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Why are so many Christians addicted to porn?

Last Updated: March 19, 2020

According to a recent survey by the Barna Group, 21% of Christian men say they have thought they were “addicted” to porn or said they weren’t sure. This is more than two times what non-Christian men said (10%). Interestingly, 64% of Christian men say they view porn at least once a month, but a higher percentage (71%) of non-Christian report doing this.

Why are Christian men more likely to feel the term “porn addiction” applies to them?

Another recent study from Case Western Reserve University confirms this. Researchers concluded that there is a strong relationship between strong moral and religious convictions against porn and the perception that personal porn use is an “addiction.”

Definitions of Addiction

In my opinion, the chief sources of the discrepancy are the conflicting definitions of addiction. What does it mean to use porn “compulsively” or “regularly”? For some folks, “addictive” use of porn might be once a month, once a week, once a day, or many hours in a day. Others would measure addictive use by how much it disturbs their lives: has it cost them money or significant relationships? For the most part, surveys are not standardized around specific definitions or descriptions.

For instance, take the survey results published in the Porn University survey:

  • 42% of men (7,065) said that they “regularly” visit sexually explicit websites or chat rooms, read sexually explicit magazines, or romance novels.
  • Yet 64% of men (10,622) said that they spend at least some time each week online for sexual purposes. About one in five of these said they spend 5 or more hours every week.
  • Furthermore, 19% of men (3,187) said they feel “controlled” by their sexual desires or fantasies of romance.

Clearly, what is considered “regular” use of pornography, or being “controlled” by it, are not the same across the board.

So what makes someone feel “out of control”? One contributing factor that psychologists give is religion. Pioneering sex therapist Michael Quadland has studied those who feel “out of control” with their sexual behavior. He found the patient’s and therapist’s beliefs about what is sexually “normal” the biggest controlling factor in whether the behavior is deemed compulsive or destructive.

So if a Christian’s value system leads him or her to believe that any sexual gratification outside of marital intimacy is wrong, then any amount of compulsion to look at porn could be deemed “out of control.”

Christians and Addiction Language

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders doesn’t use the word “addiction” for anything—not drugs, alcohol, nor any behavior. The language of addiction is largely shaped by culture—not medicine. Christian counselor Ed Welch explains:

“In popular use, addiction has become a very elastic and ambiguous category that contains everything from the frivolous (added to the six o’clock news) to the grave (addicted to alcohol). It also includes the unequally yoked categories of disease and sin. Given its ambiguities, there is a growing sentiment that we need a different word” (Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave, p.11).

On top of these cultural ambiguities, addiction language in Christian community is also shaped by sin language. A year ago I heard Ed Welch give a talk at a conference in Philadelphia entitled, “Addiction, Temptation, & Voluntary Slavery.” He spoke about how so often the “Big Book” used by AA members seems so much more alive to them than the words of the Bible. Why? One reason is the Big Book uses “addiction” language. The Bible does not.

The recovering alcoholic needs to understand the language of the Bible. The Bible doesn’t talk of “addiction,” but rather “slavery to sin.” The Bible doesn’t speak of the root of habitual sin as merely a “disease,” but as “idolatry.” Once these categories are understood, many portions of Scripture can and do come to life for the struggling addict.

Biblical language levels the playing field between the so-called addict and the non-addict. The Bible speaks of a slavery to sin that has affected the whole human race. For the addict, this slavery has impacted his or her life in a particular, more demonstrative way; in fact, the conference in Philadelphia was called “The Addict in Us All,” to highlight this very point: we are all addicted to self, addicted to sin, and as Christians we are all being redeemed from that life of sin-slavery.

Related: Do Christians Overhype Porn Addiction? 

Do Christians and Pornography Mix? Are Christians More Prone to Porn Addiction?

Definitional differences aside, could it be that Christians actually have a more difficult time battling addictions? I am not aware of any studies or surveys that suggest this, but there are at least two “theological” factors at work in Christian communities that might serve to escalate addiction:

First, teaching higher standards makes rebellion more appealing.

Being raised in Christian community, I know that teaching a high moral standard didn’t make me want to sin less: rather, I wanted to sin more. The apostle Paul wrote, “[I]f it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness” (Romans 7:7-8).

This is the hot stove principle: Tell a child not to touch the hot stove, and the forbidden act suddenly seems all the more attractive; the biblical motto of the harlot reiterates this conceit: “Stolen water is sweet and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (Proverbs 9:17).

In a real sense, those who embrace Christian values can find pornography all the more appealing merely because it is demonstrably forbidden by their commitment to God.

Secondly, failing at higher standards makes sin all the more novel and intoxicating.

We are wired to love novelty—it is an essential part of our development. When we encounter a new experience, our bodies release an extra dose of pleasure-producing chemicals, a mechanism which encourages us to experience and explore new things.

For me, the draw of pornography was largely a draw to novelty. Pornography, especially Internet pornography, keeps us coming back for more because it promises a veritably endless source of sexual novelty. Each new picture or video clip promises a new sensation. This is why porn-addicted men don’t simply log on, quickly find one appealing image, and gratify themselves. We keep searching. We can spend hours online. Why? Because it’s not about the climax; it’s about the search, the options, and each one is a novel sexual escapade. This desire for novelty is also the reason why we move from less graphic to more graphic pornography over time: the downward spiral is fed by a desire for novelty.

For the Christian who engages in pornography, typically there are added dimensions of guilt and paranoia. These have a way of compounding the novelty of each experience. This leaves a deeper emotional rut in the mind, as it were. Over time, guilt can become chronic—even a way of life. The guilt can become an essential ingredient to the addiction. There came a time in my life when feeling guilty was the only way I could feel normal.

So, What Is the Answer?

At first glance it would seem the conservative standards are the problem: get rid of the rigid moral code and the rest goes away, right? But when we seek to rid ourselves of Christian morals for the sake of keeping addiction at bay, we are playing fast and lose with theology. Christian morality is not merely an idea about how to live; it is based on real history—the belief that the Creator of heaven and earth has actually revealed Himself in human history. We desire to follow biblical morals because we are convinced that Jesus is the Christ, the revelation of God.

No. Instead of discarding our morals, we need to embrace the One who gave them:

Teaching higher standards should point people towards their need for a new heart.

The goal of teaching Christian sexual ethics is not encouraging people to “try harder.” Merely highlighting the hotness of the stove is not the point. To know better is not necessarily to do better. Instead, recognizing our inward pull towards rebellion, we are to be driven to a place of utter neediness: I cannot change myself.

When I was entrenched in addiction, I knew that acknowledging my depravity was par for the Christian course, but something in me always wanted to “graduate” from that place of utter neediness. I sincerely believed that spiritual growth meant moving from spiritual poverty to self-sufficiency. I never would have said it that way, but that was my attitude.

But the great promise of Scripture is not that our “flesh” will get better, but that God can bring about great internal change despite our rebellious nature. He does so, not by enforcing an external code of conduct, but by implanting a new internal drive in His people, what the Bible calls a “new heart.”

Just as sure as pornography stirs up lustful cravings in us, the Holy Spirit is a source of new, holy cravings. Romans 8 tells us all true Christians have the Spirit of Christ within them (v.9). Galatians 5 says we are given the “desires of the Spirit” (v.17), and when we keep in step with these desires (v.16) the lusts of the flesh (leading to sexual immorality, impurity, and sensuality) will not have their way in us.

This is what the old Scottish minister Thomas Chalmers called “the expulsive power of a new affection.” Laws, rules, and regulations can only tell us what is bad and why it is bad, but they do not change our desire for sinful things. These sinful longings can only be conquered by implanting new “affections,” new cravings, that counter our sinful cravings. This is what the Spirit does in us: He shares His own desires with us, changing us from the inside out. (Your Brain on Porn)

Failing at higher standards should drive us to the cross.

The addict often finds himself in a cycle of abstinence, temptation, sin, guilt, penance, and back to abstinence. How do we break the cycle?

As we have seen, guilt is a big part of the addiction cycle. Guilt is that feeling of self-reproach, the feeling that one is culpable for some offense. When we feel guilt we desire absolution and reconciliation. Out of this longing, just like the pagan religions of old, we invent modes of penance that sooth our consciences: rituals that we hope will make us feel right with the powers of the universe again. We try to “get clean” by doing something good, to “make up” for the moral lapse.

For some Christians, it is renewing a commitment to more prayer, more activity in the church, or donating more time or money to some worthy cause. For others, it is merely time: an extended track record of victory. For me, it was the emotion of worthlessness—a sort of mental flagellation; long hours of beating my heart to a bloody pulp. These are modes of penance that we hope will fuel greater obedience in the future.

This is where a proper understanding of the cross is critical. Yes, my sin means I deserve the lowest hell. But (in love) Christ experienced my hell on the cross. He experienced the agony of God-forsakenness, the curse of my sin. The Father channeled His just wrath for my sin into His Son. The cross is God’s altar to fully extinguish His anger, and, as a result, I am fully pardoned.

Furthermore, to prove Christ’s sacrifice was not in vain, God raised Jesus from the dead three days later. Weeks after this, His disciples saw Him ascend into the heavens, and there, we are told, He entered the holiest place of heaven. He poured out His Spirit on His people, and by His Spirit He can “purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14).

Knowing this, we should denounce all systems of penance as shallow cross-replacements. Knowing that my condemnation has been taken away, this grace from God breaks the cycle. Instead of guilt moving me to penance, guilt can, rather, move me to confession and praise. Instead of penance moving me to hollow abstinence, I am, rather, moved by real worship to experience a higher pleasure of God’s friendship.

  1. Anne

    Hi Kay, thanks so much for your reply! I am really grateful for the way that my boyfriend has been handling his addiction, with God’s help. As I have said, it only happened a few times in the time of our relationship, and I have also learned how to deal with his addiction as THE problem, and not him being the problem. Because we both are committed to our relationship, we have been dealing with this as a team. I just felt so disappointed the other night when it happened again. He has since August last year been seeing a psychiatrist who is very impressed with his progression in terms of the depression. He has to be on medication for at least 2 years. We have also been seeing a therapist together as a couple to talk about the depression as well as addiction. There is so much progress, it is just that sometimes it gets to me. But God is gracious and God has helped us through this. Our families and friends have also been supportive and we are grateful. Thanks so much for your advice and I will definitely look into the resources that you have suggested. Thanks so much!

    • Kay Bruner

      Hey, I’m glad that helped. There’s nothing wrong with feeling how you feel about this. And often, I do think that there’s so much attention to the addiction that it’s easy for your feelings to get pushed aside. Your feelings are welcome here! Keep up the good work and let us know how we can help.

  2. Anne

    Thanks so much for this post. My boyfriend and I have been dating for 4 years and we are planning to get married. A year before we started dating, he made his addiction to pornography public by telling his family and church members. Since then he has really grown emotionally and spiritually and he is a wonderful child of God. Since we started dating, he has fallen into temptation a few times, but from the beginning of our relationship he was honest with me about his past. Then last year he had an severe episode of depression and in the past three months he has fallen into temptation again. I do not know what to do or to say to him. I feel so angry and hurt. I feel that he knows that he is forgiven in Christ and that Christ has redeemed him, but he does not embrace it because he feels too ashamed and he thinks that he is too sinful to be forgiven. I want him to live a life that is fulfilled and in abundance. I just want a normal, loving relationship without pornography. Please help!

    • Kay Bruner

      Hey Anne, I’m so glad you wrote! Wow, it sounds like you and your boyfriend both have dealt with this in a really healthy way so far. I’m really impressed with both of you. It’s admirable that he’s been so honest and open, and that he’s taken such responsibility for himself. You can see the growth and maturity that’s come out of that. His experience now, after a failure, is really common–those feelings of failure, and that he’s too sinful to be forgiven. As painful as this is, it’s an opportunity for him to find that God’s grace is always deeper still. The more grace we need, the more grace we find. And often, I think that our experience and our emotion takes a while to catch up with our cognitive knowledge. So he may “know” that he’s redeemed, but he’s struggling to “feel” it, in light of the reality of what’s happened. AND, if he is depressed, well it’s not too surprising that he can’t get his emotions to match the truth he knows. In fact, that’s one of the hallmarks of depression: stinkin’ thinkin’. Is he seeing a doctor? Because I’d always want to make sure that he’s getting the medical support he needs, as well as the spiritual support. (I’m a counselor, and I always want my clients to go to the doctor right away, to work on the medical side of the depression.)

      I think it’s also very normal for us women to feel hurt and angry. I have to process through my own emotions about these things. So, I hope you’ve got loving, supportive people who can help you through it. Over time, I’ve found it’s become easier for me to reframe the behavior from “it’s an attack on me” (which I think is really normal to feel) to “it’s an attack on him.” What that means is that I have gotten better at being on the same team with him. I’ve gotten better at setting my hurt aside and listening to him. I’ve gotten better at empathizing with his pain, even though I am also in pain. In fact, the last episode he had, a couple of months ago, he felt worse about it than I did. Of course that’s 10 years down the road. And he’s not in a pit of constant use any more. It’s an occasional thing that happens, and we all pick ourselves up and love each other through it. I wish it never happened, and maybe somebody’s got a magic formula that works for them, but at our house, this is what we have, and this is how we deal with it.

      So maybe this is not what you want to hear, but at least for me, it’s become a life that’s fulfilled and in abundance, normal, and loving, and we still have to deal with this sometimes. We’ve figured out how to do that. I just wrote a book about all that, and it’s at Amazon.

      I think everybody does have to figure out what the boundaries are for themselves. It’s not easy! Here’s an article about what healthy boundaries in dating could look like. Even with the best boundaries, though, other people still make their choices and we still have pain. The fairy tale is just a fairy tale. Fortunately, God’s grace is bigger than all our bad choices and all of our pain.

      Blessings, Kay

  3. Tim

    I would have to say that this article was about the most realistic and closest thing I have read to the addiction. I am a repeating addict of porn. I have been embarrassed about it for a long time. I just wanted to send out this post to say that, “The devil is lying to you. That you are the only one that has this problem.”
    I want to thank you for writing this article. It helped me to understand what has to be done. I would ask for continuous help to over come this. With your prayers and Gods help. Matthew 19:26, Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Thanks again and God Bless!!!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Tim. I’m glad this was encouraging to you!

  4. The Exposed Disciple

    I’ve recently been totally set free from a porn addiction and want to share what happened so as to give hope to those struggling with the same problem.

    I’m a 24 year old female, involved in full time youth and children’s ministry. I never spoke about this secret sin because I was too ashamed. I love God, but I was trapped.

    Until about a month ago, I was set free, just because I chose to answer an altar call, and expose my sin.

    God healed me instantly. My mind has been changed. The desire for porn is completely gone!

    I can’t stay silent about this. The devil has tried to destroy me with this, but now, I will turn it around, and use this testimony for God’s glory!

    You can read the rest of this testimony at the following link:

    http://theexposeddisciple.tumblr.com/

    • Thanks for sharing your story with us!

  5. Anonymous

    I just wanted to say thank you for this post. I look forward to reading the resources given in the replies. I am a single Christian female, and while I have not watched graphic videos or hard-core pornography, I struggle very much with what I watch and look at on the internet. I was raised in a strict home, and didn’t struggle with any sexual sins until I was a young adult. I have always been very involved in church and serving as a volunteer, which makes it even more difficult to admit my need for help. I don’t want people to look at me differently. I pray that I find accountability, as it is very difficult to be honest with other Christians…even my family. I would love to find a woman who has worked through this struggle that could be a support during this time. While my sexual desire does not consume much of my time, when temptation comes I easily give in for the physical high, so I realize that I am a slave to sin. I trade one-ness with the spirit for a brief climax that I then feel guilty about. I know better, but as it was put, knowing better doesn’t always equate to doing better. I pray that I will do better and that I can turn from my sin and pursue the close relationship with Christ that I once had. Again, thank you. There aren’t enough places for women who have these sort of addictions to find resources.

    God Bless

    • Lisa Eldred

      You may want to check out Dirty Girls Ministries and Beggar’s Daughter, both of which center around women struggling with porn.

      In your church, I’d recommend finding one older woman and asking for her help and mentorship. It’s better to humble yourself to a select person or two sooner than to deal with an out-of-control issue in your church later. And an older woman will have dealt with her own issues throughout life (even if they’re not porn) and will have tough love tempered by grace.

  6. steve westmoreland

    I’m 41 yrs old and this has been a problem my ENTIRE life. My parents would watch it on 8mm projectors on the wall and I remember the movies like I just saw them. But that was in 1976 and I was only 4. That’s how powerful this stuff is. I was encouraged to embrace this because I was his son and I’m not any better than he is or his father. I was molested by an older boy at a family members house (not related). My whole childhood was filled with this lifestyle in so much I couldn’t give that much time to writing it on here. On top of that my dad encouraged drinking and violence . I used to get a 4oz baby bottle of beer every now and then to stop me crying and sleep. So alcohol has been a constant battle also..
    I can relate to every single comment left on here. I have spent years and years fighting Satan and the temptations to just “be myself” according to my upbringing. That would be the easy road sometimes and just go with it. I guess what I’m trying to say is just because we are believers and spend years praying and crying for redemption and help… we can’t give up just because we don’t see immediate results. We will overcome this and be stronger for it and be the light that someone else needs to overcome this also.
    Two of my biggest hero’s are Jesus and Rocky Balboa. Jesus never gave up on us and Rocky never gave up the fight and I’m not gonna give up either. Its miserably difficult sometimes but at least its a good fight to fight.

    • So sorry to hear about your upbringing. No child should ever have to contend with that kind of abuse.

      Keep fighting!

  7. I read your blog and it is really useful,
    I am a teenager and
    i always try very hard to restrain from porn and masturbation,but sometimes my thoughts are overwhelming and i fall into the trap.
    also when I am restraining from porn I try my level best not to look at thing that triggers the thoughts but mostly the problem is some of my friends who takes porn as a norm and casually talks about it .
    when they see that I am not looking at girls in my class the wrong way they tell me that something is wrong with me and that i have no future with women (most of these are non Christians is that the problem??) this triggers some feeling and i fall back to porn .
    what do i do??

    • I would explain to them why you don’t want to look at women that way. Tell them that lusting freely after women is neither manly nor honoring to them. They aren’t pieces of meat. They are people who deserve respect. Tell them God created them in his image, and that means not looking at them with lust in your heart. Manliness is not measured by what you take from women, it is measured by how you give in love to others. Tell them they can ridicule you all they want. You are going to treat women as sisters, not objects. You are preparing yourself for marriage to one woman, and the way you treat women now prepares you to treat her like a queen some day. And if they laugh at you, tell them you’re pretty sure girls would appreciate your perspective far more than theirs.

  8. Preston

    What a wonderful forum for everyone, especially we christians to share our struggle. Let’s remember, we live in a world that became cursed when Adam and Eve fell away from God, before humans began wearing clothes. That’s where our struggle with porn began, so don’t crucify yourself into a state of suicidal depression. Christ already paid our debt for sins. Once we choose to live life by His instructions,
    He promised to walk with us on a daily basis, as go through all the struggles of this imperfect life on planet earth. We must stay in communication with God through prayer, bible study, online community groups like this one, and off line live support. Churches are still having difficulty opening up and facing porn as a regular topic. Something that must be discussed and dealt with, not in a shameful way.
    We will all be struggling with something until otil Jesus Christ returns to take us back to a life of perfection. God doesn’t threaten to disown us when we “fall off the wagon” and view porn. If maintaining our salvation in Christ Jesus was based on our efforts, we could never do it and God already knows this. That’s why the bible says Christ saves us alone, lest anyone boasts that it was from their own efforts. As human beings dealing with the biological urges God put in every living creature, to reproduce, we have to come together in prayer and support of each other. Pornography takes up a huge amount of time in everyone’s life, so we have to ask God to help direct us to loving support groups, like this one. Get involved with support groups out side your home. Just like A.A. meetings continue for the life of and alcoholic, we’ll all have to continue supporting each other through prayer, verbal & written communication and unconditional love. Not because we’re all “crazy”, but because we’re sexual beings in need of help to manage this powerful, beautiful amazing part of our lives called sexuality. Can’t spread much of the gospel to the world, if porn is taking up all the time. That’s the valuable resource satan is robbing from us. Love you all. We’re all a family here. God bless!

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Preston.

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