As someone who serves in ministry with my own history of struggling with pornography, women often pour out their stories to me with a sigh of relief. While sitting on my living room couch, Jessica shared her struggle with porn:
I was exposed to pornography as a first grader by a childhood friend. I had no idea the lasting effects it would have on me as I got older. While I didn't understand what it was or why it was bad, I innately felt that it was wrong—that alone filled me with shame. Shame followed me through my life until, for the first time, I heard another woman share that she struggled with it too. That defeated the biggest lie I was believed: that I was in this alone.
There are many women in your church who have similar stories to Jessica. Some may sit next to you on a Sunday and others may be leading Bible studies—they all worry that someone will find out about their secret. I’ve had women from across the spectrum confess their struggle to me, from new believing college students to experienced church leaders. Sadly, the influence of porn in the church is almost as dominant as it is in the world.
The secular world is speaking out and telling women that watching porn is okay. Yet, the church often remains silent (or only addresses the issue with men). If the church will not talk to women who struggle with porn or create safe spaces for women to talk about it, then one of two things will happen: 1) Women will continue to think that watching porn is okay or 2) Women will think that something must be incredibly wrong with them because no one is talking about it.
Porn is on the internet, in TV shows and movies, and even in romance novels. Porn is addictive, accessible, affordable, and anonymous—the perfect combination to make it extremely dangerous. Watching porn is a secret sin that no one has to know about—which is one of the reasons porn has such a grip on women. Women can look at porn on their phones from the comfort of their living rooms or read erotica from a kindle on an airplane and no one would ever know.
Porn addictions in the lives of men and women have differences and similarities. Women are more likely to start with “soft porn” and then move toward “hard porn.” Soft porn is usually not as graphic or explicit, but its goal is still to arouse. Examples of soft porn include erotica, romance novels, romantic movies, TV shows, sexting, and online chat rooms. (Soft porn today was actually hard core porn years ago.) Women are more likely to search for “romantic porn” and “popular with women,” and men are more likely to search for “aggressive porn” (although statistics from major porn sites show that women are viewing more aggressive porn than ever before).
The purity movement has previously said that men are more visual than women. Research is showing that this gender stereotype may not be true. A recent study found that “at least at the level of neural activity… the brains of men and women respond the same way to porn.”1 Both men and women are impacted by porn and can become addicted to porn. Pornographic images affect both men’s and women’s brains and condition them to want more.
As Christian leaders, we must begin to change the way we talk about the struggle with porn. Porn is not “just a guy’s problem.” Porn is a human problem.
The number of women watching pornography increases each year. In 2016 and 2017, the number of women watching porn was around 26% worldwide on the largest porn site. By the end of 2018, the percentage of women viewers increased by 3%, meaning almost 3 out of every 10 consumers were female. The following year, from 2018-2019, women visitors increased another 3% from the previous year to represent 32% of the porn consumers. For 2020, this site has yet to release their statistics. What do all of these statistics tell us? More women are increasingly watching more porn each year.
Pornography is everywhere, and an addiction can start innocently or even by accident. Once it becomes part of a woman’s life, it sinks deeper and deeper into the dark places of her soul. It may seem exciting or stimulating in the beginning, but ultimately pornography objectifies sex and makes it inconsequential and meaningless. It poisons relationships by teaching us to objectify each other. Porn triggers changes in women’s bodies that become addictive and harmful. It may lead to other sin and, worst of all, it moves women away from God’s love.
Shame continues the cycle of addiction, forcing a woman to keep her addiction a secret. If she keeps her pain to herself, she may never find freedom or accountability. Eventually, porn may no longer fulfill her desires. Like with drug addiction, the addict will turn to bigger and harder products. The list of sex addictions goes on and on and points us away from God’s design for sex. Once we understand that women struggle too, then we can provide recovery tools for healing.
Here are three things women who struggle with pornography want you to know:
Juli Slattery often says that we are all sexually broken. When leaders understand this concept and share from a humble place, they will create a safe place for others to share their stories. With vulnerability, share your story first.
Porn addicts keep their stories to themselves, which builds shame in their hearts and gives Satan power. Even if you have never struggled with sexual addiction, begin the conversation and authentically share the struggles from your life. All believers have gone from death to life through the power of the gospel. Your vulnerability will help women confess their addictions and find freedom.
While in seminary at Dallas Theological Seminary, I was the Graduate Teaching Assistant for a class called Sexuality and Ethics. One week we had the students read different articles written by women about pornography. Almost 90% of the students (who were in seminary to become pastors, ministers, or counselors) said that they had no idea women struggled with pornography! Once leaders understand the vastness of this issue, then we can begin to educate others.
(By the way, this starts with parents and their children—sons and daughters! Children can access sexually explicit images at younger and younger ages. We need to help parents talk to their kids about sex and set up internet filters like Covenant Eyes.)
Ministers need to understand the rise of pornography among women and learn how to have meaningful conversations with women about God’s design for sexuality. Let’s focus on changing hearts, not behaviors. Telling a woman to pray more or do more is simply a spiritual Band-Aid. It won’t heal her heart. A woman addicted to porn most likely uses it as a coping mechanism. If we fix the outward behavior and fail to tend to her heart, then the woman will create a new coping mechanism or a new addiction. The cycle will go on and on.
How do you break a cycle of addiction? Point her to Jesus. Only Jesus can heal women from pain, free them from addiction, and release them from darkness. Take the pressure off yourself. In our ministries, we preach the good news of Jesus—the redemption of the cross. Jesus died to redeem lives. He died for men and for women. He died for porn addicts. Jesus came to break every chain—every single chain, even porn addiction in women.
There is a bigger picture of God’s design for sexuality. God created us as sexual beings, and our sexual desires are a good gift from Him! Using porn to steward this gift will cause more pain and more problems. The good news is that we can help women steward this gift well.
Isaiah 61:3 says Jesus came “to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendor.”
We worship a God who redeems and restores our broken sexuality! Let’s begin to include women in our conversations about pornography so that they can begin a journey to freedom. Join me in going first so that others can go second.
If you'd like to learn more about navigating these sensitive topics with others, join us May 3-6, for Equip, a digital summit for Christian leaders to learn how to have gospel-centered conversations around sexuality. You'll hear from some of the most respected Christian voices on topics related to sexuality, like Jonathan Daugherty, Sean McDowell, Mary DeMuth, Preston Sprinkle, Dr. Doug Rosenau, Sam Allberry and more. There will be daily, live Q&A panels for you to get your questions answered. Whether you’re in full-time ministry, or a parent or lay leader who wants to disciple others, this digital event is for you.
Register today for Equip!
1 Mitricheva et al., “Neural Substrates of Sexual Arousal Are Not Sex Dependent.”
Photo by John Mark Smith on Unsplash