“What is it with men and porn in Utah?” A friend from out of state asked me that question in a recent online exchange. “I grew up Mormon but not in Utah, and porn is a big deal here, but it seems to be even bigger there. Like is porn addiction a thing? And is it the same as sex addiction? And is it really as big a deal there as they say? And does it have anything to do with women and depression there and how they have the highest rate of anti-depressant usage?”
I responded with a “Whoa, hang on! That’s a lot of questions!” And then we went on to talk for two hours about Utah and its complexities. I’ll summarize a lot of these thoughts here. Keep in mind, reader, that while I am a mental health expert, I fully admit this is not a topic I’ve done personal research on. The thoughts presented here come from my own perspectives, as an ex-Mormon gay father and therapist who has some years of experience behind him. I fully admit my own bias, but there is a lot of truth to my words for many as well.
First of all, since it’s inception, Utah has treated women as a commodity. Mormon men, from the leaders on down, competed for women as an acquisition. There are love stories, sure, but there are also stories of conquest, of older wives being forgotten and set aside as younger wives were obtained. Young virgin girls were hot market items, married off to men two or four or six decades their senior. Men’s names were to be blessed in their righteousness as they fathered children and established lineages on Earth that would follow them into Heaven. And while times have changed, well, a lot of these cultural trends remain the same.
Mormon marriage now is ideally young returned missionary and young out-of-high school girl, both virgins, who marry quickly. She’s promised happiness and motherhood in exchange for her modesty, virtue, and dedication to her husband. She is destined to be a queen and priestess, reigning forever at the side of her husband. It’s church first, then husband and kids, then herself last. Except by age 25, there are 3 or 4 kids and they are screaming and her husband is gone a lot and she doesn’t know what to do. And there is depression. And then one day she finds out that her husband has been secretly watching porn in the basement, and what does that mean. It feels like slaps to the face, an abject betrayal. This isn’t how here life was supposed to go! Why would he do this to her! Isn’t she lovely enough, sexy enough, good enough, isn’t she enough for him? Why would God let this happen? And so she keeps her pain quiet and focuses on the kids and pops anti-depressants and hopes things will work out.
And for him? The Priesthood holder? The one who is burning the candle at both ends, with a full-time job, and debt, and church callings, and the kids, and the wife, the one who is always needed and is expected to be pure and righteous? He is meant to be a king and priest in Heaven, to have his own kingdom, his own planet one day. It’s church first, then wife and kids, then work, then him last. But he can barely seem to keep his energy and morale up for the things happening around him in his busy household. It’s all too much. And porn, well, it’s an easy escape. It’s indulgent. It’s secret. It’s not hurting anybody. It’s contained to a laptop screen. He can look up what he wants, pleasure himself. And if that gets boring, he can always jump online, into chatrooms, maybe exchange some photos or jump on a webcam, so long as he doesn’t show his face. It’s private and exciting. He gets attention from women (or at least men pretending to be women) that aren’t his wife. And so it becomes a habit. He stays up late multiple times per week. 15 minutes easily turns into 2 or 3 hours. He’s not addicted, he tells himself, he just enjoys it, so long as no one finds out, and he can keep the reality of it all in a different box, one that isn’t connected to his faithfulness or his Priesthood at all.
Except then he gets caught. He stammers lies about how often he does it, how much there has been, how far he has gone. He lies, and then makes excuses, and then blames others. There is shame and penitence. He has been told hundreds of times from his Priesthood leaders about the evils of pornography, about how it burns images permanently into your brain. Just one second, one image, that is all it takes and you are forever unclean. And now his wife is furious, and there is even less sex. He’s sent to the bishop. He vows to never do it again. She’s crying constantly, feeling lied to, betrayed. She was faithful and it isn’t supposed to be like this. It’s wrong, and he’s bad, and he’s unworthy. And if he relapses and gets caught again, well, he needs to go to therapy, to sex addiction recovery, where he can sort out what is wrong with him and make himself a better son of God, a more worthy Priesthood holder.
There are pornography and sex addiction recovery clinics all over Utah. They specialize in helping men move past the desires of the flesh and be better. Pornography is evil, vile, wrong. In fact, just a few years ago, the Mormon governor declared pornography a health epidemic. On a governmental level. (Seriously.) And so the man either gets better, or he finds more discreet ways of meeting this dark need. Or maybe he starts cheating. Utah does have a thriving prostitution industry, after all.
(And if you feel like this characterization is unfair or dramatic, take a moment to assess the people you know in Utah, even your own friends and families. Chances are, this describes more than a few of those men, women, or couples, if not now, than a few years back. This represents nearly every Mormon family I know, honestly).
So is there such thing as porn addiction? Absolutely. Food can be addictive. As can bad relationships, or gambling, or work. When you engage in something in one area of your life that is hurting the other areas; when you spend hours and hours on it; when you are keeping major secrets and justifying bad behavior; when you are telling lies and making excuses; all of these things contribute to addiction. But it is very important to understand that porn is not an addiction for everyone. In fact, studies show that porn is mostly addictive in heavily religious cultures and communities, ones that treat sex with shame, one with rigorous standards of what it means to be worthy.
Utah is well-known for having a poor sex education system in place. Safe sex isn’t discussed so much as abstinence. Sex is equated with shame, revulsion, and sin. Every human teenager has a sexual development taking place, it comes along with the hormones and the genitals. They experience attractions and desires. Those who have pre-marital sex are considered dirty, or damaged goods. And what extends with that is a culture of secret keeping. Let’s not talk about sex, let’s keep our sins secret, and let’s ignore the sexual things happening all around us. Looks bury our desires, never talk about them, never masturbate, never learn, and instead save ourselves for marriage. And then let’s marry our young sons and daughters and see what happens.
And what happens? Depression and addictions to pornography. Men and women grow up into adults while never allowing their sexual sides, which are just as prominent as their spiritual sides, to develop. Those sides stay stuck in adolescence. They seek expression. They cry out for release. And it’s even rougher on gay men and women, who have the added burden of growing up of being ashamed for WHO they are attracted to, leaving more psychological and emotional needs unmet.
I could likely prepare an entire two-hour conference on this, but I’ll wrap it up here. After a robust discussion, my friend asked me how I help people through all of this.
As a man, I struggled with pornography and masturbation during my Mormon years, when I was both married and single. Both resulted in major depression and anxiety problems for me, as well as physical issues. I had nausea, major stress, and sometimes vomiting or diarrhea issues after indulging in pornography or masturbation, and those conditions extended to when I would even notice an attractive man on the street. “I experienced an attraction! Oh no! I’m evil, God hates me, what have I done!” as my stomach churned. Now I live as an out, proud gay man. I’m sexually active, and I occasionally view porn. Masturbation is a pleasurable activity on occasion as well. And I experience zero shame in relation to any of it. I accept my sexual identity as very much a part of my overall person. I’m not a sinner or an addict. I’m just a healthy human 40-year old man.
Over the years, I’ve had a number of clients come to me with goals of reducing masturbation or to work on their pornography addictions. I take these concerns seriously. I listen. I reflect. I’m kind and calm andpatient. But I have to help the clients recognize that the shame they feel around sex is the primary cause of their emotional struggles. I have to help them learn to accept and love themselves, all parts of themselves, and then make decisions from there. I have to help them measure out their motivations. If their goal remains to watch pornography less, or to masturbate less, listen to the difference between these motivations.
“My goal is to masturbate less because when I do it, I am dirty and wrong. I’m breaking my covenants and making God disappointed in me. I’m sinning and permanently damaging myself. It’s going to take me years to earn back the trust of my wife, and I’m no longer worthy to go to the temple. Help me!”
Or: “My goal is to masturbate less because I want to live up to my covenants. I accept and embrace myself as a human person who has sexual desires. I was created that way and I’m not ashamed of that. Sexual desire is normal and natural, but I want to be a stalwart husband and father, and to live the teachings of my religion, so I want to make some changes to that behavior.”
Those are very different places to begin from. As for me? I don’t see anything wrong with a bit of porn, masturbation, or sexual activity, so long as it is from within the ethics and guidelines of the person’s overall life plan. Those things don’t fit in certain relationships or religions. Consent and ethics and all of that applies here, of course. And that’s where an individual has to measure out his or her own value system, because hurting the people you love isn’t the desired result here. Addictions or dependencies in any form, to food or alcohol or porn, are damaging and need to be worked on. But being a porn addict doesn’t make you a sex addict. Take accountability of yourself and be ethical and make your life decisions around that. Because shame is going to ruin you otherwise.
Embrace all of the parts of you, and learn how to be healthy. The rest will fall into place.
(And for those of you not in Utah, well, I love it here, really. It’s super charming. But oh my stars is it strange. And one way to emphasize that: there is a whole genre of porn under the category of ‘Mormon’. Both gay and straight. Seriously. It’s like a thriving industry. Fascinating, I tell you.)
I waited until I had a job before moving to Seattle, but once I arrived, they had me wait a few weeks before I could start. My social work license had to transfer, and my background check had to clear. So I ended up with a few weeks to play tourist.
I had first come to Seattle when I was 15, back when my mom was married to Kent, the man who used words and fists to prove his points. (They had divorced when I was 17). The trip had been a whirlwind, lots of time spent with Kent’s family, very little time in Seattle, and then a trip up north, to British Columbia and Vancouver Island. And I had also come to Seattle a few times as an adult, when I was married, and once after coming out. I had a good sense of the city’s most tourist-y spaces, the Space Needle and Pike Market, a few of the gay clubs. But overall, it was brand new to me.
The idea of Seattle was so romantic to me when I first arrived. The way the streets laid out into different neighborhoods. The idea of an entire city with its own history and its own people, one that didn’t revolve around Mormonism. The rich and vibrant gay community. The tech industry. The theaters, the markets, the coffee shops, the restaurants. The delicious cool ocean climate. The rain. The lakes. The nightlife.
I spent a few days exploring different parts of the city, wandering the streets, always with a book in hand. I found quirky street art, wandered through book stores, and drank delicious coffee. I wandered through the university campuses, took a few city tours, and learned as much history as I could. I got a library card, perhaps my prize possession in any city, and felt more legitimate. I was a resident. I had moved here. I’d done something just for me.
My first Saturday in the city, I took the bus down to Pike Market with the plan of spending the entire day. I got there early and watched the shopkeepers arrive with their various wares: carved walking sticks, hand-drawn cityscapes, feather jewelry, fresh-squeezed lime juice, home-grown mushrooms, huge bouquets of flowers. As I listened to conversations, I began to realize the organics of this place. Store front spaces were highly competitive, and very expensive. Rent for a space had to be paid in advance, and was expected in full regardless of sales. Some store fronts were permanent, and others changed hands every few days. The stations that were farthest out were basically just a section of concrete wall, not even a chair or an electrical outlet included, and the peddlers just set up station. Parking was supremely expensive, so most people were just dropped off for the day, and they were expected to be there for the entire day, from early morning until late afternoon. The early morning was a mess of delivery trucks and patrons unloading their supplies and setting up shop.
As the market opened, it was quiet. Everyone clutched cups of coffee and wore jackets. I casually strolled through the place, looking at ornate African cloths, jars of exotic spices and small shelves of kitschy figurines. I was tempted and assaulted by every aroma: freshly fried doughnuts, grilled onions, lines of frozen fish, juicy peaches, burnt sugar, homemade bread, barbecued ribs. And there was a sea of diverse humanity working there, people of every color, age, height, nationality, and style. I watched and listened, losing myself in it all, forgetting it all.
By late morning, the tourists arrived, and as mid-afternoon approached, even more. The empty hallways and passages swarmed with people. Street musicians played violins and guitars and saxophones, entertaining and hoping for tips. The crowd became so dense that I couldn’t move through it without careful navigation, bypassing backpacks, strollers, and families as I worked my way from one end of the market and back, wanting to see how fast I could do it.
Finally, tired and needing sustenance, I bought some delicious items from a few vendors, then made my way to the entrance of Pike, where I sat on a bench and faced the ocean. No one knew me here. No one asked any questions. No one cared that I was gay, or where I was from. No one knew anything about Mormons, or my failed marriage, or those years I spent hiding in my own skin. I could breathe here. I could get lost, and I could breathe.
As I walked away, blocks from Pike Market, I passed through Belltown. And I sat on another bench, seeing a ‘for sale’ sign, advertising a high-rise condo inside. It was a large beautiful building full of condos. Men in suits and women in professional dress walked around me. The building overlooked the ocean. And for just a moment, I let myself dream.
Maybe I would meet an architect, or an engineer, or a lawyer. Maybe I would fall madly in love with someone handsome and kind, and we would spend evenings sipping wine, weekends going on hikes. Maybe he would cook for me and I would write him poems and we would fall in love, suddenly and slowly. Maybe we would buy this little condo in Belltown, where we could have friends over, where we could walk along the ocean front and talk while holding hands. Maybe on Saturday mornings, I would walk down to Pike Market and buy fresh vegetables and flowers, and I would come back to the condo and put things away. Maybe my future was here. Maybe my sons would come down on holiday breaks, or for full summers, and I would show them this miraculous city, and they would both feel loved and important and also know that I was happy. Maybe I would open a little corner office where I would see clients a few days a week and I would write the rest of the time. Maybe I would end up feeling like this was my path all along, and I wouldn’t grieve my past anymore. Maybe this was how it was always meant to be, with Mormonism, and self-shame, far far away.
Maybe this would be my new life. Maybe this was my future. Maybe… maybe I could be happy here. Maybe I had possibility.
There is a reference in the Book of Mormon that talks about the “great whore that sitteth upon many waters”, meaning the “great and abominable church” established by Satan to confuse and corrupt men. Growing up, I was taught that this meant, basically, that every religion except my own was a confused or corrupted version of the truth, and that only I had the real, whole truth. I was taught, as a child, to stand at the pulpit and profess this truth. I was taught to thank God daily for blessing me with this truth. And I was taught that I must consistently seek to help others find this truth. Every other religion’s claims of heavenly visions, divine miracles, spiritual truths, and godly gifts were false, they were corruptions at worst, misunderstandings at best. Only my church was true.
“I’d like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true.”
This gave me a sense of superiority. I was a choice son of God from a chosen generation, in the last days, preparing the world for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. I was taught that my religion would slowly spread through the world, breaking borders and barriers, and every soul on Earth would slowly and surely join the true church of God. (That word again, true, my word we used that word a lot).
My religion, like all others, stared science in the face and stuck its tongue out. Forget scientific advancements, delete evolution, overlook the dinosaur bones. The truth of the world was part fairy tale, part epic science fiction story, and the closer you looked the more complex it became.
See, the world was created thousands of years ago, not millions, and it was by godly beings, Michael and Jehovah, angels with epic powers commanded by a Celestial man named Elohim who lived on the planet Kolob. Elohim had billions and billions of spirit children, and he needed a place for them to live, where they could be tested properly and receive bodies. Satan had one plan, and Jesus had another. God liked Jesus’ plan, so Satan and a third of God’s children declared war and were cast out, forever unable to get bodies after that, leaving the billions of them to only try and tempt mortals all the time. God sent Michael down to be Adam, took out a rib to create Eve, and told them not to eat some fruit, and when they did they were cast out to live for hundreds of years in toil. The following generations encompassed the Bible stories, epic adventures all. There were major floods with ships full of animals, a whale who swallowed a guy, mass genocides of cities full of sinners, and slave revolts. There were oceans parted by a man’s hands, plagues of frogs, voices out of burning bushes, and little guys knocking over big guys with a slingshot. There was incest, adultery, slave-mongering, diseases, mass murder, and untold numbers of dead babies. Oh, and lots of white guys with beards who spoke for God. White guys with beards in the Middle East who spoke for God.
And then Elohim finally sent Jesus down through a virgin birth, kept most of his life a mystery, then gave him all kinds of godly powers to change water to wine, survive starving in the desert, and multiply food sources, all while teaching mortals a lesson. Then he let Jesus bleed from every pore, be whipped and flogged, and then get nailed to a cross to die painfully, only so mortals could be told they would never be good enough to make it on their own, they would need to learn from all this, cause Jesus suffered for them, way worse than any mere mortal could suffer, and he had two because Adam and Eve ate that fruit that one time. And then God raised Jesus from the dead. So if we want some of that, we better listen and do as we are told.
And although the world had a few thousand years of religion prior to this, this is when religion as a culture really kicked in. Christians had already separated from Jews. But then lots of different men said that they were doing the Jesus thing the right way, and they formed their own churches, cultures, and governments around it, then started fighting with others. And as humans expanded from millions into billions, they divided themselves along those religious lines. Hindu. Islam. Buddha. Jewish. Christian. Far too many to count. Then they subdivided again, then again.
The way I was taught it, God was so upset over the way Jesus was treated that he took religion away from the Earth for nearly 2000 years. He waited a good long time for a nice righteous white boy in America. In fact, lots of history happened just to get the world ready for that white boy. There were wars and revolutions, slavery and crusades, but finally Joseph Smith came along. He was visited by God and Jesus, floating in the air in white robes, and then a series of angels and magical powers followed. There were buried artifacts, stones in a hat that could translate old records, and relics from an ancient civilization that has somehow evaded every scientist ever. Outside of Jesus, Joseph was the most important man to ever live, they said. He set up the true religion with the true scriptures, and he started converting people by the tens, the hundreds, the thousands, moving them from city to city and asking them to focus on his holiness and his revelations, and not on his increasing number of wives, his failed banks and smashed printing presses, and his youth full of treasure-digging. He retranslated the Bible, then brought forth more scriptures from some hieroglyphics he found in a mummy case. When Joseph died, the Mormons moved west and set up their own government, even though it meant fighting against the American government, and the Mormons changed their laws when they had to, which meant changing their belief structure and pretending God had planned it that way all along.
Things are different nowadays in the true church. There is way less magic, fewer visions from the sky. Now there seems to be a strong focus on forgetting the past and focusing on conformity and obedience. Only certain things should be talked about. In a new world focused on equal rights, in a world where we talk about sexual abuse openly, where gay marriage is legal, and where it is considered cruel to discriminate against transgender people or anyone else, the Mormons want to keep the focus on happy families, and not on the excommunication of gays, the sexual abuse of women, the 150 years of denying blacks the Priesthood, the opposition of the Equal Rights Amendment, or how they treated young women as acquisitions for old men for many years past the time when it was declared illegal.
Some days, I feel angry about the religion I grew up in. Some days, sad. Some, numb, confused, or embarrassed. Some days, I even grow nostalgic. But others, like today, I look back on what I grew up believing and I can’t help but choke on my own laughter. It’s all just so asinine, so full of holes. It’s corruption from the inside out. It’s rotten to its core. It’s abusive, bizarre, ridiculous, beyond comprehension. It’s Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, Lolita, and Wolf of Wall Street all in one bizarre life-ruining epic. It’s crazy-making.
And it’s a system I’m relieved to be free from. But damn if it isn’t a good read.
The four “recovering Mormons” took the stand and, one by one, introduced themselves to the audience. All of them had found solace and belonging in a new faith community, an Evangelical church, and now wanted to share the good word with the public. A room with a few hundred people watched as they spoke on the topic of leaving Mormonism to find new religion.
The first woman spoke about her lifelong struggle with depression as she fought to be the perfect Mormon daughter, wife, housewife, and mother. She internalized her doubts and pains for years before learning about some of the more bizarre Mormon doctrines (like “the second anointing”), and she suddenly spiraled right out of the church. She replaced her depression, she said, with a profound love for Jesus.
The pastor of the church gave a fascinating account of setting up a Christian organization within the confines of Utah, which he profoundly described as different than any other place. The bulk of his congregation, which had grown by about 150 members per years over the past few decades, were made up of those who had left Mormonism, or at the very least who were constantly influenced by the Mormonism around them. He was handsome, cheerful, and charismatic, and it was easy to picture him leading a congregation in a sermon and inspiring them to belief and action with his words.
Everyone present talked about a great love for the Bible and for the teachings of Jesus, and they discussed everyone in the room being welcome. I remained skeptical, but happy to see this resource in this community. I remembered the months I had spent as a Mormon missionary in Philadelphia, two decades earlier, investigating other religions, and after a while all of them felt mostly the same with just a few differences.
And then the next member of the panel introduced herself. She was likely in her late 30s or early 40s and wore comfortable clothes, jeans and a jacket. She had short blonde hair. She reminded me immediately of my sister Sheri, who lives on the East Coast with her wife, and I wondered if this woman might also be gay. “If she is, then cool, they welcome gay people here,” I thought. And then the woman started sharing her story.
She talked about growing up with damaged parents and being raised by her grandparents, leaving Mormonism after coming out of the closet (“ha, I was right,” I thought), entering a series of bad relationships, and eventually finding Jesus in this faith community. She then began to refer to her lesbianism in the past tense. She now realized that she was part of a worship community that taught her actual truth, she reasoned, and if she truly loved Jesus, then she had to do as he commanded. Sex was to only be in the bounds of marriage, and marriage was only between a man and a woman.
I leaned over to my friend next to me and whispered, “oh, gross”, feeling the strain of all of the years before that I’d had in the closet. It exhausted me to see yet another person going through this damaging reasoning, away from Mormonism, years after being actively gay, only to return to the closet in the name of Christianity.
My friend whisper back, “Wait, is she saying she is ex-lesbian?”
The host of the event asked the woman that, followed by several other questions. He is an accomplished host, a straight male with a wife and family who was excommunicated from Mormonism for asking hard questions, and one who has done advanced research studies on LGBT change efforts in religious communities. He recounted basic research that showed that change efforts were universally successful, that mixed-orientation marriages almost always fail, and that the worst of all of the options for overall mental health was a life of celibacy (which is what the Mormon religion and other faith communities currently expect from their active LGBT members).
But the woman dug her heels in. “The more you try to persuade me, the more I extend my roots into Jesus.” She talked about finding more love in Jesus than she ever could in the arms of a woman, wanting to marry a man eventually (one who loved Jesus more than she does, she said), and about teaching others in a ‘homosexuality and Christianity group” in the church about her story. She said the church had a lot of gay friends, some of them even married, who attended or who came in for lectures in the group.
The charismatic paster then grabbed his mic, talking about how at the last sermon he gave, “four or five gay guys” came up to him after the service and shook his hand, saying how much they enjoyed it. He then reemphasized that everyone was welcome, and that we are all “sexual sinners” who have to become right before the Lord.
“Gross,” I muttered again. Because as a “sexual sinner”, he still got to have sex with his wife, and he was propagating the expectation that those who are gay never get to enjoy sex at all.
Listening there, I had the bizarre realization that this experience was the direct counter-point to Mormonism, yet still the exact same homophobia and discrimination. Growing up Mormon, I was told homosexuality was evil, abominable, and curable. Lately, the narrative had changed yet remained the same. Now homosexuality was seen as something that couldn’t be altered, but that must be just ignored and denied, for those who had sex even with a same-sex married partner would be shunned and kicked out. Yet here, the message was one of celebration and joy. Instead of “follow our rules or you are out,” it was “Everyone is welcome here! Jesus loves everyone! We don’t care about your sins cause we are all sinners! (And also, gay people are worse). Let Jesus love your gay away!”
I walked away from the broadcast feeling confused, angry, and sad. While each person has their own individual journey, including the right to be celibate or in a mixed-orientation marriage, I was so weary of people putting themselves on a platform to say “I did it, so you can too! Look at me as an example! If I can suffer, you can join me!”
I walked back into the cold night sky contemplating the ideas about Jesus, a bizarre concoction of unconditional love and required suffering, and realized that pretty much any moment I spent in any church was a moment I could be spending somewhere else. And if Jesus is real, I’m pretty sure he would be okay with that.