50 Conversations About One Thing, Part III (Updated)

This is Part III of three. Part I of this conversation, including a brief introduction, is here. Part II is here.

32. I just wanted to mention what I think is the most striking aspect of this conversation:

the male participants seem to all relate to the feelings/temptations/problems discussed, while I don’t get the impression that the female participants can relate at all. By this I don’t mean to belittle the contributions of the female participants thus far, just that to me as a male reader there is a very obvious dissonance at work. Not sure how to bridge that gap, and from my own marriage I can say that much time is spent explaining exactly why some behaviors are problematic, but I thought it was worth mentioning that I see a very wide male/female divide.

Here’s an indicator of the divide. Answer the question, “what’s worse: a sexually explicit film, or a violent film?” I will bet you a bag of doughnuts that a mormon male will vehemently say sex, but a mormon female will weigh them closely but come out on the violence side.

33. I have a real tendency to see all addiction in one. In other words, the problem with addiction, to my mind, isn’t the form a given addiction takes but the realities of addiction itself. The desire to escape problems through easily acquired and commoditized emotional or mental support is the universal in addiction. I heard a radio report once about a girl with a cutting problem. She felt so numbed out by life that the pain she felt in her habit become more about establishing a feeling of self-control than any sort of sado-masochistic relief. It was as if she could feel the tension in her life building up and the release of the blood was the only way to release the tension. I think many addicts view their addiction in a similar light, because often that was the reason it was turned to in the first place. Addicts will speak of their addiction as a means of self-medication (many addicts have other mental illnesses (most notably depression)).

While an interest in pornography may begin with innocent curiosity about sexuality, once it becomes an addiction it is sought, not for the sexuality of the thing, but for the sense of release, escape, or control over one’s own life it brings. That’s the addicted viewpoint and that is why addiction is so powerful. Boiling a porn addiction down to whether or not someone is getting enough sex is entirely beside the point; people get addicted to porn because they don’t know how to express their emotions in a healthy way and porn numbs the pain (like drugs, alcohol, etc.). The inability of the addict (and the addict’s support structure) to see this is at the root cause of much isolation, pain, self-centeredness, and sorrow in addiction.

34. I agree that there is often a complete failure to understand what is going on. Part of it is because most males are either incapable of putting their feelings into words, or are afraid to. And with many LDS women thinking that use is almost automatic grounds for a divorce, that fear is not misplaced.

Based on the conversations I’ve had with my spouse, I will say that she sees no female equivalent of porn use or male internet fixation, and that nothing even comes close. Edward and Twilight and bodice ripper romances are harmless diversions. A man who spends 4-5 hrs/day on World of Warcraft is a bum, but a woman who spends 4-5 hrs/day mommyblogging or scrapbooking is A-OK. There is a divide, and it is huge.

Imagine my surprise and astonishment when I hear an idea for how to curb the use of porn among LDS men: in a 5th Sunday combined MP/RS meeting, have the sisters explain to the men exactly how cheap it makes them (the sisters) feel when their husbands view idealized and enhanced female bodies.

It is such an astonishingly bad suggestion that I can only conclude that she simply doesn’t get how guilty and ashamed the men already feel. And many of the women who commented also seemed to think that it was a very good idea.

Sorry sisters, but if the knowledge that I can a)get kicked out of the house, b)get divorced and lose the kids and house, c)become a laughingstock among everybody in the ward, my circle of friends and family, d) lose my membership and e) be a pariah for life doesn’t prevent me from checking out Miss September, your discomfort about your own body image isn’t going to stop me either.

35. While I agree that assuming that there is one particular thing to be done in order to curb porn use is a bad idea, many addicts engage in addiction out of resentment, which is often directed toward their spouse. Like was said earlier, openness and honesty (even with the bad stuff) is important in healthy relationships.

I also think that, especially with the sacralization of the sex act, the whole kit and kaboodle on porn is often blamed on the wife. For better or for worse, spouses often feel that the addiction is fed by their inadequacies (this applies to all forms of addiction of which I am aware). There is a cultural assumption, too, fed by the American media that good marriage = great sex and that the burden of great sex falls on the woman. So, for women, it can be deeply mortifying to have their husband outed as a porn addict because it can be taken to mean that they were inadequate as a woman or mother. There is a general societal failure to help couples dealing with issues like this, which leads to further isolation, resentment, and ill feeling. Counseling is moderately acceptable in today’s day and age; porn counseling much, much less so. Women are left in a double bind: if their husband is found to be a philanderer or a porn addict, she will be universally considered in the right and he will be vilified, but she will also face a profound loss of societal respect. Think of Anna Karenina’s husband.

I should add that I believe that porn of itself is bad. The commodification and objectification of female sexuality is not good for anybody. Nor would I say that the exploitation of women’s bodies is not as important a moral issue as the struggle of the addict. Nobody denies seriously that addicts don’t bring their troubles upon their own heads. I just think that treating the addiction as primarily a matter of misplaced or underachieving sexuality misunderstands the things for which people usually turn to addiction. I don’t think we’ll be able to adequately deal with this until we understand that.

36. #34, I agree that is an unhelpful suggestion in individual cases. However, I think the conversation about women’s body image is worth having in the global context.

Not so much with actual porn, but with all of our media, which is all sexualized. Because our mass-media is coming from the position of patriarchy (even in instances where the media is female-oriented, like women’s fashion magazines), women have been fed from birth a diet of the notion that women’s bodies are so desirable, whereas the male form is hairy and lumpy and to be avoided. There is something that feels very cannibalistic in this constant consumption of sexy female images (from heterosexual male gaze) by heterosexual females. I am starting to think that is has pernicious effects on our sexuality over time. While I’m sure that biological differences in drive and extent of visual stimulus exist between the sexes, I am very concerned about cultural conditioning of women sapping their ability to enjoy satisfying sexual relations. In short, I think it may be messing with our programming.

Although I hesitate very much to put any blame on women for their partners’ porn problems, it seems that lack of desire and healthy sexuality on the part of women could contribute, and I think that the above may be contributing.

37. Of course, if we had any notion of the true nature of female sexuality, it would be helpful. I’m not aware of any descriptions or attempts to describe that aren’t constrained by patriarchal notions of appropriate (or inappropriate) sexuality in one form or another.

38. The number of articles I read in women’s magazines (as I obsessively bounce up and down on the elliptical machine–sigh) about how to improve your sexual self-esteem even if your body is not perfect would suggest that #36 has identified something important.

39. Re: thought question — Violence wins, for me. But then, so much pornography is violence, whether actual or by extension.

40. I would have to say that women also consume porn. Now, have I been addicted? No. Have I actively solicited it? No. But as a teenager and certainly as an adult I found the porn that crossed my path sexually instructive and arousing, although normally I feel aroused by identifying with the woman when I look at porn. Men and women probably do respond to porn differently, but I think there is an immense double standard in which men are called out for using porn and women are presumed incapable of enjoying it. That last statement might be going a bit far, but, honestly, I have never heard women be chastised for porn use, even though I think a lot of what women regularly and publicly consume verges on it – just look at magazines like Cosmo as an example of socially acceptable almost-porn. Perhaps part of the issue is that when women use “porn,” it is often seen as helpful for the marriage.

41. #40 brings up something really important. Sexual images are tantalizing to women as well. I too have identified with women in images I’ve seen. The whole bodice-ripper phenom is joked about, but my own grandma would pass those books to me as a teen, and they were EXPLICIT. I learned a lot about the whole “sleeping beauty” woman not-responsible-for-her-own-sexuality until big strong, throbbing Guy comes along. It does damage to a woman’s sexual self-identity as well. She learns to play timid, to say “no” even when she means yes, because “good girls don’t” and all that rot.

42. Here’s a funny (?) realization: If my wife confessed porn-use to me, I would not be mortified. (Maybe I’d be secretly delighted. I suspect only the men here would understand this.) However, I doubt she’d be so thrilled if the situation were reversed. Yes, there’s a double standard. Let it never be said that men have it easy in the Mormon church.

43. Re: #36, 38 — So now the proposed solution to pornography use is to perhaps disentangle sexuality from hierarchy and power? I of course support the proposition, but the mind reels nonetheless…

The discussion here makes clear that power relations are at the root of why many of us see pornography as inherently evil. There’s exploitation of the women involved in producing pornography. What is the content of this exploitation? Are there ways in which pornography could be created that do not involve such exploitation? When young women take naked pictures of themselves and post those pictures on the internet, are they self-exploiting? Have they become so conditioned that their action is to be accounted for by a form of false consciousness in which they have internalized the desires of their oppressors? Perhaps there are clear and universal answers to these questions, but it seems equally possible to me that there can be, and in fact is, pornography that doesn’t exploit the women whose images appear in it. Is this pornography less bad than the other kinds? If not, it suggests that exploitation arguments play a rhetorical rather than moral role in our reasoning. If there is a clear difference, then perhaps we ought to emphasize (as a mitigation) steering people toward the use of less- or non-exploitative pornography.

Regarding body image issues, I agree that they are very relevant. Yet it’s hard for me to imagine how to create a world in which people don’t have sexual preference for some kinds of bodies over others. This seems like a domain that will always be problematic. The archbishop of Canterbury once wrote an essay about sexuality in which he claimed that the experience of being sexually desired is an analogue for and component of Christ’s grace, and concluded that everybody, including homosexuals, has the right to be sexually desired. This seems odd to me; who is doing the desiring in this account, and why does the desirer not have the right not to desire? The most pressing issue here seems to me to involve the unequal importance of sexual desirability among men and women, which in turn involves the pervasive societal inequity between the sexes.

Such inequity might be a cause of Mormon consumption of pornography, and I am substantially more convinced that it is a basic reason (in general? in most cases?) why pornography is an evil in se. Yet our church reinforces, rather than reduces, these inequities — by differential access to priesthood, by virtually never placing women in roles of leadership over men, by often supporting women’s economic dependence on men which causes dependence and power differentials in other domains, by teaching us to imagine an all-male godhead, etc. ad infinitum. For all the reasons it is hard to imagine any short-term change in these patterns, it is hard to see these linkages as a way that the evil of pornography could be combated.

44. I don’t think it’s that ridiculous to have it turn on herself. I have some pretty severe depression sometimes and trying to get my husband let go of his thinking that he’s a significant part of that has proven to be near impossible. We believe in romantic love that means we can make our partners happy or satisfied and it’s crushing when we realize it’s not true. It’s part true, and maybe that’s why it’s not to take responsibility of our partner’s well-being.

45. Re: #42, I don’t know if I’m typical of LDS women, but I wouldn’t be mortified to find out that my husband used porn and/or masturbated occasionally. Of course, if he lost his job, spent all our money, was hugely dishonest about it, etc, I would be very upset. Also if the images were something that I found to be very offensive outside of the fact of the nudity, that would hurt me. Especially if the women were being abused in a way that I feared would seep into our relationship, that would bother me. But, hypothetically, once a week Playboy? I don’t know that I would be “delighted” the way men might, but I would be zero mortified. Of course, that’s easy to say, who knows what I’d do if it happened.

Actually, I’ll confess to one mortification, and I think this may be typical of LDS women—I would be worried about his status in the church. In an admittedly completely prideful way, I would be embarrassed if he lost his TR or his priesthood calling. I would be embarrassed in front of the Bishop. Since LDS women can’t have priesthood callings, I think there is a little pride about our husband’s callings. Really inappropriate and wrong, but it’s a fact. It would hurt to lose those status symbols.

46. #43, I don’t see where the solution you deduced was proposed. I don’t believe anyone was assuming asexuality was the solution to pornography. However you mentioned power structures as being critical, and I think that may be a reference to the punishment (or fear of punishment) involved in getting caught with pornography. Diminishing the perceived punishment has been suggested, I think, but I am not sure if this is what you are referring to. In any case, I don’t think we are advocating for a post-sexual era.

47. I think it’s possible that I’m not as atypical as one might think when it comes to the “meh” reaction to (limited) porn use by a husband. I think maybe one problem is that men in the church overestimate the freakout that their wives would have, which could lead to the other things that actually do cause freakout (pathological guilt, losing job, spending all the money, and other collateral damage).

48. #46, I don’t think I said anything about a post-sexual era. I can’t see how that could follow from what I wrote. I’m responding to the ideas that pornography is evil because it involves exploitation of women, and because of body-image issues.

49. #43,

The discussion here makes clear that power relations are at the root of why many of us see pornography as inherently evil.

That’s an interesting conclusion. I assume you are reducing “the prophets have condemned it” and “it robs one of a full relationship to their own agency” and “it imports into sexual desire and practice elements of violence and commodification that are foreign to a healthy and respectful intimacy,” etc., to the phrase “power relations,” somehow?

There’s exploitation of the women involved in producing pornography. What is the content of this exploitation?

Making their whole being dependent upon the approving, masturbatory gaze of another person.

Are there ways in which pornography could be created that do not involve such exploitation?

No. There are ways in which the female body (and, of course, the male body too, but there we get into some general baselines that have been mostly hardwired into our individuals and collective consciousnesses by evolution, and are reflected in the practices of the majority of the population, Mormon and American and otherwise) can be made to serve artistic or social or political or storytelling functions which are dependent upon the complicit gaze of another person, but so long as they are not pitched to the masturbatory or titillating element of said gaze, then I would argue that they are not, by definition, “pornography.” Rather, they are “art”—or, if you prefer, “erotica.” Obviously that distinction—between pornography and art/erotica—is massively subjective…but then, I tend to believe that subjectivity is not nearly so unreliable a guide to qualitative judgments as most modern liberal societies have been led to assume.

When young women take naked pictures of themselves and post those pictures on the internet, are they self-exploiting?

Using the above criteria, it could be either. If it is pornography, then yes, they are exploiting themselves. It if is art, then unless they are astonishingly sensitive and creative and lucky, which 99% of the poor idiots whose boyfriends and girlfriends have convinced them to share videos of them stripping on their cell phones are not, then they’re just being stupid.

pornography that doesn’t exploit the women whose images appear in it.

You say tomayto, I say tomahto. Forget the origin of the word, and talk about what it means in practically in terms of everyday use. I don’t think there is a thing called pornography, with its dependence upon the masturbatory, borderline violent, elements of the male sexual gaze, that isn’t exploitive. If there is, then it isn’t pornography. QED.

50. Here’s the thing. I think any decent relationship would enable people to say to their partner “this hurts” or “I’m really having trouble with this” and the people in the relationship could at least have a conversation. Maybe not solve anything, but at least meet on friendly ground for a while. While I am appalled at the behavior of some local leaders, I do think that many of the problems in this latest poll are, partially at least, relationship problems. My understanding is that eating to excess (which I know something about) alcohol, porn, etc. can all be grouped loosely together as escapes. This is something that people do when they can’t find a way to productively confront the stressful problems they face. And often, relationships are the source of our stress, rather than part of the solution.

So while I think we need to hold the individual accountable for the behavior, there is usually something a partner can do to help. It is stupid and ridiculous to think that a man uses porn in inverse proportion to his wife’s attractiveness. But I think there is something to the claim that a man views porn in proportion to the extent he feels lonely, unloved, or unloveable, and those are all things that his partner can at least make an effort to remedy. I assume that the same dynamic holds true for women and eating and exercise disorders, although I don’t know for sure.

The trick to the whole thing, I think, is to continue to view pornography use as a transgression, but to also realize that the way forward is not to be found through the exercise of willpower alone, but in enriching the life of the individual and helping him to understand what is happening in his head and in his life so he can manage his responses. It’s hard to condemn the action while simultaneously encouraging the other.

Update:

One technical correction to the discussion: He Did Deliver Me from Bondage by Colleen Harrison was once a quasi-official text for the Church’s 12-step groups, but is no longer. The official text for the Church’s 12 step groups is now A Guide to Addiction Recovery and Healing, which may be downloaded in pdf from this site: http://www.providentliving.org/content/list/0,11664,4177-1,00.html

The Church offers two types of 12 step groups, Addiction Recovery Program meetings (“ARP”), which are for recovery from all types of addictions, and are open for recovering addicts and their families/codependents. A second type are Pornography Addiction Support Groups (“PASG”), which are generally segregated by sex, and focus on recovery from sexual addiction. Most of the meetings are men only, for those recovering from pornography or other sex addiction. Some are for wives or female co-dependents of men who are sexually addicted. There are a very few for women only who are sexually addicted. And a handful of meetings that are for couples. The meetings lists and times are available at the same website as the official manual.

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