For too long, the evangelical community has treated sexual fantasies and sexual struggles as something to condemn. Addressing sexual fantasies through the lens of abhorrent behavior intensifies shame and therefore deepens your involvement in the very behavior you wish to stop.
There is another approach. It begins by listening to your lust. Internet search bars and browser histories expose your sin, but far more, they reveal the unaddressed and therefore unresolved stories of your life. Sexual fantasies are roadmaps. They pinpoint the location of your past harm and highlight the current roadblocks that keep you from freedom.
Our Sexual Fantasies Are Not Random
This year I completed research on the key drivers of unwanted sexual behavior, be that pornography, an affair, buying sex, and the like. Over 3,600 men and women participated in the study. What I can tell you is that sexual struggles are not random or capricious. They develop in the formative emotional and sexual soil of your childhood and flourish in the unaddressed dynamics of your present life.
It is my conviction that God is neither surprised nor ashamed of our sexual struggles, but understands them to be the very stage through which the work of redemption will be played out.The sooner we assume a posture of curiosity for our sexual fantasies, the more we will prepare our hearts for the redemptive work ahead.
A client named Ben entered therapy in an attempt to stop the debilitating anxiety he was experiencing at work. Ben’s boss was emotionally abusive, even outright humiliating at times. Weekends offered no reprieve. Almost every Saturday morning an e-mail would arrive in Ben’s inbox telling him to complete a report by Monday. Ben was working 55 hours a week in a mid-level job and felt like a helpless teenager. A few sessions into our work together, Ben revealed a secret struggle: pornography.
There is a glut of information that tells us that Ben’s struggle with pornography is a common problem in our society. But this data tells us little about the ‘why’ behind our collective drive for pornography. My research found that the type of pornography and sexual behavior you pursue can be predicted by the major themes and significant relationships that have marked your life.
We will focus today on the ‘why’ behind two common sexual fantasies of men. In a future blog, I hope to explore the ‘why” behind particular sexual fantasies of women. My bias is that pornography for men is less about lust, and far more about the issue of power. This frames the language I use to interpret the research findings.
What Your Sexual Fantasies Might Say About You
One of the most common sexual fantasies for men had to do with the desire for power over women. Other popular fantasies for men included: a desire for women to have power over them, a diverse choice in sexual partners, sex that was aggressive or violent, an affair, and buying sex.
Men who wanted power over women tended to pursue pornography where women were younger, had a smaller body type, and had a particular race or appearance that suggested (to them) subservience.
What predicted this type of sexual fantasy in men? There are three key drivers:
While some men found having power over women arousing, others in my research tended to want the woman in pornography to have the power. These men often fantasized about older women, attractive mother figures, or women in positions of authority who would pursue them. I examine this second fantasy in more detail in “What Your Sexual Fantasies (Might) Say About You–Part 2.”
What were the key predictors for this type of sexual fantasy?
Our Sexual Fantasies Are Roadmaps
I asked Ben to tell me about the origins of his involvement with pornography. Ben’s first exposure was in high school. Ben made his varsity baseball team as a freshman. The upperclassmen used his younger age as the context for emotional and sexual hazing. They ripped out images from porn magazines and scattered them throughout Ben’s gym bag and locker. A week later, Ben would undergo his official initiation to the team in the locker room. He was pinned down and forced to breathe through another teammate’s protective athletic cup as they stripped his shorts off and drizzled ICYHOT over his crotch. In the opening game of the season, Ben dropped what would have been the final out in left field, allowing the opposing team to win the game.
In my following session with Ben, I asked him about the particulars of his pornography searches. He looked down and then back up to me and said, “I have never thought about that. Why is that even important?”
I responded by telling him that everyone has an arousal cocktail–a mixture of thoughts, images, stories, and fantasies that influence the content we find arousing. In isolation or in toxic religious cultures, we believe sexual fantasies reveal our iniquity. In reality, sexual fantasies reveal our wounds and even the God-given desires we have for comfort, belonging, and risk. If you want to outgrow your need for pornography, you need to gain a sense of what it symbolizes to you.
Ben disclosed that he tends to scroll through pornography sites until he finds video stills with a younger woman’s face or body in a posture of submission to the men in the video. Ben paused after he said this and shook his head with disgust. He intuitively knew that this type of pornography was not so much about lust, but really about power. He said to me, “I know this probably sounds disturbing. I wish it wasn’t all true, but I really hate my life and I really love porn.”
As you may have noticed, Ben’s formative sexual experiences were marked by humiliation and powerlessness. The question must be asked–how could he expect his sexual struggles as an adult to be any different?
The evening Ben’s team lost the game, he was dropped off by a teammate and walked into a dark home. He was angry his parents did not wait up to greet him after witnessing his devastating evening. He took a shower and then pulled out one of the pornographic images planted in his gym bag. Ben stood over the image and felt an immense arousal at the power and pleasure it gave him.
Baseball, teammates, and home were all brutal realities. In contrast, pornography was a magical symphony of reprieve, pleasure, and eroticized power. That evening, the foundation of Ben’s sexual fantasy life was established. Pornography says to men, “Give me all your shame, humiliation, and futility and I will give you a world where it all goes away.”
Listening to Your Lust and FantasiesAttempting to address your sexual struggles without understanding the unique stories you bring to the altar of pornography will be an exercise in futility. The irony of sexual fantasy is that it will be the most honest portion of your life until you begin to address your past wounds and the madness of your present life.
Ben attempted to bury the pain of his past and minimize the humiliation of his work life. His anxiety and lust however would have none of that. They continued to cry out.
Sexual fantasies are messengers. You may not like the news they bring, but they will knock on the door of your life until you listen to what they need to tell you. One evening of deliberate curiosity about your sexual fantasies will take you further into transformation than a thousand nights of prayerful despair.
In therapy, I began to work with Ben on the concept of sexual fantasy as a roadmap rather than evidence of his abhorrent behavior. Ben noticed that his pornography desires involved the humiliation of women. He recognized that power over women was appealing precisely because of the lack of power he seemed to have in reality. Ben hated his boss, but felt powerless to do anything about it. This hatred had to be directed somewhere, and as is often the case with men, Ben aimed his anger at women.
Attempting to stop Ben’s pornography use without addressing his humiliation or sexual abuse would never be effective. He had been involved with accountability partners in the past, but the focus remained solely on lust. The underlying factors that drove his pornography use were overlooked.
The particularities of Ben’s pornography struggles were now opening the map of his life. He pinpointed story after story that cried out to be healed. Understanding his fantasy life reduced his shame and therefore reduced his need for pornography. As our first year of therapy concluded, one thing was clear: Ben was far less seduced by power over women because he no longer abdicated his power to care for himself.
Kindness Changes the Human HeartFather Richard Rohr notes, “If you do not transform your pain, you will always transmit it. Always someone else has to suffer because I don’t know how to suffer; that is what it comes down to.”
One of the profound masculine questions of our day is this: is violence and consumption of women the way we want to atone for our traumas? Pain is transmitted when men abdicate responsibility to own their pain. Pain is transformed when men own the harm they have done and vulnerably pursue comfort for the harm done against them. Turning to face our wounds is the first significant step we can take on our journey out of unwanted sexual behavior.
Our sexual fantasies are not evidence of abhorrent behavior; they are roadmaps inviting us into the journey of transformation. As such, they await your curiosity and invite your kindness.
Romans 2:4 is clear that the kindness of God is what leads to change. Kindness, not new strategies to combat lust, not new books to understand addiction, not software to block erotic content. Very often, it is our self-hatred that blinds us from seeing the kind face of God.
One thing that always surprises me about God is that He asks questions to those in distress. To Adam, God asks, “Where are you?” To Cain, God asks, “Why are you so angry, and why has your face fallen?” To Hagar, the angel of the Lord inquires, “Where do you come from and where are you going?”
If sexual struggles are not grounds for judgment, they become the very geography where we come to know the kindness of God.
Here are a few questions to consider:
About the author, Jay StringerA licensed mental health counselor and ordained minister, Jay Stringer has spent the last decade working on the frontlines of the demand for pornography and sexual exploitation. Stringer holds an MDiv and Master in Counseling Psychology from the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and received post-graduate training under Dr. Patrick Carnes and Dr. Dan Allender. Jay's first book, Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing, will be released in the fall of 2018. His book includes original research on over 3,600 men and women struggling with pornography. Visit Jay's website to download a free chapter. Follow Jay on Twitter: @_jaystringer
Who would have guessed that former Playboy model and Baywatch star Pamela Anderson, comedian Russell Brand, Time and GQ magazines, and several state legislatures would be the ones warning culture about the dangers of pornography? Yet, these and other highly unlikely crusaders against pornography are reminding the Church that we absolutely must broach the subject of porn within every local congregation.
The alarm is ringing for pastors to address both the harms of pornography and the reality that every Christian family is someway, somehow affected. I assure you that someone you know and love is struggling with pornography right now. Perhaps the light shining on the secrets of many powerful people who have violated women by sexually harassing them is another wake-up call to the Church to speak into the culture, not only an anti-pornography message, but a message supporting a Biblical view of sex.
Related: #MeToo and the Deep Cultural Concerns It Highlights
God intended sex to be a three-dimensional relationship (body, soul, and spirit), but pornography merely provides a one-dimensional relationship (body only). Pornography leaves its users empty and unfulfilled and always seeking more. It leads them down a path of degradation they could have never imagined they would travel.
As Christians, we must lead the way in pursuing purity. This means educating our children about accountability, both in person and by installing Covenant Eyes on all digital devices. It also means that we teach God’s perspective of the physical relationship and why it’s an exclusive gift for those who are married.
Further, we must hold out hope that those who are bound by the chains of pornography and lust can be set free by the power of a resurrected Savior. Repentance is absolutely essential to breaking those chains. Practicing spiritual disciplines also helps those who have broken free to continue living in freedom. For those addicted to pornography, professional Christian counseling is essential to addressing past wounds or traumas.
One of the many dangers of pornography is its normalization in our culture—people have accepted it. Another danger is the sexual objectification of women. Unfortunately, many Christians seem to have either a defeatist attitude of, “There’s nothing we can do about it” or an attitude that suggests, “Pornography is not that big of a problem.” Both are wrong, and both are dangerous.
While the majority of pastors and Christian leaders remain silent on the subject of pornography, Christians are suffering in silence, guilt, and shame. But there is something you can do to make a difference.
You can encourage your pastor to address the issue, and you can commit to supporting him doing so. I remember the first time I addressed the subject of pornography in a Sunday morning sermon. One of our church members left after the worship service, in a very obvious way, as a protest that I, as her pastor, should not be dealing with this subject in church on a Sunday morning. But that is exactly the place where the subject of pornography should be addressed.
Our teens are getting their sex education, not from parents or the Church, but from Internet pornography. The largest consumers of Internet pornography are ages 12 to 17. Ignoring this problem will not make it go away. Pornography is often the gateway event that opens the door for prostitution, human trafficking, violence against women, and child pornography. Christians must connect the dots from pornography to these atrocious acts and attitudes that are especially against women, children, and teens.
Pornography: A Public Health Crisis
One strategic way God is getting the word out about the significant harms of pornography is through state legislatures. Already, Utah, South Dakota, Arkansas, and Tennessee have declared pornography to be a public health crisis.
Approaching pornography as a public health crisis allows Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, singles and married couples, the young and the old, to get on the same page, take up this cause, and fight the good fight. This ingenious approach also allows the Church to educate its members on why pornography is a public health crisis and how it affects people’s lives.
I want to encourage all readers in all states (except in the states listed above that already made the declaration) to contact your representative and senator and ask him or her to be willing to sponsor a resolution in your state.
For the Florida readers: A resolution has been filed in both the state House of Representatives and Senate to declare pornography a public health crisis. Here are some specific steps you can take to help this resolution pass:
To all pastors: God is providing us with a unique moment in history to broach the subject of pornography, sexual sin, and sexual integrity. May we rise up and seize the moment. May we be remembered as the generation of Christian leaders who dared to expose the multiple lies of pornography.
Pastor Jay Dennis has been a local church pastor for 38 years and is now focusing his time and attention on helping men live lives of purity and training pastors to address pornography issues within the church. He is co-founder of Wingman Nation and Join 1 Million. He is helping to lead the effort to declare pornography a public health crisis in the State of Florida.