As pornography has become more available over the Internet, it has been destroying a huge number of individuals' lives through addiction. But now it can be dealt with.
A few years back Nick Stumbo's life looked a lot like that of millions of men across America. Happily married with three beautiful children, Nick had a satisfying career, lived in a nice house, enjoyed some great friendships - and hid a dark, shameful secret: He was hopelessly addicted to pornography.
In Nick's case, the shame and guilt he faced daily because of his bondage to porn was magnified by the fact that he was also the pastor of a thriving evangelical Christian congregation, where scores of individuals and families regularly looked to him for encouragement and spiritual guidance.
"Every Sunday as I stood behind the pulpit to tell people about God's unconditional love and redemption, I was tormented by silent accusations that I was a phony and a failure," Nick recalled. "If my congregation knew about what I was viewing on my computer late at night, and the thoughts and lust I struggled with, my thinking went, they would get rid of me immediately. I was chased by a sense of worthlessness and self-loathing over this terrible addiction I had carried for nearly fifteen years."
An Epidemic Problem
Sadly, the bondage Nick battled alone for a decade and a half is far from unusual for men across America. According to a survey by the Barna Group on behalf of Proven Men, an organization that helps men struggling with sexual addiction, 64 percent of men in America are viewing pornography on a monthly basis, with 80 percent of men between 18 and 30, 67 percent of those between 31 and 49, and half of men between the ages of 50 and 68 viewing porn at least monthly.
In fact, according to Barna, nearly one-third of men between the ages of 18 and 30 either are - or think they are - addicted to pornography, and overall, nearly 20 percent of men in America - around 21 million of them - think porn is a problem for them.
And while statistically men struggle the most with porn, the easy access of pornographic materials has made it a growing issue for American women as well. Barna found that over 75 percent of American women between 18 and 30 years old view pornography at least once a month. A similar survey, conducted by Typeform for the magazine Marie Claire, found that over 30 percent of women seek out pornography at least once a week. Barna found that teen girls and women under 25 are significantly more likely to actively seek out porn than older women.
Overall, Barna found that one in three Americans - men and women combined - seek out pornography at least once a month.
And as it happens, the shame and guilt Nick faced as a Christian and a pastor struggling with pornography are encountered by millions of others who embrace the Christian faith. The Barna survey found that men who self-identify as Christian seek out pornography at roughly the same rate as those who claim no faith. And as for clergy, 57 percent of them admitted to a past or present struggle with pornography, and 64 percent of pastors who work directly with youth said they had struggled with porn. Not surprisingly, reported Barna, "the vast majority of faith leaders who struggle with porn say this has significantly affected their ministry in a negative manner."
As for Nick Stumbo, his own addiction to pornography, and his grief over how it was impacting his family and those to whom he ministered, led him to desperation. "For years I had done everything my faith-filled upbringing had taught me to do," he recalled. "I prayed, read Scripture, and memorized every Bible verse on lust, temptation, and freedom through faith in Christ. I also confessed my struggle wherever it seemed appropriate - to my pastor at summer youth camp, to my college student dean, to my first senior pastor, to my elder board, and on many occasions to my wife."
While those confessions to his wife, Michelle, stressed their marriage to the breaking point, they also helped position Nick to receive the help he needed to break free from his porn addiction. At a clergy conference Nick attended in 2010, one of the speakers was Dr. Ted Roberts, a pastor and therapist who has counseled and equipped thousands of men to conquer pornography and sexual addiction through faith in Christ and accountability to others. At Dr. Roberts' invitation, Nick sought counseling and freedom through a program Dr. Roberts had established for men and their families, called Pure Desire.
Through the Pure Desire program, Nick found hope and healing from the ravages of porn and sexual addiction. "My life was changed as I learned to walk in rigorous honesty, constructed meaningful guardrails around behavior, and discovered the wounds and false core-beliefs that were driving my behavior," explained Nick. "I was shown how brain science complemented a foundation of biblical truth to create lasting change in my thoughts and actions. I was set free from pornography addiction, and our marriage was placed on new, solid footing."
Additionally, one Sunday after Nick and his wife were well on their way to newfound freedom, Nick stood before his congregation, confessed his struggle with pornography, and asked forgiveness for his failure as their pastor. And while he had once feared rejection over such a revelation, the church's response was just the opposite, as his congregants embraced their pastor and his wife, and Nick's transparency over his sin and weakness actually helped others in the church face their own secret struggles. Explained Nick: "Rather than allowing sexually compulsive behavior to stay hidden, we brought it to the surface and began to deal honestly with its effect on people's lives and marriages."
Today, as the executive director of Pure Desire - the very organization that helped guide him out of addiction to pornography - Nick Stumbo is helping other men and families find freedom and wholeness.
An Honest Appraisal
As with Nick, successfully battling the crisis of pornography addiction - individually, in families, and in society as a whole - necessitates an honest appraisal of the problem, the consequences, and the required solution.
One uncomfortable truth is that although pornography addiction is typically seen as an adult problem, in actuality it permeates every age group, beginning with the very young. A generation or two ago, access to porn by kids often came through a boy stealing dad's stash from his hiding place in the basement. Today, however, pornographic images and videos are as easy for eight- and 10-year-old boys and girls to access and view as they are for 20-, 30-, and 50-year-old men and women.
In fact, depending upon whose statistics you're reading, the average age for an individual to be exposed to porn nowadays is either nine or 11 - which amounts to a distinction without a difference. For children to be exposed to porn at any age is nothing less than child sexual abuse.
As recently as 2016, Barna's research revealed that for American teens between the ages of 13 and 17, eight percent in- tentionally seek out porn on a daily basis, 18 percent on a weekly basis, 11 percent twice each month, and 57 percent seek out porn at least once each month.
And with online porn being a nearly $3 billion annual business, its growth has been exponential, with an estimated 12 percent of websites having some devotion to the distribution and sale of pornography. That means for the average adolescent (or younger), explicit, mind-searing pornography is just one Google search away.
Not surprisingly, such pervasive access to porn has liberalized the mind-set of many young people toward its tolerance. Among Barna's findings:
- 90 percent of teens and 96 percent of young adults are either encouraging, accepting, or neutral when they talk about porn with their friends.
- Only 43 percent of today's teens believe porn is bad for society, leaving nearly 60 percent with more permissive attitudes.
- Of 13- to 24-year-olds, only 57 percent believe that an image of a fully naked person that is sexually arousing constitutes pornography. That means under half have been conditioned to consider pornographic images as acceptable.
- A majority of teens and young adults aged 13 to 24 believe not recycling (56 percent) is worse than viewing pornography (32 percent).
What's the Big Deal?
In an increasingly permissive and morally deadened culture, many might wonder what is really wrong with viewing pornography. After all, for most young men in America, porn has been a rite of passage for decades, something almost every adolescent boy is exposed to at some point, in a school locker room, at a friend's house, or even by stumbling upon it in his own home. Most seem to make it through okay and end up more or less unscathed - right?
In reality, according to Dr. Roberts of Pure Desire, that "rite of passage" is leading millions of young men into the bondage of sexual addiction from which many may never find freedom. Roberts explained that an addiction to pornography goes beyond just a moral issue or a choice of willpower. "Over the last decade a number of studies of brain scans have verified the addictive nature of porn usage," he noted. "For some individuals, watching porn triggers a reward cycle deep within the brain, not unlike an addiction to cocaine or some other addictive drug. Such individuals begin to lose the ability to stop themselves from acting out. At that point the behavior has changed from simply a moral problem, to a neurological problem."
Roberts added that "nearly every man who has walked into my office for counseling has promised himself a thousand times he will never watch porn again. But as with any addiction, it's not that easy."
As for teens, Pure Desire's Nick Stumbo observed that increasingly children are being exposed to pornography before they even know what they are seeing. "The truth is that a young man alone in his bedroom could see more hardcore pornography in one night of secret binge-watching than his father had seen in his entire lifetime," Stumbo said.
Stumbo noted that the still-developing teenage brain is particularly susceptible to pleasure and to addiction. "So with the easy access to porn, there is a ready pathway that is setting up millions of teens for a potential lifetime of sexual addiction."
As young men, who have traditionally been the most impacted by sexual and other addictions, mature into adulthood, porn obsession can impact them in ways they never imagined, hampering their leadership in their homes and beyond, their moral integrity, their confidence and convictions, and what they ultimately pass on to their own children.
"Interacting with pornography by nature is an isolating, private behavior," explained Stumbo, "and for the majority of men caught in its grasp, it becomes an area of life for which they feel tremendous guilt and shame. It's a behavior they fear will cause others to reject them. This can lead to men who are either reserved and passive - who let life happen to them rather than making it happen - or, by contrast, men who feel the need to prove their manliness through their possessions, wealth, or physical appearance."
On a broader societal level, because sexuality has become such a commodity in media and advertising, males from an early age have become conditioned to view women primarily in sexual terms, a concept on which porn purveyors have capitalized. Observed Stumbo: "The collective effect is that men are increasingly being stuck in this unreal, objectivized view of women and sexuality, and are paying a steep prices for it, as we have seen in things like the #metoo movement, where men with significant influence have found themselves in deep trouble over their sexual behaviors."
What it all boils down to, he added, is that "we live in a society that baits men right up to the edge sexually by the availability of pornography, and then penalizes them for acting out what pornography has conditioned them to believe."
The Way to Freedom
While our secularized culture has been particularly adept at creating ever more enticing ways to entangle men, boys, and even women and girls in an inextricable web of shame and guilt through the bondage of pornography, it has been almost entirely inept at offering a way out - try as it might. As with any addiction, secular programs and strategies aimed at guiding individuals mired in porn and sexual bondage to freedom have met with marginal results. And the reason is simple: The shame and guilt that individuals bear in silence over their enslavement to perversion requires a moral solution for freedom.
It is precisely for that reason that most individuals and families devastated by pornography find freedom through programs and structures that emphasize repentance, redemption, and accountability - in short, faith and trust in a "higher power." The incredible success and freedom generations of men and women have found through Alcoholics Anonymous makes sense when one realizes that the program's iconic "Twelve Steps" to freedom focus almost entirely on taking responsibility for one's actions and circumstances, and in turning to God for redemption and guidance, and to others for accountability.
Similarly, one of the most successful addiction treatment programs in the world over the past 40-plus years has been Teen Challenge, which has recorded an overall success rate of 70 percent for those who have completed its one-year program of Christian, Bible-based mentorship and accountability. A 2011 study by the Minnesota-based Wilder Foundation found that of the Teen Challenge graduates polled, the majority cited the program's Christian elements as foundational to their success in beating addiction.
So it is little surprise that the greatest success in breaking an addiction to pornography has been found through programs that rely on the precepts of the Christian faith as their foundation. Programs such as Every Man's Battle, Proven Men, Covenant Eyes, and others offer individuals and families the help they need in a safe environment of understanding and compassion.
One of the most successful of these faith-based efforts is Pure Desire, begun by Dr. Ted Roberts over 30 years ago as he realized the depth of need in a struggling congregation he was called upon to pastor. Roberts was successful in turning the church around, and its numbers swelled to several thousand members, with most of the new individuals and families from backgrounds where faith in God had not been emphasized. "I found myself overwhelmed by the fact that the vast majority of folks showing up each week were totally unchurched, and were also deeply addicted," Roberts recalled. "You name it and they were addicted to it. And because they were so unchurched and new in their faith they didn't hide the fact that sexual addiction lay at the root of many of their deepest struggles. It was literally tearing families and marriages to shreds."
It was the mid-1980s, and as Roberts searched throughout the Christian community for anyone who was addressing the problem of pornography, he found it a taboo subject among Christians in general. As he began looking through the secular counseling resources for some direction, Roberts discovered the research of Dr. Patrick Carnes, a counseling pioneer in the area of sexual addiction. "I ended up contacting Dr. Carnes, who became my mentor in this new adventure, and who graciously allowed me to take his invaluable research and model, and add a biblical, Christian foundation for the individuals I was working with," recalled Roberts. "That was the foundation of our Pure Desire program, and after more than 30 years, thousands of men across America and around the world have walked through our ‘Seven Pillars of Freedom,' with the result that untold marriages, families, and lives have been redeemed and restored."
Stumbo emphasized that the success of the Pure Desire model comes through its combination of the best of traditional research and counseling models, along with the foundation of biblical truths and faith in God.
"I believe this model is so effective at creating true change in a person's life because we combine several vital components in the healing process," he explained. "That includes a commitment to accountability and cooperation in a small group of individuals to whom those in need can be open and vulnerable, and whom they can trust. Until someone is willing to come out of isolation, this battle is almost impossible to beat alone. We have developed group materials for men, women, and teens, all of them aimed at creating safe places where people learn to share their stories and see the impact their experiences have had on them."
He added that "we also utilize the very best of brain science and psychological research in our materials. In order for someone to find freedom, he has to understand how this issue has impacted his thinking, and how to change that thinking."
Most important, Stumbo said, "this proc-ess is so successful because we build it all on a deeply Christian, biblical foundation. We believe that all truth is God's truth, and when we learn to apply his truth to the issue of pornography and sexual addiction, along with community and understanding of the brain, real change can happen."
Becoming a Conqueror
A few years ago Roberts was approached by filmmaker Jeremy Wiles to host a video project that addresses the issue of pornography in a no-nonsense manner geared for men, offering solid Christian perspective and hope for men struggling with porn addiction. The result was the Conquer Series, a six-disk DVD program and curriculum that uses Dr. Roberts' history as a U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot during the Vietnam conflict as a backdrop to teach men how to conquer porn addiction and find freedom through Christian and biblical counsel and guidance.
"We spent two years developing this six-hour series, interviewing top Christian leaders and shooting battle reenactments to illustrate the war that every man faces with sexual temptation," recounted Wiles. "We wanted to give men proven principles on how to find freedom. We believe that this can be the generation that changes the troubling statistic on pornography."
The impact of the Conquer Series has been nothing short of phenomenal. Since its release in 2014, the series has been viewed by nearly one million men, and has brought help and wholeness to thousands of men and their families.
Roberts said the effectiveness of the series lies in how it communicates the process of dealing with sexual bondage in a manner that is engaging to today's generation of men. "I believe it is the perfect introduction both for those struggling with pornography or sexual addiction, as well as for individuals, churches, or groups who would like to be a part of the solution to the destructive scourge of pornography."
While it is easy for those who have not been directly impacted by pornography to dismiss it as someone else's struggle, Stumbo believes that it is an issue everyone must be willing to talk about. "The truth is that nearly everyone has been impacted in some way by sexual brokenness, either directly or through the experience of a loved one or friend," he said. "It's time to make the porn problem front and center and stop keeping it off-limits. If we can cultivate healthy, mature conversations about sexuality in our families and close circles, and address how pornography is destroying the lives of people in those close circles - that is the beginning of real change. While it's a conversation that may start with men, ultimately it must extend to our wives, to our children, and to the communities we call home."
Image: Shironosov via iStock / Getty Images Plus
This article originally appeared in the May 6, 2019 print edition of The New American. The New American publishes a print magazine twice a month, covering issues such as politics, money, foreign policy, environment, culture, and technology. To subscribe, click here.