Pornography as Addiction and the LDS 12-Step Program

This is a little embarrassing to talk about, but reading recently about how research shows that pornography is not an addiction reminded me of my experience with the LDS church’s addiction and recovery program. I suspect that some people are going to use this point as another angle to go after my character and so on, but I really don’t care. I am who I am, weaknesses and all, and I’m OK with myself.

A few years ago things weren’t going very well for me at home, and I started seeing a therapist in Provo. He was a great guy, a biker and former gang member with lots of tattoos who was also a high priest in the LDS church. Like most men, I have looked at pornography on occasion, and that subject came up because, obviously, it was a sensitive issue in my marriage. My wife had decided that I should attend the church’s 12-step addiction-recovery meetings, though I thought that was overkill. But I didn’t dismiss it because I wanted to respect my wife’s concerns.

I discussed this with my therapist, and he not only told me I wasn’t an addict and didn’t need the program, but he advised me against going to the meetings because, he said, the program tended to cause people to obsess about what was only a real problem for a very small number of people. He also said that there was a major lack of training for the people running the programs, who were not professionals but just people assigned to do it, which should be a red flag to anyone. But I figured that attending the meetings was something I could do to show I was making an effort in my marriage (things did get much better with time), so I went.

The meetings were held on Wednesday evenings at the massive student stake center adjacent to Utah Valley University. There were at least 4 rooms dedicated to men dealing with pornography issues, 1 room for women dealing with any kind of addiction, and 2 more rooms for “spouse support” meetings. Most weeks the 4 men’s meetings were filled to overflowing, with most of the participants young, college-age kids.

The meetings were presided over, more or less, by a missionary specifically called to run the meetings, always an older man whose wife was assigned to one of the women’s meetings. The real leader was the “facilitator,” someone who had been through the program and done well enough that the church assigned. The one I remember most distinctly was a white-collar professional who had been abused as a child and definitely had engaged in compulsive sexual behavior.

Meetings opened with participants reciting a pledge not to judge or interrupt or share information about what others had said outside the meeting, followed by an opening prayer. We then took turns reading each of the 12 steps. Each week focused on one of the steps, so each person would then read a paragraph from the chapter of the book covering that step. Then it was time for reporting how our week went.

The program continued just as you would imagine: each person would state his name and say “I am an addict” or something like that and then talk about how things were going. From my perspective, very few of the people there had a real problem with compulsive sexual behavior. Most of these young guys would say, “My name is Steve, and I am addicted to pornography,” or “My name is David, and I’m addicted to masturbation.” The ones that really got to me were the ones who said they were addicted to “lustful thoughts.” Then they would report how many days or weeks or months they had been “clean.”

It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so deadly serious. One guy kept berating himself because, a few years earlier, he had worked as a lifeguard at a swimming pool and had experienced lustful thoughts about the girls in their bikinis. Kids would literally weep as they talked about how they had been more than a year without masturbating but then slipped and had to start all over again. It was as if they wouldn’t consider themselves “clean” until they had banished all sexual thoughts from their lives–and you can guess how that would work out.

With the older men, it was always the same: their wives had caught them looking at porn. Pornography is definitely a problem for some people, but these were normal men who occasionally looked at porn on the internet, not guys spending all day obsessing over it. But the reaction was always the same: the wife was ready to throw in the towel on 10, 20, 30 years of marriage. I can understand the hurt and betrayal spouses might feel, but getting a divorce over it? That just seems crazy to me.

As I said, a few people I met in the months that I attended actually did have a problem with compulsive sexual behavior. They stood out, and I would always think that they really needed to be in therapy, not in this meeting.

At the end of the meeting, the facilitator spoke for several minutes about his experience and the process, and then the missionary spoke, followed by a closing prayer.

The program seemed structured less to control addiction than it was to guide people through the familiar repentance process. Milestones were such things as taking the sacrament again, getting a temple recommend, or putting in mission papers.

My therapist had been right, of course: the main effect was an unhealthy obsession with sexual expression, which ironically is what the program was supposed to help people recover from. There was so much shame in that room, and it was painful to watch. The worst was when these kids talked about admitting their addiction to their loved ones. Most normal adults would think that admitting that you’re addicted to masturbation is ridiculous, but these kids shamed themselves in front of parents and loved ones. I remember some of these boys talking about how they were dating someone and knew they had to tell them about their addiction. Still makes my heart hurt to think of all that pain they were putting themselves through.

Despite all of this, I took the steps seriously because I knew that in those small ways I could reassure my wife that I could and would change my behavior to repair some of what I had damaged in our relationship in other ways, not through any “addiction.” I was glad, however, that I never felt that overwhelming and, it seemed, debilitating shame that many of these guys felt. For me, the meetings were just a reminder to stay focused on my marriage, and I did commit to staying away from porn, which was a good thing.

I did, however, stop attending when I realized that the program was, in the end, a projection of the facilitator’s experiences and feelings. He saw all of us as being the same as he was: a seriously damaged and abused person who struggled with terrible emotional problems and compulsive behavior. The last straw for me was when he started talking about his son, who was serving a mission at the time. He had convinced his son that his occasional masturbation was evidence of a serious addiction, so his son had started attending the meetings at around age 16. When the son went on his mission, he apparently grilled every companion about his masturbatory habits until he became convinced that everyone in the mission was a sex addict. So, he went to the mission president and arranged for each mission zone meeting to have time set aside for all missionaries to go through the 12 steps.

As I recall, the meetings are supposed to help because they are voluntary; you can’t force people to attend meetings for an addiction they don’t have, but that’s what this kid was doing, and his father could not have been prouder.

In the end, that shark-jumping moment convinced me that, just as this man was projecting his life experience and problems on the rest of us, the church had built this program based on how it assumed that members live their lives. One look at pornography was an addiction. Even occasional masturbation was likewise an addiction. But behind the talk of addiction was the old cycle of guilt and shame, and I saw way too much of that.

As I said, I don’t minimize the effects of compulsive sexual behavior, but when you put all sexual expression within that definition, you can potentially destroy lives in ways that pornography and masturbation can’t.

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24 Responses to Pornography as Addiction and the LDS 12-Step Program

  1. Camille Biexei says:

    Mormonism and sexuality–so messed up.

  2. I wonder how many lives and marriages have been damaged, not by sexual thoughts and expressions, but by an unhealthy focus on it. I am glad that my children are not being raised with their sexual development being shaped by a controlling organization afraid of sexuality and too eager to repress its healthy development,

  3. Agellius says:

    I’m Catholic, not Mormon, so my perspective on this may be different.

    It seems to me that you dismiss these people’s concerns a little too lightly, by not considering the aspect of the assumed sinfulness of pornography and masturbation.

    When you weigh on the one hand doing something you believe is highly displeasing to God, and on the other, the fact that you seem unable to stop doing it, it feels very much like you’re addicted, and to something which is indeed destructive. Destructive of peace of mind at least, and possibly a peril to your soul, depending on what your beliefs are.

    • runtu says:

      I don’t dismiss anyone’s concerns lightly. My issue isn’t that a religion teaches that masturbation and pornography viewing are sinful. No, what I object to is the overwhelming and almost debilitating shame and guilt that are way out of proportion to the seriousness of what is a pretty common human failing, if we wish to call it that.

      • Agellius says:

        I here you, but again that could be a function of a religious teaching that is believed to have been revealed by God. In Catholicism masturbation is believed to be a mortal (as opposed to venial) sin, which means that it can send you to hell if not repented of. That being the case, a faithful Catholic who can’t stop masturbating, or indulging in lustful ogling of women who themselves are committing acts of mortal sin, simply can’t help considering himself to be in a situation of grave spiritual peril.

        In other words, the teachers and leaders of such a religion can’t help treating it as an extremely grave matter, if they themselves take their religion at all seriously. It’s not as though they do it just for jollies. Again, though, admittedly I can’t speak to the extent to which this applies to Mormonism.

        I will say that finally encountering a priest who “gave it to me straight”, in other words, didn’t try to comfort me but instead told me flat out that my habitual sexual sins were imperiling my soul, is the thing that finally freed me from my “addiction”. So I, personally, don’t consider it a bad thing to warn people that sexual sin is a serious matter, not to be taken lightly.

      • runtu says:

        I’m glad that approach worked with you. I saw too much self-loathing, shame, and despair to think that this approach is a good one for most people. For me, overcoming my issues was much easier after I stopped taking it so deadly seriously and stopped carrying around the heavy burden of guilt.

      • robinobishop says:

        It seems to me that you simply verified this Catholics point. You are putting your own color of the “not-really-an-addiction” to nearly everyone at the meeting. You are saying it. In each person, they know the seriousness of their problem. I find it difficult to believe that the room is fill with deluded, hyper-self-punishing folks.

        This isn’t to say the program has the capacity to help any of them. I don’t understand why you dutifully attended while personally being affronted by it. I know, wives can corner us. But that program???

  4. Allan Carter says:

    Hi, my name is Allan and I’m addicted to food. As much as I tried not to, I ate today…

    People can have compulsive eating disorders, but to treat anyone who eats as an addict is stupid. Same thing with masturbation and lust. It CAN be a problem. But it seems like it is more likely to be so for cultures like Mormonism and Catholicism that seem incapable of acknowledging normal human behavior. That is one problem I have with some religions. They want to create sins and the corresponding guilt for perfectly normal human nature.

    Agellius gave a great example: masturbation as a mortal sin. In what world? But heck, in Mormonism drinking coffee rises to a similar level.

    FWIW, when I was at BYU our bishop told all the elders in priesthood meeting to stop coming to him and confessing the sin of masturbation. He said it was perfectly normal and unless it was compulsive not a problem. I know for a fact that not all bishops feel the same way, but I had at least 2 bishops in my lifetime that felt that way.

    • robinobishop says:

      why sink to the lowest moral level? think about all the Bishops you came into contact. Even for you, these two are statistical outliers and not in the normal curve. Knowing that, why would those two so freely diminish the seriousness of Masturbation?? Do some thinking.

      • Allan says:

        So give me something to think about. What is so serious about masturbation? Why the obsession about it with Catholics and Mormons? Every bishop I had growing up had to ask about it in worthiness interviews. So did my dad. Why?

      • robinobishop says:

        It should be blatantly slapping you in the face. The act is an adulterous fantasy for starters. What do you suppose that does to a marriage?

      • robinobishop says:

        If masturbation is so OK, why not let your wife watch? Verbalize your fantasy while doing it for her.

      • Allan Carter says:

        Wow. You must really be a bishop to be asking such probing questions. Maybe you should read up on human sexuality. You’ve given me something to think about, amazed even, but I’m still perplexed at the moral hazard. And BTW, partners in healthy relationships have been known to do exactly the things you propose with absolutely no issues. So the problem is?

      • runtu says:

        I used to know an LDS high priest who did exactly that when his wife wasn’t in the mood or he was away on business. She didn’t seem to have a problem with it. It was one of those things I wish he hadn’t shared with me (or the other 5 people at lunch with us), but that’s between him and his wife. One would hope the bishop would stay out of such matters.

      • robinobishop says:

        gentlemen, stoop quibbling about phantom others who you heard do it. If you feel so good about it, for heavens sake surprise you wives….if you have them.

      • robinobishop says:

        You’re so sure she’ll praise you for your virtual adultery because, as you demand , there’s nothing wrong with it, you demand.

      • runtu says:

        I don’t demand anything. I just don’t think it’s any of my business (or yours) what someone else does in their bedroom with their spouse.

      • robinobishop says:

        Yea, you used to know him. One need not wonder the quality of his marriage now. She must feel trapped in a duplicitous business relationship with the man. Virtual adultery and bragging about it! WOW> to be that casual means A lot more was going on than you know. Something like that is a cry for help and you laughed it off at the time, right?.

      • runtu says:

        Last I checked, he was still quite happily married. Virtual adultery? Not sure where you’re getting that. Bragging about it? No, not at all. Oddly enough, the subject came up because a coworker, who was a bishop, brought up his interviews with members and expressed basically the same sentiments that you have about prying into people’s sex lives and asking married couples about masturbation. This guy mentioned that, with small children in the house and him being away on business fairly regularly, they had agreed to this system. I thought it was too much information, but that’s neither here nor there. My point, which you seem to have missed, is that, whether you “applaud” someone else’s marital sex life, it’s none of your business. As you say, a lot more is going on in a marriage than either you or I know, and unless there’s something dangerous or illegal going on, it’s wrong and more than a little perverted to get involved. Would you like someone scrutinizing your sex life? I wouldn’t.

      • Allan Carter says:

        Troll alert? robinobishop seems a little over the top. Difficult to believe he is real. But then again, I’ve been out away from church members for a while so maybe my wacky meter might not be calibrated.

      • runtu says:

        Who knows? As I said, I draw the line at prescribing (or even being interested in) what other people do in the bedroom. I would never disrespect a couple’s boundaries like that.

    • robinobishop says:

      Hands off is the counsel given to every Bishop for married members. However for those in their formative years, he will be more instructive, perhaps. You’re intuition is shared by the Church. Bishops ask the prescribed questions period. Obviously if something is revealed, found troubling, a compassionate Bishop will not be so unauthentic as to nurse-maid a “whatever you do sexually is ok, none of my business.”

      Sit down with your Bishop and listen to his instruction after you say it is none of his business.

  5. Agellius says:

    Well, it’s a question of fact. Naturally, the degree to which you appreciate a warning depends on the degree to which you apprehend the danger. Thus to some people, warnings about global warming appear hysterical. To anyone who doesn’t believe something is a sin, calling it a mortal danger to your soul is going to seem overwrought.

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