How can a single Christian remain pure in a sexualized culture? Before we released More Than Single: Finding Purpose Beyond Porn, Covenant Eyes surveyed hundreds of its members, asking what questions they have about singleness and overcoming pornography. Here are the top five questions we received.
Note: This post was originally a podcast, and has been modified slightly.
1. What does healthy sexuality look like for a single person?
For a Christian single, healthy sexuality means not being sexually active, not looking at porn, and not masturbating (we’ll get to the masturbation question in a bit). But it takes a while to not be ruled by our sex drives.
That’s really the issue. We’re single, but we have sex drives. When we’re Christ-followers, we’re not supposed to be ruled by our passions, which includes our sex drives, and also includes our anger, our tendency to lie, our tendency to overeat, whatever. So when I say, “As single Christians, healthy sexuality means not acting on our sexuality,” that’s because we’re supposed to put our sexuality in line with Christ, and the Bible tells us to save sex for marriage.
The question then becomes, if I’m not supposed to be acting on my sexual urges, how do I live life as a Christ-like single?
The answer starts with getting closer to Jesus. This means going to church regularly, but it especially means getting into the Bible on your own and reading it daily and building up trust in God that way. The more you let the Bible sink in and fill you, the more God will be able to do the work of transforming you into his image. You can’t expect the average plant to grow without sunlight and water, and reading the Bible and prayer is that sunlight and water.
In just reading a chapter or two a day over the last several years, I’ve read the Bible enough times that random verses or passages will just come to mind when I need them (the unquestionable work of the Holy Spirit). This is especially true when I’m lonely or discouraged: verses of comfort will come to mind. And that’s not because I’m some sort of spiritual superhero, because I’m really not. I’ve just read the Bible a lot, and through that have gotten closer to Jesus, and through that have grown in faith, and temptations have decreased. Not disappeared, of course, but it’s easier to avoid temptation when you’re clinging to something better.
Now, it does take time to get to that point, so we also need other people of the same belief system as accountability partners to help us continue to break free. You should also channel the emotional factors that fuel your sex drive and your porn use into more productive habits, like music or art or car repair or weight lifting.
As created beings, our sex drive really doesn’t go away. We’re just learning to not be mastered by it, to thank God that he’s created us as relational beings, and to thank him for the blessings he’s poured into our lives instead.
I do want to take a minute to talk about sexuality for non-Christian singles, who are probably still wondering why they as a single should quit looking at porn and sleeping around. You can read a lot more about the neuroscience of porn and sexuality in The Porn Circuit, but the short version is that when you watch porn or have sex, you’re triggering a whole host of chemical reactions in your brain. Basically, you’re training yourself to be turned on by whatever is turning you on. So if you’re watching porn, you’re training yourself to be turned on by porn stars and by variety. Same thing if you’re off sleeping around with whomever. And that means that you’re making your future spouse, who is just one person, try to keep up with the thousands of sex scenes you’ve seen, and that one person is just not going to be able to keep up. So if you’re single and you want to be married one day, letting yourself be turned on by variety is just going to screw you up. It may very well ruin your marriage before it even starts.
2. What about masturbation? Is it a sin? What does the Bible say about it?
This feels like kind of a strange question to answer, especially since at Covenant Eyes we see a very high overlap between watching pornography and the act of masturbating. The Bible says very little about masturbation in particular, but it does give plenty of information about healthy sexuality, which is pretty much described as “a husband and wife enjoying each other physically” (see also the entire book of Song of Solomon). 1 Corinthians 7 similarly talks about how a wife’s body belongs to her husband, and a husband’s body belongs to his wife, which makes it pretty clear that sexuality is not about personal pleasure, it’s about two people becoming one. There’s also Matthew 5:27-30, in which Jesus says that even looking at someone lustfully means you’re committing adultery in your heart. And what is porn if not mass-market lust?
That’s why I’m personally of the stance that in most cases, masturbation is sinful. For one, even if you’re not doing it to porn, chances are good you’re thinking about someone or something inappropriately, which basically means you’re masturbating to the porn in your head. Even if you’re not masturbating lustfully, it’s probably for personal pleasure and self-gratification, and that means it’s a selfish sex act, going against what we learn in 1 Corinthians 7.
Now, having said that, there are exceptions, I’m sure. For example, fertility clinics often require the man to masturbate for semen samples. And men sometimes get erections in the morning; they can’t be held responsible for what happens in dreams.
So what does this mean practically?
- If you feel it’s sinful to masturbate, don’t masturbate. (Catholics in particular may want to consider the Theology of the Body as you contemplate this.)
- If you don’t feel it’s sinful, then check your motives, and make sure you’re not reacting to lustful situations in your own head. If you are, don’t masturbate.
- If you don’t feel it’s sinful and have fully examined your motives and are certain they’re pure, then there’s grace and freedom in Christ to do as you please (1 Cor. 8, particularly vs. 29-30). However, consider whether you are training your body for solo sexuality; it may be lawful, but it may still be unwise.
But I honestly suspect that most people are going to find that their own masturbation is sinful.
3. How do I tell the person I’m dating that I’m struggling with porn?
First, if you’re not dating and frequently watch porn, then you should hold off on dating until you’ve brought the temptation under control. As long as you continue to watch porn, you’re already showing you find it hard to be faithful to that one person. Two, willpower research shows that the stress brought on by a relationship may just make it harder to resist the temptation. A relationship may kill one or two factors that bring you to look at porn, but it’s not going to solve all of them.
If you’re already dating, my big advice is to be honest without revealing all of the gory details, and actively show what you’re doing to get clean. For example, if you sign up for Covenant Eyes before you tell your significant other about your porn problem, you can say, hey, look, I know what I’m doing is hurting you, and I’m actually taking steps to stop.
I also asked a friend of mine about this issue. He’s been married for over a decade and dated his now wife for about four years before then. A few years into dating, he confessed his porn use to others, and then to her. Obviously, since he’s been married for a decade, he did something right, so I wanted his feedback.
My friend said that one key thing was being accountable to people that he was going to tell her in the first place. Otherwise he was likely to just continue to keep it a secret, which probably would have made it worse whenever she would have to discovered it. One night he finally blurted it out, which he said was the hardest part. She was, naturally, pretty hurt and taken aback, and the whole situation was pretty uncomfortable for the first week in particular. She had a lot of questions, which he tried to answer as truthfully as he could, and he showed her specific steps he was taking to break free, like being accountable to others. He listed four key components:
- Honesty on his part
- Forgiveness on hers
- A lot of communication throughout
- Staying true to his word and his commitment to stop watching porn
In his words, “I have learned, in pretty much every area of life, that it’s better to deal with things early than to allow them to fester.”
4. What are some practical steps that I can take to break free? Does marriage solve the problem?
First, there’s a general assumption among singles that their porn use is just going to naturally stop when they get married. Covenant Eyes has heard from a lot of men that this is rarely true. On very rare occasions, yes, the temptations do go away, but most people, especially men, have been training themselves on porn for so long that their spouse can’t keep up. The sex isn’t kinky enough, or there’s pain in intercourse. And even if the sex is fine, there’s still the fact that she’s one woman competing against thousands of porn stars—and even Tiger Woods’ supermodel wife couldn’t keep up with his lustful appetites. And, of course, there’s the fact that a marriage is two sinful people coming together. So when sex is all about self-fulfillment, and you’re just taking and taking, eventually your spouse may want to stop giving, because you’re not actually giving anything back to that person.
So with that in mind, there are a few concrete steps for singles to quit porn.
Apply the gospel to your life and porn use. This means getting closer to Jesus through a daily quiet time and through regular church attendance and service. As you start to dig deeper into the scriptures, you need to apply them to your own situations, like handing God your loneliness and longing. (There are practical steps to doing this in More Than Single.)
Accountability is critical. An accountability partner is someone who’s got your back, who will ask the tough questions but also gives you grace and healing. It’s also a close personal relationship. One of the biggest problems singles face is that we were born for community and fellowship. We’re social creatures. When we don’t have a spouse, someone who we share our lives with daily, it hurts. And so accountability at its best also means offloading your life burdens to another person, and sharing in theirs.
My own accountability partner and I have this down to a science. We still talk at least once a week and share each other’s joys and struggles, and in the years since we’ve been accountability partners, I can tell you that my bitterness is vastly diminished and my joy is much greater. She’s one of the key reasons I’ve come to a place of genuine contentment with my singleness. Not that I don’t still have a desire for marriage, but that I’ll be content if it never happens. So accountability is about having someone hold you accountable for your porn use, but also about healing the heart motivations that turn you to porn in the first place. (By the way, accountability works best when you have software to support it, so sign up for Covenant Eyes if you haven’t already.)
Change your media intake, which helps you stop thinking of the world as your cage and start thinking of it as your park. There is good media, and there is bad media. We look around and everyone on TV and in the movies is having sex. When I was a teen, there was a song—and don’t look it up, because it’s terrible—with the chorus, “You and me, baby, ain’t nothing but mammals so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel,” and the lyrics just get worse from there. I got to the point where I’d hear the first few measures on the radio and change the station because I didn’t want to hear that junk.
I had to stop watching How I Met Your Mother for the same reason: it was about a guy telling his kids about all the women he slept with on his journey to meeting their mother, which is kind of disgusting. Ted Mosby’s discontent as a single was the entire purpose of the show. And even though he enjoyed life and enjoy his friends, not once did the show ever really step back with him and say, “Hey, I’m Ted Mosby, and I’m honestly okay with not dating around right now. It’s giving me a chance to focus on my architecture work, and spend time with my best friends.” When you’re filling your mind with this sort of lie, pretty soon you start to believe it. You’re turning singleness into a prison, when in reality it can be a great place of freedom.
My point is not to destroy all secular music and start listening only to hymns and Gregorian chants (although we do have an e-book dedicated to showing how similar beauty can help transform your life). The idea is to start interspersing positive messages with more negative ones. For example, there are plenty of talented, under the radar Christian musicians out there, like Andrew Peterson or The Gray Havens or Lecrae, to intersperse with Taylor Swift or Chance the Rapper when you’ve got your music on shuffle. Similarly, be choosy about your movies, and look at the message, not just the ratings. For example, Mad Max: Fury Road shows respect and honor for women, helping sex slaves find freedom, while 50 Shades of Gray is pretty much sexual violence and borderline sex slavery in a pretty bow.
Find an activity to replace porn. Maybe it’s watching a relatively tame TV show, but I’d recommend picking up a creative hobby, like music or gardening. Join a community sports team and buy a treadmill. Find something that you can turn to when the urge to watch porn strikes.
5. How do I ask someone to hold me accountable?
This shouldn’t feel like a tough question, but it really is. It’s hard to be honest and open with someone, especially when you fear them sharing your secrets or abandoning you.
So the first question is, who should hold you accountable?
First, you need to find someone who shares your values. You’re not going to have any success if your accountability partner doesn’t actually think porn is a big deal. You also need someone trustworthy, who’s not going to go blabbing your secrets. Your partner should be challenging, not condemning; someone who calls you out when you sin but tells you to pick yourself up, not kicking you deeper into guilt. This person should also be mature, because they’re going to have wisdom and guidance and insights into your situation, and you don’t want them to tell you to do something stupid. I also recommend that you have at least one accountability partner who is also single and of the same gender as you, because they’ll get where you’re coming from emotionally. Basically, it really helps if you’re friends with at least one accountability partner, but other characteristics may be more important.
If you can’t find someone who meets those characteristics, then look for someone who can act more as a mentor for you, like a pastor or deacon. If you’re a student, your youth group pastor or campus ministry leader might be a good choice.
The next step is to invite them to be partners, and establish clear goals for the relationship. When my friend and I talked about becoming accountability partners, I shared with her a blog post about what good accountability looks like. We used that as a launching point for what we wanted accountability to be. For us, it meant weekly check-ins. For you, it might involve reading Coming Clean together and grabbing lunch after church on Sunday. Find the rhythm that works for you, and let the relationship grow.