Mormon Monsters

September 27, 2010

Mormon Addiction to Porn

Filed under: Reflections — Zephaniah @ 1:49 pm

The upcoming 30-minute documentary following Sunday's General Conference addresses the problem of pornography “consumption” by members of the LDS Church. There is data to support this concern: In a February 2009 analysis of anonymised credit card receipts, Utah ranked first in porn “consumers” in the nation, with 5.47 of every thousand homes with broadband access subscribing to porn. This is more than double the number of users in the neighboring states of Idaho and Montana (1.98/1.92 subscribers per thousand), and in the same subscription neighborhood as Alaska (5.03/thousand) and Mississippi (4.30/thousand).

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But why is porn consumption so high in Utah? With its predominantly Mormon culture, one would expect that overall usage would be fairly benign, on par perhaps with Utah's neighbors. What is behind this high demand? Certainly the Mormon Church itself is concerned, having addressed the use of pornography in most General Conferences over the past ten years, as well as numerous Priesthood and Relief Society lesson manuals. Most discussions of pornography use by Church leaders refer to it as an “addiction”, used primarily by men, and Sunday's upcoming documentary will frame it in similar terms.

With such states as Utah, Alaska, and Mississippi among the highest consumers of porn, some see a political divide at play, with politically conservative states consuming higher amounts of porn than more liberal states such as New Jersey, Oregon and Connecticut, which are among the lowest users. But such correlations are seen only when data from the 2008 general election is used, and the hypothesis is not confirmed by 2004 election results.

A closer correlation can be seen when one looks at the religiosity of the states (which also tend to be more politically conservative). One measure of religious commitment is the passing of laws defending traditional marriage. Thirty-seven states currently have “Defense of Marriage” acts in their Constitutions or passed through legislative action. The top ten consuming states are all among those thirty-seven states, while Wyoming and Connecticut, two states with no DOMA legislation, are among the lowest consumers. States where a high percentage of residents agree with the statement, “I have old-fashioned values about family and marriage,” bought 3.60 more subscriptions per thousand people than states where a majority disagreed. States where the majority agreed with the statement, “AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior,” bought 3.56 more subscriptions per thousand people. Of all the variables tested by Benjamin Edelman in his study, religiosity had the highest correlation factor — the more religious a state's residents, the higher the rate of subscription to porn sites.

There is little doubt that the prohibitions against pre-marital sex among religious states plays into porn consumption by young adults, including those in Utah. But consumer data shows that a majority of users in the U.S. are over thirty-five years old (65%), and only 14% of porn is consumed by individuals younger than 25 years old. Thus, one can assume that the majority of pornography is viewed by married, older individuals, including in Utah. A Deseret News report on Edelman's study detailed that the highest usage within Utah were in the 84766 zipcode in Sever County, 84112 in Salt Lake (encompassing the University of Utah), 84018 in Morgan County, 84006 in south-western Salt Lake County (Bingham Canyon), and 84536 in southern Utah near the Arizona border. With the exception of the zipcode containing the University of Utah, none of the others contain a significantly higher percentage of unmarried young people. Additionally, the higher than average subscription rates of these counties is unlikely to account for the high usage across the entire State.

Logan psychotherapist Todd Freestone, in the Deseret News article, suggests that Utah's prohibitions against public purveying of adult magazines, videos, etc., makes on-line viewing more tempting for Utahns — Utah residents simply have fewer places to access pornography in other ways. But this hypothesis is not supported by the subscription data — states with easy access to pornography such as Nevada and Florida also rank high in subscription rates. While there is little question that Utah's access restrictions drive more residents to consume pornography through the internet (and thus to rank higher in Edelman's data), I suspect that this only partially accounts for Utah's high ranking.

The LDS Church frames the consumption of pornography much as it does the other problems seen within Utah — high anti-depressant usage by Utahns and high suicide among Utah teens — as problems in themselves to be addressed. But I suspect that these issues, including pornography use, find their roots in the Mormon culture.

The problem, I believe, begins with the Mormon marriage ceremony itself. While being endowed preparatory to being sealed, Mormons are given a pair of “temple garments” and told to wear them both “night and day”. These garments share characteristics of the nineteenth century Victorian clothing styles they sprang from — solid fabric modestly covering the body from the knees to the shoulders. The garment is, in my experience, the antithesis of sexy lingerie. Couples are counseled, through anecdotes and command, to wear the garments “at all times and in all places.” For most Mormon couples, this includes bed.

Additionally, there was the formal and informal restrictions on the sex act itself. In an announcement on January 5, 1982, the Church's First Presidency stated that it “has interpreted oral sex as constituting an unnatural, impure, or unholy practice.” In answer to the question of how a spouse should respond if their partner wants to try new things, Apostle Boyd K. Packer answered: “A married couple may be tempted to introduce things into their relationship which are unworthy. Do not, as the scriptures warn, 'change the natural use into that which is against nature' (Romans 1:26). If you do, the tempter will drive a wedge between you” (“The Things of My Soul”, Bookcraft; 1st Printing edition (January 1996)). Apostle M. Russell Nelson, in a General Conference address, advised against even “talking dirty” in bed with one's spouse: “Because it is ordained of God, the intimate physical expressions of married love are sacred. Yet all too commonly, these divine gifts are desecrated. If a couple allows lewd language or pornography to corrupt their intimacy, they offend their Creator while they degrade and diminish their own divine gifts.”

Addresses by Church leaders are filled with admonitions to avoid “unnatural” acts during love-making. “Who does it hurt? Why not a little freedom? 'Flee fornication,' Paul cries, and flee 'anything like unto it,' the Doctrine and Covenants adds. The body is something to be kept pure and holy. Do not be afraid of soiling its hands in honest labor. Do not be afraid of scars that may come in defending the truth or fighting for the right, but beware scars that spiritually disfigure, that come to you in activities you should not have undertaken” (Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland, “Personal Purity”, October 1998 General Conference). Thus, the emphasis in Mormon culture is on traditional, non-exploratory sexual expression. Use of stimulants such as movies, Victoria Secret outfits, verbal fantasies, toys, etc., are officially and culturally discouraged. Activities such as couple masturbation, oral and anal sex, role playing, etc., are also frowned upon. The understanding of the average member is best summarized by “Pinkadot”, in response to a Yahoo question about oral sex: “We are getting counsel from our leaders. We aren't “forbidden” to do the things we want. They are trying to help us… maybe people who push the boundaries are going to go further and further and further. Who knows… some people start with something small, then more and more and it's never enough… it can lead to bad things.”

“Bad things.” Given the conservative and restricting cultural understanding of sexual expression within Mormonism, is there any question why one or the other (nearly 30% of porn viewers are female) in a Mormon marriage might seek excitement and sexual fulfillment through porn? The narrow parameters of approved sexual expression within an LDS marriage practically insures it.

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If the Church wants to make inroads into Utah's pornography “addiction”, it should start by changing the norms of expected sexual expression within marriage. The Church could start by encouraging its members to freely explore mutually agreed upon avenues of expression and satisfaction. It could change its restrictions on garment use. It could introduce lessons in Priesthood and Relief Society that celebrate the joy and closeness that results from an open and honest sexual relationship between spouses. Rather than result in “bad things” happening, I think such a strategy would result in only “good things” happening — better communication between spouses, closer and more fulfilling relationships, and lower pornography consumption. By removing the many barriers to sexual expression, the Church would relieve most of the natural pressure men and women experience when it comes to sexual urges. A rational approach must acknowledge that these urges are natural and normal. By allowing Mormons to feel comfortable focusing that energy towards their spouses in a loving and passionate relationship, fewer members will be forced by spousal and cultural disapproval (shame) to seek fulfillment for those urges elsewhere.

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4 Comments

  1. Hey Zephaniah,

    Great post with a lot of good things to think about. Overall I’m for your recommendations in the final paragraph about the Church having some things it could do to encourage couples to to explore their physical relationships more freely as a way to deepen their relationships and intimacy with each other. Some of the things you present from Church leaders and Mormon culture as discouragements to great sex, however, feel to me mostly like remnants of the past. Perhaps they apply as factors for many middle-aged or senior members who may be porn subscribers, but in general I don’t sense there’s a lot of damage being done to younger couples or from current manuals, etc.

    As an example, in my ward, my wife and I are on our third time through teaching the 8-week marriage course (our ward leadership is rotating various couples through the class) and the manual doesn’t contain any of the proscriptions you mention from the Church’s past (nothing on garments—in fact, one of my favorite lines from a class member who brought this up was recounting that his stake president before they got married addressed the topic by using the analogy that it is important that “you dress for the sport,” and no one in the class had any problem with that analogy—and there are no mentions of proscriptions against oral, anal, etc., and nothing on “natural” or “unnatural.”). The manual is clear in encouraging physical intimacy (containing some specific quotations about that and also a definite emphasis on how sex isn’t just for procreation), and its only real concerns are that there is mutual respect and one partner never pushes the other into doing things that partner is uncomfortable with. So far, when we’ve taught this segment of the lesson, we’ve had great discussions and I don’t sense there are a lot of hang-ups (at least with the people we’ve had in our classes so far). In fact, we always get jokes about them looking forward to doing their “homework” for this lesson and even about wanting “extra credit” assignments.

    Now my biggest issue with your post is that, although you are careful in making this mostly an exploration of “why might Utah have such a high rate of porn consumption?”, I sense you believe pornography (watching porn together, talking dirty, role-playing, etc.) is a healthy outlet for couples—something for them to use to deepen their relationship. I agree to some extent, but I’d want to push you to clarify yourself more in this area. I’d be more in agreement if you were talking about the use of books such as the Kama Sutra, or teaching tools about tantric sexual practices, or how to have better orgasms, or how to give full-body partner massages. All these things and the “better sex” instructional videos seem well and good to me as they truly are designed to promote a healthier body/sex/spirit deepening whereas so much pornography is ridiculously degrading. Some role-playing, yes, but I can’t see most porn plots having any positive effect for healthy sex/body/intimacy attitudes. I can see nothing about “slutty” women or sex-addicted people, nor anything about women who are willing to do several men at once (or even worse, the celebration of the gang bang) ever being healthy for a closer relationship.

    Please argue back if you think I’m wrong. If not, then would we be in agreement on the basic premise of reading/viewing/dressing up/better orgasms/how-to and related things are the aids you mean to recommend for healthier sex and that you are not really trying to promote “porn” for the improvement of couples’ relationships?

    Comment by Jonah — October 6, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

  2. I am unaware that I said that porn should be one of the ingredients to a healthy sexual relationship, although I am reluctant to take anything off the table. I agree that a lot of porn is degrading, and probably not healthy for a couple to watch. But that isn’t true of all porn. The main point is that couples should feel free to explore different venues — adult toys, massages, whatever they feel might excite them as a couple. By taking any tool off the table and calling it “wrong” you create a situation where a couple may find themselves at odds with each other. Let the couple decide, mutually, what they feel “works”.

    There is little question that the Church continues to proscribe a conservative sexual expression between couples. If there is a generational difference it is only because the younger couples ignore, for now, the limitations suggested by the leaders. But as these couples age, I suspect that some/many/most of them will begin to pay heed to these prohibitions and alter their sexual expressions.

    Comment by Zephaniah — October 8, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

  3. Thanks for the good response back. I disagree with the language of “any tool off the table” as there are some that I feel in no way could ever be a positive for a “healthy sexual relationship.” I am also not certain that “excite them as a couple” is a worthwhile standard for judging bringing various things into a relationship either. “Excitement” is not an absolute good. Still, from reading your response here I’m thinking we’re closer in what we think than I had earlier.

    Not sure I get why you think couples would pay more heed to prohibitions and alter their sexual expressions as they age–unless you mean with increased wisdom and more examination of their own lives and what really makes them feel fulfilled and what doesn’t they decide that some of the more adventurous stuff is not for them, thus falling more in line with the Church’s statements. I somehow think you mean something different, however, so I’d love for you to elaborate. What does aging have to do with a decision to “pay heed”? Fear of approaching death? Raising children makes them more conservative in their beliefs?

    Thanks!

    Comment by Jonah — October 9, 2010 @ 10:00 am

  4. I am fascinated by the hobby Mormons make of citing statistics (both those that are bogus and those that are accurate) demonstrating some embarrassing factoid about their culture. I suspect it’s perceived as evidence of the general membership’s tendency toward rebellion and disobedience at worst or spiritual weakness at best. I think the person quoting the statistic is usually one to whom it does not apply and who, therefore, feels spiritually superior to his fellow Mormons. For example, a man who had not been divorced may mention in a priestood meeting that he had read somewhere that The Mormon divorce rate is higher than the national average, or a woman who doesn’t take anti- depressants may announce in a relief society meeting that per capita anti-depressant use is higher among Mormon women. It’s a brief but pleasurable moment where one is able to demonstrate ones erudition accompanied by the secret joy of discreet inger wagging, the sociological equivalent of picking at a scab (real or imagined.

    Yes, there are other motives behind such behavior. Perhaps Zephaniah is himself an afficionado of porn and writes this post because he likes the idea that he is not alone in the number of subscriptions he maintains. Perhaps a feminist would bring up mood altering drug use among Mormon women as evidence of the fact that our Mormon, patriarchal culture demands too much of it’s women. Nevertheless, I suspect that there are far fewer “porn addicts” and “feminists” within the general membersip than our leaders seem to fear. (in truth, I doubt that either such creature exists outside the imagination.)

    There are many variables not considered by Zephaniah that could account for the statistics he cites. The fact that one cannot buy pornographic DVDs in Utah or have them shipped here could be one of them. Zeph also holds a couple of unexamined assumptions concerning private sexual behavior among Mormons. These assumptions could be true, but I suspect they are based as yet upon anecdotal evidence and limited personal experience.

    Depending upon ones upbringing, personal temperament, and emotional health, sex can be puzzling, degrading, embarrassing, and/or selfish –or it can be intimate, bonding, beautiful, and fulfilling. I am skeptical of any assertion that Mormon Americans are measurably different in this regard than on-Mormon Americans.

    Comment by Nahum — October 29, 2010 @ 11:56 am

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