Utah might be considered the anti-pornography capital of the United States, and many locals would likely wear this badge with pride. Utah was the first state to pass a resolution declaring pornography a public health crisis. It hosts one of the largest anti-pornography conventions in the world. It recently added a “Pornography harms” component to the state sex ed curriculum. And it requires warning labels on online pornographic materials.
Utah further houses a robust treatment industry of mental health practitioners who purport to specialize in pornography addiction. And this doesn’t include more informal types of treatment, such as the large network of pornography addiction groups facilitated via The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Addiction Recovery Program. It is apparent that many Utahans are distressed to the point of seeking help.
To understand why people are concerned, one must understand the cultural meaning attached to pornography. A robust body of research literature suggests that moral disapproval of pornography is strongly associated with perceived addiction to it. Further, my colleagues and I found that highly religious mental health practitioners-in-training were more likely to rate pornography as addictive than their less religious counterparts. This suggests that religious individuals are more likely to perceive their pornography viewing as addictive, and religious mental health professionals may be more likely to reinforce that label.
How pornography impacts relationships is also contextual. Research suggests that while there is an overall negative relationship between pornography viewing and marital satisfaction, this is particularly true in religious households. This may be because religious individuals are more likely to conceptualize pornography viewing as an act of infidelity.
Survey data suggest that Latter-day Saints are far more likely to rate pornography viewing as infidelity than any other religious group: Fifty-six percent of Latter-day Saints classified viewing pornography without a partner as “always cheating.” The national average was 19%. Given the impact of religious values on how individuals conceptualize their viewing and how it is experienced in relationships, it is unsurprising that Utahans are distressed.
Despite all of the messaging about pornography’s purported harms, it is unclear whether this is having any impact on actual viewing. Recent data suggest Utahans view pornography at comparable rates to residents in other states, with 85% of men and 75% of women endorsing having viewed pornography in their lifetimes. Given the state’s religious makeup, it is apparent that many people are viewing despite their values.
This may explain why I see clients in my therapy practice who are convinced they suffer from pornography addiction despite viewing it infrequently, why I hear clients mistaking normative sex drive for deviance, and why some clients have even contemplated suicide because of their viewing. The level of devastation I see cannot be overstated.
While advocates are no doubt well-intentioned, their rhetoric may have additional downsides. When I’ve worked with couples who are distressed by one partner’s pornography viewing, secrecy is a frequent theme. Oftentimes, the non-viewing partner feels betrayed because of the viewing, yes, but even more so because of deceit surrounding it.
In light of this, my colleagues and I conducted a study looking at why people might hide their viewing. We found that belief that pornography causes a host of harms (to individuals, families and society) was strongly associated with participants hiding their viewing from committed partners. In sum, anti-pornography messaging may be doing little to decrease viewing but may be further driving it into secrecy.
None of this is to say that pornography viewing doesn’t have downsides that warrant warning. Pornography, for example, is a poor substitute for sex education. There are legitimate questions about content monitoring on the web and potential exploitation of vulnerable persons in the pornography industry. Researchers are just beginning to tease out its nuanced impacts on relationships.
But one of the problems with casting pornography as the all-encompassing bogeyman is that more central issues are often left unaddressed, including communication difficulties within families and how to manage disparate sex drives in relationships.
Such messaging also frequently overstates research findings. Whether pornography viewing can even be “addictive,” for instance, is unsettled science. Key questions to consider when discussing pornography include whether the tenor of such messaging will foster increased dialogue and whether such messaging will help people pivot toward their values rather than acting based on fear or avoidance.
Policymakers, advocates and community leaders need to be more circumspect about messaging, keeping in mind Utah’s unique cultural context, so as not to paradoxically harm in an effort to help.
Brian Droubay, Ph.D., LCSW, is an assistant professor of social work at Utah State University. The views expressed here are his own and not necessarily representative of his employer.