"Wash Me Thoroughly": Healing from Pornography Use and Addiction
by Daniel Spadaro
Note: This article is part of the USCCB "Clean Heart" series and is a companion resource to the USCCB formal statement Create in Me a Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography; a printed pamphlet version of this article and others may be purchased at the USCCB online store.
"Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!" (Psalm 51:2, RSVCE)
Striving for a Clean Heart
We are made for love. Each of us is created in the image of God, who is love (1 Jn 4:8), and we are given the vocation of love and communion. Jesus Christ, through his Life, Death, and Resurrection, revealed the fullest meaning of love as a sacrificial gift of self. He offered up his body for his bride, the Church (Eph 5:25-26). We are each called to imitate this Christ-like love, including in the exercise of our sexuality as men and women.
But we all struggle to love well and chastely. Living our vocation to love brings the daily challenge of recognizing the beauty of each person we encounter. Today more than ever, maintaining a "clean heart" is difficult for everyone. We are bombarded with sexualized images all the time, and pornography is only a click away. Many good men and women struggle with pornography use. Often they are longing to be loved, to experience joy, or to find relief from the difficulties of life. But what is presented as liberating, euphoric, and fulfilling ends up creating frustration, emptiness, and shame. Pornography, and the masturbation that usually accompanies it, can become addictive behaviors (see below). Using pornography impacts the whole person, body and soul, and thus healing is needed for the mind, the emotions, one's relationships, and the spiritual dimensions of the person.
It is important to remember that no matter what you have done, you retain your dignity as a son or daughter of God, loved by the Father. What sin has disintegrated, grace can reunite and make whole. Thanks be to God for his great gifts of mercy and healing!
Pornography and Women
Pornography has been traditionally viewed as a man's issue, but there are a growing number of women who use pornography or are addicted to it. Though it is not the same for all, women may initially seek out online social interaction as a way of experiencing romance. Some women are introduced to pornography by a boyfriend or husband and then become ensnared. It is likely that the Internet has facilitated the rapid acceleration of women using pornography, providing more anonymity and accessibility. The Internet offers a "safer" version of experimentation for women who may have been used or hurt in past relationships. Women, too, need help to find freedom from pornography.
What Constitutes Addiction?
How can you tell if you or someone you love has an addiction to pornography? A simple time-tested definition of addiction relies on the presence of four characteristics:
- Powerlessness or a loss of control; failure to resist the impulse to use pornography and continuing despite efforts to stop
- Progression can be an escalation in frequency and amount of viewing, lying to others as well as engaging in more risky behaviors both on and off-line, such as accessing pornography at work
- Preoccupation with sexual thoughts, fantasies, and acquiring sexual material
- Pain or despair as a result of pornography use or its consequences
Addiction fools the mind of the affected person into not recognizing the gravity of the situation. If you or someone you love has been compulsively viewing pornography over an extended period of time, despite efforts to stop, it is best to seek advice from a counselor trained in understanding and healing addiction.
Where to Start
In order to change any behavior or attitude, you must take full responsibility for doing something about it. Many people have the desire to change but are not entirely willing to do so. It is often more comfortable to allow a problem to continue than to exercise a solution. The first step toward healing is a sincere willingness to take the steps that are needed, even if they are uncomfortable.
Cultivating chastity takes work...It is a lifelong task and a daily choice. Be patient, persevere, and do not be discouraged. —Create in Me a Clean Heart, p. 22
Having a vision for why you want to break free from pornography is also very helpful. For example, seeking freedom could be motivated by the desire to save your marriage, live with integrity, or fulfill your role as a father or mother. Pain is often an initial motivator. The journey toward purity is like climbing a mountain, and we don't want to stop short. We want to reach the summit and receive the abundant joy and peace God has for us.
Healing the Mind
In order to break free from attachment to pornography, it is important to understand the neurological aspects of pornography use and addiction and to counter negative thought patterns.
At a neurological level, our brains become attached to viewing pornography because sexual arousal stimulates dopamine in the brain, a neurochemical that promotes connection with activities that bring us joy or a sense of satisfaction.1 In the case of viewing pornography, we are training our brains to respond to and enjoy an image or fantasy, not a real person. But since the brain does not differentiate between imaginary and real, it is flooded with the same neuro-chemicals as produced by real sexual intimacy. In fact, the types of images found in pornography cause over-stimulation of the brain, which then wants to repeat the activity and is "triggered" by anything associated with it (being home alone, the computer turning on, etc.). Eventually, repeated over-stimulation caused by viewing pornography decreases our ability to experience normal levels of pleasure and reduces the brain's ability to regulate impulse and mood.2
The good news is that our brains are more changeable, or plastic, than we may have realized. It takes time, effort, and support, but it is possible to heal the neurological damage caused by viewing pornography. A good way forward is to abstain from all behaviors that lead to sexual stimulation for an initial month. (Support and accountability are needed here.) During this time, it can be helpful to reduce caffeine intake and increase non-media-based activities like exercise. It is helpful to journal about emotions and situations that were "triggers" for pornography use and to talk with others for additional insight. Eventually, over the course of thirty to sixty days, our brains begin to heal from the over-stimulation caused by pornography and many of the former triggers are felt less intensely.
It is also important to examine one's beliefs, emotions, and thoughts. The cycle of pornography use and addiction is perpetuated by distorted views of one's self and others and is fueled by shame.3 Distorted thinking includes avoidance of facing negative emotions and using denial tactics such as blaming, rationalizing, and minimizing. Other common attitudes that need to be examined and healed are self-centeredness or narcissism, self-pity, and being manipulative. A good goal is to be aware of your negative or distorted beliefs and counter them with the truth that God made you, loves you, and desires for you to be free from sexual compulsion. Often counseling or a support group is a significant help here.
Pornography can cause significant harm to a person's relationships. Viewing pornography changes how men and women see each other. It takes time away from one's relationships and can cause serious hurt and betrayal when discovered by a spouse or loved one. At the same time, men and women who struggle with pornography use may have unhealed relational wounds or problematic ways of interacting with others that led them to seek intimacy in pornography in the first place. For example, some families of addicted men or women had unwritten rules such as "don't show emotions" or "deal with your problems alone," which prevented the development of a healthy sense of cohesion and intimacy in the family. For some people, the fear of being known—and possibly rejected—leads to hiding aspects of one's self, avoiding intimacy, or trying to control relationships.
Relational healing takes place in many ways, but being accountable to others is one of the best starting points. Accountability can include the use of monitoring or filtering software, but it is much more than that. Accountability involves humbly giving oneself over to the guidance of others who have more experience and have reached a deeper level of freedom from pornography. Joining a group of men or women who support each other on the journey toward purity can be very helpful. A counselor, spiritual director, or mentor can also play an important role by offering feedback and insight to help a person engage in healthy relationships and recognize his or her relational deficits, such as insecurity, approval-seeking, need for control, self-pity, etc. These need to be healed because they may make a person vulnerable to pornography use. True intimacy with others, as opposed to the illusory intimacy promised by pornography, allows a person to share his or her life, emotions, and joys with another person. This is the kind of communion we were all made for.
Finally, using pornography has profound effects on a person's spiritual life and damages his or her relationship with God. Someone caught in the cycle of habitual pornography use often feels distant from God and even unforgivable. Confessing one's sins is a powerful practice that can help one receive healing. At the human level, honestly disclosing your struggles and sins to other people in order to seek their help can be beneficial. For example, mutual confession within the context of a supportive group can help men and women grow in humility and be accountable to one another. At the sacramental level, the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation communicates God's healing grace. This sacrament forgives sin through God's abundant mercy, breaks the cycle of shame, and offers graces for protection from future sin. Regular confession is a source of strength for men and women seeking to live pure, chaste lives and embrace God's plan for love and sexuality, a plan that leads to human flourishing.
Forgiveness, too, is important to the process of spiritual healing. When a person admits the reality of his or her pornography use, the harm caused by it starts to become clear. It is important for a person to address and make amends for the harm that was caused. In turn, when the person who is seeking freedom offers forgiveness to others, this activates God's healing grace in all their lives.
Do not let the obstacles of denial, shame, fear, despair, or pride keep you from relying on the Lord's grace. Believe in the power of God. —Create in Me a Clean Heart, p. 21
Healing Is Possible
Recovering the purity of a "clean heart" involves healing and integrating various dimensions of the person. Breaking free from the hold of pornography requires the ability to make radical, concrete lifestyle changes. This work is ongoing, and healing is possible through the support of other men and women also striving toward purity and through the generous mercy of Christ. It is never too late to seek help and find the freedom to live your vocation of chaste, life-giving love.
For more information, including the full text of Create in Me a Clean Heart and a list of support services for those seeking to stop pornography use, please visit www.usccb.org/cleanheart.
1 N. D. Volkow, et. al., "Addiction: Decreased Reward Sensitivity and Increased Expectation Sensitivity Conspire to Overwhelm the Brain's Control Circuit," Bioessays 32:9 (2010): 748-55.
2 William M. Struthers, Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009).
3 J. Brian Bransfield, Overcoming Pornography Addiction: A Spiritual Solution (New York: Paulist Press, 2013).
About the author
Daniel Spadaro, MA, LPC, is a mental health counselor and founder of Imago Dei Counseling in Colorado Springs.
"Wash Me Thoroughly": Healing from Pornography Use and Addiction was developed as a resource and approved by Bishop Richard J. Malone, Chairman of the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). It was authorized for publication by the undersigned.
Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield
General Secretary, USCCB
Quote from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright 1989, 1993, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2016, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved.
For the full USCCB statement on pornography, Create in Me a Clean Heart, and additional resources, visit www.usccb.org/cleanheart.