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Christians are often too afraid or embarrassed to talk about sex, let alone pornography. But as therapist Susie Flashman Jarvis explains, pornography is an issue the Church cannot afford to ignore, both for adults and young people.
As a therapist I counsel couples and teenagers who often come to see me on a variety of issues, but when we look at things such as relationship breakdown, I often find intimacy issues come to the surface. All too often, constant viewing of online pornography can be at its root.
I have challenged men who watch online porn that 'you are having sex with other women, but just on a screen’, and that's like having an affair. They find that hard, but it does bring home what the effect on the partner can be.
One of the problems for the other partner affected it that it is very hard to compete with a screen. No intimacy is required on screen. Viewing pornography can diminish a person’s ability to be intimate and can make the other party feel inadequate. Women in particular can struggle with issues around body image and this does not help them.
Pornography is very addictive, releasing the same chemicals as cocaine. Dopamine is the reward-driven chemical and is produced in higher amounts when pornography is viewed than during sex with a partner. This results in the need for higher stimulation to enable satisfaction. It inevitably adversely affects the sex life of many couples as men can't recreate the same level of stimulation they have become accustomed to through pornography.
There can be a physical consequence to this, namely the inability to sustain or obtain an erection; erectile dysfunction. Dopamine receptors can drop and thus the brain does not respond in the same way. This is similar to drug addiction where, by the law of diminishing returns, more and more drugs are required to bring about the same effect.
Young people accessing porn
But this isn't something that just affect adults. Teenagers who access pornography are very vulnerable to addiction as the brain is at its peak of dopamine production. There is a generational digital divide which means parents are often unaware of what their children are up to online.
A recent survey showed that 39% of parents who were interviewed had not spoken to their children about their online activity.
Pornography used to be the stuff of top shelves. It was limited to magazines hidden under mattresses for unsuspecting mothers to stumble upon. Or for boys to share behind the bike sheds and grown men to pore over as they viewed them behind the façade of a car magazines. They were the well-thumbed glossies used to assist men as they tried to produce a reluctant sperm sample.
Now, however we are looking at a totally different playing field. Today most young people are accessing images and videos at a very young age.
According to the BBC's Technology correspondent Mark Ward, 57% stumble accidentally on these images via pop-ups. Porn sites are designed to be click generators: a simple click on a porn site can kick off affiliated sites, advertisements and pop-ups.
Some children and teenagers are taking explicit images of themselves and sharing them with their peers (so-called sexting). They are filming their sex acts and sharing them too. They seem to be unaware that once these images are out there, they are unable to delete them and anyone could end up using the pictures (something that came back to haunt me from a past life in topless modelling).
It’s not just the loud, popular children who are doing this. it‘s often the quiet, shy ones who feel alone and are coerced to produce an image.
What can help young people?
In my experience, a Christian faith does not prevent situations like this from occurring. In some ways children of faith can be more vulnerable, as their parents often do not speak of such things. Sex before marriage is frowned on and so becomes undercover and illicit.
Our children have grown up with the online world at their fingertips. They cannot remember a world without it. As parents and care-givers, it is imperative that we communicate with our children, however embarrassing it may feel. Or we may end up speaking after the event, and then it is worse, much worse.
It’s vital that we communicate with our children in a language they understand. We need to wake up, put aside our inhibitions and face the problem calmly and in a non-confrontational manner, in order to prevent damaged children becoming damaged adults.
What can help adults?
If your head is full of these images it will be very hard to get them out. Getting help will sometimes mean talking about the problem with a professional.
Most usually, pornography is a hidden activity, but couples need to learn to talk more openly about sex - in all its aspects. This means talking about what each other needs and possibly explaining what it was that stimulated them. It's about sharing intimacy, and learning to be together again.
It can be long process as each party learns to trust the other. One may need to learn to trust the other, whilst the other will need to learn to be vulnerable and face their issues. Rebuilding trust can be a long process, but I know from personal experience that couples can be restored and learn to live well together again.
Susie Flashman Jarvis is a therapist and author of the novel At Therapy’s End (Instant Apostle)
Unbelievable? presenter Justin Brierley blogs on all things theology, apologetics and ethics.