“Sensuality is easily the biggest obstacle to godliness among men today, and it is wreaking havoc in the church.” Written in 2006 in the book The Disciplines of a Godly Man, Kent Hughes’ words turned out to be both accurate and prophetic. He wrote them before the widespread availability of smartphones and high-speed internet facilitated an explosion of pornography use and a widespread proliferation of erotic content on social media, the internet, and TV. The challenges of the pandemic made things even worse. If sensuality was an obstacle in 2006, it’s a crisis now. And not just for men. This also is an issue for women.
Here are some 2019 statistics from the Barna Research Group and the Covenant Eyes software company:
- Sixty-eight percent of church-going men and over 50% of pastors view porn regularly.
- Of Christian adults 18-24 years old, 76% actively search for porn.
- Fifty-five percent of married men and 25% of married women say they watch porn at least once a month.
- Fifty-seven percent of pastors say porn addiction is “the most damaging issue” in their congregation.
- There is virtually no difference in the monthly porn use of non-Christian men versus Christian men (reported usage statistics for Christian men come in about 1% lower).
- The largest porn site on the internet reports that 32% of its visitors worldwide in 2019 were women, according to its own analysis using Google Analytics. By 2021 that percentage had risen to 35%.
- Sexting has become common for young people today. Researchers say at least 20% of teens and perhaps as many as 60% participate in sexting.
- In 2019, the anti-pornography organization Freedom Fight conducted a survey of more than 1,300 Christian college students from over 30 different campuses across the country. The men and women surveyed were involved in some form of campus ministry, and they considered their faith in Christ to be very important to them. Still, 89% of the Christian men surveyed watch porn at least occasionally. Sixty-one percent view it at least weekly, and 24% percent watch porn daily or multiple times a day. More than half of these men—51%—said they were “addicted to porn.”
Note that these are pre-pandemic statistics. Just as alcohol and drug use have escalated in the past two years, so have pornography and other online sexual compulsions. We’re still not sure exactly how much.
Also note that most of the above statistics represent self-reported porn consumption. What happens when actual computer usage data is analyzed? In 2020, Ingrid Solano, Nicholas R. Eaton, and K. Daniel O’Leary published the results of research they did using data collected by Amazon about computer users. They tracked computer usage from a randomized sample of 1,392 people in the U.S. ranging in age from 18 to 73 and noted any usage of pornographic websites—written stories, pictures, or videos. They found that a staggering 91% of men and 60% of women had visited porn sites during the month-long period they analyzed.
Understanding the Unique Situation We’re In
Before we can talk about what to do about this problem, we need to be sure we really understand it. The current explosion of online and smartphone sexual activity is certainly a product of the sexual revolution, which was in turn the consequence of (a) how widespread availability of birth control transformed the role of sex in peoples’ lives and (b) the continued turning away from Christian commitment and morality in the West.
These changes can be understood to have led to an increase in person-to-person sexual immorality, but what we’re facing today is something different. Of course it is related to godlessness and immorality, but there are new factors at play that make online, artificial sex a unique issue for us to deal with:
1. Today’s technology facilitates the use of pornography as an artificial sex experience, a substitute for person-to-person intimacy. Sexual arousal and gratification are now available without any involvement with or connection to a real person. This is unprecedented. Some people might say that there's nothing new under the sun—that pornography and sexual material have been around since the dawn of civilization.
But they are wrong.
Today's high-definition video and audio create an immersive experience that activates the brain’s mirror neurons in a way that was not possible for our ancestors looking at still paintings or cave drawings. In other words, the “technology” of drawing, painting, and sculpture were enough to stimulate sexual fantasy, but not enough to create their own artificial, substitute sexual experience. That’s what our current technology now facilitates. And make no mistake, pornographers are working hard to find ways of making these artificial experiences even more immersive and multisensory.
It was one thing when birth control allowed people to have sexual experience without the risk of pregnancy. Now our technology allows people to have sexual experiences without the “risk” of involving another person! No need to seek out a partner. No need to develop a relationship. Just take care of your own needs.
We are just beginning to understand how these artificial substitutes hijack our sex drive and become addictive. Pornography exposes people to near-infinite levels of sexual novelty, flooding the brain with dopamine and creating a craving for more.
2. Artificial sex is also part of a larger trend away from active engagement and toward passive consumption. We are becoming a society of spectators. In 1938, Jay Nash coined the term “spectatoritis” to describe the trend he saw of people becoming consumers and spectators rather than participants. He wrote, “The average man who has time on his hands turns out to be a spectator, a watcher of somebody else, merely because that is the easiest thing. He becomes a victim of spectatoritis—a blanket description to cover all kinds of passive amusement, an entering into the handiest activity merely to escape boredom.”
In the digital era, this trend has exploded exponentially in ways even Nash couldn’t have imagined. Instead of playing sports, we now watch other people play them. In fact, forget the hassle of going to games and sitting in uncomfortable stands: we can watch sports on TV while we sit on the couch! This has led to leisure habits our ancestors would have found baffling. We now sit and watch other people bake cakes on TV. We now sit and watch people play cards on TV. And I’m not making this up: we now even watch people play tag on TV as a competitive spectator sport.
And along with everything else, now, instead of having sex with a person, we increasingly watch other people have sex on our screens.
Why Is Artificial Sex So Bad?
Artificial sex is much more damaging than people realize. It fundamentally pulls us in the wrong direction. Lust kills love. Love pulls people together, while lust keeps them apart. Lust is about fulfilling the needs of the self, devoid of personal connection.
The spiritual arrangement of sex is about bringing us together. Sex is designed by God to create life and facilitate deep intimacy between people in a marriage relationship. It’s about union: uniting two people as deeply and intimately as humanly possible. In the Bible it is described as “the two becoming one flesh” (Gen 2:24; Mark 10:8). This union is so powerful and spiritual that it is used to describe the union of Christ and the church and the union of God in us through the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:31).
Far from facilitating intimacy, pornography and other forms of artificial sex do the exact opposite: they train people to engage their sexuality in ways that have nothing to do with actual intimacy. In fact, the practice of artificial sex actually keeps people away from real, in-person intimacy.
This leads to a striking irony: pornography doesn’t make people want real sex with a real person. It just makes them want more pornography. The research is pretty clear—and damning—about this. Porn doesn’t lead to more sex. It leads to less sex and decreasing intimacy.
Researchers in a number of developing countries are raising the alarm about the widespread decline of actual, in-person sex. This trend has become such a thing that it now has its own label: “the great sex recession.” Not only does this lead to population decline, it signals a trend toward isolation and lack of intimacy.
But even among couples in sexual relationships, rather than bringing them together, pornography becomes a screen of fantasy and imagery that gets between them. Pornography trains people to be turned on by watching sex rather than actually having sex. Over time this has destructive consequences for pornography users and their partners. In fact, in the ultimate manifestation of porn’s destructive tendency, excessive porn use leads to a syndrome known as porn-induced erectile dysfunction. Heavy porn users not only find themselves less interested in actual sex, but also may find themselves unable to do it.
What Can We Do?
Here are some ways we must address this problem:
1. We must talk more openly about this elephant in the room (or in this case, in the church). We’ve got to stop being so squeamish about dealing with this delicate issue—no one else in our society is squeamish about it, and it’s being forced into our awareness (and our kids’ awareness). Yes, it can be uncomfortable to talk about something as deeply personal as sex or as shameful as sexual struggles. But the struggle with artificial sex is real, and it’s everywhere in our churches.
2. We must stop being ashamed of our sexual desires. We are sexual beings, we are aroused by human bodies, and we need to acknowledge that this is how God created us. Erotic material is appealing because it plays to our God-given sexual instincts. There’s no need to be ashamed of this or apologize for it. What matters is the decisions we make and the steps we take to focus and control our sexual urges. It’s our commitment to follow Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 6:12 to not let ourselves “be mastered by anything.” Shame doesn't help us in this process. It just causes us to hide, to keep our desires and actions in the dark when they need to be brought out into the light of awareness and exposure to God’s grace (1 John 1:7).
3. We must understand pornography as a social justice issue. In this article I haven’t yet touched on the devastating way that pornography abuses people—both performers and consumers. Performers in this industry are subject to degradation, sometimes being trafficked and given drugs in order to perform. But the widespread availability of pornography is also a form of sexual abuse for the children who encounter it before they are developmentally ready.
The Human Sexuality Report adopted by Synod 2022 states that the average age that kids are exposed to pornography is 13. Keep in mind this is the average; many are being exposed at ages much younger than this. I recently interacted with a boy who reached out on an internet forum I’m a part of. Here’s what he posted: “Somebody please help me! I can’t stop looking at porn. I’m only 10.” He had discovered hardcore porn and now felt unable to stop, and he was fearful of talking to adults about it. His story is tragic—and tragically common.
4. We must give people resources that help them learn to refocus and control their sex drives, given that our culture is constantly trying to use those drives for commercial purposes. The teaching and resources we offer need to be informed by the current research about how artificial sex hijacks the reward centers of the brain to create an addiction and about how it damages our intimate relationships. We need teaching that is clear about why artificial sex is so dangerous for people’s mental health, relationships, and spiritual well-being. There is plenty of research that contradicts the narrative that pornography is not that problematic and it’s just that some people are hung up on their conservative views about lust. The recent crop of anti-porn thinkers and writers are not approaching the subject from a religious viewpoint at all. They are sociologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists who are pointing out how destructive it is.
We should listen to these experts and let their arguments clarify why biblical authors warned us so consistently about the dangers of our sex drive getting out of control. As Jesus said, “The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Artificial sex is stealing, killing, and destroying people and families in our churches. Let’s bring gospel power and grace to bear on this issue.