In recent years, we’ve heard a great deal from our church leaders about pornography. The book, Confronting Pornography (published by Deseret Book), is a compilation of advice from therapists and others who counsel LDS members struggling with pornography and sex addiction. The twenty-seven short articles in the book provide practical information from a gospel perspective on how to (1) understand the issues and prevent pornography addiction, (2) support those who struggle with pornography use, including both the individual and the family members affected, and (3) take steps to overcome pornography and sex addiction.
First, this book cleared up a few misconceptions for me. I thought that all the talks from our leaders about porn were akin to the general exhortations for the men to do their home teaching and to step up the plate and act responsibly towards their families. Or, on a bad day, that these talks were fixating on a natural curiosity, and were making people feel guilty for biological responses and feelings. I mean, can people really become “addicted” to pornography and sex?! Sex addiction sounds like a vaguely psychological rationalization to justify bad behavior and to drum up sympathy for the offender. I think I first heard the term “sex addiction” in relation to President Clinton’s dalliances with intern Monica Lewinsky – and it made me laugh out loud! Come on.
However, this book – and subsequent research on Google I did while writing this review – presents disturbing information that, unlike extramarital affairs with interns, porn and masturbation can become compulsive activities, wherein eventually the participant loses his or her ability to enjoy a meaningful sexual experience with a loving partner – and masturbation becomes a desperate compulsive act done in secret and steeped in guilt and shame.
We’ll get to more of the definition and consequences in the next few paragraphs, but for those of you interested in a basic book to understand the influence and issues of pornography (without pictures), this is a good book to read. Confronting Pornography contains the generally accepted body of knowledge of porn and sex addiction, but the advantage to reading this book is that it presents these issues from a believing LDS perspective. Many therapists and medical professionals agree that spiritual healing is an integral part of overcoming any addiction, and this book provides that context. So if anyone you know struggles with porn, I recommend this book (and probably therapy).
On to the review:
The first section is “Understanding the Issues and Preventing Problems”. Pornography is generally defined as the explicit depiction of sexual activity in literature, films or photography that is intended to stimulate erotic, rather than aesthetic, feelings.
Typically, people look at porn to become aroused and to masturbate to sexual climax, and not just to look at the pictures (remember, porn IS all about sexual arousal). It’s still an open question as to how and why a casual user of porn becomes “addicted” – and, indeed, some health care professionals discourage labeling porn use and masturbation as an “addiction” – but it is accepted that porn use and the resulting sexual climax releases certain chemicals in your brain. And just like drug addicts and alcoholics, porn “addicts” become addicted to the neuro-chemical changes that take place in the body during sexual behavior. Because porn and masturbation change the participant’s mood through biochemical reactions – porn users typically turn to porn to “self-medicate” when they are bored, lonely, stressed, or sad (see Chapter 6 for an excellent discussion of how porn use becomes “self medication”).
How do you know if you are “addicted” to pornography? Some factors to consider: (1) your pornography use is a secret, and is isolated from a caring and committed relationship, (2) it is abusive or degrading to yourself or to others, (3) you use porn to avoid dealing with painful feelings, (4) you feel powerless over your compulsion to use porn, and (5) your porn use negatively affects your family and work relationships.
People typically think of porn addicts spending money on strip clubs, prostitutes, and phone sex (which can destroy your financial security) and compulsively downloading and viewing porn at work (which can jeopardize your job), but more insidious are the effects of porn on your relationships with others and to your spiritual well being. Many porn addicts become desensitized to and uninterested in sexual experiences with real people in committed relationships. It seems counterintuitive that you could become desensitized to sex and love through porn, but it’s true. Addicts don’t necessarily enjoy sex more than other people. They feel guilty and ashamed of their behavior. But their addiction compels them to act out sexually.
The most severe consequences of pornography addiction are spiritual.
“The Savior taught “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery…in his heart (Matthew 5:28 ). Lust is defined in the dictionary as the strong physical desire to have sex with somebody, usually without associated feelings of love or affection. It is not possible to view pornography and experience emotions of love, delight, generosity, consideration, sympathy, and kindness. We attempt to extract sex and experience it in isolation from the other aspects of genuine love….The end result is a state of numbness, isolation, and loneliness. (p. 31.)
In addition to identifying the problem of porn addiction, this section of the book also provides a good overview of the problem of accessibility — particularly with respect to the ease of accessing porn on the internet. Everyone has a computer these days, and the internet provides many of the essential components of a pornographic sexual experience all in one place; isolation, secrecy, fantasy material, endless variety, around-the-clock availability, and instant accessibility. Many people who would not even think of skulking down to the drug store to buy porno magazines, now have unfettered and anonymous access to hard core pornographic images at the click of a button. Some estimates claim a quarter of websites accessed are pornographic. Chances are someone you know looks at pornography on the internet regularly.
Support and Healing
The next section of the book discusses “Supporting Those Who Struggle”, both the individual participant and his or her loved ones. The book provides a lot of helpful information for spouses who struggle to understand their (typically) husband’s pornography use. The overall message being that spouses should not take their husband’s use of pornography personally.
It’s not uncommon for a wife to believe that if she were more attractive, more alluring, if she were “enough for him”, he wouldn’t turn to these perfect images of other women. This belief is totally unjustified. If a man’s satisfaction with his wife depended on physical attractiveness or sex appeal, we would expect men married to supermodels or movie stars to be the most faithful of husbands. p. 153.
(And anyone who reads the tabloids at the gym is no doubt baffled by stories of Halle Berry’s husband cheating on her, or Hugh Grant’s indiscretions with a prostitute when in a long term relationship with Elizabeth Hurley).
Spouses should also be aware that their husband may struggle with the aftereffects of psychological trauma from family or childhood relationships that is fueling the addiction.
The book then discusses how important it is to communicate your emotions to your spouse, and to help him see the consequences of his behavior. Chapter 13 is entitled “From Victim to Agent: Rising Above a Spouse’s Pornography Problem”, and discusses how wives should recognize that pornography use is their husband’s problem, and that it may even be indicative of a serious illness. Spouses should realize that they need to be supportive of their husbands, but not try to solve the problem for him. Wives should turn to the Savior for their own comfort and the strength to forgive.
“Forgiveness does not require us to accept or tolerate evil. It does not require us to ignore the wrong that we see in the world around us or in our lives. But as we fight against sin, we must not allow our hatred or anger to control our thoughts and actions”. p. 167 (quoting Elder David E Sorenson)
Overcoming a Pornography Addiction
The authors generally agree: if you have a serious problem with (see definition of addiction to) porn, you will need outside help to overcome your problems and to heal damage porn addiction causes to your relationships with others. Turning to an experienced therapist may help to address the root causes of the addiction, but, first, you yourself need to recognize the imperative to change and be motivated to take the first difficult steps towards recovery.
Along these lines, there may be some specific roadblocks to recovery from addiction. One is differentiating between guilt versus “internalized shame”. Whereas guilt is a healthy response after making a mistake that motivates people to change their behavior so that what they believe matches what they do, internalized shame can be debilitating to spiritual progress. Someone with internalized shame believes that he or she is fundamentally bad and unworthy of love. Internalized shame may be acquired from destructive family relationships, childhood trauma (i.e., bullying, sexual abuse), or related experiences contributing to a negative self-image. When a person internalizes a high level of shame, that person loses hope, and typically needs professional intervention to overcome these feelings of shame and unworthiness before they can progress.
Chapters 20-23 discuss specific steps to take to disengage from a pornography habit, and how to lay the groundwork for a lasting recovery. Again, for anyone suffering from an addiction, the authors recommend therapy, but the book does give excellent advice about replacing destructive behavior with “Personal Dailies” such as journal writing, scripture study, exercise, and meditation, and how to pick yourself up and move on after a relapse.
In its concluding chapters, this book provides honest examples of people who have struggled to overcome pornography addictions. Recovery is extremely difficult for many people, but, as the examples show, addiction is an untenable and destructive state. There is hope.
I would recommend this book for a basic education on the influences of pornography and the nature of addiction, and to learn of additional resources to support those struggling with pornography use and addiction.