Porn Addiction in Utah

“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.)

 

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Mormon coffee talk

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“I mean, seriously, what a douchebag move, am I right? Why else do people go to weddings if not to get drunk? I mean, unless you are getting married yourself or you are like the mother or father of the bride, then you just go there to get drunk or to get laid or, I don’t know, to meet people and get drunk with them. It’s free alcohol. Everyone expects it. You drink and you flirt. And this guy, he refuses not only to drink with me, but then he doesn’t even want to talk to me because I’m a little bit tipsy. Who is he to judge me?”

This woman must be the most unhappy person I have ever heard speak, I thought as I tried to tune her out. She has been going on like this ever since I sat down. She won’t stop! She’s being so loud!

And then there is that stupid Mormon girl, the one bridesmaid who won’t wear the dress that the bride actually chose because she feels it is too immodest. The dresses were cute! They were pink and like sleeveless but this bitch feels like exposing her shoulders will give the boys around her unclean thoughts or whatever and she isn’t even that cute. So she has to go and ruin the wedding because she wants to wear like a sweater over her shoulders and she is the only one in the line who looks different than the rest, and she is like taking attention away from the bride which is basically the worst sin you can commit on someone’s wedding day, don’t you think?”

Stop talking stop talking stop talking. I sipped my coffee, trying to focus on the stack of paperwork I had brought to the coffeeshop with me. There was nowhere else to sit, and this woman was talking so loud. I thought about turning to her and asking her to be quiet. The friend she was with wasn’t even talking back, just making mm-hmm and oh-no and oh-yeah statements. Just breathe. You’re cool. Just focus on your work. I managed to turn her out for a few minutes before she got louder.

“So then I get back to work on Monday after and I’m still hungover and I’m still pissed, but then, bam, guess what, my manager puts me in charge of that work project we have been working on. Like I’m finally in charge of the stuff that no one wants to be in charge over. Probably because I’m the only one who gives a shit. And no on there in the whole company even cares about the little rules anyway, and how do you think they are going to feel when I start making them follow the rules. Like everyone takes drinks to their desks and they aren’t supposed to. How do you think they are going to feel when I start walking by their desks and taking their drinks away, one by one, and just tossing them right in the garbage. I mean, they are going to be livid. I can just see the one guy next to me like ‘hey, I just spent four dollars on that energy drink, don’t throw it away’ and I’ll be like ‘well, guess who’s in charge now, bitch!'”

Okay, I have to admit this is kind of entertaining, I thought. It is unlike me to get so annoyed with someone so easily, she was just so loud. I kind of like eavesdropping on people sometimes. Instead of working on my notes, I instead got out my computer and started writing down what she was complaining about. This woman is a character.

“I just, this isn’t where I thought I would be in my life right now, right? I thought I would meet some guy. Instead it is just me and my dumb dog. I say dumb but I love him, you know that. In fact, he is probably the love of my life. I am done with men, at least for a minute. Did I tell you about that last guy I tried dating, the one from the singles’ ward? I mean, I’m not active or anything but I still want a good Mormon guy. I should have known something was completely wrong with him based on the fact that he’s 30 and not married. I know I’m almost 30, but it’s different for girls. Guys can have whoever they want. I just haven’t had the right person come along yet. So anyway one day he lectures me because he sees wine in my fridge and we haven’t even kissed or anything and it’s like our third date and he wants me to be a good Mormon girl and I’m feeling embarrassed and tell him it’s not mine that I just keep it there for friends who come over and I’m lying of course and he goes ‘yeah, but you should avoid the very appearance of evil’. I’m all embarrassed but then a few days later I find out that he has a porn addiction problem. He tells me that he doesn’t want to get too serious with me before he tells me the truth. And I’m like ‘what a hypocrite’ and I ended things right there. ‘The very appearance of evil’ indeed. I mean, I deserve someone amazing, not just some guy. You deserve someone amazing too. I mean, everyone does, even gay Corey.”

Gay Corey? Who is gay Corey? The two women laugh hysterically for a moment, some inside joke between then, and then I hear a loud slurp as the woman finishes her iced latte, sucking the last bits of liquid from between chunks of ice. She stands up and walks by me, giving me a slight sneer-slash-smile before dumping her drink in the garbage. From behind me I hear her summon her friend.

“Come on, let’s go.”

Her friend says ‘oh, okay’ and quickly gathers her things before rushing out. My fingers are moving on the keyboard, and all I can think is, wait, what just happened? 

 

Porn: the Public Health Crisis?

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Within the past few days, the Utah legislature passed a bill that declared pornography a public health crisis.

This is so painfully ironic on so many levels.

Point 1: No other state in our country has ever made an initiative like this.

Point 2: This year, the Utah legislature voted down a hate crimes bill (you know, hate crimes, where people are attacked, beat, stabbed, raped, or killed for being gay or transgender or handicapped or Muslim or Colombian or anything else that sets them apart from the majority).

Point 3: This year, the Utah legislature also voted down a medical marijuana bill, leaving those suffering from cancer, major depression, chronic pain, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and other painful conditions the same options to use major addictive pain killers that provide little relief, and ignoring the fact that medical marijuana has been proven in research to have positive impact on every level for these patients.

Point 4: Utah’s sex education plans are almost non-existant. Mixed in with this abstience only approach, where kids don’t learn about sex and then are thrown into marriage relationships early on… well… that leads to other topics entirely.

Point 5: Utah is among the states with the highest depression rates, and anti-depressant use, in the country. Go ahead, look it up. Utah also ranks among the highest for suicides.

Point 6: Utah has the highest rate of pornography subscriptions in the country. Seriously. Even though porn on the Internet is free, Utahans are number one in the nation for people who PAY and SUBSCRIBE to porn. It has jokingly been called the porn capital of America.

So… a public health crisis? Look at this quote from Mormon leader Jeffrey Holland just a few days ago. “Society must see this evil like the epidemic it is. This ought to be seen like a public health crisis, like a war, like an infectious fatal epidemic, like a moral plague on the body politic that is maiming the lives of our citizens… We do need to see this (pornography) like avian flu, cholera, diphtheria or polio. It needs to be eradicated.”

Now I grew up Mormon, though not in Utah. As a young Priesthood holder, it was beat into our brains that pornography was the worst. That once you saw a pornographic image, it was melded into your mind, a permanent image you could never get rid of. That it gave unrealistic expectations for sex, and it ruined relationships, that it wiped out the spirit of God in the home.

If anything, all that talk about porn made me more curious about porn. I mean, I was a gay kid not allowed to look at or think about boys, no less date them, and I wasn’t allowed to watch them on the Internet either or my sole would be destroyed.

Is it like polio or avian flu? Is it killing people, wiping out generations, leaving people permanently damaged? There are entire mental health clinics set up here in Utah set up to treat sex and pornography addiction. And they do well in business. Parents catch their teens watching porn and take them in for sex addiction treatment.

When I was 12, a bishop asked me if I masturbated. I had to ask what that was, and he told me, so I went home and tried it. What curious kid wouldn’t?

When I was 16, an older man at church taught the boys about chastity. And I quote, “Gentlemen, we all know it feels good to touch our peckers. But we mustn’t for it isn’t of God.” Then he taught us how wet dreams were normal and natural, and not to feel guilty as long as we didn’t “interfere” with ourselves. Meanwhile, my sister was taught to protect her virtue for an already chewed piece of gum is less valuable than a fresh piece.

I avoided pornography like the plague growing up, just knowing it was evil and dark. But you can only fight off such drives and curiosities for so long. My hormones would build, and the computer and keyboard were right there. I remember wondering why a God would make boys go through puberty  and give them such powerful drives, only to teach them that those very drives were evil and wrong.

Now, I think porn is fun. A safe, easy way to explore fantasies and options. There are a million kinds of them out there. And I’ve done some research into sex. So many research studies show that sex education leads to better decisions regarding sex including abstinence, that masturbation is healthy for the body, and that pornography is only considered an addiction when the individual feels compelled to watch it for hours and hours in one sitting, a drive that is often fostered by religious shame issues.

So if you are one of those people who think that watching a couple have sex is sort of like being infected with malaria, and that cancer patients should have to cry themselves to sleep, and that lesbian teenagers who are attacked for being gay don’t deserve extra protections… well, come on over to Utah.

Like they say, this is the place… for crazy.

Green means Go

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“Well, it isn’t that confusing. I was married to Mom and we had you two little monkeys. And then mom and me got a divorce, so we live in two houses and we both love you both.”

I look at the rear view mirror, which reflects the face of my six year old son, J. His brow is furrowed in frustration. “But you like to marry boys, so why did you marry a girl, then?”

I smile and sigh. He has so many questions, that one. To him, the idea of ‘marrying’ someone is the expression of love. He’s really asking, ‘if you like boys, why did you marry mom?’ “Well, we’ve talked about this before, son. Do you remember why I married mom?”

He nods, looking down at his fingernails. The light turns green and I move the car forward. “You married mom because you loved her and you didn’t think it was okay to marry a boy, so you  married a girl.”

“Yes, that’s right. You have a very good memory.”

“Yeah, but why?”

I shift my eyes to my three year old, A, strapped in to his car seat. He has my furrow, the same way of scrunching his eyebrows down to give off an excellent look of consternation. Though two years and nine months younger, he weighs almost more than his petite older brother.

“Why what, A?”

“Why didn’t you marry a boy?”

I had thought it would be a few more years before they started asking questions like this. J had been only 3 when I came out of the closet, finally and officially, and A hadn’t even been born yet. They’ve basically always known I was gay. They have other gay family members, they know many of my gay friends, and having a gay dad will be a completely normal part of their upbringing. They would never recognize the man that I used to be.

A few memories flood back into my mind; the Priesthood blessing I had asked for as a missionary that I believed would finally cure me; the hours spent in therapy, asking for help with being attracted to men and being treated for “porn and masturbation addiction” even though I wasn’t addicted to porn or masturbation; the night that I told Megan that I was gay, after years of dating her, and her nodding that she understood–that was the night of our first kiss, my first kiss, at age 26; (I didn’t kiss a boy until I was 32).

Then I think of the first few weeks after I had come out, and how I had very briefly considered taking my own life, believing at the time that my sons would be better off with no father than a gay one. I look back at them now and think of all the confusion they would have have had without me in their world. All these questions they have now, they have me to ask; what kind of questions would they have if I wasn’t here.

I think of rocking them when they were infants, cuddling them when they were toddlers. I think of the stories, crayons, and toys; the trips to the zoo, the aquarium, and the aviary; the wrestling matches, puppet shows, dance parties, and dragon fights. I think of the early morning feedings, the diaper explosions, the projectile vomit, the emptied cupboards and crushed crackers and spilled juice cups. I think of Christmas mornings and Halloween nights and Easter eggs and Valentines and Independence Day fireworks.

“Dad, I said why didn’t you marry a boy!” A shouts, playfully yet sternly, impatient for an answer.

“Whoa, be patient!” I pull up to another red light. How do I answer such a complicated question to kids that are 3 and 6? “Well, I grew up in the Mormon church, and they said that marrying a boy was bad, and that boys should only marry girls.”

A wrinkles his nose. “Well, that’s dumb.”

I laugh. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

But J still looks very serious. “Wait, but Mommy wanted to marry a boy and you are a boy.”

“Well, yeah, but mommy is straight. That means she wants to marry a boy who wants to marry a girl. I’m gay, and that means I want to marry a boy who also wants to marry a boy.” I am tempted to change the word marry to love, but decide that isn’t necessary right now.

The light bulb of understanding comes on over J’s head as it all clicks together. “Oh, that makes sense.”

A nods. “Yeah, that makes sense.”

“Well, good.”

The car is quiet for a moment as we get closer to our destination. The radio plays softly. I look up to the mountains in the distance, covered in snow, the sky filled with clouds above them. It is an absolutely beautiful day.

“Well,” J starts, thinking for a minute. “When I grow up, I think I’ll marry a girl. Maybe Hannah in my class.”

“That’s a great plan, J.”

He continues. “We can get married when I’m 25. We can have a boy and a girl and name them Tad cause it rhymes with Chad and Dad. And the girl will be Aloy.” I feel tears come to my eyes unbidden. Aloy was the name of my grandmother, the name I had selected if J had been a girl. “And we will have a rabbit named Sunface, and we will live in north Idaho because it’s so pretty, but not in Provo cause it is too hot and gross. And I will be a Wendy’s chef.”

I laugh out loud at his little plan for the future. “That sounds like a great life, J.”

Never one to be one-upped by a story, A pipes in. “And I’m not gonna get married to a boy or a girl. I will just live in a hotel with nine million dollars and I will have a dog named Loki and I will be a mighty hunter. Or maybe I will marry one boy and four girls and have nine million kids instead.”

The last stop light turns green, and I pull into the parking lot at McDonalds and both boy gave out a whoop of joy at the thought of Chicken Nuggets and milkshakes, and I think, no matter the wayward path it took me to get here, this is a pretty good life to have.

I think of all the years wasted at red lights, and resolve, again, to seek out the greens. It’s time for forward motion.