Rollo kindly shared a New Yorker article that he thought I’d be interested in:
A Sociologist of Religion on Protestants, Porn, and the “Purity Industrial Complex”
The article is an interview with sociologist Samuel L. Perry, who is looking at modern Christian culture from the outside. One of his observations is that “complementarian” wives are twice as likely as other women to divorce their husbands for viewing pornography:
Conservative Protestants tend to be what we would call “complementarian”…
Conservative Protestant women are twice as likely to divorce their husband because of his pornography use. And it’s not because their husbands are looking at porn any more often than non-conservative Protestant husbands. It’s because they draw a hard line, and they consider pornography use not just analogous to but literally adultery, or a betrayal, or a perversion. And so the consequences of pornography use for their relationships are extreme compared to consequences for anybody else’s relationships.
You’ve got these marriages that are blowing up because of pornography. With the survey data, I’m able to see the severity of consequences over the general population, but I’m not able to hear the stories. So what was so powerful to me was when Christian women would describe what it was like to discover their husband was looking at pornography: the anger that they felt, the betrayal that they described, and how they were processing it, how they called it adultery, and how they said it was betrayal. Or the husbands would describe getting caught and talk about how their wives didn’t talk to them for two weeks and threatened divorce. One of them came home to bags packed on the front porch.
Coming from the outside, what he doesn’t understand is this is about power. Complementarians pretend that they believe in biblical headship, but in practice the foundation of complementarianism is the wife is in charge. Pornography threatens a cherished lever of power for complementarian wives, which is denial of sex. This lever of power isn’t unique to complementarian wives, as all wives are tempted to use it. See for example Alyssa Milano’s recent call for a sex strike over abortion.
Athol Kay explained how porn threatens this lever of power, and why wives using denial of sex to manipulate their husbands have a much more violent reaction to their husbands viewing porn than other wives do in his post Wives Denying Sex and The Porn Firewall:
Here’s the situation…
After several months or a few years of his wife denying sex, the husband ends up seeking some kind of sexual solace in using porn to masturbate to. Typically he carefully hides this activity from his wife, because he knows the reaction it will get.
Sure enough though, eventually he slips up and she discovers the porn. Whereupon she reacts just the way he knew she would – with a huge explosion of rage. Porn, it will be explained to him, is demeaning to women, disgusting, immoral, wrong, disappointing, revolting and hurtful. It’s also very likely to be explained to him that his use of porn has now put the relationship back several steps, just as she was starting to feel like she could open up to him, but of course now she can’t, and it’s all his fault.
Thus The Porn Firewall is created.
The unmet need for sex is a powerful impulse, and to keep a physically healthy male in an intimate relationship, but deny him sex, requires a heavy hand of control…
It’s an old behavioral technique to smack down hard on a person making a minor infraction, to intimidate then into never even considering a major infraction.
Complementarians are coy about this, but they play by the same script. Pastor Doug Wilson explains in The Suitor and his Porn that the problem with pornography is that it makes husbands lazy, and therefore they won’t be willing to work hard enough to earn sex from their wives:
Laziness: real sex takes real effort. Sometimes it requires two or more jobs — because the children must be fed. If the only effort for the young man’s sexual gratification is the effort his parents put out in getting a wireless connection down to the basement, then the chances are good that he will have come to believe that sexual release is low-hanging fruit, because in his lazy world, it has been. Marriage won’t fix sexual laziness because marriage won’t fix laziness. Marriage often makes laziness worse. But laziness as a character deficiency can be publicly identified. Marriage spurs the right kind of man to work hard, and encourages the wrong kind of man to slack off.
Entitlement: if the young man in question has a sense of entitlement about things generally — grades, employment, standard of living, and so on — it should not be surprising that he is the kind of person who will just “expect” what is his due. If for some reason that drifts away from him, he will still feel entitled. The most common way this happens in marriage is that a man does not treat his wife right, they start to quarrel and drift apart, and this naturally includes their sex life, and he feels just as entitled as he ever did. And the computer is right there. If she is going to take away x, then I will compensate with y — and she can’t complain, because its really her fault. Like laziness, the root problem is abdication of responsibility.
Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, explains the problem with pornography in a strikingly similar way in his Christian Post article The Seduction of Pornography and the Integrity of Christian Marriage, Part 2 (emphasis mine):
The emotional aspect of sex cannot be divorced from the physical dimension of the sex act. Though men are often tempted to forget this, women possess more and less gentle means of making that need clear.
Consider the fact that a woman has every right to expect that her husband will earn access to the marriage bed…
…when I say that a husband must regularly “earn” privileged access to the marital bed, I mean that a husband owes his wife the confidence, affection, and emotional support that would lead her to freely give herself to her husband in the act of sex.
Put most bluntly, I believe that God means for a man to be civilized, directed, and stimulated toward marital faithfulness by the fact that his wife will freely give herself to him sexually only when he presents himself as worthy of her attention and desire.
Perhaps specificity will help to illustrate this point. I am confident that God’s glory is seen in the fact that a married man, faithful to his wife, who loves her genuinely, will wake up in the morning driven by ambition and passion in order to make his wife proud, confident, and assured in her devotion to her husband. A husband who looks forward to sex with his wife will aim his life toward those things that will bring rightful pride to her heart, will direct himself to her with love as the foundation of their relationship, and will present himself to her as a man in whom she can take both pride and satisfaction.
Pastor Dave Wilson takes a slightly different approach, explaining that God communicates his displeasure with husbands through their wives (non) burning bush:
According to Pastor Dave Wilson and his wife, Ann, a man’s relationship with God is key to unlocking the mystery of marital intimacy.
Dave: Yes. Here’s all you need to know about that night—the thing that changed our marriage is when Ann was sharing with me what she felt—I had a pretty unique encounter with God. I sensed God was speaking to me, through Ann;
The complementarian response to men viewing pornography isn’t about the threat pornography poses as a sin, it is the threat pornography poses to one of complementarians’ favorite sins. Key to understanding this is to remember that the Bible teaches that husbands and wives are not to deny each other sex, because this would create temptation for sexual sin. This comes in the same passage where the Apostle Paul explains that Christians who experience sexual temptation should marry and have sex (1 Cor 7:1-5, ESV).
7 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Complementarians have inverted Scripture, because what Paul tells us is prohibited (denial of sex) is a cherished tool for complementarian wives. In this sense it is a sin being used to further another sin (not submitting to their husbands). Husbands viewing porn threatens this cherished complementarian sin, and so it must be eradicated. But again, the reason for the intense focus on pornography isn’t to forsake sin in general, it is to pave the way for other sins that complementarians are heavily invested in.
One way to cross check this is to see if the complementarian response to women using pornography is similar. Complementarians don’t teach that a husband’s sexual attraction to his wife is God’s method of making his wife submit to him. Moreover, in the same New Yorker interview sociologist Samuel L. Perry explained that complementarian husbands don’t threaten their wives if the wife is viewing pornography. In that case, the sin this is ostensibly about is not nearly the problem:
Of the women who were watching porn, was it more that they themselves were feeling guilty, as you hinted at? Or was it that their husbands were also mad at them?
I had very few interviews where a Christian wife was looking at porn. In the heterosexual relationships in which I interviewed conservative Christians, it was almost always the man who was looking at porn. The Christian women who were looking at porn that I interviewed were primarily single college girls. I guess when women were married, the temptation to look at pornography was not quite the same.
But I will say this: the statistic that I gave you about conservative Protestant women being twice as likely to divorce their husbands as non-conservative Protestant women—the reverse is not true. The data that I have shows that men almost never divorce their wives because they’re looking at pornography. It’s just not something that they draw a hard line about, or get offended by, the way women do.
This is, I have to admit, a very clever tactic by complementarians. They are able to frame their own sin as merely a dislike for sin, and frame anyone who notices what is really going on as advocating for men to sin. Moreover, that this is wholly insincere doesn’t change the fact that pornography is a problem in itself.