Men aren’t the only Mormons who struggle with porn

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Addiction pornKudos to the Mormon Channel, and to a young woman named Elizabeth, for yesterday’s heartfelt four-minute video on Elizabeth’s struggles with pornography. (Click here to watch.)

After first stumbling across porn at age 11 (the average age for initial exposure), Elizabeth found over time that she had no control over her actions, could not stop looking at pornography, and was choosing porn over spending time with the people who loved her.

Church was not a place where she felt she could share what was going on. She hid the truth because she was terrified of what people would think about her if they knew. In one Young Women lesson, the teacher began by saying the topic was wholly unnecessary: “Now I know none of you look at pornography. I know you’re all good girls. But I have to give this lesson about pornography.”

“I felt another level of shame,” Elizabeth recalls. “You just told every girl there they’re not good if they’ve done that.”

That YW teacher was merely parroting a stance on gender and porn that the Church as a whole has adopted, which is why this little video is a bit of a breakthrough in acknowledging reality.

In the LDS Church, counsel against porn has almost always been directed at men and boys. At the Overcoming Pornography website created by the Church, most of the personal examples of individuals abusing porn are male; all of the examples of the long-suffering spouses injured by it are female.

Some General Conference talks about pornography have at least mentioned the possibility that women can also use or abuse porn (see here), but most church leaders take the default assumption that they are speaking to men about a male problem. “My fellow holders of the Melchizedek Priesthood, and also our young men, I wish to speak to you today about pornography,” Dallin Oaks declared in 2005.

Elder Oaks proceeded to cast women as victims of male pornography abuse, never mentioning they might be consumers themselves. “In concentrating my talk on this subject I feel like the prophet Jacob, who told the men of his day that it grieved him to speak so boldly in front of their sensitive wives and children,” he said. Just as Jacob once had to convict men of sins that hurt their “tender wives,” so too did he feel obligated to call attention to Mormon men’s growing abuse of pornography.

Addiction pornAlthough his concern that men’s use of porn harms women is pastoral (not to mention correct; see research here on its negative psychological impact on women), the overall default position that pornography is a “men’s problem” is naïve. At the very least, it is out of date. In 2003, not long before Elder Oaks gave his talk in a priesthood session, 14% of all consumers of Internet porn were thought to be women. A decade later, it had risen to one-third.

Female interest in porn and erotica is certainly in the news right now, when the film Fifty Shades of Gray has earned nearly half a billion dollars in just over three weeks at the box office. It’s difficult to say how many Mormon women have gone to see this film; LDS disapproval of R-rated movies would suggest it is not many, but who knows? Many people were surprised to learn that ticket sales before opening day were strongest in “red states” with a conservative Christian bent, the top five being Mississippi, Arkansas, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Alabama.

The story may be appealing to viewers in conservative areas because it introduces graphic sex while reinforcing conservative stereotypes about gender roles. The male protagonist is an über-successful billionaire with all the power and status that accompany great wealth; the female lead is a student, for heaven’s sake. The plot sounds like a two-hour enactment of a “Hoes and CEOs” frat party costume fantasy.

What’s clear is that with the rise of availability in stories like Fifty Shades (and a whole new female-targeted entertainment genre being labeled “Mommy Porn”) more women are gravitating toward erotica.

It’s high time the LDS Church brings more visibility to the female side of what it views as a serious problem.*




* On a personal note, I am as concerned as my church is about pornography addiction. However, LDS culture employs confusing terminology that is not shared by medical and psychological professionals – particularly the prevalent use of the word “addiction” to refer to a whole spectrum of behaviors ranging from casual exposure to occasional use to regular abuse. For that matter, LDS use of the term “pornography” to refer to any erotic material is also problematic, as Mormon therapist Natasha Helfer Parker observes in this helpful article from last year. So when I say that it’s time the Church draw attention to “what it views as a serious problem,” that doesn’t mean I don’t agree with the Church that genuine pornography addiction is a serious problem. It does mean that I think we need more nuanced conversations about what actual addiction looks like in comparison to exposure or more casual use.


  • I also think the use of “addiction” is poor. The number of people who are really addicted to pornography in the clinical sense is very small. The same as with alcohol. As a church we need to change the way we talk about sexuality as a whole, not just pornography.

  • A Happy Hubby

    I am agreeing that this issue is largely exaggerated and overblown for effect, but the fact that this is being done seems to me a bit counterproductive. I can see some young boy (or girl!) hearing for years that pornography addiction is up there next to murder, but when (not “if”, but “when”) they are exposed to some pornography (or even erotica) AND THEY ARE ACTUALLY ATTRACTED TO IT – the guilt and shame kick in. When they realize that they would like to see some more, they not only have to battle the attraction that is NORMAL, but they are weakened by feeling they must be sinful to the core. That is least the story I have. The only way I was able to get away from my addiction (now I would call it a habit) was to realize it was normal for me to like it and it wasn’t that big of a deal that I had enjoyed it. Then I finally could stop.

  • Yeah, I think using “addicted” is a really bad choice. Clinically addiction is defined as something that is done for positive reward despite consequences and has physical dependency and withdrawal effects. Are there people who are legitimately addicted to pornography? For all intents and purposes, yes, though the APA wouldn’t say so. They don’t classify it as an addiction at all.

    I think the way we talk about it as evil, wretched, and so forth prevents people from talking about it. Some might just not care to talk about it, but I think a lot of people don’t talk about things because of the church stigma attached. How can we talk about sex and sexuality in a more positive manner? All we want to talk about now is “it’s evil if you’re not married” and then expect young folks to magically flip a switch the minute they say “I do.” It can’t happen that way.

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  • I would think if Elder Oaks is speaking to a priesthood session of conference that he would focus his talk on the current audience. I don’t think his addressing males about pornography problems that males have is a statement that females don’t have pornography problems.

    I also think that using the term “addiction” can be helpful for those who dismiss their pornography viewing as not harmful. Everyone with a porn viewing problem tends to rationalize why it’s not so bad. This leads them to continue viewing instead of getting help. In the meantime, they suffer all the negative consequences that come from pornography viewing, including less capability to love, less ability to develop deep, meaningful relationships and many more. I don’t mind the use of the word “addiction” if it encourages more people to get help.

    For those not satisfied with existing programs to help them overcome pornography, I suggest they read the book, Power Over Pornography. It contains a program that works for both men and women to overcome pornography viewing.

  • Larry

    Ironically the areas of the nation and world which are most critical against pornography are also the largest consumers of it.

    In the Bible Belt

    In the Middle East

  • Trytoseeitmyway

    If she was unreasonably critical only once in a while, it wouldn’t bother me.

  • Trytoseeitmyway

    Maybe he was thinking of the Alanon idea that alcoholism is a lifetime illness. It’s true that sometimes bishops need to attend better to guidance and information provided to them. I was objecting to Ms. Riess (again) making claims about culture and prevalence that aren’t well founded in objective evidence.

  • BG

    Your defense of the church is admirable. However, the church has a very unhealthy attitude toward sex in general, leaving many members confused and ashamed of their feelings and desires. Maybe you were not profoundly and negatively affected by the church’s teachings about sexuality or the actions of very unsophisticated Bishops and Stake Presidents, but others of us were.