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I had a disturbing conversation last week. It was with a man who told me, rather shamelessly, that he travels to southeast Asia to visit brothels. Let that sink in. He’s an American man, a fairly typical middle-aged guy, who travels across the country to buy sex from children enslaved in brothels.  He could be someone you passed on the street today.

What sort of person would do that? More than you might think. I told this man that the girls he visited in these brothels were most likely slaves, kept there against their will.  I explained that I’ve actually visited villages in northern Thailand where these slaves come from: their families are told the children will work a good job in the city and send money home, then the children are never heard from again.  They become the forced prostitutes that this man uses. To all this news he responded with a defensive self-pity, “I’m lonely.”  What sort of person would do that? A desperately lonely person.

But that loneliness doesn’t instantly translate into the heinous acts this man was engaged in. There’s a pattern that goes on for a while before that behavior goes to such extremes. As this article by Benjamin Nolot says, “What kind of culture is producing so many men who are eager to buy women and children for sex, contributing to a $32 billion per year human trafficking industry? I believe the answer is the kind of culture that produces and perpetuates a $100 billion per year pornography industry.” According to Philip Zimbardo’s Ted Talk,  the porn industry is the fastest growing industry in America:  For every 400 movies made in Hollywood, there are 11,000 pornographic films. The more that men consume this material, the more they develop an “arousal addiction” which actually re-wires their brains.  And this has social implications: This arousal addiction actually damages the work and social skills men would otherwise be developing.

In other words, pornography use reinforces poor social skills. Loneliness begets loneliness.  Who’s consuming this material? Mostly lonely men. Who’s traveling across the globe for sex tourism? Mostly lonely men who’ve learned to feed their loneliness with the false-intimacy of explicit images.

I believe that dedication to truth is a spiritual discipline which can transform our lives. Here’s a case where it can transform the world. If men who struggle with the temptation to use porn reminded themselves of these facts, they’d find the temptation easier to resist. If all such men recognized the total falsehood of any “intimacy” they receive from either porn or prostitutes, the sex industry might just  collapse. That’s a lot to ask, but it’s not too much to pray for.

I want to tell that lonely man more of the truth about pornography and human trafficking. I want to tell him that his loneliness points to a real need for intimacy that can’t be met in any of the places he’s looked for it. I want to tell him that the real way out of his loneliness is to give up his perversions and seek real relationships. I want to tell that man he needs to repent. I was too angry to say it when the conversation took place last week, but today I would tell him that if he repents he can be forgiven for those sins. And I want to tell that lonely man that there is a community of other forgiven sinners out there who would welcome him, show him the love he truly needs, and help him free the slaves he used to abuse. Lord have mercy.

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We’re now three weeks into this series of reflections on John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent. (For context, see previous posts from Week 1 and Week 2.) This reflection is on steps 14 to 21: (14) On Gluttony, (15) On Chastity, (16) On Avarice, (17) On Poverty, (18) On Insensitivity, (19) On Sleep, (20) On Alertness, and (21) On Fear. In these steps, Climacus starts to address the more tangible and worldly sins and vices with which we’re familiar: lust, greed, over-indulgence.  But Step 18 and those that follow it shift back to the inner life of the mind, and indication that for Climacus the discipline of the mind and discipline of the body are intimately related. Physical discipline is fruitless without mental discipline, and vice versa.

In Steps 14 and 15,  Climacus points out the mind-body connection which a number of ancient writers observed between hunger and our sexual appetites. He writes, “A stuffed belly produces fornication, while a mortified stomach leads to purity.  The man who pets a lion may tame it but the man who coddles the body makes it ravenous” (page 165). This may be a new concept to us, but even modern neurologists have observed this connection.  The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that controls our appetites for eating, drinking, and sex.  Because these drives are all processed in the same part of the brain, sexual desires can be experienced with the same intensity as hunger and thirst. Because food and water are essential for survival, the hypothalamus drives us to pursue these at all costs. Unfortunately, our brains naturally perceive sexual desires in the same way. But sex isn’t essential for a person’s survival.  So how does one teach their hypothalamus that? Climacus, in line with the rest of his monastic tradition, recommends fasting.  By cultivating self-control over one of these appetites (hunger) we can cultivate self-control over the other (sex).  And over time this practice enables one to rise above one’s natural appetites and desires:   “To have mastered one’s body is to have taken command of nature, which is surely to have risen above it. And the man who has done this is not much lower than the angels, if even that” (page 181).

Even so, total victory over lust is not within human control. Physical discipline is helpful and beneficial, but ultimate submission of such powerful natural appetites is not achieved by merely natural means. So, Climacus reminds us that purity and chastity are God-given gifts:

When nature is overcome it should be admitted that this is due to Him Who is above nature. . . .. The truth is that unless the Lord overturns the house of the flesh and builds the house of the soul, the man wishing to overcome it has watched and fasted for nothing.  Offer up to the Lord the weakness of your nature.  Admit your incapacity and, without your knowing it, you will win for yourself the gift of chastity (pages 172-173).

In Steps 16 (Avarice) and 17 (Poverty), Climacus encourages us to cultivate detachment from possessions to free our hearts from greed. Climacus doesn’t prescribe a physical discipline here because the appropriate physical discipline for greed has already been completed by his monks: they had sold what they owned and given to the poor.  But the physical discipline means nothing if one has not cultivated mental freedom from greed. And as with lust, this freedom requires divine assistance. Climacus writes that the virtue of detachment  “grows from an experience and taste of the knowledge of God” (page 190). Taste and see that the Lord is indeed good and you will trust Him to provide for your every need. Experience God’s provision, and you won’t worry as much about possessions and money.  If you want to be free from greed, seek an experience of God’s goodness and provision.

In contrast to complete trust in God’s provision, Step 18 discusses Insensitivity.   The insensitive person is hard-hearted, hypocritical and judgmental.  Climacus confesses that he himself wrestles with insensitivity, and that it is a common problem among the devout.  In one passage in this step, I could have thought he was describing me:

Detachment he praises, and he shamelessly fights over a rag.  When he is angry he gets bitter, and then his bitterness makes him angry, so that having suffered one defeat he fails to notice that he has suffered another.  He gorges himself, is sorry, and a little later is at it again.  He blesses silence and cannot stop talking about it.  He teaches meekness and frequently gets angry when he is teaching it (page 192).

Climacus says that the cause of insensitivity is different for each person and in each case, but the only way to free oneself from it is to discover the cause.  So I’m praying for the Lord to reveal the causes of my insensitivity. I’m still listening for an answer. Pray for me.

Lastly, the steps concerning Sleep, Alertness, and Fear are all related, and together display the mind-body connection discussed earlier.  Keeping vigil, or going without sleep, is like fasting in that it deprives the body of a need in order to train the body in holiness.  But Climacus says it yields fruit in prayer, as well:  “The farmer collects his wealth on the threshing floor and in the winepress. Monks collect their wealth and knowledge during the hours of evening and night when they are standing at prayer and contemplation” (page 197).  The goal is to cultivate watchfulness over one’s thoughts so that one can recognized where thoughts are coming from and discern between good and evil, true and untrue thoughts. If one can learn to do this even when tired, one will have greater clarity of mind when awake.  And so prayer and contemplation during times when we would normally be sleeping prepare us for alert and attentive prayer at all times.

In the ancient world, nighttime was also regarded as unsafe. Both physical and spiritual enemies attacked at night, and apparently monks were not immune to fears of such attacks. Accordingly, Climacus takes step 21 to remind his monks and readers that, “The servant of the Lord will be afraid only of his Master” (page 200).  Trust in God means there’s no need to fear anyone but God.  As Jesus says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 12:4-6 TNIV).  As Jesus’ words suggest, fear reveals a preoccupation with bodily concerns over spiritual.  Fear of those who can harm the body reveals the same concern for the body’s comfort that results in lust and gluttony.  In contrast, the virtue of courage reveals that one’s mind is set not on earthly things, but on heavenly.  And as Climacus says, “The man who has tasted the things of heaven easily thinks nothing of what is below . . .” (page 189).

Following up on this past Saturday’s “End of Sexual Identity” event, I want to share about another book that has the potential to change the Church’s conversation about sexuality.  It’s Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.

Hill writes as a self-identified gay Christian man who is choosing to remain celibate.  As he shares in the book, it’s difficult to find others speaking up from his position.  The voices that speak the loudest in the Church’s debates about sexuality are either (1) those thumping the Bible defending traditional Christian views of sexuality, often with insensitivity toward those who experience same-sex attraction, or (2) those promoting the more culturally acceptable view that homosexual activity is not sin.  The arguments between those two sides are often marked by callousness and lack of compassion.  People become entrenched in their positions and then talk past each other.  Perhaps because of that insensitivity, it’s hard to hear the voice of men and women who experience attraction to members of the same sex, yet deliberately choose, because of their Christian convictions, not to live into those attractions.  Shame, the feeling that their sin is “worse” than others, and fear of insensitive responses from others in the Church too often keep Christians who experience same-sex attraction in a lonely closet. Thankfully, Hill has given voice to that struggle, and his voice needs to be heard.

Though Hill identifies as a gay man, and uses categories like “homosexual” in ways which Jenell Paris would not, he makes it clear that the most important part of his identity is his identity in Christ. And his very personal story bears witness to the fact that one’s identity in Christ includes taking up one’s cross.  Hill writes movingly about the loneliness, isolation, and shame he’s experienced.  But he also shares about loving community and supportive friends, other celibate gay men who have served as role models (including Henri Nouwen), and the hope he has looking forward to the day when Jesus will say to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  The personal aspect of Washed and Waiting makes it impossible to talk about homosexuality in abstract terms.  It’s a deeply personal matter, and this is a moving testimony from someone living a deeply personal struggle. 

Anyone interested in the Church’s debates about sexuality should read this book. Anyone who’s struggling with their sexuality and unsure where to look for guidance should read it, too.  Just as I hoped our event with Jenell Paris would change the conversation about sexuality in the Church by giving us different language for the Church to use, I think this book can change the conversation by presenting a different perspective: that of someone who’s chosen the counter-cultural path of celibacy. Hill makes it clear that such a path is not easy, but he believes it’s the right path. One does not have to express oneself sexually in order to be fully human. Jesus Christ was fully human and remained celibate. Surely the Church should be a place where voices like Hill’s can speak openly as they seek faithfulness to their Lord.

I serve the Church in a denomination that has been entrenched in battles over human sexuality for decades.  Debates about ordination of people in active homosexual relationships, as well as about the definition or marriage, are tearing the Church apart.  Seven years ago, I went to a national conference for our denomination and saw the battle taking place.  Neither side listened to the other.  They talked past each other.  What was authoritative for one side wasn’t for the other.  There was no common ground on which a debate could even fairly take place.  Ever since, I’ve wondered if there could be a healthier, more constructive way for the Church to handle its debates about sexuality. Is there a better way to talk about sexual morality as Christians?  Is there a better way to frame the conversation?

I think there is.

This Saturday, January 28th, Upper Room is going to host an event with anthropologist, author, and professor Jenell Williams Paris called “The End of Sexual Identity.” Paris’s book, The End of Sexual Identity, takes a unique approach to our culture’s conversation about sexuality, particularly categories like homosexuality and heterosexuality.  And I think this approach could have a really positive impact on the way the Church talks about sex.  For a preview of what Jenell has to say, you can listen to this interview with her.

There is more information on Upper Room’s site and you can click here to register for the event.  It runs from 10am to 3:30pm.  The morning and afternoon sessions will also include panel responses from a variety of people living out their sexuality in different ways. Lunch will be available through Franktuary, who will be selling hot dogs and other items on site.

Romans 12:2 says “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  A book I read recently revealed how physically this renewing of the mind needs to take place.  And I think wisdom from a different, more ancient book can teach us a lot about that physical renewal. 

InterVarsity Press recently released a new book by William Struthers called Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain. It describes in scientific detail the neurological processes involved in at least one pattern of sin: lust.  And the most surprising – and for some, terrifying – insight of the book is that theses processes are dynamic.  Viewing pornography actually shapes men’s brains, creating neural pathways designed to speed the brian’s processing of sexual images.  Male brains are already programmed to respond to erotic imagery, but this is about nurture on top of nature:  “Like a path is created in the woods with each successive hiker, so do the neural paths set the course for the next time an erotic image is viewed. Over time these neural paths become wider as they are repeatedly traveled with each exposure to pornography. . . . Repeated exposure to pornography creates a one-way neurological superhighway where a man’s mental life is over-sexualized and narrowed” (p. 85). 

Obviously porn is a tremendous issue:  it’s a growing multi-billion dollar business in the US, thanks in part to its addictive character. Internet access only increases the likelihood of people viewing porn “privately” where there’s little fear of getting caught.  (I’m curious how many more hits than usual this post will get, simply because it contains words like porn.)  Regardless of the lies the entertainment industry produces about it, the truth is that porn is demeaning and violent toward both women and men, it’s destructive to relationships, and – as this book shows –  it even rots the brain.  Struthers chronicles in scientific detail the process described above with the hiking metaphor, especially in the male brain. (Struthers does helpfully distinguish between physiological sex and gender-identity; the scientific portion of the book addresses the physiological male brain, but Struthers does also discuss what constitutes masculinity.)  Succinctly put, for men, indulgence in porn and masturbation is “playing with neurochemical fire.”   

But then what? If porn has a brain-rotting, chemical-fire singing effect, how can this be reversed?  The final chapter, with the promising title “Rewiring and Sanctification” has great ideas, but doesn’t seem to me to go as far as it could in suggesting how one’s mind can be rewired and renewed.  Struthers recommends confession, practices like “chaining” to help identify triggers which cause men to stumble, and the establishment of healthy relationships as ways to rewire the brain. All good things. But I have a question:  if the distorted neural pathways of a porn-addicts mind were created through a dynamic process that  the physical neurology of the brain, won’t even more embodied physical practices be helpful in positively rewiring the brain?  Example: Fasting.  Earlier in the book, on page 92, Struthers notes that the hypothalamus is the part of the brain that directs the body’s three drives: eating, drinking, and sex.  He writes there that “It is important to note that the sexual drive is located in the same region as the centers for eating and drinking.  Thus the sexual/reproductive drive is experienced as a survival need similar to the drive for eating and drinking.”  Obviously one can die from not eating or drinking properly, but a human will never die from lack of sex.  Might physical disciplines like fasting train the brain that it can survive abstaining from a physical drive?

Here’s where I think modern science dovetails beautifully with centuries-old monastic wisdom.  In the fourth century, St. John Cassian wrote about how to fight lustful temptations through fasting: “This harsh struggle has to be fought in both the soul and the body, and not simply in the soul, as is the case with other faults.”  Thus fasting is one of the prescriptions he gives for fighting against lust.  Interestingly, St. Mark the Ascetic – another monk whose work is included after St. John Cassian’s in the Philokalia – systematically describes the psychological processes of sin in ways that parallel the scientific discussion in Struthers’ book.  These stages of temptation for Mark are provocation (a tempting thought popped into my head, but I ignored it), disturbance (I barely thought about the tempting thought), communion (seriously thought about the tempting thought, toyed with it), assent (gave in and indulged in tempting thought, at least mentally), prepossession (have given in so many times that I’m reminded of it even when I don’t want to be), and passion (powerless over the temptation, subject to it, within its control).  These stages are recognizable in Struthers’ discussion of compulsion and addiction to porn. The early monks of the Church were aware mentally of the processes shaping their minds in sin, even without the scientific language to depict it. And, they recommended physical asceticism as a way to assist in retraining the mind.  Perhaps it’s time to do some research on the neural pathways created by spiritual disciplines.

All that said, I think Wired For Intimacy and the resources it recommends will be helpful for anyone wrestling with porn (or counseling, pastoring, or caring for those wrestling with it). Those interested should check out the author’s blog.  May God bless the transformation and renewal of all our minds.