Pornography: the journey to healing

A candid, practical exposure of our vulnerability to Internet pornography and how ministers may deal with it.

Peter Powell, Ph.D., is executive director of the Pastoral Counselling Institute, North Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia..

It was an accident really," James began as he sat talking with me. "I was in my study thinking about the sermon I had just prepared, 'The Power of Evil versus the All-Encompassing Love of Jesus Christ.' I started to think about evil. What did I personally know about it?"

He went on: "I had grown up in a Christian home, married a Christian woman, filled my days with quality activity, studied for the ministry, and given my life to serve the God I loved. Addictions were something I had not considered. I never really under stood the true meaning of being gripped by a force that was beyond my control. I decided, Just a quick look at the Internet pornography, it's right here in the study, no one will ever know. That's how it started."

Like many men who sit with me in my office, James was a family man. In 90 percent of his life he presented a sound, Christian impression, the image of a minister, leading his congregation from the Word of God. In just a small area he had come to know, via the Internet, the power of evil. The Internet, which provides such inspiring, uplifting, and life-changing words, pictures, and descriptions, also provides destructive, addictive pornography.

"At first I was just curious," James continued, "a quick scan and then logging out feeling rather ashamed. This progressed to thoughts of what I could do at night after all had gone to bed and the study was quiet. I could again view the images. I had even worked out how to download images so that I could have a quick glance during the day.

"So here I was with pornographic images on my computer, and who could I tell? I did not know how to permanently erase them, and I knew that I couldn't ask for help. What would I say? 'Hello, this is the pastor of a local church, how do I erase pornography from my computer?' By now I felt really terrible, but I did not know how to fight this addiction.There were no Bible studies I could find to help me; the leaders in my church would have been devastated to know that the man who preached the love of God from week to week was feeding himself on images of pornography."

It wasn't long before James began spending more time on the computer than he did with his family, particularly his wife. Slowly but surely their relationship was becoming more and more strained. It was easier to turn on the computer than to engage in intimacy that required a commitment on his part. Excuses such as "I'm just overtired from working too much" aroused suspicion.

His wife thought he was having an affair arid confronted him. Quite truthfully he answered that there was absolutely no "other woman" in his life. He just didn't mention his addiction to pornography.

Taking the initial steps

James is not alone in his dilemma. Pornography is a pervasive, common issue among men, including Christian men. This does not excuse it, but simply reminds us that as long as humans have lived on the earth, pornography of one sort or another and prostitution have been part of the male/female dynamic. In churches, there are more men with sexual deviation than many would like to admit.

It takes courage to own up and face this fact, and most men have not yet come to that point. It was important for me to encourage James for having begun by asking for help. By doing this, he was taking the first step forward on the journey that could lead to recovery.

The worst thing a man can do is to dwell on the guilt and anxiety that inevitably surrounds the behavior, especially if the man is Christian, let alone a Christian minister. It is important, of course, to stop the behavior because it is profoundly unproductive and unhealthful, both spiritually and psychologically; however, if we make stopping the behavior the main focus of helping such men, we are likely to make the problem worse rather than better.

The way forward is to accept that it will take serious work to eliminate the behavior. A clear sense of purpose must be maintained, and creating any anxiety about this issue will not be helpful. Except in a small number of cases, it is unlikely that men will experience an instant recovery. God is gracious and empowering in this area, and it is not unknown for people to instantly stop addictive behaviors, such as drinking or smoking. But more commonly God requires time, discipline, mentoring, Bible study, and prayer to break down the addictive patterns.

When Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane praying, He asked the disciples to pray with Him. It was a highly challenging request. They were asked to work right through the night at a time when everything was on the line. They fell asleep.

Jesus challenged the woman at the well to go and get her husband. That was a highly confrontative thing for Him to do. She had the opportunity to avoid the questions, or she could face the tough issue and receive healing from Jesus. God's love for us at times is tough love indeed, so the goal of change is quite realistic as long as the pornography addict is pre pared to work with the Holy Spirit toward that goal. Whatever the addiction, we need to be sure that freedom from it is what we want deep down.

Why is pornography addictive?

Like many others, James asked, "Why is all this the way it is?" "How can a man be so addicted to this behavior?" There are many answers to this complex question. One critical issue constantly emerging in treatment is that men who behave this way are often experiencing deep grief over the losses in their lives. This could be the loss of parents through divorce, abandonment or illness, the loss of purpose in their life, a mid-life crisis of loss of direction, the realization that their partner is not going to meet every need they have, or other issues of unresolved grief or lack. Men addicted to pornography often feel unloved and unlovable. Usually, how ever, they are unaware of these issues.

One way some men cope with their losses and abandonment is to try to attach in dependent ways, much as they did when they were children. That is, they snuggle up to the breast and try to suckle the goodness back in. Pornography may be an emblematic way of trying to be nurtured, or find nurture. With this in mind, a critical strategy when intervening is to talk about feelings of grief and loss that have been experienced so that men have an opportunity to work more specifically on their losses or lacks, rather than acting out their feelings of grief and deprivation in inappropriate ways.

There is sometimes a deep emptiness in men that they need to fill. As in the case of alcoholism, pornography and other sexual deviations become a way of numbing the pain and filling themselves with something that will make them "feel better." Like alcohol and other drugs, pornography can develop into an addiction that is just as difficult to treat.

Despite the amount of support they may get, many of the men I work with still feel loneliness and emptiness. Sometimes despite all the good things that have been given, there is a sense of ungratefulness because these things are not enough.Often the man's partner will report, "It doesn't matter how much I give, he always wants more."

What can be done?

Finding a mentor is a critical issue for men caught up in pornography. A man caught in these struggles needs a person who will be available to talk and pray with him, and be there to help break up the addiction. When a man feels the need for help, a mentor needs to be available to take a telephone call and offer support. Such a mentor needs to be someone who will call on the telephone or visit at any unexpected hour to check on the man's progress; someone who can be physically present, showing the love of God and encouraging accountability.

The feelings of loneliness and grief often come and go; consequently, there is a need to keep reassuring the addicted man and encouraging him to transition into positive activity. For the man this will sometimes mean being in a crowd or with the family and still feeling that isolating sense of aloneness but learning to say, "I know what this feeling is, and I can take care of my isolation."

The key strategy is for the mature part of the man to feel in control and able to nurture himself. Once the man falls into the trap of feeling sorry for himself, it is easy to crawl away into a quiet, hidden space where he can indulge the more childlike side of himself.

Another key issue opening the way to sexual addiction in men can grow out of the absence of a strong and caring male figure in a man's life. In order to develop a strong gender identity, it is helpful to have a strong bonding relationship with the same gender-parent. When that is absent, there is a risk of men developing anxiety about their identity.

This gender immaturity puts such men at risk for engaging in a variety of sexually deviant behaviors, including pornography. Being prepared to put in hard work on the missing father image can assist men develop stronger identities. Just as the "Father" image of God can be a difficulty for women who have been abused by men, so a positive "father" God who is present rather than absent can be a healing image for men.

The hardest conversation that James undertook was to tell his wife the truth, to tell her he was asking for help and then to ask for her support. Thankfully, in this case she gave it, but the issue is often more destructive for the marriage.

James is still traveling on his journey. He has a mentor, a wife who is supportive (even though she cannot understand why some men behave this way), and an active prayer life. James and I still spend time together discussing his recovery journey, always knowing that it will be easy for him to return to pornography should he not be vigilant in his Christian life and in his relationships.

James is not alone. There are many men who find this addiction so easy, so apparently relaxing, an escape from the need to be intimate or a substitute for it. It feeds their childlike obsession that someone or something else will always be there to provide nurture. While it is a difficult issue to treat, it is possible.

What is needed in the church is less denial and avoidance of such issues. When men realize that there is treatment and that they will not be vilified if they come forward, they are more likely to seek such help.

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Peter Powell, Ph.D., is executive director of the Pastoral Counselling Institute, North Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia..

March 2004

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