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.