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Utah faith leaders battle the hidden sin: Porn addiction
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

For years, the Rev. Bernie Anderson carried with him a shameful secret — one he feared would destroy his marriage, his career, his standing in the community, even his spiritual identity.

He was addicted to pornography.

And, like many others facing a similar struggle, the pastor, now at Wasatch Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church in east Salt Lake City, wrestled with his problem alone, praying it would somehow just go away.

It didn't. Never does, experts say.

The human costs of pornography have grown exponentially since the days of tattered Playboys tucked away in junior high locker rooms. In this digital age, porn peddlers belong to a multibillion-dollar industry, spreading sexual images for adults and adolescents to download onto their phones or to watch on big-screen TVs.

Smut finds viewers in every faith, ethnicity, age, gender, profession and economic status.

At nearly every LDS General Conference, Mormon presidents and apostles warn listeners to shun pornography as a counterfeit to Christian love.

"True love endures. But lust changes as quickly as it can turn a pornographic page or glance at yet another potential object for gratification walking by, male or female," apostle Jeffrey R. Holland said in April 2010. "Lust is characterized by shame and stealth and is almost pathologically clandestine — the later and darker the hour the better, with a double-bolted door just in case. ... Love comes with open hands and open heart; lust comes with only an open appetite."

But the Utah-based faith doesn't just preach about the plague, it has created a practical, real-life system for helping people overcome it.

Five years ago, the LDS Church tapped Mormon therapist Michael Gardner to head its 12-step pornography addiction program. Gardner left his practice in California and became certified to deal specifically with this problem, which he says afflicts 3 percent to 5 percent of Latter-day Saints (about the same rate as the rest of the country).

In the Intermountain West, dozens of LDS 12-step groups confront various addictions, Gardner said in an interview. Of those, 10 to 15 deal specifically with pornography.

"I've seen people lose everything," he says, "their job, their marriage, their religion."

A decade ago, a diverse group of community, religious and cultural leaders and organizations launched the Utah Coalition Against Pornography, with the aim of "seeking to combat the harmful effects of sexually explicit material on individuals, children and families." Since then, it has staged conferences, educating parents, therapists and others about the dangers of pornography.

Anderson knows those dangers all too well. One day, he limped through the house, hobbled with back pain that he attributed to the stress of managing a large Dallas church and a growing family.

But the problem wasn't physical, he writes in his 2007 book, Breaking the Silence: A Pastor's Story of Going Public About His Private Battle With Pornography. It was spiritual.

Like "Star Wars" fallen hero Anakin Skywalker, who became Darth Vader by succumbing to his "dark side," Anderson writes, "I had given in to my dark side and was headed down a path toward certain destruction."

He was not alone.

An innocent beginning

Young Bernie was 9 years old when he came across a "crumpled-up page" of a nudity-drenched men's magazine at a family member's home. A few years later, he found a Playboy in the bathroom of his own home. And still later, he discovered an unmarked VHS tape sitting on the VCR. Sexual curiosity and hormones propelled him to peek at all of them.

Which, experts say, is natural.

"Adolescents are very curious about their bodies and this thing called sex," says Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, an LDS psychotherapist in Chicago who specializes in couples counseling. "I know that masturbation and porn can be very toxic, but I would also say that flirting with these behaviors is a way for people to understand themselves as sexual beings, seeking to make sense of who they are and what sexuality is."

For most people, she says, "it's just curiosity that's important and legitimate."

Even Anderson, in an interview this week, acknowledged that not everyone who looks occasionally at such images will become hooked. Problems begin when the need becomes compulsive.

"My body seemed to have a mind of its own," Anderson writes. "Masturbation soon became a real source of guilt and shame for me. Private devotions and prayer times were mainly spent begging God to forgive me for indulging."

During his years studying at the Adventist seminary, his addiction to online sex — "a virtual Disneyland of pornography" — took root.

Thereafter, being home alone or working solitarily in his pastor's study presented almost insurmountable temptations. Hotel rooms, with easy access to X-rated videos or free Internet streaming, were "a major trigger," where the sense of freedom and anonymity were "intoxicating."

For Anderson, there seemed no way out of the trap. And no peace while in it.

What's the problem?

Pornography addiction, experts say, is a symptom of deeper fractures.

"Porn works much like Spackle on a wall," Anderson writes. "It's merely a quick way to patch a hole, to cover up brokenness. Spackle is OK for walls but doesn't work for our souls."

Part of the problem of pornography is that "it's easy satisfaction," Finlayson-Fife says. "It doesn't require vulnerability and openness to another person. You don't have to face the possibility of rejection."

Those who get hooked, she says, "are those who don't have sexual self-confidence and don't have much comfort with intimacy."

Constant porn use also undermines marriages, Finlayson-Fife says. "Some people will watch porn, then have those images in their head while having sex with their spouse. That makes them completely disconnected. They are using their spouse to have an experience that has nothing to do with them."

Gardner, the LDS specialist, sees many dangers in pornography: It is not based in reality; it objectifies women; it distorts sexuality so that it doesn't match healthy relations; it erodes relationships; it destroys trust; and it undermines self-esteem.

"Pornography addiction thrives in secrecy," he says. "It produces depression and shame and guilt."

Anderson experienced all of that.

It "eats you," he says, "from the inside out."

The wife's fault?

Anderson thought that marrying Christina, a gorgeous young student he met at the Dallas Seventh-day Adventist church where he served as youth pastor, would be the end of his porn problem. What would be the need? he asked himself.

But it wasn't that easy.

Barely a month after his wedding, he turned again to his drug of choice.

It took a few years, but eventually Christina began to see the signs. She thought at first he might be having an affair. The fear and uncertainty chiseled away at her self-worth, her trust in her spouse, and, ultimately, her faith in God.

"It tore me down to my core. I felt like I am not good enough," she told Message magazine. "I felt betrayed. ... I questioned our relationship and my entire marriage up to that point. I felt inadequate. Why would my husband have to look at women in books or on a computer screen? I felt alone."

She nearly divorced him.

In fact, porn addiction often prompts marital splits.

Holland, the LDS apostle, began his conference sermon by telling of three Mormon women who said that they divorced their husbands for sexual unfaithfulness. In each case, Holland said, "the seeds of alienation and transgression had begun with an attraction to pornography."

Porn viewing doesn't lead inevitably to adultery or "acting out" in other sexual ways, experts say, but that is a possibility.

"If men make a habit of looking at porn," Finlayson-Fife says, "it becomes more tantalizing and exciting than a real life relationship can provide. Regular lovemaking can seem boring."

At that point, it may take a lot of work — and possibly professional help — to repair the damage and regain trust.

The catharsis of confession

The beginning of the end for Anderson's addiction came one night after Christina told her husband she had seen some "pretty raunchy images" on his computer.

"She point-blank asked if I had been looking at porn," he writes in his book. "I was speechless. My heart pounded, my eyes grew wide, and my throat became dry and tight."

Despite the horror of discovery, Anderson actually felt relieved as he poured out his years of struggle to his beloved spouse. She promised that she would keep his secret — given the job implications if it were widely known — but insisted that he never lie to her again.

Anderson thought that would be the breakthrough, but it took more than two years before he was finally free. He had to hit bottom first.

While his wife and three daughters were away at an Adventist camp meeting, he found himself back on those adult sites. He was miserable.

"I looked to God hoping that once and for all he would take this thing from me," Anderson writes. "In those moments God revealed to me something that he had quietly whispered to me all along: I needed to tell someone."

He chose to tell Mike, a longtime friend and fellow pastor, who responded: "Join the crowd."

According to a Christianity Today survey, nearly 40 percent of Christian pastors are struggling with pornography. They seem especially vulnerable, due to their time alone, their legitimate use of computers and their fear of getting help because of the public nature of their jobs.

It is "one of the fastest growing problems in the lives of North American pastors today," according to pastorswives.org. "It has become such a common problem, that groups have formed which only exist to help ministers out of the entangled lives they find themselves living."

One group, New Life Partners in Missouri, is for the wives and family of porn-addicted pastors.

The group's first tip?

"It wouldn't matter how beautiful, how supportive, how caring, how anything you were," the website says. Your husband's sexual addiction "is not about you and it's not about sex."

Breaking free

Because the Internet had been his "drug of choice," Anderson turned there to find resources on ending the addiction.

He found a workshop called "Every Man's Battle" being held near his Dallas home and decided to attend, even if it meant he might be recognized.

He wasn't.

"I really wanted help," he says now. "I was done hiding."

At the conference, Anderson listened as some 80 men discussed their struggles in small group settings. He attended sessions, got tips on how to control himself at home and how to create some accountability procedures.

"I no longer felt alone," he says. "I even saw another Seventh-day Adventist pastor."

He walked away determined to rebuild trust with his wife, and set in place limits and rules to help him resist the urge to resume his habits. He no longer looked at the Internet without his wife in the room. He even removed a computer from his study.

As word of his porn problem slowly got out, Anderson got a request from a Texas TV station to tell his story. He did so, but with his face concealed and voice scrambled. Before long, however, he asked the church if he could go public. When he got the go-ahead, first faced his own congregation.

Almost without exception, he recalls, ecclesiastical leaders and church members were accepting and supportive.

When he applied for the Salt Lake City pastorate in fall 2004, the congregation was aware of Anderson's previous porn problem. The members not only tolerated him, he says, but aggressively pursued him to lead their church. It was at Wasatch Hills that he wrote his memoir, which was published and distributed by an Adventist publishing house. The book spawned countless speaking invitations and even more counseling sessions with others confronting the same problem.

Like Anderson, scores of other porn addicts have found their way free through church-related programs.

"I've seen people turn their lives around," Gardner says. "They can then live a life true to their religious values. If they are willing to work hard, they can certainly overcome the power of the addiction."

Anderson wants all addicts to know they can escape the cycle. Pornography is as powerful as cocaine, he says. "Just because people go through the waters of baptism doesn't mean they won't have to deal with it."

But God is greater, he says. That's why there is hope.

pstack@sltrib.com

Help for porn addicts

Talk about the issues in detail with a trusted friend or therapist who will be as honest with you as you are honest with them.

Make an addiction-prevention plan to carry out when tempted, which should include putting tracking devices on your smart phone and computer so others can monitor your online behavior.

Make good use of porn-addiction resources such as 12-step meetings, sex addiction professionals, and online recovery support groups.

Put filters on your Internet.

Know the signs of porn addiction, both the general signs and those specific to you.

Keep your computer in a public place and agree never to look at it without someone else in the room.

Sources: Sexual Recovery Institute; the Rev. Bernie Anderson

Utah pastor recalls his battle against smut addiction.
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