Friday, March 23, 2007

When Pornography Becomes an Option


He hadn’t said much since we’d sat down. I knew he wanted to talk to me about something serious, but I didn’t want to press. Ron was tall and built, a man’s man, and a good ten years older than me. But we’d hit it off talking about our athletic exploits, which had grown significantly over the years. At one point I’d asked him about his family, his wife and three kids. Immediately tears had come to his eyes. I’d asked him the next week if he wanted to chat, and much to my surprise, he’d agreed.

We were sitting in a Tim Hortons. It was late, and aside from a few teenagers in the other corner, the place was empty.

“I don’t know what to do, Steve.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s Beck… she won’t get any help.” He paused, the pain evident on his face. “It’s been six months since we had sex.”

Ron had told me before a bit about his wife’s past. She’d been sexually abused as a child, but her parents were stalwarts in the church. She’d refused to get counseling. After their third child, Ron said, she’d had enough.

“The last time I asked her about it she threw me a Kleenex and told me to go take care of myself in the basement.” He said. “I’ve been watching these movies and… I hate it, man. I hate it.”

“Wow.”

I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I couldn’t imagine even being in his situation. At the time I was engaged, still a virgin, and Ron’s words were troubling. What would I do if my wife didn’t want to have sex? What would I do if suddenly my wife decided that sex was only for procreation, or that it was inherently sinful? I felt my eyes fill up, and suddenly it wasn’t about my own life, my own questions. Instead, I was impugned by a deep sadness, although if you’d asked me, I couldn’t tell you exactly why.

I can’t remember what I said to Ron that day. I’m sure it wasn’t much. But over the past ten years I’ve had similar conversations with other husbands, most of them Christians, and when they tell me that they sometimes watch pornography, I don’t know what to say to them. I know what the church says about pornography, I know all about the “porn burning” sessions of the Promise Keepers and the fights to keep “those pornographers” out of business by citizen groups over the years and everything else. But it hasn’t worked. Pornography isn’t juet a problem, it’s also a sympton, and until we address the real problem… Let me put it this way. If pornography is alive and well within the church, as damaging as it is, the church has no one but herself to blame.

Someone once asked me what the biggest problem was in the church today. Easy, I said, the inability for Christians to be honest with each other. The inability to be transparent is poison to any community. Especially a spiritual community that is supposed to be based on grace and love for each other. Jesus said that the world would know us by our love for each other. Instead, the world seems to know us better for our judgement and hypocrisy. We can debate until we’re blue in the face about the truth of those allegations, but as long as the world sees denominations spitting in each other’s face over a small issue of doctrine, who are we to judge? Because you know what… they’re right.

I remember another young man. He was suffering from an unexpected separation from his wife. Alone, in a new city, he was struggling to find himself. To find a community. His wife had kicked him out after 11 months of a tumultuous marriage, and he suddenly found himself alone in a strange city. He was living in a basement apartment with a job he despised, a job that barely left him enough to pay the bills. Once upon a time he’d been an up and coming preacher, destined for great things in the ministry. Or so he thought. Alone and feeling abandoned, he left the church, wondering about this God he’d dedicated his life to.

A few months after his marriage disintegrated, one night he found himself in a strange place, a place he’d never been. The lights were dim inside the store, and staring at him from every wall was a mound of flesh and sin. It was repugnant to be in this place, but strangely comforting. Soon enough, he picked a box, and without looking at the man behind the counter, paid for his purchase and left. Later that night he sat in front of the flickering images, feeling a strange sense of both relief and despair. From that day, he would visit places, places he never thought he’d ever be, and bring things home, things that went against everything he’d ever stood for. The disconnect and despair heightened. He so desperately wanted to believe everything that he’d been taught, but more than anything, he felt alone. His marriage… his dreams… it was all over.

The reason I remember that young man is because that man… was me.

We hear about the evils of pornography all the time, but many women, and men, for that matter, do not understand how or why pornography enters the question. Especially for people of faith. The first thing that we need to understand is that pornography is not merely a “sin” to be cast out. It is also a symptom. As one woman once said to me, “how many breasts does a man need to see?” Women, of course, are quite offended by the pornography question, especially conservative women. But most of the time the question is not about sex. It’s about intimacy and loneliness. It’s about a man being wanted by a woman, about a man who feels accepted for who he is and what he is. That’s what sex is. Sex is becoming naked, becoming vulnerable, and still being wanted by the person we cherish.

I know that many women, especially Christian women, have something to say about this. But the bottom line is this: men desperately want to be naked with someone, but many Christian men, for various reasons, are afraid to expose themselves, and they’ve turned to pornography to meet their needs.

The issue here than, is less about sex and more about intimacy. Do men need to do a better job confronting their own feelings and insecurities about relationships. Yes, they do. But as long as the church allows women to work their relational issues (with overeating, for example. The church virtually excuses gluttony as a sin in Western culture.) with impunity, and continues to impugn men with a higher standard. Expect men to remain closemouthed about their own issues, especially controversial ones like pornography.

I’ll be honest. When I hear stories from men about their sex life, there are many times when I understand why they’ve turned to pornography. The sad part is that I also know that pornography brings nothing but despair and heartache. Is it sin? Yes. But the greater sin is that church has not built itself in North America on open and honest community. Most men who admit that pornography is appealing, for example, face rejection and vilification and worse. Why is it a women can say she struggles with overeating, and receive support. A man says that he is lonely and longs for intimacy and so is attracted to pornography and he is vilified as a pornographer?

The church holds a double standard. And if we are to be a church of grace, a spiritual community of sinners redeemed by God’s mercy, how can we possibly cast judgement without first offering love? The truth is, there’s a reason men remain closemouthed about their struggles. Certainly men need to be more like men, to step forward and say exactly what they’re feeling, But until the church allows men to speak freely, and allows them to be completely transparent without fear of judgement and vitriol, pornography will flourish within the church.

There are days still when I think about turning my computer to certain sites. I'm celibate and proud of it, but still sexual. And though I wish nothing more than to honour God with my life, there are days I long for the intimacy of a woman, of someone who will tell me that I am loved and special. (Unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way what a powerful and destructive lie pornography is) And that, ultimately, is what sex is all about. Women who fail to understand this, women who fail to understand that their man desires so desperately to be naked with them, miss the whole picture when they become caddy and self-righteous about pornography. Perhaps the first step is not to judge those who “sin so gleefully”, but rather, perhaps the first step is to look at ourselves, and see if we are using sex as something else. Are we using it as a tool of guilt? Are we holding it out for the special occasion when only we feel like “doing it?” The thing about pornography is that it sells the idea that the women actually want to have sex. Translation for men, "this woman wants to be with me." It’s an illusion of course, and highly destructive, but it’s a powerful one. What we don’t realize is that the power of a great lie does not emanate from the one who speaks it. The power of a great lie is in the echo that forms in the soul of the one who hears it. The illusion of intimacy is powerful because it is already absent.

I’ve always hated the response of women who say to their men in our culture, “Tonight, maybe you’ll get lucky.” Aren’t you both enjoying it? Aren’t you both getting lucky? Sex is not a toy nor a tool, and until we understand that sex, that pornography, isn’t really about sex, men will continue to bury their feelings and seek out the illusion.

We are a culture that prides itself on individualism. We’re a church that focuses on the salvation of the individual. Neither is biblical, and neither is healthy. God created us to live in community. A spiritual community.

Is pornography sin? Yes. But the greater sin is the wall of pride and self-righteous that echoes through the corridors of many church buildings. Jesus once told his disciples that the world would know us by our love for one another. But do they?

Pornography is like mould. It flourishes in dark corners. If you do nothing else, remember that Christ has called us to a life of authenticity and openness. If you wish to remain with your head buried in the sand, keep it there. But women, don’t be surprised when the man you love finds himself caught in the web of porn. And men, until you understand that pornography is about intimacy, and that you need to step out and stop burying your feelings and hurts because you’re afraid of what others will think, the cycle of loneliness and despair will never be broken.
And for all of us, until the church recognizes that it is a community of grace, where transparency is the only foundation for real discipleship, nothing will change. And our faith will flounder in the shallow fields of rocky soil, and the relationships we so deeply hunger for, especially the one with a certain Carpenter, will never grow.

God help us to open our hearts today. May He give us the courage to examine ourselves, and to reveal ourselves, in honesty and truth, as He intended, that the world would truly know us for our love.

-Steve