In many religious communities, viewing pornography is seen as a serious sin. It’s said to lead to addiction and can even end relationships. But according to new research some of those negative consequences might have more to do with the stigma surrounding pornography than the pornography itself.
The research comes out of Brigham Young University in Provo from family life professor Brian Willoughby. And right here at the top, let's be clear, there are some clear negative effects associated with pornography. Willoughby says so himself.
"We see pretty consistently that people, particularly men, who view pornography regularly tend to be less satisfied in their relationships, less satisfied in their sexual relationships," says Willoughby.
Pornography gives people unrealistic expectations. Not surprising. But Willoughby’s research isn’t focused on those negative effects. No, he’s interested in how porn viewers view themselves. Especially when it comes to the word "addiction".
“Addiction is a clinical word that tends to denote a very specific kind of compulsive behavior," he says. "There is still a lot of debate and a lot of discussion back and forth about what is pornography addiction and does it even exist.”
But here’s the thing, if you’re religious, you probably think you’re addicted to porn. And although Willoughby says you’re probably not, just thinking that you are does some real damage.
Those who see themselves as porn addicts retreat from their religious communities. They don’t feel worthy of romantic love, so they stop dating. What’s most problematic is that they keep this struggle to themselves which, ironically, Willoughby says, makes them more compulsive.
“I think that’s the biggest problem we have in religious communities is that lack of communication and, really, what I think it is is the fear of being vulnerable," Willoughby says. "The label of ‘pornography user’ is one of the worst labels you can have."
He even takes it a step further.
“There is this sense of, ‘I’d rather be labeled as a heroin addict than a porn addict,’” says Willoughby.
The stigma can be crippling. Which is why what happened in Boise, Idaho last June is somewhat remarkable.
Scott Cannon, father of four, mid-30s, typical "good Mormon guy," stood in front of his congregation and spoke openly about his lifelong struggle with pornography. A struggle that he saw as an addiction and, because he believed what he was told at church, a struggle that would likely ruin his life.
“By age 16 when I looked at myself in the mirror I saw someone no good Mormon girl would ever marry," Cannon said over the pulpit. "I saw someone who was losing the battle with Satan. I hated myself. I hated what I had become. I regretted that I had ever been born.”
Cannon says it was a kind of on again-off again relationship with pornography. There were periods of months and years where he successfully avoided it. He began hoping that when it came his time to die and meet God, it would happen during one of those clean streaks. That thinking led him to a very dangerous conclusion.
“I realized that my best and perhaps only option would be to choose for myself when I would go to meet God," said Cannon.
He was suicidal. And then he kind of snapped out of it. He started doing research of his own and discovered that from a clinical perspective, pornography was not nearly as destructive as he thought.
Cannon wasn’t too far gone and he wasn’t alone. A lot of Mormons feel this way and that’s why he wanted to share his story over the pulpit. To let people like him know that they're normal.
“This entire story could have been completely different," says Cannon. "But I never got that message. I never got the message, ‘Hey this is normal, everybody deals with this, you’ll be fine.'"
Kristin Hodson, a certified sex therapist based in Salt Lake City, says the number one question she gets in her office is, "Am I normal? Is this normal?"
"Because there’s no dialogue," says Hodson. "There’s no context to place if in fact you are normal.”
Hodson has seen a lot of clients who think they’re addicted to porn. They feel ashamed and unworthy. As Hodson works with them to understand and work through those feelings, she’s careful. She doesn’t want to challenge their moral ideals.
“I respect the complexity of merging sexuality with values and church teachings," Hodson says. "That’s complex. If I respect that, then hearts open and there’s a vulnerability. But it’s slow.”
It’s slow, but Hodson has seen progress. Recently she’s been getting invites to speak to Mormon congregations, typically youth groups, and her message is simple: You’re doing okay. You’re normal. Attraction to pornography is part of sexual development. You’re more worthy than you think. People soak it up.
“I think there is a ton of potential. People want [these kinds of discussions], they crave it and they just need access to it," says Hodson.
"Access” seems like an appropriate word. People often worry about how much access there is to pornography these days. It’s everywhere, and that likely won’t change. But what Hodson and others hope will change is the access religious people have to healthy conversations about pornography.