Pornography Is Not Just About Lust:
The Emotional Power of Images


Internet PornographyI will skip the statistics about how many pastors struggle with pornography, how early boys are exposed to their first pornographic image, and how destructive it has become to young women. Most of us are painfully aware of these stats, but it’s still hard to understand why this epidemic is happening.

Is pornography simply lust gone wild? Is it so prevalent merely because the Internet brings it into our homes in a way that was never possible before? Why do so many Christian men who would never dream of going to a strip club or soliciting a prostitute trapped in pornography?

I want to suggest that a big part of the story has to do with the power of the images as a technology.

Understanding Images

As a biochemistry major in college, I had to read textbooks with 100s of pages of technical information that was often just a little bit dry. In fact, I drooled in just about every one of my textbooks. Of course, conveying organized facts is one of the strengths of print as a medium. Unlike handwriting, print can convey repeatable perfection which happens to be just what good science needs. In contrast, a photo cannot convey something repeatable. By definition, it captures an instance in time that cannot happen again. This moment in time is connected to the ongoing story of the subject whether it is a person, a landscape, or the arrangement of light on an object.

When we see a beautifully composed photo, one of the reasons it pulls us in is because of this embedded narrative which lives between the colors and shadows and the arrangement of the subjects. Instead of operating at the level of reason like a textbook, an image operates at the level of emotion. That emotion might be happiness if we see something funny or it could be sadness when we see someone being abused.

In print, a novel can similarly capture us emotionally because a novel and a photograph share something in common – they both tell a story that connects with deep parts of our being. It is true that a picture is worth “a thousand words,” when those words tell a story, but it might even be more accurate to say that a picture is worth “a thousand emotions” (something Hipps points out in Flickering Pixels).

Connecting the Pixels

This is where it gets a little awkward. What happens when a man (or a woman) sees a pornographic image? Certainly, there is a huge element of sinful lust and sexual excitement. And there is the treatment of a woman as if she were an object rather than a real person, as well as the fundamental lack of belief that comes with all sin.

But what else? Why do men who want to turn away keep going back to their vomit (Prov 26:11)? They read Every Man’s Battle (which can be summarized as, “if you see boobies, look away”), they try to do what it says, but something still pulls them in. What is it?

I would suggest it is the power of images to connect to the deepest parts of a man’s emotion through the story of the woman in the image. No matter how much a man tries to objectify her and make the encounter purely about his sexual drive, the reason he returns to her night after night is because she – through the technology of image – temporarily eases the pain of an emotional wound.

So pornography is not insidious just because it exploits women, just because it destroys marriages, just because it often leads to darker more horrific sin, but because it uses the incredible power of image technology to hold a man emotionally captive to his sin.

Breaking the Cycle

I don’t mean to give men some kind of psycho-babble excuse for the sinful choices they make. Pornography is a sinful perversion of the God-created sexual drive of a man. However, if you are struggling with pornography or if you know someone who is, my suggestion is that you look beyond just working harder to avoid lust (though that is right and good: flee young man, flee!)

Perhaps the reason why you keep returning to pornography has to do with something much deeper than lust. Maybe there is something deep seated pain in your life that you would rather not address. Pornographic images not only sexually excite you but, with their power to connect to that emotional pain through the story embedded in the image, sooth your pain allowing you to put it off for another day. All the strategies of sin management in the world – accountability questions with other men, filtering software, and so on – might be helpful, but all that work might also prevent you from allowing the Spirit of God to heal the underlying issues.

Pornography is not just about lust. It is also about the power of images to connect to the deepest parts of person’s soul through the intensity of story. My suggestion is not to merely try harder to avoid lust, but to think about how you can avoid connecting to the stories of naked women and instead reconnect your life story – both the pain and the triumph – to the Gospel, the story of God working in the world to save his creation through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That story alone has the power to heal.

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at

21 thoughts on “Pornography Is Not Just About Lust:
The Emotional Power of Images”

  1. I’ve been reading in some strange places in Scripture these days that tie into your argument… Ezekiel 8 talks about the leaders of Israel participating in gross idolatry–extreme worship of false gods–all with the excuse that they sense that YHWH had abandoned them, that he was no longer in Israel. Ironically, it is God ushering Ezekiel through the hidden places in the Temple to show him how he is aware and disgusted/hurt by the extremes of the people. They felt YHWH abandoned them, but YHWH was right there and shocked that they were so quickly going from sensing an absence of divine presence to worshipping other gods… In later imagery Israel’s idolatry is linked with the concept of adultery–Israel is the unfaithful spouse to YHWH’s covenant relationship

    Then I jump to the story in 2 Kings 18-19 where King Sennacharib’s chief of staff comes in advance of the Assyrian army to mock Hezekiah and the people for trusting YHWH to defend them in battle. No other nation’s gods defended them…why should YHWH protect Israel against his great army? The question is whether YHWH really cares and really delivers. Hezekiah with the help of prophet Isaiah trust God and God routs his and Judah’s enemies.

    Then, to the New Testament, to Col 3.5 where sexual sin is grouped with several others, particularly greed, as being idolatry.

    Finally, I was just reading through Luke 5, where Jesus is God and amazingly present, the Immanuel, in the land of Israel.

    I don’t have time to develop it all, but I am linking in my mind anyway this fear or feeling of abandonment that many Christians face–particularly in a society where the family is so broken down and many children have been raised without intimate parental connection. We NEED God. Without him, we will look somewhere to something to get that God-need met. That would be a form of idolatry and, I believe, in our culture of fractured relationship, often can be reduced to the quick and easy sense of intimacy (read, the antithesis of abandonment) through sexual fantasy and expression. “Sacred sexuality” becomes “scared sexuality” (to reflect on the seminar coming to DTS on the topic) and our fear of being alone and vulnerable is very powerful. The solution is not just to focus on the problem. Every Man’s Battle offers a defense for a crisis. The solution is to cultivate an offense, through community, through meditating on the truth and cultivating a WALK with God that is truly personal and relevant (not just a detached theology), through developing a sensitivity to the Spirit’s caring and engaged presence. Did I mention community?!? I think that’s where my biggest need is. God wants to connect to us through his body. That’s a tough one given our technological normally detached world.

    Maybe my thoughts are random… I am writing quickly… but I appreciate your stimulating insights John–images engage imagination in story that appeals to our heart’s need.

  2. John,

    I think this is a phenomenal post. I like how you tie the pornography in embedded context within our lives, and that pornography is often tied to other wounds that we use pornography to mask, etc. I use as a filter on my computer, but I agree, that is not getting at any issues, but is simply one roadblock.

    If we are to address pornography, then we must do the hardwork of looking deep within ourselves, at what has led us to this place, what holes in our lives are we trying to fill, etc.

    I could say more, but I think you are spot on. There has to be a transformation that goes beyond filters, reading books, accountability groups, etc.


  3. Nice post. I first thought I had was, you are describing “fantasy” in relation to imagery, emotion and lust. ? …perhaps the emotion of fantasy? Nice post, I’ll have to noodle over it some more.

  4. What a great post! As someone who connects visually quite a lot, i can understand what you are saying about still and moving imagery and even the stories they tell and how the human soul connects at that level. Thank you for your insight. i have never actually tried to make sense of it like i have after reading your post.

  5. There’s a real clinical psychologist producing videos posted in the Parent’s blog. I have little trust in his abilitities, but it’s still a lot more than I have in the source of this faux-profound rambling. Leave the psychiatry to him – he at least has some fundamental understanding of the field. A knowledge of biochemistry is a useful thing to have, but not applicable to this.

    1. I don’t know much about psychology, but, for whatever reason, it’s true. Pornography kills pain. So do strippers, adultery, drugs, booze, and all the other things we try to kill pain with The only trouble is, they don’t really kill the pain or, if they do, it’s only for a moment, and the consequences of all this stuff only cause us more pain than we had before. (BTW, I’ve done them all, and I know they don’t work.)

      God doesn’t want us to deal with pain; He didn’t design us for it, and it’s because He doesn’t want us to experience pain that the place where all our pain is is in the flesh. Our spirit doesn’t experience pain; our spirit is seated in heavenly realms in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:6) It’s really only the flesh that experiences pain, and that’s what God wants nailed to the Cross with Christ so that we can be the righteousness of God in Him.

      What I’ve personally been doing more than anything else lately is claiming Gal. 2:20: I am crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live but He Who lives in me; and the life I live in the body is by faith in the Son of God Who loved me and gave Himself for me. And I can pray this, not because I’m so holy, because I’m not holy and it’s not the holy part of me that’s crucified with Christ. It’s my filthy, stinking, dying, pain-ridden flesh, which He is gracious enough to have on the cross with Him so that I can be freed of all that junk.

      Christ absorbed all the pain in the universe for six hours on the Cross so that I don’t have to. All I need to do is receive the free gift of His Spirit and, whenever I’m tempted to look at something fleshy (like porn) that I think will kill the flesh pain, look at Messiah on the Cross instead, and allow Him to free my Spirit. And the Good News from Hebrews 1 is, after He made atonement for sin, He sat down beside the majesty in heaven. In other words, Messiah took all my pain on the Cross, but then immediately went to His rightful place beside God the Father. He is free of pain and so am I. Hallelujah!!! Where’s the downside?

      Hope this helps. It’s what’s been working for me.

      Love to all of you,

  6. i really dont care what psychology courses John Dyer has taken. i really dont care whether or not you think he has the appropriate education to address this. he hit me point blank. pornography is about more than just pleasure. for me, its the emotional intimacy i feel like i experience those few moments. of course thats not an excuse. its admitting that i have bigger problems than the one most evident. thank you John

  7. Great post! Thank you so much for that! Whether he is a psychologist or not…he is right. I am a Psych major in college and everything he said is spot on and backed up by research in more than just the subject of pornography. Many times we do things for reasons that are deeper than what we think they may be on the surface. Thank you again for this reminder and keep the posts coming!

  8. I agree and think that your blog fits very well with this one also: The truth is that many people hurt deeply and look to something to numb them from that pain. The images of pornography, as you adequately shown, can be this very “medication” we look for. Similar thought process for work-a-holics. Thanks for your post. I’ll definitely be heading back over here.

  9. “but all that work might also prevent you from allowing the Spirit of God to heal the underlying issues.” Amen to that. I can testify to the fact that in all my strength and will power, nothing compares to the power of the Holy Spirit coming in and cleaning house. Sure there are better days than others, but God has healed a lot of my old wounds. And the only times I fall are when I think I am strong enough.

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