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Pornography Addiction in the Brain:

Its Destructive Nature and How To Overcome It

How can you help church members who are controlled by pornography? Insight into the addictive nature of pornography is an important first step.

By William M. Struthers

While the church in recent years has focused on matters related to homosexuality, the proliferation of pornography use in our congregations has slipped in almost undetected.

Some estimate that at least half of the men in church have intentionally visited pornographic websites within the past year. The relationship these men have with pornography directly affects the relationships they have with those in your communities. Perhaps you have seen a man who seems to have it all — a loving wife and children, a good job — throw it all away because he cannot keep himself from downloading Internet porn. Or maybe you have counseled a young man who has become so isolated from his family and friends he no longer feels God is able to forgive him of the things he has seen and done while surfing online for porn. It is easy to find stories of high school girls sending lewd pictures of themselves to their boyfriends who then distribute them to their classmates.

Sex has become a recreational commodity. People sometimes only value others for their ability to stimulate and satisfy their sexual appetites. Pornography contributes to and promotes this lie and eliminates the sacredness of the sexual relationship.

As you minister to the people in your church, what should you be aware of concerning how pornography controls a person? The following information offers insight into the addictive nature of pornography and how to help church members controlled by this addiction.

The Destructive Nature of Porn

For Christians, sexuality has both a sacred and a moral dimension (Genesis 2:22–25). If something is sacred, we set it aside to use or devote to an exclusive purpose. God sanctioned sexual intimacy to be only between a husband and wife, and they need to keep this sexual intimacy pure (Hebrews 13:4). We image God’s exclusive love for His people in the faithfulness of keeping this aspect of our bodies for one another (1 Corinthians 6:18–20; Ephesians 5:25–28). Understood this way, intentionally viewing pornography becomes an invasion of this sacred space.

There are clear, destructive consequences from regularly viewing porn (and sexually acting out on it). On a social level, pornography portrays human beings as objects of consumption rather than persons made in the image of God. People pay women and men to offer their bodies for entertainment and the stimulation of anyone willing to watch. The clear message is that women are nothing more than dehumanized pieces of meat. This carries over into the mental habits as well. The regular consumer of porn begins to objectify the women in his life, seeing them through a pornographic lens. As you can imagine, this can have devastating consequences in a man’s marriage, family, and workplace.

Additionally, there are a number of indicators that associate exposure to pornography with antisocial behavior and attitudes. Men tend to be more aggressive toward women and less sensitive to the pain and suffering of rape and violence against them. Pornography also decreases a man’s view of his own body and results in decreased sexual satisfaction. Pornography can lead to a major source of conflict in marriages and to social isolation.

Pornography intrudes into the sacred space intended for a husband and wife and pollutes the mind, creating expectations for sexual intimacy that are inherently selfish. While offering the promise of connectedness, in reality pornography isolates.

Porn Addiction and Compulsion

What is it about pornography that makes it potentially addictive? Doctors often describe addictions as a medical disease of the brain’s reward and motivation circuitry. Addictive drugs hijack this circuitry that is normally for things that give us pleasure (like food and water). Methamphetamines, cocaine, and heroin act directly on this neurochemical system and disrupt it in such a way that normal pleasures (i.e., eating, drinking) lose their appeal; the only thing that matters is consuming the drug.

Addictions have three main components: 1) a craving/preoccupation for the substance, 2) an inability to stop, and 3) progressive use of the substance in spite of negative consequences. Addiction commonly involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment, addiction’s progressive nature can destroy someone socially, financially, physically, and spiritually.

For some men, their relationship with pornography is addictive (it has all three aspects of an addiction), but many men are more likely to report compulsive viewing of porn. They have adopted viewing and acting out to pornography as a way of dealing with stress, venting their frustration or feelings of helplessness, or salving their feelings of depression and insecurity. They may or may not know why they want to view pornography, but they know they must have it. Men often connect their compulsion to view pornography with a ritualistic pattern of sexually acting out. By acting out they experience the pleasure of release, and they are able to control this hit of pleasure. So where does this hit come from?

Porn on the Brain

Because of the way God neurologically wired men, they are sensitized to visual, sexually relevant cues (i.e., the naked female form, solicitous facial expressions).1 These cues trigger neurological, chemical, and hormonal events that are the source of the sexual arousal hit.

Most men are familiar with the rush of sexual arousal and the energy that comes with it. How we deal with this energy and how we have learned to respond to it form the psychological, emotional, and behavioral habits we develop. This continual sequence of arousal and response forms a neurological circuit. This pathway, then, becomes the preferred route — a mental journey — each time a man repeats this sequence.

Regularly viewing pornography leads to men seeing women as sexual objects. As men regularly activate this mental pathway, it triggers sexual arousal. As sexual arousal increases, a habit of dealing with it emerges. The user pairs pornography with the internal, mental life of fantasy and lustful thoughts to produce a neurochemical cauldron of sexual tension.

Several brain regions seem to be critically involved when men sexually act out. Scientists call one region the ventral tegmental area (VTA). Looking at pornography causes an increase in the activity of the VTA. The VTA produces the neurochemical dopamine that is in virtually all drugs of addiction. The VTA, along with a handful of other brain regions, appear to be the sites responsible for the psychological experiences of craving and euphoria that underlie the sexual experience. As a result of acting out, the body releases the brain’s natural reinforcers (dopamine, endorphins, norepinephrine, and oxytocin) and the person forms a memory of the event. This memory serves to bind him to the object he connects to the experience.

In a handful of studies that have examined the effects of viewing pornographic (sexually explicit) material and the effects of sexual arousal and response, researchers have observed several findings. They call one finding mirror neurons. These neurons make up a circuit located in the frontal and parietal lobes (the region near the top of the head). These neurons are involved with the process of how to mimic a behavior. They contain a motor system that correlates to the planning out of a behavior. Consider this example: If you see someone grab a hammer and pound a nail, you activate the same part of your brain you would use to pound a hammer. Other brain regions may hold that behavior in check, but you now have primed a neural circuit to hammer a nail. Scientists originally called these neurons monkey see, monkey do neurons (they were first discovered in monkeys), and constitute the way we neurologically learn by observing others.

Whenever we see a behavior, there is a silent echo; a neurological mirror of ourselves doing that behavior resides in the brain. This is wonderful because we can learn by watching others; but, it can also have negative effects, especially with respect to pornography.

These mirror neurons are involved when someone views pornography because they vicariously experience and learn from what they view. As men watch the sexually charged scene onscreen, they mirror this — which triggers their own sexual arousal and they learn how to respond. This mirror neuron system triggers the arousal that leads to sexual tension and a need for an outlet. The unfortunate reality is that when he acts out (often by masturbating), this leads to hormonal and neurological consequences that God designed to bind him to the object on which he is focusing. In God’s plan this would be his wife, but for many men it is an image on a screen. Pornography enslaves the viewer to an image instead of bonding him to his wife.

Sexual intimacy is a complex neurochemical and hormonal event. It is one of the most powerful God-given pathways by which men form attachments. In viewing and acting out to pornography, men form attachments to the images and not real people. By viewing hundreds of images and then acting out, or even using the images to get him sufficiently aroused to be with his wife, we must ask, “To whom or what are you bound?”

In God’s plan, a husband who is faithful to his wife is deeply, emotionally bound to her. This mirrors God’s exclusive love for His people and the mystery of marriage between Christ and the Church. A celibate single man is not bound in this way and, as such, is freed to image God’s inclusive love and minister to others. Here we see the necessity for both faithful married men and faithful single men to be part of the Church.

How To Overcome

When I think about the process of recovery from pornography addiction and sexual sin, the principles of spiritual formation come to mind. My neuroscience training gives me a particular perspective on this. I believe spiritual formation is the best context to understand our social, psychological, neurological, and spiritual development. As we understand how God made us, and how He works through us, we can better support each other in God’s spirit of compassion and forgiveness.

We need compassion and forgiveness in abundance at the beginning of the recovery process and as God redeems lives. People rarely change neurological habits of depravity overnight because they did not form them overnight. God often uses our embodied nature to reveal himself, and we need to help each other envision the unique way He is sanctifying us as we become conformed to the image of Christ. The spiritual formation process utilizes confession, enlightenment, intentional action, and vision to bring us all to this goal.2

Confession

The first step someone takes to be freed from pornography or sexual sin is to confess. Confession moves one to a right understanding of his or her brokenness. As the first step toward reestablishing communion with God, we begin the process of moving out of the isolating effects of sin. It is only with a truly repentant heart (which bears the fruit of behavioral change) that a man begins the journey toward redemption and recovery. Conditional confession is not an option. Neither is confession that is done silently or unobserved by others. Because of pornography’s isolating nature, it is necessary that confession be done with a confidant.

Choosing whom to disclose problems relating to pornography is a delicate process. Often pastors will be a logical choice for confession. Pastors need to be sure their response is mature, supportive, discreet, and compassionate while not minimizing the severity of the consequences (especially with affected spouses or family members). While some men will confess to a relative, friend, or mentor, it is important to remember the need for another person to hear of the sin and speak the forgiveness of Christ into it. After confession, men can then move to the next stage of enlightenment.

Enlightenment

Through enlightenment we discover the draw of pornography. Pornography and the craving for sexual intimacy are rarely the root causes of the problems. As you dig deeper into the reasons someone looks at porn, you will find that it is a symptom of a much deeper, human problem. Enlightenment is an educational process whereby we identify the environmental, emotional, and psychological needs and triggers underlying the sin pattern. This is best done with a pastor, mentor, or counselor — someone who can provide an objective viewpoint and give godly counsel. These people can see the patterns where the man knee-deep in the sin cycle cannot. Here men can identify — take captive — and defuse the sexual triggers responsible for the compulsion or addiction.

Short-circuiting these neurological habits and rituals breaks men out of their compulsive patterns. Because they better understand their behavior patterns, they can avoid situations or thoughts they know lead down the deadly path of sin.

Once a man understands his own weaknesses, he is able to organize his world and the support of his family and church to minimize the likelihood of falling into sin. This rehabilitative process is one that is also neurologically stored and becomes a positive habit — more likely to increase with time and repetition.

Intentional action

After a man realizes the nature of his sin (confession) and reflects on why he made his mistakes (enlightenment), there are a number of steps he must take so he will not make them again. There are three factors that are strong predictors of recovery from addictions and are important in the process of spiritual formation. The first is to develop a sense of personal responsibility and investment in the process of recovery. The things we set our mind on have a significant impact on the trajectory of our sanctification. As we set our minds on things above (Colossians 3:2), we are doing so intentionally. We are not passive in the process, but active participants in what God is doing in us.

The sense of ownership we have over our spiritual formation is a critical predictor of the recovery outcome. If we do not invest in our spiritual recovery process, it will happen according to the dictates of the world. But redemption cannot occur in isolation. We must enlist the help of others. This brings us to the second factor: support of the church.

As the church invests in providing the spiritual, social, and physical support necessary to bring individuals through the difficult times of trials, the prospect for recovery (and eventual full participation in the life of the church and ministry to others) dramatically increases. This is most present in the presence of a spiritual mentor and in what I will call Life Together Accountability Groups.

A mentor has dealt with similar challenges and knows the redemption found in God. The relationship between the mentor and the person recovering is genuine and not isolated merely to the issue of sin. As the relationship with the mentor deepens, he acts as a voice of warning when temptation is on the horizon and encourages him with Scripture, practical advice, and in prayer. In some cases, a person may need to seek professional help due to the severity of the problem. A Christian counselor is skilled in getting underneath the surface of these problems and detecting deeper issues that may have gone undetected, even by some of the best mentors.

Groups that focus solely on abstinence from pornography have limited power to promote real change. Accountability has to be more than issue specific; it must be life encompassing. Accountability groups based exclusively on shame generated by sin are doomed to slowly isolate men; that is what shame and deception do. Life Together involves relationships that extend beyond any one issue and are holistic. They involve family, ministry, profession, and every other aspect of a man’s life. In short, they require real relationships with other men. In this place of real relationships, men experience the need for intimacy (albeit in a different way), and the true bonds of masculine affection and fellowship are life giving, not demeaning, competitive, or dominating.

The third factor is strengthening incompatible habits and disciplines. Just as we should not think of Christianity as a list of “thou shalt nots” (we should think of it as “do unto each other”), the spiritual disciplines of fasting, prayer, meditation, study, worship, and others are incompatible with the behaviors associated with pornography consumption and sexual sin. As a person strengthens these disciplines, they become neurological habits that become the preferred path of thought and life. As we practice the spiritual disciplines in community, we will become more conformed to the image of Christ. Instead of wiring depravity into our pathways by addictive sin patterns, the spiritual disciplines anchor conformity to Christ’s image in our brain’s wiring.

Vision

How does a man recover? Is it possible he can rewire himself? We can use the processes and triggers that were part of our downfall as the processes that redeem and alter our very human nature. Accepting the wisdom found in Scripture will guide us and frame our relationships. It is in the ministry of the love of the body of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit that our brothers and sisters become the incarnation of mercy, forgiveness, and love in the care and compassion we receive from them. It is that incarnate, embodied love that we need not be afraid of claiming because that is what God made us for (1 Corinthians 15:49).

God designed each of us to be sanctified in the image of Jesus Christ (Colossians 3:10). All of our struggles and victories become an integral part of our journey — they are archived in our brain and our memories. God claims and transforms each person’s unique path to be a part of his witness and testimony to God’s love, power, and mercy.

Conclusion

Imagine that we can use our sexuality to propel us toward sanctification, and not hinder us. By understanding our purpose as rooted in becoming conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), we manifest God’s exclusive and inclusive love. We are better able to go beyond the lie of pornography — that people are for our sexual consumption — and we become able to appreciate women as sisters in Christ. We move beyond objectification to real relationship and honoring their dignity. This is how I envision sanctification — it is an addiction to holiness. It is a compulsive fixation on the person of Jesus Christ who plays out in habits of compassion, virtue, and love. This is a vision and hope that any man who longs to be holy can cling to.

Questions for Self-reflection or Group Discussion:

  1. How might mirror neurons be involved in developing godly habits?
  2. What is your personal vision for holiness?
  3. What are some examples of how sexuality could be harnessed in the life of a single person?
  4. What would a Life Together Accountability Group for men look like in your church?

WILLIAM M. STRUTHERS, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. He is the author of Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain.

Notes

  1. William M. Struthers, Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2009).
  2. Randy Reese, Keith Anderson, Spiritual Mentoring. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999).

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