“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.)