Steven Luff champions taking Christ’s light into the deep shadows created by pornography to help bring radical healing and transformation. As the co-author of “Pure Eyes: A Man’s Guide to Sexual Integrity,” recovery group leader and clinical psychologist, he believes churches can lovingly walk through this hidden scourge affecting millions of men and women in our congregations.
Q: What inspired you to work with people struggling with pornography and sexual addiction?
It needs to be addressed. My feeling as a believer is that we should move into the darkness. The areas people don’t want to talk about.
I have a master’s in divinity and I’m almost done with an MA in clinical psychology. I work with clients and I’ve read a lot about sexual addiction. The thing that fascinates me the most from a psychological perspective is our sex lives and fantasies say volumes about how we give and receive love. To ignore [them], whether they are healthy or unhealthy, is to ignore who we are as people. So when religion teaches us to ignore our sex lives [it is telling us] to ignore something that God is trying to tell us about ourselves.
Instead of running away from the dark parts of ourselves, we need to move into that and ask questions that can help us make sense of our dark sides. God is with us in that process. In fact, God is like: “Going where it is scary is good and I’m here to help you make sense out of it and you will make it to the other side where you can be healthy.”
I have a client right now (this is in a non-Christian context) who is into S&M. Instead of accepting it, which he sometimes does, “Oh, this is me, this is just what I like,” we have to get into “why is it what you like?” He was abused as a child and to him, his understanding of love is being beat. Sex is very much wrapped in this primal sense of love, how we connected with our parents as an infant. If love is received through humiliation and abuse, when you are stressed or anxious, then you are going to go to that thing that you know “love” to be. Once you realize how regressive that is and that God is luring you into something better, luring you to say “No. That’s not love. There is a healthier life where you don’t have to be tied to the abuse of your past.” But unless you take the time to make the unconscious conscious, to see the things you are denying about yourself because it is too scary, the more you can become the person that God created you to be.
Q: What can churches do to help?
Churches flat-out are not equipped to deal with this. You can’t expect a church to be a clinic, but churches need to understand their role. In the X3LA groups that I’ve been leading for the past five years, I’ve discovered my role is as a stepping stone. I’m the gateway, because what I’ve learned is that most people bring their problem to their faith communities, not to a therapist. That’s the wonderful part that churches can do. We have resources and we are ready to receive these people who are hurting to love them, giving them a community that gives people unconditional love no matter what they’ve done. Once they feel less pressure and feel accepted despite what they’ve done, then they are more receptive to “maybe I should go see a therapist to look at these deeper issues that are going on.”
Q: What effect does using pornography have on a person?
Physiologically, this is sort of the definition of addiction. Let’s use drugs as an example. When someone uses heroin, at first it is because they get this great rush out of it. Then it gets to a point where in order to feel normal, they have to use. That’s the addiction: “I just want to feel normal. I don’t want to feel pain.” And not like life pain, but the pain of withdrawal. So you just keep using.
There are behavioral addictions and there are chemical addictions. For instance, coke or amphetamines trigger a massive release of dopamine in the brain. Not only does it make you feel good, dopamine also triggers a part of the brain called the amygdala to integrate emotions with all of the five senses. Environmental cues trigger an emotion to use, so when we feel stress or, for drug addicts, if you are on the same street where you used to buy drugs, it triggers dopamine.
So with pornography what happens is the same thing. The more we use it to mask pain, to mask anxiety, to mask fears, whatever it may be, the more tolerance we gain to the dopamine and need more dopamine to feel normal. What happens is they’ve got to up the “high” so they find crazier things because the mind loves novelty and the more novel the sexual configuration we can find, the more of a dopamine fix they can get. Then just to feel “normal,” they have to keep going back to it, unless you go through withdrawal.
Q: How can parents shepherd their kids away from pornography?
My son is 9 going on 10 and my daughter is going to be 12 in a week. So I guess there are two things. There are the physical preventions and there are the psychological preventions. I already put a lot of limits on computer games. I guess they have iPod Touches which they only get to use about 30-40 minutes a day so in that sense, porn’s not available or around in our household. And we know most of our friends’ parents. Those are the physical preventions. It needs to not be available.
As far as addiction goes, the only antidote I know of is to love your children and be there for them as non-judgmental as you possibly can. As long as your children’s emotional lives can be brought to you and you can help them make sense out of it. Kids have every single emotion adults have. We may not be able to teach them geometry or trigonometry or how to write a three-paragraph essay, but our biggest job that no one else is there to do is to teach them what it is to have emotions and how to manage emotions.
If we are telling kids to “leave me alone, buck up, don’t complain, don’t be a baby,” those sorts of things… When they come to you with their range of emotions, they are coming to you saying, “I don’t know what I’m feeling. I don’t know what this is. I’m looking to you to tell me what it is and if I’m told that it’s not OK to be angry then I’m afraid of being angry.” Part of when I get mad is coming back when we’ve all calmed down and making sense of the situation. “I did get mad. I’m sorry I got mad. This happens. Let’s talk about the situation.”
Q: Have you talked to your kids about pornography?
The closest I’ve gotten is explaining to my son about the internet, and that you can see on the internet anything that you want. The good and the bad. A big part of the job of your life is to figure out what is worth seeing and what is not worth seeing. I’m not naïve enough to think that my kids aren’t going to at some point in time look at porn. The best that I can do as they get older is to talk to them about it and say, “This exists.”
I’ve had this conversation with my son about drugs. “Your friends are going to offer you drugs at some point in your life. It’s your job to make a wise decision. I’m not going to be there.” I’ve had a lot of conversations about drugs because it’s something that they can understand. I’m thinking if I’ve had these conversations about drugs and alcohol for so long and I put it [porn] in the same terms as drugs and alcohol, “This is going to be available to you and you have to make a wise decision, but I work with sex addicts and I work with people who have ruined their lives because of this.”
Q: How can a youth pastor speak to their students about porn?
This is my theory. I was in youth ministry for five years as a lay leader. What I think is most useful is you just create this space of love. You help paint the different roads that are available to you as an adult. Just be honest in a non-judgmental way. Like, “Maybe you guys are using porn. Maybe you guys are curious. But you also have a lot of gifts and potentials and futures ahead of you that you’re not going to fulfill if you are spending hours of time numbing yourself to nonsense.”
The youth pastor has a big job and I think that the best thing that the youth pastor can do is to kindly and lovingly speak out against this. A lot of the youth will say, “Yeah, you’re just trying to tell me that I’m not supposed to do x, y and z, but I’m going to do it anyway.” If a youth pastor can create a group that the kids feel loved and seen and heard in, it will decrease. Maybe they will still use it, but then when they become older and discover “I’m just numbing myself, but I do remember this pastor that I had who said I could, and I felt loved and I felt this feeling I’ve never felt before,” it’s like a resource. If a kid grows up with no resources of love in their childhood, then they’ve got nothing to compare their life to and they are going to keep going down that path. But if they’ve felt and tasted something different, when they become an adult they at least will be able to go, “I do remember love. I have felt it once before in my life. I’ve felt what it is like to be included. I can build on that.”
Q: Are there any warning signs given by a kid who starts using porn?
Being involved in your kid’s life is the best antidote to children wanting porn. If they are isolated and not around, if they are in their room with a computer that has no protection on it for six hours, then there is a very strong possibility that something is going on. Parents are the portal to technology. Or should be. “No, you are not having a smartphone.” Or “We have limitations on the smartphone.” You can get a list of websites that your child is using. Being honest with your kids about “There is a lot of stuff that is out there on the internet. As you get older, I’m going to let you have more privileges with it, but I am getting a read-out of everything you visit because I love you. It’s natural to be curious, but there are things on the internet you are not ready to see and it’s my job to not let you see it."
Q: We have this lie that “I’m not hurting anyone.” How does using pornography affect someone’s life and those around them?
Plenty of divorces with wives drawing the line and saying, “Either fix this or I’m gone.” I’m writing a book right now that’s for pastors’ spouses, church leaders, on how to address this. If we are not looking at the cause of why the man or woman is using porn compulsively, if we don’t as communities find a loving space that’s unconditional, the problem’s not going to go away.
The “scared straight” story I have is more about guys who have drained their lives’ potential. That’s not about what you’ve done to someone else, that’s about what you’ve done to yourself. It’s scary out there facing your demons, but that is where God is. God’s like, “I’m not judging you. I love you. I’ve forgiven you. If anything, I’m trying to help you come out of this.”
XXXChurch.com offers these resources:
X3 Pure - a 30 days-to-purity online program with workbook
X3 Groups - create your own groups using their tested template or by contacting him at Steven@xxxchurch.com.
"Pure Eyes: A Man’s Guide to Sexual Integrity" – Steven and Craig Gross’ book helps men understand the role of sex in their lives. Whether single or married, this honest treatment will free men to experience forgiveness and renewal.
FaithandSexCenter.com – the new therapy center and online blog launches this summer.
Steven Luff serves on the board of directors for XXXchurch.com and leads the men's X3LA recovery groups in Hollywood, Calif., while finishing his MA from Antioch University. He holds a Masters of Divinity Degree from Claremont School of Theology and lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Rundi, and their two children.