Your Desire For Porn Isn’t The Problem; It’s Your Desire For Purity

Do you want to make your problems with pornography go away? I read an article the other day which presented such a simple, elegant solution to these struggles that I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before.

Just stop believing that pornography is a problem.

There now. Isn’t that better? All along, the problem was not the pornography, it was you. You – and the crazy religious ideas that you hold about porn. Once you jettison (or modify) the religious ideas, you’ll experience peace with man and God (well, at least man.)

This is the viewpoint shared in a recent article posted to PsychologyToday.com by David Ley. Ley makes the argument that a person’s religious bent is a more effective predictor of problems with porn use that the porn itself.

Citing several studies, Ley concurs with the researchers who conclude: “Porn does not predict problems with porn, but religiosity does.”

How so? you ask. Well, religious belief creates “moral incongruence” inside of a person, says Ley. Translation: Religious belief usually comes packaged with a series of prescriptions and prohibitions of what’s right and what’s wrong. (Think: Ten Commandments). When the believer can’t live up to the moral code he or she’s adopted, moral incongruence is the result. I experience distress because I can’t align my behavior with my beliefs.

Ley writes: “Having moral conflict over your porn use does turn out to be really bad for you. But it’s not because of porn…but the unresolved, unexamined moral conflict.”

What’s Ley’s solution? “Instead of trying to change people’s porn use patterns, we should instead be focused on helping them make their values and behaviors congruent, and learning to understand and recognize the impact of their moral beliefs.”

Well, if we’re not going to work on their “porn use patterns” then that leaves only one thing to fix – those pesky religious values. Precisely, argues Ley, because “…many of the values we were raised with, about sex, race or gender, are no longer fully applicable to the modern world.”

Ley goes to great lengths to drive home the point that “porn addiction” is a concept that is not supported by any current scientific analysis. Since porn is not therefore a clinical addiction, akin to drug or alcohol addiction, it is not harmful in any meaningful sense, Ley concludes. If one then experiences distress with porn usage, the problem must not be with the porn but with the person.

Ley doesn’t stop there though. His logic gets pernicious when he recommends taking legal action against professionals who treat clients based on the model that porn is addictive (i.e. harmful). Sounding like an apologist for the sinister California bill AB-2943 (recently shelved by its sponsor), Ley writes:

“Clinicians who continue to promote the idea of porn addiction are, like those who promote age-regression hypnosis or recovered memory therapy, engaging in harmful malpractice. Websites and advocacy groups who promote and encourage the identification as a porn addict are doing harm to their followers, and are like the hucksters who promote naturopathic treatment, despite federal medical groups identifying these treatments as ineffective and potentially harmful.”

I believe Ley to be wrong in two key places, but correct in one.

Observation #1: Porn use – like countless forms of unethical and immoral behavior – does not have to be clinically addictive to be destructive.

So current science does not support the idea that porn addiction is physiologically consistent with other drug and chemical addictions. So what? That never was a hill anyone had to die on. There are plenty of compulsive behaviors we humans fall into which become “addictive” in a psychological sense but not a biochemical one. Anger, lying, complaining, cheating, jealousy, stealing – the list is endless. Jesus said, “He who commits a sin becomes a slave to sin.” We are habit-forming creatures. Add porn to the list.

Then Ley’s assertion that mainly those with religious values claim porn usage to be problematic is just flat-out wrong. That pinnacle of religious reporting, Time magazine, did a recent cover on what excessive porn use is doing to both men and women. That devout religious comedian, Russell Brand, has warned extensively against the dangers of porn consumption.

Ley’s refusal to see other forms of harm resulting from porn usage beyond addiction is just professionally naive, or stubborn, or both. Porn usage has ended marriages (Chris Rock), and shipwrecked careers (Louis C.K.). It’s a feeder stream for sexual trafficking and sexual exploitation of children. The #metoo phenomenon was shaped by porn. Though no scientific study will be able to quantify this, I am not alone in the theory that the tsunami of porn that has overrun the world since the rise of the machines has disrupted the age-old way in which men and women experience attraction and fall in love, and is a significant reason why marriage has been pushed further and further out, to the despair or men and women both.

His refusal to see porn as a true public health issue makes one wonder if perhaps he’s the one who is guilty of malpractice here, and should be refused the right to see clients. He’s no better than a huckster if he can’t see the full range of toxic symptoms created by unrestrained porn usage.

Observation #2: Moral incongruence can be one of the healthiest experiences for a person.

Porn does not predict problems with porn, but religiosity does. Well thank goodness for that! There are a lot of things in life that seem well and good until religiosity comes along and meddles with it. Ley may as well have said, Unforgiveness does not predict problems with unforgiveness, but religiosity does. Greed does not predict problems with greed, but religiosity does. 

The apostle Paul said that without God’s law, we wouldn’t know what sin was (Romans 7:7). But once God sticks his nose in my business, moral incongruence results. And guess what? In the end, I will be better for it.

Picture a person who hears in a church sermon, or reads in the Bible, the commandment to not steal. Let’s pretend the person recently shoplifted or stole money from a parent’s wallet or cheated on their taxes. Or let’s pretend they are right then contemplating the theft. Now thanks to the sermon or the reading, they are experiencing moral incongruence (the Bible calls this conviction). Is that inner conflict unhealthy? Not in the least. Feeling guilt for the doing of wrong (or the consideration of wrong) can lead to a life-giving resetting of the moral universe, and a strengthening of one’s moral core. True religion (especially of the Judeo-Christian variety) has been proven to unleash incalculable good on the earth.

When Jesus came on the scene, he awakened moral incongruence wherever he went (and didn’t feel bad about it once.) He told people to love enemies, practice generosity, forgive recklessly, observe sexual boundaries, serve rather than pull rank, stop their worrying, put themselves at the end of the line, and numerous other moral commands of high order. Then Jesus had the audacity to say that the only way we could obey these teachings was to perform a sort of inner-crucifixion of one’s natural desire (talk about your moral incongruence), and then to connect to him in a deeply relational way based on spiritual discipline.

Christianity, properly practiced, produces these sort of moral miracles all the time. Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not that any true Christian “arrives” at a place where they no longer require the moral incongruence of Christ “working on them” (or “working them over” as some Christians might describe it.) The Christ of Christianity helped me escape a very real bondage to pornography years ago (which certainly mimicked many of the classic features of addiction, just saying), and continues to shore up my fragile heart day by day, to help me stay true to my better self. I could still fail. There but for the grace of God go I. But hopefully and prayerfully, moral incongruence will win the day when all is said and done in my life.

Observation #3: Having said this, there is a moral incongruence that is harmful.

But Ley is not completely off the reservation. Some forms of moral incongruence are illegitimate. And very harmful.

Shame, as opposed to guilt, is destructive, because it is based on a false reality. The abuse victim can be conditioned by the abuser to feel responsibility for the abuse. Part of them wants to speak out, but they feel horribly conflicted inside because of the message booming in their brains that they “brought it on themselves”, or “they deserved it”, or “if God really loved them, this wouldn’t have happened”.

Harmful moral incongruence can be felt when we adopt traditions and practices that are based on false truth. What’s happening in the Catholic church today is Exhibit A of this. Centuries ago, the Catholic church accepted the idea that its priests, in order to remain holy, must also remain celibate. No such command can be found anywhere in Scripture. In fact Peter, known by Catholics as the “first pope” was married! But somewhere along the way, people decided to help God out by heaping a stultifying tradition on top of the life-giving command (that sex be practiced within the bonds of marriage.)

Protestants are not immune to this. Far too many churches, for far too many years have regarded sexuality as that which shall not be named, rather than affirming that humans are sexual creatures, and our sexual desires and natures are God-given and good.

In treating sexuality as a shameful thing, rather than a healthy and holy part of ordinary life, harmful moral incongruence fills the church still. I knew of a young woman who was inundated with so many stern and negative messages about sexuality growing up in her church, that early in her marriage, she could not relate sexually to her husband in a positive way, until Jesus went to work on repairing some of her wiring.

Ley is not incorrect in supposing that religion can create this sort of dysfunction. He’s incorrect in seeing it as an across-the-board reality. And that error keeps him from seeing the incalculable benefits the accrue to a community when healthy faith is allowed to flourish.

So Mr. Ley, with all respect, porn is the problem, and my desire for purity is the way to come home.

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