Effects of Pornography are Negligible?

References to pornography in General Conference address have coincided with the availability of pornography, as this graph illustrates:

click for full-size
click for full-size

While that certainly won’t surprise anyone, the scientific evidence does seem to suggest that pornography causes no harm whatsoever. I caught this article in my science news today reiterating that very point. So, my question: Why does the LDS Church make such a big deal about pornography when all the science says it is definitely not harmful and may in fact be a positive, healthy way to both explore one’s sexuality and alleviate sexual tension?

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profxm

I'm a college professor and, well, a professional X-Mormon. Thus, ProfXM. I love my Mormon family, but have issues with LDS Inc. And I'm not afraid to tell LDS Inc. what I really think... anonymously, of course!

18 thoughts on “Effects of Pornography are Negligible?

  1. Methodological question – do you have all the conference talks in digital format and simply did a regular expression type search? Something else?

    I’ve done something like this before (not for that specific term), and there’s lots of interesting trends in the conference talks. I never did anything very sophisticated (like weighting for the number of talks, etc.), but I think this approach could demonstrate a lot about the subtle doctrinal shifts in the church. I’d love to see a series of posts investigating these things.

  2. If only they would chill out and focus on things that actually matter like poverty, education, access to clean water, birth control, etc. I think you wouldn’t notice much of a difference in the pews—maybe fewer men and women feeling guilty and isolated for doing what most everyone else in the chapel is doing too.

  3. I think there’s been an element of “moral panic” to the church’s approach, and almost certainly the way it has treated any and all porn-viewing as a horrible, horrible sin and an “addiction” has made things much worse for its members who indulge, and for their families.

    I suspect that the church may have begun to realize that its approach has been counterproductive and it may have started backing off on the more over-the-top rhetoric.

    Just like the rhetoric about masturbation has gone from the hysterical (in more ways than one) Mark E. Peterson style of “TIE YOUR HANDS TO THE BEDPOST AT NIGHT!” to “Try not to make a habit of it,” I think the rhetoric about porn will eventually evolve from “IT’S A TERRIBLE SIN!” to “It’s not appropriate; don’t make a habit of it.”

    Because if the Old Guys in Salt Lake think that never looking at porn is an absolute standard, they’re going to have a harder and harder time finding young leaders.

  4. That 2005 spike was this:
    “Pornography impairs ones ability to enjoy a normal emotional, romantic, and spiritual relationship with a person of the opposite sex. It erodes the moral barriers that stand against inappropriate, abnormal, or illegal behavior. As conscience is desensitized, patrons of pornography are led to act out what they have witnessed, regardless of its effects on their life and the lives of others.”

    Elder Dallin H. Oaks, Pornography, Ensign, May 2005, 89.

    LDS website: “Thou shalt not . . . commit adultery . . . nor do anything like unto it.” (D&C 59:6)

    So, pornography is like adultery? I thought it would’ve been more like masturbation. What if you and your partner watch pornography together so that you can “act out what you’ve witnessed” to spice up your sex life, to enhance your sexual repertoire together? That’s adultery?

    I imagine Oaks’ stance is tied to the notion that sexuality is foremost for reproduction with one other person, and that personal pleasure comes second or not at all (given that masturbation is shunned). Pornography doesn’t ~necessarily~ do the things he is saying. One can view pornography with a critical eye even as one is getting off and come from the experience not desensitized, but more knowing about one’s body, drives, and the drives of others. But this notion would fall on deaf ears, I’m sure. It would fall into the realm of “useless knowledge.” Our sexualities are supposed to be hidden from us, already purposed by God.

  5. Alan,

    I certainly don’t disagree, but it does seem like the LDS Church’s official position on sex is not that it is just for procreation but also for recreation (thus they don’t prohibit oral or anal sex within marriage). If that is the case, then what is the problem with pornography? I’m not questioning you, I’m questioning the Church’s seemingly unclear position on this.

    Building on this, if the position is that sex should only be within the bonds of marriage (which is really kind of silly anyway) but any form of sex is okay within marriage, what’s technically wrong with swinging? If two married Mormon couples engage in recreational sex together, what’s the problem from a Mormon orthopraxy standpoint (assuming no one gets pregnant, leading to all sorts of complications)?

    It would seem to me that the “letter of the law” doesn’t rule this out, though the spirit might.

    Chris,

    There is actually a book that did this: Kingdom Transformed, by Gary and Gordon Shepherd, though it is a bit dated. Also, the reason I have that graph is because I am planning a similar project updating their findings (their project ended with 1980 conference talks). As I have two co-authors on the project, I probably shouldn’t say much about it unless you’re interested in working with us on it. A series of posts on it would be pretty cool, but we’re going to try to go the peer-reviewed journal route first.

    FYI, my methods – we have digital, text copies of every GC talk going back to 1897. I’m using some software for the searching. It does a nice job of generating XML tables that I can then relatively quickly turn into graphs like the one I posted. Also, FYI, weighting for total words has a negligible effect. That was one of the first things I did and it didn’t seem to make a difference. So, we’re doing this unweighted.

    Jonathan and Kuri, I absolutely agree that the position of the Church on this is outdated and will need to change (just like it will on masturbation).

  6. Just to let you know, the new header doesn’t display in the Google Chrome browser. Probably not an issue for most users (I’m the only one I know who uses it almost exclusively), but I thought I’d mention it.

  7. I agree that there is space for recreational sex within a Mormon marriage, but given that marriage is the first step to creating an eternal family, the recreational sex comes second to the obligation of reproduction. All sex that doesn’t support this “eternal family” structure is deemed non-normative: naughty, abnormal or wrong. Personally, I don’t find oral sex to be naughty (I think it is a rather normative practice), but I would imagine that for most Mormons, it’s naughty.

    Anal eroticism, I would imagine, is outside the Mormon imaginary (and please, Mormons out there, speak up if I’m wrong). Even outside Mormon culture, anal sex tends to understood as subservient for women, and for men, it means you’re “gay.” Of course, in reality, hetero men are being pegged everyday and hetero women can also find anal stimulation pleasurable. But I just really don’t think Mormons think this way about their bodies.

    I heard a story recently told by Robert Kirby at the Salt Lake Tribune, about Church leaders trying to get a handle on how much oral sex is practiced to see whether the subject needed to be broached. When he was asked by his stake president whether he and his wife engage in oral sex, his answer was: “That’s none of your business!” So, I think there’s interesting stuff happening in LDS culture on the topic of hetero sodomy, if any scholar out there is interested. But I also think it would a difficult thing to study; you would pretty much study its absence in Mormon discourse.

  8. leisurelyviking,

    I use Chrome as a backup browser (on Linux) and just tested it. It seems to be working fine. Try refreshing or clearing your cache.

    Alan, I like the way you think about this. I wonder if we could get the readers of some Mormon-focused blog to comment on this issue (a.k.a. bread-and-butter Mormons). Anyone have any connections?

  9. If you’re interested in hearing a range of Mormon opinions on sexual practices, there are occasional posts about sex on By Common Consent and Feminist Mormon Housewives, usually with dozens or even hundreds of of comments.

    Anyway, from what I know of personally, in the late 70s – early 80s, the church was briefly officially against oral sex even in marriage. People were even asked about it — usually euphemistically, of course — in temple recommend interviews. This provoked a backlash, and bishops were instructed not to ask about married couples’ sex lives anymore.

    So the church isn’t officially against oral sex in marriage anymore, but from online and offline conversations with devout Mormons — and this is strictly anecdotal in nature, of course — older Mormons seem to think of oral sex as indecent, and as something that lustful men coerce their wives into doing. (But how different is that from other older Americans?)

    Younger Mormons, even devout ones, seem more open to the idea. Rumor even has it that it’s popular among Mormon singles at BYU and elsewhere as a way to “have sex without having sex,” although that sounds like urban legend territory to me. (But how different is that from other younger Americans?)

    As for anal, when I was still a believer and sex occasionally came up for discussion in internet forums, my set piece on oral sex was, “It’s an individual matter. If it makes both members of the couple feel good, happy, and closer to each other, it’s fine. If it doesn’t, then they should probably refrain.” A common riposte to that was “What about anal sex?!” the idea apparently being that anal sex is something that couldn’t possibly be “fine” under any circumstances. My answer to that was always “Same answer as for oral,” but it never convinced any of those people who think that oral and/or anal sex is obviously wrong under any circumstances.

  10. older Mormons seem to think of oral sex as indecent, and as something that lustful men coerce their wives into doing.

    Here’s my theory: if you’re coming out of an era where sex is only about reproduction, and women’s main role is to be a housewife, then oral sex is always gonna be about fellatio, and therefore rude to the woman. Cunnilingus isn’t even imagined, because (a) women are taught to be not desirous, (b) men are not taught to be sexually giving.

    Similarly, anal sex is considered rude to the woman (even more so), because “pegging” one’s husband is not imagined. In some places, it’s still illegal to sell dildos because the state is still in your bedroom (even after Lawrence v Texas, the right to sell sex toys fails in some courts in this country). What you’re saying, Kuri, about the change in feelings of privacy in the bedroom is something that is happening nationwide. But when sexual discourse focuses the body foremost on reproduction, oral sex will always be, at best, naughty and anal sex abnormal or wrong.

  11. I should add that many women like fellatio and anal sex, so I’m not saying that it has be like, “If you do this, then I’ll do this” … but again, if it’s all about reproduction, then these things do end up being reciprocal: “I’m not going to sin for your pleasure, unless you sin for mine!” =D

  12. I’ve been thinking about this (the original question). It seems to me that just as there is a difference between consuming alcohol and alcoholism, there is a difference between using porn and porn addiction. I think both alcohol and porn can be part of a healthy life. Meanwhile, compulsive behaviors (which imho are not usually caused by participation itself, but by underlying psychosocial issues and inappropriate coping mechanisms) can certainly be destructive.

    I think the church assumes a depraved view of man — assuming the worst possible outcomes: “We’d better not let them have ANY alcohol or they won’t know how to stop” “We’d better not let them view ANY porn or they’ll become obsessed with it” — and that justifies its abstinence approach.

    Meanwhile, I’m excited by research like this. Thanks for sharing! Look forward to hearing more about your own studies, profxm.

  13. Alan,
    Heres my theory: if youre coming out of an era where sex is only about reproduction, and womens main role is to be a housewife, then oral sex is always gonna be about fellatio, and therefore rude to the woman. Cunnilingus isnt even imagined, because (a) women are taught to be not desirous, (b) men are not taught to be sexually giving.

    That’s roughly my sense of what the (brief) outright ban on oral sex was about. It seems that “the Brethren” heard stories of the horrible things Mormon husbands were making their wives do (i.e., fellatio), and they decided to help the wives by making it clear that oral sex is evil. (They were trying to do a kindness in their own way, I think.) What they didn’t realize, apparently, is that plenty of wives actually like fellatio (or at least don’t mind it), and perhaps they also failed to realize that there’s this little thing called cunnilingus that lots of wives (and husbands) like a whole lot.

    Anyway, it’s an interesting case of a bottom-up backlash leading to the reversal of a top-down directive over the course of just a few years. I don’t think there are many cases of that in the church.

  14. It’s an interesting study, It would be more interesting when they can increase their sample size and broaden the age range. Also, can’t we just agree to keep porn naughty. That’s part of the appeal.

  15. Straight-and-Narrow with hand in cookie jar

    Please, let’s keep porn naughty

    when it falls into the wrong hands porn can be a bore, a horrible screed.

    Gosh, When Jettboy is flooding the Bloggernacle with Mormon Viagra why can’t the church titillate itself just a bit. “Cant we just agree to keep porn naughty. Isn’t that part of the appeal?”
    Jettboy’s Google search: Mormon Viagra
    Under images or text he is there hiding his sacred screed of Mormon Decorum cloaked under Mormon Viagra,
    be sure to: Show more results from http://www.bloggerofjared.com
    and go further: Show all results from http://www.bloggerofjared.com

    The ultimate Mormon Porn-man is Jettboy of the newly minted
    straight and narrow blog: http://jettboy.blogspot.com/
    With Juvenile Instructors like Jettboy who needs any more instruction
    in the “religion making business.”
    Robert Millet would be pleased, http://www.scari.org/Mormons.Reconstructed.html

    gok

  16. A bit late to this party, but I have to add that the “scientific evidence” suggesting the effects are negligible are hardly “scientific.” Not that I’m refuting the hypothesis, but if you read the linked article, the “study” has so far consisted of interviews with 20 young men. 20. With no control group. That’s bad journalism and horrible science — not even statistically possible to conclude on anything.

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