Posts Tagged ‘Brett McKay’

To quit porn, first believe that you can quit porn… and other helpful advice

October 14, 2014

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).

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.


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.