by Dr. Ken Buckle
July 26, 2012
A myth is a belief or a story meant as an attempt to explain a common social experience that may be difficult to grasp. A myth usually may not have any basis in truth, fact, or reality. I hear a lot of myths from sex addicts and porn users having to do with their pornography, and so one of the interventions involves education and reeducation. Porn has become very much part of our Western culture, even though we don’t talk about it very much. Ministers and priests tell me that it is a significant problem in their churches even among strong believers who know and readily admit that porn leads them to sin and creates numerous problems in their lives. I think that it is a great thing that these men can approach someone at church for help. Note that pornography and sex addiction are not just issues for men. A large number of women also struggle with these issues, and their road to recovery is just as difficult or in many ways even more so, than for their male counterparts. Here are some of the common myths I encounter (in no particular order):
1. Porn is harmless.
This message or belief about porn has many aspects to it, and I’ll just highlight a few here. There are some excellent web sites that go into much more detail about the many harmful aspects of pornography. Check out these websites: http://www.livestream.com/pornographyharms and http://www.pornharms.com/ and http://www.internetsafety101.org/dangers.htm . I encourage all parents to study these carefully. The average age of first exposure to porn is 11 for boys and 13 for girls. Since these are the average ages, this means that some children are exposed at even younger ages, and some not until their teen years. Note that these average ages of first exposure are gradually decreasing as time goes on. We parents find ourselves in the position now of needing to educate children about pornography long before puberty.
Some say that pornography is a rite of passage for boys or young men, and that they all will look at it at some time or another and so it’s normal. When parents having this mindset discover their teenagers have been looking at pornography, they commonly make a joke about it or even laugh it off with relatives or friends. They believe that nothing bad will result from it, and expect that the teenager will “grow out of it.” While a few of these young men may mature and leave porn behind, it will enslave many of them and cause extensive suffering for many years to follow. These parents then are quite shocked to find later the extent of the damage done by this seemingly harmless “normal” experience that they thought was so cute and funny.
Another aspect of this myth is that since porn is usually something that someone looks at in secret, it seems like and feels like there is nobody else involved. The reality is that there are many other people involved. There are the models and actors in the pictures, many of whom are exploited and feel trapped, and sometimes who are participating only because they have been enslaved or trafficked. Children in pornography are always only there because they are being exploited. There are the producers and people doing the filming. There are the website and magazine owners and advertisers. There are spouses and relationships with spouses which are impacted. There are young men drugging and then raping women at parties and at bars. There are employers who discover employees surfing porn sites on the computer at work. Careers are ended because of porn being viewed at the workplace.
Note that Hollywood and the media like to try and portray a glamorous side to pornography, suggesting that actors and models are happily making lots of money doing something that they are proud of and love doing. This is another myth inside the myth of harmlessness. The reality is that these male and female performers are frequently abusing drugs and alcohol in order to cope with their work, that nearly all of them have STDs, and that many are making little or no money from their work. A good number are also engaged in prostitution, and a significant number admit that they were sexually abused as children. There are many reports of death from AIDS, suicide, and drug overdose among performers in the porn business.
Because pornography is almost always paired with masturbation, it has a powerful self-reinforcing effect. There are few drugs that a person can take that are as rewarding and powerful as the multiple chemicals released in the brain in the course of viewing pornography and masturbating to it. People using pornography will admit that it feels good, but they will not be aware of the hidden behavioral reinforcement that is being burned into their brain’s pathways. Some porn addicts have told me that it was easier for them to recover from their heroin addiction than it was to escape from the grips of pornography.
The most important harm of pornography has to do with the lie that it tells us about the human body. Blessed Pope John Paul II said something to the effect that the problem with pornography is not that it shows us too much of a person, but rather that it shows us not enough of the person. This is the great deception of our enemy. The Pope was reminding us that the person in the porn image is not an object, but a subject…a person. We use objects, but we should not use people. The human body is a beautiful work of God’s creation, but we are tempted to lust over it because of our brokenness. However, we are deeply drawn to and unconsciously desire a return to our original innocence of knowledge in which the human body was seen as a beautiful part of creation, a revelation of the beauty of the whole person and of God. Let us not forget that God took on a human body and saved us through the breaking of His body. We consume His body in the Eucharist, and it nourishes us, heals us, and makes us whole again. Pornography distracts us from these truths and confuses us about the gift and real meaning of the body as presented to us by God. Christopher West expertly describes this incredible message of the late Pope as described in the Theology of the Body.
2. I only look at “soft core” stuff, so I’m safe.
This is kind of like saying: “I can’t be an alcoholic because I only drink wine.” Some people begin their experience with pornography by looking at certain magazines or web sites that show nude bodies but no sexual interaction. They are aware that there is “hard core” pornography out there, but make a promise to themselves to stay away from that. And they think that they can stick to this promise or bargain that they make to themselves. My experience has been that they find that their desire over time increases for greater and greater types of stimulating material. In other words, the soft core pornography becomes boring to them after a while. If they are involved over a long enough period of time, they come to admit that they are shocked and horrified at the type of material that they find they are searching out and use for masturbation.
Another aspect of this myth is that they believe, incorrectly, that soft core pornography is less powerful and less addicting than hard core porn. They will say that it is not as sinful or wrong to look at soft core porn. These are weak rationalizations.
Note that over the years, magazines and other media types have slowly and gradually ramped up the sexual content of their offerings. This is because the public has been desensitized little by little to the amount of sexual content in movies, TV shows, commercials, and in magazines.
3. Everybody looks at porn.
This myth has some overlap with myth #1 above. I hear this rationalization from other types of addicts as well: “everybody drinks” or “everybody smokes pot.” While it may be true that there are large numbers of people who have viewed porn or who do so on a regular basis, it is important to keep in mind that there are many who have not and do not and will not.
Some may say that pornography is not a problem, but rather their guilt about their pornography use is their problem. What they intend to do then is to work on not feeling badly about their pornography use. Some secular therapists or counselors will even agree to help work on achieving this goal of removing guilt. Some secular therapists unfortunately “prescribe” or encourage couples to watch porn together. The difficulty with this approach is that it assumes that pornography is harmless and that a person cannot become addicted to it and it overlooks the negative impact that porn has on a couple’s view of sex and sexuality.
We need to remember that human sexuality is beautiful, and not bad or immoral in and of itself. The Church clarified many centuries ago that the body is not bad. There are reasons why we are drawn to physical beauty, and why pornography is so attractive, and why our sexuality seems to be such a powerful part of our identity. I find it interesting that our Western culture has two significant difficulties these days, both of which have to do with the body: Obesity (and eating disorders) and Sex Addiction.
We must admit however, that we can and should have control of and respect for our bodies. There is nothing about our sexuality that requires that we masturbate or have multiple sexual partners. There is nothing about our digestive system that requires that we overeat. These are mini-myths within this particular myth. Celibacy for priests and for those who are not married is indeed humanly possible. A new perspective on healthy sexuality within marriage is badly needed today, and this brings us to the next myth.
4. Marriage will cure me of my porn addiction.
I have heard this so many times. This myth is both a hope and a fantasy. The teen or young adult becomes enslaved to pornography, unable to stop and control its use. They tell themselves that they can and will stop using porn once the right partner comes along, or especially if they get married. The thing is, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this work. Marriage will not cure a sex addiction. It is particularly sad and difficult when one member of an engaged couple learns of the porn addiction of the other partner, sometimes through a course of marriage preparation or pre-marital counseling. This once happily engage couple is now in deep crisis. The sex addict may reassure his or her partner that he or she can and will stop, and the relationship continues on. Or sometimes the relationship ends badly right there.
In some cases, the spouse does not discover the porn addiction of the partner until after the marriage has taken place. This leads to deep hurt, disappointment, resentment, and feelings of betrayal. Sometimes treatment for the sex addiction or marital therapy cannot save the relationship, but if both are involved in the recovery process there can be a good outcome. Problems with pornography can end marriages and break apart families. This is tragic.
5. I’m not an addict. I can stop any time, on my own.
This myth is used by the addict to reassure himself or herself, or a partner or parent. It is a statement of power and ego by someone who has not yet realized powerlessness and humility. It is extremely common for a porn addict to set a stop date and be okay for a while before slipping or relapsing. Typical stop dates are New Year’s, a birthday, an anniversary, Christmas, Easter…et cetera. There are patterns that are repeated over and over to the great frustration and dismay of the user: enjoy the porn for a certain period of time, then experience tremendous guilt and shame, throw out the magazines or erase the files or delete the website links, everything is fine for a while…and then the cycle repeats itself. The confessor or therapist listens to the addict repeat this struggle over time, time after time.
The problem is that as the cycle goes on and on across time, it becomes more intense and more difficult to break. Like any addiction, use of pornography escalates over time if not stopped. The best intervention then is an early intervention. The truth is that a sex addiction can be as deadly as an addiction to alcohol or drugs. Because it is chronic, progressive, and fatal, there are three possible results for a true addiction: jail, hospitalization, or death.
The reality is that it is very difficult for people to kick a sex addiction or any addiction alone. Chances for progress greatly improve if people get into a support group or a 12-step group, into therapy, or spiritual direction. It is my belief that a person also needs to bring God into the healing process, and ask for the strength that only grace can provide.
Part of recovery might involve sharing one’s experience of this addiction with others, and reaching out to others who still suffer. This is the power of the wounded healer. Let’s not forget that our Savior Jesus Christ heals us though His wounds and suffering. We are all broken, and in need of a Savior. Grace is there for the asking. As St. Paul so effectively points out, we can find strength in our weakness. We win by surrendering.
6. The devil made me do it.
I believe that there can be evil influences at work in sex and food addictions (and other mental illnesses), but probably not in a majority of cases. If what the Theology of the Body proposes is accurate (and I believe that it is) then the body, as a revelation of God and His love for us, would be the perfect target through which Satan can lead us astray by food and sex addictions.
It takes a careful assessment by clergy and mental health professionals to evaluate the influence of demonic forces in mental illness and addiction. People who stay close to God through prayer and participation in the sacramental life of the church probably do not need to worry too much about demonic influence in their lives. People who open themselves up to evil, who do not resist it, or who even invite it into their lives are at great risk for this type of supernatural danger. Pornography poses a real spiritual danger, and has a high potential to lead people into to deep despair.
I can only see positive benefits for spiritual interventions for people struggling with pornography. Prayer is powerful. Our God is all-powerful. Sometimes the laying on of hands or an anointing can have great results. Increasing scripture study or the frequency of attending Mass and Reconciliation will make a difference. However, it is possible that these spiritual interventions alone may not bring total freedom from this enslavement. Keep in mind that God can also work healing through a minister or a therapist or a support group, and that the 12-Step approach is a spiritual program of recovery. Don’t rely on just one intervention or the other. Perfect recoveries and complete cures are rare in my experience. Take action and seek progress.
7. I’m so enslaved to porn, there’s no way I can possibly escape.
People who believe this myth have fallen into deep despair and helplessness. They have given up on taking action, because what they have tried in the past has not worked, and they don’t have any faith that anything can work for them. These people are at great risk and in need of real hope. They need to know that this myth is not true. They need to know that people can find recovery no matter how far gone they might feel. It is true that it is easier to arrest an addiction when it is early in the disease process than when it has become severe. It is easier then, for people who have been using porn a short time or infrequently, to make a successful recovery than for the people who have been using porn for a long time, or who have been using porn daily for hours each session. The most important thing is that there is recovery for everybody, and that everybody needs to know this.
If you tried seeing a therapist years ago and quit, try a different one. If you have gone to a Sex Addicts Anonymous group and not found it helpful, find a different meeting location in your town. If you have seen one priest or spiritual director and need something more or different, try another one. The point is not to give in to despair and hopelessness. Keep learning about your problem and all of the options for recovery. These days there are many temptations for porn, but there is also a wealth of information about recovery from this baffling addiction and there are many options for getting help. And most importantly, keep taking action. Do something every day to work on your recovery, even if it is just a small action. We all need recovery. You are not alone.