50 Conversations About One Thing, Part II

Part I of this conversation, including a brief introduction, is here.

17. There seems to be a generational shift at play.

Porn use isn’t particularly abnormal (though what kind of porn you look at, very well may be). I do agree that it is very difficult to discuss, because of conditioning. My experience, personally, is that I generally find sexually explicit images erotic. I tend to think that the majority of men are hardwired to be sexually aroused by visual stimulus. In my own marriage it has taken years to communicate effectively about sex and our sexuality. There were not a few years of what I consider dysfunction, for a variety of reasons. Once, however, we were able to communicate and in doing so not feel judged or dirty, but accepted and loved, I found the desire or temptation to look at porn drastically reduced.

I do think that porn use, unlike alcohol, isn’t morally neutral. I think that porn use adversely affects the relationships people have with other people. And on a fundamental level, I believe that human relationships and the relationship between humans and the divine are the entire purpose of existence. Excluding child porn, rape fantasies, or violence, I still think that porn use results in negative consequences. Like #15 I have very serious worries about our children who are raised on hardcore porn and their futures. Will they be disappointed that their spouse doesn’t behave like a porn star?

18. #17 – I guess I’m not convinced that younger generations have it worse than previous ones — I think violations of the moral law are always a temptation. I’m older, and I saw pron in 5th grade. I was riding my bike home from school and there was a magazine in the middle of our two lane country road. It was filled with pictures of beautiful women, smiling at the camera and proudly showing their breasts. And in jr. high, guys passed Playboy up and down the rows at sports events. The P.E. teacher knew, but didn’t think it was important enough to do anything about. This was in UT, and 75% of the folks involved were LDS, including the teacher. And I remember that barbershops often used to have Playboy available, along with Popular Mechanics and Outdoor Life. But it has probably been decades now since I have seen that in a barbershop.

Anyway, I do agree that it tends to work itself out negatively in relationships. But I think the negative part is largely a function of not being able to talk about it. We are a pretty uptight bunch of people. Let’s face it, when Rodin’s Kiss gets banned from BYU, it’s safe to say that we are doing it wrong.

19. So The Kiss was lacking in dignity. Hmmmm… I’m not sure where to put how that makes me feel. I’m perfectly OK with nudity in art, while at the same time, understanding how pornography vicitimizes those in front of and behind the lens. While I would and do do everything in my power to protect my children from what I consider to be pornographic, I would not hesitate to take my children to a Rodin exhibit.

20. I don’t find my non-Mormon friends any better at sexuality than my Mormon friends. I don’t find the intermittent porn consumers more conscientious than the non-users. I wonder how much Mormon exceptionalism is playing a role here as it often seems to, and simultaneously how much we’re generalizing within Mormonism. Is it really so strange for sexual hunger to be complicated in a conservative religious environment, and do we really believe that sexual “liberation” actually gives people magically healthy sexuality rather than mostly a new set of complexities to work out?

I feel for people who feel trapped in porn and don’t want to trivialize their struggles.

21. I think that the basic problem with how the church, Mormons, and people deal with the possibility of porn addiction is that there is a tendency to oversimplify. The problem must be too much permissiveness, or an insufficiency thereof. The addict must be a lecherous scoundrel or a suffering saint. Reality, as in all things, is far more complicated than our easy answers account for.

I would suggest that the persistent problem with the church’s search for a unified solution to pornography is the search itself. The more we systematize the ecclesiastical response to pornography, the more we lose sight of the individuals (vicious and victimized) involved. That said, I would second the earlier commenter’s (and the church’s) endorsement of 12-step programs, which, for all those steps, tend to keep the programs themselves very individualized. Frankly, I don’t know a soul who I don’t think would benefit from some 12 step exposure.

22. I have just a couple more observations to add.

He Did Deliver Me From Bondage is the Church’s current implementation of a 12 step program, and it is used by LDS Family and Social Services. It’s pretty good, I don’t think the DB catalog description does it justice. I went through it with a friend, and if I remember correctly, it focuses on self-knowledge and awareness. This friend’s hang-up was porn, and the lessons and a therapist helped this person understand how sadness, loneliness, depression and feelings of inadequacy, combined with a unique personality, triggered an attraction to porn. And of course, the viewing of porn brought on more feelings of sadness, depression, loneliness, etc. I think whatever success we achieve with this approach is a result of focusing not on the awfulness of the transgression, but on smaller, more doable steps. It is wonderful to see somebody gain confidence and the knowledge that they are not despicable because they struggle with this. When I reflect on the courage it must have taken to bring this problem to a bishop, I admire them.

I think the Rodin issue is more than a distraction. We cannot even define porn in a way that a significant portion of our membership understands, so we wind up with TR Mormons (adults!!!) thinking they need to cover their eyes at an art museum. I think this reveals our inability to even discuss the issue in a way that is real. The same therapist I mentioned in the previous paragraph told me that they have some LDS clients who wanted to write letters to the Target store. They thought Target’s practice of displaying bras and panties right out there in the open for the whole world to see was a pernicious practice because it led them into temptation, just like porn. I mention this not to make sport of these men (although I do think it is funny), but to give a sense of how truly dysfunctional our discourse is.

Finally, since we can assume that 100% of people will encounter porn one way or another, much of our focus should be on how to metabolize it and move forward. Our current approach stresses avoidance, which is fine, but nobody is going to avoid it completely. Our lack of what to do next leaves people stranded, and feeling like damaged goods.

23. The thing that our current discourse on addiction (chemical, sexual, or otherwise) fails to understand is that addictive substances, behaviors, and so forth are addictive because they are enjoyed by the parties that participate in them. Drug addicts actually enjoy their drugs; porn addicts actually enjoy their porn. Spending all the time talking about how awful it all is a) misses the point and b) makes the participant feel worse for finding pleasure in something so awful. An addict forgets how to want other things because their compulsion for their drug of choice is overpowering. An addict would quite seriously consider doing practically anything for their drug of choice. They’ll feel bad about it later, but it won’t occur to them to feel bad about it (or that they will feel bad about it) until after the fact. Making porn the enemy, of itself, isn’t helpful because some people can take it or leave it (just like some people smoke like chimneys and never get emphysema). All potential addicts consider themselves the exception (that would be your denial). You have to find a way to remind them to not want their temptation to the exclusion of everything else. 12-step is a means for accomplishing this (I’ve read He Did Deliver Me from Bondage and I think it ought to be on every LDS bookshelf (instead of Mormon Doctrine, natch)).

Another thing that you will hear amongst the 12 steppers sometimes is a discussion of how they were blessed with addiction. Meaning that addicts of whatever stripe have a daily (sometimes hourly) reminder of their complete dependence on the Lord’s grace and the power of the Atonement. I think that this is a good outlook, but our church’s discourse on repentance is bass-ackwards for the most part (that’s an overstatement; the discourse on repentance in General Conference seems to be better of late, but culturally repentance is still something we only sheepishly admit to and it is primarily something other people do or need to do). If repentance is primarily the admission of guilt to the world (or the world of the individual), then no wonder people shy away from it and turn to other comforts porn, speed, etc). If repentance was taught as a perpetual communication with God with the intent of drawing down the powers of heaven on your behalf, I think that its appeal would be more apparent to the struggling member (and the average member, addict or no).

24. I think I agree with everything #23 says. There is a binary quality of some of his language that has implications I would dispute (any true addict will acknowledge that they can indulge in their habit and delight in it and be repulsed by it at the exact same time, for one thing; not do I think the language of repentance in the church or our scriptures is so removed from the language of grace, for another), and I would also demure for reasons entirely unrelated to the discussion of grace/repentance to his description (it can and should be, I think, considered an enemy in the same way that most of the tools of commodification and dehumanization—particularly of women—should be so considered), but overall I would say it hit the nail on the head.

25. #23, thanks for your comment. I definitely understand what you’re saying–and I have a lot of respect for 12 step programs.

I think that my underlying point was, however, that there is a qualitative difference between use and addiction. I’m sure that people can become addicted to porn, drugs, theft, or any other number of vices. I just don’t think that occasional viewing is equivalent to addiction. I imagine that any number of people are drawn to look at pornography for many reasons–curiosity being one of them, and the desire for sexual satisfaction another. If the entire discourse within the church equates viewing porn as an addiction, then there is no alternative mental construct for understanding this behavior and putting it into an appropriate and non-threatening context.

I know that when I was a teenager, I was fascinated by sex. (This shouldn’t be a particularly surprising confession to other human beings). If I read a book with sex scenes in it, I would go back and read those passages over and over–fascinated. I would find other books by that author, hoping they got frisky in volume two. I realize now, I was mostly trying to figure out what the hell was going on. My parents weren’t open about sexuality, and health class focused on the many diseases I could catch. I literally didn’t understand the how-to of this action that I fully expected to be participating in within the next few years as part of a temple marriage, my hormones were raging, and I was really curious. I was wracked with guilt over this–devastated. I was the laurel president!!! I felt like I couldn’t get a patriarchal blessing. I felt like there was something wrong with me. Once I got older, and frankly stopped caring, I could put that kind of (now I know very tame) material in context, realize what it was, and take it or leave it. Was I an addict at age 16 or 17, because I kept going back for more?

I don’t want to minimize the pain that people who are addicted to porn feel. And like I said, I’m not denying the possibility of porn addiction. I can’t help thinking, though, that we foster addiction by keeping erotica so hidden and dirty that the naughtiness of sneaking around to view it is as titillating as the material itself. I also think that by never discussing pornography outside the context of addiction, it escalates the guilt of those who may casually view porn to the point of feeling like they’re trapped by it. (which is, from what I know, part of addiction). You can’t go cold turkey on sex like you can on drugs or diet coke. (I’ve dropped back to caffeine free diet coke, but I’m convinced it’s a vicious gateway drug). Sex will be part of your life, whether conscious or unconscious, so focusing on how to make it a healthy, enjoyable, and respectful part of your life should be a priority. Stigmatizing the whole thing is clearly not working….

I was having a conversation with a good friend a few years ago. She said that when she was a teenager she got curious and masturbated. She was then absolutely paralyzed with guilt and shame–it literally became so bad that her mom approached her wondering if she was struggling with mental illness. She confessed to her mom and told her mom that she knew she should go talk to the bishop, but was terrified to. Her mom thought about it, and decided that forcing her teenage daughter to go confess to a middle aged man, and discuss her very personal sexual action with him (someone that she knew social and was forced to interact with at youth meetings) was almost abusive. Her mom told her to just forget about it. The earlier comment is right, if this is bad for men, it is literally unspeakable for women and girls. Honestly, as I’m retyping this, the thing that strikes me the most is this girl’s’ willingness to talk to her mom about sexuality.

26. Obviously, many people who are addicted to anything are disgusted by themselves in the process and occasionally by the object of their addiction. That said, the compulsion to return is what makes the addiction and that compulsion is desire (at least with the non-chemical addictions). I heard somewhere that Peter Jackson’s (and Andy Serkis’s) Gollum was based on a notion of how a 70-year-old, lifelong heroin addict would behave. It think that they got it about right in terms of how the desire for the drug of choice overrides all other emotional needs and wants. Addicts are all self-centered.

Re #25 – I think that this isn’t really a Mormon problem as it is an American problem. America, as a nation, is remarkably dysfunctional when it comes to sex. The oversimplification of sex to either puritan or prurient purpose is a national trait. That said, the assumed or real consequences of confession to sexual misbehavior/sin in the church are usually overstated (probably as an attempt at prevention). I suppose it depends on your bishop and his stance, but I would imagine most good bishops would tend toward the understanding, even if some church discipline is required.

Regarding porn addiction, I know of cases where men spent literally hours a day, every day, on the hunt for new porn. I know of cases where men, after having been caught by wives, whom they loved, and faced with ultimatums, still proceeded to hunt for porn. As I understand it, addiction is fundamentally about an inability to directly confront the problems and stressors in life. Addiction is escape (you don’t have to or can’t think about your problems while engaged in it). This is precisely what makes it appealing. This is why people can talk in all seriousness of being addicted to tv, to World of Warcraft, or to the internet. When you come to love your escape more than you love the life that creates the need for escape, you become an addict.

I would say that volume isn’t the most important indicator of addiction; psychological need is. Some people can snort coke and never do it again, I am told; this is likely the case with porn as well. So, while I wouldn’t call everyone who finds a Playboy by the side of the road an addict, if they won’t put it down in spite of their best judgment, they could be on the path.

27. If we take a utilitarian view of addiction, and judge it on its outcome, then in individual cases being hooked on World of Warcraft might be more immoral than porn, and vice versa. But the Church’s point seems to be that porn is per se immoral, even if it does you no demonstrable harm. In this case, are we just playing the Jesus Card — lust after a woman = adultery? If so, why do we play this card and not others?

28. #27, It seems to me that the mere existence of porn requires the exploitation of another human being, in a way that WofW violations or simple lust do not. I think there you run into the question of whether sexual exploitation is a special sort of evil, different than economic exploitation or other forms of abuse. I’m inclined to think that it is, but only because the scriptures and prophets say so and it feels that way–it’s hard to put a rational scaffolding under it.

29. A few thoughts:

Elder Holland tried to reconfigure Mormon discourse on sexuality (cf his SSS sermon). I think, broadly, there were two consequences of this. 1) It sacralizes sexual relationships and procreation in innovative, sometimes startling or disturbing, but fascinating and deeply felt ways. In this sense it shifts away from more traditional Protestant and Catholic ideas about sexuality (especially female sexuality and the problematic female body), making it at least theoretically possible for us to more fully come to terms with and embrace our identity as sexual beings, created in God’s image. This, I think, was a hugely positive step. The problem is that Elder Holland, in addition to sacralizing sex, structured a silence around it, making it difficult in new ways to talk openly about. Indeed, the structured silence is part of the sacralizing, and now sex is something we don’t talk about not just because it is a taboo or uncomfortable or dirty, but because it is sacred. Its sacredness even verges on the ritual, and unspeakability is an enormous part of how Mormons (and others) discursively construe and reinforce the sacred. So his sermon in theory invites us to have a more healthy relationship with and discussion about our sexuality, but also forcloses those possibilities to some extent by handicapping our language.

One important practical consequence is that easy, trouble-free sexual relationships fit quite well into our Mormon lives and our theology. But sexual problems do not. And our ability to fix problems is damaged by our inability to openly talk about sexuality in any but the most general terms. We cannot make sex into an object of discourse, so problems fester and tend to coalesce around the aspect of sex about which we are least equipped to talk and with which we are most ambivalent: pleasure. Sex (again, in the most general terms) is sacred and wonderful and powerful and exalting and godly and healthy. Pleasure…well, we’re not quite sure about that. I mean, we like pleasure, but because our discourse and our theology has not managed (perhaps rightly) to disentangle sex from procreation, and to treat sex as something that can be healthily engaged in in complete independence from procreation, it causes us problems. Procreation epitomizes godliness, but pleasure is very often very bad. We used to talk a lot about masturbation; now we use pornography as a proxy word (we LOVE those) for masturbation. We also have tremendous difficulty with other forms of sexual pleasure aside from that derived from participation in husband-wife sexual intercourse (i.e. oral sex, mutual masturbation, enhancement mechanisms, non-vaginal intercourse, etc.).

We connect pornography with cheap pleasure fixes, but also view it as something that poisons the mind independently ofj physical pleasure (though we do view the latter as facilitating/catalyzing the mind-/spirit-ruining effects of the images themselves). But pornography is much more than that. It is a natural and predictable (at least in a market economy) outgrowth of, among others, two phenomena: the sexualization, objectification, and commodification of female bodies; and a rapidly increasing sense of entitlement to instant gratification through interaction with/consumption of commodities. These are both problems in which Mormons, in general, are horribly and persistently complicit. We deride certain kinds of self-conscious body manipulation (piercings, tatoos) while remaining silent or even quietly encouraging the kinds that are designed to enhance or prolong the sexual nature (and sexual appeal) of female bodies (breast augmentation, lyposuction, collagen, unhealthy diet and exercise habits, tanning-beds, make-up). We objectify female bodies to the utmost, even while lamenting the consequences of rampant pornography, and in often devastating ways. We treat pornography as if it were an outgrowth of something inherent to female bodies, and by extension, we treat female bodies as pornographic. We teach them to cover their bodies to protect the weak, carnal men from the effects of seeing them (in fact, they must cover up even when there are no men, like at girls camp). In such a charged atmosphere, the language of abstinence (with which I take no issue, incidentally) connects the forbidden pleasure of porn/self-gratification with the permitted pleasure of sex in marriage and the gratification derived from your (potential/future) wife’s body. Porn (and masturbation) is bad just like fornication is bad. Resist the temptation now, because someday you’ll be married and you won’t need porn any more. You’ll have a wife.

30. My spouse and I live in a married student ward. Our best friends (another couple) are at something of an impass in their marriage. She is suffering from the aftermath of birthing their only child (more than a year ago), and sexual intercourse is simply terribly painful for her (likely scar tissue that has not properly healed). They talk openly (even to us on occasion) about the fact that they are not having sex, and about the tension it is creating in their relationship. But they don’t talk about the problem with each other. At all. They don’t discuss what hurts or why it hurts. She isn’t seeing a doctor about it because she is uncomfortable talking about it (which probably bespeaks an inability to conceive of the inability to experience sexual pleasure as a legitimate medical problem). I have no doubt that this is a fixable problem, at least in theory. She is either capable of undergoing treatment that will help, or they are capable of exploring forms of intimacy that are mutually pleasurable that do not involve vaginal intercourse. But they can’t. Oh, did I mention that she (like, I’d guess, roughly 70% of the women in my ward) is completely (and confessedly) addicted to exercise?

My own experience is that I personally find pornographic images highly appealing, and I derive physical pleasure from masturbation. Both have been true since I began puberty. I also experience guilt when I look (or am strongly attempted to look) at pornography or when I indulge in pornographic fantasies. And when I masturbate. I sincerely believed that the temptation would abate when we got married. And it did, for a while, as early on our sexual stamina knew no bounds. But as things settled down and grew more routine, the temptation to seek out porn returned, along with the temptation to indulge in it through masturbation. It took years for me to develop the right combination of utter self-loathing and courage to talk with someone about it. First, our marriage counselor, then my wife. Talking was liberating. It opened floodgates, and just the act of talking enabled us to develop the ability to talk more openly and effectively about all aspects of our sexualities. Our pleasures, our anxieties, our comfort thresholds, our attractions, our temptations, our slip-ups, and the profound emotional and spiritual satisfaction that we get from our sexual relationship. Realizing that the temptation to indulge in pornography had literally nothing to do, on the one hand, with the frequency of sexual contact with my wife (i.e. pornography was in no way a reaction to little or lots of sex), but that, on the other, the secrecy, guilt, and self-loathing it induced did impact our sex life, was an important development. Learning to talk openly (which, unfortunately, to a large extent meant acquiring language outside of LDS discourse on sexuality) about our sexual lives, problems, and joys has been the single biggest factor moving forward. Healthy and open communication makes me feel less tempted, less often, by pornography. And if and when I do fall back, open communication enables me and us together to deal with it in less debilitating ways. I feel like I have access to God rather than being cut off from Him. And I feel like He has blessed me with a spouse who is capable of helping and supporting me in ways no one else can.

31. #26, Yes; I really don’t think we’re making different points, though we may be saying them differently. An addict who simply and uncomplicatedly enjoys their addiction will probably not, or at least not seriously (and those who are familiar with legitimate 12-step programs will understand how serious a business it is properly understood to be), use the language of “addiction,” because they don’t really see it as a compulsion which it at cross-purposes with their will. People who, I think, have fully grasped, or are beginning to fully grasp, what it means to be addicted will recognize that they are enjoying something that they, in a very real sense, don’t enjoy—not just that they have been told and believe that they shouldn’t enjoy, but that part of them ACTUALLY DOESN’T ENJOY it, as evidenced by a will and a longing to not enjoy it. And yet they DO enjoy it, and probably will until they shuffle off this mortal coil.

It’s actually one of the oldest and truest of all Christian teachings: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15).

Part III of the conversation can be found here.

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