Friday, September 12, 2014

Stop Exaggerating The Temptation To Pornography

The more secular a society becomes, the more likely it is to become more trivial and more vulgar as well. That's the fruit of secularism.

Yesterday, Tim Challies linked a BreakPoint story about recent Barna research on pornography use. You can find a summary of the study's findings here. Among other statistics, a majority of married men say that they view pornography at least once a month. The numbers are broken down into age groups, and there's sometimes a significant difference from one age group to another. But in almost all of the age groups of both men and women, less than 10% say they never view pornography. Given that "never" is ambiguous, since it could allow for past pornography viewing among people who haven't been viewing it more recently, the percentage who have never viewed pornography at any point in their lives probably is even smaller than the percentage who selected the "never" answer.

There are some problems with the study, such as a failure to distinguish between individuals who claim to be Christian and those who show significant evidence of being a Christian (an understanding of the gospel, regular church attendance, etc.). Other research has shown that making that sort of distinction is important. I suspect that conservative Evangelicals who attend church regularly would be found to view pornography substantially less often than liberal Catholics who never attend church, for example. Lumping all professing Christians together is misleading. Still, the Barna study results, though flawed, are devastating if they're even close to being accurate. The numbers help explain much of what's been happening in our culture lately (e.g., the increase in acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage).

I'm part of the apparently tiny percentage of American men who have never viewed pornography at any point in their life. I've never done some of the things that are commonly recommended, like using computer filtering software or joining an accountability group with other men. Taking those steps may be helpful to other people, but I've never done them. Much of what I would recommend doing is what I've been writing about at this blog for years.

Do what you should on issues that are more foundational than sexual temptation. Acknowledge the primacy of God, including his primacy as the greatest source of joy, throughout your life. Live like it. Don't just profess to believe it.

Be vigilant about your time management, an issue I've written about many times. Most people in a culture like the United States spend an inordinate amount of time on television, movies, sports, housework, and such while neglecting matters that are far more important. Pornography often becomes one of the things they fill up their time with in their largely secular, trivial, and vulgar lives. They don't have much communion with God, theology, apologetics, or knowledge of church history, for example, to draw from in resisting temptation. Rather, their time is characterized far more by things like television programs, music, and sporting events that often encourage rather than discourage sexual immorality. Realize that when you miss the latest popular movie, popular television program, or sporting event, you aren't missing much.

Recognize that this life is a vapor, and focus on the next life. Studying history, especially church history and the lives of the greatest Christians of past generations, helps. Study the afterlife as well.

Studying apologetics helps. Contrary to what's often suggested, there is no passage in the Bible in which God promises to keep supernaturally intervening in order to prevent us from having to do the sort of intellectual work that's expected in any other area of life. Christians need to intellectually grasp and articulate what they believe and why they're justified in believing it. Neglect of apologetics is presumptuous.

Commit your life to seeking to accomplish great things for God. Be more concerned about Christian dreams than the American Dream. Here are two videos that illustrate what I mean:

There's a danger in underestimating the temptation toward pornography. But there's also a danger in overestimating it. If you make it seem like a stronger temptation than it actually is, which is something people who have been involved in the sin have an interest in doing in order to excuse themselves, you can discourage those who are making an effort to resist it and provide inappropriate excuses for those involved in the behavior. Avoiding pornography is something that can be done, and it's not as difficult as it's often made out to be. Get your priorities in order. If you get the most foundational issues of life right, the less foundational ones tend to fall in line.


  1. A healthy marriage between spiritually healthy Christians is also a great defense against all types of sexual immorality. This fact is often overlooked, yet the Bible has much to say on the subject in both the old and new testaments.

  2. Question for some older married people:
    Once you got married, did you "struggle" with porn less?

    (I guess "older" is relative, I am 17, so everyone older than me is "older")

    1. Like other *potentially* addictive activities (e.g. gambling, alcohol consumption), I wouldn't assume that pornography is *inherently* addictive. I doubt every teenager who views pornography becomes hooked on pornography.

      In that respect, it's more a question of *risky* behavior, like gambling or alcohol consumption, it carries the risk of addiction. But some people seem to be able to turn it off. Not everyone who plays poker becomes a compulsive gambler. Indeed, that may be exceptional. Likewise, many people can drink in moderation.

      That's somewhat distinct from the moral question. Even if it's not addictive, it may still be immoral.

  3. "Avoiding pornography is something that can be done, and it's not as difficult as it's often made out to be." You're oversimplifying the issue, and I think that's because this isn't something you have had to struggle with. Speaking as someone who overcame a nearly 20-year addiction, it's not difficult if one isn't addicted. It's not that the difficulty of overcoming should serve as an excuse or a discouragement, but it should serve as the reality for how much effort is required to truly cut off this sin. There are no excuses, but it truly does take great effort to *truly* put this sin away completely once addicted.

    1. Seth Fuller wrote:

      "You're oversimplifying the issue, and I think that's because this isn't something you have had to struggle with. Speaking as someone who overcame a nearly 20-year addiction, it's not difficult if one isn't addicted."

      You're removing a qualifier I included and adding one I didn't include. I was addressing whether avoiding pornography is "as difficult as it's often made out to be", not just whether it's difficult. And I was addressing avoiding pornography, not stopping pornography use after having been involved in it for something like twenty years. I agree that a situation like yours is difficult. But whether your situation is representative of the average situation, whether a situation like yours is as difficult as people often make it out to be, and how difficult it would have been for you to have avoided getting involved in pornography in the first place, for example, are different issues.

    2. If that's what you were addressing then it isn't clear, because it sounds like you are addressing all forms of pornography use. That being said, the pornography epidemic is inherently due to addiction. If you're not addressing it in that context then you're not addressing the issue. In that context, your comment about it not being as hard as its made out to be is detached from reality. Overcoming any real addiction of any substance is extremely difficult.

    3. Seth Fuller wrote:

      "That being said, the pornography epidemic is inherently due to addiction. If you're not addressing it in that context then you're not addressing the issue. In that context, your comment about it not being as hard as its made out to be is detached from reality. Overcoming any real addiction of any substance is extremely difficult."

      Part of the problem here may be that you're too focused on your own experience and similar ones. I was addressing pornography use in general. That takes many forms, as the research I cited illustrates. Different age groups use pornography to significantly different degrees, the amount of use seems to have significantly increased in recent years, some people view pornography much less often than others, etc. Given that wide range of circumstances, I see no justification for claiming that "the issue" is "addiction" that's "extremely difficult" to overcome. Even in the worst cases, we have to ask how they got involved in pornography to begin with.

      When evaluating claims about how difficult it is to stop viewing pornography after starting, we have to look at what steps are being taken by those who are involved. What standards are they applying in order to conclude that something is extremely difficult? If they don't understand even some of the most basic aspects of Christian theology, don't attend church, frequently do things like watching television programs and movies that promote sexual immorality, etc. - in other words, if they live like most Americans live - then it's misleading to portray the situation as one in which Christians are involved in an addiction that's extremely difficult for them to overcome. Rather, we have a nation in which most people either aren't Christians or are highly immature Christians, and they aren't putting forward much effort to avoid pornography or stop their use of it. Even among the more mature Christians who are involved in pornography, I suspect that there often are many steps they should be taking that they aren't taking. I don't see many Christians living similar to the way I described in my initial post above. I don't see many doing even half of what I referred to. When a nation with characteristics like the ones I've just described has so much pornography use - accompanied by so many problems in other contexts (lack of acknowledgment of God, financial debt, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, children born outside of marriage, divorce and separation, etc.) - I'm suspicious of suggestions that we're a nation of Christians involved in an addiction that's extremely difficult to overcome.

      Maybe you'd agree with some of what I've said (e.g., that most professing Christians in the United States are nominal or immature Christians), but disagree on other points. But I'm responding to a broad range of perceptions, not just how you see things. I suspect that the failure to distinguish between mature Christians, on the one hand, and immature or nominal Christians, on the other hand, as we see with the Barna study I cited, is common.

      You may be a Christian who's taken all or almost all of the steps that ought to be taken to avoid pornography, yet has had extreme difficulty avoiding it. Or maybe you'd say that it wouldn't have been extremely difficult to have avoided getting involved, but it is extremely difficult for you to stop viewing pornography after having started. I'm open to that possibility, if the evidence warrants it in a given case. But I see no reason to think that's the average or universal situation.

    4. While I agree with you that there is a serious problem with so-called "Christians" who don't attend church, watch immoral television, don't nourish themselves through the Word and prayer. And I agree that this can skew results. However, that is really a separate issue, and does not lead to the conclusion that pornography is not as difficult to avoid as it is made out to be. Those are two separate issues which I feel you aren't accurately addressing.

      Addiction in its basic form is defined by compulsory behavior from which is difficult to abstain and negatively affects one's behaviors and interpersonal relationships. Some people's addictions are worse or more noticeable than others. Nevertheless, even the small addiction is still addiction. Anyone who continues to come back to pornography has some form of an addiction, and has not truly overcome it.

      You would really benefit from doing some research on what constitutes addiction, and the biological science behind it. It seems difficult for you to understand this since the Lord has blessed you with non-addictive tendencies, and I praise God for that. However, I feel this is leading you to make broad and inaccurate statements about a very serious problem in the church.

      People do not keep coming back to pornography because they are not addicted. They form cycles of behavior in their minds that can be very difficult to break. This is true of any substance abuse, not just pornogrpahy. Let me be clear, it is *all sin.* The science behind this is no excuse, but that does not change the reality of what is behind pornography use.

      Covenant Eyes put out an excellent and thoroughly researched article on this very topic and I would encourage you to read it.

    5. @Seth Fuller

      "You would really benefit from doing some research on what constitutes addiction, and the biological science behind it....People do not keep coming back to pornography because they are not addicted. They form cycles of behavior in their minds that can be very difficult to break. This is true of any substance abuse, not just pornogrpahy."

      I'm just a med student, not a physician let alone a psychiatrist, and I've never studied pornography addiction, so I could be making several significant missteps. But for what it's worth, here are some of my preliminary (and a bit hurried) thoughts on the topic.

      (Sorry it'll be a bit abrupt, and probably won't speak to your specific concerns about Jason's post, but hopefully it'll provide some food for thought. If I have time, I'll say more.)

      1. I'll ignore the issue of the morality or rather immorality of porn in my response.

      2. At a minimum, there's a distinction between the physiological and the psychological.

      Although at times the one can influence the other. So it's not necessarily a hard distinction.

      Is the case with porn addiction? I don't know.

      However, if porn addiction is analogous to pathological gambling, then there's the debate over whether pathological gambling is more of an impulse control disorder or a non-substance abuse-related addictive disorder, and thus we could ask the same about porn addiction. For example, see the following papers:

      "Pathological gambling: addiction or compulsion?" (2001)
      "The neurobiology of pathological gambling and drug addiction: an overview and new findings" (2008)
      "Should addictive disorders include non-substance-related conditions?" (2006)

    6. 3. Is porn "addiction" the best term to define what's happening? Maybe, maybe not. Or maybe in some or many but not necessarily all cases.

      But if porn addiction is significantly physiological like taking drugs or substance abuse as you've claimed, then there are three broad concepts to keep in mind. I'll frame these in terms of drugs since drugs are more obviously physiological than porn.

      a. Tolerance. Tolerance occurs when an increasingly higher dose of a particular drug is needed in order to produce and maintain the same effect(s) of the drug over time. It's a predictable physiological decrease in the drug's effect over time necessitating a progressive increase in the dose of the drug to achieve the same effect. Sometimes tolerance has desirable effects (e.g. analgesia), while other times tolerance has undesirable effects (e.g. constipation, nausea, euphoria, sedation).

      b. Dependence. Physical dependence is a physiological state of adaptation (hence distinguishable from psychological dependence) in response to regular drug use which results in a specific withdrawal (abstinence) syndrome when drug use is abruptly ceased, abruptly reversed, or dose is rapidly reduced. Withdrawal can be halted by administration of the same or similar drug. Physical dependence is often but not necessarily always associated with tolerance. Finally, it's important to note physical dependence is not identical to addiction. In fact, physical dependence can sometimes develop entirely separate from addiction.

      c. Addiction. Addiction is a primary neurobiological disease with genetic, psychosocial, and/or environmental factors influencing its development. The five main characteristics of addiction are what are known as the five Cs: chronic use; control is impaired; compulsive use; continued use despite harm; and craving. Tolerance can be present, but is not necessarily present. However, addiction is unlike tolerance or physical dependence in that addiction is not a predictable effect of a drug.

      4. Another arguably apt comparison could be between porn addiction and internet gaming disorder.

      Here's an excerpt from a psychiatric book on the recently released DSM-V:

      Internet Gaming Disorder

      This proposed disorder is based on more than 17 years of research, which indicates that Internet gaming has many of the basic hallmarks of an addiction (e.g., preoccupation with use, withdrawal symptoms, tolerance, loss of interest in other pursuits, unsuccessful attempts to quit, and usage to escape unpleasant feelings). People with Internet gaming disorder have been found to exhibit changes in the frontal lobe of the brain that controls attention, executive function, and emotion processing; some of the changes are comparable to the brains of people who are addicted to heroin and cocaine. Many recent studies point to the possibility of a genetic link in Internet addiction, as well as the possibility of changes in how the brain’s dopamine system functions. Internet gaming disorder may be associated with major depressive disorder, ADHD, and OCD. In the case of online gambling, a diagnosis of gambling disorder must be ruled out.

      Effective treatment for Internet gaming disorder would be similar to treatment for other addictions. Mindfulness-based strategies can help people recognize triggers to addictive behavior and find substitutes for the behavior. Cognitive behavior therapy can be effective in helping people change maladaptive cognitions that encourage pathological Internet usage (e.g., online sex, gambling). See Selecting Effective Treatments (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2012) for a complete discussion of evidence-based interventions for addictive disorders.

    7. Seth,

      At your request, I read the article you linked. I think it supports my position rather than yours.

      The article discusses a variety of views of how to define addiction, both among the relevant professionals and among Christians. Not only does the article not say that there's majority support for your definition of addiction, but it even suggests that more professionals disagree with you than agree with you. The article says:

      "There are others in the church who take their cues about addiction straight from the diagnostic literature and the medical community, and therefore believe phrases like 'porn addiction' are overused in the church today."

      If "the diagnostic literature and the medical community" suggest that the term is overused, isn't that similar to my view that avoiding pornography isn't as difficult as it's often made out to be? If a term like "porn addiction" is overused, the implication is that the problem doesn't rise to a level that justifies so much use of the term "porn addiction".

      And the Barna study I cited tells us that only a somewhat small minority of pornography users consider themselves addicted. They're biased in favor of reaching such a conclusion. But since so many people use pornography, their judgment reflects popular opinion on the matter. So, your notion of pornography addiction seems to be inconsistent with both professional use and popular use of the term.

      You wrote:

      "Anyone who continues to come back to pornography has some form of an addiction, and has not truly overcome it."

      If you define "addiction" as "continues to come back", then you're not addressing all pornography users. So, the point I made in my last response to you stands. Contrary to what you said, "addiction" that's "extremely difficult" to overcome isn't "the issue".

      And the article you linked doesn't suggest that it's extremely difficult to avoid getting involved in pornography in the first place. Rather, it refers to physical factors that motivate people to return to pornography after a particular amount of use. Even if the later use can be considered an addiction in some sense, that can't be said of the earlier use.

      Regarding the issue of how Christians are defined in studies like the Barna one, I stand by what I said earlier. If most of the Christians in view are nominal or immature Christians, that's highly relevant to what we've been discussing. If we're trying to determine how difficult it is to avoid pornography, it's important to know whether the people in question are using some of the relevant resources (knowledge of the gospel, the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, etc.). It's important to know whether pornography use is so common with those resources or without them. That information doesn't answer every question, but it does have some significance. If a study shows that the large majority of its participants died of a particular disease, it's important to know if a lot of those participants lived in a country that prevents them from having access to a medical cure that's available elsewhere.

  4. Good Stuff Jason,

    But what surprises me most in that survey that you linked to- is that 'married women seem to view porn twice as much as unmarried women'. This seems quite contrary to what Paul suggested should actually be the case- 1 Cor.7:5

    Unless of course, married women merely have a heightened sense of guilt. A greater sense that porn might actually be 'unlicensed conduct' in their present licensed state.

    Also the stats of Christians viewing porn may be inflated due to their heightened sense of what is in fact 'unlicensed'.
    Non-Christians have a lesser sense of licentiousness.

    Which causes me to question the definition of 'porn' used for this small survey.

    Should there be a more objective definition of porn to the 'application of such porn'?
    Of the journey 'from your eyes to your hands'?
    To the actual 'practicing of such things'?- Romans 1:32

    1. Ron, I agree that the issue of definitions is important. You're probably right about different people defining pornography differently. They'd define other terms differently as well (who qualifies as a "Christian" and what qualifies as an "addiction", for example).

      Concerning women's higher use of pornography within marriage, a few explanations come to mind. Men sometimes want women to view pornography with them. In that situation, it would be a matter of going along with what the man wants rather than a matter of something the woman initiated. Then there's the issue of viewing pornography for informational purposes, to learn about particular sexual practices or whatever else. A woman may do that on her own initiative or because she thinks her husband wants her to. People can treat pornography like they treat a book or some other source they would consult for information. It's a bad idea to do that, but some people do it. Lust isn't the only thing that motivates viewing pornography. I suspect that much of the female use of pornography is a result of the perverse influence and leadership of men. Once a marriage occurs, as opposed to something like a dating or engaged relationship, a man may think he has more of a right to expect his wife to do such things, and a wife may think she has more of a responsibility to follow his leadership. In other cases, it may be a matter of women becoming more interested in sex after experiencing it more or for the first time within marriage. Or it could be a result of disillusionment after entering a marriage that turns out to be disappointing. So, they turn to pornography. (Disillusionment wouldn't be as significant outside of marriage, since expectations outside of marriage tend to be lower, and there's still so much potential for having a romantic relationship with another man in the future.) Whatever the explanation, keep in mind that it would only take a minority of women in an unusual situation to create a higher percentage of pornography use within marriage. It could still be the case that most women fulfill 1 Corinthians 7:5 in the sense you're suggesting. Your interpretation of the passage could be reconciled with the Barna study if Paul is just referring to what's typical, not something universal.

  5. Good Answer Jason,

    So Paul is 'generally correct, with just a few nuts skewing the current stats'? Could be.

    Or it could be that these liberated women are resorting to novelty (Fifty Shades?) rather than the old-fashioned regularity that Paul prescribes...