Briefly Noted: The New Narcotic

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on November 18, 2013.]

The Internet is the most formidable and invasive drug dealer in the United States. So says Morgan Bennett in a recent edition of Public Discourse, published by the Witherspoon Institute.[1] Although the United States has nearly 2 million cocaine users and an additional 2 million heroin users (with 600,000 to 800,000 of them considered “hardcore” addicts), it claims more than 40 million regular users of online pornography.

In the article, Bennett begins by noting the growing body of research which proves that internet pornography is a narcotic, having just as potent an effect as cocaine or heroin. He cites Dr. Jeffrey Satinover, a former Fellow in Psychiatry at Yale, who writes,

With the advent of the computer, the delivery system for this addictive stimulus [internet pornography] has become nearly resistance-free. It is as though we have devised a form of heroin 100 times more powerful than before, usable in the privacy of one’s own home and injected directly to the brain through the eyes. It’s now available in unlimited supply via a self-replicating distribution network, glorified as art and protected by the Constitution.

The evaluations by Satinover and Bennett illustrate a moral concern that pastors and theologians have been noting for years.

The porn industry has experienced explosive growth over recent decades due to the rise of the internet and its pervasive availability. Bennett points to three major reasons that internet pornography is different, and deadlier, compared to earlier forms: (1) affordability, since there is a large volume of content available online for free; (2) accessibility; (3) anonymity. This has made access to a very powerful and addicting commodity incredibly easy and externally undetectable, but it can have severe consequences for individuals, families, and churches.

Bennett reviews several scientific sources about the effects of exposure to pornography. Bennett writes, “the same parts of the brain react to both illegal substances and sexual arousal. Dopamine, the chemical triggered by sexual arousal and orgasm is also the chemical that triggers addiction pathways in the brain.”

Continuing, Bennett provides a helpful explanation of the dangers of habitual exposure to pornography:

 Think of the brain as a forest where trails are worn down by hikers who walk along the same path over and over again, day after day. The exposure to pornographic images creates similar neural pathways that, over time, become more and more “well-paved” as they are repeatedly traveled with each exposure to pornography. Those neurological pathways eventually become the trail in the brain’s forest by which sexual interactions are routed. Thus, a pornography user has “unknowingly created a neurological circuit” that makes his or her default perspective toward sexual matters ruled by the norms and expectations of pornography.

God designed humans to live within the patterns he created. When humans sin by transgressing the laws of God––laws which are consistent with God’s very nature––the natural world is designed to provide negative reinforcement; sin breaks God’s intended shalom (a biblical word designating a state of universal flourishing, peace, and delight) and humans experience the resulting disorder and discomfort. A glutton, for example, will experience obesity and its deleterious health consequences. Or, alternatively, a compulsive overworker often will experience the loss of his family. To sin is to live “against the grain” of the universe.

Bennett notes that pornography has proven less satisfying than physical intimacy. It rewires the brain but at the same time does not evoke exactly the same chemical rewards as intimate sexual relations. Pornography-viewing, like sexual intimacy, does cause the release of dopamines (which are related with pleasure). However, unlike sexual intimacy, it does not release endorphins (which are related to a feeling of satisfaction).

Bennett notes, “This lack of satisfaction, combined with the brain’s competitive plasticity, causes the brain to require more and more novel and extreme images to get the same chemical result as before.”  In other words, “Tolerance in pornography’s case requires not necessarily greater quantities of pornography but more novel pornographic content.” There is a spiral effect of increasing desire and decreasing return which can lead to accelerated and increasingly harmful patterns of sexual sin.

Another major problem with pornography is its permanent consequences. Bennett writes, “While substances can be metabolized out of the body, pornographic images cannot be metabolized out of the brain because pornographic images are stored in the brain’s memory.” It may be possible to rewire the brain after habitual pornography use and the images may fade somewhat overtime, but there are permanent consequences to pornography that may negatively affect an individual’s relationships permanently.

The scientific evidence presented in Bennett’s article is consonant with biblical teaching on the consequences of sin in general and of sexual sin in particular. Following Cornelius Plantinga’s exposition of the biblical teaching, we note that sin is (a) a perversion: it takes a wonderful thing such as sex and twists it toward an entirely wrong end; (b) a pollution: it defiles a person’s marriage (present or future) by introducing alien intruders into their bed and onto their computer screen; (c) a disintegration: it divides a person’s heart between two masters, and divides their marriage; (d) a parasite: evil isn’t even its own entity. It is a blood-sucking parasite that lives off of the good things God created such as marriage; (e) a masquerade: it presents itself to a person as beautiful, but in reality it is ugly. Sin wears makeup that disguises its hideous nature. It must wear makeup, otherwise a person would never be attracted to its reality; (f) a folly: it is not only wrong but monumentally dumb; (g) an addiction: it is a spiral of death that will eventually siphon from a person’s life everything that is precious and good; and (h) a progression: it will not stop.

For a person caught in the deadly cycle of sexual sin, Scripture urges us to pray that they will come to their senses and allow Christ to break them free from their shackles and the many-faceted horror of their sin. It urges us to speak the truth about sexual sin, pointing out that porn addicts are wasting their lives by constantly driving around the same cul de sac of sexual stupidity, marital passivity, and spiritual rebellion.

For research and guidance on this very important issue, The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention provides resources which are helpful in dealing with the personal, social, and political ramifications of porn proliferation and addiction.

[1] Morgan Bennett, “The New Narcotic,” Witherspoon Institute, Public Discourse, 9 October 2013, <> (14 October 2013).

Guest Post (Greg Mathias): Is Bad Sex Killing the Great Commission?

[Editor’s Note: This guest blogpost is written by Greg Mathias, Associate Director of International Missions at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He writes about an ever-pertinent issue in Southern Baptist mission efforts.]

“The Smuttiest Cities in America” is the title of a recent article in Men’s Health Magazine. The article uses statistics of the number of DVDs purchased, rented, or streamed; adult entertainment stores per city; rate of porn searches; and the percentage of households who subscribe to a cable channel that shows soft-core porn to come up with a snapshot of the most ‘pornified’ cities in America. [1] The findings are disheartening on many levels, but what troubles me is that Raleigh, NC ranks as the #4 smuttiest city.

This troubles me because I am employed at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) which is in Raleigh’s backyard. A large number of our students and seminary employees live, raise families, and work in the Raleigh area. Every year we send many men, women, and families to the mission fields of North America and the globe.

God continues to bless SEBTS, yet I wonder if the numbers of those going overseas could be much, much more. Our primary international mission sending partner at SEBTS is the International Mission Board, SBC. According to their estimates 70-80% of applicants every year have some sort of pornography history, and many of these applicants are either slowed down in the application process or stopped all together.* A legitimate assumption is that these numbers are similar with the North American Mission Board, SBC as well.**

At SEBTS we are committed to equipping students to serve the Church and fulfill the Great Commission. Yet, according to this study, bad sex is undermining these efforts. Some fundamental issues are at stake when it comes to the corruptive nature of pornography:

  1. Questioning God’s Goodness. When you engage in pornography a fundamental assumption is that God is not good. James 1:17 reminds us that every good and perfect gift comes from the Father. God gave us the sexes as a good thing. He gave us sex within the bounds of marriage as a good thing. God is good. Pornography in any shape or form judges God’s provisions as not good enough.
  2. Living too Long on Fantasy Island. The world is not about you and your fantasies, nor is it a playground for your personal pleasures and desires. 1 John 2 tells us that this world, along with its desires, is passing away, but the mark of a true believer is one who is captivated by the will of God not the things of this world. It’s time to leave Mr. Roarke, Tattoo and “The plane!” behind and get back to reality!
  3. Laziness Trumps Self-denial and Discipline. It’s easy to click a mouse, type in a Google search or rent a DVD. Real relationships take time, work and energy. The Christian life is one of sacrifice and perseverance. Jesus reminds us of this very point in Luke 9:23. Paul urges us to be self-controlled lest we be disqualified in 1 Corinthians 9.
  4. Enslavement. Pornography is a common sin among many men and women in today’s world. Too many settle for an identity of sin and struggle. You are not your sin. In Romans 6, Paul tells us of our new identity as slaves of God, not slaves to sin. If you are in Christ, you have been set free indeed! Live like who you REALLY are.

We all need to live a confessional life before God and others. If you are one of those who struggle with pornography, I urge you to love God more than pixels or images. Sin always overpromises and under delivers. After the rush of adrenaline and excitement, you are only left with guilt and shame.

With any sin pattern, there are times when true freedom seems hopeless. If this describes you, the situation is not without hope. There is a way forward:

  1. Seek out help. This seems obvious, but there are people who can and will help you. Seek them out. Go to your pastor, your small group leader or another mature, trusted friend. Seek out those Proverbs 17:17 people. 1 Corinthians 10 reminds us that temptation does not automatically lead to sin. There is a way out.
  2. Get serious about God, your sin, and you. God hates sin. He is also better than anything that sin promises. Repent. Call your sin, sin and bring it into the light. 1 John 1 helps us see the need to live in the light. If we confess our sins God is the faithful one who forgives and cleanses us.
  3. Kill sin, don’t simply anesthetize it. John Owen powerfully states, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” Run from your sin. This will mean a radical lifestyle change and some brutally honest and invasive accountability with your spouse and others, like those people in number 1 above. Jesus is harsh on sin in Matthew 5. You should be just as harsh with your own sin. Remember, this will most likely take time. Proverbs 4:23 admonishes us to guard our hearts. This is a long and arduous process. For some, repenting of a certain sin is a onetime thing, but for most, a continual struggling repentance is the means to defeating sin and its entanglement.
  4. Consider NOT going…right now. Pornography does not automatically disqualify you from being used of God. God wants His name glorified among the nations, not your sin. Mission work often intensifies struggles and sin. Deal with your sin; allow time for healing and a new pattern to be formed in your life. The point is not to simply put off sin, but to also put on godly character (Colossians 3). Then consider where God may have you serve.

The Great Commission is our mandate. God is great and He has given us a Great Commission. Why aren’t more going? The complicated answer might be bad SEX.

*These are rough estimates. More research needs to be done in order to provide an accurate picture of pornography usage among IMB applicants. Also, these numbers do not take into account other sexual sins and deviations which hinder or stop applicants in the process.

**Research needs to be done to verify numbers with the North American Mission Board, SBC.