The Christian crusade against porn

Who knew? According to an article over at CNN's Belief Blog, one of the biggest problems in the Christian church today is porn addiction. The blog describes several therapy centers, usually run by pastors or ministers, which purport to "cure" people of their addiction to porn:
This is Michael’s second week at “Faithful and True – Atlanta” a 16-week counseling program that, like dozens of others like it around the country, combines traditional psychotherapy with the Bible in an attempt to treat addictive behavior.
Blankenship, a devout Christian who once struggled with sexual abuse, says his own ordeal has helped him to treat and “graduate” nearly 500 Christian men and women with similar addictions in the last five years.
He says he has helped people achieve what he calls “sobriety,” which means resisting porn and lustful thoughts.
Christian therapies "curing" people of sexual ills? That sounds like something we've heard before, amiright Ted Haggard?  The problem, so it would seem, begins with thought crime:
Though the words “porn” and “masturbation” don’t appear in the Bible, [Pastor Jeremy] Gyorke believes the biblical verdict is clear. “Sexual immorality is mentioned a lot in the Bible, and that is what porn is,” he says.
He quotes the Gospel of Matthew: “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
“Porn is lust, and lust is a sin,” the pastor said.

The Christian problem of sex

I'll leave the rest of the article for your own dissemination. But to my eyes, this represents a fundamental problem with the way the Christians view sex: it's based on arbitrary interpretations of a 2,000 year old book, awkwardly melded with conservative sociocultural norms. Our view of sex should be based on science.

And science says porn is not so bad, actually. Some time ago, I mentioned an article about porn in Scientific American Mind which discussed modern research into porn, and it concluded (among other things) that sexual assault has plummeted in nations (including the US) in which porn has become more widely available. But the real money shot... er, quote from that article was this (emphasis mine):
It turns out that among porn viewers, the amount of porn each subject consumed had nothing to do with his or her mental state. What mattered most, Twohig found, was whether the subjects tried to control their sexual thoughts and desires. The more they tried to clamp down on their urge for sex or porn, the more likely they were to consider their own pornography use a problem. The findings suggest that suppressing the desire to view pornography, for example, for moral or religious reasons, might actually strengthen the urge for it and exacerbate sexual problems.
Knowing this, reading articles like the one over at Belief Blog makes me want to slap the stupid out of people. How can anyone be so blind to the obvious? Humans are sexual creatures. That's just the way it is and there's nothing we can do about it. Saying that it is a "sin" merely to look at someone "lustfully" is tantamount to a divine conviction of thought crime. Of course suppressing it is going to make it worse! And in focusing on porn, the Christians – as usual – have missed the real problem. Let's go back to the CNN article for a moment, and what kick-started Pastor Gyorke's movement:
Gyorke said he confessed to his congregation after his wife caught him looking at porn and told him it made her feel inadequate. She wanted him to seek help and to be transparent as a man of God.

Gyorke ultimately decided that viewing any porn, even once or twice, is a problem for believers.
Our pastor here missed the side of the barn when he blamed porn for his 'addiction'. The problem wasn't porn; it was his marriage. If someone who is married is looking elsewhere for sexual fulfillment, it's a huge red flag that there is something seriously wrong in the marriage. What Gyorke should have done, instead of starting a crusade against porn, is to get some help for himself and his wife. In many ways, porn can illuminate one's sexual needs. What turns you on? What do you like? What can I, as your spouse, do better? And then, perhaps instead of avoiding the porn while obsessing over it with some ridiculous crusade, Gyorke and his wife could watch some porn together. 


Christianity: trying to solve problems of its own creation

If the Christian church is having a problem with porn addiction, it's a problem of their own making. Consider, for example, the religiously-rooted push for 'abstinence-only' sex ed: statistically, young people who have a-o sex ed are no less likely to have sex than their peers; however, they are much less likely to use protection when they do.

Consider also a recent case here in Tulsa, where a 19-year-old had sex with a 13 and 14 year old in the back of his car, and is now facing statutory rape charges. The young man's lawyer – an acquaintance of mine who told me about the case – mentioned that his family is very strictly religious.

Or consider some friends of my family's, also very strictly Christian whose younger daughter, envious of her elder sister's marriage and children, went through several tumultuous and fleeting relationships before getting pregnant by a young man she'd only known for a few weeks – and to whom she is now married. Something tells me that is not the best way to decide who you are going to spend the rest of your life with. Ten bucks says that in ten years, they're struggling with infidelity or 'porn addiction'.

Now, I want to be clear here: I am not suggesting that porn cannot be a problem in some cases. But my point is that I think Christians are tackling the issue from the wrong angle. They're trying to suppress their human urges, saying that simply thinking sexual thoughts about people other than your spouse is evil and wrong. That's a great way to guarantee that every human being will be a 'sinner' riddled with self-inflicted guilt.

But the problem is not that we think lustful thoughts; the problem comes when we attempt to control our thoughts, because guess what? You can't control your thoughts. That's why thought-crime 'sins' are so incredibly stupid. Here's an experiment: Do not imagine a white elephant. Whatever you do, try as hard as you can not to picture a white elephant. Now try going throughout the day, telling yourself not to think about the white elephant. Obsess over it. Engage in other activities to distract yourself from it. You'll find, as the researchers mentioned by SciAm Mind did, that the avoidance simply makes the 'problem' worse. You'll spend all day thinking about that damn white elephant. To make it worse, imagine that you believe it is morally wrong to think about that white elephant, so that you have a nice helping of self-inflicted guilt to accompany your fixation.


Set to fail

That is precisely the problem that Christians fabricate with their avoidance-fixation on sex. Sexual lust is normal. Masturbation is normal. And not only are these things normal, they are healthy. And if 'lustful thoughts' are sinful, then masturbation must also be sinful – just try pleasuring yourself while thinking about, I dunno, the stock market (maybe you're into that). Indeed, as one 'recovering' porn addict said in the Belief Blog article,
For [Jeff] Colon, sobriety means abstaining from looking at porn, masturbating and performing any other sex act not involving his spouse.
Jeff is setting himself up to fail. He's fighting against his own nature. He'll obsess over porn, and sooner or later, he'll crack. He'll be overcome with guilt. He may lose his marriage.  The solution is so much more simple: he needs to quit obsessing over it. Jeff and his wife need to figure out what needs to improve in their sex life. His wife should buy some toys for herself, so she can better understand her own body and help her husband pleasure her. She needs to accept that Jeff needs to jerk off sometimes too, and that it's okay and healthy for him to do that. And maybe instead of reinforcing her husband's senseless guilt about his desire to watch porn, she could watch it with him. Jeff, meanwhile, needs to start communicating more openly with his wife about why he's looking at porn, and what he wants and needs out of a sexual relationship.

In my last days as a Christian, I came to believe that one of the most insidious falsehoods of Christianity is that we are essentially convicted as criminals merely for that over which we have no control: our humanity. Nowhere is this more evident than in Christianity's storied history of misguided sexual norms. I'm reminded again of the words of the anthropologist Pascal Boyer, in his book Religion Explained:
"If religion allays anxiety, it cures only a small part of the disease it creates."

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