Pornography Is Not Just About Lust:
The Emotional Power of Images
I will skip the statistics about how many pastors struggle with pornography, how early boys are exposed to their first pornographic image, and how destructive it has become to young women. Most of us are painfully aware of these stats, but it’s still hard to understand why this epidemic is happening.
Is pornography simply lust gone wild? Is it so prevalent merely because the Internet brings it into our homes in a way that was never possible before? Why do so many Christian men who would never dream of going to a strip club or soliciting a prostitute trapped in pornography?
I want to suggest that a big part of the story has to do with the power of the images as a technology.
As a biochemistry major in college, I had to read textbooks with 100s of pages of technical information that was often just a little bit dry. In fact, I drooled in just about every one of my textbooks. Of course, conveying organized facts is one of the strengths of print as a medium.
Unlike handwriting, print can convey repeatable perfection which happens to be just what good science needs. In contrast, a photo cannot convey something repeatable. By definition, it captures an instance in time that cannot happen again. This moment in time is connected to the ongoing story of the subject whether it is a person, a landscape, or the arrangement of light on an object.
When we see a beautifully composed photo, one of the reasons it pulls us in is because of this embedded narrative which lives between the colors and shadows and the arrangement of the subjects. Instead of operating at the level of reason like a textbook, an image operates at the level of emotion. That emotion might be happiness if we see something funny or it could be sadness when we see someone being abused.
In print, a novel can similarly capture us emotionally because a novel and a photograph share something in common – they both tell a story that connects with deep parts of our being. It is true that a picture is worth “a thousand words,” when those words tell a story, but it might even be more accurate to say that a picture is worth “a thousand emotions” (something Hipps points out in Flickering Pixels).
Connecting the Pixels
This is where it gets a little awkward.
What happens when a man (or a woman) sees a pornographic image? Certainly, there is a huge element of sinful lust and sexual excitement. And there is the treatment of a woman as if she were an object rather than a real person, as well as the fundamental lack of belief that comes with all sin.
But what else? Why do men who want to turn away keep going back to their vomit (Prov 26:11)? They read Every Man’s Battle, they try to do what it says, but something still pulls them in. What is it?
I would suggest it is the power of images to connect to the deepest parts of a man’s emotion through the story of the woman in the image. No matter how much a man tries to objectify her and make the encounter purely about his sexual drive, the reason he returns to her night after night is because she – through the technology of image – temporarily eases the pain of an emotional wound.
So pornography is not insidious just because it exploits women, just because it destroys marriages, just because it often leads to darker more horrific sin, but because it uses the incredible power of image technology to hold a man emotionally captive to his sin.
Breaking the Cycle
I don’t mean to give men some kind of psycho-babble excuse for the sinful choices they make. Pornography is a sinful perversion of the God-created sexual drive of a man. However, if you are struggling with pornography or if you know someone who is, my suggestion is that you look beyond just working harder to avoid lust (though that is right and good: flee young man, flee!)
Perhaps the reason why you keep returning to pornography has to do with something much deeper than lust. Maybe there is something deep seated pain in your life that you would rather not address. Pornographic images not only sexually excite you but, with their power to connect to that emotional pain through the story embedded in the image, sooth your pain allowing you to put it off for another day.
All the strategies of sin management in the world – accountability questions with other men, filtering software, and so on – might be helpful, but all that work might also prevent you from allowing the Spirit of God to heal the underlying issues.
Pornography is not just about lust. It is also about the power of images to connect to the deepest parts of person’s soul through the intensity of story. My suggestion is not to merely try harder to avoid lust, but to think about how you can avoid connecting to the stories of naked women and instead reconnect your life story – both the pain and the triumph – to the Gospel, the story of God working in the world to save his creation through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That story alone has the power to heal.