A great series on breaking the porn habit

October 9, 2014
My favorite character on my favorite TV show, Parks & Recreation: Ron Swanson. He's famous for knowing how to be a man.

My favorite character on my favorite TV show, Parks & Recreation: Ron Swanson. He’s famous for knowing how to be a man.

Brett McKay’s Art of Manliness website is a treasure trove of helpful advice on how to be a better person man, from the practical (for instance, how to tie a bow-tie), to the not-so-practical but still cool to know (how to escape from zip ties), to the idealistic.

I’ve blogged about the crisis facing manhood in our culture, one symptom of which is that we men are discouraged from thinking that “manhood” is a meaningful idea. Boys and girls, we’re told, are blank tablets on which insidious cultural forces write a patriarchal script that we need to un-learn. Without these forces, there would be no meaningful differences between men and women, aside from brute anatomy.

Anyone who’s taken a graduate-level sociology course knows I’m not exaggerating.

menporn

Regardless, McKay has turned his attention this week to what I believe is the biggest spiritual threat facing men today: internet pornography. I encourage all my male readers to check it out.

If, like me, you’re plugged in to popular culture, you can identify with these words from his introduction:

Viewing porn, once considered a shameful pursuit to be carried on in society’s shadows, has become more than mainstream; today it’s considered a nearly universal part of every man’s life. Watch any modern television show (particularly sitcoms), and it is nearly assumed that the main male characters watch porn, and in many cases it’s practically celebrated (see Barney in How I Met Your Mother). In modern novels about American life, the same is true; and even in men’s magazines you’ll find a variety of quips about the normalness of porn. It’s become embedded into our pop culture and therefore our entertainment and our conversations.

While I’m aware that there are Christian resources to help men kick the porn habit, McKay’s approach is ostensibly secular (although he concedes up front that he also has religious objections to it) and, therefore, less judgmental and more sympathetic. If you’re a man who struggles with porn, you won’t hate yourself when you read these articles. But you’ll be armed, I hope, with information to help you regain self-control over this part of your life.

McKay’s main point is that even apart from traditional religious objections to porn—namely, sins of lust and masturbation—men have good reasons to avoid pornography, the most important of which is that it impedes our ability or desire to have sex with—you know—an actual, real-life woman. 

He talks at length about what happens to us, physiologically, when we view pornography. He argues that the relationship between a healthy sex drive and porn consumption is the same as the relationship between a healthy appetite and junk food. Read this article. It all comes down to dopamine production. McKay writes;

I think the very best way to frame porn is as “sexual junk food.” The all-powerful drive for both food and sex have been around since the dawn of man. We’re evolved to eat natural food, intermittently, but now find ourselves with crap-tastic offerings available on every street corner, at every hour of the day. This never-ending glut of junk food can be difficult to resist, but if we don’t, we end up obese, anxious, and depressed. In exactly the same way, we’re evolved for sex…with flesh and blood humans. But in our modern world, we’ve got virtual sex on tap 24/7. Gorging ourselves on it diminishes our spirit, enervates our virility, and harms our relationships – all the very best things in life. Porn is sexual junk food that promises nourishment, but leaves us feeling sicker and emptier than before.

Although he believes that compulsive porn-viewing can mirror addiction to alcohol and drugs, he believes that addiction language is unhelpful. It’s better to think of compulsive porn-viewing as a habit. We can break habits; whereas we often feel powerless over addictions. One important theme of his website, after all, is that we men need to take more responsibility for their lives, not less. Addiction language tends to minimize personal responsibility.

Labeling impulsive behaviors as addictions may hinder an individual from feeling capable of conquering an undesirable behavior. “Addiction” is a very loaded – even scary — word. When we tell ourselves we have an addiction, we’re implying that we’ve lost control of ourselves, that our ability to make our own choices is impaired, and that it may even be impossible to change course. Something else is in the driver’s seat, so to speak.

Thus, calling an undesirable behavior an addiction has the tendency to shift us from an internal locus of control to an external one. Research has shown that those with an internal locus exhibit greater control over their behavior and deal with challenges and stress better. Those with an external locus of control, on the other hand, feel like they’re a victim of powers outside themselves, which leads to stress, anxiety, and depression. The desire to soothe these hopeless feelings will then often lead right back to porn. And on the cycle will go.

Unfortunately, according to one study, we religious men are more likely to label porn use as an addiction, even when, by any secular definition, it’s not. McKay explains why this is the case:

For these religious men, to view porn is a spiritual transgression and complete abstinence from porn is the ideal. Thus if they find themselves surfing to a porn site once or twice a week to masturbate, there’s a dissonance between their behavior and the standard their faith has established. To ease that dissonance, instead of taking responsibility for the spiritual lapse, they pathologize it by calling it an addiction. By so doing they shift their locus of control to an external one and decide that they aren’t themselves doing it – instead, porn is doing something to them…

Moreover, I’d argue that by calling themselves addicts – even though from a clinical sense they obviously aren’t — these men are just making it more difficult to stop looking at porn because the addiction label puts them in a position of helplessness or, worse, they may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in which they do become full-blown porn addicts.

So if you’re a religious man who happens to use porn a few times a week, don’t be so quick to call it an addiction. Sure, it feels that way, but calling it such is more likely to hurt than help.

In tomorrow’s article, McKay promises to offer tips for those who want to kick the habit completely (which ought to include all of us Christian men). Here is part 1, part 2, and part 3.

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