Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormons tackle pornography with new website, more sensitive battle strategy

Last week the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints quietly unveiled a new website for Mormons and others who would like to stop using pornography. Here are four changes I see as positive, as well as two missing pieces that I’ll explain below.

  1. Real people

If I were to sum up the main difference between the Church’s old “Overcoming Pornography” website and this new one, it would be that the new “Addressing Pornography” site tries harder to keep it real: real people, real stories, real hope.

You can sense this difference right from their respective front pages: whereas the old site is frontloaded with Ensign-esque Jesus art and church leaders’ statements, the new one focuses immediately on visitors’ needs.

It’s not that the new site is downplaying the importance of Mormon leaders’ statements; it’s that someone seems to have finally realized that putting those first may be bewildering or even alienating for a generation whose default mode is to connect through personal story.

  1. Less shaming

There are some subtle changes in the focus of the Church’s message about pornography. It’s encouraging to see, for example, that someone’s been reading their Brené Brown. The site aims to make a distinction between systemic shame (which is ultimately counterproductive) and action-specific guilt (which can be a helpful catalyst to change).

The new website gives a nod (uncredited) to the work of Brene Brown.

In the past, church members who used pornography received a crystal-clear message that porn was so very bad that they were systemically bad by association. Hopefully that is changing—not least because new research is finding that shame is actually a stimulus of further porn use, not an effective cure of it.

  1. Mental health professionals

The short videos are a mix of personal experiences and expert commentary from actual therapists and mental health professionals. I think there could be more emphasis on finding a therapist outside or in addition to the Church’s own recovery groups, but even having professional voices involved at all is a step forward.

However, I did see the usual wind-up at the end of some leaders’ comments that people should just pray more and go to the temple more and read the scriptures more. (This last one could actually be spectacularly unhelpful. Which parts of the scriptures should people look to for role models? To King David, who stalked a married woman at her mikvah, summoned her for sex on demand, and then had her husband killed? Or to Judah, who paid for a prostitute who turned out to be a family member? As theologian Jennifer Knust says, “the only way the Bible can be a sexual rulebook is if no one reads it.”)

  1. Inclusion of women

It’s an improvement that women are at least somewhat represented as people who can struggle with pornography. The LDS Church has not exactly been quick to pick up on the reality that while women are statistically less likely to use porn than men, some do (and the gender gap in porn usage is shrinking among young adults).

Acknowledging women is a change from the male-directed rhetoric about porn in many General Conference talks. If women are mentioned at all in those addresses, it is in the stock role of the weeping and neglected wives whose husbands have all but left them for a naked woman on a screen. Cue Jacob 2:35.

So those are some changes in the right direction. What’s missing? As I see it, two things. My thinking on this has been influenced by the new book Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing, written by evangelical Christian counselor Jay Stringer. It was certainly an eye-opening read—not just about pornography use, but other manifestations of what he calls “sexual brokenness,” such as extramarital affairs and prostitution. Here I’ll just focus on porn.

Finding the why

Stringer’s thesis is that behavior-based programs to overcome pornography simply don’t work when used by themselves. And those programs are all that most churches ever undertake—including the LDS Church, even in its new and improved website. Stringer writes:

When pornography is addressed only through the lens of lust, when the stories that set up pornography use are evaded, an anemic treatment plan will follow. Sexual cessation will be prescribed, encouragement to tell his or her spouse will be given, and the client will be asked to join an accountability group. (41–42)

Pornography is not fundamentally about lust but about other things, such as power and violence. Attempting to curb the problem using only “the latest and greatest strategy to combat lust” misses the point of how people got there in the first place: what traumas and wounds led these individuals to porn? What messages did they receive about sexuality and power in childhood? Did they grow up in families that were either overly rigid or, at the other extreme, negligent? In what ways have futility (“my life is pointless”) and self-deprivation in nonsexual areas (“I don’t deserve to see friends or go hiking”) contribute to their sexual choices?

So the first thing that’s missing from the LDS website is a commitment to understanding, and not just fighting, pornography use. Stringer says that if people really want to heal, they have to dig deeply into their past and do the hard work of knowing themselves. “The journey out of unwanted sexual behavior begins by recognizing that your struggles may be the most honest dimension of your life,” he tells readers.

Fantasies, he says, are actually road maps. Drawing on a survey of 3,817 adults who struggle with unwanted sexual behavior, Stringer connects respondents’ childhood experiences, feelings, and family configurations to some fairly predictable patterns. For example, men whose pornography choices reflect fantasies in which women are young, petite, and racially other had “the highest levels of shame, lacked significant purpose, and had fathers who were overwhelmingly strict” (104–105).

None of this self-searching is encouraged on the Church’s website, beyond a vague prescription for pornography users to consider “evaluating how past relationships have shaped you.” Certainly, there is nothing of the clinical specificity Stringer says is essential to getting to the heart of the issue: analyzing the exact nature of, for example, the kinds of porn a person chooses, or the particular situations in which it’s used.

Violence and sin

So that’s the first missing piece. The second is that while the LDS Church has evolved in its teaching about pornography (from “porn is filthy! Eeeeew!” to the more theologically nuanced “porn is immoral because it removes sexuality from relationships between individuals who are created in God’s image”), it misses the additional component of our complicity in systemic sin.

Yes, LDS leaders rail against the media and the porn industry, but such jeremiads have no teeth because they are so rarely self-reflective. We ought to be asking ourselves: In what ways does our own church participate in structures that help to make porn successful? How do we participate?

It’s subtle, is the problem. I’ve never heard an LDS leader suggest that it is acceptable to rape a woman, for example; the thought is abhorrent. But I have certainly heard leaders objectify women as something less than human, such as when they tell male missionaries that if they persevere on their mission they will be rewarded at the end with a beautiful girl.

In that scenario, a young woman’s sole purpose in life is to fulfill a male fantasy; she is his trophy and exists to cater to his needs. This teaching is not only relationally disastrous but it establishes a foundation for treating women as sexual objects.

And it’s not a long stretch from objectification to violence. The Church’s website does not discuss the violence that accompanies many pornographic images and videos. According to Stringer, 88.2% of the Internet’s top-rated porn scenes contain aggressive acts, almost all of which are directed against women (135).

Are Mormons leaders simply squeamish about discussing this violent aspect of porn? Are they unaware of it? Or do they want to avoid being associated with the feminist arguments against pornography, because they see feminism itself as dangerous?

Whatever the reason, the fact that women are disproportionately hit and humiliated in pornography does not yet register in the LDS website as a particular reason why porn should be avoided.

 

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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