Many men feel a deep sense of shame as a result of viewing and sexually acting out to pornography. Shame can be internal disappointment with ourselves or can be placed upon us by a wider community. It is an attempt to cover up a sense of unworthiness or agonizing vulnerability. It involves exposure and judgment, with resulting feelings of insufficiency, defectiveness, inadequacy, or unworthiness. At the core of shame is the belief that the individual is not worthy of love. In some cultural contexts shame is used to motivate others to change their behavior. This shame comes from the outside, imposed on us by our culture, community or family. But it can also come from within, imposed on us after a sense of guilt has been warped into a denial of our worth, value and identity in Christ.
It is critically important to recognize the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is the feeling we get when we do something that our conscience tells us is wrong. This conscience, our internal moral compass, serves as a protection for both ourselves and for those around us. When our actions or thoughts have led to a violation or injury of another person, guilt can be a good emotion. It is a guide that can make us aware of when we have injured others. Healthy responses to guilt are confession, repentance, forgiveness and restoration.
Sometimes there is a gray area between guilt and shame. A person can know he is “guilty” but have no emotional response to the guilt. Oftentimes this is a person with a seared conscience. These individuals, at the extremes, can become sociopaths. But everyone has the capacity to know that they did something wrong yet find ways to excuse it, minimize it or even enjoy it.
The problem with shame is that it is based on more than just what we do. While guilt is primarily based on our actions, shame is based more on our belief about ourselves. The severity of our sense of guilt can sometimes lead us to a place where we feel a sense of shame. As we identify with those whom we have injured, we move from a healthy sense of guilt into a warped understanding of forgiveness, grace and mercy. It is here that many debate whether or not shame is God-given. Some argue that there are logical grounds for people feeling shame or for the culture to shame someone.
It is common in some traditions for a person to be publicly shamed as a way of punishing them for some transgression or attempting to motivate them toward a more pious life. Others argue that shame is rooted in a person’s belief about themselves. All people were created in the image of God. To have a view of oneself that is rooted in unworthiness dishonors the image of God intrinsic in every individual. My belief is that all shame is unhealthy because it denies the intrinsic worth and value that God places on each human being. God does not call us to a life of shame but to a life of freedom as we move from awareness of our sinfulness to confession and repentance, to redemption and healing, to ministry and sanctification. Shame only offers the lie of worthlessness, and a sense of worthlessness creates fertile soil for the continued exercising of sexual brokenness.
Sexual shame finds a unique place in humanity. Because of the taboos on sexuality that are found in many cultures and the reality that our sexuality is a foundational part of what makes a person human, sexual shame undercuts a person’s sense of worth, value and identity. Actions that have been done to someone (such as rape or incest) can also violate a person’s sense of self. Actions that someone does to another sexually (such as sexual coercion or solidification of a prostitute) can scar the victim as well as the perpetrator. This can lead to a strong yet unhealthy connection between the two.
When men (and women) realize that they have bought a lie and that it has failed to deliver on its promise of intimacy, they become imprisoned by shame. They intuitively know that they need true intimacy, but they are incapable of having it when they are in isolation from real relationships with real people.
Wired for Intimacy. How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain. Pg. 55-57