We are created with a desire to love and be loved. We long to be known, understood and accepted for who we are. Ultimately, God alone is capable of such perfect knowledge and love. Yet, authentic intimacy in marriage offers a glimpse of this happiness, at least in a finite way.
Pornography, in contrast, distracts us from our call to love. When we are preoccupied with pornography, our mind and heart easily lose sight of what holds real value, including those who are close to us. Instead, we start to view others through a lens of self-gratification. No one intends to trade his or her need for real love with a cheap thrill. It subtly slips away as one becomes distracted and disconnected from self, others, and the reality that one’s mind and heart are changing. When someone is hooked on pornography he or she can lose the ability to be captivated by love.
Pornography is believed to function like a "drug" that stimulates the brain. Neuroscientists point to three fundamental effects that addiction has on the brain: 1) "desensitization," a numbing of the brain’s ability to experience pleasure; 2) "sensitization," an increased sensitivity to triggers and memories related to the addictive behavior; and 3) "hypofrontality," the reduced activity of the frontal brain, decreasing impulse control and creating a negative mood.1 These effects remind us that pornography robs our joy, and where there is little joy, there is often never enough pleasure.
Based on recent brain imaging studies, behavioral addictions — like gambling, food and Internet gaming — have been found to meet the above three criteria for causing changes in brain circuitry.2 They are related to pornography addiction in that they are all behavioral/process addictions, as opposed to chemical addictions. Internet pornography possesses characteristics very similar to Internet gaming addiction, and could arguably be more potent, as the object of compulsion is sexual arousal. This explains why some who are trying to break their addiction to pornography report having the same type of physical "withdrawal" symptoms that are experienced by those breaking an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
Addiction’s emotional impact
Some of the original studies of sexual addiction found common emotional factors among the families of adult sexual addicts.3 One of these emotional factors relates to growing up in a family that was emotionally disengaged. Thus pornography can be used as a way to feel connected and close, at least on the viewer’s own terms. It can also become a "solution" to dealing with stress by seeking comfort. As this behavior continues, an individual robs himself (or herself) more and more of the opportunities to learn from difficulties and to grow in character. This cycle is reinforced by shame. Many make comparisons of themselves to others ("I must somehow be lacking") and therefore remove themselves from relying on God and others for support. Shame makes an individual more vulnerable to continue using pornography as solace from pain.
Impact on marriage
A number of studies have found a correlation between pornography and an unhappy marriage. One study discovered that those who watched X-rated movies were 25 percent more likely to become divorced and 65 percent more likely to have an affair.4 In 2008 researchers found that 18- to 26-year-olds reported significant correlations between acceptance and use of pornography and "desires for delaying marriage, financial independence between spouses and lower levels of child centeredness."5
All addictions, and in particular pornography, affect our relationship with God, a relationship that rests largely on the development of trust and obedience in childhood. Whether or not we succeed in becoming trusting and obedient greatly impacts our openness and connection to God. Rather than trusting real affirming love, pornography creates a dependence on itself for satisfaction.
Our sexual integrity
We are created with a basic integrity, or connection, between our mind, body and spirit. In essence, what we think about impacts our behavior. What we choose to do with our bodies impacts our desires and ability to see the value of others. Our sexuality is meant to be a reminder that we are called to love with our bodies with integrity and purity. Pornography completely distorts this meaning. It says that fantasy will make us happy.
A common root of pornography use is a need to have control in our lives, yet pornography produces sexual frustration and the desire to act out. So what we seek to achieve from pornography in the form of control ends up controlling and enslaving us. But the gift of sexuality is not meant to frustrate or enslave. It is meant to free us in a lifelong relationship of complete giving to another.
The commitment and mutual respect within marriage truly fosters this freedom. It is the only context that provides a safeguard for the expression of our sexuality to be a source of peace and joy in our lives.
1 N.D. Volkow et al., "Addiction: Decreased Reward Sensitivity and Increased Expectation Sensitivity Conspire to Overwhelm the Brain’s Control Circuit," Bioessays 32:9 (2010): 748-55.
2 Marnia Robinson, "Ominous News for Porn Users: Internet Addiction Atrophies Brains," Psychology Today, June 25, 2011, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cupids-poisoned-arrow/201106/ominous-news-porn-users-internet-addiction-atrophies-brains (accessed October 1, 2011).
3 Patrick Carnes, Contrary to Love, Helping the Sexual Addict (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 1994).
4 Daniel Weiss, "Pornography Infidelity and Divorce" ROCK, March 31, 2011, www.myrocktoday.org/default.asp?q_areaprimaryid=7&q_areasecondaryid=74&q_areatertiaryid=0&q_articleid=858 (accessed April 30, 2012).
5 Daniel Weiss, "Pornography U. — Emerging Adults and Pornography Use," ROCK, April 6, 2011, www.myrocktoday.org/default.asp?q_areaprimaryid=7&q_areasecondaryid=74&q_areatertiaryid=0&q_articleid=860 (accessed April 29, 2012).
Spadaro, a licensed professional counselor and certified sex-addiction therapist, is founder of Imago Dei Counseling in Colorado Springs.