19 October 2009

Addicted to Porn, or Just Fond of It?

Some people have real pornography addictions. This hit me during an Evergreen Conference session a few years ago, when a therapist or psychologist was presenting on sexual addiction. I was intrigued to see what was said at an LDS-centric conference. Besides, it was probably a choice between that or something like "Overcoming Self-Hatred" or some such thing. Sexual addiction was far more interesting, despite wondering if I had any right to be going because I didn't experience it. During part of the presentation focusing on pornography, a select few people from the audience, or interviewees from research presented, shared their experiences with pornography addiction. Some had been fired from a job for viewing pornography at work or that they, at their worst, had spent three or fours hours every night looking at pornographic images and videos online. Others confessed they became emotional wrecks if they didn't get their fix. They craved it. They couldn't function without it. It severely interfered with their day-to-day life. It began with a little here, a little there, and blew up into a major problem which consumed hours of every day. My eyes secretly bulged out of my head. I apparently had little concept of what "addiction" could mean. As far as I knew, "addicted to porn" probably just meant "can't seem to kick the habit". This was a whole other ballpark, and I felt a little sheepish for having intruded and having underestimated the extent of addiction experienced by some fairly normal-seeming people (and some not-so-normal-seeming ones, of course).

I was careful not to let this revelation lull me into a false sense of security in thinking porn was fine in moderation. Many people, including many psychologists, believe it's even beneficial and healthy in moderation and as part of normal sexual expression. I'm not one of them. In my opinion it's not wholesome, enlightening, genuine, or enriching, and isn't worth the time that could be spent on any of a number of other things. It takes something beautiful and mutually selfless and degrades it into something superficial and crude for selfish entertainment. It comes from an industry that is corrupt and demeaning and dehumanizing. And on the list of productive and beautiful images and thoughts to have in my brain or on my mind, it's not in the top 20 or so. In short, I tend to regard it, at its best, as a not-so-great habit and, at worst, a vile and loathsome scourge insulting and degrading the beauty of something meaningful.

But is it possible that for some, or many, the viewing of pornography is more on the "bad habit" side of things than the "addiction" side? In LDS culture, the viewing of pornography is, in no uncertain terms, condemned and decried as an unholy and impure practice, and is said to include not just X-rated videos or photos but any medium of entertainment designed to titillate and induce lustful thoughts. In such a culture, I wonder if we haven't sort of watered down the meaning of the term "addicted" and promoted self-destructive shame and inaccurate feelings of freakishness. Should a guy who looks at pictures of scantily clad people in provocative poses once a week for a few minutes think of himself as addicted to porn or a vile and disgusting sinner? I'm pretty sure I've known one or two guys in that category who at least referred to themselves as having a "problem with pornographic images". And I didn't want to falsely console them into thinking a little lustful coveting is OK, so I refrained from saying, "Hey, that may not be a good habit, and I support you trying to minimize or rid that from your life, but don't be too hard on yourself. You're actually doing pretty well, all things considered. Just keep aiming higher, and you'll be fine."

Actually, I think I did say something like that to one, and he immediately pushed it away, presumably because he was afraid to see himself as anything other than vile and sinful for doing it, lest he should give himself license to become a porn-addicted mess, specializing into things like midgets or vegan dungeon porn. I wanted to explain to him he would probably see no less improvement if he could look more fairly at it, but I let it go 'cause I wouldn't want to create a porn-monster. Why have I been so worried about sounding like I might be condoning something I shouldn't be? Have others experienced this, or am I the only one who has thought of this?

I mean, is it damaging to allow those who are really quite normal or even less porn-loving than most to punish themselves because of it rather than regarding it as a pretty normal habit that is nonetheless spiritually destructive and unworthy of one's attention and time? Is it unwise to say, "Dude, you're not addicted. Let me tell you about addicted..."? Is it non-constructive to say, "Listen, if it's something you believe you should avoid in your life, then I support you in eliminating it. But if it's an occasional thing that's been part of your life off and on since adolescence but hasn't interfered with your daily life or turned sex into something impersonal and selfish for you, then don't be too hard on yourself." Isn't it fair and accurate to say, "You're right not to be proud of it, but pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again, and don't heap more guilt on yourself than is due. You're not alone in this challenge." I mean, maybe viewing porn is to spiritual sensitivity like smoking is to one's sense of taste: people don't realize they've lost the sensitivity until they stop the habit for a while and regain the sensitivity. So maybe in that sense, porn is not excusable or justifiable in any quantity, but still, is it such a slippery slope to tell someone who's not addicted but rather fond of porn that it's not adultery, and it's not an addiction, but it is a bad habit?

20 comments:

Jon said...

Generally speaking I think we heap way too much guilt on those who have porn issues. I liked the first part of Elder Scott's most recent conference talk, but I thought the second part when he talked about porn was less than helpful. Seems like too often the tactic is to guilt people away from porn or scare them away from it. Guilt and fear will keep you away from something for only so long. I think some guys probably look at it only occasionally to start, but then it gets worse after they percieve themselves as addicts after a talk in general conference or at church or whatever. I like the approach of cultivating the idea that you're not a horrible person if you indulge in it, but it's probably taking away from your ability to behappy to some degree so it's best to leave it alone.

Anonymous said...

Amen, Jon. I've found another "point of resonance" with you. :-)

The best piece I have read about pornography from an LDS point of view was given by psychologist Wendy Ulrich at a conference on the subject at BYU. I recommend the entire talk for anyone really interested in the subject. It can be found here:

http://www.byub.org/secrets/transcript/ulrich_transcript.asp

For those not wanting to read the entire talk, the essence of her message can be found in these two paragraphs:

"First of all, not all pornography use is addiction. People can use pornography without necessarily being addicted to it. There are sort of two different things that we're talking about. Virtually everyone here has been exposed to some form of pornography. It doesn't mean we're all addicted to it. Now, on the other hand, we've got a bishop in the Mormon church who just has an occasional beer. Is this a problem? Yes. When we're doing something that is against our value system even if it is something that the rest of the world would not consider that big of a deal, it is a problem. You don't have to be an addict to have a problem with pornography. So we need to reduce our sense of shame, validate that this is a common problem, but still see our need for change.

It is also, I think, important when working with someone who is addicted or who is using pornography to remember that pornography does not define the whole person. Our use of pornography is not the totality of who we are. If I'm dealing with a spouse who is involved with pornography use and I've discovered this I'm shocked and horrified and upset. It is important for me to keep things in perspective. I say this because some of the people that I have worked with and known who have been involved with pornography feel so completely guilt-ridden about it, so shameful about this addiction that they cannot control that it is as if that's the only thing to know about them, and it's not. I need another volunteer -- who feels like standing up? All you have to do is stand up, honest. Please would you stand up (young man)? Okay, let's just pretend you have a little problem with pornography. Everything else about you is exactly who you are. What kind of a world would it be if everyone in the world were exactly like you? Would there be any need for jails? Have you ever been in jail? No. Ever killed everybody? Ever started a war? No. Kidnaped anyone lately? No. Can you think about what the world would be like if everyone in it were just like him? Pornography use and all? No jails, no murder, no war, no violence. Not too bad, really. Let's keep this in perspective."

Most people I know who struggle with pornography need to hear the Wendy Ulrich message of putting it in its proper perspective and lessening their debilitating sense of personal shame much more desperately than they need a repeat of Elder Scott's reiteration of foundational truths, as true and important as those foundational truths are.

I regularly counsel with a straight married friend who is a husband and father and active member of the Church who struggles with pornography. Because he sees me as a non-judgmental person, he has made me his confidante when it comes to this issue.

All I can say is that my regular reassurance that he is not an awful person because he has slipped up again is like oxygen to his soul. He craves and needs that kind of reassurance regularly.

Listening to another Elder Scott talk does not help my friend at all right now. Of course there was a time and place for him to hear and internalize that foundational message. But constant repeats of these exhortations don't seem to help him much at this stage.

Listening to the Wendy Ulrich talk recently, though, was a sweet consolation and exactly what he needed to give him a sense of perspective and renewed dedication and patience to solider on with his struggle.

Original Mohomie said...

Jon and Anonymous (stop flirting with Jon on my blog; I might get jealous), thanks for the comments. They seem to echo what I'm saying. And Anonymous, thanks for the quote from Wendy Ulrich, which is beautiful. She presented at the Matis fireside once, and she seems really intelligent, fair-minded, and personable. She was a pretty popular presenter, if I remember right.

boskers said...

off-topic:

rosetta stone? in what way? picture 26??? what's that??? I have no clue what you're talking about.

i didn't stay too late at the fireside. and i never stood in a group (to my knowledge). maybe my head was swirling a little too much for me to notice.

craig's list...haha.

------------

Porn was an outlet for me growing up. I had little or no testimony and I didn't know God or the Atonement despite being raised in the church. I'm in no way rationalizing the viewing of pornography because there'd be no point for me to do that since I don't look at porn anymore. When faced with the choice of acting out or committing suicide, I have to say that porn is the lesser of the evils.

Almost all my friends in high school looked at porn and weren't ashamed of telling me about what they discovered on the net. My dad watched porn. My brother looked at porn. Only the church seemed to condemn it. And I honestly did not think that the church applied to me and that there was no Atoning sacrifice powerful enough to save me. That's why for a long time I had myself convinced that I already was so dirty and evil that if I was going to hell, I'd better enjoy the ride. I think feelings of isolation and rejection also heavily factor into the viewing of porn.

I'm sure you know this and have seen it at the Evergreen conference, but porn is a deeply embedded habit in a person (especially those with SSA) because it provides more than pleasure. Porn gives a false sense of control, imaginary "friends," "acceptance," and a plethora of other feelings that are begging to be fulfilled. Whenever I hear of people being addicted to porn now my heart sincerely goes out to them. Porn is like ocean water after you've been stranded on a raft for three days. It's cool and seems to satisfy certain needs, but it ends up killing you.

Chedner said...

If I remember correctly, clinically speaking, an addiction or disorder is characterized by primarily one or more of three things:

1) Are there negative consequences (financial, social, health -- like losing your job, for example)?;

2) Does it go against your perceived self?;

and/or 3) [I forget the third one... something about craving, I think]?

So, clinically, even 1 minute of porn once a month ~could~ be considered an addiction under the second condition, according to one's perceived self -- and the question would, then, be whether or not that person has a healthy self-perception* instead of if that person has an addiction or not.


*not necessarily that the perception, "I am one who doesn't look at pornography," is unhealthy but that said perception should perhaps be more of a goal and that the self perception, therefore, should be something like, "I am one who is working towards not viewing pornography." ... if that makes sense.

Anonymous said...

Please know, O-Mo, that even if I go on to establish a thousand points of resonance with Jon, that YOU were, and always will be, the Original, the first, the great Ensign and Point of Light to which I was first attracted and to whom I first raised my voice in the land of Mohos.

You thus have a special status in my heart that no one can ever challenge. Be forever assured and secure in the knowledge that I think you're pretty darn groovy your own darn self.

And just to chalk up a point of resonance that you and I share (among many): your perception of Wendy Ulrich is 100% accurate. She is really intelligent, fair-minded, and personable among many other positive qualities.

I have a really amazing Wendy Ulrich story that I'll share with you when we break muffin tops at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building someday. (Along with the FoTC story.) Interestingly, my Wendy story began at the JSMB long ago and culminated in a series of events that are nothing short of miraculous to me.

I have a track record of miraculous things happening to me, so I have no doubt that in the eternal round of the Lord, we'll be munching on those circular muffin tops before we know it--and marveling that it all came to pass so darn organically.

And I predict that will happen before I break nachos with Jon. Cause you're the first, the original. I'll never forget that.

Original Mohomie said...

Boskers, Chedner, thanks for the perspectives.

Anonymous, did you NOT read my Lovesac story? I'm tired of being the first, the cherished memory, the one people move on from to bigger and better...WHY WHY WHY???!!!!

...OK, I'm over it. We're cool.

Original Mohomie said...

Ugh...I couldn't leave it a "nod" to your comments:

Boskers, I appreciate you pointing out the other psychological aspects to porn habits/addictions and your feelings. Amen to that, and kudos for being "clean" from it. Interesting ocean water analogy: possibly quite apt, especially for addicts.

Chedner, I started into, but avoided, the subtler points of addiction and what really defines it. I agree one might only do it once a month and still have all the symptoms and characteristics of addiction. Frequency isn't necessarily the issue as much as motives and the psychological effects. I'm not familiar with what defines "addiction" academically, but I think your point comes across.

Anonymous said...

Well, you're the cool one. I'm still working on that. I hope someday you'll be able to say "we're cool" and really mean it in all its meanings and implications.

And as far as me "moving on," it ain't going to happen.

Wendy Ulrich, the psychologist, would talk to you about the need to achieve "object constancy" with God and other people.

(Definition of Object Constancy: in psychoanalysis, an enduring emotional investment in another person.)

I'm going to be a big, anonymous rock that'll always be around and with whom you can build object constancy. You're stuck with me. I'll be good for your object constancy issues.

And you're going to help me be cool.

J G-W said...

I don't think I ever had "pornography addiction" issues.

But I have found that since I stopped using or looking at pornography (it's been a few years now) that my relationship with my husband has been much more satisfying and has felt much more genuine. I also feel better in my own skin. I also feel the Spirit more often.

I think how we decide to deal with this stuff is very personal. I include in my definition of pornography any image that's specifically intended to arouse, whether it includes images of genitalia or not. Of course it's impossible to completely avoid those kinds of images, because they're everywhere in magazines, on TV, etc. So that's where a large part of this just comes down to how we try to manage our thoughts and our feelings... Being careful about where we let ourselves go mentally.

The bottom line for me is that my life feels so much more satisfying, happy and real without pornography or a pornographic mentality than it did with it.

Jon said...

Oh great! Now I'm chopped liver! That's it, I'm turning to porn to console myself...

Scott said...

I'm sure many have heard of the recently-published study that indicated that Utahns are the highest (per-capita) consumers of internet porn in the U.S.

Obviously Utah isn't the church, and it's irresponsible to draw any conclusion from a single statistic. But I personally believe that the church's increasing condemnation of pornography over the last decade or two has very possibly done more harm than good.

In my own experience, addiction is very often fed by feelings of guilt, shame, and/or unworthiness. I used to be a compulsive masturbator (TMI?) back when I believed wholeheartedly that it was a sexual sin just one step removed from adultery and fornication. As my views changed, and I came to see it as something much less serious (and possibly not even a sin at all) the guilt and shame evaporated, and the compulsion disappeared. I won't say that I don't do it anymore (TMI again?), but I don't feel like I'm being dishonest when I say that I don't ever feel like I need to do it anymore.

I expect that for many porn addiction follows the same pattern, and that's why it's such an issue in the church, and why Utahns are so into internet porn. The more our leaders rail on it as a vile, wicked perversion of the basest sort, the more guilt those who indulge are going to feel, and the harder it's going to be for them to quit.

I'm not saying Elder Scott should get up in the next conference and say "Never mind. Porn's okay." But a gentler message (along the lines of this post, actually) of: "Porn is more often than not exploitative and the porn industry is corrupt. We should avoid pornography, just as we should avoid anything that offends the Spirit. If you indulge in porn, please abandon the practice and seek instead after things that are uplifting."

I think this approach would be far more effective in encouraging people to give it up (and in enabling them to do so).

Anonymous said...

Wait Jon, don't do it, don't do it!

You are so much more to me than chopped liver...or even any disgusting apple mash up you may present on your blog in this or any other lifetime.

My heart is big enough to love you both. It's inexhaustible.

You're my #2. (And just listen to Joe Jackson's "Won't You Be My Number Two?" to fully understand the glories of being # 2.)

You guys are separate but fully equal in my heart. Secure in that knowledge, you'll never have to turn to porn again...even food should be less necessary to sustain you going forward. :)

Original Mohomie said...

What a great conversation. I really appreciate everyone's comments and experiences...and banter. :-)

Scott, I think the study found more paid subscriptions in Utah, not necessarily most overall viewing, but either way, it was an intriguing study, and I've wondered if it's linked with the culture of shame and secrecy as well.

Good to be Free said...

I realize I am a bit late on this discussion, but I thought I should add a bit since I have a personal experience with the subject.

I have for many years indulged in, had a problem with, struggled, and dealt with, pornography. It was, for a long time a source of immense guilt and shame. With each conference talk, each condemnation, and denunciation, the dagger would dive deeper into my heart. It was a vicious cycle. We read in the Book of Mormon about the pride cycle, what of the guilt cycle?

Fast forward to December of last year. Many things changed in my life. I was able to be honest with myself, my wife, and with God. It was an amazing experience and I realized a lot about myself and how I had been destroying myself for so many years. I was finally able to let go of the past and try to move forward.

As the viewing of pornography doesn't fit my value system it is a habit that I would like to kick, but I refuse to fall back into the destructive cycle that I lived in for so many years.

So in accordance with common tradition I went to the Bishop. I was placed on probation and sent on my way. (I'm not sure what the difference is between probation and disfellowship, but that is another topic).

There I have languished since. Prohibited from taking the sacrament, serving in callings, or otherwise participating with the saints. Now I am not perfect and I have had my slip ups but I am trying. Maybe I am not being penitent enough, contrite in my repentance? I'm not sure.

Sorry for getting to the point so slowly and through so much personal stuff but here it is. The danger of the preoccupation of the brethren on pornography leads many of the bishops and stake presidents, who deal the most closely with the membership, to such an inflexible stance that they may be doing more harm than good.

I refuse to go back to the darkest of places, it was unhealthy for me and I think may be unhealthy for many men in my position.

J G-W said...

Scott's comment definitely resonates for me... Shame and anxiety are the worst possible emotions, ESPECIALLY when dealing with addictive behavior...

Scott said...

Scott, I think the study found more paid subscriptions in Utah, not necessarily most overall viewing...

Sorry, I forgot the exact details.

So it could just mean that non-Utahns are better at finding the free stuff? :)

@Good To Be Free: I think your observation is valid. If the church didn't harp on the subject so frequently, it seems that local leaders would not be as quick to dole out harsh punishment that is as likely to push the member away as encourage him to repent.

Anonymous said...

Particularly well said, Scott. I've said elsewhere that I'm praying for the day when we get an authoritative General Authority version of the Wendy Ulrich message, and you've summed up how it would sound pretty darn well.

Luke said...

There are conflicting definitions of addiction at work here. What does it mean to use porn “compulsively” or “regularly”? For some, “addictive” use of porn might be once a month, once a week, once a day, or many hours in a day. Some would measure addictive use by how much it disturbs their lives: has it cost them money or significant relationships? For the most part, surveys are not standardized around specific definitions or descriptions.

For instance, take the survey results published in Porn University (by Michael Leahy). In this survey:

42% of men (7,065) said they “regularly” visit sexually explicit websites or chat rooms, read sexually explicit magazines, or romance novels.

Yet 64% of men (10,622) said they spend at least some time each week online for sexual purposes. About one in five of these said they spend 5 or more hours every week.

Furthermore 19% of men (3,187) said they feel “controlled” by their sexual desire or fantasies of romance.

Clearly, what is considered “regular” use of pornography or being “controlled” by it are not the same across the board.

So what makes someone feel “out of control”? One contributing factor psychologists give is: religion. Pioneering sex therapist Michael Quadland has studied those who feel “out of control” with their sexual behavior. He found a patient’s and therapist’s beliefs about what is sexually “normal” is the biggest controlling factor in whether the behavior is deemed compulsive or destructive. So if a Christian’s value system leads him to believe that any sexual gratification outside of marital intimacy is wrong, then any amount of compulsion to look at porn could be deemed “out of control.”

As a Christian I find these ideas very interesting. Thoughts?

Original Mohomie said...

Luke, I think some of that has already been touched on, but your questions are interesting ones. Unfortunately, I don't have stats or studies to expound more.

Lacking self discipline in kicking a habit you feel you should kick and being addicted seem pretty clearly distinct to me, but I've never been addicted to substances, and I guess I don't know what psychologists technically define as a psychological addiction.

But that's kind of my point: guys (and gals) who are raised believing porn is a terrible evil may be so disgusted with themselves that they have to slough blame onto something external, whether evil spirits, or addiction, or whatever, but people who are raised believing it's an unsavory but fairly normal habit are probably more likely to just admit they have a bad habit and leave it at that. ...I don't know. Anyone better read on this than me wanna pipe in?

Actually, the Cyber Secrets conference is a good source of LDS-perspective speeches on pornography.