Internet pornography is the tip of a very large iceberg. But lurking beneath the water line, there are Internet temptations that don’t get the same press pornography gets. Yet they are just as scandalous and wage a silent war on our souls.
Free from Porn but Not from Lust
Brian Gardner spent years hiding his dark secret from those he loved—his wife, his friends, his fellow church members. One muggy night in June, Brian’s friends invited him over to talk. As he walked in, he immediately noticed an air of sobriety: something was wrong. As they sat in the backyard one of his friends skipped the small-talk and started in: “Brian, we think you have a problem, and we want to ask you. Are you using pornography?”
The conversation that ensued tore open Gardner’s secret: he was hooked on porn. This began a process that lasted years for him: coming clean to his wife, finding accountability, and receiving some strong counsel to help him get to the root of his obsession with porn. It was a long road, but it paid off in the end.
Now, years later, Gardner is passing on to others what he knows. He leads the Sexual Integrity groups for his church. He counsels and mentors other men who struggle with lust. He has even written a book about what he has learned: Porn Free: Finding Renewal through Truth and Community.
But Gardner knows the personal battle isn’t over: while he may not be looking at blatant pornography anymore, lust is still lodged in the heart, and the Internet is still a minefield of temptations.
We asked him what the danger zones are, and he didn’t rattle off just a list of predictable men’s websites (Maxim or Esquire or Sports Illustrated). What danger zones did he mention? Facebook. Twitter. YouTube. Amazon. Vimeo. Pinterest. Flickr. Tumblr. Some of the most popular and most used websites, Gardner says, are often the most compromising.
What’s a “Gray Area”?
“To me there is no such thing as a ‘gray area’ website,” says Fred Stoeker, co-author of the best-selling Every Man’s Battle series. “The pictures are either sensual or they are not. If they are, they are black. If they aren’t, they are white.”
Stoeker’s litmus test is Ephesians 5:3, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality.” An otherwise benign website with a sensual advertisement is not “gray” in Stoeker’s mind: it is a spot of black on a white page. “I don’t think very often in terms of gray areas,” Stoeker reports. “When we look at something sensual, whether looking up into the window of Victoria’s Secret store at the mall, or looking at a picture on the MSNBC homepage of Britney Spears performing in her tawdry outfits, even these aren’t gray areas. Sensuality is sensuality, and it will take you down and trip you up.”
The same wash of pleasure chemicals hit the brain while looking at sensual images as when we look at pornography, says Stoeker. “It doesn’t matter if she is nude. That same chemical reaction happens in the eyes and limbic centers of the brain.” To a sexually wired brain, “gray” is just another shade of black.
The Gray Areas of the Heart
Those in the trenches helping other men overcome lust and other sinful habits know the secret: the dividing line between black and white is often not the type of content found online, but how we interact with that content.
Brian Gardner shares his own experience of a common problem with Facebook. “My niece is an actress in LA and has lots of friends in the fashion business. Here’s a picture of her on her Facebook profile at an after-party from a show that she did. There are two beautiful young ladies with her, smiling at the camera. I click on one of their names, and it turns out that she’s an underwear model, and has pictures from her portfolio on her Facebook page.”
Brian then asks himself the penetrating question: “So why did I click on her name? I didn’t know her, and don’t think we can really be friends, but I was curious. Of course, my curiosity had nothing to do with her as a person, but as a beautiful young woman.”
For Gardner, his concern isn’t splitting hairs over the definitions of what is sensual. His concern is the state of his heart. This is the same advice he gives the men he teaches in his Sexual Integrity classes. “The question any man has to ask himself is ‘why?’ Why am I so interested in the beach pictures from the last college retreat? Why am I curious about what lies behind that link?”
In this sense, the difference between black and white isn’t necessarily the image on the page; it is in our own hearts and motives. Visitors to any image-rich website should remember to heed the ancient proverb inscribed at Delphi: “Know thyself.”
The Image Intrigue
“Plausible deniability.” This is biblical counselor Alasdair Groves’ concern about so-called gray areas. “I’m just Googling something harmless—the kind of thing that if you saw me type it in to the search box you wouldn’t think much of it. But I’m inwardly aware that it might turn up some racy or explicit results, and I’m trying to pretend that’s not why I’m doing the search.” Groves says this is typical activity for someone who used to look at porn but has experienced some personal growth and self-control in his or her life. These hidden motives are evidences of a heart that wants to have its cake and eat it, too.
Jeff Fisher, founder of PornToPurity.com, calls these “Yellow Light” behaviors. Red Lights are clearly defined boundaries. Green Lights are safe zones. But Yellow Lights are heading in the direction of a Red Light behavior. Fisher gives several examples of this:
- Surfing online, hoping to find images, but not “technically” clicking on them
- Not clicking on a link, but going to a place where pop-ups or images are present
- Watching a romantic comedy hoping to catch a glimpse of something
- Going to IMDB.com, watching trailers and searching for actresses bios
- Looking at safe searches on Google Images, but hoping to find stray sexy pictures
All of these can be Yellow Light behaviors.
The Diversion Deluge
Moreover, not all so-called gray areas have to do with lust or titillation.
According to a recent survey from Pew Internet, people are far more likely now than ever to go online for no particular reason other than to pass the time or have fun. Nearly three quarters of online adults say they use the Internet this way. This is almost double what it was 10 years ago.
Why the upsurge of recreational Internet use? Pew suggests three new trends are contributing to this: (1) the rise of broadband connections, (2) the increasing use of online video, and (3) and the explosion of social networking. These have been major shifts in digital culture over the last decade, and they have caused many to ask: How much is too much?
“A potentially gray website is any that would promote or encourage isolative behavior and/or alternative realities,” says Les Fleetwood, Pastor of Connecting and Equipping at Stonebriar Community Church. Fleetwood believes social networks can become this for some people. “I say ‘potentially’ because these things are morally neutral, but if a lot of unguarded time is spent with them, they can become morally detrimental.”
“I think Facebook—and really any social site—is endless babble and ranks up there with porn as an indulgence,” says Lawrence Arledge, an engineer with Texas Instruments. Those who sit cloistered in their homes and spend too much time connecting online are lonelier now than ever, says Arledge. As a society, he says, we are still learning how to make Facebook into a useful tool and not a low-productivity time-consumer. “The social implications of letting such sterile interactions dominate one’s life are not fully known.”
This does not mean social networking always leads to anti-social and isolative behavior. For many people it rarely does. Rather, researchers say we should be on guard about our “hyper-networking” tendencies: When does time online consume my mind in a way that it starts to hurt my face-to-face relationships? Since 2007, there has been a sharp drop-off in the amount of face-to-face time families spend together in Internet-connected households, according to the 2010 USC Annenberg Digital Future Study. In the first half of the decade, family face-time in Internet-connected homes has dropped from 26 hours per week to 18 hours by 2010.
“The real enemy is fantasy—the state of hypnotic fascination that monopolizes my time and prevents me from engaging in productive activity and real relationships,” says Nate Larkin, founder of the Samson Society. “And almost any website can serve that purpose.”
The Gaming Gambit
While violence is usually the hot topic when discussing the benefits or detriments of video games, online and console gaming can lead to other moral compromises.
“Online gaming is especially seductive,” says Nate Larkin. “Millions of young men are abandoning reality in favor of an imaginary world where they can experience the illusion of success.” For Larkin, a gaming obsession is not a harmless diversion. “There are few things more painful than hearing a wife’s despair over her marriage because her husband is so hooked on gaming that he refuses to engage in real life.”
Additionally, sexual content in video games are also compromising areas. Even if one steers clear of the sexually charged minigames in Dragon Age or Mass Effect or Grand Theft Auto, one still has to contend with the bare midriffs and revealing outfits of animated female protagonists. “For teens I mentor, they mention online gaming sites a lot as being problematic,” say Michael Leahy, author of Porn Nation.
Even online games without sexual content can still include sensual advertisements for other websites. Men “get their engines going” over sensual images like this, says Fred Stoeker. “There is a residual effect that keeps their sex drive at a high idle and keeps them prone to falling.”
Accountability for the Gray Areas
So-called gray areas, says Brian Gardner, are extremely common for men who have broken free from pornography in their life. When the battle over pornography is won, says Gardner, the sin in our hearts picks a small battle to win. “If sin can gain a foothold there, it can take back its territory in small nibbles. The goal is the same, however, we must remain watchful over compromise.”
“People who are doing well in accountability groups are learning to talk about the Yellow Light behaviors,” says Fisher. ”When I started checking in my Yellow Light behaviors with other men, I hit another level of seriousness in my purity journey.”
For men like Jeff Fisher, Brian Gardner, and Nate Larkin, using Internet accountability programs is one vital way this is done. Covenant Eyes Accountability rates and categorizes web addresses using six age-based ratings, from E (Everyone) up to HM (Highly Mature). When accountability partners receive someone’s regular Internet use reports, they can make sure to pay attention to the “grayer” ratings, such as MT (Mature Teen) and M (Mature). This raises the moral stakes of Internet purity.
“If I’m avoiding pornography but wasting hours on YouTube or Facebook or Pinterest or a even a galaxy of theological websites, I’m still wasting my life,” says Larkin, “and a good accountability partner will call me on it.”
Issue 20 | May 2012 | More in this issue: Guarding Kids in Sexualized Culture | Living Strong with Integrity