With three quarters of Australia’s young people viewing pornography, there just might be something to one of Christianity’s most popular bloggers, Canadian Tim Challies warning that the “church is losing a generation of men to pornography”.
Challies was in Sydney earlier this year, talking to parents about parenting in the digital age, where he gave his warning. He has written similarly on his blog, suggesting the church “will be weakened by young men who give so many of their best days to the worst purpose.” These young men will “burden their pastors with constant counselling to escape a sin they wanted to pursue,” and the church will see the effects of unstable families as husbands bring their porn habit into their marriages.
Meanwhile, Melbourne’s Burnet Institute for medical research published a first-of-its-kind study of the pornography viewing habits of Australian adolescents this month. It found that over 70 per cent of Australia’s young people aged 15 to 29 have viewed pornography. 61 per cent of males and 12 per cent of the women surveyed viewed pornography at least once a week in the past year. *
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The median age for first viewing pornography was at age 14, according to study author Dr Megan Lim. She told the ABC that some reported viewing pornography for the first time as young as 5 or 6 years old, presumably, she said, by accident.
15 per cent of Australian church attendees are aged 15-29, according to the National Christian Life Survey in 2011, a number that has been on the decline. So perhaps it’s time for churches to pay more attention to what might be causing those young people who are part of the church – and young men in particular – to go astray.
Dr William Struthers, a US neuroscientist and professor of psychology at Wheaton College would agree. He too visited Australia earlier this year, shedding light on how pornography affects people neurologically.
He says the church has been playing a chess game of sexuality for decades, but all its really been doing is moving around the pawns – concentrating on same sex marriage or how the church deals with gender. But while the church “dallies” with the pawns, the Queen ravages the board.
“The Queen, in our culture, is pornography. Pornography is devastating our people,” he told a room full of Anglican ministers in Sydney in July.
Dr Struthers says the church has been gobsmacked by technology, but it’s in the process of recovering from the initial shock.
“For the first 20 years of technology like the internet, [the church] just wanted to deny that pornography was a real issue. We say things like ‘just don’t look’ or ‘pray harder or ‘read these Bible passages’.
“There’s a great line in The Untouchables: ‘you brought a knife to a gun fight’. And that’s what the church has been doing.”
Pornography has become the sex education for a generation of men, says Dr Struthers. “Sexual content has been available for young men today, forever. It’s almost impossible to avoid pornography. It’s coming into their inboxes, it’s a click away.”
“We are creating a generational of psychological eunuchs. Men who don’t know how to think rightly about sex.”
Melbourne Christian Simon Camilleri spoke with Eternity in August about his personal experience of porn addiction. At his worst moments, Simon could look at porn for hours on end. He says it was never something he embraced. Rather, pornography had a hold on him, “it keeps sucking you in”. For Simon, pornography was a place of retreat from loneliness and stress.
Dr Struthers says that’s the case for most men addicted to pornography.
“More often than not, men don’t look at porn because they’re sexually frustrated. They do it because they’re lonely, they’re depressed, they’ve been rejected. They use porn to medicate some pain,” he said.
The problem so pervasive with pornography is that the addiction itself can make a person feel horribly isolated.
“Because the sexual impulse is about connectedness and relationship and intimacy, the more isolated you become, the greater that need is. If you’re feeding that need with porn, you’re feeding yourself into a place of increased isolation… and it just spirals down,” said Dr Struthers.
Simon said his porn addiction made him feel like a hypocrite, like he had no integrity. It’s why, says Dr Struthers, he often hears from people that “there’s no time that I feel less like Christ than when I’m being sexually immoral.”
The shame attached to porn addiction is felt perhaps the most in the church context, though outside the church there are rumblings that perhaps pornography is having a great impact on our culture than first expected.
“The church is going to have a generation of men who are adrift [in their shame] unless they can find their way back to church and the church can offer them a coherent reason for them to continue exploring who Jesus is,” says Struthers.
Simon’s pastor, Neil Chambers from Bundoora Presbyterian Church in Victoria, agrees.
“The church always has to offer people a better vision, of a life with real relationships that frees them from shame. There’s an emptiness to pornography. It’s like any sin; it leaves you, in the end, impoverished. And we’ve got true riches in Jesus that we have to engage people with.”
Neil says ministering to someone with a porn addiction requires a two-pronged approach.
“You can remove his internet connection, and use systems that alert you when he’s searching for things that he shouldn’t be online, but if somebody is determined to look at pornography, they will. That type of thing is important, but secondary,” says Neil.
“The most important thing to deal with is the heart.”
When Simon first came to Neil, it was because of problems in his marriage. Simon told Eternity that his pornography addiction had been a big factor in the breakdown of his marriage. But the extent of the problem wasn’t apparent to Neil at first.
“It was a slow revealing,” Neil says, as Simon himself came to grips with his own addiction and the impact it was really having.
Neil refers to a book by Tim Chester called Captured by a better vision: living porn-free as being particularly helpful as he sought to minister to Simon, and others like him. He says Simon needed to be renewed in the Gospel.
“Any sin drives you away from Christ. But in the context of pornography, you get an immediate satisfaction, and then an empty void. The satisfaction doesn’t last that long, but people can see it destroying their relationships. And then there’s the shame afterwards.”
Neil says reminding Christians addicted to pornography that they are fully forgiven– that all their actions are already known by Jesus, yet he still forgives – is one of the most important things. It can&rsqu
o;t be said just once. It takes time and consistency, both on the part of the minister seeking to help someone overcome porn addiction, and also from the one seeking to overcome.
“You have to keep reminding them of the gospel – how good it is to be saved by Jesus, and living consistently with that. But you’ve got to keep at it too. They need lots of encouragement.”
Ministering to someone with a pornography addiction – like any addiction – takes time. Thankfully for Neil, Simon was eventually allowed back into ministry, fully repentant and with a renewed desire to live for Jesus. Simon now runs Elephant Room, a ministry for other men addicted to pornography, that relieves much of the pressure on Neil’s time taken up by this issue.
But not all ministers have the same resources. And Neil agrees with Tim Challies and Dr Struthers: pornography addiction is an increasing problem for the church.
“You meet more and more blokes who have trouble in this area, and [as a minister] you’ve just got to keep returning to it,” says Neil.
“There will be a need for more ministries for pornography addiction, for people to be real about what they’re experiencing.”
 While Dr Lim said the study sample of over 1,000 young people who attended the Big Day Out festival over the past 6 years, was by no means a random sample, the survey findings are significant in what they can begin to tell us about Australian youth.
* Please note: an older version of this article erroneously reported that 73 per cent of those surveyed had viewed pornography at least once a week in the year.