“How did I get here?” It’s a common refrain for most people, but it slices to the heart of the man or woman struggling with porn and unwanted sexual behaviors. Too often the question is rhetorical or focused on the trigger that led to acting out.
In Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing, author and counselor Jay Stringer leads his readers on a deeper journey, one that peels back the layers of trauma, boredom, meaninglessness, and family dysfunction that undercuts why someone uses porn for escape…only to be trapped. Stringer urges contemplation and self-reflection about our childhood, early sexual history, and even our sexual fantasies. Our fantasies, he says, point toward our healing.
“The pornography we search for and the fantasies we pursue are not random, they are a direct reflection of the parts of our story that remain unaddressed,” Stringer said. “Suppressing lust doesn’t provide pathways the the freedom we ultimately desire. A much more effective approach is listening to our lust. One night of curiosity for our sexual fantasies will take us so much further than a thousand nights of prayerful despair for our sexual brokenness to be taken away from us.”
Listening to your lust? You might be tempted to stop reading now. After all, our church culture and conventional wisdom says to bonk fantasies and lust on the head. Stomp it, hide it, bury it, but listen to it? Listening to our lust isn’t Stringer’s only directive. He pushes us to submerge into the mishmash of our wounds and experiences in order to surface the motivators that drive us to porn.
Related Post from Jay: When We Blame Lust, We Intensify Sexual Sin
His conclusions come with clout. Stringer surveyed more than 3,800 people who were seeking help from sexual brokenness and he identified key drivers for unwanted sexual behavior. For example, men who fantasize about women with women in positions of power or authority (a boss, teacher, mother figure, etc.) are more likely to be dealing with depression, a history of sexual abuse and/or had a father who confided with him about relational issues with his mother.
A number of authors and speakers talk about how our past is present in our struggles and compulsive behavior. But in Unwanted, Stringer takes your hand and pulls back the curtain on the brokenness. It’s an intimate conversation with real life stories that exceed the typical textbook commentary provided by most other authors.
For myself, Stringer summed up my childhood within pages and drew the path that led to pornography infiltrating my young life and holding me in its grasp. If I had known this detail when breaking my chains, freedom would have come easier.
3 Common Questions Porn Strugglers Ask
Unwanted is broken into three parts that are the common questions porn strugglers ask: (1) “How did I get here?” (2) “Why do I stay?” and (3) “How do I get out of here?” The last act is where Stringer spends the greatest amount of time and delivers the most hope, but the first act might be the most heart-wrenching.
In the seven chapters of “How did I get here?” Stringer probes dysfunctional family systems, abandonment, trauma, and sexual abuse, among other issues. The journey is insightful. Likely, you will find yourself identifying with Stringer’s patients and the men and women interviewed for his study.
As you read this first section, prepare beforehand to lean on valuable friends and plan positive coping mechanisms as you walk through your own past. I found myself exploring my own story, flipping over stones that in the past I had only kicked or poked. Overturning stones to see what lies beneath is not for the faint of heart, and I found myself examining anger, violence in my childhood home, and helplessness. It caused me to get small, withdrawing from others, falling into a depressive episode. I called my closest accountability partner to talk multiple times and we met over plates at a Chinese buffet.
In a recent interview, I asked Stringer to give readers pointers on coping with the first act of his book. “Relationships are key,” he said. “We need to be in conversation.”
Don’t avoid this book out of fear. Dealing with pain and shame is part of the restoration process.
Why Do I Stay? Trapped.
In the second part of the book, Stringer inquires “Why do I stay?”
Stringer’s research points to six core experiences that reveal the why behind unwanted sexual behavior. Exploring those six core experiences here would rob you of a good read. But Stringer makes a good case of why we need to look at all six:
Imagine looking at your lawn on a warm spring day and saying, ‘That’s it. I’m sick of all the weeds! This year, I am committed to annihilating these infidels once and for all!’ Then you walk out with a pair of purple scissors you’ve had since kindergarten and start cutting a couple of inches above the soil. It is absurd, but many of us take this approach to recovery.
Rather than trying to stop your unwanted sexual behavior, ponder for a moment how unwanted sexual behavior has come to serve you. What would you do on a business trip without pornography? When your spouse is distant or angry, where else would you direct your anger? When you are cornered with the lack of purpose in your life, where else would you flee to? Liberation is possible, but leaving unwanted sexual behavior will put you in difficult terrain, without your most dependable getaway vehicle. (1)
Further, the longer we remain in the clutch of unwanted sexual behavior, the more likely our brains, minds, and hearts are compromised. Stringer writes that our sexual selves are hijacked in three areas: futility is highjacked by resignation, lust is commandeered by perversion, and anger is overtaken by degradation.
It might be easy to understand how lust is hijacked by perversion because today’s online porn so distorts sexual intimacy. As well, degradation and anger seem likely partners. Stringer delivers an in-depth discussion on both topics.
But how does futility lead to resignation?
“Rather than transform the toxic messages of futility,” Stringer says, “we find it easier to collude with them.” We end up playing along. Futility tells us that watching porn is so much easier than trying to quit. Resignation thrives on hopelessness.
“As a woman, I feel as though I resist forms of violence all day. With porn, I just resign to it,” Victoria, a counseling patient, told Stringer.
Resignation derails us from the necessary work of maturity. It cancels our efforts at integrity. It taunts us with the message that nothing can be done about our situations.
How Do I Get Out of Here? Leaving.
In the final section of Unwanted, Stringer points the direction home. “How Do I Get Out of Here?” is nine chapters of valuable guidance. Here is where you’ll learn more about self-care, repairing relationships, being part of a supportive community, and more.
I asked Stringer to boil it down to his three most important points, and here is what he gave me: curiosity, integrity, and delight.
Be insanely curious.
In escaping porn, it may seem counterintuitive to think about one’s porn use, but Stringer urges us to explore our fantasies. Each of us has an arousal template, and the porn user has a template for pornography. Of course, it’s likely been strained, diversified, and hijacked by perversion, anger, hopelessness and other issues, but the arousal template remains. Stringer encourages the porn user to write down the things he or she finds arousing, to share this information with a trusted ally such as counselor, sponsor, or accountability partner, and to be curious about why specific porn themes capture his or her attention.
For example, Stringer’s research found that women who grew up with rigid mothers tend to seek porn themes later in life involving violence being done to women. Men who had strict fathers and men who harbor deep shame often seek pornography that uses teens, college students, or women with petite body types.
In Romans 12:2, we are instructed not to be transformed to the ways of the world but to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. Stringer says you can’t transform lust and renew your mind if you don’t know how your life story is shaping your sexual mind. We don’t just need healing from lust, we need healing from the wounds of our formative years, the current lack of purpose in our lives, and other issues we have left unattended. “Exploring our fantasies,” Stringer says, “uncovers the roots of why we return to porn and sexual brokenness. Our sexual brokenness has so much to teach us, if we are willing to listen.”
For example, a man who was arrested for soliciting a prostitute tells Stringer “I don’t understand all the reasons I do this. But I know there is an amazing feeling that comes over me when I lock eyes with a woman on the streets.” (2)
With a bit of probing the man reveals that his father left his family when he was 11 and that his mom had to work extra hours. So, on Saturday mornings, with his mother at work, he would ride his bike around his neighborhood for hours. He thrilled when girls from his middle school saw him and locked eyes with him. It made him feel good about himself. Twenty years later, his bike had become an SUV and his wife worked Saturdays as part of her job. He rode away from loneliness, anger, and a painful childhood and sought validation.
Recovery is a journey and remembering where you’ve been is part of your life’s map. Looking over your shoulder is not the same as wallowing in past failure, rather it is a way to hunt for clues.
“When they look back at the course of their lives they see a lot of debris behind them from the sexual brokenness,” Stringer said. “Study that debris.”
There are general definitions of integrity that conjure ideas of virtue, honesty, and righteousness. That’s not Stringer’s initial aim, although pursuing integrity will lead to those attributes. He says integrity requires a willingness to confront ourselves…regularly, even hourly. Integrity requires us to anticipate, regulate, and participate with others in pursuit of freedom.
For example, a porn-struggling husband may use porn when his sexual advances are rebuffed by his wife. He might feel cheated, unwanted, undesirable, and angry. The women in porn require no intimacy, romance, or relationship, and they eagerly welcome him to fantasy.
In pursuing integrity, that same husband could behave differently. He might anticipate his feelings and consider his past responses. Anticipation and prior thought include planning alternative reactions. Rather than reacting negatively, he can accept why his wife might not be interested in sex. Intimacy with her might mean going for a walk, hearing about her day, or helping prepare dinner. He might enjoy a run, work in the yard, or another activity that brings a personal sense of accomplishment.
Of course, people seek porn out of boredom, depression, and other reasons or triggers. The point is to anticipate porn triggers and respond with new habits, hobbies, and engagement with others that lead to ignoring porn.
Vital to this effort is being part of a supportive community. Having a trusted confidant or sponsor and being part of a support group empowers how we regulate our feelings. In community we explore what happened when we acted out in the past, so that we can reflect on where we spend our time, energy, and thoughts. When compulsions for porn are strong, we can call on those friends to talk us off the edge.
Integrity requires the maturity to lean on others, to anticipate and confront our feelings, and to choose healthy behaviors with the support of others.
Experience great delight.
God created us for pleasure, sensuality, and joy.
“Pleasure is so much more than sexual arousal or an orgasm,” Stringer said. God made our senses and our world for endless pleasure that is pure. Unwanted sexual behavior over time dulls a person’s senses and narrows enjoyment. Opportunities to destress, relax, cope with pain, experience joy, feel intimacy, know desire, and enjoy pleasure have been diminished. It is often said that porn doesn’t show too much, but rather it shows too little. “Leaving behind porn is not about suppression but awakening to true delight,” Stringer said. Subtraction without addition is self-defeating.
“If your hope is not moving your story into greater passion and comfort, your desire for freedom is too small,” Stringer writes. (3)
Hobbies and habits that encourage delight are essential.
Many escaping porn have found the joy, challenge, and excitement of biking, running a 5K or marathon, participating in an endurance course, or joining a cross-fit group. Exercise naturally produces dopamine, which helps you feel good.
But pleasure can be found in our everyday world, the warmth of sunshine on a walk, the comfortable feeling of good sheets and pillows, an intriguing conversation, the smell of a special soap or shampoo. “We don’t need to guard against sensuality, rather we need to expand its definition and enjoy life more fully,” Stringer says.
Remember there’s always hope.
In Unwanted, readers will find no easy tricks and tips. “There have been too many shortcuts and easy strategies in our world,” Stringer said.
Now what? It’s time to do something. Freedom is waiting for you!
To help men and women on the recovery road, Stringer, The Heart of Man movie, and Covenant Eyes are working together to provide support. Journey Into the Heart of Man with Jay Stringer provides a five-month course that includes inspiring presentations, a self- assessment for people to see how their story shapes their sexual choices, and exercises to bring change. Stringer said, “Just as our sexual brokenness is not random, our journey to freedom is not either. In the Journey Into the Heart of Man, I wanted to equip accountability partners, small groups, and faith communities in a way they have not been equipped before to find healing.”
The recovery journey takes time and focus…to grow, learn, have fun, explore, and discover. How long? Stringer said most of his clients find freedom in two to five years. That doesn’t mean they are acting out during that time, but it takes time to shake off the debris of the past and live free.
“You can find the restoration your heart has longed for. It will not be easy, but it is absolutely possible.” (4)
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- Stringer, Jay. Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing. Colorado Springs, CO, NavPress, 2018. 85-86
- Ibid., Introduction
- Ibid., 210
- Ibid., 241