Getting Free

with Carl Thomas

Pornography Addiction: Breaking Free

When you hear the word “addiction,” what’s the first thing you think of—drugs, alcohol, food, gambling? It turns out that pornography can be just as addictive, and that addiction can be just as damaging to loving relationships. Let’s discuss Getting Free with Carl Thomas.

Carl Thomas

Carl Thomas knows this from personal experience. An ordained pastor who spent seven years with the XXXchurch organization before founding the Live Free ministry in 2019, he says he spent nearly two decades struggling with a dependency on pornography before coming to terms with the toll it was taking on his marriage and vowing to make a change. Now he’s devoted his career to helping other men do the same.

What’s more important than how often men look at porn, Thomas explains, is why—and that’s not something that’s always been addressed well in traditional church settings. “I don’t want to say porn gets a bad rap, but it’s just a thing that people turn to, like alcohol, drugs, overeating, any number of things. And because we grow up in a very sexualized culture that reinforces this idea that men always need sex and women don’t, and guys are just hornier, church culture kind of reinforces this idea that we’re these Pavlovian dogs who can’t control our penises.” taking on his marriage and vowing to make a change. Now he’s devoted his career to helping other men do the same.

Live Free Ministries

Rather than shaming men or relying on superficial fixes, Live Free tries to help men identify and confront the emptiness, frustrations, and inadequacies that they’ve been trying to fill with pornography. The ministry accomplishes this through not only online meetings, but also innovative workshops and the Live Free Community smartphone app. “It just gives guys a safe place to start where they can feel connected, like they belong,” Thomas says. “It’s important to get guys into welcoming, supportive communities where they can have those conversations and figure this stuff out for themselves.”

What constitutes a pornography addiction?

First let’s define what actually constitutes a pornography addiction. You wouldn’t call someone a porn addict simply for, say, flipping through the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue or watching a movie with some brief nudity in it. So where do you draw the line? When does it go from simply “appreciating the female form” to something unhealthy?

“Addict” is kind of a clinical term, and there are a lot of people who claim it doesn’t meet the requirement for a clinical addiction per se. So my criteria isn’t so much about frequency. At the end of the day, what makes you an addict or compulsive user is the reason you’re going to that stuff in the first place. Are you turning to the unwanted behavior compulsively, and it’s gotten out of control because it’s become a bit of a go-to in your life whenever you’re dealing with loneliness or pain or whatever?

If someone picked up the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue by accident or just did it once in a while, I wouldn’t call them an “addict.” But let’s say they look at SI swimsuit issues every week because it’s giving them some kind of sexual gratification—even if it’s not masturbation or nudity that they need—because it’s, for lack of a better word, medicating or numbing some kind of issue in their life. Kind of the same thing with any behavioral addiction. Like, what makes you a gambling addict? If I’m a poker player and I go once a week, am I an addict? No, not necessarily, but if I go play poker every week and I play with high stakes because it gives me some kind of adrenaline rush that I really need to get me through, then I could be. It all comes down to the reasons. Frequency is an indicator, but it’s not what makes you an addict.

Seriousness of Porn Dependency

In an age when sexual images are almost instantaneously available wherever you are, is it difficult to get men to understand and appreciate the seriousness of a dependency on porn? 

To a certain extent, sure, because if you’re in the sewer, how are you gonna know what smells bad? I absolutely think our sexualized culture makes this harder to deal with, because we’ve marred the whole beauty and the purpose of sex. And it’s harder to deal with on a recovery level when you’re being bombarded with the stuff 24/7.

The "I'm Just Bored" Excuse

It sounds like you started looking at porn as a teenager just as something to do when you were bored, but clearly it became much bigger than that after a while. How do you get a porn addict to get past the “I just do it when I’m bored” excuse?

When you’re dealing with 10- or 12-year-old kids, the reason they go to porn in the first place is because they’re horny and boobs are interesting. What 12-year-old kid doesn’t like a pair of boobs? Yeah, I saw my first naked woman in a Playboy that a friend showed me, and I was like, “Wow, that is interesting.” Especially when we’re young, our brains bond with the things that we derive pleasure from, and nothing is quite as pleasurable as an orgasm. So when we see a naked woman and we masturbate and we orgasm, our brain forms a connection.

A lot of people do have this false idea that “I’m just hypersexual” or “I just don’t know what else to do.” I can’t count the number of guys I ask, “What was going on?” “Oh, I don’t know, I was just bored.” “You didn’t have any anxiety or other issues?” “No, I was just bored.” I try to explain to them that they’re horny for a reason, it’s not just something that materializes out of nowhere. You’re horny because your brain told you to get that way.

I read a book on anxiety in which the author said “Your brain is a douchebag.” The point was your brain is the most selfish organ in your body, and it’ll do whatever it needs to do to make itself feel better, and it really doesn’t care what that does to the rest of your life. If you go to porn because your sex life is boring, and it registers as a five-star experience, your brain remembers that and says, “Hey, next time you’re feeling angry or resentful or whatever, I know what’s going to make you feel better.” And then your brain starts pursuing that as often as possible because it’s an easy fix.

Porn Affects Your Marriage

How did your porn addiction affect your marriage?

Wow, how much time have you got? It definitely impacted the way we approached sex. My wife didn’t know I had an addiction for the first three or four years, but it still changed the way we approached sex, because I looked at sex purely as a sexual release. So when I wouldn’t get it, I’d get angry, and my wife knew. So that made her anxious. What woman wants to sleep with her husband simply so he won’t get angry at her? That’s not a compelling reason to have sex, but sometimes that’s what a lot of women do: They don’t want to deal with the crap, so they go ahead and have sex.

We didn’t connect on aspects of intimacy other than just sex, which wasn’t very intimate to begin with, so there was that. I can’t blame it all on porn, but I was definitely a more selfish husband, and a lot of that had to do with the fact that porn was something I could turn to whenever I wanted. It is a bit of a selfish habit because everything’s about me—whenever I want it, how I want it, it caters to all your desires.

And it affected my wife, it affected her self-confidence, it affected trust levels, obviously. It made us both work less as a team and more as two individuals.

Escape From Unsatisfying Sex Life?

Your porn addiction developed from looking at pornography as a teenager, which is probably how it begins for a lot of people. But do some men “pick up” that addiction later in life? Are they looking for an escape from an unsatisfying sex life, or is it something else?

Yeah, I’d say that’s probably one of the most common situations—they’re not having sex, or they’re not having sex enough, or they’re lonely. So they pick it up as a form of entertainment, and it fills this void, and before they know it they’re going to it all the time. And when they do that, the marital health and the sex frequency decline even more.

Live Free Community App

What is the Live Free Community app designed to do, and how does it work? 

During my seven or eight years at XXXchurch, we put out a ton of different things, workshops and filtering software and that sort of thing. One of the products we put out that I personally thought was the most impactful, and where we saw the best results, was our small groups program, because it was about relationships. But small groups, workshops, counseling, even accountability software, they all have this perceived high cost of entry, whether it’s financial or emotional. For instance, accountability software’s cheap, $60 or $70 a year, but in order for it to work you have to find an accountability partner. And that’s the one thing that every guy with a porn problem struggles with: I have to go tell someone a deep dark secret? And why would I waste money just for another failed experiment?

So I was thinking, how do we reach thousands and thousands of men out there who want help but aren’t ready to go to that level of commitment, whether it’s a small group or workshop or accountability software? And then I thought, what makes porn so prevalent or so consumable? It’s the 3 As—affordable, accessible, and anonymous. So how do we offer a resource that can compete with what porn offers but has the same benefits? Hey, why not a supportive community in an app that guys can join?

That keeps it affordable, it’s accessible, it’s in your pocket 24/7, it’s anonymous—yes, you have to enter an e-mail and credit card, but when you enter the community you can enter any name, any picture, anything you want. It still gives you that aspect of a supportive community where you can realize, hey, I’m not really alone in this. Talking about this isn’t as scary as I thought it would be. When I tell someone I masturbated, my house is not going to fall down on my head like I thought it would. It just gives guys a safe place to start where they can feel connected, like they belong, with the intention that hopefully they’re going to take that to the next level and do some counseling or one of these other things that may take some time and money.

 

Restoration

What does restoration mean to you?

If you ruin a painting, restoring it means bringing it back to its original beauty. But when we deal with this stuff, most guys don’t even know what the original beauty looked like. And the original beauty may not even be that beautiful—they still have emotional problems, they still have pain. So I would say restoration is getting to a point where you learn how to walk through life without having to turn to these maladaptive methods of coping.

Let’s say a guy goes to porn because he’s anxious. Let’s be honest, there are always going to be moments of anxiety the rest of your life, of rejection, of stress. Restoration’s getting to a point where you can cope and survive in that environment without doing the things you used to have to do. It’s when a guy can say, “I used to do this or that, but I don’t do it anymore. I’ve gotten past my shame with all this, I know where I’m at, I know where I’m going. I know how to live in a world like this, but I don’t have to live the way I used to live.”

the redeemed log lion inside a crown of throns