“He won’t have sex with me.”
After only a year of marriage the newlywed couple I had provided pre-marital counseling for was facing a significant difficulty. It had taken about twenty minutes of chit-chat on the phone with this young bride before she could bring herself to declare the awful reality of their marriage. Try as he might, her husband could not find any arousal from their sexual partnership. Instead, his use of porn, in isolation from his wife, seemed to be the only avenue that worked. They were both devastated and shocked. He never dreamed that regular porn use would make him impotent in his marriage.
Female and male partnerships grow out of the gospel of Christ and the knowledge that women and men are both God’s image-bearers and dearly beloved children. Some of these partnerships are in a vocational context or platonic intimacy of friendship as sisters and brothers in Christ. Marriage is a gospel partnership whose covenantal bond allows for deep vulnerability found in intentional, embedded life together. One of the great and tragic ironies of our modern age is that the very aspects of human life that are created for intimacy and connection, like sexual partnership within a marriage, have been distorted to create isolation and disconnection instead.
“Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink.”1 This quote from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is an illustration I find helpful for revealing the insidious evil that lurks in the broken parts of our relationships. Imagine you are stranded in the ocean without clean water, like those in the poem. Wouldn’t it be maddening being surrounded by undrinkable water? Wouldn’t it be tempting to take a few sips anyway, because surely some saltwater would be better than no water at all?
When something seems to have all the right properties of the very thing we desire, it is a betrayal of nature when the consumption of this “water” backfires. Drinking saltwater causes all kinds of maladies in addition to dehydration and increased thirst. This is the distinct affliction of porn on a healthy relationship.
We all crave intimacy. Attachment theory shows us our development is shaped by intimate attachments that start from the very beginning of life. Our Creator designed us to seek intimate relationships throughout our lives. This is a gift of God’s grace. As we seek intimacy our thirst can lead us to the life-giving water of healthy relationships. Like clean water for our bodies, safe relationships built on the gospel truths of confession, repentance, restoration, and grace can be a refreshing joy of life.
There are any number of reasons why our thirst for intimacy might drive us to drink saltwater instead. Porn is one kind of “saltwater” or false intimacy in relationships. It is particularly insidious because it looks like what we crave: it mimics intimacy and relationship. Instead, porn produces isolation, dysfunction, and shame. It dehydrates what healthy intimacy we may have, and it leaves us aching for more intimacy in any way we can find it—often leading us to more porn.
Like the young newlywed couple I counseled, my heart breaks when the possibility for healthy, mutual intimacy is replaced and rent by a habit that produces the very opposite of what intimacy desires. Porn is a thriving industry built on exploitation and destruction. It promises a shortcut to satisfaction by trading connection for isolation, dignity for exploitation and violence, and intimacy for enmity. The saltwater lives up to its essence, producing greater thirst and affliction. This fracture is a threat to the gospel partnership in marriage. God has called women and men to work together, but porn is a counterfeit, saltwater intimacy, and it creates distance where our Creator has called for closeness.
The Lies of Scarcity
In her book Things Your Mother Never Told You, Kim Gaines Eckert writes:
If sexual addiction is about consumption, then healing is about intimacy. Addiction leads people to value possession and consumption of sexual stimuli over anything else. God calls us to pursue intimacy with God and others over all things.2
The allure of porn is more complex than just sexual arousal. Unfortunately, there is a trend in churches, youth groups, and Christian culture generally to merely focus on arousal as the root of porn use. Is it any wonder that porn use remains rampant in our churches? If our hope is to simply contain our sexual appetites through sheer will, we have missed out on the freedom offered us through the power of the Holy Spirit. If we want to combat this addiction, it is important to discern the condition of our souls.
When we begin to justify the consumption of saltwater intimacy, like porn, it is because of lack. If we do not have clean water, we become dehydrated and panic. This urgent scarcity can drive us to grasp at anything and everything that promises even a glimmer of the intimacy for which we thirst.
As Christians we need to remember that we have the Holy Spirit and the promise of God’s loving presence. God has adopted us and now gives us everything for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3, NRSV). Our new identities in Christ are ones of abundance and care. Even in the troubles of this world, the transcendent power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ allows us access to a fruitful, flourishing life.
The enemy of this world cannot change what is true about us in Christ, but if we can come to believe something untrue, then we can start to feel as though we are still orphans. For the young husband in my story, he had battled a lie of relational scarcity for most of his life. This lie of scarcity and the grip of shame that flowed from his embracing a saltwater intimacy held him hostage. Even after starting a wonderful marriage with a wife he loved deeply, it took a lot of time and work to flush out the salty effects of his long-term use of porn.
A Call to Drink Fresh Water
I’m happy to say that with grace, counseling, a loving community, and regular re-engagement with the gospel truths that reinforce their identity in Christ, this couple was able to work toward a healthier intimate relationship. It is an ongoing process, but if you are someone on this journey, or wondering if you have what it takes to start, the gospel reminds us that we are made for healthy, grace-filled intimacy within a kingdom of abundance and love. You will need people who can support this journey and remind you of truth along the way. But because of Christ we have access to a power that invites us to goodness and hope. Will we be a community that reminds each other that we are not made for saltwater intimacy, but are invited to follow Jesus to the freshwater well of intimacy he desires for us?
This article is from “The Problem of Porn,” the Autumn 2022 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in The Poetical Works of S.T. Coleridge, ed. Henry Nelson Coleridge (London: W. Pickering, 1834), part 2, lines 121–22.
- Kim Gaines Eckert, Things Your Mother Never Told You: A Woman’s Guide to Sexuality (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), 92.