11 minute read

Is watching porn a sin?

Last Updated: August 16, 2021

Lisa Eldred

Lisa Eldred is the Educational Content Strategist at Covenant Eyes, and has 10 years of experience in researching and writing about porn addiction and recovery. She has authored numerous blog posts and ebooks, including More Than Single, Hobbies and Habits, and New Fruit, which was co-authored with Crystal Renaud Day. Her writing about faith and fandoms can be found at Love Thy Nerd.

Question: Is porn a sin?

Answer: Yep.

Answered. Done. Case closed. Shortest blog post ever.

Except chances are good that it’s not a good enough answer for you. Maybe you’ve heard conflicting answers from people you trust and need help understanding the truth. Maybe you think it’s not hurting anyone, so it can’t actually be a sin. Or maybe you recognize that it’s a sin but don’t understand why it’s such a big deal.

Let’s take a closer look at it: at what we mean when we say porn is a sin, at what it does to us and those around us, and why it matters to God.

What do we mean by sin, anyway?

“Sin” is an odd word. I’d venture a guess that almost everyone in the world, regardless of the dominant religious tradition in their area, has a basic understanding of the concept. For most of us, defining sin is like that famous definition of pornography by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it.”

But this knowledge is often defined by cultural norms and can change from culture to culture, or even from generation to generation within a culture. Think of the winter song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” for example: the female singer is worried about what the neighbors would think if she stayed at her boyfriend’s house too late. Now cohabitation is normal, and there are apps for one-night hookups.

In other words, we need to turn to the Bible for an objective standard on what sin is. What does God define as bad? What does God define as good?

The clearest examples are in the Old Testament, especially in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Jewish tradition counts a total of 613 laws (about a third “positive”—good things to do—and two thirds “negative”—bad things to avoid). But that’s an overwhelming list, and many of those laws aren’t even applicable today, such as the laws about temple sacrifice.

Getting to the Root of the Law

More important than the laws themselves were the goals of the laws, which Jesus sums up in Matthew 22:37-40 as loving God with all your heart and loving your neighbor as yourself. Literally every one of those 613 laws was about one or the other.

Laws about ceremonial cleanliness? A failure there meant not showing a wholehearted love for a pure God. Laws about borrowing or lending? Those failures meant not loving your neighbor as yourself. The ultimate fulfilment of the law is not about towing the line. Rather, it’s about living out those two loves.

For our purposes, then, sin is about a failure to love God and those around us. This is not a nuanced definition, of course. For example, there are right and wrong ways to love God and each other. God ultimately gets to define all of those. We won’t get into that here, but it’s worth noting that when we ignore what God defines as the best and most loving way to do something, it has repercussions for us not just spiritually, but relationally and physically as well.

This brings us back to our original question. Is porn a sin? Yes; it fails to love God and others properly. But how is it a sin? How does it fail to love?

6 Ways Watching Porn Is a Sin

1. Porn is sin against God.

God has called us into a holy and perfect communion with Himself. The most basic way to love God is to obey him (John 14:15), and adultery is called out in the Ten Commandments as a sin (Exodus 20:14).

Okay, but porn is just looking at other people, right? It’s not actual adultery, is it?

Take what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: “But I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:28).” What is porn if not looking at someone on the screen with lust?

2. Porn is sin against your body.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20, “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.  Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

This isn’t just a metaphorical point. Neuroscience has proven porn hurts the viewer’s own brain. Here are just a few of the chemicals in play:

  • Dopamine helps the brain remember what is interesting and how to respond to it. It focuses the mind on a specific task while others are ignored, saying, “Hey, do this now!” It provides a neurological reward that feels good, and assists in cravings for more of the activity.
  • Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter often associated with stress and the fight-or-flight response, helping us to be more alert. It also acts as a hormone for sexual arousal and sexual memory, and it helps us burn emotional experiences in our minds. Whether it’s a wonderful sexual experience with our spouse or a provocative sexual image, the information is stored for easy recall with the help of norepinephrine.
  • Oxytocin and vasopressin also encourage the feelings of bonding and are released during sexual activity and at climax. Their release during porn viewing and masturbation works to cement a person’s attachment to this behavior.

These and other chemicals work in concert to create a bond with your mate. In a marriage the way God designed it, where one husband and one wife are the only sexual partners each other ever has, these chemicals help strengthen that bond. Essentially, you keep training yourself to be turned on by your spouse, and only your spouse. This is just part of what it means to be “remarkably and wondrously made” (Psalm 139:14)

Porn, on the other hand, triggers the same chemical reactions, but they result in you bonding to images, not people. They train you to require variety, not monogamy. Rather than forging a strong bond with one specific person, you’re creating it with hundreds or thousands of different faces.

For some men, this physical damage even becomes visible. The NoFap group on Reddit, for example, is dedicated to helping men quit porn because they found they literally couldn’t get an erection anymore without watching porn.

Ultimately, this means that porn is a failure to love God, others, and yourself. You are defiling the very place God has declared his temple (1 Corinthians 6:18-20). You are breaking the relationship with your current or future spouse by bonding to someone other than them. And while some call porn an expression of self-love, you are using your sexuality in a way other than what God intended, and whether you realize it or not you are damaging your body and your mind.

3. Porn is sin against the church.

The viewer is joining church with a prostitute (mentally, if not physically). As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:15, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!”

Every video you watch, every sext you send—you bring them with you every time you walk through the doors of your church or sit down for a Bible study. They lurk, a barrier between you and corporate worship. The sense of guilt or shame may even be holding you back from serving to your fullest ability. Crystal Renaud Day, author of Dirty Girls Come Clean, remembers once hiding behind a merchandise table at a church concert she helped organize, feeling like a fraud and looking busy. Even if you’re masking your sin with service, chances are good you’re withholding a piece of yourself, hiding behind an illusion, and unintentionally hurting your church in the process.

4. Porn is sin against your spouse.

We hinted at this in the sin against your body section. Porn warps your brain chemistry, and even changes the way you think. That warping is negatively impacting your relationship with your spouse, whether or not you’re married yet.

If you’re married, this broken love is clearest. 1 Corinthians 7:4 makes it clear that your body belongs to your spouse—and moreover, this verse is clearly in the context of sexuality. Churches are more likely to preach this in the context of wives not depriving their husbands of sex—but men, that means your libido belongs to your wife. Your sexuality belongs to your wife. You should be giving your bodies and your sexuality wholly to each other. We are fallen; even if porn is never a part of a couple’s marriage nobody will live this out perfectly. But ongoing, habitual porn consumption is spending your sexuality on somebody who is not your spouse, and that in and of itself is unloving to your spouse.

On top of that, a study in the 1980s found that watching a total of 5 hours of pornography over a 6-week period was enough to lower overall satisfaction in the viewers’ own partners.¹ (You can read more about that study in the free ebook Your Brain on Porn.) Pornography retrains your brain to be attracted to a certain body type and see others by their physiology, not by their character. But beauty is fleeting (Proverbs 31:30). Her body will get wrecked bearing children. He’ll get old and gray. But the marriage vows say “For better or for worse, in sickness and in health,” and that means taking pleasure in your spouse’s body even when they are at their physical worst, because they are the flesh of your flesh and the bone of your bone.

All of this is still true even if you’re not married. Marriage is not a guarantee in life, but statistically, a majority of people will get married at some point. If you are single and using porn, you’re carrying expectations you’ve built up through your porn use to your future wife or husband—expectations of what your sex life will be, and expectations of finding personal satisfaction and fulfillment without a thought toward his or her needs. It’s even possible that porn is even hindering your ability to find a partner.

5. Porn is sin against other relationships.

This builds off our previous point. Because porn is warping how you think, your porn use is screwing up your relationships with people of the opposite gender in general. Guys, do you focus on womens’ cleavage, and ignore women who don’t meet pornographic standards of beauty? Ladies, do you ignore guys who don’t look like they’d be good lovers, or focus on your physical qualities to attract male attention?

The truth is, porn makes us look at everyone differently. The same study discussed in Your Brain on Porn showed that men who watched porn 3 hours a week showed a 46% drop in support for women’s rights compared to those who did not watch porn at all. Among women, it dropped 30%.²

Porn use makes us see each other as something less than fellow children of God. It makes us elevate the status of men and lower the status of women when, in reality, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

6. Porn is sin against porn stars and exploited women and children.

Even if you only watch amateur porn and never spend a dime on it, porn is a feeder system for sex trafficking. More viewers leads to a need for more variety, meaning more porn stars, who are often drugged and abused for your viewing pleasure.

Many hardcore porn users will even turn to human trafficking, whether by turning to prostitutes (many of whom are coerced into staying) or, eventually, going on sex tourism trips to places like the Philippines, where little children are sold or kidnapped into slavery as prostitutes.

On top of that, many porn websites do not regulate or enforce consent for all participants. In other words, it’s all too easy for anyone to post anything and make a profit off it. A teen boy could upload the nudes his girlfriend sent him, for example. Or someone could film himself sexually assaulting a drunk young woman and upload it. These photos and videos, which are uploaded and shared dozens or even hundreds of time, ruin the victim’s lives.³ Instead of loving them as victims, you may be gleaning a few moments of personal pleasure from the worst moment of their lives.

Even if the performers are voluntary, they may be selling their bodies from an extremely low sense of self-worth, possibly stemming from childhood abuse. Drugs are passed around freely to numb the pain (read the story of an ex-porn star to see what it’s really like).

Christina Tipton, who runs a ministry to reach out to strippers, once visited the Covenant Eyes offices and explained that getting women out of the industry isn’t as easy as simply providing them with other jobs. Until they recognize their self-worth (and we all have self-worth as image-bearers of God), they just fall back into the same unhealthy patterns. But once they understand that they are loved for who they are, not just for their bodies, they will leave of their own accord. Tipton told us a story of a strip club that was forced to close. “The ladies all walked out,” she said. “They recognized their own value.”

Hope for the Sinner

By now you should see why porn is such a serious sin, and why something that may feel like a harmless personal activity earns the wages of sin, which is death (Romans 6:23).

Our pure and incorruptible God cannot tolerate the presence of impurity or corruption. This is why there were so many laws about ceremonial cleanliness and atoning sacrifices in the Old Testament laws.

In some ways I like to think of God’s holiness in reaction to our sin as the ending of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark: if we were to walk into God’s presence corrupted by sin, we would have a moment of awe at the beauty of his presence before that same presence melted our faces off. That is the punishment we all deserve, whether we use pornography or not. All of us have sinned. All of us fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23).

But God loves us even when we fail to love him or our neighbors. That’s why he took on the form of man—Jesus—and lived the pure, sinless life that we never could. God himself became the sacrificial lamb and took on the penalty for our sins. Through our ongoing sanctification he is removing the power of sin over our lives—and chances are, porn feels like it is in control—and one day he will remove us from the very presence of sin.

Breaking the Power of Porn

Let me reiterate this fact: Faith in Jesus ultimately will free us from what Jen Wilkin calls sin’s penalty, power, and presence—but this work will not be complete until we pass from this life into the next.4

Too often, a weak theology teaches us that this is all instantaneous. It’s not, especially with ongoing addictive sins like pornography. Sure, every once in a while there’s a miraculous healing, where a person becomes saved and never turns to their addiction again—but these are called miracles precisely because they’re not normal.

In other words, don’t let anyone tell you that you should just be able to pray your porn use away. Prayer is important, of course, but it addresses the spiritual side of what is both a spiritual and physical problem. Unfortunately, there’s no “nicotine patch” or other miracle drug to help you stop watching porn. Retraining your body and your brain simply takes time.

But that doesn’t mean we have to white-knuckle our way through recovery. Remember our definition of sin from the very beginning? Sin is a failure to love God and those around us.

A Love that Transforms

Interestingly, practicing and receiving this love is part of our cure. I don’t mean sexual love. In fact, early in recovery many counselors advise a period of abstinence for couples—for the porn user to detox, and for the spouse to deal with their own betrayal trauma.

Rather, the power of porn is broken as we allow select brothers and sisters in Christ into the mess caused by our sin and let God’s love work through them in your life. Using tools like our accountability reports, these allies can see where you’ve stumbled, call you out lovingly, and help bear your burdens when you feel weak (Galatians 6:2). They will help you identify the habits and specific triggers that lead you to porn. The “tough love” of discipline they give you will help to “strengthen your tired hands and weakened knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated but healed instead” (Hebrews 12:12-13).

Ultimately, these loving friendships should not merely be about quitting porn, although that is, of course, important. Although these accountable relationships may feel like one-way streets while you’re in active recovery from porn use, ultimately they should be gateways so that you can grow in mutual love.

Because as 1 John 4:7-11 explains, love is ultimately God’s will for our lives:

Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another.

To bring this all together, pornography use is a sin because it is an unloving act towards God, yourself, and others. It has caused many people pain.

But God loved us so much that he died for that sin. The love of Jesus demonstrated through others can heal and restore you, physically and spiritually, from this sin. And while all of this may be painful right now, as Andrew Peterson sings, one day “we’ll look back on these tears as old tales.”5


¹ Zillmann, Dolf, and Bryant, Jennings, “Shifting preferences in pornography consumption,” Communication Research, 13 (4), 1986.
² Ibid.
³ https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/16/opinion/sunday/companies-online-rape-videos.html
4 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/how-salvation-brings-freedom/
5 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTbUhEHOaWs

  • Comments on: Is watching porn a sin?
    1. Edify Siambelele on

      So lovely and wonderful…thank you so much, for the love of God that you have shared. I really appreciate, God bless you.

      Reply
    2. Lynn Evans on

      Excellent! Thanks for your detailed answer. Satan has told so many of us that Porn is ”No big deal”. That is A BIG LIE from the father of all lies.

      Reply

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