Peace, Be Still — Understanding Pornography
Dealing with the issue of pornography—either for yourself or with a loved one—can be unnecessarily isolating. As one of our readers describes: “I felt that my burden was so heavy and so lonely. I often wished we were dealing with something else like a sickness, because if that were the case, our struggle would be well known, and loved ones would have rallied around us sending prayers, dinner, gifts, and other well wishes.” No one should be alone in this. We need to open conversations, share resources, and support each other with compassion.
This post is the first of a two-part feature dealing with the problematic use of pornography. Part I will describe the addictive nature and harm of pornography (if you’re reading this with children, please be aware that some content in this article may only be appropriate for adults). Part II will offer tools to help understand and heal when spouses are dealing with pornography use in their marriage. To help me on this journey are Brian Willoughby, Associate Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University, and Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, a psychotherapist specializing in relationship and sexuality counseling. Both agreed to be interviewed specifically for this series. We will also hear from men and women who share their experiences with pornography and addiction, either as users or as spouses of users.
What is Pornography Addiction?
Defining pornography addiction is complex and as yet unsettled even in professional communities. Some of the delay comes in lack of objective research (most studies involve subjective self-reporting), difficulty keeping pace with the increase in pornography use since the advent of the internet and smartphones, lack of consensus on how to define the variables, and some public reticence to acknowledge a problem nuanced by morality issues. What does or does not constitute an “addiction” (how many hours does one need to use to be clinically diagnosed? how dysfunctional does his or her life need to become?) is something I will leave to the professionals. It best serves the purposes of this feature to focus on recovery, so I will address how the addiction develops and the impact pornography can have.
Most professionals put addiction to pornography under the umbrella of behavior or process addictions, in the same family as compulsive gambling and eating disorders. As its name suggests, it is developed through a process during which repeated use reinforces a compulsion over time. In this case, a natural process essential to the survival of the species—sex—provides the material which, when viewed, creates a chemical “hit” in the brain. The user can become sensitized to cues or triggers that make him or her crave pornography. With repeated use, the compulsion can strengthen because the reward, motivation, and memory parts of the brain continue to be stimulated. The user may need to increase his or her consumption rate in order to maintain this stimulation. And as frequency of use increases, studies have shown that porn addicts exhibit brain activity similar to drug addicts. One recovering addict described how powerful the compulsion can become: “I knew I would feel like garbage...[But] the consequences didn’t matter. There have been times where I’m almost on autopilot, and I don’t remember clearly how I got to the computer and started looking.”
Realistically, there are degrees of use, or levels of involvement, meaning that we would be better served to talk about pornography use as a spectrum rather than as a black-and-white, addicted-or-not binary. The spectrum ranges from inadvertent exposure to occasional use to intensive use all the way to clinical addiction. It’s like walking into the waves of the ocean, deeper and deeper, until your toes start to lose their grip on the shifting sands below. Internet ads, messages, and other triggers pop up, like successive waves. They buffet your ankles, your knees, your arms, and then recede, pulling you in, like the tide. There are factors that complicate this generalization, including the type of porn consumed, risk factors specific to each individual, and the user’s underlying reasons for using pornography. In other words, how much a person steps into the water as opposed to being pulled in by the tide, is complex and dependent on individual factors.
Suffice it to say, it is helpful to know that a process addiction is fundamentally a “powerful form of learning.” Free will is forfeited by degrees, which means that at some point, quitting is no longer a simple matter of self-control. But while the user will never be able to “unsee” the porn, the compulsion can be unlearned. Dr. Willoughby said that, especially with the help of 12 Step Programs and other clinical interventions, the cycle can be broken, strategies can be implemented, and the compulsion can be deconstructed, literally returning the user to a state of agency. This will all take help, serious dedication, and time. For some, the effort to maintain sobriety may take a lifetime. But the good news is: it is possible!
What is the Harm?
Harm Generally. Compulsive behavior can be terribly damaging and difficult to manage. One man wrote, “The pull that pornography has is intense. When I first moved into recovery, I had withdrawal symptoms just like I’d heard people with chemical addictions experience. Intense headaches. Shakes. Nausea. I couldn’t sleep at night. It is as powerful as we think it is.”
But we cannot speak about the harm of pornography exclusively in terms of its addictive properties. Not every user will become addicted to pornography. This issue is therefore more complicated than just time spent consuming illicit material. The range of how often, why, how, and in what environment a person uses, implicate a range of harm.
We can see this complexity by observing a startling reality: some of the impact of pornography use is specific to religious communities. Dr. Willoughby said that the depression rates for porn users are significantly higher in religious communities, presumably because of the shame associated with pornography use. Additionally, he indicated that secrecy and deceitful use of pornography is higher in religious communities, leading to increased feelings of betrayal and higher divorce rates. Dr. Finlayson-Fife indicated that because we often see pornography as pathological, religious users see themselves as impaired or flawed at a far higher rate than non-religious people, and their religious spouses often share this view.
Harm to the Individual. It’s imperative to note that a person’s use of pornography can be motivated by more than just sexual interest. Dr. Willoughby said that it is often an escape—a way to destress or relieve anxiety. Dr. Finlayson-Fife explained that “in the face of difficulty, people are often lulled by content that is instantly absorbing and gratifying (such as video gaming or pornography), rather than deal with the complexities of their relationship or life.” But this can lead to problems because while pornography may temporarily lead to stress relief or immediate gratification, the user never addresses the root causes of anxiety and stress in his or her life. In one man’s words: “The curiosity and fantasy...provide a fabricated reprieve from life stressors. Pornography addiction further handicaps an individual by providing an easy (albeit short-lived and otherwise damaging) coping mechanism which forestalls any other attempts to properly handle stressors.”
Additionally, heavy, compulsive pornography consumption, particularly with masturbatory behavior, correlates with difficulty orgasming, diminished libido or erectile function, greater desire for pornography than sex with a real person, and less relationship satisfaction. It also can lead to dissatisfaction with body image. Additionally, the user’s attitudes can be affected by pornography consumption, including attitudes towards violence, sexism, and sexual permissiveness. Individual differences and risk factors are significant in moderating these correlations, meaning not all porn users will be impacted uniformly.
Harm to Relationships. The way that attitudes can be generalized from pornographic content to real life is seen in the harm it can have on relationships. Dr. Willoughby explained that pornography consumption shifts sexual scripts, making the user’s expectations more selfish and based on physical gratification. The user thinks, My partner will always want intimacy, and it will always be about me and my physical pleasure. Said Dr. Willoughby: “It’s a perfect setup for continual dissatisfaction due to unrealistic expectations. The user does not even realize that there can be a richer experience if the couple were connected on an emotional and spiritual level. It creates a ceiling for what intimacy can be.”
Significant harm is also caused by hiding and lying about pornography use. The user feels ashamed and isolates him or herself from loved ones. This can escalate the need to use, and, as Gordon B. Hinckley relayed, it also “strangl[es] the life out of relationships that should be sacred, hurting to the very core those you should love the most.” For a person who finds out his or her spouse has been lying for years, there is a profound sense of disorientation and loss. Such betrayal deeply undermines trust and makes intimacy even more difficult.
Several women wrote in describing how it felt to discover that their husbands had been secretly using pornography. One said: a decade of deceitful porn use “had the force of years behind it...My world collapsed in on me with that phone call. My life, my relationship, everything that I thought we had together, tumbled inward onto my soul and I was crushed.” Another said she felt disoriented: “It wasn't that my whole world had changed. It was that my world never was what I thought it was. I lost all trust in myself as well as in my spouse...Every happy memory felt tainted by these questions. Did he look at porn that day? Did he lie to me? What was he really thinking when that picture was taken?” One of our readers wrote: “If only I was prettier, a better wife, more exciting like the images [my husband] kept seeking out. I tried to compete with what he’d watched on the screen, only to fall deep into shame when I couldn’t measure up to a fantasy.”
Another relationship that is harmed through pornography consumption is the user’s relationship with God. He or she may feel the loss of the Holy Ghost and lost confidence before God. Pornography roughens a soul like a sand creates callouses on feet—there is a decreased sensitivity to the higher and finer dimensions of relating to others, including God. The pornography user becomes more focused on physical gratification than spiritual fulfillment, compromising that divine connection. That being said, we must remember that the stronger the compulsion to use becomes, the less it is a matter of willpower that will make the cravings go away. One man said that well-meaning people suggest a lot of prayer and a lot of self-control, but that compounds the shame for a user who relapses. The user may think: I prayed so hard and tried so hard, and still relapsed, there must be something really wrong with me. This man continued: “What we should do is communicate to addicts (and really believe ourselves) that the addiction is not who they are and does not affect their worth or God’s love for them.”
Harm to our Youth. Lastly, we cannot ignore the threat that pornography poses to the rising generation. The average age of initial exposure is between 10-12 years old, and by the age of 20, exposure rate approaches 100%. Dr. Willoughby said much of the pornography accessed by youth is on social media, which is very difficult to monitor and impossible to filter. He emphasized, “We can’t teach them how to never see pornography.” But parents must become safe people to tell. Ask your children to tell you first, shower them in praise for their honesty, and then be prepared to openly discuss the issue without fear or stigma. One of the problems, Dr. Willoughby explained, is that children who are exposed to pornography at an early age (especially if pornography is their first encounter with anything sexual) are particularly vulnerable to becoming addicted. Talking to them openly about sex and their bodies in a non-shaming way prior to pornography exposure helps to mitigate the harm that pornography poses to their young minds.
How we respond to the issue of pornography is important. Without even realizing it, many of us entertain assumptions regarding the nature and finality of pornography use and addiction. I applaud church leaders, both in my faith as well as in other faiths, for raising a voice of warning surrounding this escalating problem in our generation. But I have come to believe that if we respond in fear, we can cause more harm than good. I maintain with Russell M. Nelson that “good inspiration is based upon good information.” While we must shut our eyes when we see pornographic material (Turn it off! Move away! Tell someone!), we need to talk about it with our eyes open. Good information will help us to understand the variables involved.
I believe we can categorically call pornography “evil” (it offends our inherent human dignity by objectify another person, and it turns our gift of sexuality towards self-gratification). But it should be of comfort to us that we can’t put an individual into a category the way we can the material itself. A porn user is not a particular type of person. Says Dallin H. Oaks: “Those struggling with pornography need our compassion and love as they follow needed principles and steps of recovery. Please do not condemn them. They are not evil or without hope. They are sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father.” We need to cast off the myths, the misinformation, and the shroud of shame that hangs over all those affected. We need to spread truth.
Embrace the fact that, yes! it’s about sex, about addiction, and often about marriage, topics which many feel are embarrassing or private. But we need each other in this more than ever. Pornography now springs up around us on all sides like the tares in Christ’s parable grew among the wheat. Gone are the days when we can look across the broad plain of life without seeing “the filthiness of the water.” It is not just affecting someone “out there,” but loved ones close to us. Like one man said, “The first step towards health and healing is for all of us to inhabit a world where we realistically talk about pornography as something that affects everyone to some degree or another, and we're all working on success together. We need to be open and honest, calm and confident, about the issue and its consequences.” The next steps on the road to recovery depend on the extent and severity of the problem, but there are many resources that can help!
In all of this, we need Christ. I suspect that, as a religious community, we do have farther to fall when we fail, leading to greater depression and anxiety. But this is not unique to porn. This is with all things where we strive, through the grace of God, to fill the measure of our creation. God expects more of us than to indulge our baser urges. We are to put off the “natural man” and learn to be like Him. Do we fail? Of course we do. We all do. Our margin for error is greater than for those who do not so strive. But I have hope that it is better to fail fantastically than to never have held a heavenly goal in view. Moreover, with Christ, we rise! Many 12-step programs encourage a belief in God because participants have better outcomes when they believe in God. One man wrote of his recovery saying that the Savior has provided “the tools to maintain sobriety.” We cannot do this without Him. Let us turn to Him in every thought so that we may be guided to safe harbors in faith rather than in fear.
F O O T N O T E S
 I do not wish to limit the reach or application of this material, but I do assume that my primary audience includes people of faith who believe in the teachings of Christ surrounding marriage and sexual intimacy. People outside of religious communities are less likely to perceive pornography as harmful and are more likely to use pornography openly and as couples to enhance intimacy. The information in this article is just as true for non-religious users, but my discussion assumes that my readers generally believe that pornography is harmful.
 I am grateful for the time, patience and generosity with which Drs. Willoughby and Finlayson-Fife have assisted with this article. Please note, however, that the conclusions drawn are my own and not representative of their professional opinions.
 I will not address it here, but there has been recent attention given to the harm that pornography poses for public policy purposes, including issues such as prostitution and human trafficking.
 Look here and here for some resources on how to talk to your kids about pornography and sexuality generally. I have given lessons in a family setting about pornography, even before some of my younger kids know what sex is. They now understand principles such as the dignity of each human body and the power of images that stick in your mind. We talk about the letting the image float away from your mind like a balloon floats into the air. We will have more information on how to talk to your kids in future articles, but please know that I am a strong advocate of talking early and often to children about this problem. In our family, we have regular opportunities to check in about healthy media use, which we hope will ease the burden of confession when exposure to pornography occurs.
 We need to take care that the gradations I’ve discussed here don’t help us justify “just a little” porn use. Rather, we need to be honest with ourselves (and help others to be honest with themselves) about the little lies that we tell that make pornography seem “okay.” Listen to this excellent podcast by Matt Fradd, which helps dissect the thought processes that precede pornography use. Then just go on ahead and listen to the rest of the podcasts. They’re that good.
 One of our contributors strongly recommended seeking help from a professional specifically licensed and trained in sex addictions. Look for the CSAT certification to help in this search. He suggested this website as a place to begin.
Becca is the Features Editor at The Small Seed. She can be found any night of the year satiating her love of buttered popcorn. According to knowing sources at the grocery store, she “has her hands full, bless her heart.” She finds meaning in the little things and attempts to do all things with faith and devotion to her Savior Jesus Christ, so it can be said of her, “she hath done what she could."
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, Ph.D
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife is a licensed psychotherapist with a professional focus on marriage and family relationships. She teaches online and community-based relationship and sexuality courses to LDS couples and has a practice in Chicago. You can connect with her on her website here.
Dr. Brian J. Willoughby, Ph.d.
Dr. Brian Willoughby is currently an associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. He is considered an international expert in the field of couple and marital relationships, sexuality, and emerging adult development. Dr. Willoughby currently serves on the editorial boards for Emerging Adulthood, the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the Journal of Sex Research and the Journal of Adult Development, and has been elected as a full member of the International Academy of Sex Research. You can connect with him on his website here.