50 Conversations About One Thing, Part I

A few of us had the pleasure of overhearing an internet conversation the other day. Here are 50 of the more interesting things we heard, which we have boiled down and made anonymous for presentation purposes. Note that this discussion is for mature audiences, and will appear in three parts. Certain words may appear a little funny as we attempt to keep the original wording intact but permit those with internet filters to enjoy the conversation — the post requires images and may not read well in RSS feeds. Comments are closed on these posts; we encourage you to talk about this conversation with your families and on your own websites and blogs. Please email us with any questions.

1. So I read through the economist’s paper about pornography (see Get Religion’s reaction to the New Scientist article about the paper). It’s interesting that Utah is such an extreme outlier regarding pornography purchases. Although the data are ecological, and thus compatible with the hypothesis that the non-religious minority are the consumers, I think this is a moment that invites us to seriously consider the idea that pornography is not a tide of filth rising in the secular world and dirtying even the faithful Mormon community; instead, it seems possible to describe pornography use as to some extent a distinctive activity of faithful Mormons (and, to a lesser extent, other conservative religious folks). I don’t know why this might be the case, but it’s a change in the way that we think which might be worth making.

A second point: our church seems to perhaps have no idea how to get men to stop looking at pornography. From what I can gather, our religious counseling is not outperforming the non-treatment of a mainstream culture that is mildly mocking but basically permissive regarding pornography.

This is all very strange to me. At the least, however, it helps me understand why we hear so many speeches regarding pornography. It seems as if it might somehow be our special vice.

2. From what I understand, secret online porn use is indeed our special vice. And yes, we have no idea how to combat it. The leadership up and down the line that I have talked with describe themselves as caught completely by surprise by the problem and utterly at a loss to combat porn use.

3. Having recently spoken to a religious non-Mormon friend about porn use, I think that Mormons exacerbate the problem by raising the stakes. If you are an average guy who looks at porn semi-regularly, but doesn’t feel guilty about it, your relationship to it is worlds apart from the Mormon that 1) thinks his wife might leave him if she finds out 2) thinks masturbation is a grievous sin 3) doesn’t have the skills to be able to discuss or explore porn or sexuality in an open way with his or her partner. In a sense, I think we pathologize porn use. Once pathologized, it should be no surprise that it is, well, pathological among us.

I haven’t read the studies on use and therefore have no knowledge or opinion on whether Mormons do have higher porn use than average or secular demographics.

4. @3 – ….unless Mormons have the right perception of the “stakes” and are evaluating the seriousness of porn use correctly. Douthat might not be wrong. I believe people ought to feel bad about using pornography. Grievous? Maybe not. But sin? Definitely. Now as for your Points 1 & 3, much can be done.

5. The clash of porn addiction and Mormon guilt cannot be good for the user. As there must be many thousands of Mormon men for whom guilt has not helped them stop and has only made them miserable, one solution for them is to simply not feel guilty about it. Thus porn is here to stay.

6. It’s obvious that our current approach isn’t working, and in some cases at least, I think I know why. Repentance is an optimistic act or process that is only undertaken by people who feel supported and who have hope. See the BoM. People who experience intense shame are emotionally crippled and unable to move forward. Our current approach seems designed to maximize shame and isolation, and they’re both really destructive.

My experience is mostly with the young men. I take it as a given that 100% of them will encounter porn, either accidentally or by actively seeking it. Many of them are convinced that they have committed the sin next to murder and are only a centimeter removed from being a child molester. That is a huge load to put on the shoulders of a 14-15 year old kid whose body is still changing and who doesn’t understand his own hormones. Yet that is exactly what we do, and so they turn inward and some never fully recover. I think a more successful approach would:

A. Acknowledge that porn use is a serious lapse. It is harmful to anyone it touches, including especially the people on the other side of the camera.

B. It is offensive to God because it harms God’s children, and it reveals a spiritual weakness and a flaw in character.

BUT

This is nothing that cannot be fixed. We can acknowledge the lapse, but still move forward with our heads up. I wish we could find a way to convey that part better. A friend used to confess in tears to his bishop every month or so that he had once again broken his resolution to stay away from porn. Once he asked me if I thought he should consider chemical castration, in the spirit of following Jesus’ admonition about plucking your eye out if it offend thee. Yikes.

7. The study does control for social class. And conservative religion isn’t uniquely class-determined, in any case. Regarding alternative modes of obtaining porn, it seems to me that people in Utah have always had lots of options. Playboy, etc, are readily obtainable, and whatever might be hard to find in Utah proper can be easily obtained across state lines.

Regarding the broader questions of guilt and alternative strategies, I don’t feel that I have good answers. I’ve always been something of an outsider on these themes — porn just doesn’t interest me, or at least not the inevitable random bits of it that I’ve encountered. Pictures of bodies, whee… Not really my idea of sexy. So I have limited personal insight regarding either the effects of porn or possible solutions.

8. “This is nothing that cannot be fixed” — Yes…and no. Of course one needs to have some sort of hope, some sort of faith. Such is the first principle of action; without it, you really do dwell in an ever more tightly self-enclosed world of despair (and, humans being the fallen creatures that they are, you learn how to take pleasure, if not joy, from that world as necessary, and indeed get better at it all the time). But the notion of “getting fixed” has its own, complementary pitfalls. If you think that your desire to consume pornography is a fixable problem, then you will, of course, fixate upon whatever you need to do to fix the problem—prayer, fasting, scripture study, reporting to priesthood authorities, clocking and subjecting to outside review one’s movements, expenditures, time spent online, and so forth. But this assumes that one can master all the details of one’s life; that one can “fix” all the “leaks.” This is almost certainly false: a false understanding of human beings (and human BEING itself), as well as, I have come to believe, a false understanding of the relationship our selves, as entities of desire and will and choice and freedom, to sin. Or, at least, perhaps it is an accurate understanding of how we can or at least may relate to some sins, but not to all of them.

The church today in at least some of its official materials dealing with pornography borrows very heavily from Alcoholics Anonymous, and I think that is wise; it is certainly much different than the official materials which were available ten or twenty years ago. Although it doesn’t go as far in its rhetoric as AA does, the underlying message is the same: the goal is not to fix your addiction to pornography; rather, the goal is, with God’s grace, to manage to not look at pornography, one hour, one day, one week, one month, one year at a time. Alcoholics don’t get “fixed”; they just stop drinking. (Until they start again…and after all they do, it’s still God’s grace—as manifest through other concerned addicts in recovery, as well as other such everyday miracles—that prevents them from making that step, a step that all of them are obliged to acknowledge could happen at any time, in innumerable ways.)

That’s a hard kind of hope, requiring a different sort of theological supports than we are used to. They aren’t foreign to our tradition; they aren’t foreign to any Christian tradition. But still, they aren’t the usual kind of things addressed in your average stake conference, to say nothing of your average Sunday School class for teenage boys.

9. A friend who recently researched ‘body Image’ believed the church was a disaster in its handling of porn. He was hypercritical of the church, so take this with appropriate grains of salt, but we talked about this a lot because when he talked about the reasons for porn in his class he had scores of students (by scores I mean this was a constant topic of conversation when we ran and it seemed like scores, this is not a statistical claim) say their husband/father/grandfather who was a bishop/stake president had been caught by them/there mother/ their sister looking at porn. He said the reasons were:

A. The church has effectively criminalized porn so people don’t admit or get help until it is a bad bad problem. Because it is considered a major moral failure it remains a hidden thing until it is a true addiction.

B. That woman were objectified by both women and men to the point where ‘looks’ were a deep part of what matters in the church, obviously not as taught by the church but as practiced by members. This creates unrealistic body image expectations in both woman and men to the point in which image nukes substance.

C. A lack of feminism. When you see the women in the pictures as real people being exploited, most people outside the church who embrace feminism (the blue state/red state split in the porn use?) recognize it as an ethical laps rather than a moral laps. It’s not a moral failure but a wrong in itself, moving porn from right and wrong to good and bad. Most of the discourse we get is something along the lines of “Women are so sweet and naturally spiritual, Men are naturally lecherous and must stop using pornography or suffer in the claws of Hell for all time.” He came from every priesthood session talk in a rampage. He felt that reading the scriptures and praying were not effective deterrents and the suggestion that they were created more guilt and hiddenness when it did not work.

D. A lack of understanding that humans are sexual beings. That some discussions about this as youth, young marrieds, single, divorced and widowed people, old marrieds and the elderly should be a constant topic of conversation among members and couples. And it completely s lacking in the church, which conflates the erotic and the pornographic.

He suggested, seriously (I’m not sure I agree but something to think about), porn should be moved to being about as bad as skipping Home-teaching for three months in a row. Men should be asked to think about the women they are looking at as real humans beings with rights of dignity and personhood. That looking at pornography is not wrong because it’s lusty and depraved but because it violates humans values. And Rodin should remained uncovered at BYU. And once a month we should have a joint Priesthood/Relief Society Meeting on our lives as sexual beings (Not pornography) starting at age 12 (not in the same session obviously).

10. I think there is something to this, but he does ignore the ‘moral’ which is real and which I think is important. But whatever’s being done isn’t working. It is interesting to me that the Word of Wisdom doesn’t seem to produce more than average number of Mormon alcoholics or drug addicts. And yet the Church’s stance on porn (which seems equally old fashioned or out of touch to the outside world) seems very tied up in the large number of Mormon porn addicts.

I’ve had several close male friends or family become completely unraveled in the face of porn addictions and that makes me hate it, even though I’m not opposed to people looking at porn (I guess in the same way that I think alcoholism is devastating but I like social drinking). I’m not sure if porn is a great evil but the self-loathing it creates is heart-breaking to me.

I wonder if it’s that attitude that I have that makes me want to change the Church’s language regarding porn. But I can’t even imagine how the Church would begin to change the way they deal with it though. Can you imagine if they started saying in conference “porn’s bad, but not as bad as we thought so don’t feel quite as guilty and we won’t dole out very harsh punishments”? Like was said, the 12 steps program they use is a radically different program than what they used before. Maybe the change will come in the treatment language.

11. I think #10 makes a good point, that we tend to conflate all porn use into one great whole. Hell, by that standard I’m a porn user. I have not two feet from my elbow as I type this the SI Swimsuit issue. I’ve subscribed to Sports Illustrated for years, including the annual Swimsuit issue. When it comes I look through it with interest and then set it aside. I don’t feel the slightest pang of guilt for doing so, but I’m sure some Mormons would think I’m addicted to porn and on the high road to hell.

12. I think that in an effort to make sins serious within the Mormon theology, the rhetoric within church meetings/conversations seems to conflate sin with addiction. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s easier for us psychologically to avoid something when we perceive mortal rather than eternal peril, and the consequences of addiction are obvious. Maybe it’s a way for Mormons to borrow a common understanding of seriousness from the outside world and relate to non-Mormon ideas of “wrongness.”

Sexuality is different from alcohol –partly because I really do believe that human beings need normal sexual experiences periodically to keep mentally healthy. I don’t think we need alcohol to remain mentally healthy. So yes, there is something more primal about sexuality, but that just makes the guilt over sexual behavior more destructive. I think some porn is wrong because of the way it dehumanizes women (or men, or children or whatever the particular case may be). I don’t think that erotic material necessarily has to be dehumanizing, so I just can’t summon up the outrage over it to the point that I think someone should ruin his or her life in spirals of guilt and feelings of inadequacy. Life is alienating enough without constantly being reminded of a secret shame and being unable–whether through your own guilt, or through active priesthood intervention–to participate in the only community you really fit into (after being told that you are a peculiar people your whole life….).

13. It seems to me that the anxiety around porn is the mirror of Mormon homophobia–Mormonism as presently constituted requires a very narrowly constructed masculinity, which is threatened on one side by homosexuality (misunderstood as an effeminate failure of masculinity) and on the other by an out-of-control hypersexual caricature of maleness. It makes sense that the rhetoric around both extremes of that spectrum would be fraught and hyperbolic.

I think it’s also interesting that men are publicly encouraged to feel so much shame around what can be thought of as typically male sins, while women are allowed (forced?) to define their sins in terms that make it easy to confess–low self-esteem, crippling perfectionism, running faster than they have strength, etc. In reality, of course, women are capable (and guilty) of terribly destructive sins–child abuse, malicious gossip, devastating emotional abuse, etc. While the public humiliation of men is damaging, it seems to me that our rhetorical construction of women as incapable of serious sin also creates crippling shame–women’s sins are literally unspeakable.

I think it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to deal with sexuality in healthy ways as long as we are so committed to the performance of rigid and antiquated gender roles as boundaries against “the world”, with its broader and more fluid construction of gender and sexuality.

14. Regarding #13, my spouse and I actually had a similar conversation today about how the church is much quicker to chastise men than women. By contrast, in Relief Society, I find that women are typically quite open about their lack of self-esteem (to the point where the bishop came in today and told us that we should not let anyone tell us we don’t have power – we should relish our motherhood and womanhood), and RS often operates like a support group in which we end by concluding that everything is right and beautiful, even though it isn’t always.

15. My own view, similar to most of yours probably, is that porn use will nearly always detract from real and healthy sexual relationships,** but that heaping up guilt upon the shoulders of users is unlikely to help. The solution — rather weak perhaps — might be to simply stop talking about it rather than condone it.

** I worry for the boys I teach, whose exposure to hard porn is easier to come by than any of us could have imagined in our youth. I try not to imagine what they expect from their sexual encounters. I never hear anyone talking about “addiction” though.

16. On some very basic level, I don’t get what the problem is with porn. I’m concerned with the structural problems in society it points to, the conditions which create subjects desperate enough to be exploited this way, but I just can’t imagine the thought-world of someone who could become “addicted” to porn sympathetically enough to make any sense of it. So I’m all abstraction, and have no instincts on the matter.

Part II of the conversation can be found here.

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