Can We Talk about How Porn and Emotional Immaturity Are Related?

by | Nov 27, 2020 | Pornography, Uncategorized | 11 comments

How Porn Use Can Hurt Emotional Growth
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When we think of porn, we tend to think “sin”.

(It’s Sheila introducing this post, but I’m going to put Rebecca as the author since most of these are her words below!)

When it comes to porn, what if there’s more going on than just “sin”? What if an action can be sinful, but what if the impetus for that action was more based on trauma, or hurt? And what if that unresolved trauma makes it so much harder to quit the action?

This week on the blog there was a very interested and deep conversation between an anonymous guy and Rebecca (my daughter and the co-author of The Great Sex Rescue–it’s available for pre-order!). I think that conversation has the potential to be quite healing, so I’d like to share it here today. This conversation started in response to our podcast on emotional health and men, and how men aren’t hardwired to sin. (And these have been edited for brevity):

You say that men aren’t meant to sin sexually. And I totally agree with that but why is it that sex and porn are the most common things that men are drawn too?

I can so relate to Andrew’s story because it sounds so much like my own. I always struggled with fear and insecurities because of my emotionally abusive dad. And early on I found an erotic book at home and I got hooked and have sadly been since then. It got worse when I became a teen. I remember hearing my dad screaming at my mom and I felt so guilty and so much shame because I had just masturbated. And I felt that it was all my fault but still I went back to it.

And even after becoming saved it was still a struggle. And I wonder sometimes why? Why sex and porn if we aren’t overly sexual creatures? I didn’t grow up reading the books you mention and my mom and dad never had the talk with me. I heard that sex before marriage was wrong(my parents are christians) but not much more. But I felt like a monster the first time I ejaculated. And that shame and guilt follows. I guess a lot of these men defend this because they have to sometimes deal with their own monstrosity (many are just plain evil and defend it abuse people sadly). Because I know I try to deal with it. The constant feeling that you are horrible is something that eats you up.

My therapist (who sadly doesn’t think porn is wrong but understands that it is hurting me) thinks that the shame and guilt is a huge problem. She has even said that I shouldn’t read blogs like this because they usually just makes me feel worse when I feel that I can’t reach the level of perfection I should. And I wonder if that happens with many men. Specially when you hear that it shouldn’t be that difficult and we have the Holy Spirit and so on. 

LIke my therapist told me today when she said that I need to stand strong when temptation comes and I said that yes it is that easy but why can’t I do it? and she then tells me that its not easy. That trying to minimize the enormous task it is only adds more shame because it just more and more builds up the idea that something is awfully wrong with me. Which I am still convinced about.

Men in the church haven’t known how to deal with it and then have had to find a way to somehow excuse or accept it. Because if there are so many men watching porn and not stopping, are all those men bad? Doesn’t that just show that men are evil and women are just better? 

My story hasn’t ended as well as Andrew’s though. My search to deal with the problems I had led me to a sexual relationship with my now wife, both wanted it. But I realize now that it wasn’t based on love on my part. A regret I live with and try to deal with . It has sadly been through porn for a long time but I am trying to get better so that I at least can be a decent husband for her.

Anonymous

When we say men weren’t created to sin sexually, what we mean is that there IS freedom and sexual sin isn’t simply a birthright of being male. There are many gender differences in terms of destructive behaviours–women are far more likely to self-harm in high school and attempt suicide than their male counterparts, but we don’t say God made girls to be suicidal. Women also are around 2x as likely to experience some sort of anxiety disorder than their male counterparts are but, again, we don’t say that anxiety is “every woman’s battle” and we don’t tell women that are anxious, “Well, that’s just a part of being a woman.” Rather, we help them fix it and we say, “This doesn’t need to be your entire life. There is hope.” And then of course, there are eating disorders which range from 3 times to 9 times as likely for women to develop than men, depending on the criteria used to define an eating disorder.

I think your musings about the acceptance of pornography use are really insightful, and I think one of the big problems with dealing with the porn problem in churches is that it’s dealt with simply as a sin issue that we just have to muscle our way through to resist. But for many men porn use stems from sexual abuse in childhood, including being far too young when they were first exposed to pornography. If a man’s first exposure to sex was seeing a violent porn clip when he was were 10 years old, and that triggered a porn addiction because of curiosity and shame that led to diminished coping skills because porn became his only real way to handle stress for 8 years, that’s going to need a lot more to overcome than simply confessing and deciding to not do it again.

Women are not more spiritual than men, our struggles are often just different. Because yes, this is more of a pull for men on average than it is for women. And there will be some men who have life-long struggles with it. But not all. And that’s missing in the conversation.

But what else is missing is WHY men get hooked on porn to begin with. And a lot of times it’s stories like yours–emotional abuse, shame and embarrassment, a lack of education about healthy sexuality, a lack of open conversation. Imagine how your story may have been different if instead of yelling at you when they found out, you were able to have real open and honest dialogue about this where you weren’t shamed for having sexual curiosity but instead you were coached and helped to understand healthy sexual expression when you were 12, 13, 14. I guess my question is, with all of these other factors in the equation, why is the immediate assumption that you got hooked on porn because you were male? Because reading your story it would make sense that if you were in a healthier environment it may not have happened to you. So the issue may not be maleness as much as abuse and dysfunctional dynamics that affect women and men differently. If you were a girl, perhaps you may have still had a porn problem. Perhaps you may have developed an eating disorder to cope with the feelings of worthlessness. Perhaps you would have attempted suicide. There’s no way of knowing. But the issue for many is not maleness: it’s trauma, frankly.

I’m not a therapist clearly, but I just hope I can encourage you to have compassion for yourself, especially your younger self. You were a little boy, you were in an environment where you did not feel emotionally safe and did not have anyone teaching you about how God made sexuality to be more than a set of rules. Your adolescent brain was desperately seeking some way to cope and relieve stress and feelings of inadequacy, and pornography and erotica offered some comfort. Obviously that’s a maladaptive and unhealthy strategy, but I hope you can see yourself not just as a horrible sinner but forgive that confused, hurt little boy you were when this all started. Self-compassion can be a huge tool on the road to healing, no matter what the issue at hand is.

Rebecca Lindenbach

What you say makes sense but as you say I think the problem is that it is treated only as a sin issue. The examples you talk about women aren’t seen as sin issues. They are often a consequence of a messed up world who treats women as objects. It’s easier to see that women in that position need help.

Porn is often seen as something else. The monster inside so to speak and as I said I think that many times the men in the church don’t know how to deal with it and don’t understand the why so at the same time as they want to say that its wrong they have to deal with their own shame and failure in this and then I guess it comes out like they are saying that we cant do anything about it. I believe some just use it as an excuse to continue to sin but I do think some genuinely want to quit. I know many of the books the blog mentions are bad but I have also heard many men who has read the book and overcome their sin and says that it really helped them. But maybe they overcome it in the wrong way?

I do think as you say that the church must become more (dare I say it) therapeutic. The church need licensed therapist and more teaching about how we humans work on a psychological level. Specially when it comes to porn. But sadly we don’t. Instead the message is shame and guilt. To be honest, your answer was one of the first even on this blog where the message doesn’t sound like all men are the worst. But i guess that my own shame filters what I read and just makes me feel worse. So the church need to introduce more psychology at the same time as not losing the message that with Christ we can overcome everything. Because thats another risk that when we know the cause of the problem we just give up and blame it on our past. My therapist has called me out on that (even tough she wishes I would let go of the shame thing and just accept that its ok to watch porn every now and then) and has said that I need to take responsibility and decide what to do with instead of finding excuses. Something I think is an important part of maturing emotionally.

Lastly I just want to say that my parents weren’t screaming because I had masturbated. My father was screaming at my mother because they had problems and my dad always screamed and was emotionally abusive. I sat in my room but I had learned that God punishes sin so I blamed myself for my parents marital problems and my fathers behaviour. Me masturbating had unleashed God’s anger. And that’s tough to live with even to this day. My parents didn’t believe in therapy and thought psychology was bad because it could lead people astray from God. I don’t know how common that is in churches but I think that can also make it difficult for men to find help. Many times we are referred to pastors who aren’t licensed therapists and then we don’t receive the help we need.

Anonymous

Sheila just interjecting in the conversation here and say that I completely agree with Anonymous that we need more licensed therapists! Most pastors are not equipped to handle issues of shame, childhood trauma, etc. etc. That’s why, when we’re talking about healing from porn use, I tend to always point people to licensed counselors (not necessarily biblical counselors, but Christian licensed counselors), and especially those who are trauma informed and who understand about sexual health. We need to understand this not just as a simple sin issue, but as something far more complex. I completely agree that too often guys just go to pastors, and that compounds the shame. You need to see people who are actually equipped in this stuff!

Okay, on with the conversation:

Yeah, I think you’re right and we need to change the conversation so that there is a clear understanding that for many, many men porn use stemmed from a serious hurt or an emotional vacuum in their childhood or adolescence.

If we use the analogy of swimming a length of a pool, it’s perfectly valid and reasonable to say, “It’s not hard to swim a length of the pool.” But if a bunch of the men showed up to the pool wearing 17th century armor and never learning how to swim because they were spending their time learning to joust instead, swimming is going to feel like an impossible task. And what has happened is men have said, “Well swimming is impossible so this must just be men’s struggle.” They don’t ask, “What is in the way of me swimming and how can I overcome that?” They just try to muscle through and swim with the armor on, using the skills they have for jousting. And it’s a disaster.

With porn, we say, “Men can live a life free from porn.” But that’s not going to happen until men also understand that for many people, the struggle with porn is made so much more difficult because of all this baggage, and because instead of learning healthy coping skills during adolescence, many young boys used porn, so they lack the very skills needed to cope with stress without the aid of sexually explicit materials as an escape. They lack the skills they need to quit the porn!

What I hope is that we can start changing the conversation so that removing that armor and learning new skills isn’t seen as excuses, but as a part of the healing process. Because that’s not blaming it on the past, that’s just recognizing reality and choosing to change your trajectory while shedding that which is holding you back!

I also want to say, Anon, that your story really isn’t over. And if your therapist isn’t helping you, you can always consider searching for a therapist who understands pornography trauma and the negative effects of pornography (there are many out there, both Christian and secular!). But of course, I don’t know your whole story and if you’re getting good care that’s fantastic. 

But God really doesn’t work that way, where he punishes you for sins like that. I think God likely had a lot of compassion for the small, confused you back then. And understanding God’s compassion for us can make such a difference in how we see ourselves, our story, and our standing before God. Said a prayer for you today, I really do feel for your struggle.

Rebecca Lindenbach

I thought that was such a helpful conversation that may help others as well. Let’s remember that porn use is often rooted in shame and emotional hurt as adolescents, and then, in adolescence, those boys (and girls) didn’t learn the very coping patterns they would need to be able to fight the porn use later. 

That’s not to say that porn use isn’t bad in a marriage, or that we should just accept it. But we do need a more nuanced conversation about the harm that porn does. Yes, it harms the wives of porn users. Yes, it DEFINITELY harms those in porn, and contributes to sex trafficking. But it also harms the porn user, especially if that person began watching porn when they were very young. Think of the effect of watching all of that violence and degradation when you weren’t emotionally able to handle it. This leaves a mark, and to get over it we don’t just need repentance, but healing from that trauma as well–and a realization that in many cases you missed key steps in maturity growing up, and it’s now incumbent on you to seek treatment and learn those steps. 

How Porn Use in Adolescence Hurts Emotional Growth

What do you think? Has porn use ever caused trauma to you, or those you know? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Blog Contributor, Author, and Podcaster

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8. Check out Why I Didn't Rebel, or follow her on Instagram!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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11 Comments

  1. Kay

    To be honest, the more I learn about human psychology—especially trauma, the polygaval theory (science behind flight, fight, freeze), and attachment theory, etc—the more I think sin as a concept is overall unhelpful. There is almost always a reason that makes total sense behind our behavior, and that reason is a “good” one, meaning it is both valid and often the motivation behind it is for a good thing.
    Porn and sex in general are useful for emotional regulation, particularly if you weren’t given healthy emotional regulation skills growing up, which most people weren’t, especially in the church. “Pray more, trust God more, read the Bible more” cannot make up for the emotional skills we lack. In fact, that is spiritual bypassing in many scenarios—the passing over of the actual issue by overspiritualizing it. Framing our lack of skill (because no one taught us) as **sin** is just plain ridiculous and unfair.
    I highly recommend the book Try Softer by Aundi Kolber. (She wrote the forward to Jonathan Puddle’s book.) “Trying harder” doesn’t work. We need to admit to the church’s failure to teach emotional maturity—especially if it calls modern psychology “anti-Bible”—the fallout this failure has caused, and stop blaming folks for lacking skills they were never taught. But our brains are flexible; it’s never too late to expand your levels of emotional tolerance.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I love Try Softer, Kay! I recommended it earlier this month, too. Exactly, we really do have to understand how much our behaviour is shaped by our hurts, and then learn these new skills.

      Reply
  2. Phil

    Sheila/Becca – I followed part of this conversation and actually had a contributing response that I chose to delete and let Becca handle it…then did not go back for the follow up…here is what I took from that conversation: the conversation actually helped me realize that not only are these scenarios true with porn – aka false beliefs we learn as kids get associated and soothes/comforts unresolved issues but what was drawn out of me actually is something I have known/learned from my 12 step group is that we often miss-associate/ disconnect/connect false beliefs and misbeliefs with our addictions – such as stress = drink alcohol. Psychological Pain = look at porn and masturbate. What is true in other areas it appears is that this can happen with say – bipolar for example. I just never put that all together before….anger is a result of my bipolar. Bipolar is not always the contributor to my anger. However- I have learned that anger “gets me” certain results. It is also a dopamine hit which is similar to a hit I might get when viewing porn. For some it might be like coffee and a cigarette or others drinking and smoking etc. they feed each other and they become associated. My wife says why would you go to Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) if you aren’t getting the biscuit! Some of the associations are harmless such as the KFC – others are absolutely damaging. Here is the thing about a lot of stuff. It is easier to scratch the itch than it is to treat it. For me when I think about how porn served me it was easy. See – I have an opinion here – viewing porn while damaging as it is to a marriage was never about my wife. I learned that behavior long before I met her. I didnt view it to hurt her and I didnt view it (initially<—-key word) to escape her or because I didnt love here. My marriage was just another reason to add into the porn soothes me concept rather than deal with something and DO WORK. Porn is the easy way out – it appears easy until the damage starts to enter your life…and then….so many times it can be too late for us to recover from the damage…so for some they dive deeper….for me I got to work. I will say that unfortunately there are still times in my life when I wake up and the thought is – go find some porn and act out before you go on with your day. The reason is: that I have associated that “comfort” with you wont have to deal with today. While none of that is true the lure is real. Its still there 17 years into recovery. Recently I am back on a path to possibly try EMDR therapy – more for the purpose of anger issues than anything else however here is something else that is true for me and is messed up – Anger and sex go together for me. Not at the same time mind you which I suppose is next level that is discussed – abuse and abusive sex and leads to stuff such as rape etc etc. but for me sex soothes anger. I didnt sign up for that equation but it is in me. It came as a result of me being exposed to sex/porn at a very young age and then lack of proper skills to overcome it as what was written. It causes problems in my life to this day. Now I didnt just share some deep dark secret…my wife is fully aware of it all. I/we/mostly me have been dealing with it. Damage from porn? Was it clear I am broken from this past? The craziest thing is this: Connor’s post on porn from a while back is very telling about what porn does. Here is the thing about a porn user. Unless they have some inkling of a clue that their belief system is broken and they see the hurt they are causing themselves…(yes it has to mostly be seen as damage to themselves not others) even that post wont convince them. The beliefs that are formed are so re-enforced by the pleasure center -immense impact/change has to take place in order to recover…..sigh….

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Very true, Phil. It is very hard to have a porn user see what they are doing to themselves. And it is very wired into our pleasure/comfort cycles, too. I hope the EMDR helps your anger! I’ve heard good things about it from other people.

      Reply
    • Recovering from abuse

      Phil- it was anger that first sent me to counseling and emdr did a huge work for me. Well actually- emdr was the tool but God did the work. The more I am able to show compassion to my hurt areas, the less anger I “need”. My emdr advice is to make sure you feel completely safe with the therapist you choose and then clear some things off your plate because emdr is absolutely exhausting. It was so worth it for me. I’m back at it for the second time and it’s amazing the things God is teaching me and healing in me.

      Reply
  3. Michelle

    My friend and her husband just split up, and their story (or her story that she shared with me) emotional immaturity and physical abuse, heavy porn use – it all sounds related to this. I don’t know his story, or his childhood, but after reading this I hope he gets some help. Reading this reinforces the importance of raising sons, who are taught to manage and cope with emotions in a healthy way.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Exactly, Michelle! It’s so sad when we raise our kids without the coping mechanisms and emotional health they need.

      Reply
  4. Nick Peters

    Sheila. I read through this today and decided to write my own post on porn use, something I actually by the grace of God never struggled with. Do you care if I share it?

    Reply
  5. Andrea

    I highly recommend Samuel L. Perry’s book on porn in the lives of evangelicals, called Addicted to Lust. He is a practicing evangelical himself and a sociologist, and the book dwells heavily on the shame men feel about their porn habits. Also, how men who don’t confess to watching porn get their masculinity questioned, so there’s the other ugly side of that — if you watch porn, you’re a dirty sinner, but if you don’t, you’re not a real man. Sam Perry addresses all of it (including women who watch porn) and I cannot recommend his book enough.

    Reply
    • Nick Peters

      Apparently, Perry’s book now is $3.19 on Kindle on Amazon. I don’t struggle with porn, but I’m always striving to understand sexuality better so I scooped that one up immediately.

      Reply
  6. Rogue

    One amazing book I will recommend that focuses on the aspect of brokeness preceding addiction and being part of the root cause, is the book “Unwanted: How Sexual Brokeness Reveals Our Way To Healing”

    Reply

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