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.

 

About the author

Jana Riess

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

38 Comments

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  • “Pornography is not fundamentally about lust but about other things, such as power and violence.”

    Hmmmm. One has to wonder what kind of pornography that people watch, or the porn doctors watch, or think other people watch.

    Not to mention: Citations, please? But if that is true about pornography, then it must also be true about sex itself. So sex isn’t about lust, or even baby making, but about power and violence?

    “In what ways does our church participate in structures that make porn successful?” appears right after “it misses the additional component of our complicity in systemic sin”. So, many people watch it, many people like it, and it is about a topic that seems to interest so many people, especially those who claim not to be interested in it at all. I can remember not a few articles about the scourge of pornography and how it was scourging those scourge-worthy ministers. Now this may just be me, but the only people I have ever met or heard of that have problems with pornography are people who belong to religions that obsess about sex, who think that sex is dirty, who insist that sex is only about baby making or some religious purpose, and which seek to control the sexual behavior of everyone.

    I wouldn’t be even remotely surprised if there is a major connection between the two. Forbidden fruit, and all of that. Maybe it’s just who I hang out with, by I don’t know anyone, straight or gay, who seems to have any problem with porn, though I know a number of people who watch it, myself included. (Oooh, I can just hear the usual suspects jumping on that one, ready to give me a severe finger wagging).

    Maybe if religion, or more accurately, conservative religion, didn’t put such a heavy emphasis on sex instead of just considering it a normal and natural part of human life, maybe their followers wouldn’t either. One need only look at the comments of The Usual Suspects to see exactly how much sexual issues occupy them.

  • Underlying every discussion about pornography is the reality that the main consumers of porn are men, not women, for the simple reason that when it comes to sex men are much more stimulated by visual stimuli than women.That’s because men are genetically pre-programmed in this regard – one could go so far as to say that God has ordained it to be so. Of course the puritan scolds among us would rather wag their fingers in condemnation and preach their dour gospel of continence and sexual purity than admit there are simply some biological urges that cannot be ignored for very long before things, shall we say, erupt.

    If I had any advice to give to straight women as a gay man it would be this: let your man have as much free time as he wants in his private, sound-proof man cave. What else do you think he’s doing in there besides watching football games and drinking beer? In the meantime you can have your freedom from him to do whatever it is you like. But many people get very concerned about porn being inherently exploitative and degrading to women. Granted, some of it is, but much of it, including all gay male porn, isn’t, and as long as underage children aren’t being exploited and every consenting adult signs on the dotted line regarding payment for services rendered, it’s just another highly-profitable enterprise in unbridled market capitalism – that great American pseudo-religious institution so beloved by modern Republicans its god even has a name: Mammon.

  • “Now this may just be me, but the only people I have ever met or heard of
    that have problems with pornography are people who belong to religions
    that obsess about sex, who think that sex is dirty, who insist that sex
    is only about baby making or some religious purpose, and which seek to
    control the sexual behavior of everyone.”

    You do know that the businesses selling treatment for premature ejaculation won’t mention to their customers that for 19 out of 20 cases they see, the problem has been caused by males masturbating to porn repeatedly and getting faster in their masturbatory habits to the point that they ejaculate after a few seconds.

    A few years ago marketers in Australia quickly took down an ad campaign for nasal sprays and penis numbing sprays that curb stimulation during sex (thus slowing ejaculation) when research became widespread available about masturbation habits that have been brought on by the modern day ease of accessing porn. This thoroughly embarrassed the males who were buying those products, so the ads were removed altogether.
    If you watch that film ‘Kinsey’ from 2004 about the sex researcher, you’ll see a man portrayed in that film that Kinsey encountered who could masturbate from flaccid to ejaculation in 10 seconds flat! That’s nothing to be proud of yet porn is raising a global generation of selfish men who can’t satisfy their wives.

    Don’t worry Ben, being a ‘2 minute noodle’ is nothing for you to feel embarrassed about.
    I’m sure your loving wife believes her husband has an ‘inconvenient problem’, like you keep telling her, whenever she rolls over feeling unsatisfied. Again and again and again you remind her that it isn’t your fault, when in reality IT’S TOTALLY YOUR FAULT.

  • The problem with pornography is the consistent lack of graphs. Photos are nice, but I want hard data.

  • I have no doubt that in some cases, what you say is true, but to make it a general statement denies a good deal of psychology, not to mention, history.

    What you are describing is correlation, not causation. Premature ejaculation has always been an issue for many men— not surprisingly, mostly heterosexual men. Because the pressure is on them to perform and to be a “man”— exactly what you were repeating. (The opposite problem is often on gay men, according to the material provided in a workshop I attended some 40 years ago, because at that time, gay men had to “get in and get out.” Basic psychology: what you resist, persists).

    Porn isn’t raising anyone. Blaming porn for physiology, psychology and a host of sexual issues for the problems between men and women isn’t raising anything, either, except a lot of misconceptions and fairy tales about sex. You would think that all of that masturbation would slow men down, not speed them up, because that is the frequent advice given by real doctors and real sexologists to men who reach orgasm too quickly.

    As for your insinuations about my sex life, thank you for illustrating the problem exactly. The pressure that people create in their own heads is often the issue, not the imaginary evils of porn. Your attempts to shame me and blame me for issues that have nothing to do with porn or my life are exactly what I was getting at.

    But good try— it’s what the sex obsessed do. I don’t discuss my sex life in public, with strangers, or anyone not having a direct and voluntary concern with it. And my very loving HUSBAND would agree that it is not appropriate.

  • Some years ago I read that Utah, and Bible Belt states, were the highest, per capita, in porn consumption.

    That sounded right, and still does, but it would be nice to see some recent, hard data.

  • The war against adult content materials is a dodge to cover the real pornography of the sexually explicit Mormon youth “worthiness interview.” That is all about imposing the “power and violence” of priesthood “authority” upon the unprotected and fragile lives of young people.

  • The Mormon “war” on porn is really about bolstering the “value” of the sexually explicit and emotionally damaging “Bishop’s worthiness interview,” which starts being used on kids as young as 11 and a half and continues throughout their lives, even as senior citizens. The Church has to have its straw dogs to knock down so that bishops can ask their highly intrusive, sexually explicit questions with impunity.

  • I heard “impunity”is a great aphrodisiac.

    Exactly what business does anyone in any church have asking sexually explicit questions of children who are not their own? That is a parent’s job to discuss sexual matters with their children, or so I have heard just about every single religious conservative claim, obsessed as they with sex education and what children may or may not hear in school.

    When I hear this, I am always reminded of the scene in “Harold and Maude“ Where the priest goes on and on about “precious bodily fluids”.

  • Ironically, I saw “Harold and Maude” as a teen, having persuaded my card-carrying Mormon mother to go see the hilarious R-rated comedy when I was not old enough to go myself. She was liberal enough to enjoy the movie without getting concerned that we were breaking the “sacred” Mormon ban on R-rated movies at the time. As to those highly improper one-on-one interviews, Mormons grow up not knowing any other way, so as to be groomed into thinking such impropriety is “normal.” I like to joke that after my first interview with the bishop, just before my 12th birthday, I was so intrigued about some of the “forbidden” practices that he explicitly described that I had to go right home and try them.

  • Agreed. But there is some anecdotal stuff involving even younger kids. Apparently church leadership and, by extension, God (if they really are inspired) are willing to accept a certain amount of abuse/molestation as a cost of doing business when preserving so-called priesthood interviews.

  • That’s because individual bishops (local pastors) can depend on personal “inspiration” as to when to be explicit in those questions. That’s a setup for being inappropriately intrusive at any age or time.

  • I’m not going to address the theological aspects because that seems to be of particular Mormon interest. But the way you talk about pornography reminds me of Reefer Madness. Yes, some even legal porn is exploitative and violent. Too much of it can be harmful, especially within a relationship. If you’d rather look at porn than have sex with your spouse, it may indicate a problem. But there’s no “effective cure” for it because for the most part, it’s not a disease.
    I am curious about the interpretation that Bathsheba was in a mikveh, a ritual bath, when David saw her bathing. The text doesn’t indicate this. If anything, it indicates that she immersed in a mikveh *after* David had sex with her. See 2 Sam. 11:4 : “And she was purified (lit. “made holy”) from her uncleaniness,” “v’hi mitkadeshet mi’tum’atah.” Tum’ah is the Torah’s term for ritual uncleanliness.

  • The overwhelming availability of pornography online and availability on every phone, computer, and TV makes this a huge challenge from a supply-side analysis. Filters only can go so far. Lawmakers have been ineffective in the U.S. So, that leaves the demand-side as the place the Church tends to focus, and on internet pornography (as opposed to all the other sources). I remember in the 1980s when the Church focus was on unwholesome media in general–TV, movies, books, music, magazines. That was more equal opportunity. Now it is almost all about men/boys and the internet. And what of X-rated romance novels, lustful soaps or TV dramas, nasty-joke sitcoms, and dirty music? Mostly the sound of crickets. The teen boy who looks at porn on the phone is in trouble with the bishop, no mention of the indignant mother or wife reading her nasty novels and watching nasty soaps which allows her to remain somehow more pure. My opinion is that the Church would do better to go after unwholesome media of all types, no safe harbors, and make the issue gender neutral, if they really want to make progress on this problem within families. No more of the ridiculous sex with a few clothes on in a TV-14 show is somehow morally better than nudity with no sex, just for example. Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction at the super bowl a few years ago was upsetting because a private part was glimpsed, when it should have been upsetting because the music, lyrics, and gyrations were so sexually charged. Would have hardly made the news if not for a tiny flash of female upper body nudity. Lust, anger, control, escape, mental health issues, culture, idleness, and relief of stress are a few of the reasons for interest in pornography, not to mention God-given nature and curiosity. The website is a small step in the right direction, but it is going to take a lot more than talk about pornography or condemning porn to make any significant dent in the addiction.

  • “Porn isn’t raising anyone. Blaming porn for physiology, psychology and a
    host of sexual issues for the problems between men and women isn’t
    raising anything, either, except a lot of misconceptions and fairy tales
    about sex.”

    Wrong again, read for yourself:

    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/porn-is-ruining-our-love-lives-and-making-old-men-of-our-teenage/

    Now let me guess- you will blame guns for deaths and vote against them but you won’t blame porn and will vote to legalize it ?

  • Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction s a perfect example of the problem, just not the one you think it is. (And please, this is not an attack).

    One can see a breast with absolutely no effort. And if you have seen one, you’ve seen them both. Fully half the people on the planet have a pair. They are visible on statues, in art work, and museums. You can even see the first lady’s breasts, if you are so inclined. But the flash of a boob gets sex and PORN obsessed Christians ever so upset.

    On any TV screen, in any theatre, you can watch people being mowed down by violence, anywhere from one, to two, to three, and whole worlds of people. You can watch savage beatings. You can see murder being treated as an object of comedy. You can watch blood spurting, bullets fired, knives thrust, whatever you like. Graphic, deadly violence. Star Wars, with its incredibly morally muddy message is considered WHOLESOME FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT
    .
    But the flash of a boob, the hint of a penis (half the human race has one of those) or (gawdamightylockupthechilluns) two men kissing or making a life together— well—THE SKY IS FALLING, CIVILIZATION IS IN DANGER, JESUS IS CRYING, AND LAWS MUST BE PASSED AND THESE THINGS MUST BE STOPPED.

    In short, what I said in my original comment below.

  • I finally got your link to work.

    The article quotes ONE therapist, who seems to be stating her beliefs based on anecdotal evidence, all from her own practice, and not an actual, general population study. I have no doubt that she is telling the truth, as far as a limited sample of people who went to see her for a particular problem goes. But that says very little about people in general, people who haven’t gone to a therapist about a problem (which the article says is easily correctible), or the effects of porn in general.

    In fact, it might just say the opposite; it is certainly implied in the article. There is so much unrealistic pressure being put on young men to be a “stud”, to be hung like a horse, to have sex without commitment or even interest in the other person, that what they are doing is worrying about not performing, rather than actually performing.
    What you resist, persists.

    Where you put your attention– not performing– is what you produce in your life– not performing.
    The problem is very similar to the unrealistic expectations so many young people seem to put on love, marriage, and relationships. all of the songs they listen to are about love– not the hard work of building a relationship, but the cheap, easily obtainable entirely legal drug of instant chemistry. You see it in the movies all of the time as well, not to mention, opera.

  • I am always glad to have a correction to any misinformation I may have, so I went to the page at the link you provided.

    In the para below, I clicked on the first 3 “here” links. The first 2 got 404’s; the third one linked to a page that did not itself have any links to studies; the 4th was to a page with the headline “Blog has been removed”, and the fifth one didn’t work either.

    The data contained on this page were interesting, however, but I’d like to see more info, preferably from some disinterested (i.e. non-Mormon) source.

    If you could send me links to pages showing the results of polls or research on this matter, I’d appreciate it.

    Here is the para I referred to above::

    After a few months, the Utah porn statistic became entrenched in
    conventional wisdom. Blogs would make reference to the statistic, and
    having drawn their conclusions, move on to provide explanations and
    accusations regarding the phenomenon, as represented here, here, here, here and here.
    The popular narrative of the shamed, porn-watching Mormon is
    well-represented by the views of Joanna Brooks, a well-known observer of
    Mormon religious practices and culture, who believes some of the
    religion’s teachings:

  • For a discussion of the numbers try here: https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/sex/news/amp44222/pornhub-statistics-utah/

    The source is significantly less scholarly than my first source, but decidedly less pro-Mormon (or anti-porn). The data ultimately comes from a porn distributor, so I hope you’ll understand my reticence to link to or search for the original source.

    I’m not sure what to tell you about the dead links other than they worked when I first went to this source to debunk this claim a couple of years ago and that the citations appear to support the notion that bloggers were talking about it, which seems like a pretty uncontroversial claim.

  • You deliberately ignore the plethora of research available and for some reason, you imagine you are an expert as compared to actual researchers. More than a hundred research papers on porn, peer reviewed.

    https://yourbrainonporn.com/research-articles-and-abstracts

    There are so many research articles in the link that prove the negatives of porn but, because you are obviously into dreary textual obfuscation, I on the other hand will focus on just one aspect- the physical.
    ‘Is internet pornography causing sexual dysfunctions?’

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5039517/

    Now within the above article the Kinsey institute is mentioned:
    “Kinsey Institute researchers were among the first to report pornography-induced erectile-dysfunction (PIED) and pornography-induced abnormally low libido, in 2007 [27]. Half of subjects recruited from bars and bathhouses, where video pornography was “omnipresent”, were unable to achieve erections in the lab in response to video porn. In talking to the subjects, researchers discovered that high exposure to pornography videos apparently resulted in lower responsivity and an increased need for more extreme, specialized or “kinky” material to become aroused. The researchers actually redesigned their study to include more varied clips and permit some self-selection. A quarter of the participants’ genitals still did not respond normally [27].”

    Wait, let me guess ben in oakland- ‘the research isn’t correct’ because it doesn’t confirm your amazing opinions? Typical.

  • Foolishness.

    We are talking about porn, not desensitization to violence via violent games, TV and films.
    Only a fool would try to equate the two and pretend that Christians are going along with greater exposure to violent material.
    What we are seeing is shifting baselines brought about by people like yourself. You condone porn with foolish comments like this:

    “Blaming porn for physiology, psychology and a host of sexual issues for
    the problems between men and women isn’t raising anything, either,
    except a lot of misconceptions and fairy tales about sex.”

  • Free net porn, more masturbation, fewer unplanned pregnancies, fewer abortions. Win, win, win, win!

  • A pretty good analysis of this new release. I agree there needs to be a further discussion about the violence that porn promotes. Furthermore, in the desire to want to be helpful to those with an attachment to pornified images, without a person learning how to see the body correctly, there will not be freedom from pornography. It’s too powerful. I should know. I was hooked for over 12 years, and everything…or so I thought.

    As I’ve seen with my years of working with clients with Freedom Coaching (freedom-coaching.net), once a person experiences how to see men and women as persons, and not as a collection of body parts, this is where freedom comes alive. We are made for more than simply trying to deal with broken desires; instead, we must learn how to have them directed in a way that will satisfy.

  • Some enterprising BYU students tried to “prove” that they could electronically measure manifestations of spiritual activity in the brain. They chose to use pornographic images as the control natural against religious images and literature intended to evoke a spiritual reaction. What they found was that religious material and adult erotic both stimulate the same part of the brain in their brain scans. Conclusion: porn is a reasonable substitute for religion, since it costs less in terms of cash and subsequent visits to a therapist to undo the damage that religion can cause.

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