How Porn Kills Healthy Sexual Relationships

Neuroscience is clear: porn affects your brain. But it does more than that. It also affects your heart. That is, it changes how we relate to other people.

Being human is about being in relationship. We were made to be in relationship with each other and our Maker. Sadly, pornography affects the ways we think and act towards others.

There are many ways pornography hurts our relationships. For our purposes, I want to look at how porn destroys healthy sexual relationships. For instance, husbands who regularly use pornography have trouble connecting sexually with their wife. Some are even unable to become sexually aroused by their spouse.

I think the work of a Nobel Prize-winning biologist Nikolaas Tinbergen can help explain why. Tinbergen discovered that male butterflies are attracted to the color, pattern, and shape of the female butterfly’s wings. As a result, he made cardboard butterflies that were bigger and brighter than the real butterflies. He referred to the cardboard cutouts as a “supernormal stimuli.”

After introducing the fake butterflies into the butterfly’s habitat, he made a fascinating discovery. He discovered that the male butterflies were attracted to—and tried to mate with—the cardboard butterflies. Moreover, the male butterflies showed no interest in the real female butterflies—the normal stimuli.

Tinbergen thinks human beings are a lot like butterflies in this regard. With regular exposure to a supernormal stimulus, we can be trained to prefer the unrealistic, exaggerated version over the real thing.

How is pornography a supernormal stimulus? In short, it exaggerates sex. It presents unrealistic scenarios and images. It makes us attracted to a counterfeit—an exaggerated cardboard cutout of the real thing.

In “An Open Letter on Porn,” world-renowned researchers and clinical psychologists, Drs. John and Julie Gottman write,

Pornography may be just such a supernormal stimulus. With pornography use, much more of a normal stimulus may eventually be needed to achieve the response a supernormal stimulus evokes. In contrast, ordinary levels of the stimulus are no longer interesting. This may be how normal sex becomes much less interesting for porn users. The data supports this conclusion. In fact, use of pornography by one partner leads the couple to have far less sex and ultimately reduces relationship satisfaction.

Some people have tried to use pornography to “spice up” their sexual relationship. The sad irony is, pornography ruins sex. It leads to a lack of desire for sex with your partner.

Pornography trains men to view women as objects for their own personal pleasure. It lies to us. It teaches the lie that all women want sex all the time. It teaches the lie that women like all sex acts. It teaches the lie that women who don’t want sex can be persuaded by force. Sadly, young boys and girls are buying into these lies.

Relationships are hard work. They involve caring for the other person, serving the other person, getting to know the other person. There is a give-and-take interaction.

Pornography, on the other hand, is about convenience. It involves caring about your own needs. It’s one-sided. The other person exists for your satisfaction. Pornography is not about intimate connection; it’s about immediate gratification. It’s about me. It’s narcissistic.

Gail Dines, author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, says, “When they put ‘porn’ into Google, they get catapulted into a world of sexual violence, degradation, and dehumanization. I think it has a terrible impact on the way they think about sexuality, intimacy, and connection.”

Pornography destroys relationships. Drs. John and Julie Gottman write, “In summary, we are led to unconditionally conclude that for many reasons, pornography poses a serious threat to couple intimacy and relationship harmony.”

Sex is a part of God’s design. He made it. He designed it to function in long-term, monogamous, marriage relationships. Pornography rips sex out of its God-given, relational context. It uses sex in a way that it was never meant to be used.

It’s not surprising that pornography causes so much harm—harm to ourselves and to others. But there is hope in restoring broken relationships. Here’s how.

First, tell someone. It’s been said, “Pornography addiction thrives in the darkness of secrecy; it cannot survive in the light of accountability.” Be sure to acknowledge the wrong. Don’t shift the blame. Own your actions. We need to start talking about this, so tell someone.

Second, ask for forgiveness. Husband, you have wronged your wife. Wife, you have wronged your husband. Furthermore, you have sinned against God. Therefore, go to both your spouse and God and ask for forgiveness so that healing can begin.

Third, be accountable. You need help. You can’t do this on your own. So find close faithful friends you can talk to.

Fourth, identify your triggers. Is it sexualized music, or magazines, or movies? Is it depression or being alone at night? Try to identify what triggers you, and do your best to avoid those triggers.

Fifth, ask for help. Talk to a counselor. That goes for your spouse, too. Some wives even suffer symptoms similar to PTSD when they find out about a husband’s porn use. They feel betrayed. They feel like trust has been broken. There is no shame is talking with a professional.

God forgives and heals those affected by pornography. Pornography is not the worst sin. In fact, it’s not even the worst sexual sin. But it is a sin.

The apostle James says, “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:15). Pornography leads to death. This includes death to your identity, death to your relationship, death to your marriage, and death to your relationship with God.

The culture may condone pornography as normal, and the church may condemn pornography as shameful. But Christ enters in to cleanse, heal, restore, and give you life eternal.

Tim Barnett

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