Porn: It’s Not About Sex

Seeking fulfillment in all the wrong places

By Michael Cusick

My junior year of high school, I made my first serious effort to overcome my addiction to porn. One day, when no one else was home, I grabbed my stash of hardcore porn magazines and carried them down to the basement incinerator where we burned our garbage.

With a strange mixture of anxiety and pride, I opened the incinerator, placed the magazines inside, and said good-bye to my struggles with lust, masturbation, and pornography. I lit a match and held it to a centerfold that burned with the fiery intensity it used to ignite in me. As I closed the lid, I imagined my compulsive sin going up in smoke.

You can probably guess what happened next. Months later I repeated the same pattern, except with a new stash of porn.

And the struggle continued for two more decades. So many men struggle in the same way with a sincere effort to quit because they believe their lust and pornography problem is about sex. But as strange as it may seem, the problem is not about sex.

So what is it about?

Two thousand years ago, Paul offered guidance to a sexually broken and confused church under his care: “There’s more to sex than mere skin on skin. Sex is as much spiritual mystery as physical fact” (1 Cor. 6:16 MSG).

Paul was explaining to these men and women who were involved in adultery, prostitution, and virtually every other kind of sexual sin, “What you’re doing is not actually about sex.” Beyond the obvious—bodies seeking and experiencing pleasure—all of us reach toward something we cannot see, touch, or comprehend on the physical level.

This truth is utterly profound. Understanding it helps us gain insight into why our sexuality can be so compulsive. If we seek on the physical level what can only be obtained on a spiritual level, then we set ourselves up for a never-ending cycle that only leads to desperation, despair, and bondage.

Like all idols, porn promises us something we desire. In reality, it overpromises and underdelivers. From my experiences, research, and observations, porn promises fulfillment of five key desires, all without responsibility.

Porn promises validation of our manhood without requiring strength.

When talking with men about their struggle with porn, I’ll often ask, “Where in your life do you typically feel the strongest and manliest?” Most of the time this stumps them because they don’t have a category in their minds for thinking about their strength and masculinity. But then, almost to a man, they relate to feeling strong at work, playing sports, doing ministry, or engaging in some other hobby.

In more than 20 years of counselling, however, I’ve never heard a man initially respond by saying that he felt the most manly and strong in relation to his wife, fiancée, or girlfriend. Most men don’t feel terribly strong or adequate in the presence of a real, live woman. And yet, God designed our masculine souls to be energized by offering ourselves on behalf of our female counterparts.

Enter porn, which allows us to have our cake (“I feel strong and masculine”) and eat it too (no strength or masculinity required). What makes pornography so addictive,” writes John Eldredge, “is that more than anything else in a man’s life, it makes him feel like a man without ever requiring a thing of him.” The allure of porn is that it makes us feel like men—contrary to a woman in real life—and it never rolls its eyes at us or turns away in bed.

Struggles with porn confirm our suspicions that we do not have what it takes to be a man. C. S. Lewis understood this when he wrote that every time a man masturbates, he chips away at his manhood.

Porn promises sexual fulfillment without relationship.

A prominent billboard on the corner of a major intersection where I live advertises an adult store. Its message is short and sweet: “Cheaper Than Dating!”

It may seem funny or clever at first, but the message couldn’t be any clearer: Do you desire sexual pleasure? Don’t even bother with a real woman. Just satisfy your appetite from our all-youcan-eat buffet of endless sexual variety.

One of my claims to fame in high school was that I never went to a dance and never went on a date. Once, a girl I actually had a crush on asked me to a dance. I wanted to go with her, but I lied and told her I was busy.

A few times in high school I got close to pursuing girls I liked. But just when my confidence reached a certain point, I would find myself inescapably drawn to porn, would masturbate, and would ultimately lose any sense of confidence that I had anything to offer a woman. With my regular intake of soul steroids, I steadily chipped away at my manhood, convincing myself that I didn’t need a girlfriend. Even though, deep inside, I desperately longed for one.

Porn promises intimacy without requiring risk and suffering.

I recently asked a client to tell me how he felt about conflict in his marriage and closest relationships. Without hesitating he related that he wrote “Avoid Conflict” at the top of his to do list every day. We both laughed. Then I asked, “Do you see the connection between your goal to avoid conflict and your addiction to porn and lust?”

At first he gave me a blank stare. Then the lights started to come on. He realized that he had never really exposed his heart to his wife, family, coworkers, and friends. To avoid conflict he never shared what he really thought, felt, or wanted. As a young boy growing up in a family that prized heartless compliance and maintaining a rigid religious appearance, he learned to avoid disappointing others.

In his marriage, rather than risk moving toward his wife and sharing his heart, he turned to porn to meet his need for intimacy. Behind his struggle for porn stood a self-protective commitment to keep his heart safe from the disappointment and rejection he had come to know so well.

C. S. Lewis once wrote, “The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from the dangers of love is hell.” Though at first they seem like a slice of heaven, porn and lust are a kind of hell. They offer us false intimacy, safeguarding our hearts from the perils of true intimacy. But porn ultimately makes our hearts incapable of the very thing we long for. Our hearts become incapable of love.

Porn promises passion and life without connection to your soul.

In the film American Beauty, Lester Burnham is a 42-year-old office worker who is going through a midlife crisis and has lost his soul. At the beginning of the film, he narrates his life, divulging that he will be dead within one year.

“In a way I’m dead already,” he relates. “Look at me. Jerking off in the shower. This will be the high point of my day. It’s all downhill from there.” Is this scene just an exploitive attempt at crude humor by some faithless Hollywood writer? I wish I could say this was the case. But for many men, porn is the high point of their day. It offers a reliable way to feel passion and life. Even if just for a moment.

Of course, as human beings created in God’s image, we were designed to experience life. Jesus said that we were meant to live life to the full (see John 10:10). But for men who have lost their souls, the moments of escape, relief, or validation from porn become a substitute for the life Christ offers.

Porn promises power over women without responsibility and humility.

A former client was mystified as to why porn held him in its grip. But his marriage was in serious trouble, and he was highly motivated to get to the bottom of his addiction.

“I know it’s pretty immature,” he confessed. “But masturbation is my way of sticking it to my wife.” When he and his wife argued, if she overspent, or if she declined his sexual advances, he turned to porn in order to make her pay.

As our conversations continued, the focus shifted from porn to the deeper issue of why he felt so powerless with his wife. For him, porn was only a symptom of a much deeper issue related to his broken masculinity.

A man may feel legitimate power in the presence of a woman. But true power is never power over a woman. A man seeks power over a woman because he is empty, needy, and broken, and believes he must use her to fill himself. True power, the power that Jesus consistently demonstrated, is power under. True power never devalues, dehumanizes, coerces, or controls. Instead, it serves, gives sacrificially, and acts for the good of the other. Power under is the way of the cross, the way of humility. As men, we are called to live out our legitimate power with responsibility and humility.

Porn promises comfort and care without depending on others.

Raymond was a single seminary student. A charismatic and respected leader on campus, no one would ever suspect him of spending over five hours every day involved in porn and cybersex. When we met, he wondered if he was even a Christian. Years of battling lust had left him defeated, and now he realized he needed serious help.

I listened to Raymond’s story and learned that he grew up an only child, raised by a single mom. To make ends meet, she worked two jobs, leaving her with little time or energy for Raymond. By fourth grade, he had learned to wash his clothes and cook for himself. He spent several nights a week alone after school and regularly put himself to bed. Television became his main source of comfort. One night Raymond discovered that he could turn to the adult channels and listen to sexually explicit dialogue. As he grew into his teenage years, he traded sexually explicit dialogue for online porn.

The end of his addiction began when he identified porn as the only way he could experience care and nurturing. It had never occurred to him that beneath his shame-filled compulsions were a hunger and thirst for something legitimate and good.

If you’re struggling with porn, have you ever asked yourself what’s really going on beneath your craving? What is your heart’s real desire, the legitimate need desperately crying out to be heard? Not only can you overcome your sexual struggles, but you can also enjoy life at a level you may have never experienced.

It’s called joy.

Michael Cusick is a professional counsellor and spiritual director, Promise Keepers Canada speaker and the author of Surfing for God: Discovering the Divine Desire Beneath Sexual Struggle. He, his wife Julianne, and their two children, live in Littleton, Colorado.


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