Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain, by William M. Struthers. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009, 196 pages, $16.00, paper.
It is always useful to read works that intelligently, thoughtfully, and clearly consider the complex relationship between the soul and the body. We only scratch the surface of the glorious truth that man is "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14) in the image of the infinite and incomprehensible God. We should prize gifted men and women who can help us scratch just a little deeper.
Dr. William M. Struthers, Associate Professor of Psychology at Wheaton College, has provided such help in his rich volume Wired for Intimacy. Compellingly sub-titled "How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain," the book introduces its readers to basic elements of behavioral neuroscience and the interrelationship of biology and behavior in male addictions to pornographic images. What could be dry and boring when communicated by many, is made lucid and fascinating by Struthers, who writes as a clear and engaging teacher.
The book is divided into two parts: "How Pornography Works," and "Healthy Masculinity and Sexuality." While Part 2 is more rambling, both parts are full of quotable sections (I marked my copy enthusiastically throughout), and eminently helpful insights into topic such as: how intimacy is corrupted by pornography (chapter 2), the consequences of exposure and gradual addiction to pornography (chapter 3), the meaning of being made in God's image (chapter 5), masculinity (chapter 6), and, in a particularly insightful chapter, the male need of intimacy (chapter 7).
I was especially fascinated and helped by chapter 4 of the book, "Your Brain on Porn." Here Struthers, the expert in neuroscience, and Struthers, the master teacher, combine beautifully. In drawing a memorable analogy between the way pornography works in the male brain and high definition (HD) television, Struthers likens the unique character of pornographic images with an HD signal, the male brain with an HD receiver, and the male nervous system and capacity for imagination with an HD display. "The male brain is built like an ideal pornography receiver, wired to be on the alert for ... images of nakedness. The male brain and our conscious visual experience is the internal monitor where we perceive them. The images of sensuality grab our attention, jumping out and hypnotizing a man like an HD television among a sea of standard televisions" (82ff.).
The effect of this, particularly with prolonged exposure to pornographic images, forms particular neural pathways in the brain. These become the default pathways through which all interactions with women are directed.
With each lingering stare, pornography deepens a Grand Canyon-like gorge in the brain through which images of women are destined to flow... All women become potential porn stars in the minds of these men. They have unknowingly created a neurological circuit that imprisons their ability to see women rightly as created in God's image. (85)
Fully granting that there are other aspects of the world, the flesh, and the devil that warp a man's mind and heart in this great battle for sexual purity, these insights on the neurological level are certainly valuable in understanding and explaining the dangers to men who do not, like godly Job, "make a covenant with their eyes" not to gaze with lust upon women (cf. Job 31:1)especially women whose images are designed to entice them.
Thankfully, healthy patterns of sight, imagination, and human interaction can alter these "neural pathways" so that men's habits become more holy in their attitudes toward and treatment of women (cf. Rom. 12:1-2). This is developed at length in Part 2 of the book. Struthers sees the meaning of man as image of God as primarily relational in nature. Hence, all attitudes toward sexuality which are divorced from the healthy interaction of whole people with whole people, i.e. not simply with images, will inevitably be warped and destructive. Here Struthers offers what is, in essence, a theology of intimacy. Given the nature of the book, he makes particular application of this to males and the meaning of masculinity. These sections should be pondered carefully by pastors and by others who work with men who struggle in these areas of male identity and development. I found this material particularly helpful.
Unfortunately, the final chapter (chapter 8) on "Rewiring and Sanctification" is disappointing. Despite many insightful nuggets, e.g. "The process of sanctification is an addiction to holiness, a compulsive fixation on Christ, and an impulsive pattern of compassion, virtue, and love" (189), this section comes short of anything like a satisfactory explanation of the dynamics of true sanctification. This is due, in part, to what seems like a Pelagian view of sin throughout the book, coupled with deficient views of regeneration and conversion. We must keep in mind that Dr. Struthers is not, first, a theologian. It is also true that the metaphor of "rewiring" (as common as it is in our modern day) reduces man to a machine. This is hardly Struthers's position or his intention; but the metaphor lends itself to that.
Much to his credit, Struthers does not shy away from the difficult and delicate issues. The effects of a hook-up culture with its allure of multiple sex partners, masturbation, and the specifics of repentance and confession are all faced head-on by Struthers. This only adds to the value of this enlightening introduction to the world of neuroscience, the philosophy of gender identity, and the paths that warp or heal sexuality in a fallen world. I urge pastors and all who seek to help men in what has been rightly called "Every Man's Battle" to get this book, read and digest it, wed it to a better theology of sin and sanctification, and make use of it to help themselves and others be healthier whole persons, including (but not limited to) having minds of sexual purity.
Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Franklin Square, NY
Ordained Servant Online, May 2011.