In a way, modern pornography caught the Mormon church off-guard, and it wasn’t because no one saw it coming. When the ‘Net was young and ruled by AOL, NetZero and AltaVista, Mormon leaders were already warning male audiences of the dangers of the Internet and the enemies that lurked there. In October 1997, Gordon B. Hinckley sounded the alarm:
Pornography, with its sleazy filth, sweeps over the earth like a horrible, engulfing tide. It is poison. Do not watch it or read it. It will destroy you if you do. It will take from you your self-respect. It will rob you of a sense of the beauties of life. It will tear you down and pull you into a slough of evil thoughts and possibly of evil actions. Stay away from it. Shun it as you would a foul disease, for it is just as deadly.
I was 10 years old at the time he spoke these words, and I would hear this same message repeated relentlessly in the meetings I attended throughout my teen years. It was clear to me that the leaders of the church were terrified of pornography, and they intended for us to be as well. And it worked. Ask anyone who grew up in the church during that time period, and you will be hard-pressed to find many who did not witness and internalize the terror.
If we look back on the nearly 20 years since then, how has that messaging worked out for us? In terms of efficacy, miserably. I have talked to many people my age as well as church leaders, and the reports are consistent, if anecdotal. The majority of young men still use(d) porn and many of them spend years trying to give up the habit. Moreover, those who use or have used pornography are certainly terrified, but not just of pornography. They are terrified of themselves.
Young women have also internalized the message, but largely in a different way. They are raised to be wary of any sign of pornography use by the men they meet. They are taught to see young men who use pornography as a physical threat and spiritual liability. You have not known true distress until you have spoken with a Mormon girl who has discovered that her husband or boyfriend has a pornography habit. Their expectations leave them utterly unprepared for reality. And the differences I’m suggesting here in the experiences of men and women are not universal. Some Mormon women also use pornography and Mormon men are similarly wary of them if they do.
I was one of the terrified ones. When I first discovered pornography, I was entirely unprepared to handle it. All I knew was what I had heard at church: “This is poison. This is filth. This will destroy me.” Only the young man (or woman) stumbling innocently upon pornography for the first time understands how unhelpful those phrases are in moments of decision. The fear attached to pornography did not empower me to avoid it; it sent me into hiding. Now, all these years later, I realize I was not the only one. I have heard that same story from others 100 times over. It is more common than you would believe, with the details almost consistent enough to be uncanny.
If our intention is truly to help people develop into thriving spiritual beings, we are in need of a strong correction, which should include acknowledging that our efforts to understand and address pornography, and sexuality in general, have turned out to be an epic fail. Scare tactics are often the first instinct in such situations, but in practice they rarely work, and when they do the benefit tends to be only superficial.
These are my thoughts on how we can do better.
- Encourage mindfulness. Those who have an undesired pornography habit may be afraid to look inward. They may have set up emotional blocks to protect themselves from having to face their internalized shame. If those obstacles remains, it will be difficult for them to develop self-love, one of the most powerful motivators for change. The practice of mindfulness teaches one to observe without judgment what it happening inside him or her. It promotes emotional awareness. Some people may not yet understand what drives them to use pornography or recognize what happens inside them in the moments before and after they do. Becoming aware of those internal processes will help them sort out what role pornography is filling their life and come up with healthier ways to meet legitimate emotional needs. It also will enable them to notice feelings of guilt that may arise and sort out whether they are helpful or harmful. Mindfulness meditation is incredibly empowering.
- Focus on health rather than guilt. If God wants His disciples to avoid the use of pornography, it is because their lives and relationships will be richer and their souls ennobled by doing so. If we believe that we are better off without pornography, let us think about why and then use the insights we gain to direct our efforts at improvement. In particular, consider how your life would be better without the use of pornography, even if you didn’t know it was an explicitly condemned behavior. Guilt can serve as an indicator that we have acted against our own ethical principles, but it is not the reason for those principles. Focusing on guilt, shame, or loss of self-respect as motivators distracts us from the real benefits of consecrated living to our spiritual, emotional and relational health. It also tends to be particularly ineffective because pornography often serves as an escape from emotions like guilt and shame.
- Acknowledge the facts. As a church, we are learning the unforeseen negative effects of ignoring complicated truths, as well-intended as doing so may be. One of those truths is that pornography use is common throughout the church. Acknowledging its frequency need not imply acceptability, but it does tend to reduce shame and the corresponding impulse to hide. No one should feel that they are alone, especially when they are in a silent majority. It may seem that frankly discussing this reality would encourage bad behavior, but I am confident it would instead encourage healing.
- Destigmatize. Some stigmas may be helpful cultural constructs. The stigma against lying is a fairly effective tool for keeping people honest, even when they have an incentive to be deceptive. The relatively recent stigma against media piracy keeps many people from illegally downloading music or movies when they would be likely to do so otherwise. The stigma against pornography use, however, has proven to be ineffective at preventing people from using pornography but very effective at preventing people from getting help. Discarding stigmas is a difficult thing because they are communicated in constant, subtle ways. One way to fight against them is to openly combat them. For example, we can be proactive about expressing the view that wonderful people with good hearts and pure desires often get involved in pornography unintentionally and that we do not look down on them or judge them. That is a very empowering thing to hear, especially from authoritative figures like parents or ecclesiastical leaders.
I hope this message reaches those who are still afraid. You are not alone. Life is a time to stumble and scrape your knees. It’s going to be ok.
Note: My brother-in-law shared more suggestions on this topic over at Aggieland Mormons: 6 Tips to Empower Your Children Against Pornography