Why Porn Kills Sex

Russell Moore

This week’s TIME magazine features a cover story on a new initiative against Internet pornography. These anti-porn activists, though, aren’t the caricatured pursed-lip moralists. They are instead young men who say that pornography has compromised their ability to function sexually in real life.

The cover struck a chord with me because I’ve seen a similar situation show up many times with couples seated in front of me for pastoral counseling. In a typical version of this scenario, a young married couple seeks help because they’ve stopped (or in some cases never started) having sex. In this typical scenario, the husband is the one who cannot maintain interest in sex. When one asks the right questions one finds that he’s been deeply immersed in pornography since adolescence. It’s not, in these situations, that he can’t get the mechanics of sex to work. It’s that he finds intimacy with a real-life woman to be, in the word that emerges repeatedly, “awkward.” Many of these men can only have sex with their wives by replaying scenes from pornography in their heads as they do so.

So what’s happening here? Why does it seem that pornography ultimately kills sexual intimacy? There are, to be sure, many psychological explanations. Pornography desensitizes one to sexual stimuli, feeds the quest for endless novelty, and creates a script of expectations that does not, and cannot, meet up to the real dynamics of personal relationship. But I think there’s more afoot here.

In order to understand the power of pornography, we must ask why Jesus warned us that lust is wrong. This is not because God is embarrassed about sex (see Song of Solomon). God designed human sexuality not to isolate but to connect. Sexuality is intended to bond a wife and a husband and, where conditions are met, to result in newness of life, thus connecting generations. Pornography disrupts this connection, turning what is meant for intimacy and incarnational love into masturbatory aloneness. Pornography offers the psychic thrill and biological release meant for communion in the context of freedom from connection with another. It cannot keep that promise.

When pornography enters into a marriage, the result is shame. By “shame,” I am not meaning the feeling of being ashamed (although that may be part of it). I mean that one is, at the most intimate level, hiding. There’s something within us that knows that sexuality is meant for something other than the manipulation of images and body parts.

Pornography kills sexuality because porn isn’t just about sex and because sex isn’t just about sex.

In the ancient city of Corinth, the warning was given about prostitutes in the pagan temples of the city. The prostitutes were paid for sexual activity, disconnected from covenant. They were part of a cultic system that ascribed almost mystical powers to the orgasm. How is that any different from the pornography industry of today? The Apostle Paul warned that the implications of immorality with these prostitutes weren’t just a matter of bad relational consequences or a bad witness for Christ to the outside world (although these were no doubt true too). The one who joined himself to a prostitute participated in an intangible spiritual reality, by joining Christ to the prostitute, by becoming one with her (1 Cor. 6:15-19). Since the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, sexual immorality is not just “naughtiness.” It is an act of temple desecration, of bringing unholy worship into a holy place of sanctuary (1 Cor. 6:19).

Pornography is not just immorality; it’s occultism.

That’s why pornography has such a strong pull. It’s not just a matter of biology (although that’s important). If there are, as the Bible teaches, unseen criminal spirits alive in the cosmos, then temptation is about more than just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The professing Christian, no matter how insignificant he or she may feel, is a target of interest. Sexual immorality seems to present itself randomly when, in fact, as with the young man of Proverbs, it is part of a carefully orchestrated hunting expedition (Prov. 6:32-33).

The shame that results within the conscience in the aftermath of a pornographic episode—much less a lifetime of such—cannot help but break intimacy in the one-flesh union of marriage. From the beginning of the human story, shame before God leads to shame with one another (Gen. 3:7-12). Nakedness (intimacy), designed to feel natural, now feels painful and exposing—or, to put it the way many men have put it, “awkward.”

If this describes you, you are hardly alone. Marriage is always difficult, always a matter of spiritual warfare (1 Cor. 7:5). In order to fight, one must first address shame, which means repenting of the desire to keep everything hidden. Find a trusted elder in your church, and seek help.

The young men seeking an insurgency against the pornography they’ve grown up with are to be commended. But pornography is a lure too powerful to be fought by willpower or social movements alone. We need to bear one another’s burdens, through the energy of the Holy Spirit within the new temple of the church. That starts with being honest about what pornography is—and what it does.

Publication date: April 5, 2016