It’s a serious problem among evangelicals. But fixating on it might be missing the bigger picture.
MARK REGNERUS| MAY 17, 2019
Porn appears to be overrunning Christian cultures. Some have quietly capitulated. Evangelicalism, however, has not. But conservative Christians are no longer on the offensive against “obscenity,” as they were in the 1970s and ’80s. Today, they’re in survival mode. That’s one lesson we learn from Addicted to Lust: Pornography in the Lives of Conservative Protestants, a new book from University of Oklahoma sociologist Samuel Perry.
Evangelicals have a dilemma on their hands. For good reason, Perry surmises, “there can be no truce with pornography.” But the battlefield’s casualty list is fast mounting, even while the enemy’s weaponry is becoming more powerful and sophisticated. What to do? Surrender? Desert? And what of the walking wounded—leave them to the enemy? The language of war pervades evangelical discussions of pornography because resisting its siren call is hard.
Addicted to Lust is about as close to a page-turner as you’ll get with a scholarly book. Perry gets the players and the tensions right. He’s fair. He knows the science can be biased because it’s conducted by scientists—humans—who often have a stake in the answers to their questions. While he seeks to avoid rooting for one side—a noble effort to remain an impartial observer—he nevertheless acknowledges that porn has not made the world “a more humane and equitable place.”
Perry and I agree that we have overestimated addiction to pornography. Genuine addiction interrupts daily life. It’s hard to make the case that a habit hidden for years applies here. When dad’s an alcoholic, on the other hand, everyone in the family knows it. Elsewhere in his copious publication history, Perry has wondered whether the real problem is how pornography fosters masturbation, taking control over one’s solitary sexual existence. I happen to think he’s right. In other words, when we fixate on porn, we are apt to miss the bigger picture—that sexual expression is becoming more characteristic of the individual life rather than a life together.
Gratefully, very few Americans think porn is an obvious good. It is never linked with positive marital outcomes. But being a committed, conservative Christian makes matters worse, Perry holds. Why? Because porn causes a social problem for evangelicals, not just a personal one. “No one wants to be the wife of a known porn addict,” one interviewee observed.
Evangelicals suffer from moral incongruence over porn. That is, they say it’s bad but look at it anyway. Addicted to Lust explores how this incongruence—which is neither surprising nor novel—plays out in their lives and within their culture.
How bad is it? “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” wrote a 17th-century playwright in an era that could scarcely fathom our own pornified times. Evangelical wives react to revelations of spousal porn use with greater intensity, anger, and anguish than others, Perry claims. They’re more apt to classify porn use as on par with adultery. The reason, Perry posits, is “sexual exceptionalism”—the evangelical tendency to accord sexual sin greater gravity than nearly every other transgression. Believers, of course, have Scripture on their side. Sexual sin is different: As Paul states in 1 Corinthians, it’s against your own body (6:18). Ironically, most of the wives Perry interviews confess that their husbands’ revelations—tormenting though they were—tended to yield good fruit in their marriages over the long run. Confronting sin creates opportunities to know the real persons to whom we are married.
According to Perry, evangelical sexual exceptionalism compels men to “evaluate their entire spiritual condition in terms of whether they have looked at porn and/or masturbated recently.” In other words, when someone asks how you are doing spiritually, you tend to hear the underlying question as how you are doing sexually. It’s hard to know if Perry’s right about this, although I suspect he is. This is not, however, a phenomenon exclusive to evangelicals. The problem with accountability structures, though often helpful in reducing the frequency of unwanted behavior, is that they unwittingly make porn and masturbation the primary concerns of one’s spiritual life. Mix in a dose of Calvinist pietism, and you have the recipe for more despair and isolation. As “David,” an interviewee, put it, “I don’t think I have much to offer in terms of spiritual maturity. . . . I certainly couldn’t hold anyone else accountable.” American men are failing to counsel and guide their boys in part because they feel so inept themselves. This is not good.
Porn may be “every man’s battle,” but it’s not only a man’s battle. Evangelical women, like many other women in the world, wonder why they’re “not enough” for their husbands. Many men, writes Perry, “wish their wives wouldn’t take it so personally.” That’s a tough sell, since porn use “just feels more personal and violating to [Christian] women.” Amid this, Perry describes how women who look at porn are simply left out. Such women feel twice scorned—by their peers, for acting “like a man,” and by their pastors, who feel ill-equipped to counsel a sex addict who is a woman.
The issue of masturbation, in particular, highlights the challenges of living by sola scriptura. Most evangelical leaders refuse to pronounce authoritatively on matters the Bible doesn’t explicitly address. But to say nothing is not to signal nothing. (The Latin phrase qui tacet consentire videtur translates as “He who is silent is understood to consent.”) This poses problems. Given the free market in faith upon which evangelicalism thrives, it is simple to locate disagreements about the morality of masturbation but difficult to resolve them.
The absence of authoritative interpretations is obvious. One man told Perry he brings seductive photos of his wife on trips so that he can “take care of that myself (masturbate) whenever I feel tempted.” Others perform the strange gymnastics of masturbating without lustful thoughts, a path, Perry notes, that some commend. But that route still tends to leave its practitioners lonely. Several pastors held that masturbation was wrong “because it was self-centered and they believe God intends sexuality to be self-giving.” Our bodies are meant for another, as a gift.
All this suggests the body itself has a discernible meaning. What does the Bible say? That we’re to honor God with our bodies, which are not meant for “sexual immorality,” a term scrutinized like few others in Scripture. Perry notes that there is nothing like a “theology of the body” for evangelicals to consult. True. But what he doesn’t mention is that the only developed theology of the body derives from the thought and writing of a Catholic pope, John Paul II. Instead of depending exclusively on the Bible, it hinges on the living authority of the Catholic church which, perhaps most importantly here, bluntly labels masturbation “an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” If Perry thinks evangelicals need to lighten up—and to his credit, it’s not obvious what he thinks—be careful what you wish for.
Fumbling Toward Progress
While there is no evangelical theology of the body, there is what Perry labels the “purity industrial complex,” a phrase borrowed many times over from President Eisenhower’s original 1961 warning about the military’s post-war collaboration with industrial profiteering. There remains an active abstinence movement within evangelicalism, but the financial gains from fighting pornography strike me as comparatively modest. I don’t know how profitable successful web-filtering companies like Covenant Eyes are, but they appear to meet a perceived need for help. Do they work? The book doesn’t explore the effectiveness of solutions—that would require a different kind of data. It focuses instead on the squabble Perry perceives among three different levels of solution-seekers: evangelical thought leaders, pastors, and the scores of men and women who just want their solitary behavior to be better tomorrow than it was yesterday. It highlights the tension between being right and being helpful.
Evangelical leaders, Perry argues, promote quite different ways out for the beleaguered. Theologians and famous pastors, he observes, tend to stick to the Bible and encourage “leaning in” to biblical wisdom for reinforcement. Therapeutic counseling that relies on secular psychological technique remains suspect in the eyes of many such leaders. If the heart doesn’t change, they hold, behavioral changes just won’t stick. Endorsing non-scriptural methods of resistance strikes leaders as risky to their reputation as respected expositors of the Word. Perry notes this with thinly veiled ambivalence. Guilt, for the record, is a terrible motivator. And lust, according to a Covenant Eyes developer, “is simply learned behavior.”
But there are no great conclusions here. Success, however measured, is more apt to come through a combination of openness, discussion, and curbing access. Perry does note, as a sociologist might, that “it seems to be through those close personal relationships that one’s communion with God can have an effect.” Is that enough? Ultimately, Addicted to Lust is about how sinners—and their spiritual guides—fumble their way toward progress. Christians are better than their failures and collapses. They’re wooed by warring interests, only one of which offers sustained happiness. (They know this.) Years spent duking it out with the flesh remind us that the stain of sin remains. Every man and woman who’s stared at porn for any length of time knows they can remember things that, in their lucidity, they would rather forget.
Digesting this book won’t give readers exact guidance on what to do next. Good sociology isn’t like that. They will, however, have a good deal more insight into the contours of the problem. Walking in that light—and under the Spirit’s power—they might just discover a path out of the darkness.
Mark Regnerus teaches sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy (Oxford University Press).