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Special report: If porn isn’t an addiction, how can Latter-day Saints kick the habit?

The label is not only inaccurate, say mental health experts, it also can do more harm than good.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Editor’s note This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Tommy Johnson was 10 years old the first time he viewed pornography.

He remembers it clearly: A friend told him about a website with an explicit name in the internet address. Tommy didn’t think the website was real, so, in an effort to prove his friend wrong, he went home and looked it up.

It turned out to be a porn site.

Johnson, now 26 and living in Provo, said he felt bad about what he had seen. He and his family were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which teaches that consuming pornography in any form is a sin.

It wasn’t long, though, before Johnson became curious about other salacious sites. Viewing pornography wasn’t a regular habit, at first but, by high school, he was clicking on it every day.

Johnson didn’t tell anyone his secret until he was 16 or 17, when he mustered the courage to tell his parents and his bishop about his porn viewing. The process was emotional, he said, but his parents were loving and supportive.

His bishop directed him to the church’s Addiction Recovery Program, which, the website states, “helps those interested in working toward overcoming addiction or compulsive behavior have hope that recovery is possible.”

At first, Johnson said, he found the Addiction Recovery Program — and labeling himself an “addict” — to be helpful. He was stunned by the number of people attending the group sessions, and connecting with others struggling with the same problem helped him learn he wasn’t alone.

“I felt horrible about myself,” he said. “The label of being an ‘addict’ wasn’t an added layer of shame [at that time].”

Over time, though, he began taking issue with how the program treated the idea of addiction. “You will always be a recovering addict,” Johnson said he was told by group leaders. “The temptation will always be there.”

The label affected how he viewed himself, Johnson said, as he grappled with the guilt of being a “recovering pornography addict.”

The disgrace deepened when, while in the church’s Missionary Training Center at the start of his two-year proselytizing stint, he came across a General Conference talk given by then-President Gordon B. Hinckley in April 1998 titled “Living Worthy of the Girl You Will Someday Marry.”

One line in particular haunted him for years: “Would any girl in her right mind ever wish to marry a young man who has a drug habit, who is the slave of alcohol, who is addicted to pornography?”

“I didn’t think I’d ever have a romantic relationship with a woman,” Johnson said, “because of these messages that I got from this talk.”

After his mission, Johnson sought professional help for depression and anxiety. He also found strength in cultivating his personal relationship with God, in which he felt clean and forgiven even if other messages still triggered shame.

He became emotional while talking about his two-year wedding anniversary, which he and his wife celebrated in September. The day after they married, he said, was the first day in years he could remember not thinking at least once “no one will ever want to commit to me.”

Johnson is hardly alone in having turned to porn; international studies have put porn consumption rates at 50% to 99% among men and 30% to 86% among women, according to research compiled by the American Psychological Association in 2014.

In the U.S. alone, the smut industry is worth a conservative estimate of $15 billion a year, The Guardian wrote in 2018.

The Salt Lake Tribune spoke with a number of current or past pornography users about the way Latter-day Saint teachings have impacted their spirituality, their sex lives and their mental health. Nearly all of them said the view that pornography is addictive has harmed them to some degree.

The Tribune also spoke with multiple sexual health experts about the accuracy and usefulness of applying the addiction model to people struggling with porn.

They agreed that describing porn use as an “addiction” is inaccurate. But with conflicting data about whether porn is truly addictive — and with a spectrum of ideas about the morality of viewing sexual content — it’s little wonder that many are left unsure how to navigate such a taboo topic.

Defining pornography

Part of the difficulty of discussing this subject is that people define pornography differently.

The LDS Church describes it as “any depiction, in pictures or writing, that is intended to inappropriately arouse sexual feelings. ... It may be found in written material (including romance novels), photographs, movies, electronic images, video games, social media posts, phone apps, erotic telephone conversations, music, or any other medium.”

During Utah’s 2021 legislative session, lawmakers passed HB72, which would require new cellphones and tablets sold in the state to come with activated porn filters (the bill wouldn’t take effect until five other states adopt similar laws).

HB72 doesn’t actually use the word “pornography.” Rather, it refers to material that is “harmful to minors.”

“Harmful to minors” is defined in Utah Code as “that quality of any description or representation, in whatsoever form, of nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse” when it “appeals to the prurient interest in sex of minors”; is “patently offensive” to community standards; and doesn’t have “serious value” for minors.

In 2020, the Legislature adopted HB243, which requires warning labels on pornography. And, in 2016, it passed SCR9, which declared porn a public health crisis.

Cameron Staley, a clinical psychologist at Idaho State University, said the word “pornography” can be ambiguous. For instance, something one person might view as art could be seen as erotic or pornographic by another.

“I find it more helpful just to be descriptive,” Staley said. “Pornography broadly defined is probably just viewing sexual images.”

How LDS Church views have changed

(Courtesy photo) Natasha Helfer

Though the LDS Church has long taught members to avoid pornography, the way that leaders have spoken and written about it has evolved.

Sermons from the 1980s up until the 2000s was often harsh, with official church outlets condemning pornography as “addictive,” “dangerous,” “evil” and “damnable.” Members were repeatedly warned about the “catastrophic” consequences of viewing pornography — from destroyed marriages to loss of moral agency.

Beginning in the 2010s, however, the church’s language softened. Members are still warned of pornography’s consequences but are counseled that most people consuming it aren’t necessarily addicted to it.

This shift coincided to some extent with the considerable pushback from members about how sexuality is discussed.

In September 2018, former bishop Sam Young was kicked out of the church after campaigning to end one-on-one interviews between Latter-day Saint clergy and youths and the sometimes sexually explicit questions that are asked in the sessions. Earlier that year, the church updated guidelines to allow interviewees the option to ask for a witness to sit in on their interviews.

This past April, sex therapist Natasha Helfer lost her church membership after publicly and repeatedly opposing the faith’s doctrines, policies and leaders. She supports same-sex marriage, counsels that masturbation is not a sin and insists pornography should not be treated as an addiction.

Hundreds of members of the therapeutic community voiced support for Helfer’s professional work, arguing it aligned with current mental health practices.

Is porn addictive? What the experts say.

Studies and professional organizations disagree on whether pornography can truly be addictive.

A 2015 study published in the academic journal Biological Psychology found that among people who reported “excessive or problematic” viewing of sexual stimuli, the usual brain pathways of addiction were absent.

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Additionally, in a statement regarding its position on sex addiction, the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists wrote that the organization “does not find sufficient empirical evidence to support the classification of sex addiction or porn addiction as a mental health disorder.”

A 2017 study in Neuropsychopharmacology, the official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, however, found that males who sought treatment for “problematic pornography use” showed changes in their brains consistent with addiction.

In 2018, compulsive sexual behavior disorder (CSBD) was included in the World Health Organization’s 11th edition of the “International Classification of Diseases,” where CSBD is defined as “a persistent pattern of failure to control intense, repetitive sexual impulses or urges resulting in repetitive sexual behavior.”

Research published in 2020 by the American Psychological Association found that moral or religious beliefs may lead some to believe they are addicted to pornography even when their use of such material is low or average. The study found that “such a view may complicate an accurate diagnosis of compulsive sexual behavior disorder.”

(Provided by Cameron Staley) Cameron Staley, a clinical psychologist at Idaho State University, said the addiction label comes from substance use disorders, but the word isn’t clinical or scientific when applied to a person’s pornography viewing.

Staley, the Idaho State University psychologist, said the addiction label comes from substance use disorders, but the word isn’t clinical or scientific when applied to a person’s pornography viewing.

“What’s different about viewing sexual images,” he explained, “is you’re not really ingesting anything in your body that would change neural transmission or how you would metabolize anything.”

For instance, Staley said, if people use methamphetamine, their body builds up a tolerance to it. Then, if they stop using it, they go through withdrawal symptoms like vomiting, migraines or seizures.

Those who view pornography and then stop don’t have those types of physical reactions, Staley said, because their bodies haven’t been changed by seeing sexual images.

He conceded it might be possible that some people have a true porn addiction, but it would account for a “very small number of individuals.”

Compulsions vs. addictions

(Courtesy photo) Lisa Diamond

Lisa Diamond, a psychology and gender studies professor at the University of Utah, said there’s no metric for what “addiction” is in the context of pornography usage.

She compared alcohol consumption with porn use: A person who has one or two drinks probably doesn’t have a substance abuse issue, while someone who becomes blackout drunk is more likely to have a problem.

When it comes to pornography, “what’s an acceptable level that isn’t addicted?” she asked. “I haven’t met a single person who can give me an evidence-based reason that one time a day [viewing pornography] is the right amount and five is too many.”

Rather, she said, porn can become compulsive to people with obsessive personalities, just like playing video games or shopping can become compulsive.

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors with no rational motivation that are often engaged in to reduce anxiety, according to the health information website Healthline. Addictions, on the other hand, involve an inability to stop the behavior despite negative consequences.

Instead of asking if something is an addiction, Diamond said, it’s better to ask why people feel out of control with their behavior.

“It’s much harder for people to deal with behaviors that aren’t necessarily addictions, but something about the behavior seems to be a little bit out of control,” she said. “The question for the mental health community is ‘OK, you’re not happy with the way this is interacting [in] your life? Let’s figure out what’s going on.’”

Doug Braun-Harvey, a licensed marriage and family therapist and co-founder of The Harvey Institute in San Diego, said he doesn’t use the word “addiction” at all. Rather, he said, his clients feel “sexually out of control.”

This feeling occurs for a number of reasons, but Braun-Harvey said a primary trigger is when people break an agreement they had made with their partner, God or their religion regarding some aspect of their sexual health.

A broken promise does need to be addressed, Braun-Harvey said, but people aren’t addicts simply because they didn’t hold up their end of a pact.

People self-identify as “porn addicts,” he said, because they have no other language to describe their problem. This is particularly true of people in high-demand faiths.

Using the “porn addict” label extends to people who discover a partner’s infidelity; the betrayal is so hurtful that they “will automatically assume [their partner] must be a sex addict. That could be the only explanation for why [their partner] would hurt [them].”

One problem with labeling someone a “porn addict,” he said, is that it’s inaccurate. Someone might go to a specialist for cancer treatment, for instance, only for the doctor to discover that the issue isn’t cancer at all. There’s still a problem to be addressed; it’s just not cancer.

Similarly, patients might go to a therapist for a “sex addiction,” only to learn that their root problem is anxiety, depression or loneliness.

It’s important to treat the right problem, Braun-Harvey said, because misdiagnoses in the mental health community have caused a lot of harm.

“Many people have suffered because their sexual behavior has been given a mental illness diagnosis in error,” he said. “Treating certain sexual behavior that’s very reasonable and typical among human beings but calling it a disease has injured people enormously over the last century.”

Staley added that the addiction label can be appealing to people because if they’re addicted to something, they don’t have control over their behavior, and therefore they don’t have to accept responsibility for their actions.

The issue with this way of thinking, though, is that over time it causes the “addict” tag to become part of people’s identity and they “carry a lot of shame.”

For those in high-demand religions — such as Mormonism — this “moral hysteria,” he said, stems from the fear-based language used when talking about pornography.

“We’re so concerned about what pornography might do that we develop all this fear [such as]... you’re going to be deviant, you’re dangerous, you’re going to abuse children,” Staley said. “But if you think about why people are struggling with pornography… they’re stressed or lonely or sad or afraid.”

He argued that not using the addiction model is more empowering. “Your behaviors are in your control,” he said. “You’re choosing those.”

How addiction model hurts or helps

Though experts disagree on the accuracy and usefulness of the addiction model, it continues to impact those who consumed or have consumed pornography — for better and for worse.

James, who asked that his real name not be used for privacy reasons, was a devout Latter-day Saint while growing up.

When he was 14, he viewed pornography three times over the course of several months.

James said church leaders told him porn was more addictive than cocaine. Upon hearing his confession, a regional leader told James that viewing it usually resulted in excommunication (a process now called withdrawal of membership), but because he was so humble, he would be put on probation.

His efforts to repent led him into a spiral of extreme scrupulosity. James said he heard voices he believed belonged to the Holy Ghost telling him to do strange, sometimes painful things — running down a gravel path barefoot or falling on a rock or fasting for days in a row — to be forgiven.

Though he served a two-year proselytizing mission and attended church-owned Brigham Young University, those voices plagued him for years.

James didn’t seek professional mental health help until after his mission. He also studied psychology and neurosciences during this time and learned that experts didn’t see pornography the same way as his religious leaders.

“I thought to myself, ‘Why would the church be weighing in on this thing and making it harder for people?’” he said. “The only time in my life I felt addicted to [pornography] is when I also felt ashamed.”

Working through that shame has required counseling and learning how to untangle himself from the views on sexuality he was raised with, James said. He’s taken a step back from the church, he added, because he doesn’t want his son to grow up with a distorted view of sexuality.

He now sees pornography as a positive in his marriage. It’s increased his own sexual satisfaction, he said, as well as taken pressure off his wife to be his sole source of sex.

“I’m so grateful for folks like Natasha Helfer and others who stand up to the church’s harmful teachings about sex because [those teachings] really messed with my life,” he said. “I’m not a broken person. I’m doing my best to act in an ethical way for my own health and for the well-being of others around me.”

For others, like Joshua Otani, the addiction model has been somewhat helpful.

The BYU student said he began viewing pornography between ages 11 and 12. (Sexual behaviors at this age are common, according to the American Family Physician journal.)

At first, Otani watched a few times a week. It then escalated to every day. He decided he needed help while he was preparing to serve his two-year Latter-day Saint mission. With support from his parents and church leaders, he changed his habits and lifestyle.

After his mission, Otani said, he began attending the church’s Addiction Recovery Program, where he felt that calling himself an “addict” wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“I’m a big advocate for labeling things as they are,” Otani said. “So if pornography has consumed your life… then if you wanted to call it an addiction, then I wouldn’t deviate from that.”

Still, he believes people should do what works for them, including avoiding the “addict” label if it hinders their recovery.

He also doesn’t consider himself an addict anymore. Otani said he’s been “sober” about a year — meaning he’s gone that long without any pornography — and he’s developed habits that help him avoid relapses such as regular prayer and scripture study.

“Connection is the opposite of addiction,” Otani said. “You really can’t conquer this addiction alone.”

How porn can harm partners

The pain of people struggling with porn consumption is real, but so is the hurt and betrayal often felt by spouses and partners.

Courtney, a 20-something Utahn who asked to be identified only by her first name for privacy reasons, was engaged for a year to a man who was viewing pornography. She wasn’t aware of that during their relationship, she said, but he was “very manipulative and narcissistic.”

Their relationship was stuck in six-week cycles, Courtney said. For the first three weeks, she and her then-fiance were happy. But in the second three weeks, she said, he would coerce her into sexual acts.

After their engagement ended, Courtney said, he told her about the pornography. She learned that the times he was viewing it coincided with when he was pushing for those sexual acts.

Though she has since married a man who “brings light into [her] everyday life,” Courtney said, the experience traumatized her, and she continues to attend therapy.

A 2018 study published by BYU’s Wheatley Institution found that 1 in 6 married couples report that porn has been a source of conflict in their relationships.

If the addiction model isn’t effective, what is?

(Provided by Nate Bagley) Nate Bagley, founder of the relationship coaching website Growth Marriage and host of a podcast called “Rethinking Porn Addiction,” said the problem with the addiction model is that it puts all the focus on getting a person who’s viewing pornography to stop. This can harm a marriage, he said, because it puts pressure on the other spouse to monitor a partner’s behavior.

Nate Bagley, founder of the relationship coaching website Growth Marriage and host of a podcast called “Rethinking Porn Addiction,” said he often hears from couples with pornography-related concerns.

He said the problem with the addiction model is that it puts all the focus on getting a person who’s viewing pornography to stop.

This can harm a marriage, he said, because it puts pressure on the other spouse to monitor a partner’s behavior. It also makes the spouse with the problem afraid that a slip-up risks losing everything — marriage, kids, job.

“They’re both walking on eggshells, they’re both in a constant state of anxiety and stress, and they’re not going to restore intimacy,” Bagley said. “They’re not going to restore trust, they’re not going to improve their relationship.”

That’s why Bagley, who clarified that he is not a licensed therapist but rather is certified to help couples take preventive steps, addresses the issues causing someone to view pornography in the first place.

Pornography is a self-soothing tool for problems like depression, stress, anxiety, loneliness or feeling overwhelmed, he said. When those issues are dealt with, pornography use goes away.

“You can’t put out a fire by treating smoke. You can’t get rid of pneumonia by just treating the cough,” Bagley said. “And you can’t get rid of pornography by just focusing on the consumption of sexual imagery.”

So how do people overcome their anxiety, depression, loneliness or whatever else is the root cause of their porn viewing? Bagley said it starts with addressing principles of sexual health such as consent, shared values, honesty, prevention of unplanned pregnancies and pleasure. This is just as true for single people as it is for people in relationships.

It also means simply taking care of yourself — exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, and having a safe person to talk to, such as a therapist.

Another important facet of good mental health is making personal decisions about sexual boundaries. Bagley said this is particularly true for people in high-demand faiths, who are often used to external authorities setting those limits for them.

“When you start relying on your own internal authority, you’re forced to focus more on those principles and make choices that feel right to you,” Bagley said. “And I’m a firm believer that when you do that, it actually helps you generate a more personal relationship with God instead of an institutional relationship with God.”

He makes clear that being against the addiction model doesn’t mean being pro-pornography.

“If people are not naming [pornography] as an addiction, it’s often seen by people as diminishing [pornography] as not problematic and therefore… promoting the consumption of pornography,” Bagley said. “And that’s not at all what I stand for.”

Bagley said it’s difficult to say if the Latter-day Saint leaders could address pornography in a better way becauase various branches of the church handle the issue differently. For instance, the faith’s Family Services might talk about pornography differently than a lay bishop counseling his congregation.

Overall, though, Bagley said the church has room to improve. Fear seems to be the primary tool to dissuade people from viewing pornography, he said, such as in a recent youth Sunday school lesson that he felt overemphasized why pornography is harmful.

Doubling down on fear magnifies shame, Bagley said, and shame causes people to keep secrets, stay silent and judge themselves.

“That’s a very dark place to be,” Bagley said, “if you’re a 15-year-old kid and you’re struggling with something.”

He argued the church should emphasize mental and emotional health during such lessons. This, he said, should include discussions of how people often turn to pornography to deal with their problems, how to help family and friends who are lonely or overwhelmed, and how to deal with tough things in healthy ways that don’t go against personal values.

“That’s a much more productive conversation because it generates empathy,” Bagley said. “It generates compassion.”

He also hopes women’s Relief Society, men’s elders quorums and youth groups can become safe places to share individual struggles.

“Church classes could be a huge solution if we could learn to have those conversations in a healthy way,” Bagley said. “The best thing that you can do to combat the secrecy of the silence and the judgment is… [to] be really open and honest, and experience what it’s like to be fully seen and still be loved and respected.”

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