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Violent Pornography’s Assault on the Marriage Bed

The most influential source of sex education in America today is pornography. For the majority of young people today—including most Christians—attitudes about sex and sexual practices are being shaped wholly, if not exclusively, by pornography. This is nothing new, of course, but it’s becoming increasingly dangerous because porn is becoming increasingly violent.

Numerous studies have confirmed this finding. For example, a 2020 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior looked at a random sampling of videos on the top two most viewed porn sites in the world. The study found physical aggression against women present in 44.3 percent of one site’s videos and 33.9 percent of the other’s. Put simply, between one-third and almost one-half of porn videos depict some sort of violence—and in 97 percent of cases, they depict violence against women.

This normalization of violence is spilling over into the real world. Three years ago, a study published in the Journal of American College Health found that 26.5 percent of female undergraduate students had been choked during their most recent sexual encounter. Additionally, 24.8 percent of men reported they choked their partner in their most recent sexual encounter. (Notice they weren’t merely responding that this had happened sometime in their life but that it happened in their most recent sexual experience.)

A more recent survey found the practice has increased by about 50 percent in those three years. Nearly two-thirds of women in the survey (5,000 students at an anonymized “major Midwestern university”) said a partner had choked them during sex, with one-third in their most recent encounter. The rate of those women who said they were between the ages 12 and 17 the first time that happened had shot up to 40 percent from one in four.

Why would men do that? Because they see it happening in porn and think it’s what women want. Why do the women go along with it? Because they too see it in porn and think it must be what they’re supposed to want.

External forces mold our wants, often without us realizing it. Few influences are more prevalent and influential in shaping sexual desire today than pornography. One study found that men watch porn for 5 to 17 minutes a day—between 30 and 103 hours a year. If a boy starts looking at pornography at age 12, then by the time he’s 32, he has watched between 600 and 2,000 hours of porn videos. He’ll have been shaped for two decades by the porn industry and by that industry feeding him increasingly more extreme images and examples of sexual acts.

External forces mold our wants, often without us realizing it. Few influences are more prevalent and influential in shaping sexual desire today than pornography.

Because these images are being fed to him when his personality is still being formed and his sexuality is developing, he begins to confuse his desires with those he sees in porn. He thinks that’s what he desires when the reality is that he’s been conditioned to want those things by the porn industry.

But God didn’t design us to want to inflict pain on others during sex, nor did he design us to want that for ourselves. It’s not a natural desire or a natural part of the sexual process. That’s why in earlier times it was considered a perversion. Such actions pervert the nature of sex—which is meant to be beautiful and good—into something ugly and evil. Such acts twist sex in such a way that its purposes, such as creating a one-flesh union, are destroyed.

Why Violence Has No Place in Marital Intimacy

Christians need to be clear that such acts of violence have no place in sexual intimacy. Here are three reasons we must reject sexual violence as incompatible with God’s design for marital intimacy.

1. Sex was designed by God, and he prohibits violence.

The Bible has a lot to say about violence, but let’s look at just one verse as an example. Proverbs 3:31 says, “Do not envy a man of violence and do not choose any of his ways.” We don’t want to adopt the ways of the violent because they’re generally incompatible with the command to love one’s neighbor.

It’s possible, though extremely rare, that the best way to love your neighbor is through the use of violence. You may, for instance, need to resort to violence to prevent him from harming himself or others. But there’s never a time when violence is appropriate within the context of marital intimacy.

2. People get hurt by violent acts, and we’re called to preserve the life of our neighbor.

The sixth commandment compels us to preserve our neighbor’s bodily well-being (Ex. 20:13). Why then would we engage in practices that can cause so much harm?

Such practices as choking, also known as sexual strangulation, are highly dangerous and can lead to serious health risks and even death. Some of the physical dangers include oxygen deprivation, cardiac arrest, stroke, cognitive impairment, damaged blood vessels or larynx, and even death. Equally harmful is the psychological damage it can inflict. Engaging in such a dangerous sexual practice can lead to anxiety, depression, psychological distress, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

3. The nature of sex is contrary to violence.

Violence is characterized by harm, control, and fear. In contrast, intimacy is built on trust, mutual respect, and emotional closeness. Violence is therefore incompatible with intimacy. Love for our spouse should lead us to treat them with gentleness, respect and consideration. There is never a justification for violence, coercion, or abuse within the sacred bond of marriage. Intimacy can only flourish when both partners feel safe from harm.

The effects of sexual violence before marriage can also inhibit intimacy within marriage, even with a partner that isn’t violent. Debby Herbenick notes that choking is among the most frequently listed sex acts young women said had scared them.

“At times some of them literally think someone is assaulting them but they don’t know,” says Herbenick. “Those are the only sexual experiences for some people. And it’s not just once they’ve gotten naked. They’ll say things like, ‘I’ve only tried to make out with someone once because he started choking and hitting me.’”

Some might ask, “What about consent and pleasure? What if a spouse consents to some act that might appear violent, such as choking? What if one of us gets pleasure from such acts?”

For secular culture, consent has become the one and only constraint on sexual acts. If two people have given their consent—that is, if they give their permission to engage in certain sexual acts—then the acts are allowable. No questions asked; no judgments allowed. To express disapproval would be “shaming” and antithetical to the norm of “sex positivity.”

This minimalist standard is being adopted by an increasing number of Christians. Many have come to believe that if both the man and woman consent and at least one of them derives pleasure from the act, then it must be permissible—especially within marriage. They fail to recognize how such thinking is due to the corruption of moral reasoning by sin.

Extend Truth, Grace, and Hope

Even secular counselors are beginning to express concern about sexual violence. As one study concluded, “Clinicians need to be aware of recent potential shifts in sexual behaviors, particularly those such as choking that may lead to harm.”

We owe it to those caught up in such corrupted sexual desires to tell them the truth. To those who’ve been influenced by pornography and feel trapped by violent sexual desires, we need to communicate that there’s hope and healing in Christ. We must walk with them as they begin replacing those false images with truth from God’s Word about his design for healthy intimacy.

Pornography doesn’t just affect men, of course. Many women feel immense pressure to conform to the violent and degrading acts normalized in porn. They may believe that if they don’t consent to aggressive sex acts, they’re prudish or will lose their husbands’ interest. In truth, any sexual coercion is the opposite of the selfless, sacrificial love husbands are called to show their wives (Eph. 5:25).

To those who’ve been influenced by pornography and feel trapped by violent sexual desires, we need to communicate that there’s hope and healing in Christ.

To help young Christians who are preparing for or who have entered the covenant of marriage, it’s crucial we have frank discussions like this about God’s design for sexuality and the ways that design has been distorted in our violent, pornified culture. We must compassionately help them understand how those desires have been shaped by outside influences rather than placed there by God. Truly satisfying marital intimacy flows from sex as God intended it—a beautiful, holy union that brings a man and woman together as one flesh.

Pastors, parents, and counselors must boldly proclaim this truth, especially to the younger generations most influenced by our sexualized culture. We need to show them how God’s boundaries around sexuality, including the prohibition against sexual violence, are for our good and his glory. As the church, we have a responsibility to paint a compelling vision of God-honoring sexuality and to graciously guide people away from the counterfeits that only bring harm.

Ultimately, all of us live in a pornified culture to such a degree that we need to “take every thought captive” (2 Cor. 10:5) and seek to align our minds with God’s design for sexuality. The issue goes beyond just the violent aspects promoted in pornography. Each of us must repent of ways we’ve embraced the world’s distorted vision of sex and instead pursue the beautiful intimacy God intends for marriage. Only by basing our views of love and intimacy in God’s Word can we find freedom from the lies and temptations of our sexualized culture.

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