William Struthers is dedicated to understanding the brain. In his role as associate professor of psychology at Wheaton College (IL), Struthers teaches courses on behavioral neuroscience—biological reasons why people make the decisions they do. In Wired for Intimacy: How pornography hijacks the male brain (IVP, 2009), Struthers explores the science behind why men find pornography compelling, what it does to their brains, and how they can find freedom. Leadership associate editor Brandon O'Brien spoke with Struthers to find out how pastors can help men break the patterns of pornography abuse.
Why is it important for pastors to understand the science behind pornography abuse?
They need to understand how a human being is put together. If we don't understand what a human being is, then we won't be able to minister to him effectively. The tools we use to address porn addiction often don't work because they are based on a wrong assumption about who we are as human beings.
Do we also have false ideas about sexuality?
Yes. Many people think that sexuality is mainly a physical issue. But the Christian view is that sexuality is fundamentally about being made in the relational image of God. People are made for relationship; and when you start talking about how humans relate to one another, you have entered the realm of psychology. Human sexuality, then, is both physical and psychological.
What underlies the desire for pornography is the desire for intimacy—for relationship. Pornography promises a form of intimacy. But then it reduces intimacy to intercourse.
You warn against calling all pornography use "addiction." Why?
Christians talk about a struggle with pornography as "porn addiction." But most clinicians know that, much of the time, it's not an addiction. Men view pornography for many reasons. Sometimes it just comes to mind impulsively, so they do it. Other men are compulsive; they may think about it all day and create a tension that makes it difficult to control their behavior when they get home. Some view pornography because they're bored, some because they get a high that helps them not feel depressed, or because they can't sleep.
We can only help men address the issue when we pay attention to the different reasons they view pornography. We wouldn't treat depression and ADD in the same way. Similarly, we shouldn't treat pornography use the same way when the root cause is a compulsive personality versus low self-esteem, or a sexual impulse problem versus intimacy issues in his marriage. In other words, the opportunity for healing is greater when we can identify the root problem. Instead of saying, "His problem is that he likes porn," we should recognize that the pornography use is likely a symptom of a deeper issue.
Is that why accountability groups are limited in their effectiveness?
Accountability groups often make everything about the pornography. That narrow focus can actually be isolating and shaming. Feeling more isolated makes men desire greater intimacy, which can drive men to pornography. It becomes a vicious cycle.
What do you recommend instead?
Accountability groups need to develop true intimacy. That means addressing how men are treating their wives and kids, and making sure they're taking time for themselves. This takes a group of men that really know you.
Recovery is a neurological process, much as body building is a muscular process. Each time you view pornography, for example, you reinforce that neurological path. The intimacy developed in accountability groups can reinforce different, more virtuous, pathways in the brain. They can help us begin to see all people differently—not as potential sexual partners or opponents, but as people made in the image of God. This can lead to intimacy not just along gender lines, but along generational lines as well.