What about pornography?

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First in a series

The LDS Church stands increasingly alone in its condemnation of pornography in a world that increasingly accepts pornography as a cultural norm.

Leaders of the LDS Church have condemned use of pornography time and again, classifying it as a “plague” and “a sinister and diabolical enemy.” However, according to a study published recently by the Archives of Sexual Behavior, only 5 percent of men and 13 percent of women nationally consider pornography to be unacceptable in all circumstances. Seventy percent of men and 45 percent of women consider pornography use acceptable in some circumstances.

Early this month, BYU–Idaho released a video that portrayed a pornography addict as a soldier wounded on the battlefield. The video encourages students to support their friends and roommates in the pursuit to overcome pornography addiction in the battle of life. BYU–Idaho President Kim B. Clark, who narrates the video, received criticism from national news outlets that were baffled by the video’s condemnation of pornography.

Despite church-wide disapproval of pornography use, some LDS Church members still struggle to avoid it. In 2009, a Harvard economics professor tracked subscriptions to online pornography sites and found that Utah had the most subscriptions of any state in the country.

Richard Parmenter, a bishop presiding over a local Young Single Adult ward, said pornography use is the most common sin he helps students to overcome. Parmenter presides over a congregation of 150 young adults, the majority of whom attend BYU.

“(Pornography) is probably number-one in terms of what I do in counseling,” Parmenter said.

Because of the cultural stigma that accompanies pornography use in the LDS Church, BYU students who view pornography often face shame and embarrassment that are associated with the culturally forbidden behavior.

“For any religious population that believes that viewing pornography is a moral issue, engaging in that behavior takes a toll on that person’s sense of confidence,” said Mark Butler, a BYU professor and a marriage and family therapist.

Butler’s therapeutic and academic work focuses on addiction recovery, especially pornography addiction. He said viewing pornography can erode confidence in personal relationships. For single men at BYU, a pornography addiction can seriously affect dating and courtship.

“Not infrequently, women who are in these dating relationships can’t put their finger on it, but something will feel uncomfortable or off to them,” Butler said.

Andrew Brown, a colleague of Butler’s currently researching the effects of pornography, shed further light on how pornography affects dating.

“Some guys just aren’t going to date women because they feel too ashamed of what they do. Some guys are going to date women, and they’re going to use the scripts that they get from pornography — that men are domineering — and so they will be disrespectful to the women that they date,” Brown said. “What I’m also seeing is there’s a group of men that’s pushing through the shame, and they’re starting to date women and they’re actually telling their girlfriend that this is an issue. And some girlfriends are saying, ‘OK, well, I’ll help you work through this’; and then some girls are breaking it off with the guy. Either way is okay.”

Butler believes disclosing a struggle with pornography to a serious partner is a matter of relationship ethics.

“No one wants to enter into a marriage feeling like they’ve been deprived of some information that, for them, they feel would have been relevant for them to have known about,” Butler said. “And for most LDS young women, a partner’s use of pornography feels like it’s relevant information.”

Butler adds, however, that addicts should be cautious in telling anyone about their addiction. He thinks it requires a spiritual and relational maturity to successfully help another person in recovery.

“I wouldn’t recommend that people incautiously tell roommates and dating partners about their struggles,” Butler warned.

According to Brown, college students should be open and honest with each other; they should have a conversation, offer their support and assure their friends that they’re not going to judge them.

“People that are addicted to porn tend to isolate, and so they hold everything in and they don’t talk about it. It just sits there and festers. And they need an escape so they turn to porn,” Brown said. “If they start finding outlets where they can open up and talk and feel accepted and loved by people, then there’s a likelihood that they’ll have less need for pornography because they’ve got people who are supporting them.”

In order to successfully help someone recover from a pornography addiction, both Brown and Butler agreed that friends and family should learn about the nature of addiction and remember the addicted person’s redeeming virtues; they should convey a willingness to help while not taking the lead in recovery.

Something important to understand is that pornography addiction is more of a psychological phenomenon than a sexual one, according to Butler.

“The person learns through the addictive experience that, ‘When I engage in this experience, all of sudden I’m not thinking about the test that I just failed in school; or my relationship that’s not going so well; or the fact that I’m in a dead-end job and I don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere in life and not living up to my potential; or a fight I just had with my roommates. I can use this feel-good experience to get away from it,'” Butler said. “And that’s how all addictions are a psychological dynamic.”

Butler said many addicts feel ashamed about the fact that they’re looking at pornography, and it’s not the way they want to think about women or sexuality. But because pornography is the most immediate and powerful way they know to trigger the feel-good experience, they keep going back to it.

Although pornography addiction is primarily psychological, a sexual aspect does exist, especially at the earliest formation of the addiction. Butler explained that the beginnings of sex addiction is about sexual arousal.

Because pornography is so toxic in terms of its messages about women and sexuality it will warp one’s view of the opposite sex generally, distort one’s physical relationship in courting and the focus of courtship, and damage one’s sexual relationship in marriage.

Brown added his advice for anyone looking to help someone overcome an addiction.

“Reach out with love, but also have appropriate boundaries for yourself,” Brown said. “Love them, but make a firm stand that what they’re doing is wrong and that they need to change.”

Other stories in the series:

BYU student talks about his struggle with pornography

Pornography: A woman’s struggle too 

Pornography impacts relationships

Pornography addiction recovery, ‘there is hope’

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