“I’ve been struggling with an addiction to pornography since I was 11.” These words, spoken to me by Nathaniel*, the guy I was “talking to” at the time, were my first real encounter with pornography. Up until that moment, porn was only spoken about in hushed tones in the hallways of my high school. It was always in the context of the weird, slightly creepy guys, the ones who most of the girls in the school knew to avoid. But Nathaniel wasn’t like that. He was always up front at church, singing with the praise team. He was involved in children’s ministry and gave chapel talks. From the outside, he seemed like the perfect Christian guy. When he told me, Nathaniel was so vulnerable, so upset over this “struggle”. I wanted to be accepting. I respected him for his honesty and felt that I could trust him because he had told me, rather than concealing the truth. He was a good guy, he just had a problem he was “struggling with”. At the time, I had no idea how serious this revelation was, and navigating the relationship thereafter was a whole different ball game, one with rules that were difficult and painful to learn.
I’m just going to pause here to give a disclaimer. I have never struggled with a porn addiction. Furthermore, porn is far from being just a “guy issue”. However, what I have to share I have learned from navigating relationships with guys as a young woman, so that’s the perspective I will be drawing on and speaking to. My purpose is not to convince you that porn is a bad thing. That’s the work of others who have gone before me. I’m here to talk about what comes next, where the rubber of knowledge meets the road of real-life relationships. I can’t tell you exactly what to do, but I can tell you what I’ve learned, and share the clear, concrete advice that I wish had been given to me.
First, you cannot assume porn is not an issue for Christians and that you won’t have to deal with it. In general, sex isn’t talked about in church circles, so addressing a subject like porn can be challenging. If it is addressed, it’s often briefly brushed over as something that exists but should be avoided. However, just because it’s not talked about doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and won’t affect your relationships. Statistics show that the use of pornography among Christians is nearly on par with that of the rest of the world. The average age of first exposure to pornography is 11. By 14, 94 per cent of children will have seen porn while 76 per cent of young Christian adults aged 18-24 actively search for porn. This makes it a massive, massive issue in the church for both men and women.1 Given these mind-blowing statistics, it is far more likely than not that you are going to encounter porn in your dating life. It is vitally important that you be prepared to deal with it.
Second, no matter how good his intentions, if porn is an active part of his life, you are likely to get hurt. Youth pastors have porn addictions. The guys on the praise team have porn addictions. Some of the most godly-seeming guys you could meet have porn addictions. One of the things I struggled with most was where to draw the line for past or current porn use in a potential partner. Should he have never touched it? Should he be one year clean? Is it okay to date him if he’s still addicted but struggling and wanting to change? The answer will be slightly different for every person, but as a rule of thumb, if you’re going to date him, porn should be very clearly not a part of his life anymore. The Christian world likes to use the word “struggle” a lot in this area. This implies a battle, on its way to being won, but often, the term “struggling” cloaks the fact that sometimes the person in the actual battle isn’t making any progress in overcoming their addiction. As Westminster Theological Seminary professor David Briones puts it, “Many who ‘struggle’ really just want to be assured of God’s love for them as they enjoy a love-hate relationship with pornography . . . [this] struggle is no struggle at all.”2
A porn addiction is as much a psychological issue as it is a spiritual issue, and in many cases, the “trying not to do it” version of “struggle” simply doesn’t cut it. Concrete action needs to follow the intentions. Professional intervention is often required to beat an addiction. If he’s truly fighting, he will eventually overcome it, but if he’s still struggling, don’t begin a relationship with him. This may seem harsh, but trust me, you don’t want the anxiety, inadequacy and even potential abuse that can come with a porn addiction present in your relationship. Trying to help him overcome his addiction while dating him will just set you up as the bad guy policing him, and might lead to you feeling his failures as your own. Let him sort himself out, then come find you. No matter how godly he seems, or how repentant and torn up over it he is, if you’re going to have a healthy relationship, porn shouldn’t be a part of his life. And that means worked through and in the past. Not an “I struggle with it sometimes”, or an “I don’t like that I do it”, or even an “I promise I’ll never do it again”. It means completely, clearly, in the past.
So, how do you know if a porn addiction is in the past? Lengths of time between use are useless if the internal work and recovery is not done. Many guys can white-knuckle their way through a cold-turkey month or two before something triggers a relapse. If he’s serious about overcoming his addiction, it’ll show up in his life. He will change the things he watches. He’ll skip scenes in movies and TV shows. He’ll install blocker software and avoid certain websites. He’ll talk to trusted mentors or seek professional help. He’ll become more open about the topic, and will talk to others without anger or shame. He’ll lean into his relationship with God. He’ll learn about porn and how it affects the brain. You might notice that he becomes more sensitive to explicit content and that he stops making raunchy jokes. Most of all, you won’t have to poke and prod him to take these steps. He will take an active role in his own recovery. It will be obvious that he has changed. Your standard of whether or not to date him should be whether or not you can see the changes.
Finding a partner who doesn’t watch porn can seem hopeless. Many will tell you that it is impossible. Take courage; this is not true. Do not settle; this standard is worth keeping high. Many overcome their addictions completely and go on to have healthy, happy relationships. Brains previously addicted to porn can heal and rewire. A very wise person once told me that a man who has worked through and overcome a porn addiction will have developed strong character traits such as self-control and patience, and can actually be a better partner than someone who has never battled porn. That doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges, but our God can transform people’s lives in amazing ways, taking evil and working it for good. If you have met a wonderful person who has porn in their past but has completely overcome it, fear not. You may have met a keeper.
A shorter version of this article originally appeared in the Lake Union Herald.
* Not his real name.
Caitlin Jankiewicz is a maths teacher at Hills Adventist College, NSW.