This essay is part of a series of adult sexuality education I’ve been covering on Instagram, @MavenYou. You’ll find video discussion and additional essays there.
I have foggy memories of being a fifth grader, and my parents leaving late at night—so uncharacteristic of them—to travel 30 miles from our small town in Southern Utah to Mesquite, Nevada. They were on a neighborhood campaign, organized through their congregation but not on official errand for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, to deter people from the nearest distributor of adult entertainment.
This was the first whisper I heard of this thing they called Pornography. It was said with such weightiness, such gravitas, that without knowing exactly what it was, I knew it mattered a lot and in a negative way. I mean, it was getting my parents out to the boonies in the middle of the night. What was this powerful creature?
Contrast that with the day I was touring the home I would live in for more than two years as a full time, live-in nanny. I was 20 years old, with little experience with life outside of Utah, eager to get to know life in New York. The owner of the home, the father of the children I would care for, was pointing out items of interest around the home. Here’s the drawer for batteries, in that closet you’ll find the galoshes and rain coats. On that shelf is the porn collection, under here is the extra shampoo…
These two extremes: enemy to destroy/friend to welcome home, are what informed my initial foray into the study of pornography, its effects, its purpose, and have kept me endlessly questioning just how much power I should assign to it.
Of the men I dated prior to marrying at 28 (“old” for my people, so I dated a lot of “older” men), I would estimate (based on what they told me, combined with current statistics) 100% had viewed pornography multiple times in their life, on purpose.
But some titled themselves former “addicts,” and some mentioned it as a matter of course- as in, what else do you do when you don’t have a girlfriend?
The difference between the two (in my limited sample pool) was religion, and I found myself wondering if the problem was the hiding, because it was considered a sin, and hiding leads to shame. Or, was the problem the actual act of consuming pornography, regardless of religious affiliation?
Early on in my quest to answer this question for myself, I was sitting outside a Whole Foods in Sugarhouse, talking with a friend about the dating trenches we shared. We were lamenting the fact that it seemed like everyone we dated was addicted or had been addicted and we didn’t know whether it should be a dealbreaker because at this rate, could we even find someone who hadn’t struggled with this?
Just then, a handsome guy in his early twenties, clearing the surrounding tables, approached us. He apologized for eavesdropping but hey, we were anything but discrete in our conversation.
He said, “I just moved here, transferred from a Whole Foods in [some faraway state]. I’m not religious and I know nothing about your religion. But I used to look at porn all the time, starting from when I was a kid. As I got older, I was into it more and more, even though I had girlfriends and all that.
A few years ago I felt so, so dark. It was just such a dark existence and I didn’t know why. I had the thought that maybe it was the porn. That was weird because everyone I knew looked at porn and it had always been a part of my life. But I just felt like that might be it. I worked really hard to stop, and eventually did. I felt so much lighter, just so much light was inside me. I felt like I could love my girlfriend so much more. Just thought I’d tell you this because it sounded like you thought this was just a Mormon thing, someone trying to stop using porn. It just made me feel dark.”
As I continued to date men spanning the spectrum of religious upbringing, my eyes started to open to the damaging effects porn has, even when it’s fully accepted by the surrounding culture.
That same year I went to a seminar given by a brain surgeon, Dr. Donald L. Hilton, Jr. who had written a book called He Restoreth My Soul about pornography addiction. His approach from a scientific point of view, fused with Christ-centered recovery, illuminated my understanding in a powerful way. I no longer saw pornography as a purely moral issue, but as a serious chemical substance not to be abused.
It’s no coincidence his book was released in 2010, describing a rapidly increasing prevalence of pornography because of the Internet’s growing capabilities. I wouldn’t understand why, and there’s a good chance even Dr. Hilton didn’t know precisely what was to blame for the influx, until last year (2018).
Jon Ronson, a renowned journalist who does incredibly detailed investigations into all sorts of societal subcultures, did a podcast called The Butterfly Effect where he traces the ripple effect of one man making porn fast and free for all. Previously with the need to enter a credit card or sit at a desktop computer to access porn, some barriers were in place for young people having unlimited access, but that changed with PornHub.
Ronson’s search didn’t stem from any moral or spiritual motive; his work is as anthropological and judgement-free as anything you’ll find. He is just a curious guy and a great researcher.
PornHub (and similar sites, all owned by this one guy, Fabian Thylmann) was established in 2007. Ronson connects some major dots in how this single event has indelibly changed society.
Here are three standout pieces of information from the podcast:
In an interview with a former marketer for Ashley Madison (a website where you can set up an extra-marital affair), whose job was to cross market to other sites, found that 80% of signups for Ashley Madison came from people visiting PornHub (and other sites owned by the same company). This is called the “Yes Ladder”: someone who has said “yes” to online infidelity through porn, is more likely to escalate, or say “yes” to, real-world infidelity. He also said that the biggest spikes in usage were found after Valentine’s Day, Christmas, and other long holidays that required a lot family time (talk about depressing).
In 2003, the rate of erectile dysfunction among 16-21 year olds was 3%. In 2009, it was 26%. Erectile dysfunction in young males has gone up 1000% since free streaming porn began. The difficulty young men are having getting aroused by a real-life mate is of enormous consequence to the future of our society, saying nothing for their quality of life, being able to connect and experience love in their lifetime.
And finally, this discussion between Ronson and the guy who gave the above numbers:
“So, this is a huge societal change?!”
“The millennials are having less sex than all of the previous generations.”
“Why aren’t people thinking about this like, a lot? And with grave concern?”
“That’s like asking a fish about water. It is the norm. It is what you do. So a whole generation doesn’t know how it has affected them. Yet we have all these signs and symptoms.”
Aaaaand we’re back, to 25 years ago, my parents trekking out into the night to do whatever it took to protect us from pornography. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are rolling in the aisles at the line, “Why aren’t people thinking about this, like, a lot? And with grave concern?” Oh we’ve been here, thinking, gravely, for decades.
Which is what caused me to wonder if all the grave thinking and talking is what was making the problem worse.
If I’m honest, I still do wonder, but not about whether or not porn is dangerous. I know it is. I have dear friends whose families have been deeply hurt by it, friends who can’t shake the darkness it brings long enough to find real love, friends who have ended up in places personally and professionally they could have never imagined prior to addiction. So it’s not the danger I wonder about.
I wonder if how we think about it, a lot, and with grave concern, keeps the 100% of boys and a rising percentage of girls who are exposed to it, from talking to us. The root of all addiction, though some will say it’s pride, I will go instead with the rising awareness, research, and my own experience, and say it’s shame. Secrecy and shame.
There is a mountain of information out there about the dangers of pornography and how it manifests in relationships whether or not you’ve been raised to think it’s a sin. How it destroys marriages and desensitizes hearts and minds to natural pleasure and love. I won’t attempt to cover that here.
My concern is how I address this with my children in a way that is considerate about the fact that I brought them into this world… this world. This world where they can’t help but be exposed to pornography in many forms, despite my best efforts to protect them. Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, LDS sex therapist explains best:
“Imagine saying to your kids, ‘Just the fact that you want sweets, makes you a bad person. Don’t think about it, don’t look at it, don’t want it…’ You’ll create either a person who is anorexic or a person who is bulimic. But not someone who has integrated a good part of life into their larger values and goals. Sexuality isn’t good or bad, it just is. How we relate to it has a big impact.
Basically in the world we live in now, it’s like our kids are in a candy shop all the time. Porn is everywhere. And you have a 13 year old who is in the candy store because he’s on his computer and he gets curious and he’s compelled by it, then he has the parent who comes in and is shaming of the fact that he’s doing something that would be completely natural and developmentally normal, or in the metaphor, eating the candy.
So we put our kids in a candy store, then we shame them for eating the candy as if Satan is now in their heart. As opposed to [realizing they’re doing] something that’s developmentally appropriate, doing what they’re wired to do, but it’s not good for them. How do we help them with their sexual feelings, manage the access as best we can, but given that we can’t fully control that, how do we then talk to them about the fact that these realities are there? What is it that they’re really striving toward? If you want to be in a loving committed relationship with another person, looking at porn everyday isn’t going to help you create that reality and shape your sexuality in a way that’s pro-social and capable of a deeply loving relationship.”
In other words, fearing pornography and talking about it as if it’s going to eat our kids alive, can create the desire in them to take it underground, as they will almost certainly partake at some point, and who wants to tell their parents that they’ve been sucked into the devil’s lair?
Dr. Finlayson-Fife mentions in the same interview that in her research regarding sexual attitudes, “The more shame and anxiety someone feels [about sex], the less likely they are to obey the law of chastity. Not because they felt so much desire, but because they felt so little ability to anchor into their own integrity.”
She’s referring to the ability to integrate sexual experiences into the larger whole of one’s goals and values. To be able to take the fact that porn exists and is easily accessible at all times, and figure out how that can coexist with the fact that one wants a happy, stable, healthy love and sex life and pornography usage gets in the way of that. This process must happen little by little, from a young age. It cannot happen if a child’s urges and curiosity in the candy store of life are condemned and labeled as sinful or gross or scary.
I have seen the pure dejection on a man’s face when he revealed to me he had dealt with sex/porn addiction all his life, knowing that I had been raised to reject him outright. I have gotten to know many men who have labeled themselves addicts, when their usage was decades ago and very infrequent. I have seen the difference between someone’s shame and secrecy holding them back from recovery, and someone who has been allowed to be open about the struggle and therefore able to access the light needed to pull them out.
I like thinking of Heavenly Father not as giving us agency as this risky thing, as in, “I could lose a lot of my children this way, but it’s important so I need to give it to them,” but rather as the most powerful tool in the universe. Agency isn’t a risk when pitted against Satan’s influence, it’s the only power known to defeat it. Giving the idea of pornography the power to scare us straight, to set our children up for a lifetime of white-knuckling their way through avoidance, can not only exhaust us, but can rob us of the confidence that could keep us from its chains.
Please don’t misunderstand: Addiction is real, and does not respond to willpower alone. But before addiction, there is choice, and I want my kids to know that the choice is not merely between viewing porn or not- that’s too small a question, one with no payoff.
The real choice is between a life fully lived, loved ones fully loved, pleasure fully felt...and a cheap substitute. I want to teach them what to desire rather than what not to desire. And if I can keep from playing the shame card, they may know that they possess the power to confidently proceed to the good stuff, even if they’ve made a few detours along the way.
As for the rest of us who have already been raised, there’s no stopping the growing snowball at this point. But for the sake of our own healthy sexuality, it’s important we don’t allow it to upset our ability to integrate the two; we have to be able to face the world in all its over-sexualized glory, and stake out a claim for love.
We need to know the difference between natural, normal desire for sex and the slippery slope toward lust ruling a life. Perhaps one of pornography’s biggest casualties is the erotic drive of married women, who, feeling charged with the task of keeping their men on the straight and narrow, do so at the peril of their own sexuality.
They see society’s pendulum swinging so far toward unhealthy eroticism, that they seek to compensate by eliminating playfulness and a healthy dose of sexy from their own safe and loving relationships. When we see pornography as a thing to be feared, we avoid becoming what we view as anything close to pornographic, even for our own partner, even for ourselves.
Understanding our own desire, its Divine design, and bravely accepting that what is proliferated on the internet is a mutation of that—not the other way around—will go a long way in shoring up our marriages against pornography.
The home doesn’t need to be a sterile, sex-free environment; it needs to be a secrecy and darkness-free environment. I worry we talk so much about the danger danger danger of porn, that we reduce sexuality to that one act, that one category: pornographic. We may miss teaching our kids and ourselves what sex is for, and why it should be desired in its proper time.
We risk missing the key, established ages ago by humanity’s first parents: true sexuality is expansive and lovely and nothing to fear.
My favorite resources on the matter are:
Brene Brown’s workshop on Audible called, “The Power of Vulnerability.” It has nothing to do with porn, but everything to do with porn (because shame). Her books are good, too. This workshop fuses much of her work into one cohesive piece, but if you’d rather read, pick up Daring Greatly.
He Restoreth My Soul, by Donald L. Hilton, Jr. MD