by Shaunti Feldhahn
The fallout from the Ashley Madison leak shows us that there is a critical sexual disconnect between men and women.
Most women are completely dumbfounded at the Ashley Madison scandal, asking, How could it be so easy for so many men – including godly, Christian men – to visit such a site?
Most men are completely chilled at the Ashley Madison scandal: thinking, There but for the grace of God go I.
There’s something more important here than the Ashley Madison issue itself: a vast disconnect between men and women on modern sex-related issues that affect nearly all men and boys every single day – but which many women aren’t even aware of. While actual infidelity affects only a small percentage of marriages, the factors creating online temptation impact everyone. And we women don’t always understand why.
Our men are vulnerable in ways most of us never realized. Our sons have a target on their backs. They need our support, prayer and awareness as they stand against the temptations of this culture – or as they work to heal their lives and marriages from poor choices.
After years of research and multiple nationally-representative surveys to investigate the inner lives of men and boys for For Women Only and Through A Man’s Eyes, I now believe if we women understood just five key things, it would change how Christian men handle temptation. Just to be clear: men are 100% responsible for their choices. But that doesn’t mean we women have to sit helplessly while our men are out there facing temptation alone.
So for every woman who wants to understand and support her man (or her son), here are five key facts:
Fact 1: Due to how their brain wiring interprets attractive sights, men in this culture are constantly being sexually stimulated.
Although we can’t get into the brain science here (see this article for more), the bottom line is that a straight man can’t not be sexually stimulated when he catches sight of the female body in the spandex shorts or the low-cut top. Even if he doesn’t want that pleasurable stimulation, it just happens. If he wants to honor his wife (and God) in his thought life, he instantly has to choose whether to shut down that stimulation by looking away or thinking about something else. A few minutes later he will have to make that choice again. And again.
Fact 2: Visual-sexual stimulation salves a man’s hidden vulnerabilities.
Men have far more self-doubt than women realize. Pleasurable stimulation hits men right where it hurts, and makes them feel better. One man told me, “A guy might be feeling like a failure at work but being intimate with his wife — or with pornography, which is the counterfeit — makes him feel like he does measure up. It is a salve that goes very deep.” When a man is intimate with his wife, he experiences true comfort and care. When he turns to porn he avoids intimacy; it is the counterfeit solace of the alcoholic’s bottle. And it is terribly ironic that his counterfeit indulgence triggers his wife’s own vulnerability – her worry that she is not enough for him.
Fact 3. The visual and emotional temptation looms large.
In today’s culture, a man’s physical responses and emotional vulnerabilities combine to create a perfect storm of temptation. Even if he fights it well (which most men in the church do try to do), it looms large. This is how my husband, Jeff, describes the struggle:
It is almost as if we are all former alcoholics and there is a bottle in front of us with an empty shot glass saying, “Just this once. It’s been such a hard day.”
As guys, we are all sitting there, looking at that bottle – and if we’re feeling particularly vulnerable, we’re saying ‘God help me.’ And it has nothing to do with our wives. It has everything to do with a man feeling like a failure and this is that one drink that he thinks will make him feel better tonight.
Many men won’t have had that thought about alcohol, but most of us have had it about porn. It is everywhere. And it turns men into cowards. So if we are honest, every man knows that if we’re not extremely careful, that is where we could go.
Fact 4: Some men fight it successfully — and others fall.
While many millions of men make those careful choices every day, others grow weary of the struggle. They give in. They secretly look at what is always just a click away. Many, especially in the church, know it is wrong and are ashamed. The hard truth is that porn reels in men who would have never set out to devastate their wives and families. Pornographic images are like a gateway drug to videos, chat rooms, and, for some, Ashley Madison. Men can find themselves in the grip of addiction. And since Christian men usually are ashamed of and hide the first step into temptation, the rest of the progression also stays hidden – and the men stay trapped.
Fact 5. A wife’s support can make a difference – if he chooses to let it.
One reason I’m passionate about encouraging women and men to understand each other: we don’t have to be helpless in the face of confusing (or scary) issues. Although a man or boy’s ultimate actions are fully his responsibility, there’s a lot a wife can do to support her husband or son, if he chooses to accept it. First, show your husband it is safe for him to talk to about these struggles with you. If a wife shows that she wants to understand (“What makes things more difficult for you?”), that she won’t freak out, and that she’s willing to help (“Absolutely, we can block those problematic cable channels”) most men will open up and share over time. And if a wife shows her husband that she does desire him sexually, that she cares for him in that way, closeness usually grows. Neither are a guarantee, but I’ve seen both lead to breakthroughs and much more intimacy.
I’d venture to guess that the enemy of our souls wanted to use the Ashley Madison hack to steal, kill and destroy many marriages, and to put fear into many others. But there’s something about bringing hidden things to light that God uses to set people free. For all of us as women, let’s use this unique moment to step out in maturity, face down our own fears and insecurities, and stand with our men – and our sons – so they know they don’t have to face the darkness alone.