Book Review: Wired for Intimacy, by William Struthers
Talk to ten males, and you shouldn’t be surprised to discover that a strong majority of them struggle with internet pornography.
Sex seduces. Sex sells. And sex powerfully affects the male brain. Now William Struthers, associate professor of psychology at Wheaton College, has helped us to better understand why sexual images so powerfully affect men in particular with his book Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain.
HOW PORNOGRAPHY REWIRES THE BRAIN
Struthers begins the book by helping us understand why something as harmful as pornography can be such a fixture of our society (ch. 1). Three factors keep the pornography industry alive.
- First is the definitional dodge. The porn industry starts with a game of semantics, making it difficult to define pornography.
- Second is the constitutional dodge. Proponents argue that the U. S. Constitution protects the freedom to produce, market and distribute porn because of the rights of free speech and free press.
- Third, the industry hides behind the causal dodge. Because of the ethical quandaries which surround researching porn, correlation research (in which the relationship of one variable to another variable is traced out using mathematics) is the only possible way to research porn. The porn industry quickly and easily debunks correlation research because it cannot establish a direct causal relationship between pornography and its effects.
After this introductory chapter, Struthers explains that men and women were made for relationship, and so they crave intimacy. Yet the power of the image of a naked woman is more than just the illusion of intimacy. A woman’s willingness to expose herself is “hypnotizing” to men. The more lifelike the image, the more it creates a “hormonal and neurological tsunami” in the man’s brain. But it is not just the actual visualizing that causes problems. The male brain’s one-track and visuospatial traits make it the “perfect playground for sexual fantasy…As porn and fantasy take control of the mind, it becomes a dream theatre that is transposed over the waking world” (44-45).
A properly oriented human conscience will feel guilt for such immoral behavior. But with enough time and exposure, a porn addict’s conscience becomes seared and loses its ability to signal trouble. I’ve sat with men who have viewed pornography for years. The warning signs they experienced when they first started viewing porn had long since been obliterated. As fixation on sexual gratification grows, tunnel vision causes the addict to focus more on his pursuit of arousal and less on male-female relationship. This leads to the objectification of women and the tragic loss of real intimacy.
In chapters 4 and 5 Struthers goes on to provide a staggering amount of detail related to the biology and neurochemistry of porn addiction. This portion of the book will definitely require patience for those who didn’t like biology in high school.
Struthers doesn’t go the way of most biologists by assigning a fatalistic, powerless future to the addict. Instead, he argues that redemption can counter this biological rewiring through the process of sanctification (ch. 8). Confession, repentance, understanding, and accountability all serve to counter porn’s harmful effects.
LOTS OF BIOLOGY, LITTLE THEOLOGY
While Struthers makes a noble attempt to talk about biology and theology in the same book, his theological material is sparse and biology too often dominates the book’s agenda. One might ask, “What’s the point of the book?” If Struthers is trying to sort through the biological, social, cultural, and personal implications of pornography, he does a good job collating a lot of data into one book. If he is trying to help us think through the problem using a biblical and theological lens, then Struthers fails. The problem is that biology without theology is dangerous for Christians. Our doctrine of creation tells us not to be afraid of the sciences, but our understanding of biology and the other sciences must reside within biblical and theological framework. In that way, Scripture remains our authority over every realm of thought and life, including biology.
Another, less significant, issue with the book is Struthers’ discussion of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in chapter seven. While no one will deny the essential human needs (water, food, etc.), Struthers should have debunked more biblically questionable categories like self-esteem or self-actualization (156).
HELPFUL FOR UNDERSTANDING THE PROBLEM
Struthers’ research helps us to understand how pornography rewires the brain. Those who want to understand the biology that contributes to porn addiction will be well served by Struthers’ book. All told, I’m grateful for this book, because it’s one of the only popular-level resources of its kind written by an evangelical Christian.
However, be forewarned that his discussion of theology and sanctification is sparse. He also leans heavily on the side of trying to understand the problem but offers very little in the way of how to fight it. Understanding is important, but it’s only the first step.