As I blogged about last week, Brett McKay has written a 4-part series on breaking the porn habit on his Art of Manliness blog. It’s filled with wisdom and insight, and it may prove indispensable to men who are ready to break the habit once and for all. In Part 4 of his series, he offers practical advice on how to do it.
As McKay says repeatedly, one key is to recognize that a habit—any habit, including even the porn habit—can be broken. This is why he urges us not to think of porn use as an addiction.
Among men who are trying to quit, it’s popular to conjure up images of porn being an unbeatable dark monster/plague/pandemic/war that must be fought tooth and nail and if you succumb to it, you’re destined to becoming a goat rapist, or something. But I don’t think that mindset is very helpful. In fact, firebrand rhetoric like that can actually backfire. Research suggests that this sort of simplistic, over-the-top rhetoric was the big reason the D.A.R.E. Program failed to reduce drug use amongst American teenagers back in the 80s and 90s. One study even showed that compared to middle schoolers who didn’t take part in the program, D.A.R.E. students showed an increase in the use of drugs! D.A.R.E inadvertently made drugs alluring by giving them the aura of “forbidden fruit,” tempting kids who otherwise wouldn’t have given drugs much thought.
Remember: although McKay himself is a person of faith, he’s writing for a largely secular audience. So let me add some theology to his words: We Christians believe in the power to change our lives for the better—not through our own strength, but through the power of the Holy Spirit. We believe that through the Spirit we can (and must) overcome sin in our lives. We Wesleyan Christians, especially, emphasize the work of the Spirit in sanctification—the lifelong process of becoming holy people.
But someone might object: Yes, but if it’s the Holy Spirit, then we don’t have to do anything. On the contrary, while the Spirit enables change, he usually does so through our willingness to let him change us. So even though the Spirit is changing us, he’s often doing so through our human effort. Remember that Paul’s list of the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-23 includes “self-control.” Although this virtue is “of the Spirit,” Paul emphasizes the role that we must play. Otherwise, Paul would have called it Spirit-control rather than self-control.
So in my mind, we men can apply all of McKay’s words about kicking the porn habit with the helpful understanding that we’re not doing it alone: the Lord is working through us to change us. Believe that God has the power to change us!
One of the best things we can do to overcome the habit, McKay believes, is to demystify it: to understand why the impulse to look at porn is so strong. He explains in depth why this is the case. Very briefly, the body produces dopamine when we start to become sexually aroused. Dopamine makes us feel good; it motivates and reinforces good and necessary behavior; it aids our survival. Obviously, the need to reproduce is an important survival behavior.
When we look at porn, then, our body doesn’t know that what we’re seeing isn’t real to us. We trick our bodies into thinking that we’re about to have sex. So our brain begins producing dopamine. The more porn we look at—and, unfortunately, there’s a free and limitless supply of it, thanks to the internet—the more dopamine we produce. Again, dopamine makes us feel good.
The problem is that our body’s defense against too much dopamine is to increase our resistance to it, by reducing the number of dopamine receptors. Like a drug abuser, we begin to need more of it to get the same effect. In the case of porn, this means not only viewing more porn, but seeking out a wider variety and more extreme versions of it in order to get the same “high.”
Practically speaking, therefore, we can become desensitized to “normal” sex with our spouses. Erectile dysfunction can therefore become a problem. McKay speculates that porn is the reason, for example, that Viagra and other ED drugs are increasingly popular with younger men.
This sounds pretty bleak, I know. We may wonder, Is a healthy sex drive no longer possible for men who’ve already spiraled down into compulsive porn use? But keep in mind that dopamine production explains why it’s difficult to overcome any bad habit—whether it’s porn, or overindulging in sweets, or biting one’s fingernails. In other words, the porn habit isn’t habitual in a unique way: it looks like any other bad habit. This is why one researcher encourages us to think of porn as “sexual junk food”—no more, no less. McKay writes:
Once you understand the science behind porn use, you can see it for what it really is: sexual junk food. You don’t give your bag of potato chips a menacing aura of power. They’re just potato chips. If you want to quit eating potato chips, you learn about the different ways carbs vs. protein and veggies affects your body, you throw away your potato chips, you quit going down the potato chip aisle in the grocery store, and you choose the celery stick at the party. Try doing the same thing with internet pornography.
I know some might think that’s a flippant comparison, particularly if they’ve seen porn destroy marriages and relationships, but I think understanding the problem and making it approachable is truly the key to success here. It puts you in a proactive place where you can confidently start taking steps to kick the habit.
Here’s the good news: we can “reboot” and “rewire” our sex drives, as McKay explains in detail. Rebooting means that if we stop viewing porn for a period of time, dopamine receptors will increase and our sex drive will return to its “factory settings.” Interestingly, McKay says that exercise and fasting can assist this process. Rewiring recognizes that over time our brains create neural pathways that make porn consumption easier and easier. Our brain becomes “wired” for porn. We can rewire our brains, however, by changing the external “cues” that make us want to open our web browsers and search for porn. See his post for specific steps we can take.
McKay’s words about changing our mindsets about porn are filled with wisdom. He concedes that it’s harder for us Christian men to do so. He writes:
The folks who are most concerned about porn tend to be religious, and they see porn as a spiritual cancer.
And yet the way that porn is more often than not discussed at church tends to be incredibly counterproductive, driving men deeper into porn use instead of away from it.
If you’re a regular reader of AoM, you’ll know I’ve talked about the fact that shame can be an unmatchable motivator for seeking positive improvement. But that’s only if it’s simultaneously accompanied by both the will to do better and the confidence that you can improve. If shame is just a trigger for self-pity and endless rumination about how you’re a terrible person, the effect is exactly the opposite. Excess shame becomes debilitating.
That’s why, and this relates to the points made above, I think it’s actually highly ineffective to go overboard on demonizing porn use. Yes, for Christian guys, it’s a sin, and I’ve got nothing against calling a sin, a sin. But porn frequently gets weighted with more baggage than its fellow transgressions; Jesus said simply looking at a woman with lust was adultery, and yet if we catch a young man ogling a woman’s cleavage we tend to just smack him in the head and tell him to cut it out. Yet if he looks at a pair of breasts online – whoa-ho-ho! — he is sick! Filthy! Depraved! On the pathway to addiction and Hell! All this overweening smack down accomplishes is leading the porn user to withdraw, to hide his dirty secret at all costs from his friends and family, to suffer crushing guilt and anxiety, and to feel hopelessly defective, which all leads back to…more porn to soothe his feelings of stress and isolation! I truly believe that excess shame is frequently what turns casual porn use into a compulsion…
If a loved one or someone at your church is having a problem with porn, it’s okay to express disappointment, and it’s okay for the man to feel some healthy shame for the way in which he’s fallen short of your shared ideals. But don’t heap on the scorn. Teach young men that sexuality is a healthy, wonderful thing. Teach them that their attraction to porn is a very normal consequence of their biology and brains, that they should try not to slip up, but if they do, to just get right back in the saddle and keep on trucking.
Good words for pastors like me!
A little more theology: Satan is resourceful. He’ll try to ruin us any way he can. Blinding us to the spiritual harm of pornography (which seems to be his main strategy these days) is one way. But excessive shame and self-loathing can also do the trick. Remember the kind of Savior that we believe in: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).