts (2008: 16) points out that pornography becomes an addict’s best friend; they spend their free time together and many of life’s activities are stopped in preference to it.
The brain is rewired by porn. Watts (2008: 84) writes about the changes to the neural pathways of the brain that occurs during porn usage, such that ‘the more the pathways are exercised, the stronger the desire becomes’. He likens it to driving a 4-wheel drive vehicle on sand in a desert which is slow the first time but gradually becomes faster when the track is used repeatedly. If the habit continues, the track can morph into a highway! Watts (2008: 151) also refers to a trance like state of mind that can come about during porn use, due to the soothing and arousing effect of various hormones/chemicals that are released. This makes a porn habit very hard to quit.
The frequency, duration, severity and depth of engagement need to be explored using questions such as:
- What age did you first access porn?
- How often are you accessing porn?
- What is the duration of each session?
- How long have you been accessing it?
- What type of material are you looking at? (Note that the viewing of child pornography of any sort is a criminal offence).
- Are you opening sites, downloading it, sharing, producing or masturbating whilst watching?
So what exactly is the problem for John and Shirley?
John’s habit will be effecting his relationship with Shirley, and Shirley’s relationship with John. John’s watching of pornography involves sexual fantasies about someone other than Shirley. Despite her denial, John’s porn habit will be significantly impacting Shirley, as well as the couple’s sexual relationship. Her denial may suggest she feels powerless or discouraged in the relationship.
Porn encourages men and women to see others as objects to be consumed. Chester (2010: 25) refers to a study by the American Psychological Association that concluded that pornography ‘is preventing boys and young men from relating to girls and women as complex human beings with so much to offer them. It is preventing boys from forming healthy friendships and working relationships with girls and women.’
Pornography reduces satisfaction regarding users’ sex life with their partners. Paul (2007) writes that many men report that ‘while using porn, they have trouble being turned on by “real” women, and their sex lives with their girlfriends or wives collapse’. Pornography distorts expectations of sex and results in a view of sex that is detached from relationship and intimacy.
In real life, sexually speaking, women are crockpots [or slow cookers] and men are microwaves. But in pornography all a man does is touch a woman and she’s howling in delight. Today, pornography is so widely used by young men, they learn these falsehoods. There’s good evidence that the more porn men watch, the less satisfied they are with their partners looks and sexual performance…
Sex in porn is just a physical activity, nothing more. But real sex, sex as God intended, is the celebration and climax – quite literally – of a relationship. Godly sex is part of a package that includes talking together, sharing together, deciding together, crying together, working together, laughing together and forgiving each other. Orgasm comes at the end of a process that began with offering a compliment, doing the chores, recalling your day, unburdening your heart, tidying the house. Sex that disregards these things is hollow. It will drive you apart, rather than bring you together as God intended. If you view sex as personal gratification or the chance to enact your fantasy, if you have sex while disregarding intimacy or unresolved conflict, then that sex will be bad in both senses of the word: poor quality and ungodly.Chester (2010: 22-3)
Porn addiction distorts people slowly. As Harris & Dickinson (2016) argue, porn use involves delusional thought processes that impact the reality perceived. Chester (2010: 23) refers to a study that found an increased exposure to pornography was associated with an ‘increased tolerance towards sexual explicit material, thereby requiring more novel or bizarre material to achieve the same level of arousal or interest’. For example, distortions such as sadomasochism are seldom appealing in the beginning but may become so.
Effect on work
John ’s habit will impact his effectiveness in all areas of life including work. For example, late night viewing results in sleep deprivation and affects productivity. Woodhouse (personal communication, 2020), an experienced member care worker, noted that typically porn users will experience an internal struggle with their integrity, consuming considerable energy.
Shame and guilt are likely to be associated with John’s porn usage, since his behaviour is inconsistent with his faith beliefs. Lies and excuses are often employed to avoid exposure. John’s public self and his private self are at odds with each other (Watts, 2008: 41).
Some argue that the use of pornography is a form of idolatry. Chester (2010: 85) asserts that in spite of the shame it brings, porn puts users at the centre of a fantasy world in which they are worshipped.
Addictions are associated with a disconnection from God and a withdrawal from church. Many addicts fear the negative reactions of others which leads to isolation and sometimes the church community is unhelpful in response to addict’s revelations. Chester (2010: 38) notes that pornography use is a habitual struggle which causes some to experience doubts about their salvation.
Transition is a vulnerable time
Many applicants with John’s issue don’t realise how much more vulnerable they are likely to be during a transition into another culture. When a person is in a pressure cooker situation, such as transition, character issues surface, and in fact, usually escalate. A two-year study of short-term mission participants showed that most experienced a significant decline in personal purity both during their sojourn and the year following their return home (Friesen, 2005).
Organisational policy issues
John’s organisation’s policy of delaying applicants until they are clear of pornography use for two years, may in fact drive applicants’ issues underground. The delay resulting from disclosure of a pornography issue provides significant temptation to lie about it. Some organisations take a less hard-line approach, working towards elimination but accepting there will be brief relapses by cross-cultural workers from time to time. Watts (2008: 226) reports that for Christians, the typical pattern is abstinence followed by a relapse in the form of a binge, rather than constant use of pornography. These periods of abstinence may be for significant stretches of time.
A number of questions to consider:
– Does John understand his habit is a problem?
– Is he motivated to change?
– Has John tried to change in the past? If so, what happened?
– Does he know that there is more on offer for him?
A story to consider
It was spring. It was the time when kings go off to war. So David sent Joab out with the king’s special troops and the whole army of Israel. They destroyed the Ammonites… But David remained in Jerusalem.
One evening David got up from his bed. He walked around on the roof of his palace. From the roof he saw a woman taking a bath. She was very beautiful. David sent a messenger to find out who she was. The messenger returned and said, “She is Bathsheba. She’s the daughter of Eliam. She’s the wife of Uriah. He’s a Hittite.” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him. And he slept with her. Then she went back home. All of that took place after she had already made herself “clean” from her monthly period. Later, Bathsheba found out she was pregnant. She sent a message to David. She said, “I’m pregnant.”
So David sent a message to Joab. David said, “Send me Uriah, the Hittite.” Joab sent him to David. Uriah came to David. David asked him how Joab and the soldiers were doing. He also asked him how the war was going. David said to Uriah, “Go home and enjoy some time with your wife.” So Uriah left the palace. Then the king sent him a gift. But Uriah didn’t go home. Instead, he slept at the entrance to the palace. He stayed there with all his master’s servants.
David was told, “Uriah didn’t go home.” So he sent for Uriah. David said to him, “You have been away for a long time. Why didn’t you go home?”
Uriah said to David, “The ark and the army of Israel and Judah are out there in tents. My commander Joab and your special troops are camped in the open country. How could I go to my house to eat and drink? How could I go there and sleep with my wife? [I could never do a thing like that. And that’s just as sure as you are alive!]”
Then David said to him, “Stay here one more day. Tomorrow I’ll send you back to the battle.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next. David invited Uriah to eat and drink with him. David got him drunk. But Uriah still didn’t go home. In the evening he went out and slept on his mat. He stayed there among his master’s servants.
The next morning David wrote a letter to Joab. He sent it along with Uriah. In it he wrote, “Put Uriah out in front. That’s where the fighting is the heaviest. Then pull your men back from him. When you do, the Ammonites will strike him down and kill him.”
So Joab attacked the city. He put Uriah at a place where he knew the strongest enemy fighters were. The troops came out of the city. They fought against Joab. Some of the men in David’s army were killed. Uriah, the Hittite, also died…”
David told the messenger, “Tell Joab, ‘Don’t get upset over what happened. Swords kill one person as well as another. So keep on attacking the city. Destroy it.’ Tell that to Joab. It will cheer him up.”
Uriah’s wife heard that her husband was dead. She mourned over him. When her time of sadness was over, David had her brought to his house. She became his wife. And she had a son by him. But the Lord wasn’t pleased with what David had done.1 Samuel 11
What was David doing, or rather not doing, when Bathsheba was bathing? Normally kings were out at war. Was he neglecting his duty?
What was Bathseba doing? She was performing a ceremonial washing ritual as required by the law of Moses (Richardson, 2018).
David’s sin of adultery led to an escalation of sin, culminating in murder. Later the prophet Nathan reproves David using a story (2 Samuel 12:1-6). In response, David repents. Despite David’s sin, he received special favour from God and was described by God as ‘a man after my own heart’ (Acts 13:22).
How was this cross-cultural applicant cared for?
It is important that Dan honour John’s courage about being honest about his porn problem. Dan might say, “I really admire your courage in disclosing this information.”
It may be helpful for Dan to normalise John’s porn problem, if he is feeling that he is abnormal. Normalisation could be achieved by saying, “Unfortunately, many men struggle with pornography issues these days. Statistics suggest that more than 60% of Christian men access pornography.” This normalisation is not in anyway endorsing John’s porn usage.
It is vital that Dan shows grace to John, but not cheap grace.
It is possible that Christians may remain lonely in spite of daily worship together, prayer together … For the pious community permits no one to be a sinner. Hence all have to conceal their sins from themselves and from the community. We are not allowed to be sinners…
However, the grace of the gospel, which is so hard for the pious to comprehend, confronts us with the truth. It says to us, you are a sinner, a great, unholy sinner. Now come, as the sinner that you are, to your God who loves you. For God wants you as you are, not desiring anything from you—a sacrifice, a good deed—but rather desiring you alone. “My child, give me your heart” (Prov. 23:26). God has come to you to make the sinner blessed. Rejoice! This message is liberation through truth. You cannot hide from God. The mask you wear in the presence of other people won’t get you anywhere in the presence of God. God wants to see you as you are, wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and to other Christians as if you were without sin. You are allowed to be a sinner. Thank God for that; God loves the sinner but hates the sin.”Bonhoeffer (2005, p108)
Just as Nathan challenged David, John needs people who will challenge his behaviour. Chester (2010: 124) argues that, ‘People struggling with porn are often desperate for someone to be tough with them: to say it as it is’. Dan asked John questions (set out above) to explore the issue. Then John’s responses were used to determine the wisest way forward using the sending organsiation’s Porn Use Table1.
Could John be encouraged to see that there is more on offer for him? If John is willing to work on this issue with a professional, it may lead to better outcomes in his relationship with Shirley and God, as well as with his cross-cultural engagement in the future. Dan referred John and Shirley to a counsellor for professional follow up regarding his habit.
Dan could also encourage John to read ‘IP: DIY – Internet Pornography: Do-it-yourself treatment guide for men’ by Phil Watts which assists in understanding the issue better and helpful suggestions for tackling it. Alternatively, Dan could recommend ‘Captured by a Better Vision’ by Tim Chester (2010) which argues that greater pleasure can be found in God.
Dan might tell John the story of David. Piper urges users to develop ‘gutsy guilt’, like David, and not let sexual failure cause them to drop out of mission or leadership (Piper, 2007). Gutsy guilt involves confession, repentance and asking God for faith to trust that He taken away our guilt, shame and fear. The alternative is being ‘knobbled’ in our spiritual walk.
‘The tragedy is that Satan uses guilt from these failures to strip you of every good radical dream you ever had or might have. In their place, he gives you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures, until you die in your Lakeside rocking chair.’Piper (2007)
It is vital that John is walked alongside through this challenge within a supportive community. Men’s support groups are often helpful in this regard. It is a long-term struggle to escape addiction, so ongoing accountability is vital.
“I’ve used accountability software. It’s been a huge help, but only because the person who receives my reports will respond appropriately – strongly, but graciously.”Chester (2010: 125)
Dan said to John, “The sending organisation will require a report from the psychologist/counsellor indicating that the issue has been satisfactorily followed up. Our organisation uses accountability software called Covenant Eyes. Please use this software and select an accountability partner who will receive reports about your internet use and will be strong and straight in his dealings.”
At all times, Dan focused on the gospel rather than on the sin.
* All names of people and places in this blog have been changed to provide anonymity.
Chester, T. (2010) Captured by a Better Vision. Nottingham, England: Intervarsity Press.
Watts, P. (2008) IP: DIY – Internet Pornography: Do-it-yourself treatment guide for men. Perth, Western Australia: Ogilvie.
Bonhoeffer, D. (2005) Life Together, Prayerbook of the Bible, Works. Fortress.
Camp, K. (2020) ‘13 Challenges Foreign Missionaries Face’, KennethACamp. Available at: https://kennethacamp.com/13-challenges-foreign-missionaries-face/.
Cooper, A. (2009) CyberPsychology & Behaviour, 1(2). Available at: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/cpb.1998.1.187.
Donnelley, P. (2014) We have sex just once a week… 76% of men said they watch pornography, half of women read erotic fiction and it’s all the economy’s fault, Mail Online. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2773035/We-sex-just-week-76-men-said-watched-pornography-half-women-read-erotic-fiction-s-economy-s-fault.html.
Felman, A. (2018) What is addiction? Available at: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323465.
Flood, M. (2016) Inquiry into the harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the internet. Wollongong.
Friesen, R. (2005) The Long-term Impact of Short-term Missions, Missio Nexus: Learn, Meet, Engage in the Great Commission. Available at: https://missionexus.org/the-long-term-impact-of-short-term-missions/.
Harris, J. and Dickinson, M. (2016) ‘Addictions and Cross-Cultural Workers’. Blackburn, VIC, Australia.
Johnson, D. (2015) Sex and the short-term missionary, SEND International. Available at: https://send.org/Blog/sex-short-term.
Love, T. et al. (2015) ‘Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update’, Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 5(3), pp. 388–433. doi: 10.3390/bs5030388.
Merritt, J. (2016) Pornography: A Christian crisis or exaggerated issue? (ANALYSIS), Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/pornography-a-christian-crisis-or-exaggerated-issue-analysis/2016/01/21/4486217e-c075-11e5-98c8-7fab78677d51_story.html.
Paul, P. (2007) How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. Henry Holt and Co.
Piper, J. (2007) Gutsy Guilt: Don’t let shame over sexual sin destroy you., Christianity Today. Available at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/october/38.72.html.
Richardson, A. (2018) ‘Bathsheba Was Not on the Roof: And Here’s Why That Is Important’, On Sovereign Wings. Available at: https://onsovereignwings.wordpress.com/2018/06/29/bathsheba-wasnt-on-the-roof-and-heres-why-that-is-important/.