What if I told you that your use of pornography could reveal your way to healing? As a licensed mental health counselo. I’ve seen firsthand that sexual brokenness is the stage through which the work of redemption can play out in our lives. Although we are prone to hiding or despising our pornography use, I invite you to the counterintuitive path of curiosity. The journey to freedom from pornography involves the humility to recognize there is far more you do not understand about why you use it.
I recently completed research on over 3,600 men and women struggling with unwanted sexual behavior, be that pornography, an affair, buying sex, etc. I found that the sexual fantasies, porn searches, and sexual behaviors we pursue are not random. They are a direct reflection of the parts of our story–past and present–that remain unaddressed. If you want to find freedom from pornography, you must identify the reasons that bring you to it.
Perhaps you’ve found yourself not able to turn off your allure to porn. If so, a far more beneficial approach to recovery than combating lust is to focus on the themes that drive and necessitate your use of pornography. Until these themes are transformed, you will find yourself in the same, pernicious cycle of pornography use. So who watches porn? Here are three major themes that predicted pornography use from men and women in my research.
Those with a Lack of Purpose
There was a very predictable increase in pornography viewing for men who experienced a lack of purpose in their life. The main takeaway is porn appeals to men who do not know who they are or do not know how to get what they most deeply desire. If you lack purpose in your life or you feel an acute sense of paralysis in your career, pornography can easily become an incessant squatter in your life.
Futility and lack of purpose are opposite sides of the same coin. In Genesis 3, the curse for a man is that everything he does will be characterized by futility. Genesis 3:17 -19 (NLT) states the curse for a man: “All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it. It will grow thorns and thistles for you…By the sweat of your brow you will have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made.” Men intuitively know that even in their greatest seasons of accomplishment and connection, there will be a looming sense that it will all fade away. Futility is the ominous experience that whatever we attempt to build will inevitably fail, crumble, or be surpassed.
It is against the backdrop of futility that pornography seduces men. Pornography is appealing precisely because it creates a world without thorns or thistles.¹ Only requiring you to bring your lack of purpose, your futility, and your disappointment, porn will give you a world where, for a moment, it all goes away. The madness of pornography use is that it appeals disproportionately to men who lack purpose and identity. When these men attempt to find freedom from porn, they inevitably fail because they attempt to maneuver through life without their most dependable getaway car. Their failure then becomes further evidence that they are consigned to a lifetime of futility.
Those Who Experienced Sexual Abuse
The heaviest consumers of pornography in my research were 8% more likely to have histories of past sexual abuse. As awful as it might sound, trust is the paradoxical foundation of sexual abuse. The majority of people who have known sexual abuse were groomed by someone they knew–their parent, brother, sister, babysitter, neighbor, or pastor. Trust sets up the diabolical impact of abuse–the same person that ushers us into sexual arousal (which may include the introduction of pornography) and sexual shame is also the one who delights in us, connects with us, and pursues us.
Perpetrators of sexual abuse are aware that their victims likely come from dysfunctional family systems. They carefully position themselves as the antidote for the harm, neglect, or boredom a child is experiencing. The madness of sexual abuse is that the initial relationship feels so right before it begins to feel so wrong. They may comment on how strong your arm is, how nice your outfit looks, or invite you to a privileged position within a group of friends. These initial moments of praise and attention set the stage for future sexual abuse.
Later in life, pornography becomes appealing because it recreates some of the original sexual experiences established in the sexual abuse. In porn, like abuse, we feel bonded and aroused by the same material that also ushers us into sexual shame and secrecy. Many people who have histories of sexual abuse often devote a lifetime to combatting pornography at the cost of healing the harmful sexual template established in abuse.
Those Who Feel Shame
The more you feel shame, the more porn you will watch. It might sound obvious that shame drives pornography use, but the stagger power of it may alarm you–men in my sample were 300% more likely to pursue pornography for each unit of shame they felt about their behavior. Women were 546% more likely to increase their porn use depending on the level of shame they experienced. It has to be said, shame, not pleasure, drives pornography use. As a clinician and researcher I am convinced of this reality: we are bonded to shame and judgment, far more than to erotic material.
When we experience shame, it attempts to convince us that we are unwanted. In response, we pursue behaviors that confirm it. Although contemporary addiction thinking is that we go to pornography for escape or medication, I’ve found that men and women pursue pornography for the purpose of judgment. We intuitively know that each time we indulge in pornography, we will feel less lovely and connected. Therefore, our pursuit of pornography is intended to convince us that the holy longings of our heart will never come to pass. Knowing our hope has been compromised, we experience shame.
Most of us attempt to hide or run from our shame. Herein lies the problem: shame’s power is so often derived from our flight from it. This sets us up to live as prey to shame rather than take authority of our life. The antidote to shame is to turn towards it by telling others the places where we harbor it. In the scriptures, the presence of God and the transforming power of the Spirit are most often found in places of weakness and shame. Why would it be any different for us? Sexual shame can be the geography for the arrival of God.
Pornography Reveals Our Way to Healing
Pornography reveals your sin, but far more, it reveals the themes of your life that God is relentlessly committed to transforming within you. In this way our sexual struggles are messengers. You may not like the news they bring, but they will continue to knock on the door of your heart until you listen to what they are attempting to tell you. Rather than exclusively focusing on saying ‘no’ to pornography, learn to say ‘yes’ to purpose, ‘yes’ to healing the harm of abuse, and ‘yes’ to turning to face your shame.
Resources and investments for your journey:
- Get a free chapter of my upcoming book, Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing.
- For lack of purpose: Watch this TEDx talk “How to be more powerful than powerless,”based on a ten-year research study by Ron Carucci. Most of us vastly underestimate the power we have in our lives. If career paralysis or confusion is present in your life, check out the work of Liminal Space to guide you through career transitions.
- For healing sexual abuse: Register for the Allender Center’s e-course on sexual abuse. Use the promo code COVENANT for $50 off their course. Dr. Dan Allender is an expert in understanding the harm of sexual abuse and the path to healing.
- For beginning to explore sexual shame: Watch the film The Heart of Man (or read the guidebook). Through magisterial storytelling and stunning imagery, we see that sexual shame is not a barrier, but a bridge to healing.
Written by Jay Stringer