Via Wikimedia Commmons
Conservative religions struggle with pornography in today's world
Source: Via Wikimedia Commmons

People with strong religious beliefs are at lower risk for many behavioral health conditions, including drug and alcohol problems. But, stronger religious beliefs increase the risk of a person identifying themselves as addicted to pornography, or struggling with porn use. Religion has a long history of serving to restrict sexual behaviors. More religious people are likely to restrict their sexual fantasies, have fewer sex partners, express stronger disapproval of alternative/nontraditional sexual behaviors (from use of sex toys to homosexuality) and use less pornography in general. But, stronger religious values also increase the prevalence of  greater levels of guilt about sexual behaviors, and higher levels of sexual dysfunction in general. More religious therapists are more likely to diagnose porn addiction, compared to other clinicians. Nowhere is the conflict between religion and sex more evident today, than in the raging battle over pornography.

The Journal of Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity has released a special edition, where the entirety of the issue is focused on the convergence of religion and pornography in those who struggle with their pornography use. This issue represents a stunning game change from the past few decades of sex addiction and porn addiction treatment and theory, where issues of morality and religious values conflict were downplayed, in favor of an overwhelming focus on the alleged dangers of porn, often described as though it is equivalent to a drug. This current issue directs focus on the true origin of this conflict, in the grounds between religious sexual values, and the ready availability of sexual stimuli in the modern world.

In 1984, Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., one of the early founders and leaders of sex addiction movement, suggested to Phil Donahue that sex addiction was the result of an upbringing in a conservative Christian household with strict attitudes towards sex. Attention to this religio-sexual conflict has waned over the years, but is now resurging with new research.

Researchers Grubbs and Hook have both published extensively on the connections between religious values and conflict over porn use. Together, they edited this issue, addressing and discussing the many issues that emerge in this collection of articles, pointing to the growing need to better understand the nature and treatment of this conflict between religion and porn use. The issue at large is a powerful collection of important, useful research and theory, examining the question of how and why religion and porn use are continuing to generate such dramatic personal struggles. I recommend folks review the entire issue, but enjoy pointing out a few substantial findings and points below:

  • Volk, et al., support the theory that religious experiences in childhood are indirectly related to the experience of sexual shame in later life. They experimentally explore a model depicting the progression from childhood religiosity to personal religiosity to moral disapproval of pornography to a sense of perceived addiction to pornography to a sense of sexual shame over pornography use. Their model is useful and valuable for clinical intervention, as it explicates a more sophisticated understanding of how religious pornography users experience shame and difficulties, AND how and where clinicians may intervene to assist these individuals. Rather than addressing porn use, therapists may assist patients to examine their religious values, their moral values over porn, their sense of addiction and their feelings of shame.
  • Wilt, et al. take these concepts further, demonstrating that it is an individual’s level of moral disapproval of porn use which contributes most to a person’s feelings of addiction and distress when they do in fact use porn. They found that religious people with lower self-esteem are more likely to experience difficulties with porn use, and to have these struggles contribute to greater feelings of anger in general, and anger towards God. When religious people use more porn, their anger towards God, and their general irritability, both increase. The authors suggest that therapists can be more effective by helping these patients to learn to manage their anger, explore the dissonance between their porn use and their moral disapproval of it, and hint that assisting these patients in managing their anxiety through mindfulness techniques may be effective clinical interventions, so long as these are provided through a nonjudgmental therapeutic relationship.
  • Tongeren, Newbound and Johnson demonstrate experimentally that “priming” a person to think of religion and religious values, increases the degree to which they negatively perceive the effects of sexual values violations. Essentially, they had subjects read a religious essay, and then describe a time in their own past, where they violated their own sexual values. Those subjects who read the religious “primer” viewed and described their violation more negatively, and identified that it had had a more negative impact on their partner at the time. Thus, these results provide useful evidence of the degree to which one’s religious values, as well as how present their values are, can change an individual’s perceptions of their own sexual behaviors.
  • Bradley, et al., replicated one of Grubb’s’ past findings, that those who feel addicted to porn experience more distress and conflict related to porn use, regardless of how much or how little porn they actually use. But even further, they found, in a large sample of adults, that religious individuals (including Christian, Buddhist and Muslim) are far more likely to report feeling addicted to porn. Atheists and people with lower religious beliefs were much less likely to report problems with their own porn use, or to describe themselves as “porn addicts.” In these results, it was belief in God, not just participation in church, which was most predictive of a person feeling addicted to porn.
  • Griffin, et al. demonstrate even more explicitly that it is the conflict, the incongruence, between a person’s religiously-driven sexual values and their actual sexual behaviors, which contribute most greatly to sexual anxiety and a spiritual struggle. People with higher levels of conflict between their values and behaviors were more likely to have depressed sexual self-esteem. People with high levels of sexual behaviors, including porn use, who feel their sexual values and behaviors are congruent, experience no significant moral or psychological conflict.
  • Reid, Carpenter and Hook reanalyzed data from the DSM-5 trials of hypersexual disorder. They found, among patients in treatment for sex addiction, that both religious and nonreligious individuals had comparable levels of shame and stress. Both groups had comparable levels of masturbation and porn use, but religious individuals reported far fewer numbers of sexual partners, as well as much lower levels of alcohol and drug problems, replicating past findings that religion can be protective from these factors. Religious sex addicts were more likely to experience greater levels of depression. It was noteworthy that a large majority (57%) of the individuals in this study, all drawn from people actually in treatment for sex addiction, were both religious and in committed relationships. This provides further evidence of the degree to which sex addiction itself is a concept built on foundations of religion and monogamy.
  • Thomas examined the role of porn addiction in American evangelical religions, analyzing the magazine Christianity Today. From 1956 to 2014, Thomas maps the increased use of the idea that porn is addictive, as opposed to merely sinful, in the evangelical Christian perspective. Each successive generation of writers and minsters argues against pornography more strongly, and each perceive the “current” type of porn available as more damaging, more hideous and more dangerous than the porn of the previous generations. Porn became a symbol of society’s growing corruption. Thomas suggests, in a unique reframe, that the evangelical adoption of the addiction concept is a way to bow to the inevitability of porn use, and to paint it as a biological addiction rather than a moral failing. This relieves both porn users and their religious leaders, from moral responsibility for porn use by religious individuals, who are thus able to simply refer these individuals to “treatment.” While I view Thomas’ theory as interesting, I think he ignores somewhat the degree to which the addiction and neurological arguments around porn use allow a religious-based disapproval to be supported and accepted by non-religious individuals and entities (such as feminists and American government).
  • MacInnins and Hodson conducted fascinating research regarding religious concerns about pornography use. They explore the reactions which religious people have to the established findings that more religious states view more pornography, compared to non-religious areas. Interestingly, more religious (higher in religious fundamentalism) people are more likely to discount these findings, and blame them on researcher bias against religion, or on other, non-religious-related factors. More religious people actually view pornography as a more significant social issue, compared to gun violence or racism. People with stronger levels of religious fundamentalism were unbelievably (p<.001) more likely to support the idea of bans and restrictions from viewing porn.
Via Wikimedia Commons
People struggling with porn need more help than being told that it's bad.
Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

People ARE struggling with porn use. There’s no denying that. What is critical however, is that we begin to help people understand why they are struggling, and to unpack the complex moral, religious, developmental and individual reasons for their struggle. It is clearly the conflict between a person’s religious sexual values and their choice to use porn which contributes to a person’s psychological and spiritual struggles. Clinically, therapists can help people with this, through application of mindfulness techniques, anxiety and mood treatment, motivational interviewing, education and moral exploration. The problem here is not the porn – the problem is that people choose to use porn without ever exploring or resolving their negative moral feelings towards porn. Many religious people simply haven't been prepared with language or ways to understand and explore this conflict, without encountering shame, condemnation or rejection.

Unfortunately, this is a difficult conversation to have. Religious people often aren’t willing to explore that the problem is in this religious-porn conflict, as opposed to being in porn. Porn addiction advocates focus on allegations of brain-related dangers, and ignore the moral/religious issues. Like so many issues today, the more contradicting evidence we present, the stronger a person’s opposition to porn is likely to become. This isn't an attack on people's deeply held religious beliefs, though many experience it as such. Instead, this is an invitation to explore how their sexual values can be applied to the modern world.

However, more people are starting to speak up about this issue, and offering compassionate support to religious people who use porn and struggle with this conflict. Mormon Paul Malan wrote this brilliant piece, the Religious Institute argues for a sexual ethic focused on integrity and awareness, as opposed to condemning certain acts, and even this piece from the Christian Post tries to help religious people accept and embrace their sexuality.

The conflict over porn and religion is changing, and may be a problem which simply goes away, as society grows more comfortable with porn’s accessibility. At a religious conference in early 2016, religious antiporn speakers presented research showing that adolescent exposure to porn is common, but even more so, that adolescent attitudes towards porn are different from those of their older religious counterparts. Young religious people today view failing to recycle as more immoral, and a greater sin, than watching porn. These young people may save the world, and don’t feel it’s necessary to save it from porn. I’m cheering them on.

My new book, Ethical Porn for Dicks, explores many of these issues. I'm also offering a webinar to help therapists begin to learn to deal with these issues in their patients, and I provide regular trainings on these issues through Cross Country Education.

Follow me on Twitter to stay in touch.

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