I’ve never been dumpster diving for groceries, or even furniture for that matter; but I have been dumpster diving for porn. I was 16 at the time. Some friends and I had been playing around at an abandoned high school when we noticed a guy pitching a pile of dirty magazines into the nearby dumpster. We left. But I came back, crawled into the dumpster, fished out 3 or 4 magazines, and hid them safely underneath the front seat of my car. Another man’s trash literally became my treasure. At least for a few weeks, before the shame of it all led me to toss them into another dumpster.
You may have noticed the articles floating around Facebook (like this one) over the last several months, talking about the rampant dangers of pornography. They’ve been batted back and forth like a beach ball of shame, at least on my Facebook wall they have. While we can and should keep our eyes open to what porn is doing to us, I want to ask a different question: why do we get addicted to porn in the first place?
This is where it would be easy to rehearse all the standard answers. Like, “It’s never been more accessible.” True. It’s like being able to get Walter White quality meth straight from your iPhone, then erasing it from ever happening at the touch of a button. Or, “It’s become normalized by our culture.” Fair point. This past semester on our campus a student organization hosted a welcome party where they ate cupcakes and watched porn on the big screen. Let me gently remind you that I don’t live in Los Angeles; I live in the Bible belt, where (sadly) looking at porn is typically a secret you never admit to lest you ruin the family name.
What if the answer is simpler without being simplistic? What if it’s as simple as porn feels good because intimacy doesn’t? Woody Allen once famously said, “Don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.” We could say the same about porn: “Don’t knock porn. It’s sex with someone I don’t have to love.” Porn is synthesized intimacy, which turns out may be even more addictive than crack. We look at porn because we’re afraid of the hard, heartbreaking work of knowing and being known, loving and being loved.
As much as I wish I could say that my struggles with porn were confined to high school, sadly I cannot. Like many of us, I genuinely believed that porn was a struggle marriage would fix. The problem with this theory is that if you’re used to meeting your sexual needs yourself, you’re not magically going to start trusting someone else to meet them. Sex, according to the Bible, is a deepening of intimacy, of. In the words of Tim Keller, it’s about making promises with your body that you’ve made with your life. That’s why older translations beautifully say, “Adam knew his wife.” Good sex is fundamentally other-centered. Porn, on the other hand, is fundamentally self-centered. Far from deepening intimacy, it cheapens it, because you don’t really want to know (much less love) the other person at all.
Pascal once wrote, “What a vast distance there is between knowing God and loving him.” We could say the same about porn. The problem isn’t that we don’t know what we should do, but that we lack the power to do it. It’s kind of like McDonald’s fries. The guilt you feel after eating them usually outweighs the pleasure you feel while eating them. Yet it’s hard not to eat them, regardless of how many articles your wife sends you about how bad they are for you, or how many names of chemicals you can't pronounce are in them. In the words of Jim Gaffigan, “Your mom has never made anything as delicious as McDonald’s french fries.” Similarly, you’ve probably never had sex as good as porn. Porn is the the McDonald’s fries of sex. You know it’s not real, and you know it's bad for you, but that’s actually part of its attraction. It’s strangely similar to Ian Bogost argument about the McRib: it’s “perversity is not a defect, but a feature.” We're addicted to the unreal because reality is the worst, or at least so we think.
19th century English pastor Thomas Chalmers once preached a sermon called “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection” (catchy I know). But in his sermon he says something profound:
“It is seldom that any of our tastes are made to disappear by a mere process of natural extinction. At least, it is very seldom, that this is done through the instrumentality of reasoning. It may be done by excessive pampering - but it is almost never done by the mere force of mental determination. But what cannot be destroyed, may be dispossessed and one taste may be made to give way to another, and to lose its power entirely as the reigning affection of the mind...Such is the grasping tendency of the human heart, that it must have a something to lay hold of - and which, if wrested away without the substitution of another something in its place, would leave a void and a vacancy as painful to the mind, as hunger is to the natural system.”
No amount of statistics or studies, or even exhortations will ever be enough to make us stop looking at porn. That’s not how it works. In the words of Brené Brown, “no one can be shamed or belittled into change.” The human heart must have something more satisfying to hold on to. That something is real intimacy; relationships in which we know and are known, love and are loved.
Sadly most of us don’t believe those two can go together, being fully known and truly loved. But the gospel says not only that they can go together, but that they do. Because the gospel is that Jesus knows you, the real you, with all of your destructive habits and addictions, and that’s the you He really loves. Not the Facebook you, or Twitter you, or dinner party you. The real you. That’s intimacy. And it’s possible in human form too. To have spouses and friends who know you at your worst, yet love you at their best. In a way, marriage does carry the cure for porn. But it’s not sex. It’s real intimacy.
There’s a scene in the movie 500 Days of Summer that I’ve always loved. Paul, one of Tom’s roommates, is being interviewed about his “dream girl” and he says, “The girl of my dreams would probably have a really bodacious rack. Maybe different hair. She’d probably be more into sports. But truthfully Robin (his girlfriend) is better than the girl of my dreams. She’s real.”
Porn will always make us feel good for a fleeting moment. But truthfully intimacy is better. It’s real.