Porn, Shame, and Doughnuts: Part 1

With the arrival of the internet and smartphones in the developed world (and increasingly in the developing world), pornography is available all the time, everywhere, often for free. I happen to live in Utah, which has some of the highest rates of porn subscriptions in the country, which I find fascinating, given that something like half of the state identifies themselves as Mormon. (The Mormon church decries porn as evil and sinful.) Perhaps not surprisingly, Google searches for “porn addiction” are also heavily concentrated in Utah, Idaho, and Arizona, the states with the highest percentages of Mormons. Interestingly, Utah is only the 11th most religious state in the US, but more people attend weekly worship services here than anywhere else in the country. So the Utahns that are religious are very committed to their faith (well, at least to going to church each week).

So despite it being very religious (mostly Mormon), something in Utah is driving this extraordinary interest in porn and inquiries about porn addiction. My hunch is that there’s a strong correlation between a person’s Mormon-ness (whether they’re active members or simply that they grew up in the church) and their interest in porn and/or porn addiction. It’s either that, or the non-Mormons in Utah view an awful lot of porn to offset the Mormons who are abstaining from viewing porn. (I don’t suspect that this is the case at all.) As a confounding factor, Utah’s population is young (relative to other states), and some have suggested that porn use in Utah is high simply because there are more young people. I haven’t seen anyone tease out the data in the statistical intersections of religiosity and age, but that would be interesting. Nonetheless, the Mormon church explicitly forbids viewing porn (and also forbids masturbation and extramarital sex); that is, pornography is framed as a moral issue and identified as sinful. Importantly, there’s an enormous chasm between what is morally mandated (by the Mormon church) and what is actually practiced by a very large percentage of the population here. Huh.

In this context then, you can’t really talk about porn without also talking about guilt and shame, since guilt and shame are direct products of this religious moralism and are powerful modifiers of behaviour. (Do I need to mention widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests as another case study?) I’ll even call guilt and shame “motivators” for behaviour, although that word might imply some sort of positive attributes that I don’t really intend. For clarity, I’ll define guilt as feeling bad about a specific behaviour, whereas shame is feeling bad about yourself. Interestingly, research suggests that shame is a more powerful driver of addiction than guilt; that is, feeling bad about yourself is more strongly associated with dysfunctional behavior than feeling bad about what you’ve done, and both guilt and shame increase the likelihood that you’ll do the verboten thing all over again.

The fear of judgement – both human and divine – has long been a powerful tool to manipulate human behaviour, but it seems (at least in some people) to simply drive those behaviors underground instead of actually eradicating them. And in a twist of tragic irony, using fear of divine judgment to prevent certain behaviours might actually increase the chance that those same patterns will show up again, all the while triggering people to experience the negative emotions of guilt and shame as well as motivating people to be dishonest by purposely obscuring the behaviour from the view of others in their life. That’s some brutal backfiring: religious prohibition drives both the behaviour and subsequent dishonesty about it.

University of Utah sociology professor Theresa Martinez says, “The forbidden is really tempting. Where you have a culture that is known for family values, morality and apple pie, you will also have curiosity and interest in the forbidden.” I find all this pretty consistent in humans, since I’ve observed a similar pattern in my 3 year-old son, who is most intrigued by the things I tell him he can’t drink (my scotch) or play with (my phone) or throw down the stairs (almost everything else). Of course, we’ve all experienced the allure of the forbidden, so this isn’t exactly shocking. But here in Utah, where porn use and Google queries about porn addiction are the highest in the country, it’s unlikely that the concentration of Mormon moralism isn’t one of the causative factors. (Yes, I know all about correlation versus causation, my dear statistician friends. Stay with me.) I hypothesize that the church’s hypermoralising of pornography (well, of extramarital sexuality in general) here in Utah drives not only enormous guilt and shame about it, but ironically, also amplifies Utah’s porn consumption. Yes, I think the Mormon church is responsible for the high levels of porn consumption (and frantic queries about porn addiction) in Utah. (And Idaho. And Arizona.)

Let’s pause here. I’m not anti-Mormon – or anti-Christian for that matter – although I might be described as the Anti-Christ for that last paragraph. I am, however, concerned about an oppressive moralizing of natural patterns that ends up harming people by instigating and amplifying their shame and guilt about reward-driven behaviours. I’m not categorically pro- or anti-porn. Well, I’ll clarify: I’m anti-porn in the same way that I’m anti-processed-food. I think that harmful things suck, but I think that everyone needs to make their own well-informed choices about what they choose to do with their bodies. Both junk food and porn are historically novel, supranormal stimuli that are carefully designed to target our hardwired reward pathways. They’re crafted to be impossible to resist. (I’ll add that social media platforms are built in exactly the same way.)  There are direct consequences of both processed food and porn, and neither are health-promoting behaviours. But similarly, neither are “wrong”. It’s no more or less moral to eat chocolate cake than to view porn. But don’t fool yourself: neither is benign.

Both junk food and porn are historically novel, supranormal stimuli that are carefully designed to target our hardwired reward pathways. They’re crafted to be impossible to resist.

Given that I strongly advocate for self-awareness through behaviour change programs like the Whole30 and More Social Less Media, here’s my take on making natural urges “good” or “bad”: imposing a moral framework over human choices involving natural, reward-driven behaviours (like food and sex) serves institutions well but individuals poorly. Using shaming (and public judgement) as a weight loss strategy might work in the short term, but I cannot see how it makes anyone’s life better in the long run. (I’m looking at you, fitspo.) I’ll argue that the more something is described as sinful and forbidden, the more likely it is to cause social and emotional problems. We see it with drug use, too: stigmatizing illicit drugs only exacerbates the shame about drug use and, paradoxically, increases further use. As Melinda Wenner Moyert writes in a recent issue of Scientific American Mind, “…suppressing the desire to view pornography, for example, for moral or religious reasons, might actually strengthen the urge for it and exacerbate sexual problems.”

In contrast, a Mormon blogger writes that “we live in a society saturated with shamelessness. Nudity, casual sexual behavior and dirty jokes are everywhere. Sex is not special or shameful in the modern world… By reintroducing shame into a shameless world, LDS culture makes the sexual world more erotic and appealing, and this is great news for exciting marriages and baby making.” Wait, what? I flatly reject this idea. In no way do I believe that more shame about sexual behaviours is good. (Nor I believe that shame about food choices is good, either, but you already knew that.) And it’s not just random Mormon bloggers, either. Todd Weiler, a Utah Senator who sponsored a recently-passed bill identifying porn as a “public health crisis”, calls it “evil, degrading, addictive, harmful”. There’s no shortage of the moralizing of porn (and of sexuality in general), especially here in Utah. And what I find fascinating is that most conservative Christians (at least as I understand it) would agree that viewing porn is a sin, but there are lots of places where Christians live in the US (including places much more religious than Utah) that are not geographical hotbeds of concern about porn. This makes me wonder: why the massive focus on porn as a “public health” issue here in Utah specifically? I don’t have an answer for that yet. I suspect that there’s a disproportionate focus here on suppressing porn (and all extramarital sexuality), and that’s backfiring in a major way. The Mormon church doesn’t seem to understand that harder you suppress extramarital sexuality (including porn and masturbation), the more the Mormon members will experience its untiring, magnetic pull. The siren song is loud, and it travels far. Everywhere humans go, in fact, and that’s not going to change.

A key to making better choices is awareness of the natural consequences of those choices.

A key to making better choices is awareness of the natural consequences of those choices, which is partly why the Whole30 program is so transformative for some people. They finally know how specific choices affect them, and they can go forward making well-informed, personal choices without a moral framework of “good” and “bad” to obscure the natural consequences of their choices.

In the next segment of this series, I’ll discuss why I’m talking about porn at all, why motivation matters more than behaviour, and how this discussion is relevant for everyone’s everyday behaviours. Standby.

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